By Agata Ko
Charley is a young, blonde Argentinian guy that Rafa had met in Laos a few weeks ago. He came with us to Burma. So there we were, the three of us, at the airport of the old capital: Rangoon. In the queue for passport control we met a Burmese woman who was around fifty, I guessed. She was very beautiful and had a genuine expression on her face. She told us to make sure that we had at least ten dollars each, in cash, when we left, because a tax is charged to leave the country. “And change your money on the black market”, she continued, “there you will get a better price. The Scots market is a good place but I don’t know how it is called nowadays because the government has changed all the names. Take good care with the food, eat just what has been cooked in front of you, and don´t drink any water, just bottled.”, she told us. “If you need the Internet, go to 50th Street Bar, on 50th street here in Rangoon, but be aware of surveillance and monitoring. Pictures are taken every five minutes while you are online.” We remembered Andrea telling us the same thing. She is the founder of Tourism Transparency (http://www.tourismtransparency.org/), a NGO situated in Chiang Mai, and gave us a little introduction to Burma´s situation before we left. I was sure: I should not write anything and post it online, everything I wrote would be saved on my hard drive and I would not write in public. I thought to myself that maybe I was getting a bit too paranoid, but it was better that rather than ending up in jail because of writing an honest book about this interesting but ever so crazy country.
I asked the woman what she was doing here, if she came on vacation. “Yes, I come to visit my father”, she replied, “it is his 90th birthday. I left Burma eleven years ago and came back after ten. Last year was the first time that I had returned to my country.” “Why did you never visit before?” I asked, surprised. “It was all very sad for me,” she said. “The people here are totally oppressed by the government so I decided not to see it anymore. Everybody works so hard and still gets nothing. When they might finally get a little something, after years of work, it is too late because by then they are tired or ill. I didn’t want to see all that. There is no way out of the system here and it makes me so sad to know that nothing can be done, so I decided to stay away.” We looked at this woman and felt sorry for her. She was telling us her story with dignity but had such a look of disappointment on her face. “Actually, if there was someone listening to what I just told you guys, I would go to prison immediately” was the last thing she told us, and then it was her turn to face passport control.
We stepped out of the airport and a depressing heat and humidity came upon us. The air was overpoweringly full with the singing of birds and it looked like it would soon rain. A young man came towards us, asking where we wanted to go. As he found out, we didn’t know yet so he tried to persuade us to go to a hostel called the Mother Land Inn. This name sounded very much like government propaganda to us, and we couldn’t decide. I saw a bus and told the boys we should take it and go into the center at least. In the bus, we realized it was the private transport of the Mother Land Inn and the same guy who had been telling us about it said we had to pay three dollars for the ride if we didn’t stay there. The journey was quite long and on the way the bus drove past many of the tourist sights of the city, if not all of them. By the time we arrived at the Mother Land Inn it was already dark so we decided to stay there. A room with three beds was eight dollars per person, which according to what we had heard was the standard price. As we checked in it started to rain heavily but afterwards we took our umbrellas and went out to explore the city in the rain, by night. It was hard to believe that this is one of their biggest cities. The infrastructure was bad. Some areas had no pavements, bricks and stones here and there and all was flooded. Most of the buildings had ripped off paint, some had no windows and others without any inhabitants, so the place looked abandoned. By daytime we could see even more how faded this city was, that until 2005 remained the capital of Burma and nowadays still was the biggest city. An interesting contradiction to all we had seen is, that Rangoon, as well known as Yangon (this name was officially given to the city in 1988), means ¨End of strife¨. Tommy, an Irish traveller I met later said it had something ¨postapocalyptic¨, and I agreed.
From time to time we walked by little tea shops with just a few small, plastic tables and chairs, that had tea cups and thermos flasks on the tables. They were as small as the tables and chairs that little children use in the garden in Europe. I guess they are cheaper than full size ones. Or maybe it is because in Burma, you should lower your head when you pass by someone, so therefore your head should always be below others as a way to be polite.
We were hungry, with no local currency and it was getting late, so Rafa proposed we should change some money at least. We knew you should change money on the black market, so we didn´t want to change it all now, at once. By the time we had some Burmese Kyat the places to eat were shutting down. We hurried up, and luckily could still get some pancakes and corn. The pancakes were thick, round, bread like things made from a lot of eggs and flour. They were served with grated coconut and were very tasty. We still had to walk a long way to reach the hotel, so we stopped at a teashop on the way. They had food there that reminded us of Spanish Churros (flour in a finger shape, fried). I was the brave one, ready to taste new things. I liked them and ordered four more. There were at least eight people working in the place. Three of them were young boys aged maybe eight to ten, and four girls between fourteen and seventeen. One woman was there too. It was really sad, as the woman at the airport had told us, to see children working late at night in a country that has huge amounts of gas, oil, jade, gold and wood, that are sold to its big, strong neighbours: China, India and Thailand. The oil and gas reserves are worth billions. The timber and jade are sold to China, Thailand and Singapore, where they are manufactured into furniture or jewelry for export. And Burma is world´s second Opium and Heroin exporting country after Afghanistan. In early 2008 India signed a contract to develop the Burmese port of Sittwe, to be better able to get at the oil reserves in the Bay of Bengal. The cost of this project is around $100 million while the oil is worth many billions more. China will pay for the construction of a huge highway to Burma from Kunming, in south western China, to the Rakhaing seaport near Kyuakphyu in the Bay of Bengal. China will then have better access to international trade routes.
So, where does all this unimaginably huge amount of money go to?
To read more about Agata's journey, which is to be published in a book, check out http://thejourney32.wordpress.com/