I almost arrived in Myanmar with only a pair of underwear and a book on tigers. This was likely payback for all the people who begged us not to take this trip and all the reasons they threw at us in attempts to derail this journey, many years in the making.
Guilt: “Think of the children (meaning our children, who we were abandoning for 10 days)
Distraction: “Atlantic City is so nice this time of year.”
More guilt: “What if Grandma dies while you’re away?”
Moral authority: “How can you give money to that government?”
Fear of crippling disease and social isolation: “You’ll get rabies, and I’m not going to be your friend when you’re foaming at the mouth and chewing on your left arm.”
The moment I realized that I might spend my first day in Myanmar bartering my book and underwear for a pair of pants was about midway through our sprint through the Toronto airport, a desperate attempt to catch the second of our seven flights during this more than forty hour journey. Jess looked at me, and told me to go on without her to the gate. I think I saw a tear in her eye (or was it sweat?). But now I was in the zone, weaving between people, carts, and slow bag rollers. I wanted to believe that my bag was traveling this airport just as quickly and with as great an effort as I was. I imagined a line of Canadian bag handlers, spaced at approximately 400 meters, racing against the clock to ensure safe passage for my Burma-destined bags. If I glanced over my shoulder, I would see them handing off the bags in quick succession. I would smile, and they would smile back. We shared that moment and this effort, and I’m glad that the Canadian bag handlers and I were working as one. But it was not to be. My bag was not holding its own in the race against time, and when we arrived in quick, sweaty succession on board flight 824 to Heathrow, I found myself wishing I had packed more than a pair of underwear and a book on tigers for the flight.
Perhaps this would be my first opportunity to spend some of the perfectly crisp, post-2006 non-CB serial coded US one hundred dollar bills I had worked so hard to acquire.
* * *
Myanmar is still essentially a cash economy, with ATMs and credit cards having only been accepted at a handful of places for less than a year. Add to this a culture and government steeped in superstition, where fortune tellers and auspicious events can determine the value or existence of currency. Take for example, the decades-long dictatorship of Ne Win. In 1987, believing 9 to be his lucky number (per his preferred astrologer), Win issued new base-9 currencies: 45- and 90-kyat notes. Turns out that 90 was a lucky number: Win was arrested at the age of 90. Oh well. Cultural practice, corrupt and whimsical leadership, and decades of foreign isolation have put incredible value on dependable forms of foreign currency. But it isn’t just that US dollars are held in high regard. In particular, the Burmese want American hundreds in mint condition, printed after 2006 (it is believed that pre-2006 are easier to counterfeit), and with serial codes that do not begin with “CB” (again, this is believed to be a marker of counterfeit bills). Therefore, in the week prior to our trip, I went on a quest for mint-conditioned, post-2006, non-CB coded hundred dollar bills.
On that Tuesday afternoon, I approached the counter of our local bank in Flourtown, PA and handed the teller a withdrawal slip. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I have a strange request. I’m going to need that money in crisp, post-2006 hundred dollar bills.” I’m pretty sure she gave me the stinkeye. “You see, I’m traveling to Myanmar,” I continued.
“Where?” she snapped back.
“As I was saying, I’m traveling to Mya- Burma – and I hear that the generals there are particular about the type and condition of their bills. So I’m going to need those hundreds in mint-condition – no tears, writing, bends, or bent corners. Is that okay?”
At that moment, Joe the bank manager came over to investigate the transaction that was gumming up the works of his teller queue.
“This guy is going to Burma. He needs hundred dollar bills.”
“But not just any hundreds,” I interjected. “I need the best ones you have. And post-2006, too.”
Joe looked at me, unenthused. “Sir, could you please step into my office?”
We entered his office, and he shut the door. Before he could say anything, I just started talking, repeating the whole story about the generals, auspicious events, and currencies that added up to nine. I think I had him at the nines – he’s probably a numbers guy.
“Why the hell are you going to Burma, anyway?” He quipped, letting down his guard. “Why don’t you just go to Atlantic City or something?”
At that he left the room. He returned carrying a stack of hundreds. “Okay, let’s see what we can do.”
Over the next 20 minutes, we sifted through hundreds, examining bends, rips, and scribbles, while joking about superstitious generals, summer travel, and Burmese pythons. We managed to put together a stack of bills that nearly met the criteria, and he encouraged me to check with another bank up the street. Somewhere, in the heat of the monsoon season, a Burmese general smiled.
* * *
Three flights later, we arrived in Yangon and, much to our surprise, so did our bags. After a moment of celebration – no one really wanted to see me in a Burmese longyi – we headed to the Yangon domestic terminal, the largest in Myanmar, and to the second of its two departure gates.
Myanmar’s airlines do not have a good reputation. Many are the pet projects of generals or connected officials, and their safety records are spotty at best (yes, mom, I’m telling you this now). In December, 2012, for example, an Air Bagan flight crashed after the pilot mistook a road for the runway. 11 were injured, and 2 were killed, including a man on a bicycle (read more here). It was rumored that he refused to turn in his old currency for new, lucky 45 and 90 kyat notes.
* * *
One week before the trip, I was at the travel clinic getting ready for whatever I might encounter in Myanmar.
“Where are you going?” the nurse asked me.
“Oh, Burma. That’s right, let me check my notes. You’ll need a typhoid shot, malaria pills, and some medicine for travelers’ diarrhea. Oh, and rabies is particularly bad there, so don’t pet puppies or monkeys. If one of them scratches you, you’ll have 24 hours before it’s too late. I’m not joking.”
“Roger that. No puppies or monkeys. What about the water buffalo?”
“Why would you touch a water buffalo?”
“I don’t know, but I want to be prepared.”
“Don’t touch the water buffalo.”
“In fact, you shouldn’t touch anything there. You realize that Burma doesn’t have any modern medical facilities, right? I had a gentleman in here a few weeks ago. He’s married to a Burmese woman and travels there every few years to visit her family. He said that when he gets sick, he visits the local shaman. The shaman diagnoses him, mixes up something special, and he drinks it. Says it works every time.”
I could see it now. Overcome with fatigue and suffering from some mysterious jungle ailment that had proven itself out of Advil’s league, I was desperate. Without access to hospitals or mastery of the Burmese tongue, Jess threw my weakened self onto an empty rice sack and dragged me down a long and winding dirt path to the local shaman. The shaman poked and prodded me and after a few minutes of sensing my aura, told Jess that she would have to head into the mountains in search of a rare, 3-legged speckled tree lizard. Without that lizard, there was nothing he could do to save me. Devoted and determined, Jess took her backpack and walking stick and headed into the wilderness.
Three days later, she returned, bruised and dirtied, but with a three-legged speckled tree lizard in the Velcro side pocket of her backpack. She cradled my head. I mustered the strength to whisper, “I love you.” It was a joyful moment, one quickly broken by the shaman clearing his throat.
“Ahem. I’m sorry, but for treatment, I only accept mint-conditioned American currency. These bills you’ve offered are far too wrinkled and soaked with sweat to be of any value to me. Best of luck to you both.
“OR,” the nurse said with authority, breaking me from my shaman-trance, “you can buy medical evacuation and repatriation insurance. You know, just in case.” And I did. For forty bucks, I could rest assured that if I came down with typhoid, bloody flux, or was hit by a car (or by a plane while on my rental bike), someone would come to help me. That is, if we could figure out a way to call them and if our dollar bills had not been damaged in the accident.
* * *
With a gut-wrenching acceleration and lift-off, we were finally airborne on Myanmar Airlines. Forty minutes later, we all too quickly descended again. Add in a little rainy season turbulence, and this ride was more terrifying than I had hoped. The runway came quickly and the brakes came hard, and I envisioned the two pilots high-fiving each other for having broken another personal record for descent time. Once the plane came to a screeching halt, the Musak was turned on, ostensibly to help calm the nerves of passengers before the next takeoff. I tried to recall the words to “Never Gonna Dance Again,” and reminded myself that no matter what, the repatriation of my remains had been accounted for. Flight attendants made their way through the cabin instructing the remaining passengers to unbuckle their seatbelts for a reason I have yet to figure out. Maybe for added thrill and terror? Having been told to unbuckle while on the ground in Mandalay, I forgot to rebuckle for the next leg – the final leg of this more than forty hour journey – to Bagan.
We got off the plane and walked across the tarmac to retrieve our bags. Just outside the gate (the only gate) we were met by a line of smiling military officials.
“Welcome to Myanmar. Tourist fee, please. Ten dollars.
I handed them a mint-conditioned, post-2006 non-CB-coded US one hundred dollar bill. The three of them huddled over it, inspecting its corners, colors, and conditions.