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.

cash

“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, blake.dreiser@gmail.com. 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.

NeoIntegrity: Comics Edition @ MoCCA

What would you say if I told you that you had the chance to see original artwork by the likes of Peter Arno, Robert Crumb, Jack Kirby, Moebius, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Lauren Weinstein, Gahan Wilson, and Basil Wolverton — all in one place, at one time? And what if I mentioned that the same show featured artwork by Alex Ross, Alison Bechdel, Ben Katchor, Carol Tyler, Charles Burns, Charles Addams, Charles M. Schulz, Craig Thompson, Daniel Clowes, Dave Cooper, Geof Darrow, Gilbert Hernandez, Harvey Kurtzman, Henry Darger, Howard Cruse, Hugo Pratt, Ivan Brunetti, Jaime Hernandez, James Sturm, Jason Little, Jeff Smith, Jim Woodring, Joe Matt, Jules Feiffer, Julie Doucet, KAZ, Keith Knight, Leela Corman, Maurice Sendak, Nick Bertozzi, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Tim Burton, Tom Hart, Tomer + Asaf Hanuka, Tony Millionaire, Peter Bagge, Peter Kuper, R. Sikoryak, Ralph Bakshi, Raymond Pettibone, Rick Parker, Seth, Shel Silverstein, Walt Kelly, Will Eisner, and Winsor McCay? You’d be like, "Get out of town! Nobody could mount such an incredible show!" Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that the show exists! And it’s on exhibit right now! So get down to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) right now, until May 30, to check it out. (And I hope you won’t be deterred by the fact that the show also features some pieces by some hack named Josh Neufeld…)

By the way, that’s just a small sampling of the more than 200 artists taking part in Neointegrity: Comics Edition, curated by artist Keith Mayerson. Produced like a 19th Century salon, the show stuffs more than 500 framed pieces of art into MoCCA’s intimate gallery space. Here’s some material from the press release: "Originally conceived as a utopic attempt to begin an art movement, the first installment of the NeoIntegrity show was held in the summer of 2007 at Derek Eller Gallery in New York City. That show incorporated over 180 fine artists, with some cartoonists and illustrators mixed in to breach questions of high and low, rarified and pluralistic. NeoIntegrity: Comics Edition takes the proposal a step further, showing the relatability of creators harnessing the iconographic vehicle to express themselves and to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for it to become a better place."

Sadly, having just returned from overseas, I missed the opening last Friday, but here are a couple of shots stolen from the SVA Continuing Education blog, which gives a sense of the show. I can’t wait to visit the space in person and soak in all that incredible graphic expression.

NeoIntegrity: Comics Edition

NeoIntegrity: Comics Edition

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.

Gulp!

What Goes Around and Around…

About six weeks ago, while doing my laundry in the basement, I noticed a pile of clothes someone had dumped in a laundry cart. The clothes looked damp, like whoever was cleaning them put them in hadn’t put in enough money to really get ‘em dry. Someone else had needed the dryer and had tossed the half-dry clothes into a cart. As the days and weeks passed, I noticed the pile of clothes still sitting there, and figured they had been abandoned. (There are a number of apartments in my building which seem to host constantly changing itinerant folks, so my guess was the clothes belonged to a long-gone person.)

Cut to this morning, as I came downstairs to wash some of our linens. I’d been out of town for nearly two weeks, and the abandoned clothes were still there. For some reason, seeing them still there more than a month after they first appeared depressed me. I don’t know why, but after I put my clothes in the washer, I shook out the abandoned clothes and folded them. They were mostly sheets and towels, with three clothing items — a hoodie, a shirt, and a pair of pants — so it was a pretty quick job. Then I neatly stacked them on the laundry room folding table and went upstairs to my apartment.

Returning twenty minutes later to put my washed linens in the dryer, I immediately noticed that the abandoned clothes were gone! In six weeks no one in the building had touched them, but the moment I folded the clothes they were taken? It’s like someone had been waiting for me to make them more presentable! Was it the original owner? Someone else doing their laundry? Or a basement denizen I’ve never seen before? A mystery.

But the story gets weirder.

A half hour later, when I came down to the basement again to pick up my dried linens, I found another surprise. My laundry had been taken out of the machine and folded! Again, a mystery. Was it the same person who took the other clothes? Or a completely unrelated event? I may never know. But if this doesn’t prove the existence of karma, I don’t know what does.

Next Tuesday: First Person Arts in the City of Brotherly Love

Next Tuesday, March 9, I will be appearing at the Philadelphia First Person Arts’ event, Warning: Graphic Content.

This year’s One Book, One Philadelphia program is centered around Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and W:GC features artists Daniel Heyman, Jamar Nicholas, and yours truly presenting our work, followed by a screening of the Persepolis film. (Isn’t it freakin’ cool that the whole city of Philly is reading and discussing a graphic novel?! And one as awesome as Persepolis, no less?!)

Prisoner abuse connected to the Iraq War has influenced the recent work of Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman, who incorporates the words prisoners speak to him as he draws them. Philadelphia-based comics artist Jamar Nicholas is working on a new, graphic version of Geoffrey Canada’s powerful memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun. And I’ll be discussing A.D.

Marjane Satrapi’s two graphic memoirs were combined to make the film version of Persepolis. The film chronicles Satrapi’s childhood in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution, following her into young adulthood as she navigates the starkly different worlds of Western Europe and an increasingly conservative Iran.

Details:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 7pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA
Tickets $15 ($10 for First Person Arts and BMFI members)

 
Some coverage of the event:

R. Crumb, tailor

I guess The Book of Genesis didn’t do as well for Crumb as he hoped. I shot this outside a tailor shop on Henry St. in Brooklyn. If you need anything taken in or shortened, please give Bob the work

R. Crumb, tailor

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