Access denied: visas not a given for tourists.
Cheap flights and Internet connections these days makes travel to obscure destinations seem easier than ever. We assume American dollars and Western passports can get us access to anywhere. And while many sheltered countries look to cash in on tourism, tight visa restrictions are still a brutal reality for those of us who like to get off the beaten path to more untouched areas.
I’ve traveled to 25 countries in my 25 years, all with relative ease. Foregoing ownership of a car, savings, investments, allowing students debts to mount, and always trying to get out of work at a different part-time job, I’ve done almost anything to travel to the next destination of choice.
Seeking truth, adventure and human connection with local people in their homes and in their daily lives (anthropological study of contemporary anything, in many societies; could be buskers of Glasgow, street people of Marrakesh or food hawkers of Singapore) has always been the format.
When I choose a travel destination, I dive headfirst into literature, film, local media and the experiences of those lucky enough to have smelled the air and walked the streets of said place before. I do my research, set aside some money, book a flight and then I pack a small bag and go. This is all very easy. I’ve also been blessed in finding the best travel partner on the planet, with the same nose for adventure and easy-going spirit in getting lost. She’s even better at taking care of logistics, which is good for me considering I’m usually an excited and nervous wreck in anticipation of whatever experience lies ahead.
Armed with ambition and having senses slave to wanderlust, often I assume my next adventure will just fall into place, where careful planning (once I’m on the ground in the chosen destination, itineraries and directions go to the wind – in planning here I mean getting to and from a place with the right tools and supplies needed) will allow for smooth sailing and easy access to all the things I’d hoped to see.
In recent months my mind has been drawn to Myanmar: that Asian country know to many as Burma. A place where Nobel-laureate and champion for democracy Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, civilian uprisings against ruthless military rule often end in bloodshed, and where less than 2 per cent of annual GDP is spent on health care and education combined: these are the things I knew about Burma. But I also knew that the Burmese culture, history, temples, relics and jaw-dropping landscapes are often passed over for cheap and easy trips to places like Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia.
So you could say I was interested in getting off the path and getting close to the people. I didn’t want to go to so I could say I was the only one I knew that had been there, or to get involved in things political over my head, rather, I wanted to go so I could say I’d seen good and bad with my own eyes, smelled the cities and walked the villages with the people who know nothing else of life. And then I would have that experience to recall in growing my understanding of a people, place and time. This is how I travel.
Recently, however, my plans to travel to Burma in the coming weeks were basically put to an end. I’m a journalist by training and by trade you see, and knew from the start that my application to visit a country littered with poverty, democratic suppression and the rule of a gilded and endlessly corrupt military fist would not be looked upon favorably.
I can’t remember being more excited in anticipation of a trip, perhaps not since I traveled to Turkey for a month or so in 2008. Safe to say I am now gutted, mostly because I had grand ambitions of documenting my experience for the Hejorama community and for Canadian radio listeners back home. Not many get the chance to travel in Burma (compared to numbers in Thailand, etc), and many don’t bother, knowing a good chunk of their American tourist dollars (crisp and new bills only accepted, serious) will go directly to the government. Many hotels, tour companies, shops and the railways are owned by the junta in Burma, but I knew it was possible to get money into the hands of entrepreneurs if I was careful.
In short, I’m not sure where I’ll be off to next. What is clear, however, is that any future adventure will be in seeking truth and documenting human experience, all the while setting my sails free to the wind, in regions and countries that allow me to do so inside of their borders of course.
The worst part about my application for a Burma visa was in having to direct attention away from my identity as a journalist. It’s sad that having signed a sworn statement denying interest in political activity and pro-democracy writing, I’m still not aloud to travel to Burma. I confided in Mark MacKinnon, the Globe and Mail’s China correspondent who recently spent two weeks in Burma. It’s not clear how he hid his identity as a journalist, but of course thing all come with a little bit of luck.
I now watch on television as journalists are doing anything for access to places like Iran, putting up with abuse in Egypt, and sneaking over the border into Libya. With enough effort I know someday I’ll find a way into many places, and Burma still tops my list, despite a rough ride from the embassy in Canada.
To borrow from the great adventurer and note-taker of the human experience Paul Theroux, the journey onward shall be my great adventure, the whole point of my travels. Today I’m not sure where I’ll alight, or at what pace this grand train shall travel on, but what is certain is that my eyes and ears will always be open, always documenting, the only purpose being learning, and of course in sharing.
Your friend in endless wandering,