The Night Before Burma
Savor Your Pre-Trip Anxieties
By Dave Fox
[Note: In 1989, military leaders ruling Burma changed the country’s name to Myanmar. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said she prefers the old name as it represents the country before the dictatorship took over, and the push to restore democracy. Therefore, I am using the old name most of the time in these articles.]
I was feeling more anxious about Burma than I usually feel before a trip.
“Well I think you should hold onto that worry,” my friend, Lisa said on the phone from Seattle.
Lisa’s known me a long time. She’s seen me at my stressiest, on days when self-destructive worry derails my productivity and happiness. I thought she was being sarcastic, telling me in a backhanded way my stress was a waste of energy. But she wasn’t.
“You travel so much, you don’t usually get to feel what most people feel in foreign places,” she said. “You’re feeling it now. Savor it.”
Lisa was right.
Whenever I go someplace new, I get a little anxious buzz, but I’ve traveled enough that I’ve developed a partial immunity to culture shock. It still affects me – in ways good and bad – but not to the extent it whacks less frequent travelers. And while there’s certainly a negative component to culture shock, there’s also a thrill, an adrenaline high, a voice in one’s head gasping, “Holy crap! Look what I’m doing!” It had been a long time since I’d felt that thrill to its fullest extent.
Now that I’ve lived in Singapore for 16 months, a country where it’s fast and cheap to jet around Southeast Asia, diving into new places sometimes feels a little too easy. In ways, that ease is wonderful. People have remarked that I seem more confident when I’m out of my element – I think because being out of my element is my element. In the last year, I’ve made first-time visits to Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. And yes, there have been a few jitters, but I’ve gone into all of these new-for-me places thinking, “I know how to do this.”
I wasn’t feeling that way about Burma.
Burma, until a few months ago, lived under the glower of a brutal dictatorship. It’s a nation grappling with severe poverty, a dilapidated infrastructure, archaic banking practices, and a health care system I would not want to experience. My wife, Kattina, quipped on her Facebook page before we went, “Trying to plan a vacation using the Internet in a county that just started using phones is silly.”
So I fretted over those matters, as well as the fact that I was a travel writer going to a land whose government is not always fond of writers. For my visa application, I had obtained a letter stating my occupation was teaching – all well and good for getting into the country, but there were stories I wanted to research, one involving charged politics, and I was nervous about how that might go down.
Finally, there was the money situation. Credit cards are virtually useless in Burma. (I’ve heard rumors that might be changing.) We’d been told to carry all of our funds in cash – nothing but crisp, new, utterly pristine US dollar bills. If we ran out of money, or had it stolen, or even if our money was excessively wrinkled, we’d be in bad shape.
So as our plane touched down on a barren runway in Yangon, I swigged a double shot of travel anxiety, chased it with a deep gulp of oxygen, and remembered Lisa’s advice a few days earlier to savor the jitters.
Things could go horribly wrong, just like they can on any journey, just like they can on any random day at home. But I reminded myself the odds were that wouldn’t happen. The odds were I was about to experience a new level of culture-shocked adventure in a country just warming up to tourists; that the challenges would be worth it for beating the crowds, who are on their way as long as the current political situation stays its course; and that I would emerge in 12 days with a pile of stories.
Those stories are on their way over the next few weeks.
[Do you have memories of a deep plunge into a new place? Your first time abroad and the anxiousness you felt? How did your feelings change once you found your way around? Share your culture shock stories in the comments section below.]