I think that Myanmar in 1988 was still called Burma. And yes I could go to the Wikipedia and find out but that's not the point. I just want to tell the story of how my Argentine school buddies Diego Wainer and Raul Chevalier and myself were detained in Burma in 1988, and how we got out. This story came to my mind after I saw the pictures of the Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai who was murdered by the Burmese military this week in the covers of the New York Times, Financial Times and El Pais. I felt very, very sorry for him and thinking about his death I remembered about our crazy Burmese adventure with a happy ending and felt like telling the story. Here it goes.
Back in the '88, in a move reminiscent of college girls who share rooms and start menstruating in sync, my childhood friends Diego, Raul and I had all independently broken up with our respective girlfriends. Bizarre coincidence. We were all depressed and wanted to do something radical to snap out of it. It was then that Diego saw an ad in the New York Times that advertised a trip around the world with stops in Shanghai, Bangkok, Delhi and some other exotic destinations all for only $1050. So we went for it and took off for China first. We had a fantastic time in Shanghai at a time in which economic liberalization was beginning to happen, the air was clean, China looked like people who have not been to China think it looks like.... and bicycles ruled. As you can imagine by the third day we were in Shanghai we all had girlfriends and were clubbing every night in tiny illegal night clubs that were probably of the size of the bathroom of the now mega night clubs so common in China. After leaving Shanghai and saying good bye to my very sad Chinese 2 week long girlfriend, we flew to Bangkok where this time it took us 3 hours to have girlfriends who wanted to marry us. Some said they were hookers but if they were they were the first hookers I had ever met who wanted to marry me. Plus one of the characteristics of us Argentines is that we think of ourselves as so attractive that we could not possibly imagine that a girl would like us for anything other than our charm. We had a great time in Bangkok, great temples, food and the highlight was a hands free restaurant in which the waitresses would not only serve the food but feed you and wipe your mouth as I now do with my 11 month old son.
After a week of wild partying in Bangkok we heard that we could go to Burma and we thought that it would be an exciting adventure. We also knew that it was illegal but everyone did it and we were in the "WTF" kind of mood and we went for it. Burma, unknown Burma, that was our destination. We rented a car and drove from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the very North of Thailand at a time in which roads were single lane and there were more animals than cars on them. One of the reasons we rented a car was that before going to the North we had gone to the South and a CRAZY thing had happened and that is that the flight we had missed from Pukhet to Bangkok crashed and everyone died. And yes we could also get killed on the road as well, but I remembered reading about the stories of the lives of those who had died on the plane crash in the Herald Tribune and was somewhat flying averse for a while.
We drove for many many hours. I remember it was a long trip and yes I could look up in Google Maps and tell you how long it was but I don´t feel like it. What I can say is that our arrival in Chiang Mai was pretty triumphal and only 3 minutes after we got out of the Chiang Mai hotel we already had girlfriends who wanted to marry us. After a few hours I thought that my Chiang Mai girlfriend was the best, it seemed that the more away you went from civilization the more credible the love that my girlfriends showed me seemed and while I was still crazy about Sonserai (the girl who broke my heart in NYC) I found the Thai girls fresh, funny and perfect to help me on the rebound on that summer 19 years ago.
But all partying comes to an end and after a serious meeting with Raul and Diego we decided that we were going to leave our Chiang Mai girlfriends and go to the jungle alone. We heard it was a very tough trip and on top of that we knew that Burma was dangerous and we did not want to risk their lives as well. I now look back and think about how crazy the whole thing was but then, we were in our 20s and if you don´t do crazy things then, when do you do them? So off we went to the jungle with our guide, our elephant drivers, in a male only excursion to the jungle between Thailand and Burma. I still don´t remember why we decided to travel by elephant, all I recollect is that in the muddy jungle that we crossed on the way from Thailand to Burma elephant transportation would have probably been the only way to travel. If you never traveled by elephant let me remark now that it was not at all as charming as it seemed. The elephants were covered in mud, the saddles were converted wooden fruit boxes tied with ropes, the elephant drivers had household hammers with which they would violently hit the elephant eyebrows so they would move forward and in order to maintain speed the drivers had to do something akin to fondling the neck of the elephant. As an Argentine I had heard that in Asia the Sultans played Polo with elephants and I had this idea that I was going to get a beautifully saddled elephant to ride on. I guess I was no sultan...
I also remembered that because it was so damn hard to get on top of an elephant, we could only get on an off at improvised elephant stops that were basically like tree houses without roofs. We would go up a tree trunk, get on a platform and from there jump onto the fruit boxes. While my friend Raul and I who agreed to share one elephant and greatly enjoyed the whole adventure despite constant rain and the mosquito air formations that seemed to be straight out of a WWII movie, we could frequently hear Diego in the back, who had his own elephant, explaining to us how the whole trip was "una gran mierda" and that we were either "locos" or "locos de mierda" for wanting to do it. To me what was especially fascinating was to watch the enormous legs of the elephants sink in the mud and come out again making extremely weird noises that could now be used in electronic music. Wop, wop, wop. The trip took a couple of days. At night we slept with the hill tribes who introduced us to opium. While I had tried the most common Latin American drugs, cocaine, and marijuana, with poor results (cocaine felt like drinking a quintuple espresso and marijuana put me to sleep) I had never tried opium and my memories of the one time I smoked it are very different than those of the local drugs that were widely available in South America. While I had given up the fight against mud and was basically sleeping without bathing at night I remembered that Raul who is still probably my most hygienic friend insisted to take a shower and got the tribe people to give him a gasoline container filled with water and used it as a shower. After that he managed to get into our hut without getting muddy and there he was, all clean and shiny while Diego and I looked straight out of a Land Rover commercial. And then a local tribesman (in the jungle we only dealt with men) came in with the opium pipe. I don´t know if you ever smoked opium but it looks like smoking black bubble gum stuck to a pipe. Opium turned out to be such a powerful drug that as opposed to cocaine or marijuana I just could not realized that I had taken it, after taking it. All I remember is that I was flooded with a sensation of well being that even when I thought I had ants crawling over my body in my delirium the ants and I were actually close friends. And not only did I want to tell the ants how much I cared about them, I remember telling Raul and Diego that they were such good friends, that I loved them and even apologizing profusely for not having said this before....and then I fell asleep.
The next day turned out to be our "near miss collision in Burma" day. What I remembered is that we left the elephants in the village and the guide said we had to continue by boat and that as we went up the river we would go into Burma. He also said that it was dangerous but that he was going to take us into an area inhabited by local tribes away from the military and that that would be safer. But he also warned us that in that area the Burmese army was fighting heroin producers. I had already recovered from my opium hangover and I remember saying that that was as far as I was ever going to go in the experimental drug trail. By then I had realized what an enormous effect opium had had on me and had come to the conclusion that opium, or maybe heroin would be the only drug that I could get addicted to and that turned out to be my one an only experience with opiatives and all drugs for that matter. As CEO and father of four now I am a "too much in control" type of guy and I even avoid the "occasional joint". But at that time, I just wanted to test the limits of everything.
That morning, the four of us got into a canoe with an engine of the kind they love to use in that part of the world and off we went...into Burma. The morning was uneventful, we sailed for hours at a slow speed up a river in which we rarely saw anything other than jungle. It was somewhat similar to the rivers of Northern Argentina or Paraguay that I had known as a child but without the Yacares and Pirañas, two species that I somehow was not sorry to miss. Interestingly the native populations of Thailand/Burma and those of South America looked pretty much alike but that´s another story. So when did things go wrong? Well we were taking a rest by a river bank, eating some weird food that the guide had for us, and then I looked at the guide´s face and saw him completely changed his expression. I turned around and saw around 40 soldiers armed to their teech coming out of the jungle towards us. The troops were still far away but not far away enough to run from their bullets. So we stayed put, they had clearly seen us and it took them a few agonizing minutes to get to where we were. I asked the guide if these were "heroin rebels" or Burmese soldiers and he said the latter. When they got to us, their expressions had none of that friendly South East Asian hospitality look. On the contrary the Jefe soldier looked very angry to find us there. In a very good English and while continuing to point his rifle at us (sorry I hate arms and could not tell what brand it was other than it was big and had a hole facing me), the Jefe asked us for documentation and inquired what we were doing in Burma. His reaction to see Argentine Passports was one of curiosity. Maradona he said, and Maradona we nodded hoping that the "hand of God" would also be with us this time. After the Jefe gave our passports to a colleague and we thought we were headed to Burmese jail or worse I could hear Diego rumbled something about us being "locos de mierda", stuck in a "jungle de mierda" and "metidos en un lio de mierda". Raul and I were only slightly more positive at this point. The Jefe then asked each of us what we did. Diego said he was an architect which the Jefe found boring, I said I was a real estate entrepreneur, which then I was and the Jefe found that even more boring, and then it was Raul´s turn and Raul said he was a musician and that made the Jefe happier. "A musician" he said and turned to his troops and said something in Burmese that made them all laugh. He then looked back at Raul and still pointing at him with the rifle said "sing something!". Diego and I glanced at Raul and our stare said it all "sing or we are dead". And Raul, who used to be the bass player and singer at Zas, then the leading rock band in Latin America, chose the most appropriate song to sing at that moment. It was not a rock song, it was a tango, "Adios Muchachos" the famous Gardel song that is basically one long good bye of a friend to his buddies: Adios muchachos compañeros de mi vida (good bye my dear life long friends). The song was very appropriate for the moment. Diego and I did not know if we should laugh or cry. But we chose the former, and it worked. Because as Raul sang everyone seemed to relax and enjoy his tango. When he was done the Jefe clapped and his troops followed suit. So did Diego and I. And then the Jefe much to our surprise said to us "now we sing" and he again addressed his troops in Burmese and we were very pleased to see that they started laying down their weapons and sat on the floor, in a circle. We sat as well and the Jefe and his troops started singing to us. We were pleasantly shocked. A few seconds before it looked like I was going to follow the faith of my cousin David Horacio Varsavsky who was murdered by the Argentine military and moments later the Burmese military were singing for us! And they sang, and we sang, and then they took out a bottle of a liquor that tasted like pure alcohol to me and I could not stomach, but Raul with his Rolling Stone habits of course could. The singing marathon went on for hours. The whole thing turned into a party in which the only missing element were the girlfriends we had left in Chiang Mai.
As I read the papers these days and think of the Burmese quiet revolutionaries who are confronting the military with chants and I remembered how we managed to get the Burmese soldiers to sing to us, I felt like telling this story. Will the Burmese soldiers go on killing or join in the singing? The outcome is still uncertain. In the meantime I want to dedicate this story to Kenji Nagai who died trying to alert to us that there is a peaceful revolution going on in Burma. My heart is with him and his family in Japan.