As soon as I click the “submit” button and buy my plane ticket, my mind is already obsessing on the details of the travels ahead. I download the latest Kindle version of Lonely Planet like a drug addict counting the number of pills in a bottle. I know I shouldn’t – real travel experiences come from spontaneous decisions made in the moment. But the left-brain side of me wants to memorize the details, cross potential pitfalls off a million lists and plan the perfect trip.
None of which is really possible when it comes to Myanmar. U.S. sanctions were only lifted a few years ago and it’s changing so fast that guidebooks specifics are practically useless. And the beautiful photographs are like landmines to avoid – if they’re in the book then the reality has already been altered.
Luckily I’ve found a cure for my own inevitable over-planning. I fill my carry-on bags with tattered paperbacks because fiction is the only truthful account of life in a place I’ve never been.
For Myanmar, that means stepping back to the time when it was known as Burma. I start with an old favorite: Daniel Mason’s “The Piano Tuner.” Never mind the movie version, the first sentence is what made me yearn to visit Myanmar in the first place.
“In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.”
The book is a slow burn, tracing one man’s seduction. Not by the woman he meets but by the entire country. In the end the English piano tuner can’t trust anything he thought he knew. He doesn’t care, as long as he never has to leave. It’s lush and romantic and every time I read it I am as shamelessly besotted with the idea of Burma as Edgar was.
Which is why, the first day we walk through the sticky heat of Yangon I head straight for the book section. The book section isn’t in a bookstore. It lines entire city streets – a reminder that this country is new to Internet and that books were once the intellectual lifeline to the outside world.
I pick up a cheaply printed knock-off copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days – knowing that it will snap me out of The Piano Tuner’s spell. Orwell’s account of the same era in Burmese history is the brutal hangover after my earlier indulgence. He describes a country not meant to be over-lorded and capable of doling out exacting punishment to any visitor. Particularly those of a Colonial bent. I have English blood and this book makes it back up and run through my veins in the opposite direction. I grew up in a different, one-time British colony – South Africa – and the vulnerable yet ultimately cruel Elizabeth feels far from fictional.
So whose story should I trust as I set out on my own journey through Myanmar, the romantic Edgar in “The Piano Tuner” or the disillusioned Flory in “Burmese Days”? The first winds up shot in the back and the latter blows his own brains out – neither one comforting to a traveler in a country only recently emerging from the chokehold of a military junta. I suspect the truth of Myanmar will split the two extremes, like the wavering air.
“The woman walks into a mirage, into the ghost reflection of light and water that the Burmese call than hlat. Around her, the air wavers, splitting her body, separating, spinning. And then she too disappears. Now only the sun and the parasol remain.”