Archive December 4, 2014

Day trip to Dala (Yangon, Myanmar)

When I recount my time in the Philippines I often remember how living in the concrete jungle that is Manila felt somewhat claustrophobic. Although this was for a range of reasons, it is perhaps unsurprising given Manila has the highest population density in the world.

In fact, when comparing where I lived then (Manila), with where I live now (Yangon), it is pretty why this is no longer a problem with Manila’s population density 6 times that of Yangon. Consequently it is possible for everybody’s inner-hermit to find some solitude.

Unfortunately, if there were a party of inner hermits, mine would still be the one hiding behind a curtain in the corner. Which is why, he was so excited to hear about my weekend plan: a day trip to somewhere even quieter than Yangon; Dala.

Dala is a township on the outskirts of Yangon, on the south of the Yangon River. Although it is relatively close to the urban hub of Yangon (1.5 km away), it is only accessible by ferry which seems to have made all the difference to how urbanised it is.

Ferry to Dala

The first step to getting across the river required that we meandered to Pansodan Jetty, directly opposite the Strand hotel.

I say meander as the area attached to the jetty terminal also functions like most markets in Yangon, serving the hundreds of locals who commute from Dala to Yangon each day (during the day the ferry leaves every 20 minutes).

Heading past the many stalls towards the Yangon river, eventually you come to the ferry terminal where there will no doubt be a line in the door and ample crowd waiting inside.

Upon arriving, we were pulled aside and pointed into the manager’s office to buy our tickets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince him of being a local no matter how convincingly I wore my longyi and spoke broken Burmese. Unfortunately this meant I couldn’t get a 100 kyat local ticket, rather having to pay the tourist price of 4,400 kyats for a return ticket (or 4 USD if you have dollars on you).

And although I was sure to make a point about how outrageous this exorbitant $4 foreigner fee was, it was to no avail. Besides, there really isn’t much to complain about with it actually being a pretty quick and comfortable trip with it taking around 20 minutes and there being an ample number of traders willing to sell you cigarettes, coconut and cowboy hats.

Of course, in Myanmar it pays to be careful so if you decide to purchase a cowboy hat please consult this chart to ensure you live to tell the tale.

Except for the trader selling snacks and cigarettes t’s a pretty standard ferry ride over to Dala

Unfortunately it’s illegal for foreigners to take these boats across.


It’s easy to forget how big the boat is until you see the masses of people exiting the boat.

Arriving in Dala

As you might expect, taking the ferry in itself is a pretty worthwhile in and of itself, albeit a cushy one. Still, it’s a great opportunity to see how day to day commerce takes place with many of those living in Dala, working (or selling their goods) in Yangon (did you know they transport chickens in bundles?!).

Although it seems the ferry is predominately populated with locals, there are apparently enough tourists to foster a generous number of traders and tour guides who operate at the Dala jetty terminal, so prepare be swamped.

Now while when it comes to the town itself, you could walk around yourself I wouldn’t recommend this as everything is quite spread out. Given this, I’d say you’re best to hire a tri-shaw, the going rate which seems to be around 1500 kyats per hour, with a full tour taking around 2 to 3 hrs.

This is of course unless you happen to be me, who may have paid a bit more than as a consequence of the driver telling me that I’m “handsome like a movie star”. My mum was right.

 

Cruising Around Dala

There are three main sights that tourists typically come to see while in Dala. The Pagoda, Fishing Village and Bamboo Village, however, truth be told it’s a pretty worthwhile experience just for the purposes of seeing just life in Dala, which, as you’d expect, is similar to other rural communities in Myanmar.

Shwe Sayan Pagoda, Dala

Let’s face it. If you’re not seeing a pagoda a day when touring Myanmar, you’re doing something wrong.

Dala is of course no exception, with the township having a surprisingly well maintained pagoda. Although it is seemingly like any other pagoda in Yangon a number of things make it a bit different.

Firstly, there seemed to be around 20 children who hang around the thing during the day, climbing the stupa and mobbing hapless foreigners when the opportunity arises.

Secondly, the colours used have much more variety than typical pagodas in and around Yangon. However, perhaps the most significant difference is that this pagoda includes a now deceased monk who it is said predicted cyclone Naga.

 

Fisheman Village, Dala

The Fisherman’s village is located along the banks of Dala river. Many of the fishermen who work along the Yangon River live with their families in huts along the shore. Perhaps for me the highlight of this was the fact that they were building and repairing a number of their boats on the shore, a feat all the more impressive to me given that I have trouble cooking oatmeal without setting myself on fire.

Some Final Thoughts

I have to admit I’ve still got a long list of sites to see in Yangon, I think my half day in Dala was without a doubt the best touristy thing I’ve done in Yangon. It’s also an unbelievable convenient way to get out of the concrete jungle for a breather. Although I don’t mean to suggest it’s going to be as relaxing as lying beside the pool, martini in hand, it is a beautiful side of Yangon to see.

Living and working in Yangon, Myanmar

Living and working in Yangon

This post is the first in a series focusing on Yangon, Myanmar. It is predominantly meant to provide an additional perspective on the logistics of living and working in Yangon. Recognizing that my knowledge and perspective on the city will change I’ll be updating it over time.

2016 Update: So it has been a little over two years since I wrote this post and it has turned out to be surprisingly popular post resulting in me often meeting people who are like ‘hey I read your blog’. But it’s not just my new found fame which has changed since writing this, so has Yangon. So to account for this I’ve gone back to my original post and made some additions/changes where necessary.

For anyone who has skimmed my blog you’ll know that not unlike Leonardo da Vinci I’m a man of many passions, including (but not limited to) economics and travel. Fortunately, I’ve recently been able to combine both these passions in my new role as an economist in Yangon, Myanmar.

Of course given the logistical challenge of moving countries, few people take the decision lightly. For me, this was made all the more difficult as I tend to only make hard choices after doing hard research, a task made particularly difficult given the dearth of information on living in Yangon. So here I am, writing a post covering Yangon 101, so if this doesn’t sound like something you’re not interested in you should probably stop reading somewhere around here.

Introduction

At the outset, I probably don’t need to tell you where Myanmar is. But to be safe, it’s a country in South Asia bordered by India, China and Thailand (among others).

 

Weather

Being much closer to the equator and at an altitude somewhere near sea-level Yangon can be hot. Of course this is not universally true with some areas in the north of Myanmar even experiencing snow, but in any case you probably aren’t going to need warm clothes.

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2016 Update: It’s worth mentioning the heat is really a big deal over here. Obviously this is going to subjective as I notice locals in arctic gear when I’m almost fainting from heat exhaustion, but be warned it can get very hot and uncomfortable. Power outages also seem to occur more frequently (or perhaps just more painfully) during the hottest part of the year, which means air conditioners and fans can stop operating when you least expect it.

Although you might be able to avoid this by finding an apartment with a generator, I personally still don’t think the extra cost of renting such a place is justified, but that will depend on you.

Traffic

Traffic in Yangon is bad, but not much worse than many other populated cities in Asia. For me it seems somewhere close to the traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On a practical level what this might mean is a 5 km trip takes 30-40 minutes instead of 10 minutes during heavy traffic.

Yangon is not the ‘wild west’: there are enough shops/restaurants and cinemas to make your stay more than comfortable. Although you shouldn’t expect wine, caviar and toast points, there are enough shops, restaurants and cinemas to make an unadventurous expat happy.

2016 Update: Actually, now you probably can find caviar and toast points (not that I’ve looked). But overall the food scene has improved a lot in two years, there are now relatively decent Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants there (you can see a good sample via Yangon Door 2 Door). There are also more and more decent coffee shops emerging, particularly around the expat-rich Yawmingyi area.

A Note on Food

Although this has been the death of my diet, there is actually a food delivery service in Yangon called ‘Yangon Door2Door’. Although I haven’t tested out much on their menu, they have a pretty decent range of food they’ll deliver to your door (including pizza, etc).

Internet in Yangon

The internet in Yangon is slow. Although I’ve heard this complaint a lot since being here, I personally think it’s perfectly manageable provided you’re not expecting to watch cat videos on your phone. I use it mainly for reading the news, calling friends via Skype and Viber and checking my email. It’s also not too hard to find cafes with free WiFi.

2016 Update: Internet in Yangon can still be expensive, but it has come leaps and bounds with a number of providers providing internet more cheaply than when I arrived. I probably spend around $30 USD a month on mobile internet for around 8gb. Not great, but definitely an improvement. More and more cafes have wifi connections too if you really want to save money.

Language

Although you can generally get around okay with English, I’d recommend you try and learn some Burmese to make life a bit easier and to show respect. You’ll likely be laughed at countless times for your miss-pronunciation (I certainly have been), but making mistakes is all part of the learning process. I’ve also found that most of the locals appreciate you making the effort and will be happy to help you learn.

Accommodation in Yangon

For those of you looking to move to Yangon for the long-haul, there are cheap accommodation options available, although less and less so as foreign aid and investment flows in. In the limited time I’ve been here, I’ve inspected around ten different places and done a fair chunk of research, but like everything here take it with a grain of salt.

Firstly, rental fees seem to operate like a Dutch auction in that the owners seem to start at the top and you have to bargain them down. Often I get the feeling that landlords will ask for more rent than they think a place is worth and hope that you won’t bargain. This is of course anecdotal, but the amount of rent a landlord asks in my (limited) experience can have little to do with the quality of the place, so shop around. This is probably why they say that ‘everything is negotiable’ when it comes to real-estate in Yangon.

Rent is also generally paid upfront and involves one month’s rent as commission. So if you were to rent a place for $500 a month, you’d need to pay $6500 upfront. I’d also strongly, recommend not pre-arranging long-term accommodation before arriving as it’s a sure fire way to pay too much.

If you’re looking to save money consider going with an unfurnished place. The real-estate market is somewhat segmented, with furnished accommodation tending to be significantly more expensive, given it is targeted towards the expatriate community.

For instance, a two bedroom unfurnished place can be found for around $200-$500 US per month, while a similarly sized furnished place might go for closer to $800-$1,000 US and above per month. It also goes without saying that you can spend more if you want, with plenty of condominiums willing to charge you closer to the $2,000 to 4,000 US per month mark.

Given furnishing a place is likely to cost somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000, going for a furnished place is probably reasonably value as long as you’re not paying more than $80 to $160 extra per month in rent.

Although I don’t recommend searching for accommodation online, a friend of mine has had a surprisingly large amount of success using the website below to find places.

http://en.house.com.mm

There is also an excellent blog post from a bunch of Yangon Expats here:

http://lifeinthetropics.org/cost-of-living-for-an-expat-in-myanmar-yangon-in-2014/

Don’t Judge an Apartment by its Cover

Another key point to remember is that what an apartment block looks like on the outside has little to do with how it is inside. When looking at places there have been times when I feel like I’ve past through the door to Narnia as a seemingly dilapidated stairwell has led to an incredibly modern apartment.

2016 Update: I’d say much of what I said before still applies in Yangon except there is more competition and more options available now. Often when people talk about how real estate is becoming more affordable they’ll reference back to how expensive it was in 2014 (when I first wrote this blog).

I’d also note that because the exchange rate has changed so much the figures I’ve given aren’t necessarily accurate. Also, Frontier magazine came up with this more up to date and comprehensive guide to Yangon’s rental market here.

Some additional advice I’d give to people looking into local accommodation is is:

Look around your local area. Monasteries, Mosques, tea shops, restaurants and sometimes night schools can be noisy so if you want a nice quiet area it can be best to avoid these.

Be careful to look for buildings with speakers pointing out of their windows. These are relatively common in Yangon and can potentially play music and speeches from very early in the morning to late at night. This can become more intense and likely during the rainy season (May to October), when the amount of time  you spend indoors is likely to be much greater, so be warned.

Noisy neighbors and thin walls can make a big difference – Unfortunately this is hard to protect against without knowing somebody who already lives in the area, but when you look at places it’s a good idea to ask about the neighbors to understand the likelihood they’ll be noisy. I had a family people move upstairs from me who made noise at 11pm and 3am. While this deprived me of sleep for a long time, this wasn’t because they were obnoxious, but just because I lived in an old building and they had members of the family who worked or went to school in the very early hours of the morning.

Ground floor apartments generally aren’t recommended. They’re sometimes more expensive (for a number of reasons), they can be more likely to flood and subject to more noise from the beloved yangon street dogs and street traffic. I’m sorry to say that in some apartments I’ve lived in, people also throw trash out the window so ground floor apartments have the potential to be closer to this.

Rooftop apartments can be a problem during the rainy season. This is both if the rain hitting the roof is noisy and if the roof isn’t sealed properly. I’ve had friends who have experienced both issues. Still, I also have friends who have sweeping views of Yangon.

Cost of Living

When it comes to other expenses such as food, taxis and entertainment I’ve generally found that you can spend anywhere between $10 to $20 USD per day, with eating out costing around $5 to $10 and taxis between $2 to $3 (depending on how far you’re travelling). As you might expect where your costs end up will depend on where you choose to eat and whether you’re able to bargain, with there being plenty of upmarket places around to blow your budget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Cultural Tips

This pretty much goes without saying, but coming in to Myanmar with some level of humility and self-awareness is likely to go a long way. Although people are pretty forgiving (thankfully), it’s best not to test people’s patience. It is also pretty easy to avoid offending people, provided you tread lightly and be aware of some of the basics:

Myanmar Etiquette

EDIT: A Note on Furniture 

When it comes to finding stuff in Yangon, often all you need to know is the right street to wander down.

For hand made furniture and an opportunity to have something custom made there is a street in Tamway you can go to.

Although my strategy for getting there involved me saying ‘Tamway Furniture’ to a taxi driver, from memory it’s around Tha Mein Ba Yan Road 

For ready made furniture not made of teak (and pretty much everything else) you can got to Yuzana Plaza, also in Tamwe. This is a lot less rustic than the Tha Mein Ba Yan Road, but there are some things you can get at Yuzana you can’t get from the street of carpenters (bed frames, mattresses, sofas, desks etc).

If you’re looking for something a bit easier to get up the stairs, you can also check out the Rattan Store in Dagon which has basic stuff like chairs, shelves and lamps. They can also custom make furniture if you so desire. To find it, you take a trip east along Bagaya Street (away from the Dagon Centre). The store itself is just past the Myay Ni Gone Mosque and south down Thawtar Street. Actually, I’m not 100% sure if that’s the right street, but if you get to the Mosque you’ll be close!

EDIT: A Note on Nightlife 

Although there is an increasing amount of activities and night life in Yangon, it can still be a challenge on occasions to find activities that don’t involve beer and regret. Luckily, some one has come up with a great solution called ‘Myanmore’ a website and mailing list which summarizes what’s happening in Yangon.

Cambodia

So I have to admit, if you had asked me which country was next on my hit list, I probably wouldn’t have said Cambodia.

You see, as an Australian I have the wonderful privilege of being located next to a huge number of countries which I’d describe as being very ‘Me’ in that they’re warm, diverse and easy to visit. But I also happen to work in an industry where my business is looking at all things international, so the choice of Cambodia was not my own.

Spiders and Dolphins

Of course as is true of all good expeditions it’s probably best that I start somewhere near the beginning, which is with Tarantulas. See, although I knew bits and pieces about Cambodia, I had next to no knowledge about Kratie, the province where I was to be staying. But with the help of Google I discovered:

So armed with this extensive knowledge, I proceeded to focus on the most important point: Would I be willing to eat a tarantula?

Phnom Penh

Of course I was soon to find out how little my research had prepared me for the reality of Phnom Penh. You see far from being full of spiders, it was actually inhabited almost entirely by people.

 Perplexed by this I hit the books (and travel guides) again and here’s what I found out:

  • Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia,
  • It has a population of around 2 million, which is around 10 per cent of Cambodia’s total population
  • As a consequence of its French colonial roots and wartime history, it is as an eclectic mix of French architecture and Buddhism
  • I prefer starting my day with Phnom Penh noodle soup than Weet Bix
  • There is a lot of dust

In fact, with all the dust and activity I couldn’t help but feel that I was located in the centre of a Cowboy Bebop esque cacophony of culture, dust and disorder.

Then there’s the pagodas, which is a term (technically) used to describe the ‘tiered’ style of architecture typical in East Asia, but colloquially used for the Buddhist temples scattering the countryside. And when I say scattering, I mean scattered like ducks on a pond.

You see, way before hipsters spent their time coming up with ‘Facebook’ for the ‘Facebook generation’ on Kickstarter, Cambodian communities were crowdsourcing with the best of them. In fact, many of the Pagodas in Cambodia are not financed by the church, but from Cambodian expatriates.

What this meant was that even when I had travelled to areas of Cambodia which were scarcely occupied (or occupiable given it was the dry season) a monumental pagoda wouldn’t be far off (pun intended).

Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda

Woah right? Well, woah is right.

Unfortunately, thanks to my unapologetically crappy Olympus camera there are other pictures, but few which capture the magnificence of these buildings. But fortunately for you, Google has succeeded where my camera failed by providing you with an abundance of stock photos to choose from. Add this to Wikipedia providing me with all the information I need to fake my travel story and you’ve got a winning combination.

A very impressive mural on the surrounding walls near the Silver Pagoda

So here’s the deal, probably the most well-known Pagoda is the ‘Silver Pagoda’, a name which couldn’t be more appropriate given its floor is made of five tonnes or five thousand solid-silver tiles. It is also the home of some of the countries most treasured artifacts including a life-sized gold Buddha and a building donated by Napoleon (which is now occupied by monkeys).

Monument honouring the late King Norodom Sihanouk.

But of course for me to claim this as the end of my day looking at curios, artefacts and monuments would be widely inaccurate because after having toured the palace I spent the best part of my first day in Phnom Penh randomly wandering around the city.

Independence Monument

And this random wandering was how I found the monuments above and a myriad of other statues scattered nearby my hotel. You see, Cambodia has quite a history, being a colony of France from 1863 to 1958, having experienced around a decade of growth (squarely centered in the capital itself) and having barely emerged from a regime that wiped out or around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

So when it comes to effective strategies for tourism you’ll likely find getting lost a surprisingly successful strategy (provided you leave a trail of breadcrumbs).


The elusive museum rooster.

Getting Serious

Of course as inspiring as visiting the National Museum, Royal Palace and Wat Phnom were, I did have to set aside a day to desperately try to understand how it was possible for something as brutal as the Cambodian genocide to occur.

Now although admittedly there aren’t many tourist destinations you want to leave with tears in your eyes, Cambodia’s most well-known memorial to the genocide, the Choeung Ek Killing Field is undeniably powerful and a site which is a macabre must for all visitors to Cambodia.

Given the seriousness of the destination I’d suggest the following:

  • Think twice about taking your children – this is an extremely confronting experience which might not be appropriate for some kids. I certainly wouldn’t have had the maturity to provide it with the respect it deserves when I was a kid. But then I was a hoodlum.
  • If you plan to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, be aware that it is also confronting, so you might want to rest in between so you can appreciate it. It is also not as well-funded, so I would suggest reading up on it before you arrive to get the most out of your visit.
  • I’d try and set aside around 2 hours at the fields themselves – working your way through the audio tour and museum takes time, and is undeniably worthwhile.
  • Don’t plan anything much for afterwards as you might need time to recover.
  • If you fire an AK47, don’t do it on the day you visit the fields.

Finally, before you leave Cambodia I recommend you read ‘First they Killed My Father‘ by Loung Ung. If you do what I did and read this on the plane, bring enough tissues to have people around you think you’re going to craft your own pillow. You’ll need them.

Kratie

Of course, I wasn’t being sent to Cambodia for the purposes of testing out firearms or taking photos of the roosters loitering around museums. I was there to work, which is where the province of Kratie comes in. So to give you an essential flavour of the area, Kratie (pronounced ‘Krashee’) is a province north-east of Phnom Penh:

Kratie is not actually red.

Source

But beyond the fascinating story of Kratie’s position relative to Phnom Penh is the fact that the Kratie province is essentially the bread in a Mekong sandwich, providing an excellent source of water for irrigation or Huckleberry Finn style adventures. Now as a result of this, people are furiously using the Mekong in every way they can as it slithers its way through Cambodia.

What this means is that not only are villages scattered across its shores, but so are rice paddies and the (very) occasional Irrawaddy dolphin. Also when I say ‘shores’ I mean it, you see in Australia we have the tendency to call any trickle of water a river, even when it’s just a result of somebody accidentally leaving their hose on. But the Mekong River, unlike the leaky tap in your backyard, is of epic proportions.

The view of the Mekong across from my guesthouse.


The view of the pagoda on the other side of my guesthouse.

But of course the purpose of my trip was not just to make relative comparisons of flowing water (as undoubtedly useful as this is), but to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of a number of local development projects. So each of my days went something like this:

Potentially the most attractive road I’ve ever seen.

And as simple as this daily routine might sound, it was actually nothing short of exhausting. Particularly given that travelling to and from a site took anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. In any case, at the end of the day the bamboo mat I slept on was nothing short of luxury. It was also another great opportunity to see first-hand both how participatory development projects can function on the ground and just how entrepreneurial NGOs can be.

Siem Reap

But like all things, my time in Kratie was only temporary and with limited time to myself I did what any sane person in Cambodia would do and headed for the temples.

Food white people like to take photos of.

Of course whilst I will openly admit to being much less adventurous in Siem Reap than the rest of Cambodia, I can reveal to you at this point that I did in fact have what it took to eat a tarantula. Although it was more to the amusement of the expatrates than the locals, the closest thing I can compare it to is hairy cheese.


Dr Fish.

I also got to experience the wonders of being (slowly) eaten alive by fish. Now, although I had first tried a ‘fish massage’ when I was in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap brought something a little different to the table.

You see, the fish in Siem Reap probably as a result of subsisting on a diet of overweight westerners, are themselves ahhh… big. So instead of being lightly nibbled, you are mercilessly devoured. In fact when you put your feet in the tank they hand you a pointy stick for defence and a beer for anaesthetic.

Ankor What?

Look, I am fully aware that joke has been used countless times before. But there is a reason some jokes rise to the ranks of ‘dad jokes‘ and others don’t.

Some are timelessly awesome.

In any case, like everyone else, I was in in Siem Reap to see temples in the butt-load (the standard measure of temple quantities).

Angkor Wat

Silly tree, get out of here!


Phnom Bakheng

Statues watching their back at Bayon Temple

Now, for anyone who has been to Siem Reap you’ll know that the streets are littered with tour guide operators offering standard temple packages, making it pretty easy to plan your trip once you arrive. Unfortunately this can make it rather difficult to determine the standard of your tour guide before booking.

Luckily for me I went with my gut and decided to avoid the first tour guide I spoke to, mainly as a result of them having an electrified booth. No really, I stood there watching as the poor guy manning the booth tried not to touch anything as his friend (while laughing heartily) ran to turn off the power at its source.

Needless to say, I didn’t go with this guy, but for those of you looking to do a tour I would highly recommend taking the luck out of it and researching and booking your tour ahead of time so you don’t miss out on snagging one of the legendary tour guide operators.

I said the motorcycle tour was manly right?

I would also suggest mixing up how you do your tours, as I have to say after the first day I was keen to go somewhere where I might have a bit more solitude. So here’s my second suggestion, consider taking a quad-bike or motorbike tour of the area outside of Siem Reap. I personally found this to be the most satisfying part of my time there as not only does it allow you to escape the crowds, but provides a great opportunity to get a more authentic view of some of the countryside.

Think of all the manly things I can keep in that basket.

Photo credit to Nelson

Unfortunately, the motorbike tour was also the last thing I did before leaving, resulting in me being left with an undeniable sense of sadness on my last day. Despite this, I have to say Cambodia rates very highly on the my list of places I’ve visited.

So much so, I am intending on returning and unlike Indiana Jones, when I do it will be awesome.

Problem Solving through ‘Bright Spots’

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a leadership conference about applying a ‘Bright Spots’ approach to tackling problems and have received a number of requests for further information around the idea.

At the outset, I should make it clear to everyone that I unfortunately did not come up with this idea. Rather, the approach was popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Switch’.

Solving Pumpkin-Related Problems

In the book, Dan and Chip Heath describe a seemingly counterintuitive way of looking at problems which is centred on replicating success, rather than solving problems.

Take my hobby of growing pumpkins.

There I am, trying my best to grow a prize pumpkin so as to decimate my neighbour Jim in the annual harvest festival.

But lo and behold after 3 months, six out of the ten pumpkins have barely grown at all and another two appear to have ceased to live.

But I’m determined. After all Jim couldn’t be more deserving of a trouncing at the pumpkin festival.

So I begin to try and figure out the problem, checking the acidity of the soil, ensuring my automated watering system is working, my gate is locked to keep Jim out and ensuring there is sufficient horse manure to keep my infant pumpkins thriving past their awkward teenage years.

But here’s the problem, as I’m spending time chastising my dog for the teeth marks on the watering system, which Jim assured were not his, I’m diverting all my attention into solving pumpkin-related problems, rather than trying to replicate pumpkin-related success.

Put simply, I’m ignoring those two pumpkins which appear to be thriving.

And in a nutshell this is the idea behind the ‘Bright Spots’ approach: don’t solve problems, copy success.

Bright Spots and Fighting Child Malnutrition

It is also a helpful reminder in the world of international development where we can become obsessed with the process of solving problems, when the solutions might have already presented themselves through past success.

In fact, this was one of the very examples cited in their book. Specifically, in 1990, Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam with the ‘Save the Children Fund’ with a brief to ‘fix child malnutrition in 6 months’.

Now Jerry, knowing very little about Vietnam, knew a lot about the causes of malnutrition; poor sanitation, poverty and a lack of clean water.

But how does a person make a dent on these problems in 6 months?

Taking the context as given, he started looking for ‘Bright Spots’.

He did this by touring village after village and looking for children who were less malnourished than their peers, despite facing the same context of poverty and poor sanitation.

From this he then started to build a picture of what the mothers of these children were doing differently.

What he found was striking. You see, the accepted wisdom was in order for children to avoid malnutrition their parents should feed them soft foods with clean rice two times a day.

Yet the mothers of the ‘Bright Spot’ children were doing something quite different.

Firstly, instead of feeding their children two times a day, they were feeding the same amount of food over four smaller meals, allowing more nutritional value to be taken from the same amount of food.

Secondly, they were supplementing the meals with locally available food (such as crabs and shrimp which lived in the rice paddies), which provided an additional source of protein and nutrients.

Armed with this knowledge, he started to implement cooking classes run by the ‘Bright Spot’ mothers to cement the knowledge.

The results?

Six months after Sternin had come to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished and stayed that way.

Later researchers who gathered independent data found that even children who hadn’t been born when Sternin left were as healthy as the kids he’d reached directly.

The program was expanded and today has reaches 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages (Source).

Explaining the Outliers

But the significance of this approach extends far beyond pumpkins and shrimp.

In fact in the world of economics this idea couldn’t be more relevant, as we are often looking for general relationships. Take the relationship between how happy somebody says they are and wealth provided in the figure below:

Life satisfaction tends to increase with GDP per capita

Source

Now for the many of you who have made it your life’s work to avoid the painful process of interpreting graphs, the key idea to get out of this is that as a general rule individuals in more wealthy countries have greater levels of life satisfaction.

Genius right?

But we can clearly see that this isn’t true for all countries. For instance, Argentina’s average income is as high as New Zealand’s, but they’re not very satisfied.

On the other hand, China is much poorer than France, but has higher levels of satisfaction.

In the world of statistics we might call China and New Zealand ‘outliers’, as they’re countries which seem to be bucking the trend.

Now although this is not very surprising, given that we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it helps), it does provide a great example of how we might look to use the approach, even in the (sometimes) boring world of economics.

Instead of trying to get more happiness through raising incomes, why not examine what makes people in New Zealand and China more satisfied to see if we can replicate it?

Want to develop professionally?

Perhaps build on your strengths, rather than focusing on the identified weaknesses.

 

Making a new year’s resolution?

Focus on those you’ve managed to keep and nurture success.

 

Growing pumpkins?

Steal your neighbours pumpkin seeds, rather than sabotaging their watering system.

 

“Don’t solve problems, replicate success.”

If you would like to read more about this idea, you can pick their book up here.

Swatting at Magpies

At the outset, I’d like to wish everybody subscribed to my blog a happy new year. I personally am not overly superstitious, but it appears to me that ending a year with ’13’ in it can only be a good thing.

So to celebrate, I am going to post a slightly edited version of the first speech I gave to Toastmasters.Obviously I’ve used a bit of poetic license when giving this one, but they’re both based on true events.

 

Good evening.

Tonight I’d like to make my introductions to the audience. You see in addition to this being my entry into the humorous speech contest, it is also my first as a member of toastmasters.

My name, is Giles.

Giles Dickenson-Jones to be precise.

And with a name like ‘Giles’ you might think that I know which piece of cutlery to use first during my dinners with the highest echelons of society.You may imagine that I spend my nights smoking a cigar in a leather arm chair, in a brandy-fuelled daze.

You might even imagine that my weekends are packed to the brim with polo, murder mysteries and wine tastings.

However, tonight I’d like to start my time at Toastmasters by making my introduction in a way which illustrates exactly who this new face called ‘Giles’ is.

You see, Giles is the guy who brings cider and wedges to a formal meeting of toastmasters.

What I mean by this is that no matter how hard I might try to be the Giles that you expect.

The awkwardness of the Giles that I am will always prevail.

 

Now, although as an economist you might assume that I can skate past this claim without a shred of evidence, let me introduce you to exhibit A:

October 1990

Stuarts Point Public School, New South Wales.

Me, a small, not particularly popular child with hair bleached white from the sun.

It’s recess, and although young, I was wise for my age, having already discovered the unmistakable sting of the bull ant, speed of the goanna and roar of the koala.

But until that fateful recess in October, I had not known the peck of the magpie.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, being more than an hour from Sydney means that I can claim an affinity with Animals, not unlike crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin.

However, even I had not been prepared for the aerial terror of the native Australian magpie.

Nor was I able to hide my fear after my first encounter.

Week after week.

Day after day

Recess after recess

The Magpie sought out my bright white hair, like the target that it was.

So I hatched a plan.

But this wasn’t any plan, it was the playground equivalent of the great escape.

And It required, guts, determination and access to the sport shed.

 

In the words of Sun Tsu:

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

Whether he was talking about magpies is still subject to debate and may never be fully known.

But as a child seeking to become a man, I knew this was the key to victory.

For myself I knew my greatest weakness was my hair.

In fact it was my Achilles heel.

But what was the magpies?

Well, under cover of darkness with access to a library I found out….

 

Anything solid you could swing above your head.

 

And so there I was, in the middle of the playground, wearing a comically oversized hockey mask, wildly swinging a metal baseball bat over my head, while the bemused teachers and students looked on.

I can assure you since that day, magpies and I have had an unspoken understanding.

They don’t bother me and I don’t swing inanimate objects at them.

 

Exhibit B:

I’ve never been the sporty type.

I know what you’re thinking, ‘oh come on Giles, nobody is that good looking by accident’.

But hear me out.

 

God may have had a plan for my exceptional good looks, but it’s no fault of my own.

You see, throughout my school life, my least popular pastime was always sport.

Although I’m not sure where exactly this came from, it may very well have been from one of my first swimming carnivals.

 

Now let me set the scene.

There I was, a suitably awkward child of 10, dressed in my standard issue speedo.

As was typical at the Macksville public pool during that time of year, the sun was blaring almost as intensely as the hundreds of children crowding the grandstand.

 

Fortunately for me, underneath the grandstand there was respite.

So there I was.

Hiding under the stand with my friend, strategically avoiding as much physical activity as possible.

 

That is, unless it involved trying to escape outside from teachers by squeezing ourselves under the back wall.

Unfortunately, apparently I had a head which was sufficiently larger than my friends.

Large enough, to thwart my escape.

 

So there I was, ten years old with my head stuck between a slab of cement and a corrugated iron wall.

Hundreds of kids screaming, just loud enough to swamp my whimpers as I attempted to absolve myself of the corrugated iron and concrete prison through force.

But, it was to no avail.

 

The only choice that remained was to do the unthinkable and bring our Narnia to an end.

So my friend fetched the teacher.

 

Unfortunately, the adult world’s solution was no more sophisticated than the human equivalent of WD40.

What I mean by this, is that to add insult to injury, the teacher proceeded to pour inexpensive moisturizer on my head in an attempt to ‘slide’ me from the concrete’s clutches.

 

So there I was, lying in the hot sun, with hundreds of my schoolmates watching me.

My face covered in moisturizer and my eyes filled with tears.

 

But at this point, I would like to make something clear to you.

This story real…

In fact it’s so real, that all the time this was happening somebody was filming it.

 

That’s right.

In a time when portable cameras were far from common.

Somebody had the foresight to bring one.

And thank God for that. Otherwise they would have missed what was next:

 

A fire-crew and the Jaws of Life.

So there I was, lying on my side, dressed in my speedos, head covered in moisturizer with tears in my eyes, a jaws of life, a fire crew, hundreds of my friends watching and somebody was recording it.

 

This, my friends was the thing of nightmares and perhaps why sports has never been my thing.

But this is very much the guy who brings wedges to a toastmasters meeting.

And this is who I am.

Try as I might to be the Giles you might expect, the real Giles is still swatting at magpies in the playground.

Thank you.