Making a home in Myanmar: Bemidji native Ara Lester talks about life in one of the world’s most isolated countries
By brandon Ferdig, Special to the Pioneer
MINNEAPOLIS – Ara Lester came to Bemidji when he was 12 – and he was already well-traveled.
The son of an Air Force pilot had lived in Maine, Oklahoma, Alabama, and England. His family did settle for a while in Bemidji, however, where Lester went to high school, attended Bemidji State University, and earned a degree in history.
After graduation Lester wanted to get back on the road.
“I wanted a job that would pay me to travel,” he wrote me in our email interview. Knowing the demand for English teachers, he worked four and a half years teaching English in South Korea before landing in Myanmar where he’s taught social studies at an international school for the last two years.
Chances are, you know little about this Southeast Asian country. But that’s not necessarily because you didn’t pay attention in high school geography.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been cut off from much of the world in recent years with their dictatorial rule and economic sanctions given them from the Western world.
Lester lives in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, and with more than 4 million residents, it is the commercial and cultural hub. He and his wife – whom he met in South Korea – have a four-bedroom apartment in a central Yangon neighborhood surrounded by colonial-style architecture. Lester’s dwelling, though, isn’t typical.
In a country as poor as Myanmar, an English teacher is a solid middle-class career.
When asked about poverty, he wrote, “it’s everywhere.” Most residents live in brick, four-five story tenement housing. There is a massive group of working poor, said Lester, and that “even for a ‘good’ job you are only earning $2-300 per month.”
Those working in the many clothes factories make about $15 each month, he said, adding that most of the 60 million people in Myanmar live outside the cities as subsistence farmers.
Out in the rural areas, though, is also where Myanmar’s best kept secrets lie.
“Some of the best, most unspoiled beaches left in the world are on the Andaman Sea, and I go every chance I get,” Lester wrote. He also takes his students out for a week-long hike in northern Shan state – “an area that looks a lot like Minnesota, strangely enough,” he wrote.
Getting around the country is half the battle.
“The road network, while extensive, is very primitive. It can take 10 hours to go 100 miles at times,” Lester wrote. Nonetheless, he encourages people to “fly on in. It’s a wonderful country, beautiful, with incredible people.”
And because of British colonialism, language isn’t as big a barrier as you might suspect.
“Most people speak decent English…even the street kids are very good at English,” Lester wrote.
Lester, though, isn’t a tourist anymore, and life in a Burmese city comes with the good and bad.
“It is a dirty place, I am not going to lie, but not without its charms. I have mango and banana trees all around me, many outdoor markets, and lots of small businesses. Veggies and locally grown food is very cheap,” he wrote.
Some things, however, are egregiously expensive. Lester shared, “SIM cards are over $200, and to get very slow, very unreliable Internet installed in your home is about $1,000.”
Lester uses the pokey Internet at his school.
“Life is really improving though,” he said. “Prices are coming down on certain things, and there is much more freedom. When I first moved to Burma you could not say Aung San Suu Kyi’s (the Nobel Laureate’s) name. Now they sell her T-shirts everywhere. There is a feeling of hope that was not here before. Western businesses are flying into Burma in record numbers, and we talk about it like the Wild West.”
And though in the minority, Lester isn’t lonely.
“My close friends, funny enough, include lots of people from Minnesota and lots of people who went to the University of Minnesota and Mankato State.”
With them he plays golf, Frisbee, softball, and volleyball.
“There are also tons of groups for everything from salsa dancing to writing groups. I have everything I need and a great life.”
Once in a while, Lester makes it back to Bemidji. He spent the better part of this past July visiting his mother.
“I love coming home. It’s clean here, really clean, and people are nice, really nice, and the roads, the massive roads and huge houses,” he wrote. “There is nothing like it in the rest of the world.”
Considering all the drastic differences, though, the little things can also be quite pronounced. Of the American diet, he said, “The staggering amount of cheese that is eaten – where are all the cows being kept?”