Something we all can do for the people of Burma (erm, Myanmar?)

I just met an American guy called Grady at our guest house who has been in here in Yangon for 6 days. He’s been poking around, trying to find a way to help. Unfortunately, there are very few options. White people are simply not allowed to have anything to do with anything.

But there is some quite good news for Burma (according to Grady) – in the short term and perhaps even in the long term. Groups of young people in Yangon and around are extremely frustrated with the government’s lack of action and downright corruption when it comes to helping the victims of the typhoon. They have been meeting in secret, forming task forces to go to the nearby delta region to do small, simple, but much-needed tasks: giving out tarps, water, food, construction material, and so on. They’re using their own money to buy supplies, rent boats and trucks, and doing the work of relief organizations themselves. There’s no red tape or delay to making things happen: if a group of monks need $5000 to buy tarps for a town, the groups gives it to them.

For me, it’s heartening to hear of self-organized political (not to mention humanitarian) action in a country where the people seem to either be unaware or feel disempowered to take any action against the regime here.

The one thing we can all do to help these kids – who are definitely putting themselves in danger – is to donate money. If you care to, visit and give what you can. Note that the site may not seem legit to you, but it’s deliberately vague so as to not draw any unwanted government attention to these groups.

Grady says he’s spoken with quite a few of these groups. They report that the situation is awful – dead bodies are still floating around in rivers, doctors fear the worst – cholera, malaria, worse. Meanwhile, Official Myanmar TV broadcasts sanitized video of cheerful “victims” in well-tended shelters cheering generals who pass out packets of biscuits. The youth groups mock these “show camps.” Kids, this is 1984.

As for the victims themselves, unlike Katrina victims in the States, they had absolutely no expectations that the government would do anything for them. So they’re not angry. They’re just trying to put their lives back together. Incredible.

And finally, the government: evidently the generals are confiscating all food aid (sometimes including from these youth groups!) selling the high-quality rice and other food to the highest bidder, and passing along low-grade stuff to the victims. Not surprising at all, but still terrible to hear of *actual* Burmese people *actually* witnessing these actions.

Back to the kids for a moment: I see them all the time at internet cafes, emailing on Yahoo and chatting on GTalk with friends around the world. They’re learning a different story of how the world works from what their parents know. Perhaps this typhoon, tragedy that it was and still will be, may be a catalyst for future political action. I hope!

Speaking of which, one more story about politics: For those (most) of you who don’t know, May 10th half the country voted in a sham referendum to essentially rubber-stamp an absurd “constitution” that the Burmese government concocted to give people “civil rights.” I won’t go into its craziness here – just Google it if you’re interested. But Grady told me a tour guide told him that, on the day of the election, he was away from home. A group of local police came to his house and forced his mother, an elderly, uneducated and therefore manipulable person, that she had to vote YES for *the entire household* right then and there, in front of the police. She had no choice but to do it. So the tour guide, who had wanted to vote NO, cast a YES vote cast for him by his mother, under duress.

I’ve got all sorts of other political blustering I’ve been saving up from my travels here, but I’ll save those for some evening at the Stoned Crow when I can be well lubricated by Mr. JW Black.

Back in Yangon

Well, we made it back to Yangon in one piece, despite another brutal bus trip. The road from Bagan to Yangon is one of the main thoroughfares in Myanmar, yet it’s barely wide enough for two busses or trucks to pass going in opposite directions (they both have to slow down and at least one vehicle must drive half in the shoulder), at least 3/4 of it is unpaved, and it’s filled with dangerous crater-like holes that the drivers inch must their way around. Best of all, last night’s bus would periodically start making duck-like noises (!) requiring the driver to pull over and allow a cadre of flashlight-weilding men to crawl beneath the engine and shout at each other for a while. Needless to say, the 15-hour bus trip actually took 18 hours. Christ amighty.

As for Yangon itself, if you didn’t know a typhoon had hit the city, you’d have trouble guessing. Sure, there are a fair share of trees knocked down – even some giant 3-meter thick oak-like trees, ripped from the ground by their very roots. And a lot of electricity poles have been bent in half or thrown quite a distance, trailing their wires behind them to be tangled in the branches of the trees along the side of the road. But we’ve seen very little damage to buildings, and life here seems to have gotten back to normal…in full force. There are Myanmar and Indian women cooking street food on every corner. The sidewalks – where they’re fairly even –  are filled with tea shops, fruit stands, parked trucks, the occasional beggar, etc., so we have to walk in the street. The old male money-changers and young ragged postcard-sellers still follow us around and harass us to trade their goods for dollars (in a non-threatening way). It’s pretty much what you’d expect.

One interesting note is that, upon crossing into Yangon county, we had to go through some sort of passport-control-like inspection. Our bus had to pull over and everyone was instructed to get out. A skeletal old man dressed in an MP-like uniform that was 2 sizes too big demanded our IDs/passports, which he examined with an extraodinarily unpracticed eye. He looked at the *Ghana* visa on my passport, the Myanmar visa on Marjan’s, and only at the photo page for the man from Hong Kong (the only other foreigner on our bus). Clearly he had been deputized out of retirement from some other business. Anyway, we had to go through the whole rigamarole: walk about 50 meters down the road while some inspector dude checked out the bus and its luggage, and then wait for the driver to pull the bus up to us so we could get back on. It would have been amusing, if I hadn’t just suffered through (at the time) 16 hours on the bus with no end in sight.

To be quite honest, I’ll be relieved to get out of here. As I mentioned before, the people are *lovely*. But it’s extremely hard to travel here, and other than interacting with the Burmans themselves there’s very little payoff for all the work: the food pretty much sucks, there are only so many pagodas you can stomach, and…how shall I put this: Nothing’s beautiful about the country (again, excluding the people). The grey weather isn’t helping matters, nor did all the excitement and distraction with the typhoon. The trip has devolved into “how to get out.” Anyway, I had been expecting to love it here, but I can say that I’m leaving with mixed feelings.

All that said, I feel like I’ve posted practically nothing about my time here. So (having found a decent internet cafe, and since it’s raining outside, and since I’ve got a long wait at Bangkok airport tomorrow) I’m going to write a series of posts entitled: What the hell have you been doing?



Should I stay…?

The Big Question that’s been percolating in our minds over the past day, as we hear more news from y’all, the internet, and by asking questions of locals here: Should we get the hell outta Dodge? My first inclination was (of course) to stay – to finish most of my trip, and then to try to help if I can. Then I read a lot of alarming (and possibly alarmist?) news & advisories, and started to consider leaving immediately. Then I spoke with quite a few people here, and calmed down a bit.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do. I know many of you are extremely concerned, especially after seeing the Katrina-like conditions in the delta region that was hardest hit. But up north here there seems to have been *no* effect whatsoever, other than taxi drivers blaming the higher cost of petrol and food on their inability to give us a lower price. People are rather blithely going about their daily lives as if tens of thousands of their countrymen hadn’t died, and as if tens of thousands more weren’t in danger of dying of disease and starvation. To compare (roughly) with Katrina: Fearing for our safety up north here is like a New Yorker fearing Katrina looters.

On the other hand, 99% of the exits from the country require that we go via Yangon, where there *are* food and water shortages. The only other two ways to get out of the country are to either fly from Mandalay to Chiang Mai, Thailand, or to fly to a border town and cross by land to Mai Sai, Thailand. Neither are appealing options, and both are rather complicated to arrange. Right now, Marjan has a ticket from Yangon to Bangkok on Air Asia the morning of the 17th. I’ve got the same flight booked three days later, on the 20th. So yesterday Marjan and I went to a travel agent to explore our options. The extremely helpful agent made reservations for each of us to fly directly from Bagan to Yangon the day before our respective flights to Bangkok, thereby avoiding overland travel. He gave us the name of a reliable hotel near the airport, so that we wouldn’t even have to go into the city at all – we just arrive in the evening, sleep in the hotel for a few hours, and then fly out at like 8 am the next morning. So Marjan is scheduled on that Air Bagan flight from Bagan/Yangon on the 16th and I’m on the 19th. If either of us choose to not use the tickets, we get a full refund.

All that said, the travel agent assured us that things would be fine in Yangon by the 17th. “There are many rich men in Yangon,” he said. “They are already paying to bring water, electricity and food.” He assured us that we would be perfectly safe. In fact, he seemed amused at our concern. For my part, I just don’t want to be in the way in Yangon, eating food and drinking water that could go to someone who really needs it.

Obviously, we’ve also spoken with the few other travelers we’ve met, to see what they’re doing. Everyone else seems either as conflicted as we are, or completely unconcerned. No one is making a panicked run for the border. In fact, yesterday we met 4 people (two Americans and two French people) to actually flew *in* to Mandalay on the 5th, after their flight had been delayed by the storm. One of American guys has been here 6 times, and doesn’t seem at all concerned.

Another consideration, of course, is all of you. I don’t want to torture you with worry for 10 days while I wander around some dusty ancient pagodas. I know that we are safe right now, and I haven’t seen any indications that the situation will change in the next 10 days or so. Yes, I know about the forecast for rain down south next week, but that’s pretty normal – the rainy season starts in May. I feel like as long as I don’t go to the delta region, I’ll be fine. (A few of you have sent me email intimating that flights out of the country could get canceled or something. Can you please send details of where/from whom you heard this info? I can’t find anything about it on the net.)

Marjan and I will make our final decision on what to do when we get to Bagan. Right now we’re leaning towards spending our last few days in Bagan, and then each taking the flights I described above. (This means I would be alone for 3 days in Bagan, rather than Yangon, for 3 days. I’m now thinking I might change my flight to Marjan’s, if there’s room, as I just read that Air Asia is not only NOT canceling flights, but letting people change flights for free.) We want to see what it’s like on the boat we’re going to take there (it’s perfectly safe – a huge slow ship going down the Ayerwaddy River hundreds of kilometers north of the typhoon region). We leave tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 5:30 am and it’s scheduled to arrive around 3 pm local time. Note that local time is 11.5 hours ahead of NYC time.

I *had* wanted to write a post about what we’ve actually been *doing* here. But your worried emails prompted this post instead. Please rest assured that I am completely safe and easily continuing my trip as planned. The internet cafe I’m in is filled – half with tourists and half with locals playing games or looking at photos or chatting on Google Talk. It’s strangely and completely normal.

I may post again later.

Safe & hot w/aching butt in Mandalay

Here we are in Mandalay after a long (9-hour), bumpy bus ride on painfully hard seats. For the people here, it’s as if there was no cyclone/typhoon. It’s hot and sunny and there’s electricity and (painfully slow yet working) internet.

As I mentioned in my brief post yesterday, we really had no idea how big the cyclone was until yesterday morning. Saturday night was the last night of our trek – we stayed in a Buddhist monastery. The head monk told us that he had heard on the radio that there was a large storm in Yangon, and that about 300 people had died. I figured such a small incident wouldn’t even make the news in the US. To be honest, at the time we were much more interested in the storm’s effect on the rest of our trek. Saturday had been an unseasonably wet day, which meant we had to walk 24 kilometers in huge ponchos with heavy sticky clay mud collecting like concrete blocks to our Tevas. In fact, I did the last few kms barefoot like the locals. Squishy and slippery, but at least I didn’t have 5-kilo weights attached to my feet.

On Sunday we arrived at Inle Lake and stayed at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyangshwe. There we found that the typhoon had knocked out electricity in the area, and this time the casualty count was 3000. Again, we were more concerned with its effect on our much-needed hot shower…though of course we were also sad and curious about the extent of the damage. Of course, no electric and no internet meant no info. And there’s no English-language paper for sale in Myanmar outside of Yangon and Mandalay. So we were informed only by the rumors we heard from locals. We didn’t know if their source of info was the unreliable Myanmar media or the BBC. So we took the growing numbers with a large grain of salt.

Monday we spent the day mostly in our room, recovering from the exhausting trek and the nasty diarrhea Marjan (we had it much worse) and I had been suffering since Friday. (Yes mom I’m drinking plenty of fluids.) By Tuesday the news of casualties had risen to 9000, so we started to worry that y’all were worried. But again, we had no way to get in touch. Then yesterday morning we heard almost 100K dead, so we were eager to get to Mandalay and send word that we were fine. But we managed to luck out – I poked my head into a “Cyber Cafe” in Nyangshwe and saw a woman using the internet. I asked if we could use it, but she said “it’s on a shared generator that they will turn off right now.” I begged her for just 10 minutes, she agreed, and that’s the story.

As for the typhoon itself, I’m still going to try to read up on it on the internet – the newspaper I bought today is from the 5th, before the extent of things was really known. We know the elections scheduled for the 10th were postponed (at least down south) so we’ll keep an ear to the ground about that. Marjan’s leaving a few days before me, so I might try to spend my last few days in Bago, near Yangon, because I hear UNICEF is looking for volunteers. But of course I’ll make sure it’s safe first.

As of right now, here’s our itinerary:

Thursday – Mandalay

Friday – day trip to ancient cities around Mandalay

Saturday – either Mandalay or the nearby town of Pyin U Lwin

Sunday – boat to Bagan

Monday – Wed – Bagan

Thursday – Marjan takes the bus back to Yangon, arriving Friday, to fly out Saturday. I may take the bus to Bago and stay there until I leave on Tuesday the 20th. But that bit is still up in the air. I don’t know how safe it is down south, and if I’d have access to safe water and food. So I’ll get more info before making that decision. If it’s really unsafe, I can always stay up north here and then just fly from Mandalay to Yangon and then out to Bangkok. But I don’t think it’ll come to that.

In any event, it seems that the internet is working up north here, and that most internet cafes have various solutions to getting around the govt’s attempt to limit access to email, etc. So I won’t be as cut off as I feared. So I’ll keep everyone informed about my plans as they come together.

I’m fine

I’m sorry to have you all worried. The internet was spotty anyway, and with the typhoon everything got knocked out. I was trekking in the hills at the time. Now we’re in Inle Lake, heading to Mandalay this evening. Up north here there was only rain. So we’re safe and completely fine. We didn’t even hear about the full extent of things until just this morning. We heard 100K dead? We have no idea.

I’m on borrowed generator time right now, so I’m gunna run. I’ll try to send more later.