Business Class


My flight to Myanmar was going to take two days, a total of 23 hours flying time, with various stopovers — in Japan and Singapore — extending the traveling time to more than 30 hours. I had never done that much flying in one stretch, and was a little concerned about how I’d get through it — especially since I was expected to hit the ground running in Yangon.

But one perk Mike Bandler told me about right at the beginning was that for any trip longer than 14 total hours, the government automatically set travelers up in business class. Yes, your tax dollars at work! (Still, it’s a better use of them then, say, invading Middle Eastern countries…)

In any case, I didn’t really know what business class meant. Growing up, we had no money to spare. My mom and I didn’t even take vacations, let alone fly anything other than coach. For us, it was always the cheapest way above all — comfort wasn’t an option. My only knowledge of an “upgrade” was that episode of Seinfeld when Jerry flew first class and Elaine flew coach. So I was curious and excited to see what business class was all about.

My first clue was when I checked in and the Japan Airlines gate attendant told me I could wait in the “rounge.” It wasn’t until she repeated herself that I realized she mean the JAL lounge. I headed over there and was greeted by the airport equivalent of a private club! Free Internet, free magazines, free drinks (including the hard stuff), and large, comfy seats. A peaceful, entitled quiet governed the room. Nobody was so uncouth as to talk on their cellphones. Civilized. I was truly getting a taste of how the “other side” lived. (Even so, in the tradition of my grandmother stuffing buffet dinner rolls into her purse, I snagged a couple of free Cokes and some snacks for the long flight ahead.)

The business section of the plane contained about 75 seats, 75% filled with Japanese business travelers, 90% of them men traveling solo. (That’s why it’s called business class!) The seats were like self-contained, automated pods, wide and cushy, with “lumbar support” and the ability to extend almost flat, like a bed. (In a sinister way, they reminded me of the embryonic pods containing the real human bodies from The Matrix.) Each pod had its own TVs and entertainment system, complete with free movies (American and Japanese releases), video games, music, a live view out of the nose of the plane, and more. And each pod came with a complimentary set of slippers; the first thing my fellow travelers did was take off their shoes and don them.

The best thing about the experience, of course, was the service. They really know how to do service in the East. The stewardesses (how they referred to themselves) were so polite, always bowing and smiling, going out of their way to help me. It was like having my own personal geisha! There was something so enticing and soothing about her soft, high-pitched tones; I couldn’t help but develop a little crush on her. I loved how they donned aprons over their uniforms before beginning the food service.

The food was excellent, though I wish I had tried more of the Japanese options. One thing I liked — both in name and flavor — was the “JAL Original Drink, Skytime Yuzu.” It was like a flat celery soda. I also really enjoyed the “Tokyo Curry Lab x. Japanese Airlines,” a savory vegetable curry over rice.

The flight took us practically over the North Pole, as we passed over Inuvik (in Canada’s far Northwest Territories) and Kamchatka (between Alaska and Siberia). In between all the meals and free movies I even got a few hours of sleep before we landed at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

As the flight came to a close, the stewardesses went around the cabin thanking each customer for flying with them, along with more smiling and bowing. The guy in the seat next to me was a salaryman just coming back from Sao Paolo, Brazil, by way of New York. As I marveled over the experience, he told me that Japan Airlines was in bankruptcy and was being run by the Japanese government. You never would have known.

my pod

Pre-Flight Checklist: Cash and Bagels


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.


“This is not a secure line.”


Blake Dreiser, the Assistant Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. State Dept. in Myanmar, was calling me late on a Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning, Myanmar time). His first words were to warn me that anything we were talking about might be monitored. “Let’s keep details vague,” he said.

Having accepted the State Dept. offer to visit Myanmar on an official mission, I was busy getting ready for the big trip. I was researching the country, preparing for the long flight(s), buying appropriate clothes, and thinking about how I might structure the workshops while I was there. But we had hit a snag.

My visa was the issue. The State Dept. had initially tried to get me a business visa under their auspices, but the application had lingered on a desk at the Myanmar embassy in Washington, D.C. (The U.S. and Myanmar having strained relations, Myanmar figured there was no great incentive for them to approve official American visa requests.) Panicking a bit, the State Dept. had retrieved the application and my passport, and asked me to apply for the visa, as a “tourist,” here in New York, at the Burmese consulate.

I was worried about what exactly this meant. I knew that Myanmar was an Orwellian country with extreme censorship, no political parties (let alone free elections), and a secret police that spied on its populace. Wouldn’t the Burmese consulate know that I had already applied and essentially been rejected? And couldn’t I get in trouble if I showed up in Myanmar with a tourist visa under false pretenses, and then immediately took part in an official week-long program sponsored by the U.S. State Dept.? I had a lot of questions for Blake.

Despite the apparent risks, I threw myself into the game. After all, I had read my share of John LeCarré and Tom Clancy novels. I was ready to discuss the situation obliquely, maybe even refer to my situation as that of “a friend.” And from what I guessed, whoever was monitoring the call probably knew that it was coming from the U.S. embassy but not the extension Blake was calling from. And the same thing with my identity. Blake had called me “Josh,” but not my full name. And even if they knew the number he was calling, it would be a bit of work to figure out who exactly I was.

Blake quickly dismissed my concerns about the visa situation. He took a fatalistic tone, saying he didn’t think the Burmese embassy in D.C. and their consulate in New York were coordinated enough to catch the fact that I was re-applying. And he figured that once I made it into the country, the secret police wouldn’t put many resources into tracking me. Easy for him to say! But all the same, he did a good job of easing my fears.

But then Blake began systematically blowing whatever “cover” we had established. “Listen” he said. “If you have any trouble, or need anything, give me a call.” And then he proceeded to give me his office number — down to the direct extension — and his personal cell phone number! To top it off, he dictated me his personal email address, So now whoever was listening in knew exactly who was calling.

But he wasn’t through. As we got ready to sign off, Blake blurted out, “Oh, hey, Josh. I meant to tell you, I really enjoyed your book, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge!” Great. Thanks, Blake. Now they knew me as well.

Blake Dreiser: Worst. Spy. Ever.

P.S. Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

Burma Joshicles


On Thursday, January 28 I got a phone call from the U.S. State Department inviting me to travel to the country of Burma in March to talk about comics. Once I determined that I wasn’t being punk’d, I got really excited about the crazy idea.

The program I had been invited to be part of is run out of the State Department’s Office of International Programs. Called the Speaker/Specialist program, its mandate is to “tell America’s story.” My recruiter, Mike Bandler, mentioned the names of previous participants, notables such as Richard Ford, Tom Wolfe, Geraldine Brooks, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

All I knew about Burma — now known as Myanmar — was a few key facts and what I had learned from cartoonist Guy Delisle’s excellent memoir Burma Chronicles (which I had randomly read a few months earlier on my A.D. book tour). Mostly, I knew that Burma was an authoritarian country ruled by a military junta that had imprisoned the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

As Bandler explained the program to me, my job would be to “work with elements of civil society, academics, students, media professionals, and artists interested in graphic novels, with the theme of using comics to promote basic elements of a democratic society through freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for fellow citizens.” Clearly my experience with A.D. was a perfect illustration of that theme, especially because in the book I directly address the feeble and ineffective government response to Katrina and its victims. The very fact of my book’s existence, and that I could express such anger and frustration about my own government in such a fashion, would be completely unheard of in Burma. (It was only later that I remembered that Burma had recently suffered a major windstorm as well: Cyclone Nargis, which killed almost 150,000 [!] Burmese citizens in May 2008. The Myanmar government did very little to prepare its people for the storm, was very slow in responding to the tragedy, and initially resistant to accepting any outside aid. Sound familiar?)

It turned out that Scott McCloud had been invited first, but being unable to go had given them my name. (Thanks, Scott!) I felt like it was kismet: besides the thematic connection of A.D., I had traveled extensively in that part of the world as a young backpacker, and had written and drawn a memoir of my travels in the book A Few Perfect Hours. It was like all the strands of my comics life had come together in this specific form. Add to that for this junket I would receive an honorarium, a per diem, and of course a paid round-trip to Myanmar, and saying "yes" was a no-brainer.

The details of the trip were as follows: The Embassy post in Burma requested I come for a week-long program from March 15 to 22. The program was in partnership with the Alliance Francaise in Yangon (Burma’s main city and former capital, formerly known as “Rangoon”), and would feature two other comics artists, France’s Emile Bravo and Switzerland’s Christophe Badoux. Besides the five days in Yangon, the post also wanted to send me to Mandalay (the former royal capital, and center of Burmese culture), for an informal lecture at the Embassy’s Jefferson Center.

The program was to include a workshop each morning for three hours with the other two European artists and local Burmese graphic artists at the American Center; general hands-on classes with the Burmese public at the Alliance Francaise for three hours each afternoon; and then introducing a film each night at the American center. Saturday, the final day, was to be an all-day affair, including a “live drawing demonstration.” On Sunday, we would travel to Mandalay for two days before returning to Yangon for the flight back home.

This all sounded very intense and overwhelming to me, especially given that I’m in no way a teacher, and I had never thought of myself as a “typical” representative of my country and its government. In fact, until November of 2008 I had spent the better part of the previous decade feeling very much a foreigner in my own country. But now I was being asked to represent America in a repressive third-world country literally halfway around the world.