Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is there a winery around here?

“We might be sleeping on the roof.”
“Yeah, it says right here that some people have had to sleep on the floors of tea houses, monasteries, and even on the roofs of hotels.”
I tried to picture someone laying on a corrugated tin roof, sloped at a thirty degree angle.  The image reminded me of those amusement park slides for children, where they go down in a potato sack. “Huh, well that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.”
Pagoda covered in gold leaf - Myanmar
We were reading up on Myanmar, trying to get organized.  Online travel forums were full of advice. The general consensus was that booking accommodations in advance was necessary, especially during the tourist high-season. I found this both surprising and annoying. I knew tourism was picking up in Myanmar, but needing reservations or risk sleeping on the roof??  Come on.  Something didn't make sense here.

There are a lot of stories of people having trouble finding a place to stay in Myanmar.  This is partly because the infrastructure for tourism hasn't kept up with the demand since international relations have improved in the past few years.  It's also true that only government-licensed hotels are allowed to have foreign guests, which may be making things more difficult.

But the hotel situation is just the tip of the iceberg if you want to start talking about things that don't make sense.  For starters, is the name of the country Myanmar or Burma?  Nobody can seem to agree.  The name Burma comes from the name Bama, the ruling (and largest ethnic) group in the country. The name Myanmar comes from the work Myanma, which is just the formal way to reference the Bama people in written word. Both names refer to the same group of people and are exclusive of the many minorities also living within the borders.

The controversy is multifaceted. When the military changed the official English name of the country to Myanmar, some people felt that recognizing the name meant recognizing an illegitimate government.  Other people have argued that Myanmar is a more inclusive name, but this of course doesn't make any sense. The argument can even be made that Myanmar is even more exclusive to ethnic minorities because they don't speak (nor read) the Bama language.  Myanmar then, is just another unfamiliar word from an already alienating government. But still, Myanmar is the name that the government calls themselves.  Major news organizations can't seem to agree on which is the appropriate name.  Even the U.S. government, which favors Burma, is at odds with  the United Nations, which favors Myanmar.  So take your pick.

Before we could worry about reserving accommodations, we had to sort out the visa situation and sift through the conflicting pieces of information floating around on the Internet. For example, some people claimed  that getting a visa on arrival was possible, others said that this program was canceled.  Another claim was that you needed a letter from your employer (and business cards) in order for the embassy to approve your application. Reports on processing time varied from a few days to a few weeks. There are also warnings for people who might work in the media or for a human-rights organization.  It's best to "change" your profession, at least for the visa application.

So straightforward answers on getting a visa are hard to come by. But what was true a year or even 6 months ago, may not be true any more. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the recent updates in banking. Planet Money, a favorite podcast of mine featuring stories about the global and domestic economy ran a few stories in May 2013, just 8 months before our arrival. Let me force you to read a few of their blog entries from the series.

Why (Almost) No One In Myanmar Wanted My Money
When you arrive in Myanmar, you can see how eager the people are to do business. At the airport in Yangon, new signs in English welcome tourists. A guy in a booth offers to rent me a local cellphone — and he's glad to take U.S. dollars. But when I pull out my money, he shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he says.

He points to the crease mark in the middle of the $20 bill. No creases allowed.

So I pull out another, which he rejects because it's a little bit faded, and a third, which he doesn't want because of a tiny tear, and a fourth, which he calls "not very acceptable" because of a little ink spot.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was largely closed to the world for decades. It's just getting used to the business of international currency exchange. And, like other countries that have gone through economic turmoil (Russia, Iraq, Argentina), Myanmar wants U.S. dollars to look like they just rolled off the presses.

When I start to ask people in Myanmar, they laugh and say they know it's crazy. But they've learned in their history that the last thing you can trust is an old piece of money.

You've probably heard about the human rights abuses under the former dictatorship in Burma. But the old government also used to screw with the money all the time. Officials would suddenly announce that certain denominations of the local currency were worthless. It would be like waking up to find that the $100 bill was worthless.

The old socialist government was worried that some people were getting rich, Zeya Thu, an editor with The Voice, told me. So without warning, they would take the largest denominations out of circulation.

When it happened in 1987, Zeya's parents were getting ready for retirement. They had just cashed out their life savings to buy a plot of land. They were in the room with the seller, about to buy the land, and the government came on the radio and said the bills were worthless.

The country's leader created new bills overnight in denominations that were multiples of nine — his lucky number. Zeya says the math of adding and subtracting 45s would give people headaches.

So people started to sock away their extra money in U.S. currency. And when your life savings is a few U.S. $100 bills, you want to keep them pristine. Like other people in Myanmar, my translator kept his U.S. bills pressed flat in the pages of a book. Like baseball card collectors, people in Myanmar want their bills in mint condition.

The banks in Myanmar could have solved this problem by accepting old U.S. currency. But for a long time they were cut off from U.S. banks by sanctions, so they didn't want the old bills, either.

As a result, visitors to Myanmar have to bring bills so crisp you can cut tomatoes with them. And bills that are less than perfect end up on the black market. I took my $20 bill with a tiny ink spot on it to a black-market money changer. He gave me $17.75 for it.
In A Single ATM, The Story Of A Nation's Economy
Nan Htwe Nye works at an elementary school in Yangon, Myanmar. She started trying to use ATM machines a few months ago, and things haven't been going so well. 
The machines are often broken, she says. "But," she adds, "we hope it will better in the future." This is, more or less, the story of ATMs — and of banking in general — in Myanmar.
She's visiting the headquarters of CB Bank, at the first ATM in the country that was connected to banks all around the world. 
The lobby of the bank is packed with people, many of whom have brought cash from their businesses in giant rice bags. One of the managers here, Zaw Myo Oo, says the customers all want to see the transaction on paper. 
Another room is all money counting machines, with cash piled in the corners like old newspapers. Burly guys lift bags onto their shoulders. 
This all-cash economy is one of the things that is holding back Myanmar's economy. The rest of the world no longer operates on rice sacks filled with paper money. For years, the managing director at the bank wanted to move into electronic banking. But, because there was international sanctions against the military dictatorship that was running the country, Visa and Mastercard wouldn't return his calls. 
The sanctions started to be lifted last year, and Mastercard started taking his calls. And late last year, CB Bank fired up the international ATM, complete with a generator to keep the machine running during Yangon's frequent power outages. Over the next few months, the bank installed dozens more machines, and other banks followed. 
But the people in Myanmar still don't trust the banks. During the era of the dictatorship, there were frequent runs on the banks, and corruption was widespread. "Sometimes you have to bribe the staff at the counter to get your money back," says Zeya Thu, a business columnist with a local paper. Numbers are hard to come by, but it's estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the people here have accounts. 
The people running CB Bank hope the new ATM prominently displayed outside their bank will help build that trust. Nan Htwe Nye, the woman who works at a local elementary school, actually seemed surprised when her money popped out of the machine.
"Today, it works," she said. "I'm lucky."
Myanmar's first international ATM didn't exist until November 2012.  This means that the latest publication of Lonely Planet, which came out in December of 2011, is hopelessly out of date. But even if you have done your homework and you know that the guidebook is obsolete, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. How prevalent are ATM's?  Do you have to be "lucky", as the Planet Money post suggests, in order to get cash out of the machine? If international banks are now doing business in Myanmar, does that mean that they will now accept damaged dollar bills? None of these questions have clear-cut answers.

The ATM's in Cambodia spit out U.S. currency (Cambodian currency is used for very small purchases).  So rather than take our chances with the Myanmar ATM's, we filled up on $100 bills and took any wrinkled/creased/blemished bills to the bank for an exchange.  The Cambodian bank tellers were quite understanding of our situation and happily gave us their best bills. But even coming into Myanmar with a fistful of dollar bills comes with some puzzling questions.  I had read that the official exchange rate was one-tenth of the black market exchange rate, meaning that if you were foolish enough to exchange money at the airport, you would be getting just a small fraction of the amount compared to exchanging it unofficially.

Things have changed though.  Official exchange rates are just as good as black market exchange rates.  ATM's are all over the place. Journalists can get a visa.  The hotel situation is not dire, I didn't spend a single night on a hotel roof.  There are still a lot of things that don't make sense, places you can't go, but traveling in Myanmar turned out to be relatively easy.

Yangon (aka Rangoon) is the country's largest city.  It's a weathered city that hasn't seen a lot of re-investment. "Drab" is probably the best adjective to describe the buildings, streets and sidewalks.  But the city is not without some charm.  Hole-in-the-wall cafes provide a place to get an intimate bowl of soup, street food is plentiful and people aren't afraid to smile.  Daily life happens on the street, vendors sell everything from air compressors to flowers.  If you need something sewn, there's a guy with a sewing machine.  If you need to make a call, there's a woman with her landline strung out to the street corner.
Yangon is also a city full of zombies. Chewing betel nut is a pervasive habit among most men.  The crushed seed, wrapped in leaves and combined with a limestone paste provides a mild stimulant. Over time, it rots gums and teeth, and turns the inside of your mouth a dark red. All this mouth gore and spitting is a sight right out of The Walking Dead.

If Yangon has a unique contribution to the nightlife culture, it would have to be tinsel. There are a handful of clubs on Yangon where you can get a drink and watch a karaoke show by the local talent. Tinsel is what you buy a girl when you like her performance, a monetary tip. When you buy tinsel, the girl gets a wear a glittering garland for the rest of her song. Exciting huh?  Afterwards, she'll come sit at your table for 10 or 15 minutes and keep you company.   If the girl is a favorite, a tinsel war might break out between tables, the winner going to the highest bidder.

A group of us went out to check out the local tinsel stars. The rooftop venues have an  inconspicuous street presence but were pleasant enough, though quite empty for a Friday night. The first thing I noticed was a complete lack of stage presence by any of the performers. I don't know, this may be indicative of a generation growing up without western music videos.  And while their outfits were sexy by Myanmar standards, some of the floral-print dresses would be more appropriate at church than at a nightclub. It was a bizarre experience.

We  picked a girl and flagged down the waiter.  When our girl came over to the table, she looked a little confused. We tried some basic conversation, but that didn't go very well. I think she was uncomfortable. So much for that.  We bounced to the next venue where a girl gave us smile during her performance, a small victory, so we bought her some tinsel. This girl's English was also terrible, but she seemed happy to be sitting with us.  Our friend Corey helped facilitate the conversation by asking questions through pictures on a napkin.  He wrote the name of the venue, followed by a happy face and a sad face.  She picked the happy face.
The girl on the left does not want to smile.
One of the peculiarities of traveling in Myanmar is the maddening bus schedule. Distances are not large, but the moving is slow and so most rides clock in at 8 to 12 hours. Getting around by bus is quite pleasant if it weren't for the insane arrival times, which are typically scheduled for 4 or 5am.  It's a terrible time to try to orient yourself in a new town, not to mention it reeks havoc on your sleeping schedule. The guide book mentions this quirk and gives the explanation that people can't afford to waste an entire day traveling between cities, and so the overnight bus is preferable. It also says that night travel helps prevent buses from overheating under the midday sun. Neither of these explanations are satisfying to me. The streets are dark and empty at 4 in the morning. The day doesn't start for another three hours.

The driver of our first bus ride must have good time because we pulled into a black parking lot at 3:45am. I had only been sleeping for two hours when the bus lights came on. I got off the bus and let my eyes adjust. The air had cold bite and my head was foggy. While retrieving my bag from the storage compartment under the bus I heard some funny animal noises behind me. I turned around and tried to work out whether there were any taxis available. There were no taxis, only horse-drawn carts. I had to rub my eyes to believe it, yep, two-wheeled horse carts. I wasn't in the mood for a cart ride, but I also wasn't in the mood to argue. We loaded up our bags and set off down the road into the dark night. As we click-clacked our way under a canopy of trees, my head began to clear and I had to smile at the situation. It was an unexpected moment. We arrived at a small, family-run hotel where a few men were milling about in winter parkas.  It's a funny sort of normal for these people, but at least we didn't' have to wake anybody up.
Myanmar Album
Situated on a great plain along the Irrawaddy river, Bagan was the home to a great civilization between the 9th and 13th centuries.  Over 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed here, of which more than 2000 are still standing.  Touring the pagodas means covering a lot of ground under a hot sun.  A motorbike would be perfect for getting around, but foreigners aren't allowed to drive motorbikes. I couldn't find a clear answer for the reasoning behind this but I heard that the government doesn't want to deal with the headache of dealing with injured tourists. Who knows.   Bicycles are available, but after dealing with sandy roads and a flat tire, I was over it.  The funny work-around for the law is to rent E-bikes, battery-powered bicycles. They mostly get the job done, but it seems silly to me.
Bagan  - Myanmar Album
Bagan - Myanmar Album
Bagan - Myanmar Album
The motorbike law in Bagan isn't nearly as insane as the one in Yangon, where all motorbikes are outright forbidden. This quirky law is because at some point, a bike ran into the car of a high government official, and boom, just like that, no more motorbikes.  But even this law doesn't compare to the time in 1970 when, overnight, the government switched what side of the road you were supposed to drive on. The country changed from driving on the left hand side of the road to the right side because the dictator had been advised by his astrologer to "move to the right". These facts of these stories, like so many others, are unverifiable.
 Myanmar Album
Moving further north into the minority-populated mountains is the opportunity to do some guided treks and homestays.  The most popular route takes you through 35 miles of dusty roads and trails, dotted with villages full of people who seem to happy that foreigners are passing through. We were lucky to get a good guide, full of sarcasm, and a group to match.
Trekking  - Myanmar Album
My favorite character was Miguel, from Italy. During our first day of walking, our group of 9 was busy making the usual introductions and small talk.  Miguel stayed near the head of the group, mostly talking to the guide. He was alone and no one had gotten to know him. His English wasn't proficient and he spoke with a very heavy accent. At dinner, we all sat huddled around a small table, eating by light of the fire and drinking beer.  Miguel declined any drink and said that normally he drinks, but his guru said that he should take 3 months to travel Asia without drinking, eating meat or having sex.  At this point, all conversation came to an abrupt halt.
"Wait a second, you have guru???"
"a-Yes.  My life.  It feels empty.  I a-met a-man.  He can show me the way."
"So, how did you meet him?"
"a-Just on the street. In Rome."
"And he told you to abstain from alcohol and travel Asia??"
"a-Yes.  He said. He will teach me tantric sex.  I can make a-love for a-six hours."
"Um. So does your guru charge money?"
"Ah-no. He is not allowed. He says after 3 months of no sex, he will begin my training."
Silence.  At this point, everyone was looking at everyone else.
"a-Yes, when I return, my guru will find me a partner for my training. It will be very good."
At this point, we are all trying to be open-minded to this person whom we just met. Here is a guy trekking through Myanmar by himself, on a journey that nobody has access to.  You never know who you are going to meet while traveling.
Trekking home stay - Myanmar Album
The next day Sabrina was walking with Miguel and asked him again about his guru.
"Oh. I do not a-have a guru. I was just a-making a joke."
"What?!  I thought you were serious?"
"Should I a-tell the rest of the a-group that I was just a-joking?"
Sabrina, self-conscious of her gullibility said, "No, I'm sure everyone knows."
Nobody did know. When it finally came to light, a few in the group were not so amused, I thought it was hysterical.

The next night we were up late telling stories around the campfire, drinking rice wine, and the conversation found its way into confessing the most outrageous place to have had sex.  One girl, Jenny, copped to having sex in the library, which she immediately regretted sharing. The night continued on while a few bottles of trekking whiskey were emptied.  The next morning we woke with the sun and the roosters, nobody feeling good. The first thing out of Miguel's mouth, "a-Jenny.  a-Last night.  I wait for you in the library." Pure gold.

Our raunchy group aside, trekking really was a great experience.  The people along the way were nothing but kind and gracious.  When we arrived in a village, the children all wanted to play and the adults where welcoming.  Finding places in the world where people are living outside of the modern economic engine is not an easy thing to do and it's humbling to be on the recieving end of their generosity. Sabrina returned the favor by bringing a bag of candy for the kids and few colored pens for the older kids.  These small tokens went a long way in bringing some big smiles.
Excited for a pen  - from Myanmar Album
We continued on with our merry band of trekking companions to Inle lake, a picturesque region of fishing communities and handicraft artisans. Bicycling is a wonderful way to take in the sights and when we heard the was a winery in the area, we had to go.  After some sight-seeing we looked at our inadequate map and tried to figure out the best route to the winery. After making at least one wrong turn we stopped at an a rural intersection and again tried to orient ourselves.  A local man saw our puzzlement and came over to help, despite his poor English. Someone piped up, "Uh, excuse me, is there a winery around here??"  Crickets.

I know that this is one of those "you had to be there" situations, but trust me, if you could see where we were, in the middle of this poverty-ridden southeast Asian country, it's a ridiculous question to be asking. After another overnight bus into an even more rural state, we signed up for another three-day trek.  Upon arriving in a village, we would turn and ask ourselves, "Is there a winery around here?" That joke never got old.
Inle Lake - Myanmar Album
Inle Lake -  Myanmar Album
Our second trek was with a smaller group and much more physically demanding.  Every few hours our guide would describe the upcoming terrain.  "Up, up, up. Plat, plat. Down, down down." It was interesting seeing the villagers reactions to us the further we got along.  The villages accustomed to foreigners on the first day would eagerly greet us.  By the third day, it was mostly looks of confusion.  Each village seemed to have their own dialect and our guide would have to give us the new word for "hello" as we went along.  It felt like we were walking back in time.

The most vivid memory I have is when we trudging up the side of the mountain on a narrow path and we turned the corner to come upon a few dozen people working to put in a new road, using nothing but hand tools. Men, women and children were all helping with the back-breaking work.  Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, but I all I could think about was being thankful for not being in their position.  It's good to be reminded to put life into perspective every now and again.

Portraits from Myanmar:

Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album
Myanmar Album

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