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Plucked from the belly button of a Burmese temple dancer

My heart goes out to Myanmar. For a very personal reason. I was a visitor there once upon a time and fell in love with the country's people, its beauty and its troubles.

Exactly 20 years ago, my good friend Clair and I left a NESA conference in Bangkok to take a five day tour of what was then known only as Burma. Armed with but a Lonely Planet guide, we visited Rangoon, Mandalay, and Pagan. It was, and remains, the most interesting, exotic and different place I have ever visited.


Clair on left.

Burma in 1988 felt like stepping back into the 1940s. My top 10 memories, now a bit faded, I'm afraid...

1. The Lonely Planet advised travellers to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels and a carton of Marlboros in Bangkok duty-free and sell them on the Burmese black market for enough "kyat" for a one week stay's worth of spending money. It worked. Burma was the only place I have ever done a black market currency exchange. At the time the official exchange rate was 1 US$=20 kyat; the black market rate was 1US$ = 140 kyat. One could buy Burmese currency on the black market and then drink in government run hotels for about $.20 a beer. A stipulation in one hotel was that one needed to buy food with each drink. So the menu would read: Chicken 20K, Chicken wings 10K, Chicken bones 5K. My order - A beer and bones. Hold the bones. Only country I know that had 75 and 35 denomination bills.

2. The Strand Hotel in Rangoon was the colonial equivalent of the Oriental in Bangkok or Raffles in Singapore. But  it had never been restored (as of 1988). The rooms were sad - bare wires and tired beds. The bar closed at 9PM. We learned to order a few beers at 8:55. Then sit quietly. 10 minutes after the lights went out in the room, the rats would entertainingly scurry across the top of the bar.

3. Near Mandalay we waited for 45 minutes to cross a bridge that was closed twice a day to let the ox-drawn carts of hay cross first.

Photo - Doug Johnson - Rangoon, Burma - April 1998 - scanned from Kodachrome slide.

4. The Pagan/Bagan temple area encompasses thousands of acres - stupas as far as the eye can see - quite literally. Clair and I hired a taxi to take us around the region and we spent the day clambering through the crumbling temples. At the end of the day, the taxi driver commented, "You very, very brave men." Really? "Yes, Burma has the highest incident of death by snake bite in the world and the temples are full of snakes."

5. Burma was (is) known for its rubies. We were often accosted by small boys carrying metal Sucrets boxes lined with cotton containing "real" Burmese rubies. One boy offered proof that the stone was real by smashing it with a brick.  I bought one after negotiating down from $100 to an even exchange for my pocket knife and a ball point pen. On my return to Bangkok, the jeweler confirmed I had purchased colored glass, but I still had the "ruby" made into a tie tack. I claim that I plucked it from the navel of a Burmese temple dancer.

6. Hanging in my home office yet today is a ceremonial "nat" (spirit) hat. It is in the shape of a cow's head with a horn spread of about 4 feet, decorated with spangles and glittery balls. I wore my hat through the notoriously strict Saudi customs coming home. No smuggling one of those babies. I still wear it on hat day at school when in the mood.

7. One had a choice of two alcoholic drinks in Burma - Mandalay beer and Mandalay rum. I've drunk beers from all over the world and found the only really bad beer was Mandalay beer. We regretted not keeping the Johnny Walker.

8. Our hotel in Pagan was about a half mile out of town on a narrow dusty road. I don't remember Pagan having any paved roads at the time. The Lonely Planet offered two suggestions for recreation: the Pagan disco and the Pagan massage. The massage was a tiny wooden shack with a very old man and a kid and a couple benches. I got the old man and Clair got the kid. I have never been so viciously pummeled, poked, kneaded, and bent in my life. As I remember, a very sharp elbow was the main instrument of torture. The disco was what looked like a garage lit with florescent lights, posters of pop stars (the BeeGees, maybe?), and a boombox. Clair, the DJ and I were the only people there. Since Clair is a terrible dancer, we didn't stay long.

9.  We stumbled on a village having, we think, a wedding festival. Along the dusty streets passing between wooden shanties, was a parade of brilliantly costumed and gorgeous young women and men riding in carts being pulled by equally brilliantly caparisoned oxen. Every photo we took looked worthy of the cover of National Geographic. (I gotta get back to scanning my slides!)

10. Beautiful sunsets and beautiful people are my two major images of Burma. Wearing a protective clay on their faces, the women were delicate, shy and lovely. The men, small, wiry and smiling. And each evening started with an outstanding sunset. But that was years ago and the world and I have both changed more than a little, I fear.

My rational side says everyone in the world should have the opportunities provided by a Starbucks-Toyota-iPod economy. My romantic side yearns for corners of the world that remain culturally unique. If anything I've written sounds patronizing or politically incorrect, I apologize. I am writing out of fondness and from memory. As a traveller, I never claim to be anything more than a tourist.

I know there is controversy over traveling to Myanmar/Burma today. One's tourist dollars either support a totalitarian government or aid the local people, depending on your political views. For myself, I would go back in an instant, given the opportunity. 

Photo - Doug Johnson - Rangoon, Burma - April 1998 - scanned from Kodachrome slide.


Media special - itis

A fellow Minnesotan teased me a little about the name of ISTE's special interest group for library media specialists - SIGMS. He teased that MS was a disease, not a profession.

After reading this comment, I began wondering - might it be both? Do we suffer from media specialitis when one reads this on LM_Net:

In our district we have a policy which says that I keep the money tendered for lost books for 2 weeks and then turn the money in to the district treasurer.  I had a child return the lost book after that 2-week window.  So, I did not return his money.  Well, doesn't his mom call saying he should have the book back or his money back.  After counting down from 10, I said "okay" and gave him back the lousy $3.99. If it had been more, I would have had the district treasurer deal with
her.  But, for that piddly amount, I picked my battles.....BUT I walked right over to the child's classroom and told him and the classroom teacher that the library was not a bookstore!  And this is NOT going to happen again!

What a great deal - for only $3.99 this librarian bought at least $399 worth of ill will and bad feelings from a student, a parent and, BONUS, a classroom teacher. If the teacher complains to the principal, this might just be a bad PR home run.

Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant writes about his "not so friendly library," and reminds his readers:

Seth Godin reminds us that every interaction with a customer / client / patron / stakeholder / visitor is a marketing interaction. It’s an opportunity for us to build or erode our brand, a chance to increase or decrease the trust and goodwill of the people with whom we are interacting.

 "Cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" is a trite, but in this case apropos expression.

What are other symptoms of "media specialitis?"



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Open response to Stager's complaint

The Noah Principal: No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks. Louis Gerstner

One of my favorite educational scolds, Gary Stager, yesterday excoriated "the most popular, hired and prolific members of the EduBlogosphere" for not jumping up and down about the recent findings that showed the Reading First program was not as effective as promised. He writes:

Literacy dominates my esteemed colleague's thoughts about education. Therefore, I find it shocking that there is so little [read: none] discussion of the news that the federal Department of Education has concluded that Reading First, the $6 billion shock and awe approach to literacy education at the core of No Child Left Behind, has FAILED to improve the reading comprehension of American students.

Why the silence among EduBloggers? Is this issue unimportant? Should we ignore the calamity created by Reading First just because it doesn't mention Twitter, Apture, Ning or other made-up words?

Or, are you waiting to be told what to think by Tom Friedman or Daniel Pink?

First let me say that I am positive that I am not even on Mr. Stager's radar, so this did not hurt my feelings in the least. But I have a much different take on whether Reading First was shamefully neglected as a topic of discussion among the bloggers I like to read for a few reasons:

  1. I too was shocked, shocked to learn that politics and money and cronyism have ever played a role in education in this country. What will they discover next - that politicians have affairs? That governments sometimes spend money on stupid things?  Gary takes great pride in predicting Reading First would not be a success. Ya know, Gary, guessing this didn't require the skills of a Nostradamus. Sorry. And while this is a case of politics influencing education, most of us think of ourselves as educators first, political pundits a distant second. Or tenth.
  2. A great many of us at a school district level simply have not been impacted by Reading First, didn't buy the product, didn't sacrifice other programs. Those bloggers working in schools tend to write and be interested in what they know and what impacts them. On a fundamental level, as long as federal funding accounts for about 3-4% of my district's financing, I will invest about 3-4% of my energy on federal issues. Even NCLB has had less impact on how a state decides to enforce it and district's to have it impact what they do as a result of it.
  3. A great many bloggers would prefer to write about the positive, offering concrete suggestions about how education can be improved on a daily, personal, school or classroom level. I think we take Emily's to heart when she writes: "I dwell in Possibility-- A fairer House than Prose." We need people like you, Gary, with that 20,000 foot view. It's just that the stuff here on the ground is of more immediacy, more interest, more importance to many of us - even Nings. It's naive, I suppose, to think we can make change by celebrating the positive rather than crticizing negative, but ya just never know.
  4. As a corollary, many of us have a pretty accurate perception of the limits of our influence (which I explored more fully here), knowing where we can most make a difference. Besides ranting - and belaboring the obvious that politicians (on both sides of the aisle) are clueless and corrupted by special interests - what in the Sam Hill do I have to contribute to this discussion, to urge my readers to do, to act in a way that will actually change a system? I'll certainly share this information within my own district to make better informed decisions about our reading efforts, but what more? Venting feels good, but does it do good?

Gary, I sincerely appreciate YOU writing about this. It does need to brought to all educators' attention. But the world only needs (and can take) so many Gary Stagers!

I like my bloggers building arks - not just predicting rain.