The time has come. I’ve been living in Vietnam for about 1 year now. It’s been real. It’s been fun. Hell, it’s been real fun… wait, did I actually just say that? Back up, I hate that toast. I’m leaving Hanoi! But before I come back state side I’m doing a last little stint of traveling. I’m leaving Hanoi on August 18th and I will likely be back in the States somewhere in the Halloween ballpark. So, the first stop:
Flight 1: Hanoi, Vietnam → Singapore
I really didn’t intend to come to Singapore. My first stop was supposed to be Yangon, Myanmar but there is virtually no way to get there (cheaply) from Hanoi without an overnight layover in Singapore. So what the hell! I’m booking 2 separate tickets and taking a day in Singapore. It’ll be the last breath of fresh socio-economic air I get for a while.
Thinking about traveling to Singapore, I was always a bit put off by their ridiculous penal code. This is a place where you are caned for littering. While it’s doubtful I’ll even have time to screw up too badly during my 48 hours in the country, I can't help being a little worried that I’ll accidentally break some obscure law and end up getting tarred and feathered.
(This is where you reassure me that it will all be okay). WELL WE CAN ONLY HOPE! Here’s a few pictures I found on the inter-web of what I can expect from Singapore:
I'm not rich enough to be a high roller. But I'll be there.
Flight 2: Singapore → Rangoon, Burma
Hookay, now we’re into the real shit. Burma (Now renamed Myanmar – not all of the international community was on board with the name change so you will still hear it both ways – personally, I think the older names are cooler so those are the ones I’ll be using) is currently in the precarious grey area between civil war and genocide. But it has come a long way, so here's your crash course. Until 2010, Burma had been under the control of one of the most notoriously oppressive military regimes in the modern world. What went on inside these closed borders was a 'what’s what' of all the classic terrible things that happen in these sorts of places: human trafficking, sex slavery, child soldiers bought for $40/head, peaceful protesters murdered in the streets by the government... the list goes on. Until one day, out of nowhere, it all changed. Political prisoners were freed, compromises were made with the political opposition, protesters’ demands were met, and borders were opened to international travelers and business.
What prompted this change? What was the catalyst? The answer to that is shrouded in mystery; nobody really knows. One thing is clear though: it had absolutely nothing to do with diplomacy. Burma never seemed to care much what anybody else thought. Somebody important must have just had a big change of heart, or incentives. So while political scientists scratch their heads and governments the world over give tentative statements of support, there is an opportunity waiting for anybody interested in having a little adventure.
Burma has been isolated for so long that the opening of its borders give us the opportunity to peek inside a time capsule of sorts. Burmese culture goes on today almost exactly as it did before the country opened. That will be less and less true the longer its borders are open though, so now is the time to go! It is one of the last frontiers, travel-wise, and quite an interesting destination in its own rite. Burma is a gateway country. Similar to Turkey’s status as a barrier between Europe and the Middle East, Burma is the barrier between the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. And it is one of the last truly raw places in the world... I think.
Now, let’s circle back to Burma’s ongoing civil war and genocide allegations. What’s the story? The victims here are Burma’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya people. This Burmese minority has long been subject to racial violence, but since the opening of the country 5 years ago it has intensified to the point that many Rohingya are putting themselves at the mercy of human traffickers, who will help them to escape by sea. It’s a desperate move to put your life in the hands of traffickers but back in Burma they have been stripped of their citizenship and rounded up into camps. The only information that seems to have escaped the barbed wire fences surrounding these camps is that there is “abuse” happening. What does that even mean? Who the f**k knows! All I can say is, having recently visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the whole situation seems eerily familiar. Obviously many Rohingya are willing to risk drowning or starving at sea to escape this "abuse" so I shudder to think what's happening in there.
However, all that said, I am anticipating smooth sailing for the duration of my time in Burma. I hope that something will happen that gives me a little bit of insight into what is actually going on but this seems unlikely since Burma is not fully open for travel. Most of the areas in question are not open to foreigners like me, a fact I was first made aware of when I was trying research the possibility of taking a bus across the border into my next stop: Bangladesh. That stretch of borderland is apparently closed for “security reasons.”
So it look’s like I’ll be flying.
Flight 3: Rangoon, Burma → Dhaka, Bangladesh
(173 USD—Biman Bangladesh Airways)
Next it’ll be time to get really far off the beaten path and fly to Dhaka, Bangladesh: the largest city in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. I’m sure you’ve heard at least one horror story about a sweatshop where 10-year-old's work 18 hour days for pocket change collapsing, killing hundreds of people in a terrible fire. If you have, it probably happened here. It probably doesn't sound like anybody's dream vacation, but I'm just so curious. Nobody ever comes here so I know next to nothing about it.
Bangladesh is very impoverished, but relatively safe... or so I thought. I only recently started talking about my intention to travel to Dhaka to people here in Hanoi. The expat community in Hanoi is full of travelers so insight into your next destination is never far off. When talking about Dhaka I found myself being told stories of violent protests and bombs going off in the streets. It turns out that Bangladesh has been suffering from serious some political unrest... so that will be interesting.
This will not be an easy country to travel through. When I bought my plane ticket in, I honestly didn’t know exactly what I was going to do here. My plan had been pretty much just to show up. But I was cringing thinking about being the big white tourist strolling through the slums with my giant camera to gawk, take a few pictures of brown children, and then disappear. I wanted to find a way that I could interact with this place in a more real and positive way. That's when I started looking into volunteering with a nonprofit while I was there. You'd think in a place like Bangladesh that would be a relatively easy thing to do. They need all the help they can get right?
Wrong. Bangladesh is a virtual sink hole when it comes to information. But using my mad internet skills though I managed to track down a few nonprofits working in Dhaka and the surrounding area. I got in touch with a couple of them and offered my help in exchange for a place to stay and maybe some food. I was prepared to help for the duration of the 30-day visa I was going to be given, provided that I could afford it. That's a substantial amount of time and I think I'm potentially a pretty useful person for a nonprofit to have at their disposal, but I was unanimously rejected or ignored.
That's the weird thing about volunteering: it costs an outrageous amount of money! It begins to make you suspicious that maybe the organizations are just humoring you with busy work for the sake of your cash. I don't know about you but that's sort of an insulting notion to me. And I'm not easily insulted. Still though, I would be pretty destitute if I didn't find something. So I bit the bullet and agreed to pay to work. The organization is called JAAGO, and they are a nonprofit focusing on education in Bangladesh. It took a long string of emails in order to procure basic information from them but eventually we nailed down some details, and I am optimistic. It actually seems like a great organization!
Despite all my research, Bangladesh is still sort of a mystery to me. But I do know one thing: I can get a train across the border from Dhaka to Kolkata, India. So that is what I will do in the end. I confess that I am feeling some anxiety about this particular train ride. Why? Well how very thoughtful of you to ask. This is why:
I'm gonna do this.
On to the jungles, mountains and deserts of India!