Photo: Matt Styslinger (all others captured with my cell phone, which produced rather less beautiful images)

Back in the day the head of the Shan State declared that a balloon festival would be held in conjunction with Tazaungdaing Festival held to celebrate the full moon at the end of Buddhist Lent and the end of the rainy season. This year it is being reviewed for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage events, but I’m sure it is has changed somewhat from its origins in the 1890s with the addition of fireworks and crazy carnival rides and lights and a massive soundstage for pop and rap singers to perform. Still the highlight of the event are the night-time 15-20 feet tall paper hot air balloons that either have a 10-15 foot long tail of lit candles or a massive cage of fireworks. The balloons are released as an offering to the “Sulamani cetiya (a physical reminder of Buddha) in Tavitisma, a heaven in Buddhist cosmology and home of the devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits” – yes this is from Wikipedia, but it was confirmed as correct by Matt’s Myanmar coworkers.

This year, the festival was held on Nov 3-6, which happened to be dates that Matt was required to be up in Aung Ban, Shan State anyway for work. I joined him and we both staid in the company guest house located on the second floor of the office (all hotels in Taunggyi being fully booked that week anyway). Aung Ban is about a two-hour drive from Taunggyi, and given the craziness and expense of getting to and from Taunggyi, we only made it for the first and last day of the festival.

IMG_2027[1]The first day we went with three of Matt’s coworkers and got there in time to see the big balloons with lit candles carefully placed on them float on up into the sky. I was determined that on the last day we would get there early enough to see the assembly and figure out the crazy logistics of placing hundreds of tiny candles on a giant balloon (this was sadly not to be…). There are only five balloons per night that have the candles on them, the rest are balloons with giant cages of fireworks hanging off them, which we were just in time for.

We’d heard from many sources that the festival can be quite dangerous with a handful of people injured and sometimes killed each year due to the fireworks going off too soon or balloons exploding into fiery balls rushing back down to earth (this year there were 2 deaths and 12 injuries). So, armed with this knowledge we thought we were sufficiently away from the first balloon with fireworks, sponsored by Novotel, but we definitely were not.

Essentially, as soon as the balloon was let go there was less than a minute before the fireworks starting raining down. There were still some men (I think the ones who let off the balloon) still dancing around ecstatically, but most everyone crowded around the balloon ran for cover. Two of Matt’s coworkers huddled next to a car for cover and got separated from us as we ran up a hill. I momentarily got lost in the crowd of dancing men and shooting fire, but luckily Matt spotted me and grabbed me. It was all good fun. We were surprised that the Novotel, such a large international brand, would sponsor such a dangerous balloon, but joked that they probably reasoned they’d just hire some lawyers. There were so many fireworks that they probably were going for about 15 minutes after the balloon was sent up. You can see the giant fireworks cage attached to the fully inflated balloon already starting to smoke just above the crowd.


The balloon crew would spend about 15 minutes dancing, singing and playing music in advance of unfurling the balloon.


There were thousands of people.



Matt used a method called being the tall, white guy standing in the middle of a field to locate his two coworkers, who did in fact spot him after a few minutes and rejoined the group. We had time for one more balloon, and then had to head back through the dark, mountainous highway to Aung Ban.

Well, this is what happens when one leaves a blog alone for 2 years. You find a post written but never posted on Aceh’s 2012 gubernatorial election. I think I was waiting to try and find photos before posting. In any case, since it was a public holiday on election day, my boss decided to have us go around and be informal election “monitors” at various polling stations in and around Banda Aceh. It was really interesting to see what observations should be made to determine fair and transparent elections, and if it seems like your cup of tea please continue. For some context please jump a little further back in time to this earlier post on the crazy tensions before the elections.

Monday, 9 April 2012

multiple voting areas within one station.

bring voter registration letter, but no need to show ID. Is this because the village is so small that everyone knows one another?

Blue ink on pinky finger to show voted. However, one monitor noted women were reluctant to put whole finger in to stain the nail, but it is easy to wipe off if just on skin. There was no checking of fingers either when handing in voter registration letter.

Some people who did not have letters or IDs were still able to get checked off the list.

Process: arrive, hand in registration letter that got send by the Geucik (village head), wait in outside waiting area for name to be called, name called and have name crossed off registration list, wait in an inside waiting area, receive ballots, go to a table with partitions on it making at least 3 polling “booths” (most booths did not have any cover on the entrance for privacy), stick a nail through the candidate you liked for Bupati/Mayor and for Governor, put ballots in their respective padlocked (but not sealed) ballot box, get ink on finger.

Some discussion in the evening on whether it was worrisome that ballot box padlocks weren’t sealed during the vote. Some saw that it was more important to seal the locks at night while being stored at the Camat’s (sub-district head) office, because during the day there are so many eyes that the chances of tampering with the locks are very small. However, everyone was very open about who had the key – it was always a police officer.

Each party was able to bring at least two election observers. In some neighborhoods it was a method of informally getting an exit poll, because the observers would already know someone’s political affiliation in the village and be able to count their vote as they came and left. The monitors noted that every site they went to there was always a Partai Aceh (PA) observer, most often two. There wasn’t always an Irwandi observer, and it is predicted this was due to intimidation.

At many polling stations observed there were groups of men hanging around the polling booths for no good reason. Although they did not seem to outright be intimidating people, it was curious as to why they were there.

The polls were staffed with local volunteers of the Independent Election Commission (KIP). One requirement was they had to be politically neutral, but they still were able to vote.

There was nearly 100% turnout in most places visited. A lot of the polling places only had 60-100 people on their registration based upon the size of the village. The polls were open from 8-2pm, but by the time 11am came around many of the people had already voted. In one place they only had two people not come to vote, and they closed the polls early, because they knew those two people were in hospital.

Mobile polling station. KIP volunteers went from home-to-home to make sure the sick and elderly were able to vote. This is good in theory to get maximum participation, but transparency and accountability drop sharply.

One monitor pointed out that elderly that arrived to polling station might have been assisted too much within the polling booth, but no way to know. Otherwise all very respectful and facilitating. Made one recommendation to provide a variety of reading glasses at each polling place; had done that in a previous election monitor and it made a whole world of difference in terms of empowering the elderly to actually see their ballot.

Each polling place had at least two police and security. No incidence reported though; only some incidents the day before with intimidation.

After lunch traveled to Lhong in Aceh Besar sub-district, but near the mountains so a PA stronghold. It was generally thought that communities near the mountains are PA supporters, because during the conflict the PA hid in the mountains. There were two polling places near each other. Went to the larger one (perhaps 200 people) to see the count. The KIP volunteers opened the ballot box with the key from the police. There were official large sheets to tally the votes that would get sent to the Camat’s office along with the sealed ballot boxes. The tallied votes were cross-checked by tallies kept by the party observers and the police. Very transparent process. Anyone could come in and watch the votes being counted. One person takes out ballots and unfolds them. Another holds it up to the light and calls out the number of who was voted for. Each candidate has a number associated with them. The voter can punch a hole with a ten-penny nail anywhere within the square that has the candidates picture and number.

Ballots that had more than one candidate punched for were tallied as “Invalid.” The observers were quite active in ensuring that the votes were counted correctly. If the person calling out the numbers missed that there were two punched, they spoke up quickly, etc.

When votes were finished counting the box was shook out and showed to the crowd to be empty. Polling stations were all very open spaces, which made for an unexpected level of transparency. The only party that was able to get a comprehensive early voting score was PA, because they had people EVERYWHERE. Ended up talking to someone who turned out to be the head of GAM in the area, and he had people in all 26 polling stations in his little area report in the scores as soon as they were counted.

Guess who won – PA.


Where the bathtub used to be.

Sometimes when you try to ignore leaks in the bathroom and chalk it up to living in Myanmar, you end with a real sewage problem and lots of flies hanging around the toilet. A problem that had to be fixed four times because all of the plumbing was encased in cement and tile and partially hidden under the tub – for easy access. Since the plumbers had to chip away at cement for the better part of the day just to get to the pipes, as soon as they found a leak they would quickly patch it up, seal it back up, and call it a day. As well, OSHA standards being what they are, all the men were in loungyis (Myanmar version of the sarong), barefoot, no goggles, and standing around in sewage.

We tried to convince the landlord not to use cement. This was ignored a couple times with the logic being that cement was necessary to stabilize and protect the pipes from damage. Yes, clearly. By the time the fourth leak was found, the landlord was convinced. No more cement. Also, if only I’d recognized these flies weren’t just harmless little critters, but are called sewer flies or drain moths, I would have realized sooner that we had a real problem going on.


Psychodidae – aka sewer flies or drain moths. The City of Winnipeg website notes that they lay their “eggs in the scum lining of drains.”

One amazing thing about this story is that we were dealing with our landlord; a very response and extremely nice man who is in fact a building contractor as his day job. As in other countries, Myanmar rent is required to be paid in cash upfront for the entire year, which results in great big bricks of money being handed over in plastic shopping bags. This creates a system where landlords don’t really have an incentive to maintain the building, and tenants are on their own when it comes to fixing things inside the apartment.

In any case, one of our landlord’s initial responses to the bathroom woes was, “You know, construction in Myanmar is… not so good.” And is there ever construction going on in Yangon with a double-digit growth rate in the building industry over the past few years – investors dream or construction bubble? The result of last month’s national census was 10 million people less than expected (note that the Rohingya people in Rakhine State were not allowed to be counted in the census, but that is part of a much, much, much, much bigger issue), so investment speculations are supposedly being reassessed. In any case, I wish all those tenants the best of luck, and hope they have a landlord half as good as ours.


Also author of graphic novels set in Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and Jerusalem

August 17, 2014 I landed in Yangon, Myanmar to start a new life. Well, not really. It was actually so I could continue with a major component of my former life. After a year with Matt in Myanmar (or “Mattamar” as a former colleague of mine called him) and me in DC, we’re under the same roof again. Considering it’s been over two years since I last posted to this blog, it was only through the sweet and effective guilt trips of My Favorite Aunt Nancy that I’m taking it up again. I’ll try my best with it, even though I won’t be able to give the level of craft and humor Guy Delisle delivers in his graphic novel Burma Chronicles.

But, I’m not going to beat myself up about not presenting the same type of “infotainment” as a professional cartoonist and animator that has his own Wikipedia page. The book contains fantastic snapshots of life and times in Burma/Myanmar, such as the snapshot below on Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, in getting approval to open a clinic (hint: it’s not very straight forward).


“A proposal to open a village clinic has to pass through a long chain of bureaucrats.”

His knowledge on MSF trials and tribulations in the country comes from his wife’s position as an MSF program manager. This puts Guy in the position that has become known as the “trailing spouse.” The term was coined back in the 80’s to describe the spouse who either gives up their career or finds one that allows the other person with the international career to relocate the family as needed. This is inherently denigrating to the “trailer,” because it implies a high degree of passivity. It’s often also been attributed to the woman in the relationship


NGO-yadi-yada… “The only news I have to share is that City Mart just received a new shipment of Japanese diapers.”

Anyway, the internet is just brimming with people who have already put in their two cents, so I’ll just say that it’s good to see a man that is putting himself front and center in the fray. Clearly his career fits perfectly in the opportunities he is afforded as a “trailing spouse.” As well, no offense to people in this situation, I am very glad not to be a typical “trailer,” since my work has just shifted my HR category from a home office staff to a global telecommuter. We’ve got what’s considered really good internet in these parts and a view of Inya Lake, so not a shabby spot for a home office. There are a small handful of coffee shops with internet for me to rotate through when cabin fever sets in after full days at home that are only then followed up by nights in (usually with more work). So, it’s strange to live someplace and not work in it (our one project in Myanmar that was starting up fell through, but that’s another story); and I’m stuck inside working all day instead of out exploring this new city in-depth; and half the time so far I’ve actually been working in Indonesia… but by god, I’m not a trailing spouse… in the full sense of the word anyway, maybe. In any case, I’m back on the blog, but not (as you can tell from the number of times I used the word “work” just now) due to any increase in luxury time.

Well, the farmers finally got fed up with me asking about the Protected Forest.

No, not really!

But I did take the opportunity to get a photo with the funny police vehicles they have here when I went to a pop rock concert in Banda Aceh. The audience was divided by metal barricades by gender, but that’s another story. At first I thought that this design was kind of brilliant with the public shaming potential at a maximum; however, I later saw that this was just their method of bringing police en mass to an event. The police sit in the double benches in the back. Not yet sure how they would bring any ne’er-do-wells back to the station. These particular vehicles were left unattended in the parking lot before the show started.

To provide a brief background for the first sentence, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has designated forest zones that have increasing degrees of protection. The Protected Forest (Hutan Lindung) is supposed to be hands-off, but it has been known to happen where small-scale farmers and/or giant companies will encroach upon it. The World Bank’s policy is that no support can be given to any farmer working within the Protect Forest, this is where we fall into place as recipients of World Bank managed funds. The other forest designations include the Production Forest where limited use is allowed, the Nature Conservation Forest for national parks and recreation, and the Nature Reserve Forest for wildlife reserves.

The field sampling portion of my grand nutrient balance experiment is over! It’s about an 8-10 hour drive from the project site (Kota Fajar) where I get my samples to Banda Aceh where I am based. As the few, small airlines that fly between Banda Aceh and Kota Fajar are basically metal boxes of death with wing-like attachments, all staff are directed to drive in project cars for work trips.

We started off on our long journey needing to stop after 45 minutes at the first big town with a petrol station. What we encountered was this (again, not my photo, but exactly the same scenario):

Photo Sumut Pos: Out of fuel… again and again.

What do to? We waited until almost 4:00pm before giving up on more fuel coming. We picked up 10 gallons at a little roadside stall that sells at a higher price than the petrol stations to tide us over till arriving at the next big town with a petrol station. Again! No fuel! Oh dear. Finally, we arrived at the third big town that had fuel in stock.

But as we were sitting there watching the fuel gauge (OK, only I was, because these co-workers of mine can’t be phased. Everything is either a) “no problem,” or b) “up to you.”), we passed stall after roadside stall selling the ubiquitous gorengan, which roughly translates to “fried thing.” As you can see below these are little morsels that are all deep fried: thin slices of tempe, carrot-stuffed squares of tofu, sweet potato balls, long banana slices, carrot-stuffed egg roll type things, etc, etc, etc. “Fried thing” is commonplace in Indonesian cuisine. I even have a few plates of gorengan in front of me right now, as a few plates are always put out at coffee shops when you sit down and order; it’s a pay-what-you-eat system. The two most internationally known Indonesian foods: nasi goreng and mie goreng are fried rice and stir-fried noodles. They are most often topped with a telur mata sapi goreng, which is literally “egg cow eye fried.” Notice the common word here is goreng, which means, as is now quite evident, “fried.”

Photo Not Mine

Photo Not Mine (again): Action shot.

I was thinking that we sure wouldn’t be in this predicament if we had a diesel engine that could make good use of all that leftover cooking oil that must be currently disposed of in god knows what method (let’s just say that the city I live in, Aceh Besar, has absolutely no organized, municipal waste management service, even though it is literally practically connected to Banda Aceh, the regional capital city that does have one). A 2005 study (Soekirman, et al. Possibility of Vitamin A Fortification of Cooking Oil in Indonesia: A Feasibility Analysis) found that in various parts of Indonesia, people fire up the grease approximately twice a day resulting in a per capita consumption between 15.9 g/cap/day to 32.2 g/cap/day. I personally would not like to think that my daily food intake requires an average of 16-32 gallons of cooking oil!

A few snags to this plan I learned. First, according to this 2005 study, most gorengan vendors don’t waste their oil; they just top up the oil as the volume in their wok decreases. This means that collection would have to be coordinated from homes and identified restaurants that do not use that practice.

A second issue being that cooking oil filters used to make the oil usable in cars filter out food bits and not necessarily melted plastic residue; this of course is only an issue if the scandals of vendors dumping and melting plastic bags into their cooking oil to give a nice, crispy texture is as true and widespread as seems to be reported. Who knows what bits of melted plastic could do to the engine?

However, the biggest snag is that the majority of cooking oil used in Indonesia is palm oil. Not to be sensationalist (although this issue is), but more just trying to quickly and simply boil down an extremely large and contentious issue in a blog post, the problems with palm oil production in Indonesia include:

1) Deforestation including in high carbon trapping peat lands
2) Displaced wildlife
3) Displaced local communities
4) Monoculture with high inputs and no ecological and social diversity
Photos from various sources

Just to also add that even within established palm oil plantations, poisoned fruits are distributed to kill wildlife to keep them from trampling the crop such as the two critically endangered Sumatran elephants early in May (1st elephant and 2nd elephant). And of course palm oil isn’t just used for cooking oil, but also as a major food ingredient, soaps (even eco-friendly Dr. Bronners uses it, although they apparently use Fair Trade palm oil), detergents, cosmetics, plastics, textiles, etc.

It is not that palm and palm oil are inherently evil, but again it just speaks to the scale of industrial agriculture we are continuing to promote. This also quickly leads one down the path to the perceived demand for palm oil. However, is it really a demand? Manufacturers have designed a product that consumers enjoy consuming (that smooth chocolate-y melt of a candy bar vs. those chalky once-a-year Conversation Hearts), but the sheer number and types of products that contain palm oil makes it a non-choice when there are so few alternatives. Another tangent that could be touched on is the industrial junk system of disposable products and over-eating, which is only compounded by the fact that we are 9 billion and counting. We should all reduce our consumption of palm oil plus also going for the organic and sustainably certified palm oil, while also avoiding the creation of the same or bigger problem(s) with any alternative substance(s).

Ah, Google Translate. I visit that site more than any other; along side Gmail it is a constantly open tab on my browser day and night. Sometimes I spend hours upon hours on it translating, emails and reports from/to my colleagues, government documents on environmental impact assessments, soil and other environmental data – oh the possibilities are endless! It would be much more efficient for me to just instantaneously become fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, but until then I have Google Translate. I practice my language skills by trying to write all emails and text messages in Bahasa Indo only. And the site apparently translates English to Bahasa with the same success as it translates Bahasa to English thereby getting sentences such as, “Diana names completely spoiled.”

That sentence comes from a song that a staff member at a coffee/noodle shop nearby my place always sings to me. The coffee shop also has free internet, so I frequent it often on the weekends to do work and school, and unlike coffee shops in the U.S. where you get the stink eye for staying all day and just ordering one coffee and nursing it for hours, it is the norm here with no stink eye! Getting back to the point, there is a band called Koes Plus that has a song named “Diana” – the spelling isn’t the same, but the staff doesn’t know that.

Di gunung tinggi kutemui / I met in high mountain
Gadis manis putri paman petani / Sweet girl’s uncle’s daughter farmer
Cantik menarik menawan hati / Pretty interesting captivates
Diana namanya manja sekali / Diana names completely spoiled
Waktu aku mengikat janji / When I tied the knot
Kuberikan cincin bermata jeli / I gave sharp-edged rings
Tapi apa yang kualami / But what happened to me
Paman petani marah ku dibenci / My uncle hated angry farmers

Diana, Diana kekasihku / Diana, Diana’s lover
Bilang pada orang tuamu / Tell your parents
Cincin yang bermata jeli itu / Sharp-edged ring that
Tanda cinta kasih untukmu / A sign of love for you

The song is quite sweet, and of course they love their love songs over here. One of the first phrases I learned from a coworker was from a love song on the radio, “Selalu hatiku,” meaning “Forever my love.” It’s always fun trying to interpret the translation – unless of course you have a report deadline, and you’re left wondering what in the world are they trying to say!


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