UVA Today Blog

Semester at Sea: Burma

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

Fisherman in Inle Lake, Burma

Fisherman in Inle Lake, Burma

Three years ago, the government of Myanmar opened a country that had been closed (or semi-closed) for close to 60 years. As Burma transitions from a military-controlled state to a democratic one, it has experienced a surge of changes, including the sight of foreign visitors – like Semester At Sea students – that pour into the country. Because tourism is all so new, SAS travelers faced some amusing/sketchy stumbling blocks while exploring a place where the difference between a luxury bus ride and a bus with lawn chairs for seats is about $2. But I think those challenges were all part of what makes Burma itself, and it made visiting this developing place an adventure.

Pagodas are everywhere. Burma is known as the “golden land” for the color of the pagodas that you can find on literally all the roadsides. When you visit the buildings, you see scarlet-clad Theravada monks meditating in front of Buddha statues, visitors lighting candles and incense, and people pouring water over the statues to bring good fortune for themselves. I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Myanmar’s largest city, where many monks would show non-Buddhists around and explain the various rituals that Buddhists perform during their visit.

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Clockwise from top left: golden pagodas on the banks of Inle Lake, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and a small countryside pagoda near Nyaung Shwe.

The priority that people place on religion is reflected in their daily lives. I was told that it is safe for women to travel in Myanmar (which I did, with three other girls, without any real problems). And if you forget your bag, no one will steal it – a phenomenon I witnessed for myself, on accident…twice.

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A “novice” monk watches a soccer game at a local orphanage for boys. Run by Theravada Buddhist monks, this orphanage was raising about half the boys to be monks-in-training. 

Money matters. One of the unique things about Semester At Sea is that it takes you to countries where you would never study abroad for a full semester, like Burma. It’s one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with a GDP per capita of less than $2000, and its university system doesn’t support American study abroad students (to my knowledge) just quite yet.

Poverty is such a complicated issue, and this trip has revealed how relative the idea of being “poor” is. When you’re fed, clothed, and have an income, you have a lot to be thankful for – and so many of the Burmese people I met were undeniably content, happy people. At the same time, developing countries are places where basic medical care, good schools, and good jobs just aren’t available, and I think seeing it firsthand – when a man wrecks his motorcycle and has to drive an hour to the nearest hospital, or a father you meet tells you that he sends his wife and children 400 miles away so his kids can attend a decent primary school – you start to understand how different your life and your opportunities are.

It’s a complicated issue, and all I can really say is that this type of travel helps you understand how privileged you are. I saw people that don’t have anything by Western standards, and they’re not sad, bitter or feel like they need to beg for help – but if a person comes and spend money in their shops, it really makes their day.

 

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At Lake Inle, clockwise from top left: a woman weaving scarves out of lotus reeds and silk, father and son in Nyaung Shwe, and fish for sale at the market.

The people are excited to have you. Like I said, this is partly because you’re spending money, but also because Burma is a place where most towns didn’t see foreigners for years – and your presence is a sign of wealth and open doors for them.

SAS kids went all over the country in Burma. To the beach; to Bagan, where 1400 temples are scattered across a desert plain; to Bago, where Golden Rock hangs off a cliff and defies gravity (because Buddha’s hair is apparently keeping it upright). I travelled to Lake Inle, a shallow, blue 45-square mile lake with small villages lining the coast. It’s surrounded by mountains on either side, which I hiked after spending a day visiting the lakeside villages on a motorboat. The town of Nyaung Shwe, where I stayed with three friends, was small, with buildings on almost every street that each offered the same plethora of services: lake tours, hikes, bikes for rental, horse back rides, tuk-tuk bicycle rides, bus tickets, and plane tickets. Though it’s all thrown together and a little unorganized, tiny Nyaung Shwe represents the country well – excited that you’re here, and ready to show you around.

 

Some Instagram Fan Mail for U.Va. Men’s Hoops

The U.Va. community is getting behind the Men’s Basketball Team in a big way. Here’s some Instagram fan mail for the team from all corners of the University. Be sure to cheer them on this Friday night as they enter the Sweet Sixteen in Madison Square Garden using #NCAAHoos. Let’s Go ‘Hoos!

Larry Sabato

‘Hoo Crew

Chelsea, Second-Year, Nursing

Allen Groves

Tara, First-Year, College

Miss Kathy

Katie Couric (’79)

Semester at Sea: Study Days and Singapore

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

A statue of Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, stands in front the city skyline

A statue of Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, stands in front the city skyline

It’s midterm season at Semester at Sea, and just as the travel is intensified (12 countries in four months), so are exams. While I can’t really complain about midterms because hey, I’m on a boat, I do think the nature of schoolwork is much different from home universities. You’ll spend six days in a port, and then have a test covering half the material in your textbook the next morning – which means you’d better learn to strap down and focus.

In the middle of the weeklong gap between Vietnam and Burma come exams, papers, and projects galore. But in great SAS fashion, we also had a two-day reprieve in the middle of the week, at the island nation of Singapore.

I had my first field lab here, where my English literature class, “Visionaries and Exiles,” caught a day tour about the history of Singapore and its founder, Stamford Raffles. Raffles was both a visionary and an exile, in that he chose to build a port in Singapore for the East India Company, among other viable options, and said he believed the tiny, tribal island would become “a great commercial emporium.” He also acted as a great humanitarian towards its people. He learned the Mandalay language, established native-language hospitals and schools in the area, and he was an anti-slavery proponent. Unfortunately, Raffles was also an exile from home – he lost his family to illness while living in Singapore, along with most of his money, and he faced many legal charges regarding Singapore (which he established without authority) when he returned home. Raffles played a unique role in history, and my class enjoyed comparing his real-life example to our studies in visionary/exile fiction protagonists like Robinson Crusoe and Odysseus.

U.Va. English professor Dan Kinney and my classmate Josh listen as our guide, Saluma, takes us along the footsteps of Raffles in historic Singapore.

U.Va. English professor Dan Kinney and my classmate Josh listen as our guide, Saluma, takes us along the footsteps of Raffles in historic Singapore.

Today, Singapore is a modern, multicultural and globalized country that has progressed beyond anything Raffles envisioned. Because of its location in the straight between Japan, China and India, it’s considered an “Asian Tiger” of trade and has been a bustling crossroads for both commerce and culture since its establishment. Its population is comprised of four main ethnic groups – Chinese, Mandalay, Indian, and “Eurasian” – and a quarter of all people living in the country are foreign-born.

Aside from being a center of wealth (1 in 6 Singaporeans are millionaires), this tiny country has a reputation as a foodie heaven, from $3 “hawker” street food to meals that cost more than my U.Va textbooks. A true melting pot of the east, the city’s range of international food, including its Chinatown and Little India districts, adds to the country’s multiculturalism environment that already blends together so well.

A torpedo-shaped luxury resort connects the hotel buildings of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. There’s a great Photoshop picture of the MV Explorer atop the buildings that’s currently floating around on Twitter, much to the amusement of the @RealMVExplorer.

A torpedo-shaped luxury resort connects the hotel buildings of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. There’s a great Photoshop picture of the MV Explorer atop the buildings that’s currently floating around on Twitter, much to the amusement of the @RealMVExplorer.

After visiting the homogenous Japan, China and Vietnam, it was refreshing to see a country where diversity is so prevalent and accepted. And it was fun visit a place where everyone is fluent in English – a huge stress reliever for the brain-drained student traveler.

On a final note, one of my favorite things about Singapore is that its government spends over 20 percent of its budget on education – and has been doing so for decades. Today, Singapore has developed a vast, competitive university system, and students are flocking to get in, with about 30 percent of the National University of Singapore’s students coming from abroad. Maybe the U.S. should take notes?

 

 

More Snow? Really? Wahoo WaPo Weather Editor Explains

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A picture of Washington Post weather editor and U.Va. alumnus Jason Samenow.There’s snow in the forecast for the usually temperate Charlottesville. Again. To get to the bottom of what’s going on, we asked Jason Samenow (Col ’98), the weather editor at the Washington Post, for an explanation. Here’s what he said:

Q: More snow? This is a joke, right?

A: It’s for real, but we’re thinking just a slushy inch or so, mainly on grassy areas.  Cville has it easy compared to eastern Mass, where they’re expecting 6”+ and 50 mph winds.

Q: This must have been a busy winter to be weather editor at the Washington Post. How did your experience at U.Va. prepare you for your current job?

A: I had a terrific experience working as  production editor at the Cavalier Daily.  Learning to work effectively in a fast-pace environment and under deadline pressure has definitely served me well in a professional newsroom.

Q: Do you have a favorite weather event from your time at U.Va.?

A: Hurricane Fran came through in ’96 with wind gusts to 50-60 mph, knocking out power around Grounds.  It was the one and only day off from classes during my four years.

Q: Do the cold snaps and late-season snows have anything to do with the basketball team’s performance this winter?

A: This is a team of destiny.  It delivers no matter the weather.

Q: Can you promise us that this will be the last snow before Spring?

A: Very good chance.  The weather pattern flips later this week with mild conditions to close March.

Semester at Sea: Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

SAS students had been told that Vietnam would be the first of the “gritty” countries. Our pre-port lecturers hammered out the warnings: travel with a group, cover your shoulders, keep an eye on your wallet, and avoid rides from unmarked taxis. With this in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Americans often link ‘Vietnam’ with either picturesque rice fields or the controversial, sixteen-year Vietnam/American War. But Vietnam isn’t a postcard or a war – it’s a whole country.

When you step into downtown Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon), the traffic overwhelms you: thousands of motorbikes transform the streets into this electric, exhaust-breathing river as soon as the sun goes down. Each bike will carry two, three or even four passengers – whole families – and will come within inches of colliding with each other, or pedestrians, at every intersection. At night, families and friends will congregate in the sidewalks outside these tiny hole-in-the wall restaurants and will chow down on the most delicious (and cheapest) meals – warm pho (noodle) and rice dishes, with beef and herbs and tons of sauces and seasonings. Add the packed markets and street vendors looking for your business, and the city is loud, fantastic-smelling chaos.

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

After a couple days in Ho Chi Minh, I traveled with a group to the Mekong Delta, where we booked a home stay in a village outside Can Tho, the major trading city on the river. When we arrived, we found that there was no A/C, hot water, or electricity in our rooms. We did, however, have hammocks and bicycles – which, when you’re in the delta, is all you really need.

The home stay was incredible. The rows of houses built right along the river wouldn’t amount to much by American standards – most were made from metal sheets and wood that the families had either bought or found somewhere, according to our host family. All the houses had open doors and no A/C (though I did see a few TVs), laundry hanging the yards and wooden boats floating outside on the river. Everywhere I biked, many residents would wave and yell out the only English word they knew, “hello!” Still, I could talk easily with most children in the neighborhood – because they’re learning English in school.

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

My group took a boat trip to the floating markets of Can Tho, where people from all over southern Vietnam sell tons (literally) of produce every morning. We explored all over the delta area – a rice factory, rice fields, a vegetable farm, and we learned to make fresh rice noodles at an outdoor factory. The tour was humbling; after we’d just been to ultra-urban Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, here we were in Vietnam, the world’s #2 producer of rice, where these people with simple lifestyles work everyday (in 90-plus degree heat) to harvest food that feeds the rest of the world.

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

Back in Ho Chi Minh, I learned alongside many others on Semester At Sea about the effect of the Vietnam/American War on southern Vietnam. After visiting the War Remnants Museum and underground Cu Chi tunnels where much of the fighting took place, we learned how the war devastated southern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. It’s still rebuilding, and traces of napalm gas, or “Agent Orange,” sprayed by U.S. troops during the war are still causing birth defects in Vietnamese babies.

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

As an American, learning about the effects of our government’s war against this country, after spending a week being treated like the best kind of guest by its people, made the trip to Vietnam one of the most touching and humbling weeks I’ve spent. This country is full of such laid back and welcoming people, and for a place that’s been through so much, you could see that there’s huge economic promise – new skyscrapers were springing up over the old buildings and markets in Ho Chi Minh City and even downtown Can Tho. Major financial forecasters have predicted that Vietnam will be the fastest-growing emerging economy (PwC ’08) and break into the world’s top 20 GDP list (Goldman Sachs ’06) by the year 2025.

One of the great things about Semester At Sea is that students get a comparative glimpse of where these countries stand in the world – how fast they’re changing, what their problems are and where they’re innovating. Vietnam is one of those evolving places, and it’ll be cool to see where it heads in the coming years. Now that we know more, many of my friends onboard have already said that they want to go back as English teachers, to do what they can to help this country that’s bursting with opportunities in industry and education – along with really, really delicious food.

In Can Tho, I also wrangled myself into a visit with an English Language class at the local Tay Do University. My group actually got to help with a lesson, and I’m writing about the experience on the Semester At Sea webpage later this week – stay tuned!