Burmese massage

On Saturday, after the final day of workshops and the exhibition, we all — Émile, Badoux, Blake, Fanny, Fabrice (the French counsel), and I — have dinner. Then we follow Fanny to a massage parlor she knows, on the sixth floor of the Excel Building. (Massage is big in that part of the world. Real massage, not always that other kind.)

The six of us don pajamas and lie on beds. Our masseuses enter, mine a lovely long-haired girl who sits on the bed with me. She bends my limbs this way and that until they seem like they’re no longer part of me — I am watching them being manipulated from somewhere above. It’s strange, and yet strangely normal, to have this Burmese girl with three words of English sitting on my bed, touching me with her delicate, strong hands. I fall in love with her, but it’s the love a child feels for its mother. Later, she walks on my back and squeezes the breath out of me in strangled grunts. It’s marvelous.

As we all shyly put our clothes back on, we exchange notes on the experience. We all got the most of it, except, it turns out, poor Émile. “She walked on my willy,” he remorsefully explains.

Mob Comix, or “Of Mr. Bean and Buddhist Monks”

Exquisite corpse

Our last two activities as part of the “International Week of Graphic Novels” were group affairs. For the Friday “amateur” session at the Alliance Française, Émile, Badoux, and I arranged another “exquisite corpse” exercise, much as we did with the professionals earlier in the week. Once again, the three of us started up the narrative, and then the Burmese participants joined in. As the story developed, page by page, we taped the results up on the board. I had been worried that the activity would be boring for all those except the person who was drawing, but surprisingly the activity proved to be a real crowd-pleaser. Everyone gathered around the person at work, laughing as the picture took shape, and often throwing in words of advice or encouragement.

During my stay in the country, I had come to feel that one of the most discouraging things about the state of comics in Myanmar was how isolated the comics practitioners seemed to be from each other. I’ve always been aware how fortunate I have been during my comics career to have ready access to a large group of fellow cartoonists, as well as generous, older mentors. And that was something that, other than a few exceptions evidenced among the morning session professionals, seemed to be missing from Burmese comics culture. But I was happy to see during our Friday afternoon exercise that the older, professional artists in the group were encouraging some of the more tentative or less skilled participants, and that some form of mentoring really was happening. My hope is that some of that cross-generational energy continued past our visit to their country.

Saturday, our last day of “official” business, was a bit less intensive than the preceding four days. Émile, Badoux, and I each presented our work at the Alliance Francaise — Badoux and I using slideshows — for an audience of workshop participants and the public (including the German ambassador and his family, who seemed really into comics). Much of the Alliance’s outdoor area had been transformed into an exhibition space of the various exercises we had done — both professional and amateur — during the previous week. It was really nice to see everything displayed in such a loving and celebratory way. I really have to hand it to Fanny, the Alliance employee who did much of the hard work putting the “International Week of Graphic Novels” together.

That was followed by a live drawing demonstration, the idea for which Émile again came up with. Similar in spirit to the exquisite corpse exercise, the idea was to do a group drawing on a long roll of paper. As the crowd gathered in the outdoor café, an artist drew something in an approximately two-foot-wide area. Then the drawing was covered up — except for a two-inch sliver on the edge. The next artist, sight unseen, continued the picture by connecting their drawing to that sliver, guessing at what it depicted. The audience, seeing it all take place in front of their eyes, had a good time laughing at the strange results. The game went on for about an hour, with about twenty artists (including Émile, Badoux, and myself) taking part; the final picture was unveiled to much surprise and amusement for whole gang at the very end.

As the crowds dispersed, many kind words were exchanged and pictures were taken — my favorite one is us three “international” artists and the Buddhist monk.

Alliance Francaise café

The week's work on display

Badoux at work on the exquisite corpse exercise as Émile Bravo looks on

The exquisite corpse is unveiled

Cheese!

Let us pray

A little postscript about the monk: He was a pleasant, quiet sort of guy, so I quickly got over my nervousness about having such a spiritual person in my class. And the other students didn’t seem intimidated by him either, so everything went fine in the amateur workshop he attended. He wasn’t the most accomplished or imaginative artist, but he could hold his own with the other amateurs. And I liked that he eagerly took part in the last two group sessions. But Badoux told me a hilarious story about the monk, from his workshop earlier in the week. According to Badoux, the monk carried around a little sketchbook, much as artists do in the West. So Badoux asked to see it, and was mildly taken aback to see it was mostly filled with sketches of buxom and “sexy” women. A little odd for a chaste Buddhist, but whatever. But what really threw Badoux for a loop was when he turned the page to find a loving depiction of the British comic character Mr. Bean… with breasts! (Man, I wish I had a picture of that page from the sketchbook.) Obviously, after hearing that story, I never looked at that little monk in quite the same way again.

Iron Cross

On Friday, after our last full day of workshops, we planned a late night, knowing we’d be able to sleep in the next morning. We’d heard of a live outdoor concert by the Burmese all-star band Iron Cross, and we didn’t want to miss it.

Getting into the stadium for the concert was like passing through a cattle gate. We were squeezed into three entrances, felt up by the security people, and herded through at a trample-like pace.

Iron Cross features a rockin’ guitarist and five solo singers, each taking turns in front of the mic. Some of the singers were pretty "hard-core", some were more "top 40", but the whole thing had the air of a 1980s hair-metal concert, pretty cheesy in feel. The crowd loved them all, singing all the lyrics to all the songs, but clearly favored the heavier songs, which allowed them to "rock out" to greater ecstasy.

The relatively expensive $5.50 ticket prices made the concert all but unaffordable to any but the most wealthy — e.g. connected to the military or their political cronies, but you’d never have known it from the crowd. The concert was packed with thousands of adoring, exuberant fans, crushed together doing the Burmese version of slam dancing. The crowd was 90% sweaty young men, all in their teens or early twenties. Even thought there was a lot of testosterone-fueled energy, and empty water bottles were being tossed in all directions, I never felt threatened by their enthusiasm.

A lot of the men wanted to say hello to us and ask us where we’re from, and some particularly wanted to talk to our little blond French companion Fanny, but there was no ill-will in evidence. For her part, Fanny pulled us deep into the crowd, as close to the stage as possible, and within moments we were all completely drenched with sweat. Pushed in on all sides, it was an intense introduction to Burmese pop culture.

Iron Cross on stage
Iron Cross on stage

The adoring crowd

The adoring crowd
The adoring crowd

Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience
Émile and Badoux enjoying the experience

TragiComix

Friday, our last day with the Burmese professionals, was taken up with an exercise dreamt up by my French compatriot Émile Bravo (currently the recipient of three Eisner Award nominations for his recent book My Mommy Is In America And She Met Buffalo Bill!). The assignment was to take a “tragic” event from your life and depict it in a humorous way.

I loved the idea of the exercise, and think it’s a wonderful way to get beginning cartoonists to flex their creativity, but for some reason I had a terrible time with it. It’s not that I’ve lived a charmed life and have no sad stories to tell — far from it — but I just found it incredibly difficult to boil one of those stories down — to a one- or two-page comics story no less! As the other artists set to work right away, I sat there sweating, running different ideas through my mind — and rejecting all of them. I even left the room and stalked around the grounds of the American Center, attempting to clear my mind and find the right story. By the time a half hour had passed and I still had nothing, it became a joke, as Émile and Badoux saw me agonizing over the assignment. It got so extreme I was even thinking my story should be my anguish at trying to find the right story!

Finally, however, I settled on an incident from my deep past, when I was but a babe. I had to scramble to plot out the piece, and pencil and ink it, all within the three-hour time allotted. The end result isn’t quite the masterpiece I had hoped, but it’s not awful…

Soccer Mom

For an example of how a master works, here’s Émile’s simple solution — just one of at least three different stories he came up with on the spot for this assignment. Sheesh — what a show-off!

Boby III

Professional Workshops

For the remaining three days of professional workshops — the morning sessions — Émile, Badoux, and I decided to keep it simple and just work collaboratively with our Burmese counterparts. We pooled ideas and came up with three we thought would work.

On Wednesday we introduced an “exquisite corpse” jam where each of the artists — including us — drew one panel of a continuing narrative. As a group, we came up with a character and a situation — a man sitting at an outdoor restaurant — and then let our individual (and collective) imaginations take over. As everyone gathered around, I started things off, drawing a guy sitting at a Chinese barbecue, with no overt clues as to what should happen next. Badoux came next, and he added conflict — and humor — by showing a close-up of the guy’s leg, with a hungry rat approaching it. Then the Burmese artists took over, and it was really fun to see the story take off, as the rat was revealed to be remote-controlled, and the protagonist morphed into a true Burmese, with a longyi and everything. The final results, which we tacked up on the board, weren’t exactly publication material, but the exercise was a great ice-breaker. We had seen each other at work, realized we shared a sense of playfulness and humor, and were looking forward to our next get-together.

Working on the exquisite corpse

Exquisite Corpse display

On Thursday I proposed a new idea, which Émile and Badoux embraced enthusiastically. Taking a pre-ruled sheet of paper, each of us drew the opening panel of a six-panel page. I drew a wooden hut, situated in a rural area at the end of a dirt road. Behind it were some simple mountains, a sign was in the extreme foreground, and a round shape — sun, moon, or… something else — hung in the sky. Badoux drew a jet plane flying overhead in a cloudless sky. And Émile drew a bedraggled, stinky dog, sitting by the side of the road. From each of these jumping-off points, the idea was for the artists to continue the story, bringing it to a satisfying conclusion by panel 6.


Mine, Badoux, and Émile’s opening salvos

Once again, the group embraced the idea and set to work. We three visitors took the challenge too, finishing the stories of our two counterparts (and continuing on to their own page, if they finished the other two in time). It was really fun to share the space as the twelve of us worked, taking occasional breaks to peek over at our neighbor’s progress. For my own part, I used Émile’s panel to reference the then-imminent Thingyan Water Festival, depicted so charmingly in Guy Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.

Water Festival doggy

Again, I was really impressed with the Burmese artists’ creative and humorous solutions to the “problems” we had posed — particularly in regard to Badoux’s drawing of the plane. For that one, many of them came up with some really rather dark and cynical interpretations, many having to do with terrorism and plane crashes. It was clear that they found the material rich for political commentary, obscured by a veil of humor.

For some reason, during this exercise a number of the Burmese cartoonists worked me into their comics! As you can see from these examples (again, artist’s names redacted), there’s no mistaking who the hapless lovestruck character in these stories is. What’s up with that?! And why didn’t Émile and Badoux suffer the same fate? *Sigh*

Josh's shack misadventure

Josh's airplane misadventure

Tomorrow: Friday’s exercise, courtesy of Émile Bravo…

Kyat Chat, or, “Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

As I mentioned earlier, the Myanmar unit of currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). It exchanges at about 1000 kyats to the dollar, and since the most common bill is the 1000-kyat bill (there are rumors a 5,000-kyat bill exists, but I never saw it), when you change money you inevitably end up with a huge wad of bills.

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion — the 1000-kyat bill actually comes in two sizes! (I think the smaller ones are newer vintage — they were trying to save paper…) So when I got a hundred of the larger ones, that was a super-wad in my pocket. Whenever I had to pull it out and peel off some bills to pay for something, I felt like some kind of clumsy Mafioso showing off for his goomah.

The other amusing thing about Myanmar money is that they’re really particular about only accepting pristine U.S. dollar bills for exchange. If it’s creased, wrinkled, or god forbid a little torn, forget it — they won’t take it! But when it comes to their money, especially the small denomination bills like the 50-kyat (worth about 5 cents U.S.), you’d see some of the dirtiest, bedraggled bills you could imagine changing hands.

Later in my trip, when I was visiting the Bagan historical site (more about that later), a salesgirl outside a temple approached me waving three U.S. $1 bills. She wanted to exchange them for kyats. I was confused: why would I want U.S. money back? But our guide explained that individual U.S. dollars were useless for locals, hard to spend and not worth near their value when exchanged in small quantities. So by changing them for her I would be doing a great favor.

Good Samaritan that I am, I agreed to the exchange and was suddenly swarmed by girls with bills. In the end I changed at least $10 worth. The irony of the Jewish guy — outside a temple, no less — changing money for folks was not lost on me. Blake, however, pointed out that I wasn’t a very good money changer since I didn’t charge a fee or interest. I guess usury just ain’t in my blood, even if it is part of my heritage. (That’s a joke, folks!)

Postscript: a few temples later, a new girl approached me with some American bills to exchange. I can only imagine that word was spreading of the pale guy in the orange ball cap who traded U.S. bills for kyats.

Kyat

Workshops Day One, Part Two

For the afternoon “amateur” sessions, to be held over at the Alliance Française, over 35 people had signed up, so Badoux, Émile, and I split them up into three “classes,” with the idea that the students would rotate each day, getting a chance to learn from each one of us.

It turned out that the “amateur” group was actually comprised of about half Burmese comics professionals and half interested amateurs — including two women (one Burmese and the other Australian) and one Buddhist monk.

Now, before we actually arrived in Myanmar, we had received some guidelines from the American and French embassies about the workshops. Remember, at its heart, this was a propaganda mission, to spread Western concepts of democracy and free expression. To quote from the original invitation I received, it was thought that “by utilizing the concept of graphic novels (a popular but rare form of communication in Burma), the target audience will have a chance to better understanding this art form and gain insight into using it as an effective means of telling stories, particularly to the youth. In Burma’s strictly censored and controlled society, people are always seeking ways to circumvent the system, and graphic novels can be another means of doing so.”

That is all well and good, but I couldn’t very well teach a workshop with such an explicit political agenda. From our brief time in the country, Badoux, Émile, and I realized that the Burmese comics culture was starting from such a rudimentary place — especially in terms of the content it addressed — that it would be better to just make comics together. Simple as that. So early ideas of discussing “‘comics and the artistic process,’ ‘the psychology of line styles and color,’ ‘word picture dynamics,’ and ‘visual iconography and its effects” were out the window.

So my approach to the afternoon workshops was to focus on collaboration and creativity. Taking my cues from mini-comics I first discovered back in Chicago — done by Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Terry LaBan, and others — I showed my students how to create eight-page mini-comics from one sheet of paper, and split them up into pairs to work collaboratively. The idea was that each pair come up with a simple concept together — just a launching-pad, really — and then create an eight-page story based on that concept, trading the comic back and forth, each doing a page at a time.

This idea of cooperation and competition — to me, the foundation stones of collaboration — seemed new to them, and there was some initial resistance (probably also partly caused by the language barrier). Eventually, however, the students got the idea — that they shouldn’t try to work the story out in advance or discuss what they planned to do, but just respond viscerally and playfully to what their partner had left them with — and the results were often really wonderful. (Concepts the students came up with included: a broken clock, learning to play football [soccer], going shopping, being trapped on a desert island, Internet dating, and picking fruit from a very high tree.)

I found that the best pairings were often when two people of different skills worked together, finding a happy medium between their talents. And maybe my favorite pair was the male Burmese professional and the female Australian amateur. He spoke no English and she no Burmese, and yet their collaboration — about a child learning to swim — was dynamic, surprising, and best of all, funny!

During the course of making these two-person “jam” comics, I found time to work in discussions of materials (pencils, pens, brushes, and paper), use of the computer (yes, the Burmese use PhotoShop too!), basic storytelling techniques (e.g., creating characters and situations), and sources of ideas and creative inspiration. And I talked about my work, specifically A.D. I figured that just by talking about the book (and its condemnation of the American response to Hurricane Katrina), the message — and the connection to their own tragedy of Cyclone Nargis — would be explicitly clear.


Professor Josh


Hard at work


Passing around the finished minis

Mini exhibit

Workshops Day One, Part One

Jet lag works in mysterious ways. Despite my extreme fatigue from the 30 hours of traveling, I didn’t sleep all that well my first night in Myanmar. I woke up bright and early at about 4:30 am, which gave me plenty of time to prepare for the full day ahead: breakfast with my two cartooning compatriots, then a three-hour session at the American Center with the Burmese professionals, three more hours at the Alliance Francaise with amateurs, and an introduction to an evening film showing back at the A.C.

At breakfast, I tried talking a bit with Émile and Christophe about the workshop, but they seemed unconcerned and confident that it would work out. It turned out that both of them had done gigs like this before — Émile in China, India, and the U.S., and Christophe in India and Algeria. I, on the other hand, had very little hands-on teaching experience. Some years back, I gave private lessons in comics to a rich Upper East Side teenager, and last November I did a mini-comics workshop with Sari at the Miami Book Fair, but that was about the extent of it. So even though I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of “teaching comics” to men many years my senior (e.g., the Burmese professionals), Émile & Christophe were so blasé about the whole thing that I was content to follow their lead.

Wesley picked us up in “Rolling Thunder,” and we arrived at the American Center fifteen minutes later. The Center is in a different part of town from the U.S. Embassy, but similarly fortified and guarded. Directly across the road from the A.C. entrance was a small hut used by the Myanmar military to keep an eye on things. It was really a sad little structure, slapped together out of plywood and “protected” by a couple of sandbags. Most of the time, the hut was manned by two slovenly guards, dutifully noting our comings and goings on little clipboards. A laundry line was attached to one side of the open-air hovel, and some stray dogs loitered around.

We entered the A.C. to find most of the cartoonists from Monday’s lunch, as well as our translator Aung. I started things off by distributing the pens I had brought as gifts. The men accepted them graciously but in a subdued manner, but I had read that it is considered rude in Burmese culture to over-react to gifts (and to my satisfaction, during the balance of the morning I noticed the artists examining and experimenting with them).

Christophe, Émile, and myself spent much of the morning introducing ourselves and our work, assisted by Aung. Then we heard from the participants, who were mostly men in their fifties and sixties, many of them with careers stretching back to the 1970s and even earlier. [Because of the nature of the Myanmar government, I’m going to refrain from naming any of the workshop participants. Even though the authorities certainly knew who attended the workshops, and even though we never directly addressed politics in our meetings, I don’t feel comfortable “outing” them in public.]

The artists specialized in children’s comics, humor, romance, gag panels, and so forth, with a couple having experience in the adventure comics field. It was fascinating to meet practitioners of my same field halfway around the world, and to see how much we had in common. For the most part, their style and approach to comics struck me as much closer to the West than, say, their more nearby neighbor Japan (undoubtedly a result of Burma being a British colony for so many years.) There was one artist who worked more in a manga style, but he was firmly in the minority. All the men were talented and technically proficient, but again I had that sad feeling that these were people whose creative aspirations had been stunted at an early age; that the Burmese perceptions of the artistic possibility of comics was quite limited.

Mutual introductions took up the whole three hours, so I was relieved of stressing out about running a professional workshop until the next day. We ended the session with me handing out signed copies of A.D. to each participant, a gift of the U.S. embassy.

Then it was off to lunch and to prepare for the afternoon amateur workshops.

International Week of Graphic Novels
International Week of Graphic Novels

Introductions
Badoux, Josh, Émile

Class is in session

Hitting the Ground Running

I had only just arrived in Yangon and had a full day ahead of me. Having cleared the introductory visit to the Embassy, “Rolling Thunder” whisked me off to my hotel.

Originally, I was scheduled to stay at the modern, upscale Summit Parkview Hotel, but there was a convention of gem merchants in town taking up all the rooms, and they weren’t able to get my European counterparts rooms there. Instead, in the interest of keeping us together, the French Embassy found all three of us rooms at the slightly rundown Rainbow Hotel. No, it didn’t have a pool, a concierge desk, and lots of boutiques and shops, but my room was air-conditioned and large, the bed was big and firm, and they had Skype capabilities, so I could keep in touch with Sari & Phoebe back home. (The next day Winston confided in me that he wasn’t happy with the Rainbow — that it wasn’t up to his standards — but to be truthful, it more fit my character, being the sort of dumpy place I usually stay when I’m on my own. And staying at the Rainbow represented a significant saving on my hotel budget. In fact, it quickly became apparent that I had brought way too much money for this trip; not a bad problem to have.)

The first thing I did at the hotel was meet Emile Bravo and Christophe Badoux, both of whom were slightly older than me, and quite polite and cheerful. It was apparent my French wasn’t nearly to the level of their English, so we made out introductions in my native tongue. I must admit that before the trip I had been a little intimidated by the prospect of working with Emile and Christophe. Given their status as European cartoonists — both working in the “ligne claire” tradition — I feared they might look down on my piddly little American comics career. But I immediately felt at ease with my fellow cartoonists, and realized that they had instantly accepted me into their “club.”

After a quick dumping of bags in my room and change of clothes, it was off to a Thai restaurant for lunch. We were met there by a contingent of Burmese cartoonists, many of whom we’d be working with in the days to come. Also at the lunch were Fabrice, the French Cultural Affairs officer, and his Swiss counterpart, Flavio. Blake, Wesley, and Fanny, the French program arranger, were there as well. (Fanny was 22, blond, and cute as a button.)

It was a rather awkward lunch, as everyone was getting to know each other and figuring out which language to use. Near the end, however, people began passing around samples of their work, which enlivened everyone. I had a beaten-up copy of A.D. to show, while the Burmese cartoonists passed around samples of their stuff. I recognized a few of the artists’ work from Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles — the very same guys he worked with! — and I was reminded that most Burmese comics were in the humor and gag vein and/or for the children. Competent, to be sure, but rather uninspired. I had a chat with one guy about how he used his one-panel cartoons to poke fun at Myanmar life in metaphorical fashion, but again it was pretty lightweight stuff. (I have to confess, too, that I was still getting a handle on things here. Was our table bugged? Was one of our overly attentive waiters a government spy? Or even one of the cartoonists? I guessed only time would tell…)

From the restaurant we headed over to the Alliance Francaise for a quick press conference for Burmese journalists, only about ten of whom turned up. In an example of the twisted logic of Myanmar, even though our visit was “unofficial” and we were all there on tourist visas — for the purpose of not tipping off the authorities that we were there — the press conference was made public, even for government papers, because most of them are on weekly schedules and anything written about us would appear after we were already gone.

In any event, the press conference, such as it was, was similarly uninspired. Mainly, Emile, Badoux, and I quickly introduced ourselves and our work, and outlined the events of the coming week. No one asked any provocative questions, and we didn’t volunteer any controversial statements.

Following the press conference, Winston took us on a quick tour of Yangon’s colonial buildings downtown and then on a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the country’s most sacred sites — and top tourist destinations We spent about an hour taking a fascinating barefoot tour of the pagoda, much of which is covered by real gold leaf. I’m not one for marveling at treasures, gems, and the like, however — much of it seemed like something from a film set. What I really grooved to was the gentle, Buddhist vibe of the place, with pilgrims of all sort wandering through the pagoda, and whole families taking in the night air.

We ended the evening with dinner at a Chinese place renowned for its Peking Duck, where we all enjoyed Wesley and his British mannerisms, as well as his florid sweating and expressive hand gestures. Tomorrow, our work would truly begin.

Shwedagon

me, Badoux, Wesley, and Emile
Me, Badoux, Wesley, and Emile at Shwedagon

Paranoia Sets In

As my plane approached the Yangon (Rangoon) airport I began to get nervous about the level of surveillance and control I would be facing in the coming ten days. Would they search the files on my computer? Would they confiscate the dozen bagels I was bringing in as a gift? And most of all, how would they react when this supposed “tourist” was picked up by an official U.S. Embassy van?

Fortunately, those specific fears were baseless; my entry into the country couldn’t have gone more smoothly. My passport and visa were examined, I picked up my luggage without a cursory look, and — before I could acknowledge that after over 30 hours of travel I had actually made it all the way across the world — I was whisked into the arms of Wesley Hughes, the Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Specialist. From Wesley’s name, I had expected to find a typical foreign services type, a WASP Yale graduate or the like. To the contrary, he was a jolly Burmese gentleman (with a fascinating family history, which I hope to get into in a future post).

The Embassy van, however, was exactly what you’d have predicted: a Chevy SUV (with the ironic nickname “Rolling Thunder”), probably the only such car in the entire country. (Someone told me later that it cost upwards of $100,000 to import a Western car into Burma — all of which money went directly to the military government). The rest of the cars on the road were mostly a sad collection of clunkers patched together from spare parts.

It was a quick drive to the Embassy, and in my bleary state I barely had time to take note of my surroundings — other than that Yangon seemed quite similar in feel to other Southeast Asian metropolises like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta: chaotic, dusty, and polluted (though no motorbikes — which I’ll also get into later). I also saw no gratuitous examples of a military presence. It wasn’t like there were armed soldiers or police on every street corner.

Security was quite extensive at the Embassy, however. The van had to pass through a double-gate and undergo a complete inspection: checking the doors, the hood, and including the use of what was apparently a giant mouth mirror to peer under the van for — what? — bombs? Once inside the Embassy grounds, I surrendered my passport to a crisply appointed Marine guard behind bulletproof glass. Only then was I officially inside.

Wesley then left me in the hands of his superior Blake (the guy I’d had the less-than-secure phone call with some days before), who was more the type I expected: tall, handsome, and friendly in an all-American way. I gave Blake the bagels, then it was off to meet Larry Dinger, the Chargé D’affaires. Dinger is ambassador in all but name, the U.S. having withdrawn our ambassador some years earlier in protest of the Myanmar government’s undemocratic ways. In fact, Dinger has previously been U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Fiji Islands, the Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Nauru, the Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Federated States of Micronesia! (So I suppose this posting was taking Dinger outside of his comfort zone of the South Pacific…) The meeting was perfunctory, though he had a copy of A.D., and I felt quite honored to be given the time, reminded that I really was in the country in an “official” capacity. Then it was off to my security briefing.

One thing I noticed right away was that whenever Blake left the cultural affairs department to visit the political or security division, he had to leave his cell phone in an outside locker. He explained that some people had the technology to remotely turn on your mobile phone and use it as a listening device. He didn’t think anyone in Burma had that kind of capability, but the policy was “better safe than sorry.”

Joe the security officer was a hairy fellow and, if you ask me, a bit of tool. He told me that as an American the “number one rule” was “city buses are forbidden,” meaning I wasn’t allowed to take one. Joe explained that every six months or so “some group” set off a bomb on a bus, usually leaving “zero or one casualties. But let’s not have that casualty be you. Just take a taxi.” OK, sir.

Joe also reminded me that the Internet was heavily monitored, and told me to expect that my hotel room would be bugged. “I’d tell you more if you had security clearance, but I can let you know that they’re not exactly the KGB here. Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” He kept hinting that he could tell me more if I had security clearance, but, since I didn’t…

Joe seemed to be starring in his own spy movie.

And even though my bagels had made it through customs, my paranoia was starting to come back.

P.S. Again, some names have been changed to protect them from whomever might be reading this for the "wrong" reasons.