Monday, February 12, 2018

3 months in Myanmar

Hello world!

It's true, somehow three months has already flown by. PLUS, it seems like this will be the final blog post of my 20s. So two shocking milestones in one post.

First, let me tell you about how I've settled into my home for 2018. Mawlamyine is a beautiful but very boring (but somehow still very noisy) small city.

Very loud Buddhist concert of some sort

Very loud parade of some sort

There are no traffic jams and lots of trees. I've made a small group of expat friends and we spend quite a bit of time together, having dinner in the evening or going on adventures with our motorbikes on the weekend to pools or waterfalls or whatever sounds even remotely interesting. And yep - I mean my motorbike, that I bought and use on a daily basis to get to and from work and run errands and such. It's a small Honda semi-automatic, so it doesn't have a whole lot of power under it, but it gets the job done.

My beautiful baby

It's also provided a great deal of entertainment and freedom to explore the area. I'm very pleased with it! If you come to visit I'll let you try it out :)

Although this spot isn't in Mawlamyine, it's a good example of the kind of place I can now visit easily

I've been getting used to my new house. I bought some speakers to drown out the mediocre karoake coming from downstairs, and I've even started to suck it up and jump in a cold shower every once in a while. Here is my hilarious and tiny building manager, who decided to help me put up my curtains:

Work is still going well, and I think many of my colleagues have warmed up to me nicely. It took a month or so, but we got there. I've started teaching an English class to any interested staff 3 times a week, which has given me a great opportunity to get to know some of them much better. We've been busy writing reports as well as proposals to continue their programs.

My supervisor's son at my "desk" using my computer to do important power rangers related research

I've also been helping some organizations that are part of the larger Mon Women Network, so I've learned about land rights issues, political representation issues, child labour in the area and the push for a federal system. It's all been super interesting, and I think by then end of this 12 months we are going to be able to improve the organizational systems and structures of Jeepyah and make a significant contribution to building their capacity to deliver their great programs. If you're interested in supporting this work, please check out my Cuso fundraising page:

Journey with me!: Together we’ll support Cuso International as we work to reduce poverty and inequality.

My Myanmar language have been going well, much better than expected. I have lots of free time, so I've been having classes 3 times a week! The only problem here is that at work, the language used is Mon, not Burmese. So I've been focusing on Burmese since it's the most practical language, but also making an effort to learn some Mon. Unfortunately, these languages have completely nothing in common. and learning them simultaneously would probably not normally be advised. Let's see how long my motivation keeps up, but at this rate I might reach an elementary level in at least one of them!

Mon children on Mon Youth Day. They love to march, lots of marching
As mentioned earlier, my 30th birthday is also quickly approaching. I've been preparing myself mentally for the momentous shift from 20s to 30s most of this year. I'm not having any kind of crisis because what's ahead is definitely as exciting as what was behind. It's definitely got me feeling reflective and pensive though. I was talking yesterday with friends about how the days can still seem so slow but the years seem faster and faster, and my guess is this feeling just intensifies with age. I've met so many great friends in the last 10 years, and I can't wait to see what my 30s will bring. And hey, if you feel like you should get me a birthday gift, please please just donate to Cuso instead! (They're REALLY on my case about being a lazy fundraiser, you'd be doing me a big favour hahaha) Here's that link again:

Journey with me!

So the year coming up is going to involve a lot of listening to my work colleagues and coming up with solutions to their challenges at work and with running their programs, dealing with international NGOs and improving accountability. It's going to involve a lot of sitting on floors, eating weird food, deciphering broken English, narrow escapes from various baby-bodily-fluids incidents, heat rash and being extremely patient and flexible.

Some weird food

LOTS of baby bodily fluids on this particular day at work

Some more strange (but delicious!) food

Luckily, the rewards, both personal and professional, are worth it, and it's shaping up to be a great first year of my 30s.
A resident of Jeepyah's shelter project holds her baby. Jeepyah supported her through pregnancy and delivery

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Where in the World is Mary Update

Hello from hot, humid Myanmar! I have been to Canada where several people told me again that they actually enjoy reading these blog updates, and a few friends have admitted to not actually knowing my whereabouts, so I’m feeling freshly motivated and compelled to write.

I left Uzbekistan at the beginning of October, and stopped along the way VERY briefly in Russia, Barcelona, and the Azores Islands of Portugal. I met up with some CEU classmates in Barcelona for a lovely couple of days while they waited out the strikes and protests. Then on to Canada, where 6 or 5 weeks or so flew by as I bounced around between Southwestern Ontario, Ottawa and Toronto. Thanksgiving and its many pies were a special highlight! As always, all visits were lovely and it was fantastic to see so many people!

On November 8 I left Canada for Myanmar. I’ll be staying here for 12 months, working in a small city called Mawlamyine. You may recall that I’ve actually been to Myanmar before, but I never got this far south in the country. It’s brand new territory!

The work

I’ve taken a position through a Canadian organization called Cuso. Cuso finds local partners and helps them to decide how a “volunteer” from Canada might best be able to assist in developing capacity and then finds the best person for the job. The local partner in my case is a small, community-based organization called Jeepyah, and I’ll be helping them to first assess their position as an organization and then develop sustainable strategies for stability, growth and impact. The idea is to transfer my technical knowledge and skills to various members of the group, and since I up until now have been somewhat of a generalist, it is fitting that we’ll be working through multiple areas together over the next year.


The process through Cuso has so far been a dream. The level of support given to us (they call us volunteers) before and during the placements has so far been exceptional. I spent the first two weeks in Myanmar doing an in-country orientation in Yangon (the capital). Everything was provided for us, including a very productive language class. 

Cuso works all around the globe, matching the needs of their partners with the skills of applicants. From a development perspective, this is an excellent model for building the capacity of people who already have excellent ideas about what should be done to improve their communities, and is a very sustainable way to go about supporting them. If you think you’d like to contribute to such a sustainable and high-impact activity, feel free to click this ridiculously long link and contribute a donation to the organization! And if you were going to get me a Christmas present, please donate here instead!


I am only a few days into working with Jeepyah, and I’m still figuring some of it out. It is split between a Women’s Empowerment Project, a Community Development project, so Child Rights Monitoring, and Community Mobilization. It is an ethnic organization that is particularly focused on the Mon people. In Myanmar, the Burmese are the majority and are the most represented group in government. All other groups are considered minorities, including the Mon, so their commitment to ethnic identity and tradition is strong. The office is a house in a residential area in Mawlamyine, and they have a training center nearby. Only a few of my colleagues speak English, and they are the ones I will work most closely with. Jeepyah also has close ties with other civil society organizations. I think a more detailed blog will follow once I figure things out a little more.

Two (and a half) very important colleagues!

The town

Mawlamyine is the capital of Mon State, and sits on a large river, not far from the ocean. It is a pretty quiet town, with one modern shopping center (thank the heavens it at least is there!) with a LOTTERIA (Korean McDonalds) inside it to cover my western fast food cravings. I’ve also seen two places advertising “pizza”, although the quality and standard remain unknown. I’ve seen a few tourists around, mostly backpacker types on rented scooters. In the hills surrounding the city there are some beautiful Buddhist pagodas, reclining buddhas, and other stupas and places of worship.

500 monk statues

The world's largest reclining Buddha
My apartment isn’t half bad, especially because it has an AIR CONDITIONER! It is also spacious, comes with an oven, and is conveniently located nearby to places that sell pizza and beer. It does NOT come with hot water, and there have been a couple power outages, and I saw a cockroach the other day (but just one!), but these things are all fine. Until March it also comes with a spare room with a king size bed in it…just saying. Maybe I’ll be driving my own motorbike by then too and can be a personal chauffeur!

There you have it! A short sweet update to fill ya’ll in on the wheres, whats, whos, whys and whens, and just in time for Christmas so that when people ask how I’m doing there will be something to tell them! Much love to all who read, and ta-ta for now darlings!

Check out this cutie

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Happy 1 month anniversary Uzbekistan!

So a month has flown by, and both of my Grandmas have requested further information, and a friend who only says nice things when he REALLY means it has suggested I update my blog, so I figure I better.

I've had a month full of first-world annoyances like figuring out the internet, having my shoes break, having my phone speaker stop working and the power button jam for a couple days, having my laptop charger quit working, and so on. These are typical things which can happen, but become excruciatingly frustrating when in a place where nothing works they way you're used to. For starters: where do you go to solve these things? How do you get there (no google maps)? How do you tell a taxi driver where to take you? If you get there and only speak English is it even worth going? How big of a wad of money do you need to take with you to be able to pay for it (took me a couple week to figure this one out. The answer is huge, a huge wad)? Is the President going to decide to go for a drive and stop traffic on the major roads for 15 minutes? Why did this happen HERE and not in Europe or Canada where things are easy? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME!?

Baby I got your money don't you worry

Where I've had bad luck in one area, I've had great luck in others. I wasn't too hopeful about being able to meet many people as I'd heard that the teachers in the international schools would all be out of town for the summer to escape the heat, but there are quite a few people around and I've been slowly snowballing a couple more friends each week. We can usually manage to find something fun to do either at the few bars in town (although most close at 11:30) or in someone's flat. I've got big plans for the karoake bars around and the bowling alleys I've seen too. a pub

There are lots of decent restaurants here, but also lots of mediocre restaurants that won't even serve you alcohol, so that's a challenge. I've found some decent Georgian wine for sale in the shops, so that base is covered too. I managed to find peanut butter, Heinz Ketchup, great bread and cheese. The one thing that is definitely missing is deli-style sandwich meats, so I'm missing sandwiches. Luckily when Mom and Grandma were here they had me eating like three sandwiches a day so maybe I can go a few months without (hahahaha). The local food is also quite good, and I've found that it's a mixture of Western Chinese (noodles and mutton), South Asian (samosas), and Russian (meatballs, pasta, Russian salads which are gross), and Uzbek food which is mostly just rice and meat (but delicious rice and meat!). Will try to get more food photos!

Unsatisfactory sandwich meat selection

The deal with the sacks of money is that the biggest bill I ever have on me is worth less than 1 USD. Things are fairly inexpensive here, but even a $2.50 meal requires 4 bills to pay for it. Think about that. If I need to spend $60 on a laptop charger, that's a huge wad of cash (I'm not doing the math but you can figure it out I'm sure). It's insane. And even getting money is a pain in the ass. I brought quite a bit with me, but due to paying rent and other start-up costs went through it pretty quickly. So to get more cash, I had to go to a bank (and apparently only a few will do this), show them my passport, withdraw USD from my MasterCard, pay the bank 4%, and then go get the USD exchanged into soum. You might also imagine that my aversion to math and multiplication does not help me at points of sale here. The locals can count off 170,000 Soum in about a second while I'm standing there like "10, 20, 30, 40..." etc. etc. There's even a fancy technique in holding the money while counting it that I'll be lucky if I catch onto before I leave. It's all just so ridiculous.

I can math this: I would need 21 bills to pay for that!

While general dysfunction is something I've encountered in other places I've lived, what's so unique about Tashkent is that the infrastructure is generally very well developed. Roads are good, traffic isn't bad, parks and public places are well-kept and clean, and there are fountains and statues everywhere. It's a bit more like living in a weird dystopia than living in a less-developed country. There are police everywhere, checking bags at the entrance to metro stations, pulling random cars over to check documents and just generally hanging around. I've been asked to show my passport just once at the metro, and it seemed they were almost just curious to see where I was from and what I was doing there rather than suspicion. The cops are actually generally pretty friendly (to me at least) and people seem to feel comfortable asking them for directions (no love for Google maps, remember?). I won't get into it more here, but if you're interested I suggest the Human Rights Watch Report on Uzbekistan in 2017 to get an idea of the other side of things.

Hotel Uzbekistan and statue of guy who forced people to convert to Islam in beautiful park

The weather is crazy hot, but I think I might be getting used to it. The first week here the air felt like it was on fire, which was pretty uncomfortable. I'm pretty lucky to have air conditioning in both my house and work, so only need to worry about travelling to places. At night it cools down a bit but is still pretty hot. I'm going to be very very cold when I get to Canada in October! I've been travelling on public transit as well as using taxis, although it took me a couple week to build up the courage to try the taxi system. You basically just stick your arm out, and any random car (not necessarily a taxi) will pull over. At this point, you're supposed to tell him (always him) where you're going and then negotiate a price. As you can imagine, doing this without a common language is essentially impossible. If the driver doesn't want the added hassle of a foreigner speaker he just drives away, and if he thinks he can rip you off because you're a foreigner you end up in an awkward situation at the end of the ride where you might just need to jump out the door and walk away (after paying a reasonable amount). They are also all very particular about how hard you should shut their car door. I've never lived in a place where people got upset with you for shutting a car door too hard. Like, they're literally built for that right? So they always get mad at me for that too, because I honestly am not sure I'm going to ever remember it, because like, when you're getting out of a car your mind is already thinking about the thing you're going to do next, right?

In general, not speaking Russian has made life challenging. I feel like a lot of these issues and annoyances would be helped by language. However, with this already being one month, there's only 2 months left, and it seems pretty unlikely my brain will be able to absorb too much of it. But I'm starting to be able to read some signs and recognize some names written in Russian, so that's pretty cool. It's the 4th alphabet I've attempted to learn not including English (plus whatever written Chinese is, I won't call it an alphabet though), and I'm pretty impressed with my brain for being able to catch on at all. I've learned about 5 words in Russian, but still up to last week caught myself about to say hello or thank you in Hungarian. I imagine my English will be absolute garbage by the time I get to Canada again, and you'll all just have to believe me that it WAS good after 10 months of grad school hahaha.

Ah - speaking of home, I've bought my tickets and will arrive October 4th for a whirlwind tour which will involve much administrative drivel (new driver's license and health card and police check for new job and blah blah blah), and high likelihood of me catching a bad cold, but also many Thanksgiving pumpkin pies!! I'm expecting to leave again in November, but this is unconfirmed so more details later.

As always, much love, and if I missed out on some detail that you're interested in please let me know! I'll try to take more photos I swear.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

From Central Europe to Central Asia

Hello hello hellooooo! I am in the middle of a 6 hour layover in Istanbul, on my way from Budapest to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It’s Canada Day and there’s a good chance I’m the only person in this whole airport who is aware of it. The wifi is NOT working because it’s a stupid system where you need to get a code via text message and for whatever reason I just can’t. I’ve taken a very long nap, eaten, and now am bored enough to finally get around to writing a proper update.

A couple of weeks ago I handed in my thesis on sex work policy blahblahblah. I was in Budapest for 10 months, and they went by super fast. I learned a lot of useful new skills and definitely gained some knowledge and understanding that should help me out in the future. There were about 30 people in my program, and we were split into two classes for mandatory courses. This means we all saw A LOT of each other for that 10 months, and became super close. As people have been leaving this past 2 weeks to start internships around the world, there have been a lot of tears. It might be a long time before I see a lot of them again. Now I’m fighting back tears in the airport so I’m going to stop this nonsense (next day edit: I will miss many people immensely, but having gone through this before I know I’ll see a lot of them again somewhere too!!).

I was lucky enough to have several visitors while I was in Budapest. My Dad and his lady friend Teri came in November. My good friend Dawn, who I met in Korea, came for a couple days in May, and my brother was there a couple weeks later. Finally, Mom and Grandma came for a couple of weeks and caught my graduation ceremony. I was also able to travel a little tiny bit. I made it to Brussels to visit another old friend, Kate, to Barcelona for Christmas because the ticket was cheap and it was warm, to Ireland to visit Conor, to London to see Natalie and Hridi and to Austria with Mom and Grandma. I had many more intentions of traveling, but between school, work (online teaching), and doing a tiny bit of volunteer English teaching, and visitors, my schedule was constantly packed.

The final component of my degree is an internship, which I am completing with UNICEF in Uzbekistan starting MONDAY (hasn’t sunk in yet, caps are to convince myself haha). I’ll be there for 3 months, working on a report of a capacity-building program. I’m certain I’ll find out many more details in the coming week. I’ve done pretty limited research on the country and it’s capital Tashkent, but it sounds like I might come out of it being able to speak a few sentences in Russian (???), which hasn’t ever really been a goal of mine, but I guess could be cool! And I’m very stoked about interning at a UN agency. UN internships don’t often turn into jobs afterwards, but I don’t even care about that. Just getting the experience, making some contacts and finding new potential references is great in itself.

When I’m done my three months, I’m hoping my American roommate from Nepal comes for a visit and we can do a week-long silk road tour. Then I’ll be home in Canada for October, at which point I intend to eat the equivalent of at least 3 whole pumpkin pies. I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since 2011, so the pumpkin pie eating is a pretty big deal.

What’s in the works for November is what’s really exciting. While applying for summer internships, I accidentally got a job. Some of you will be familiar with CUSO International, an organization that sends people from Canada and the US to work with their partner organizations in various countries around the world. I applied for a position that started in July, but they contacted me about a position starting in November in Myanmar. I have very few details other than that…the final stage of the process is to get matched to a suitable organization, so I’ll need to wait on that. However, it’s seeming increasingly likely that I’ll be in Myanmar for 2018, an incredibly exciting prospect.

That’s the update! If you read this, it means I successfully stayed conscious long enough to get on the plane and get to somewhere the wifi. Instead of sleeping last night I got some friends to come over and drink all the leftover alcohol in my flat ;), and am riding what is sometimes referred to as “the struggle bus”. (Next day edit: I bought some water shortly after writing this and the young guy was like “are you tired” and I was like “I’m SO hungover” and he was like “me too”).

24 hours later:

I’m sitting in my new (to me, definitely old in general) flat, somewhere in Tashkent. A UNICEF driver dropped me off here very late last night, about 3AM. Getting through the airport took an eternity. Myself and a Brazilian couple needed to get our visas at the airport, and we had to wait about 40 minutes for the guy who gives out visas to even show up. Luckily the couple was friendly, had just left Montreal after 6 months and proved me wrong about nobody else knowing yesterday was Canada Day. Getting through customs declaration also took an eternity. Had to get all of our luggage scanned right before leaving the airport. When I found him the poor driver looked bored to death, so I apologized, and apologized again when he lifted my 28kg suitcase into the back of the vehicle.

The outside and the halls of my new building are definitely nothing to brag about, but the flat itself is huge. Living room, kitchen, big bedroom, fully furnished AND air conditioned J. Someone was even thoughtful enough to have some bread, water, juice and eggs in the kitchen for me to use today! Unfortunately, as far as I can tell I’m internetless, and I also just have no idea at all where I am haha. The same driver is coming to pick me up at 9AM tomorrow to take me to the office, at which point I hope to be buried under an avalanche of useful information, as well as enjoy an internet connection. NEED MY FIX!

I’ve made an uncharacteristically meek decision to just stay in today, rather than go explore. I have no local currency, no internet, no map, and still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the idea that I’m not in Budapest and that I need to go to work in an office tomorrow morning. I slept most of the morning, did my unpacking, watched Mad Max (the ONLY movie I have on my hard drive haha), and will take some time to prepare for tomorrow. It’s taken up nearly the whole day already.

July 3 edit - Sending this from the UNICEF office in Tashkent, will update more later. Much love to everybody, but especially my Dad who turns 67 today, and who pre-emptively accused me of forgetting his birthday 3 days ago. Touchy in his old age I guess.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Welcome to Budapest! Now ignore all the fun distractions and study you scoundrel!

Dear reader, hello!

It’s been almost 3 weeks since I arrived in Hungary, which means I’m long overdue in updating you on what’s happening over here. Apologies to my patient and flexible family and friends who let me drop into their lives for a few weeks and then disappear into a kind of void from which I’m generally pretty terrible at staying in touch from. Seriously, much Canada love.

Last photo I took in Canada? Dad running to help my dumb brother put gas in his car.

On to Budapest! Budapest looks like this:

Vaci walking street
Looks like a church?

I've heard the funicular is super FUN

I arrived 3.5 days before my very first day of orientation, which was enough time to do pizza, beer, set up a cell phone and start the apartment search. It was not enough time to get over jet lag or actually finish the apartment search.  Luckily, the public transportation in Budapest is an extensive and easily navigable system, so getting around was a breeze, especially considering the last foreign public transit system I learned to navigate was in Kathmandu (system might be an exaggeration). Another plus was that my AirBnB (not a bed and breakfast) was exactly what I was expecting, in a great neighbourhood and with no unpleasant surprises, so I had a nice private room to relax in at the end of long, exhausting days.

On school:

The first two weeks at school were made of orientation sessions; way more orientation sessions than you could even wrap your mind around. Sessions with admin, about health care, about immigration, about various student clubs, about fired safety, etc. 

On top of orientation, we started a mandatory academic writing class. Many of my classmates are non-native English speakers, and I think these classes exist to help even out the playing field before we start into a year of heavy reading and writing. This pre-class class led to having a paper due before any of us even started the classes we registered for, which seems to be an omen of the year to come. Several instructors have warned us that it’s going to be a huge workload, and hoped that we had had a relaxing summer (luckily I did!)

School is split into 3 terms: Fall term starts now and ends in December. Winter term starts in January and ends in March. Spring Term starts in April and ends on June 10 (it’s a short one!) My thesis is due on June 10, and then my official residency permit ends on June 30. By this time I will hopefully be on my way to start a 2 month internship, the final component of the program. I know, I also kind of can’t believe I’m subjecting myself to another internship. But, as they say in Nepal, what to do?

As expected, my classmates come from an extraordinarily wide range of backgrounds. North American, South America, Africa, all regions of vast Asia and of course Europe (EU and non-EU) are represented. Some are coming from well-established positions within governments and NGOs, some are transitioning from the corporate world, and some (like me) are getting into something brand new. So far our conversations in class have been incredibly interesting and I’ve learned about many new issues.

I’ve been pretty wary about developing too many activities outside of class as I’m going to have 8 classes in the first 2 terms, plus a few little smaller courses throughout (finally forcing myself to learn Excel), plus write a thesis, plus apply to various internship programs. I’m also attempting to keep up my VipKids teaching (the online thing with the Chinese kids) since the pay is so good and the commitment so minimal. I’m also trying to exercise and eat healthy. I heard that can be tough during master’s degrees since it’s take more time than not exercising and eating garbage.

I’ve decided to get involved on a small level with one program, called Olive, where I’ll be teaching an English class to various refugees and newcomers living in Budapest on some Saturdays. This seems like the easiest way for me to use a skill I already have to do something good in the community without a huge time commitment, and the program seems really great so far. While I am working with lower-level English students, the program also provides subject specific academic tutoring to students and has a class-auditing program for students who are aiming to be accepted into Master’s degrees in Europe. It’s a really neat initiative, ad I’m super glad they have asked me to help (even though I was such a mess last week that I missed the first meeting with them because I thought the email said Thursday instead of Tuesday. Great work Thompson.)

Enough about school! I’m already sick of it. I finally found an apartment, after an arduous five days of hunting and 12 apartment visits. I live in what is called District VI (Budapest had numbered districts before the Hunger Games was written, if you’re wondering) near Andrassy Ave., which looks like this:

I’m about a 10 minute walk from Heroes Square, which looks like this:

Which is in front of People’s Park, which is a huge beautiful park filled with bars and huge sprawling lawns and even a thermal bath. It’s great. Now that I’ve finally found a bicycle (another arduous task it turned out), I’m about a 15 minute bike ride from school (12 in the morning when there’s less traffic) on a road with beautiful, huge, well-respected bike lanes.

The apartment itself seems to be pretty typical Budapest style. You enter a huge front door from the street that takes you into an open courtyard. The building is built around the courtyard, so that all the apartments are positioned around it in a big U shape. The ceilings are tall, almost too tall, and the door are too. Like this:

This apartment was appealing because the landlords had put such care into making it look nice. There are nice curtains, new furniture, and freaking chandeliers in every room.  I’m pretty pleased with it. I share it with a roommate – a German girl who is in her second last year of med school and doing an exchange semester in Budapest. Europe seems to have a very popular network of schools student scan do exchanges between, and Budapest seems like a very popular destination.  So far she’s great, but just like my last German roommate, she buys way too many sweets and chocolates and is way too generous about sharing them. That’s a slippery slope you guys.

Welp, congratulations if you’ve made it this far again! I generally only expect my Mom, Dad and Grandmas to ever make it this far. I literally don’t even expect my own brother to make it through start reading it in the first place? Oh well. If anything interesting happens I’ll update, but I might just get sucked into a blackhole of schoolwork instead.

Goodbye for now!