After all my fears, my Myanmar tourist visa came through with no complications. I had shown up at their East 77th Street consulate prepared for a face-to-face grilling about my plans, but it was all very by-the-book: all I had to provide was my passport, two photos, my itinerary, where I would be staying in-country, and a short statement about what I planned to do in Myanmar. (That last part I fudged a bit, mentioning a couple of landmarks like the Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, both of which I did intend on visiting anyway…) And because I was running short on time before my planned departure, the official there even pushed through the application, so I got the approval faster than the usual five-business-day waiting time!
Up until the moment I had the visa in my hands I hadn’t truly believed that this whole adventure was really going to happen. And now I only had two days before I was leaving.
Fortunately, I didn’t need any shots, so it was really a matter of just packing whatever I’d need for the trip. I remembered from Guy Delisle’s book that art supplies were often in short supply, so one thing I did was drop by an office supply store to buy a bunch of pens. They weren’t for me but for the Burmese cartoonists I would be working with. I use Sharpie Fine Points, Sharpie Extra Fine Points, and Uni-ball Deluxe Fine Point pens for backgrounds, filling in blacks, and fine linework, so I bought a bunch of each variety to give them as gifts. And I made sure to bring enough blue pencils and extra pens for myself as well.
From Burma Chronicles I also remembered that the Internet was heavily censored there, and power outages were common, but I determined to bring my laptop. I knew I would want to get some work done on the thirty-hour trips I was looking at getting there and coming back, and if I had any spare moments I would want to keep notes on my experiences. I also was supposed to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on my work during my visit, so that was another reason to tote the portable computer. And I figured the best chance I would have “phoning” back home would be to talk with Sari via Skype.
I also packed the requisite Tums, Tylenol, bug spray, and sunscreen.
The final thing I had to plan for was money. Even though I was going under the auspices of the U.S.A., I still had to pay for my expenses when I was actually in Burma. So that meant hotels, meals, etc. And this is where things were… different. For one thing, traveler’s checks are useless there — not accepted anywhere. Credit cards were essentially useless as well — only the occasional high-end hotel accepted them. And there are no such things as ATMs in Burma. So, even though the country is ridiculously cheap compared to the West, that still meant I was going to have to bring a fair amount of money. Once I had done the math, I realized I might need to bring something on the order of $2,000. In cash.
Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly used to carrying around money like that. I wrote to trusty Blake to see what he advised. “It’s all cash here. $2,000 will be plenty, and it’s always good to be on the safe side. I know it’s strange to carry so much cash around, but we all do it. You’ll need clean, crisp bills — you might ask your bank for their newest bills. Bring most of it in $100s.”
Yoiks! Going to my bank that afternoon was quite an experience. I rarely see a fifty dollar bill in my normal life. So withdrawing 15 $100s and a bunch of $50s was definitely a new one. I was actually struck, however, by how blasé my bank was about the whole thing. They didn’t even blink when I specifically requested new, pristine bills.
The last thing I packed before I left the house Saturday morning was a dozen fresh bagels. Blake’s boss, a native New Yorker, had mentioned them in an offhand way during my initial phone call, and I thought it would be nice thing to bring, a unique taste of home in a country far, far away.