Myanmar Elections: Many Questions

7 November 2014

Most every city on earth is festooned with ads promoting one mobile phone service or another. Until recently, Yangon (Rangoon) was an exception. But today, brand new, bright red umbrellas emblazoned with the logo of Ooredoo shade curbside food stalls, while blue placards advertise the sale of Telenor top-up cards from nearly every storefront.

The two international mobile operators both launched in Myanmar (Burma) last month, and for the first time, connectivity is available to a wide swath of citizens. Not long ago, a SIM card for the government-run NPT mobile network (the only option available) cost upward of $1000 USD. Now, with the opening of the market, a SIM card costs $1.50—on par with other countries in the region.

The National Hluttaw: Myanmar's Parliament

The National Hluttaw: Myanmar’s Parliament

This progress is the latest and perhaps most obvious hallmark of Myanmar’s much celebrated opening, which began in 2010 with the release of many political prisoners including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Few of the reforms are irreversible, however, and with elections scheduled for late next year, how the next year plays out will determine whether this country continues down the road to democracy or reverts to military authoritarianism.

Myanmar last held national elections in 2010, but the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s primary opposition party, declined to participate because of hopelessly unjust electoral laws and predictable fraud. Not surprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Myanmar’s military-linked ruling party, won nearly every seat in parliament. (more…)

A Pacific Voyage

28 August 2014

It’s now been more than a year since we made our Pacific crossing, so it felt like time to post the following monstrosity, which draws heavily from the blog posts that appeared here during the journey. If you’ve read all those posts, this might feel a little repetitive. If not, what follows is my fullest account of a 26-day sail from Los Angeles to the Marquesas Isles.

•    •    •    •    •

Before setting out across the Pacific Ocean, my boating experience was mostly limited to paddling a canoe on the freshwater lakes of Upstate New York. So when a friend suggested that I quit my job, fly to Los Angeles, and join him for a voyage to the South Pacific, I was doubtful. But the captain seemed unfazed by my absolute ignorance; evidently more interested in recruiting another crewman for his journey, he joined in the persuasion, promising white sand beaches, coconut milk fresh from the tree, and half-naked Polynesians in canoes welcoming us to their island home after a long voyage. So I went.

Land Ho!Sailing across the Pacific need not be unduly dangerous, provided you go at the right time. There is a window in the spring—after typhoon season ends in the Southern Hemisphere, before hurricane season begins in the Northern—when good weather and fair winds are all but guaranteed. Cruisers call this route the “Coconut milk run.” So we had a month on the docks in Ventura to get the boat and her crew (that would be me) ready for a mid-April departure. Nepenthe is a 43-foot Hans Christian ketch, which means she is very pretty and entirely seaworthy. But she had never been on a voyage quite like this one, instead serving our captain as his weekend home, his workshop, and his getaway vessel for quick trips off the coast of Southern California.

There was much cleaning and organizing to be done: spare parts to be catalogued, shelves to be converted from tool sheds to sleeping berths, and a fresh coat of wax for the hull. We learned the routines and procedures for keeping Nepthene seaworthy: pipe-fittings that needed tightening against the wrenching of the sea; filters and oils in our diesel engine that had to be checked and replaced; the delicate settings of the water-maker that would keep us alive. There was a great deal of shopping to ensure we stayed fed: a cornucopia of fresh foods for the first ten days, and crates of dried and canned goods for the remaining weeks. We met a doctor who taught us to tie sutures and generously prescribed enough antibiotics and painkillers to inoculate and subdue the crew of an aircraft carrier. And then, of course, I had to learn to sail a boat. (more…)

What to do in the Tuamotu Atolls

19 June 2013
  • Tickle dolphins
  • Antagonize sharks
  • Hunt parrotfish
  • Eat baguettes
  • Drink from coconuts
  • Fret over tidal currents
  • Cruise lagoons
  • Bicycle down airport runways
  • Observe complete double rainbows
  • Read novels
  • Enhance tan lines
  • Rank sunsets

Most photo credits are due to Mr. W. H. Huttinger.

Strange Visions of Outlandish Things

30 May 2013

The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris – cannibal banquets – groves of cocoa-nut – coral reefs – tattooed chiefs – and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit-trees – carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters – savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols – heathenish rites and human sacrifices.

-Herman Melville, Typee

The six Marquesas Islands jut abruptly up out of the sea at the far eastern edge of Polynesia, about 300 miles from the closest rock. Steep, rugged black cliffs clothed in lush green might make a forbidding sight to a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt cruising in aboard the (trés chic) SS Paul Gauguin, but for generations of sailors they have offered welcome shelter from the Pacific seas– for Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century, for Captain Cook and his crew in the 18th, for the first bedraggled Spaniards in the 16th, and, surely, for the hardy Polynesians who floated here in kitted-out canoes a thousand years ago.

Here in the 21st century, the landfall of Nepenthe on the isle of Hiva Oa was equally momentous for her crew, if not for mankind. Inherent danger and difficulty notwithstanding, a trans-Pacific sail is a rather common leisure activity these days– about 300 boats made the “puddle jump” this year, and in the Bay of Atuona, which we shared with perhaps a dozen other yachts, we were introduced to the peculiar subculture of ocean cruisers. While our trip has the proportions of, say, a protracted vacation, many of the couples, families and solo graybeards sharing our harbor have traded in the comforts of solid ground altogether, in favor of a life adrift. Not exactly the sailors of popular imagination in Nantucket red pants adorned with tiny anchors, these folk have more in common with the RV crowd: itinerant, independent, living in a mobile efficiency apartment. It’s a lifestyle I can scarcely imagine– so disconnected, so peripatetic– but for the friendly couples living aboard Nakia, Red, and the other boats we met, it seemed to suit them fine.

And why not? Upon checking in with the gendarmes in the Marquesas,foreigners are issued a visa, gratis, granting the freedom to cruise for 90 days through idyllic French Polynesia– the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the rest of the Society Islands. I will surely discuss the latter groups in future pontifications, but for now, I can attest that that these Marquesas are islands where precipitous volcanic peaks are whorled in misty clouds, where luscious ripe mangoes literally fall at your feet, and where a rainbow arcing over a calm blue bay is, no shit, a daily occurrence. There is not much snorkeling or diving to be done here– no reefs, cloudy water– rather, the islands are best enjoyed by foot: Henry and I have enjoyed hikes on trails winding up from coconut palm groves surrounding the bays, through thick stands of mango and breadfruit trees and up into heights of grassy scrub brush and unexpected pine forests.

If you had saved your cash, bought yourself a boat, and wanted nothing more than to check out from the pace of Western life, you could scarcely do better than to come cruise the Marquesas, where a leisurely pace of life is strictly enforced. We arrived in our first port of call in the early afternoon, and after 26 days asea, were eager to check in and begin enjoying everything that solid ground had to offer. Three PM, it turned out, was much too late in the day for such activity– the gendarmes prefer to take care of business between 10 and 11:30, enjoy their siesta until about 2 PM, and then not do any work for the rest of the afternoon. Most businesses seem to operate on a similar schedule– we have had to vigorously lobby restaurant proprietors to prepare food during hours their establishment is ostensibly open.

All in all, the economy here is a bit of a mystery to me. Without much tourism on either the budget- or high-end (the islands are just too dang far from anywhere else) and not a lot in the way of industry, most of these islands’ economy seems to center around small-time fishing and copra production: the middle step between a coconut and coconut oil. Despite all this, everything here is extravagantly expensive– a can of local lager is $6, a restaurant dinner cannot be had for less than $25. This is also a magnificently disconnected place: television broadcasts only arrived in the 1980s, internet access is scarce outside Taioha’e, the islands’ largest town (population 2,000), and while SIM cards are available for purchase, I have yet to see anyone talking on a cell phone. I, for one, have made my telephone calls from bayside phone booths, which is a rather amusing throwback novelty.

The local languor, however, belies a vibrant past. Two centuries ago, close to 100,000 people inhabited these few islands, and when Melville visited, every valley was full of life. After the usual combination of European violence and disease did its work, the population was reduced to less than 10,000, where it remains. The valleys of these islands feel like ghost towns, with seemingly ancient stone foundations on terraced hillsides, carved petroglyphs and imposing tikis (a.k.a. horrible idols) as testament to the civilization that thrived here not long ago. But the culture survives, and a few nights past we were treated to group of teenagers preparing for la fête des meres (a.k.a. mothers’ day) with energetic drumming and traditional dancing, while down by the shore of Taioha’e Bay, fisherman gutted and cleaned the day’s catch, wives waited to bring home dinner, and children ran about, torturing tiny baitfish lying helpless on the quay.

Aboard Nepenthe, we’re surely enjoying the Marquesas, while also enduring our just penance for such delights. Keeping a boat like this afloat is constant work– swapping lines, tinkering with the refrigeration, checking fittings for wear– meanwhile, we arrived just in time for the early beginning of this year’s rainy season. Having four crew aboard certainly made our crossing easier, but four is now rather a crowd in our little cabin, and the overall effect is one of four large, rather pungent, not entirely tidy men living in an efficiency apartment where absolutely everything is always wet. And hopping between these islands is no mean feat, either: the passage from Fatu Hiva to Nuku Hiva was a full 24 hours, during which we endured the gustiest gusts of our voyage so far, clocking up to 40 knots of wind in patchy rain.

Last week, after a jouncy sail, we arrived in Fatu Hiva shortly before sunset, and dropped our anchor in the rather crowded and rather gorgeous Bay of Virgins before succumbing to slumber. We awoke with a jolt in the dead of night to find that our anchor had dragged out of the sandy bottom and we had drifted halfway out to sea, coming to a stop courtesy of a boat belonging to a grouchy Frenchman. We scrambled to get clear of the other boats, while multiple grouchy Frenchmen on multiple boats blasted airhorns in our general direction. Real damage was gladly averted, but we rode out the night drifting at sea, and spent the next few days hiding out next door, where we had the anchorage to ourselves and the locals seemed happier to see us, anyway.

The past few days, we have been anchored in the friendlier confines of Anaho Bay and Hatiheu Bay on the north side of Nuku Hiva. Perhaps a dozen homes abut Anaho, with a tiny chapel and nary a road, paved or otherwise, besmirching the landscape. Blue water laps at white sand, fish of myriad colors course through the coral, and falling coconuts present mortal danger. Over the pass is Hatiheu, where higher civilization prevails, with a post office, a store, and a small clinic to boast of. Up the hill lie ruins and petroglyphs, and down by the shore is Chez Yvonne, the finest restaurant we’ve discovered here. In two days, we have dined there thrice, and to my knowledge we have been their only customers. A shame, as Yvonne served up magnificent roast pork in a sweet ginger glaze, rich and succulent goat in coconut-marrow sauce, and a very fine poisson cru, the local delicacy: a wahoo ceviche in coconut milk. So we are well-fed and properly nourished as we look forward to the beginning of our next passage tomorrow: 500 miles to the Tuamotus Archipelago.

Sunset at SeaSawing the Pork RoastRegarding the HorizonCaptain John and Leftennant RalphLand Ho!At Port in Atuona BayHatiheu BayRugged PeaksAtuona BayFirst Mate and Cabin BoyHorrible Idols
Sunset at Sea

Setting Sail


Sawing the Pork Roast

Regarding the Horizon
Captain John and Leftennant Ralph
Land Ho!
At Port in Atuona Bay
Hatiheu Bay
Rugged Peaks
Atuona Bay
First Mate and Cabin Boy
Horrible Idols

Land, Ho!

19 May 2013

The captain, darting on deck from the cabin, bawled lustily for his spyglass; the mate in still louder accents hailed the mast-head with a tremendous ‘where-away?’ The black cook thrust his woolly head from the galley, and Boatswain, the dog, leaped up between the knight-heads, and barked most furiously. Land ho! Aye, there it was. A hardly perceptible blue irregular outline, indicating the bold contour of the lofty heights of Nukuheva.

- Herman Melville, Typee

On the morning of May 14th, our 26th day at sea, I awoke to a grey blob in the distance: darker than a cloud, suspiciously situated right on the horizon. By early afternoon, we were in the shadow of Hiva Oa, a towering green volcanic mass that was once home to Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brell, and is now home to about 2,000 hardy Polynesians living on the far edge of humanity.

The final week of our sail was a roaring success. With trade winds from the east, Nepenthe hurtled through the last thousand miles of sea in hardly a week. In our final days, we finally discovered the lure that spoke to the fishes, and we hauled in not one but two hardy Skipjack Tuna, each one easily exceeding twenty pounds. Henry and I reeled, gaffed, brained, bled, gutted, cleaned and filleted the fish, referring gratefully to our handy manual Fishing for Cruisers, and then feasted for days on sushi, sashimi, ceviche and thick tuna steaks. They were delicious.

Looking back on the trip from dry land, I must admit that we were lucky. Our wind, more or less, was steady without being overpowering. Other boats made similar passages at similar times, and spend days bobbing about in a sea becalmed, or were blown wildly off course by breezes from unexpected quarters. And we managed to avoid any major natural or manmade mishaps, save the odd ropeburn– no gales, no violent squalls, no crewman tossed overboard– my gravest injury came while slicing an onion. So, for our good fortune, we thank King Poseiden, and commit a glass of rum to the sea for his enjoyment.

Likewise, the isolation of being at sea was not, for me, as psychologically taxing as one might suspect. A group of my more dubious friends evidently had a  sizable pool going as to when and whether I would lose my mind, but I’m happy to report that the doubters never came very close to winning their bets. As I mentioned in my previous post, given the limits of human perception, it wasn’t hard to engage in a little self-delusion over just how isolated we really were.

In a pre-departure post on this blog, I quoted the words of warning offered by my friend Lieutennant Livy Coe, who advised me to consider the fact that once you’re out at sea, “you can’t get off the boat.” Livy hit the nail on the head. Sailing is not a comfortable experience. The boat is constantly– constantly– pitching and rolling and yawing, sometimes violently, sometimes mildly, always unpredictably. Moving about the boat requires three points of contact, just sitting in the cockpit often requires holding on. And when the day is done, as Livy succinctly put, you can’t get off the boat. At best, you can stretch out in your bunk, brace yourself against the hull, and try to sleep; at worst, you’re up much of the night adjusting the sails in the wind, closing portholes against the rain, and eyeing the radar for oncoming squalls.

Tasks that require more than one hand tend to fall by the wayside. Bathing, for instance, becomes more of a weekly adventure than a daily routine. Taking a whiz, I found, required bracing my head against the wall; not once in four weeks did I succeed in zipping my fly within a respectable time frame. Cooking, in particular, I found to be an impossibility: as soon as you crack an egg into a bowl, the boat rolls, the bowl slides, and your egg is on the floor. The closest I came to truly losing my mind at sea was watching, ravenous, as an entire pot of freshly boiled pasta dumped all over the galley. Luckily for me and the rest of the crew, we had a talented and stalwart chef in Henry, who prepared most of our dinners with extraordinary panache. Which reminds me that I have yet to properly introduce my fellow sailors.

Henry is a friend and sometime roommate of mine, originally from Los Angeles, where he will soon return to wed his bride (Hi, Liz!) and matriculate at UCLA Law School. He is a very fine chef on both land and sea, and he brought the majority of the passion (and equipment) to our fishing operation. He has also an interesting proclivity for the extreme: he likes the bimini twist, because it is the strongest knot, bleach, because it kills absolutely everything, and Spectra, because it is the most unbreakable line.

John is our captain and the proud owner of Nepenthe. His eldest son, Keegan, is one of Henry’s closest friends. John is a lifelong sailor, and doing this trip has been a dream of his for years. He has spent much of his free time over the past three years rebuilding all the systems on the boat, so whenever anything has needed a fix, John, helpfully, has been able to identify and address the problem with remarkable technical facility. He is an actor by trade, and enjoys some degree of celebrity, I am told, for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ralph is an actor, computer guy, and Marxian economist from New York; he was John’s roommate about forty years ago. He seems to possess an inexhaustible repository of tales from past adventures: motorcycling across America, riding the roofs of jeepneys in the Philippines, doing battle with The Man in the late 1960s. Almost immediately upon our arrival on Hiva Oa, Ralph tumbled off a cliff, but managed to avoid injury except for a scrape on his hand. Make of that what you will.

And so with this crew I and sailed Nepenthe from California to Hiva Oa in 26 days. We arrived in Tahauku Bay in the early afternoon, and dropped our anchor among a dozen or so other yachts, which had all made similar passages. Around us, the island slopes up steep and green on all sides to a summit whorled in clouds. We stepped ashore, weaving and stumbling with legs of rubber, and wandered into this tropical island country, eyes agape and mouths hanging in awe.