Friday, June 10, 2016

Back in Yangon

I am back in Yangon since Sunday. I was away from the country for more than one month. The evening when we were landing at night I was struck by the relatively few lights illuminating the city. My absence was apparently already too long. It crossed my mind that poverty, in some countries, is measured by the number of households connected to electricity.
June marks the beginning of the long rainy season. Especially this year people look forward to the rain. It was a long and hot dry season with rivers which slowly dried and people in need of drinking water. Due to the drought the rice fields gave a poor harvest. Thus, the price of rice increased. The first heavy rain of the year, which arrived mid-May flooded our house. Again. During the past two years the roof was repaired five or six times. We gave up finding a reason why the water still manages to infiltrate. This is Myanmar. Some things cannot be explained.

Nothing changed in our street. The old lady beggar who, long time ago refused my take-away food I bought for her, is still in front of our gate. She prefers money; she can go then to order food at a tea-shop with clear indications on what spices she wants in her food. There are less street dogs. We think that the local authorities got rid of them by poisoning them. This method of diminishing the number of stray dogs is still used in Myanmar. The dog catchers drive in the evening and throw poisoned food to the animals. During the night they collect the dead bodies. Some locals manage to bring some of the dogs inside their courtyard for that evening. The frogs are as vocal as last year. We do not mind them anymore. Noise is something which we slowly got used to. It is still disturbing but we do not complain anymore. This is Myanmar. 

The sky is grey. It rains sometimes. Yesterday I could still see the sun. Not for much longer. While away from Myanmar I still read some of the news about Myanmar. One in particular scared me. It was about the high number of people electrocuted by the power cables which fell in rain puddles. I am worried. It has become a habit for me to head downtown once a week. The first case they presented in the news was about a young boy who died on the Bogyoke market street, downtown.

Nevertheless this week I headed downtown for two reasons. I finally wished to visit the British Club Photography Exhibition "Women of a Changing Myanmar" where I also had one of my photographs exhibited. 

It was a charity exhibition with the photographs transformed into postcards which were sold with all the proceeds going to the Girls Determined NGO.

The second venue I visited was the newly restored building on Merchant street, after ten months of works. Renovation was started at the over 100-year-old heritage building in July last year by Yangon Heritage Trust and an international NGO Turquoise Mountain in partnership with the Prince of Wales’ Foundation, and funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and Alphawood Foundation through Global Heritage Fund.

In one of the rooms on the first floor, the newly founded Hla Day shop was presenting some of its products. Craft workshops for children were held during the weekend. The not for profit social enterprise was created after two of the founding members of Pomelo (of which I wrote on my blog) were excluded from the initial team due to some misunderstandings with their local partner. I believe that, even in the case of a non-for-profit and social organisation, when the business becomes very successful as it was in the case of Pomelo,  misunderstandings and different views on the future of the enterprise will, at some moment, split even the best team. It looks like in the near future we will have two shops in which underprivileged groups will be trained and able to sell their products. I am content with the situation as far as these entrepreneurs will be able to develop their skills and will manage to increase their income to support their families. Competition is always good and from now on it will be a challenge for both shops to come up with unique new designs as I understood that most of the artisans will still produce for both shops.

But I went there to see the jewellery collection created by ethical designer Pippa Small in collaboration with Turquoise Mountain and Suu (ASSK) Foundation. This is a project which intends to help several groups from women in Mogok (Shan State) to artisans from the Ramree Island (Rakine State). Beautiful pieces of hand made jewellery showing traditional patterns with a modern twist. The 22 karat gold pieces with semi-precious stones have quite high prices (which is why, in the near future, they will be sold in five stars hotels in Yangon and abroad).

I could not end this piece without mentioning two more things. First, the new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) buses of Yangon. Actually they are not new anymore but I have been late in mentioning them. I passed by one of the bus stops today. With indications in English, a ticket vending booth and new and air-conditioned buses, they will probably become, once the routes will expand,  very popular.  For the ones new to the topic the current buses of Yangon are antique, overloaded, with no English numbers or bus stops indications, without air-conditioning, with drivers speeding from one bus stop to another to the detriment of street and passenger safety, and with spare parts (the name given to the bus controller) sometimes rude to the travellers. Second, the Sule Shangri-La extension is almost ready, after two years since they started on its foundation.  This, and other high buildings together with the bridges for pedestrians will totally change the landscape of the city around Sule pagoda. Once impressive colonial buildings will lose their imposing presence amongst these modern structures.

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