Saturday, February 16, 2013

Almost Into the Field

In Mandalay, Myanmar our Stanford Alumni Association guides introduced us to the staff of Community Partners International. They provide sub-grants and capacity building to 18 local NGO's. It was wonderful to learn about their work riding the bus with Dr. Pyea Mon Thaw who is their Reproductive Health Program Coordinator. I gather that the original plan was to go into the field to see one of their projects, but lacking travel time we went to their modest Mandalay office housed at the Phaung Daw Oo Integrated Monastic Education School.

There we distracted classrooms of happy, curious children. Their smiles imply they are achieving their mission.

"Our Priority Goal

Here! The Children can pursue their studies cheerfully,
1. Without charging entrance fee..
2. without collecting monthly fee or yearly fee....
3. Without receiving offertory for teacher. Any fee is not charged!"

Josh Noble of the Financial times volunteered at the school in 2003 and wrote a detailed article after visiting recently. The school serves 394 students who otherwise would not be in school. It houses 150 children, many from Cyclone Nargis.

We heard singing and recitation methods similar to what I heard in rural India. 

After they graduate high school some of the children enter a pre-college program where it looks like they are trying to break out of the rote education model. I loved seeing "critically, analytically".

So many of the jobs that can now come to Myanmar require critical thinking. And debate can be part of the new political environment. The day we visited they were debating women's rights. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Road Trip Assist

Headed down Highway 80 last week we checked Yelp to search for lunch in Colfax, CA.  Cafe Luna had everything reviewers said -  a warm greeting from friendly owners, a delicious special (a healthy cross between a tostada and a quesadilla) and very entertaining local patrons. The local gossip is about what the new owner might do with the old theater in town. 

We got into the Yelp habit on our road trip last fall. Our ride to Oklahoma was our first mobile technology assisted road trip. We never ate fast food because Yelp helped us find "Main Street" cafes. We used Wikipedia to learn about every small town we passed, discovering that a lot of them were railroad stops. As soon as I had bars on my phone I could find out what Boron is used for.  I call the internet "the end of speculation". I love knowing the population, the demographics and the answer to "what do these people do out here?" 

Our motel in Kingman, Arizona was surrounded by chain restaurants  but thanks to Yelp we found Sirens Cafe which led us to the old downtown. The cafe was loaded with cute personality - mermaids in the desert.

A huge Yelp standout was in Winslow, Arizona when a reviewer undersold La Posada, a gorgeous restored Harvey House hotel. I had great pozole and loved their secret garden. If we had done one bit of research before taking off on the trip I would have targeted La Posada. I am so happy we didn't miss it.

As we made our way east we sought out bits and pieces of Route 66. One hungry morning we held out for Tucumcari, New Mexico and discovered that Kix on 66 indeed has pancakes that are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

On the way back west in Custer, South Dakota we had an elegant lunch at the Sage Creek Grille.

After a couple of days of making tuna sandwiches at rest stops on the road we turned off early in the morning at Dillon, Montana at Sweetwater Coffee to get a latte and we packed a couple of their delicious sandwiches for lunch later.

One of our most remote treks was across Idaho through Craters of the Moon National Monument. At Pickles Place in Arco, Idaho we got a friendly greeting, a clean restroom, a group of senior locals who teased us, and that road trip classic, afternoon pie.

I think it is cool that what is new - the amazing technology on my phone, helps us find what is old. And good.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Love, Loss and things that are left behind

Our Mom took care of our Dad for many years. He was slowly debilitated by MS and then also by a brain injury. So it was a long hard haul.  

After he died she married her neighbor who loved the symphony and best of all loved international travel.  In their seventies and early eighties they went to interesting places like Sulawesi, Papua New Guinea, and with us—to  India and Bhutan.

Our “bonus Dad” showed up one day several years later with this prayer flag from Bhutan. He had carefully used twist-ties to affix it to a long bamboo pole.  He was a neurosurgeon and could twist a twist-tie like no one else. He used them to affix Christmas tree lights to the branches so they we invisible. That was another great thing about him. He loved Christmas.

The bamboo pole and the Lungta-Wind Horse flags have been tucked in our garage for ten years. Like so many people we are streamlining our lives, especially our possessions. The hardest things to part with are thoughtful gifts from departed loved ones.

Luckily prayer flags are meant to be flown.  They should blow in the wind to “to spread goodwill and compassion into all pervading space”. On a hopefully auspicious sunny and windy morning I plunged the pole into the snow and mounded snow all around it. It is on our south side where I hope to leave it until sun, wind, snow, and rain fade it to gray.

1  Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Phantom Book Club

When I retired a year ago people gave me some nifty gifts. The Packard Foundation gave me binoculars to support my aspiration to become a birder. 

Linda Scott Furness and her colleagues at Next Step Partners gave me books, a bunch of them.  I’ve worked with Linda and her partner Heather Corcoran, but I’ve haven't met the other dozen or so on their team which is spread across San Francisco and New York.  I gather that Linda wandered around the office and asked everyone for their favorite book in the last year.  Such a neat idea.  I got diverted onto reading ten books on Burma and some e-books. And somehow I’ve been hoarding this unique gift pile of books a bit.  I grabbed one our way up to the cabin, and devoured it between snow fort building and cooking up a storm for our traditional New Year’s family visitors.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is historical fiction about Mormon apostate Ann Eliza Young blended with a contemporary mystery.  I love historical fiction.  The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh is how I broke into my Burma reading. The device intertweaving a current day polygamy story worked for me.  I’m grateful for the recommendation, the book, and the time to read it.

Friday, December 21, 2012


A windy November storm knocked down our arbor. It is surprising to see it upended after more than twenty years.  

This amazing hunk of metal (steering gear?) smashed through my car’s front grill on the freeway the other day. My reaction to both incidents is a short breath of dismay and then gratitude that the damage is so minimal.

And then the fallen arbor's vine yielded this delightful surprise. I’d suspected we had a family of birds living there last spring.  I can see that so much hard work went into gathering materials and weaving this nest.  What a miracle of nature.  I put it on our Christmas Tree.

Monday, December 17, 2012

NGO Site Visit Yangon, Burma - Proximity

In Yangon we visited Proximity, an NGO that's been working in Burma since 2003. The neighborhood feels familiar with embassies and homes surrounded by low walls, trees, and flowers. Even the stairway up to their office is reminiscent of other site visits Ive been lucky enough to make in Manila, Delhi, and Karachi. The unfamiliar part of the experience is having no business there other than being a better informed tourist.

We met founders Debbie and Jim Taylor. We also heard from Alisa Murphy who is part of a steady stream of Stanford Design school grads who have interned with Proximity and returned to work there.

 Proximity is a social enterprise that recovers the cost of producing their products by charging for them. They rely on donors for R&D and their policy work. Their products are about getting, storing and delivering water. Think treadle pumps. They are designed in a collaborative process with users. The goal is "extra affordability". Purchases are supported by a loan program.

They put their mission succinctly. Get more money into the pockets of our customers so they can pay for things like food, healthcare and education.  We do that by creating affordable products that farmers can use to dramatically increase productivity, which means greater profits and far more income harvest after harvest.

With their simple innovations small farmers are able to double or triple their income. They grow one rice crop in the wet season, and with better water management tools they can grow vegetables in the dry season. There are usually enough veggies for their family and some to sell in local markets. With the additional income they purchase other food and cover school costs.

We were lucky enough to also hear from David Dapice, a Tufts/Harvard economist who concisely shared information that provides great context for our travels. Data is hard to get. UN data is considered inaccurate. Rice crop yields are published by the government and he can get a reality check on the data from Proximity's people on the ground.  I wonder what they would say about the government data re 41 per cent contraceptive prevalence rate.

 The people on the ground are salaried salespeople and agents. Agents market the products by planting test plots demonstrating the benefits of the product by growing more rice, peanuts, sesame or pulses. Agent "centers install and maintain the tools. I like social benefit projects that tap into profit motivation to meet their goals. I think that paying entrepreneurial people to do the work is not only more sustainable, it is more dignified and empowering. Janani's work to distribute contraceptives and family planning services in Bihar and Jharkhand, India taught me this.

They shared with us the challenges of involving users in their design process which progresses from needs to ideas to prototype. The co-designers who have been raised in a culture of respect, rote educated, in a society where disagreeing is disrespectful and in some arenas dangerous. It was nice to hear that products are built locally, of local components.

Group travel is a mixed bag of course. You can see solo tourist groan when even just half of us we show up at a peaceful temple. Traveling with this Stanford Alumni Association group of forty-four has really nice benefits like this visit to Proximity. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

First Day in Yangon - a great experience

The four of us headed out to the market along a narrow tree lined street alive with pedestrians, food vendors and depending on the block - sellers of ice, videos, books or clothes. I noticed Sheree behind me telling a longyi clad gentleman that we are from the USA. He explained that he is a teacher and that a branch of his school is down the block in a building that is over 100 years old and is slated to be torn down. He pointed out the brightly painted sign on the slightly mildewed taupe building. He was on the way into school from his bus commute and invited to come see it. We climbed a narrow wooden stair/ladder and slid through a narrow passageway where we encountered a classroom with 30 or so young men and women studying chemistry for an exam. He introduced a young woman who has two months to learn English before she heads for a job in Singapore. He ushered us up front and asked us to tell them to study hard and why English might be useful for their future. He then asked us to teach them some current slang. Out came their notebooks. That is how I found myself up on a wooden platform, marker in hand, progressing from "cool" to "slamming".