YANGON—“Try not to do more than one thing a day in Myanmar,” Kay sighed one night, as we waited in vain for a good connection to g-mail at a local Internet shop. “You might be disappointed.”
Our main Burmese contact—and new best friend—was noting how a simple procedure that takes only minutes in North America can drag on for hours in Myanmar, depending on the day. In this case, we were trying to reopen our e-mail accounts to retrieve something Lune had sent us from Bangkok. We had already received and downloaded the file. But we didn’t realize that we hadn’t saved it properly until after we’d deleted the file on the desktop and then gone next door with a flash drive to print what we had saved. When we came back and tried to download it again from g-mail, nothing happened: the Internet connection simply vanished, and none of our efforts over the next hour would get it back.
This, I have learned, is situation normal in Myanmar. Internet access is limited to five per cent of the population (mostly in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and other cities), and the government is taking its time increasing bandwidth. So the Internet shops are hit and miss for online access. The same goes for the wireless-enabled phone I just bought, which can be tethered to my laptop. I might be able to open my e-mail after five or ten minutes, but that doesn’t mean I can open e-mails received, compose one, or—let’s not get carried away here—post something to my blog. (This entry was written last week.)
Even at the office of a major news agency, the connecting process is mind-numbingly slow. The joke among colleagues is that online access will improve miraculously when the Southeast Asian Games come to Myanmar in December: the government will simply flick a switch. Meanwhile, there is reason for optimism that net access among the population will increase rapidly over the next six months to a year, as the government does more business with overseas providers. And with that should come better bandwidth. Until then, patience must become a virtue. The Internot, as I prefer to call it, has been the biggest cultural shock here so far. Remember “dial-up”? Well, it’s worse than that.
The three-bedroom apartment Kay rented for us is about two kilometers east of Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous Inya Lake residence on University Avenue. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk to my office, which is convenient. But the fact I’m one of the only white folks in the neighbourhood does complicate things. Not only are we required to register our presence with the district authorities (who require six copies of our passports and visas); we must also inform them whenever we have overnight guests. I got a taste of this bureaucracy when I accompanied Kay and our elderly landlady to the dilapidated, wood-framed district office a few nights ago. In the upstairs meeting room, a group of district officials clad in longyis and identical white shirts sat around a large table shuffling paperwork, with nary a computer or smart phone to be seen. Kay and the landlady were told to come back later; the paperwork wasn’t complete.
Like many Yangon streets and alleyways, the lane where we live is a bumpy dirt road littered with potholes that are filled in with bits of broken brick, and scattered mud puddles that are hard to avoid at night. Our seven-storey, cement low-rise is identical to the other buildings on our block in at least one respect: there’s no elevator. The fact we live on the sixth floor—and thus have to walk up a dusty, narrow, dimly lit staircase to reach our home—is something my hubby shrugs off as a good way to lose a few pounds. Once through the padlocked iron gate and inside the front door, however, all is good.
Kay went above and beyond the call of duty in having our unit renovated. As well as a fresh paint job in lavender white, well-scrubbed floor tiles and repaired plumbing, there is brand-new, tastefully Western living room and dining room furniture and drapes, all the kitchen facilities we’ll need for good home cooking, replaceable drinking water containers we can order from down the street, a glass-door bathroom shower with a quality showerhead (and a second, hot-water shower), a comfortable bed, and a small office desk. At six hundred bucks a month, it’s a bargain in Yangon, where apartments like this in other districts are going for $2,000.
There are, of course, a few hints we’re no longer in North America. Just beside the front door is a square, white power box the size of a microwave oven. This odd contraption looks like something out of a Sixties James Bond flic, with its levers, knobs, outlets and tiny coloured light bulbs. The main lever turns off all the power; a smaller lever above it triggers the water intake. (One must not leave it on for too long, or risk flooding the apartment and the one below us.) Outside the bathroom, a wall switch controls the pump. (One must use only one water function at a time, to avoid blowing out the plumbing altogether.) And the bathroom sink drains onto the floor on its way to another drain. Another thing to remember: don’t leave fresh food unattended for more than a few minutes, or the ants will get to it for sure.
The apartment also features a doorless opening to the rear balcony. While it’s nice to create a draught effect with the front balcony when the temperature gets above 80F, this tropical design feature does compromise privacy. The rear balcony looks directly into the neighbours’ windows—about fifteen feet from our kitchen. So we have to be mindful not to wander around naked, since doing so might prompt a complaint to the district office. And our neighbours already have enough cause for curiosity about an interracial male couple and what exactly we’re doing here.