In terms of a functional monetary system, it is probably reasonable to say, using popular vernacular that Burma is really screwed up. You might say, more sensitively, that it is fiscally challenged or that it has some monetary supply or circulation issues. But no, it is totally and utterly screwed up. I use these speciously derogatory terms very carefully with some confidence and great aplomb whilst fearing no repercussions based in some part on Burma’s recent shift towards democracy and moreover its overt indications of potential future individual freedoms to the west. For example, this year, if I were traveling in some former soviet states such as Russia or Belarus I would not indiscriminately shoot my mouth off so recklessly and with such gay abandon. Especially in Belarus. I still have flashbacks to the meticulously-casted Eastern European border guards going through my pockets on the train to Belarus last year. It was snowing in a Hollywood movie set kinda way (large vertically falling puffy snowflakes) and the cast had big furry hats adorned with suppressed-looking little bronze stars, gray grim faces, inexpensive and coarse-looking overcoats, and seemingly loud over-acted accents, reminiscent of the memorable bloody prisoner swap scene in the 1996 movie “Air Force One.”
The completely useless little indigenous paper money notes in Burma are called “kyat” – pronounced like “cat” with half a cheeseburger and some fries with ketchup in your mouth. But the real currency on the street is United States’ Dollars. God bless them. Greenbacks. Little adorable verdigris portraits of George Washington smiling at you eternally in an indie Mona Lisa kinda way. May they rightfully adorn my hallway forever. As in a handful of somewhat broken countries, the U.S. dollar unofficially represents the local currency and basic means of commerce. Since they are not traded legitimately through the local banking system it means the notes just go hand to hand for goods and services, I guess for near on eternity, gathering handprints and cheese stains in a perpetually sad and declining unalterable route. The salient point here is that you need good, crisp, new dollar bills for trading in Burma, else the locals will discriminate against every fold, tear, dog-ear, ink stain, or handwritten note from Emma saying I love you John. Compounding this unusual situation, Burma generally heretofore eschews ATMs and is essentially a cash society, even for airplane tickets and the like. Therefore, in preparation for my second trip to Burma I went to a few banks in the U.S. and I selfishly amassed several stacks of crisp new dollar bills. Unceremoniously, but with careful thought and preparation for my trip I stuffed these wads of cash in my backpack along with my passports, just like Jason Bourne, albeit without the gun or any martial arts training whatsoever.
As a regular long-distance traveler I am most fortunate to receive free or discounted upgrades to business class and sometimes first class air travel (e.g., hanging out up front with Newt Gingrich or Angela Merkel). For this particular trip I received complimentary first class travel for all the big segments, assuring the receipt of much ass kissing over the world’s majestic but, sadly, overfished rising oceans due to the neglect of mankind. Flying eastward I had to change planes and terminals at London’s Heathrow airport, which is arguably much more hassle and discomforting when compared to my regular five-year colonoscopy appointments. And true to form my plane upon arrival was placed in a holding pattern, or as the great Scottish poet and novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson famously said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” But really, he had no idea of future woes to be endured at Heathrow. We all make mistakes, even great Scottish poets. Nonetheless I still like his stuff. Moving in a holding pattern at Heathrow is just one step shy of water boarding in my humble opinion.
Upon arrival at Heathrow I was greeted by a tidy, smart looking chap of seemingly Indian decent who had a placard with my name and a fine west-London accent. He said to me, “Doctor, we thought your connection was a little bit tight so I will drive you over to your next flight, just to be sure.” Unexpectedly, but enthusiastically, I welcomed this intervention with gusto as I really had to go potty. For the record I can’t go on airplanes and, probably, I will never qualify to be an astronaut as I demand solitude and anonymity. After my expeditious transit and pit stop I got to my next flight in a timely manner but as I went to enter the plane a small black dog chased me.
The dog was attached by a leash to a member of the Heathrow constabulary. The dog (I wish I knew his name) was so happy to see me that I thought I had arrived home and my family canine, Lucky, was jumping all over me which he does even if you leave the house briefly to get the mail, by the way. His tail was wagging and I thought I must have a large open-faced ham sandwich with loud sauces in my backpack as he had his snoot way down in there. Alas, the police officer that was dragged by the dog explained to me—when she got her breath back—that the dog was specifically trained to sniff for cash. Same as my daughter and housemaid was my foremost thought. So I explained in outright and convincing detail to the Heathrow police that the wads of several thousand new dollar bills in my backpack were in part to counter monetary circulation problems being endured in post-autocracy Burma and for the paramount purpose of ensuring my ease of commerce whilst visiting the legacy and undeniable heritage of the ancient tombs of Bagan. After reviewing my Soprano stash they let me get on the plane. I assume the dog received a little snack or something for locating a potential fugitive. Of course, that would have to be administered very soon afterwards so said canine could associate action and reward, but alas I did not see that. Just FYI if you adopt a retired Heathrow Police dog you’re gonna have to throw money for him to retrieve or put a few bucks inside a tennis ball.
Next I will report on the global importance and significance of Burmese culture and its influence within an ever-changing South-East Asian landscape.