A good friend reminded me recently, very directly as only a good friend can do, I should play to my strength. My typical travel blog posts are normally more observations of the land and culture held up to the mirror of my own preconceived notions and bias. Often a true story is thrown in to highlight the observations.
First thing I noticed about Myanmar is how amazingly nice the people are and how many of them are dressed traditionally. I arrived in Yangon the first week of February with the US inauguration still burning brightly in the background. As a black American, the United States isn’t making me feel exactly welcome at the moment so I’m hypersensitive to any real or perceived racial slights. Looking back on the 8 days I spent in Myanmar, not once was I made to feel, less. Where in the US, black people are protesting that we matter. Not are BETTER, not even EQUAL, but that we MATTER. Add the rise of anti-Semitism and the Muslim ban and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking the US has rolled up the welcome mat and used it as kindling to set fire to the Reichstag. In Myanmar, it felt different. Unfortunately, I can’t say normal because that now involves very real intense moments of racism that can lead to violence. Not only the US, other countries have seen a spike as well. That’s why India is temporarily removed from my travel list. Myanmar isn’t free from its own racial problems. I only speak about my personal experience. Think more Alistair Cooke Letters from America and less Trip Advisor.
Minimum I always try to learn two words or phrases in a new country, a greeting and thank you. In some languages it’s easier to remember than others. In Myanmar, it was extremely easy because most locals would greet you in Burmese and say thank you after any interaction, small or insignificant. It wasn’t a language challenge to see if you made the effort. It felt more like, welcoming a visitor and hello is too limited to express their pleasure you chose to visit their country so Min Gelaba! Regardless of the location or time, Min Gelaba! I loved it! Made me feel extremely welcome. Maybe that’s how the American South charms first time visitors, a well placed, “Howdy!”, “How ya’ll doin!?” or “Hey suga!” might have endeared more than a billboard or TV spot ever has.
Yet, I questioned the authenticity of the friendliness after a few days. There wasn’t a tangible fakeness like I encountered in Morocco from shop owners denied a sale. I noticed it more on the periphery. For example, on the Inle Lake boat tour we passed a primary school directly on the river banks. The children were doing typical children things, laughing, joking, on their phones, etc. None of the children paid any attention to the other boats full of locals. When our boat became clearly visible, one older female student quickly stood with a long thin tree branch in her hand, what black people would call a switch. She smacked it hard on the ground twice and every school child immediately stopped mid everything, tag, homework, Facebook, jump rope, everything and began smiling and waving to our boat chanting in a sing songy voice, Min Gelaba! I observed similar scenes on my slow train ride from Inle Lake to Kalaw, a parent or elder bringing a child’s attention to a tourist and the child smiling, waving and greeting you. If you were in visual site, even at a distance the same routine. That coupled with the “fake” Inle Lake fishermen and the Padaung tribe sisters makes me think either the government put out a decree of some sort, or the people as a collective understand how life changing tourism can be. It’s subtle, but it’s evident.
This leads me to another observation, it’s extremely safe in Myanmar. My Spidey sense NEVER once flashed danger. First country it never happened. I Googled crime statistics against tourists in Myanmar and couldn’t find any official numbers. I did find that the penalty for crimes against a tourist by locals STARTS at 5 years in prison. A Burmese local pickpockets you or any other typical petty tourist crimes, 5 years. F*ck! If the crime caused bodily injury, minimum sentence jumps to 10 years. What!? In Germany, murderers can get 15 years and in Myanmar ripping a camera off a fat American tourist’s arm can get you 10??!! Talk about a deterrent! Excessive, but no denying it’s effective. I wonder if that has anything to do with Burmese people German like punctuality? That surprised the HELL out of me! In the Philippines, no mode of transportation was ever on time, Never ever everevereverever on time. Same in Costa Rica and Italy. In Myanmar, if the time stated 6:45 departure, then everything was loaded up and ready to go at 6:40 with the bus or train idling so as soon as the clock ticked 6:45, VRROOOOOOM! Pick up for a tour? It said 10am pickup then you should be ready and downstairs waiting at 9:50am because they will be waiting wondering where you are sending out a search party. For all I know, it might be a 2 year prison sentence for tardiness! I might have been putting someone’s freedom in jeopardy running on CP time!
A quick story. First day in Bagan I decided to rent an Electric scooter. Can’t remember the exact time, but closer to dinner than breakfast. I was told the battery would last for at least 6 hours. Twelve is the maximum, but it wasn’t a fully charged battery. Sharing the scooter was obviously cheaper than renting alone. An attractive young German woman was asking for one at the same time, I was as charming as one could be speaking German and she accepted my offer to share. Sweet! The initial plan was find a temple to watch the sunset with other tourists. Believe there was about 90 minutes until the sunset, more than enough time to find a temple and shamelessly flirt. Yeah… no. In my defence I followed the directions of the navigator and Google maps and we ended up only God knows where. I joked about 45 minutes into the trip, “I think we’re about to see a ‘Welcome to Thailand’ sign soon.” Just then I noticed the scooter noticeably losing power. Uh oh. F*ck the sunset, we both thought it wiser to turn around immediately and head back. The battery had other plans. I think we got another kilometer before it died. Six hours my black a$$!!
Didn’t even get ONE! Bastards! So yeah, I’m stuck on the side of the road with an inoperable electric scooter and a woman who is starting to get more panicky the darker it gets. So, dead scooter, stressed out German and a black guy on the side of the road as the sun is setting in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I mean whoever invented the term “bumf*ck Egypt” could’ve just as easily used Myanmar because that’s where we were. We couldn’t hitchhike as I didn’t want to risk the scooter not being there when I returned. In the end, the people of Myanmar came to the rescue. A minivan eventually stopped to ask what was wrong. We explained the situation and we decided it was best for one to stay with the scooter and the other go to the hotel to get help. The minivan had a high women to men ratio which made me think it was safe for a single German female. I also thought, if they are kidnappers they are smart to get her to go because no way a Trump administration is negotiating for the release of a black American. That meant however I was left alone. Very soon dusk became night. Because it was a road in the middle of nowhere, no street lights and very few passed by. It was blacker than a muthafucca out there! No lie, I was scared. I’m a city boy so all those weird animal and insect sounds weren’t comforting. Of course everything sounded more menacing because I was in a foreign country. I know Florida monsters well, I’ve grown accustomed to German monsters, but Myanmar Monsters?? What are their weaknesses? Are they biters or slashers? Do they roar or do they use silent stealth? Yeah so.. I did the only thing I could do and posted on Facebook. Hey! I told you I’m a city boy! Then I figured I’d make it easier for them to find my half eaten body and push the bike as far as I could. Maybe 20 minutes later 3 guys on motorcycles passed me going over a hill. They passed so quickly I didn’t have time to flag them down. Oh well… I pushed the scooter over the hill, and the three guys were waiting for me. My first thought was, kidnappers! Then I remembered again Trump is the president and quickly relaxed. Even in Myanmar they have to know black people are just trying to matter. Matter people! We just want to matter! The guys seeing they couldn’t do anything about the battery decided to wait with me to see if help returned. They called the hotel for me to make sure someone was coming, explained where I was to the hotel to make it easier for them to find me, they even helped me push it to a small gas station about 2 kilometers further. THEN, the three bought me something to drink and eat. Seriously?! They refused my money when I offered to pay and bought me something to eat and drink?!? I ruined their evening plans and they’re buying me food and drink?? FUNomenal. Simply FUNomenal.
In the end, the hotel did send someone to pick up me and the scooter, attractive German woman even came with them! She said her trip to the hotel was the same in the minivan. They drove her all the way to the hotel, wouldn’t accept anything less and refused to accept any money. Either the nicest people… or were terrified they’d be sentenced to 5 years hard labor for leaving tourists stranded, I don’t know. But I’m going to go with the first option. Only one story, but my 8 days are filled with encounters with locals that left me amazed how quickly and effortlessly they made me feel welcomed and that I.. mattered.
Epilogue: Hotel charged me a 5,000 kyat fee for taking the scooter out of a 45 kilometer radius around the hotel. They never said there was such a radius and the radius wouldn’t have been an issue if the damn battery had lasted longer than 1 hour! That’s only about $4 but still! Bastards!