Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The most wholesome back-alley transaction I've ever been involved in, and how it serendipitously came about

On the way to the alley

There are very few times in life when one can use the word "serendipitous," in the same sentence as the phrase "back-alley transaction." In fact, this may be the first union of said word and phrase. While most back-alley transactions are far removed from the idea that God, angels, or the universe are looking out for us, the two being linked isn't entirely unheard of. Those whom would consider themselves more spiritually in-tune can often see how the powers that be conspire to look after miscreants, drunks, and others that wouldn't fall under the "spiritual," tag. While I may fall somewhere in between spiritual and miscreant, I can assure you my time in Myanmar, as well as how it came about, were set in stone beyond my own will.

When I traveled to Myanmar in 2012, it was the first year that tourist visa's were being issued. Backpackers and travelers alike were quickly jumping on board to try and get a taste of an unspoiled country that held adventures no internet search could spoil. As I created plans, those of which would ultimately crumble, I found myself reading a Southeast Asian travel guide while waiting on a bus from Denver to Boulder. I had missed the 12:00 am bus, and having to wait another hour, I wasn't too amused. Enter in my now close friend Jen.  We had never met before this, but Jen saw my book, approached me about a fear of traveling alone in Myanmar, and proposed tackling the country together in August/September. Granted, this was April, and I never thought I would see her again, I willingly accepted. Fast forward 4 months and you would find myself and Jen re-meeting (more so meeting for the first time) at a hostel in Bangkok at 4 am, getting ready to hop in a taxi to the airport. The will of travel works in mysterious ways!

Serendipitous meeting number 2, you ask? Enter in Colin. On my first night in Bangkok in May, I randomly met Colin's ex-girlfriend. When I came back to Bangkok in August to get ready for my trip to Myanmar, Colin's ex-girlfriend invited me to stay with her and "her friend," in a hotel that her friend's school in Myanmar was paying for while he sorted out his working visa. This "friend," of course, was Colin. He allowed us to stay with him, and even let us have the hotel room one night when he decided to stay at the luxurious Labua. Colin also invited Jen and I, whom he hadn't met, to stay with him in Yangon when we arrived in Myanmar. This was the final piece needed for our back-alley extravaganza!

In 2012, Myanmar did not have functioning ATMs. Each traveler heading to the recently opened country was warned to bring crisp, new USD that could then be exchanged for Kyat (pronounced Ch-ah-t). Travelers were also warned that Myanmar would be expensive, so bringing more money here than you would normally spend in the other countries was essential. Banks in Bangkok knew this was the case, so they offered the bills with no hassle. Jen took this information to heart. I, on the other hand, grabbed some new bills, but assumed my bills from home would be just fine. This was not the case.

After navigating customs, Jen and I made our way to money exchange with Colin, whom met us at the airport. Colin had figured out the systems already, so he took it upon himself to help us out. After Jen received her money with no problem, I presented around $700 of my $1000 USD to be exchanged. When I passed my USD under the glass windowpane, I was met only with a blank look. These 2012 $100s, $20s, and $10s were of a series that wasn't accepted in Myanmar. I gave him my other remaining $300, only to find out that of the $1000 I had in my possession, 3 $20s and one $10 would be accepted, leaving me with the equivalent of $70 for a month of travel. I never felt so poor carrying $1000 in cash. 

As panic began to set in,  Colin assured me there was another way. While guidebooks promised that only the airport and maybe a few hotels would exchange cash, Colin said there was a man who bought USD that wasn't accepted at the airport, but at a smaller exchange rate. At this point I had no other option, so into a taxi the three of us hopped. Colin directed the driver (whom had an amazing grasp of English) to the spot. We jumped out of the car in front of a fancy shopping center, only for Colin to point across the street to what seemed like a crack between two rundown apartment buildings. That narrow ally was where we were headed.

As we crossed the street and dipped between the two buildings, I started to have thoughts of what it would be like to go to jail in Myanmar. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as Thailand, but I'm sure it wouldn't be the best accommodation I'd have on my trip. After passing by numerous small portals with curious heads peering out, Colin showed us in through a small door. As my eyes adjusted, I found myself in a small room lit by candles and what little sun passed through the windows in the ally. I was scared, but to my surprise I didn't find a hard gangster surrounded by pools of ammunition, firearms, and plastic bags filled with strange substances. The man sitting there was a normal, smiling, middle-aged guy. He welcomed us, gave us all chairs to sit in, and asked to see my bills. After examining my currency, he smiled and said "all your bills are cracked or broken." Before I could say anything, though, he offered me a rate of around 850 Kyat per dollar (only 10-15 Kyat less than that of the airport), and proceeded to give me the largest plastic bag of currency I'd ever laid eyes upon. We spoke for a few more minutes, graciously accepted his advice for BBQ restaurants, sipped some tea, then made our way back out of the alley.

While I can't speak for all travelers, I know that most of my craziest travel stories all involve a certain element of outside involvement. Be it delivering me safely on rickety transportation, or keeping me out of trouble on nights where my miscreant side shines, I have always landed on stable footing. Though Myanmar found me in some tight situations, I can tell you that those willing to take a leap of faith will always have an unseen, helping hand. As for my back-alley transaction, I may not be an expert, but I can only assume it is one of the most wholesome to ever occur. 

Not all back streets are dangerous, some hold beauty and adventure

Photos Courtesy of Author and friends

For more of my writing on Myanmar, check out the following posts:

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