“So you are hungry and tired?” “Yes, very hungry and tired,” I replied to the kind-looking man in airport uniform. He was a little perplexed. “You are not leaving for four more hours so just go away for a while and come back at one o’clock.”
I had arrived from Singapore from Amsterdam from Trondheim earlier in the morning. Spending the night on an airplane next to a family with a two-year old and a baby made sleeping more challenging than it ought to be on an airplane. The only redeeming factor on the plane was getting to watch Bradley Cooper and the red wine was good.
Arriving in Yangon I remembered my visa. It was only on my computer and not in my passport. I decided panic was not an option and acted as if I thought everybody just opened their computer and pointed to the visa confirmation letter in the email inbox. And it turned out a young, cute Burmese man was waiting just for a person like me. “Come with me,” he smiled and I followed. We stopped at an uninhabited counter and he scratched his head, then said: “Show me your passport.” Which I did. He took out his smartphone and took a photo of my passport then said: “Wait a little, OK.” It reminded me of an earlier time at Yangon airport when I had showed up without a ticket and without money and in the end got an executive for Thai airways to get me a ticket all the way back to Thailand anyway. While waiting I did nothing. Then, like a world-class sprinter, the little man came running back, smile all over his face. He waved a white paper and said: “Here you go.” And just like that I had my visa. I thanked him and he showed me where to go next.
Getting out from the passenger zone at the airport is a little bit like being onstage on Broadway. Behind massive glass windows are rows of chairs arranged so that anybody who wants can come and sit down and watch passengers arriving. Here they sit and watch while chewing their beetle nut and sniffing jars with tiger balm. They are having a good time chatting together whilst watching weary travelers get their luggage and venture out to freedom. I was observed. I felt self-conscious because it was a while since I brushed my teeth. And my hair? My hair lived its own life.
From international to domestic I had to walk past numerous well-intending taxi drivers who all offered me the best price in town. Then, inside the domestic terminal, busy took on a new meaning. There was a bustle of activity with travelers lining up in unorganized lines in front of temporary counters with the names of the airlines they represented. Between the would-be travelers moved airport officials carrying luggage of all sizes to and fro. Then there were all the relatives and the relatives’ relatives who were there to wish their loved ones Bon voyage. There were also the cleaners. The ones mopping around our feet. And there was I with my backpack and electronic ticket. I found the slightly disorganized Myanmar Airways line and braced myself for the long wait. With only a handful of computers and way more passengers than the system was built for, there were challenges. I waited for thirty minutes without observing that one single passenger received a boarding pass. I was glad I had four hours to wait. But I worried it would get boring. And I was hungry. Very hungry.
The man appeared next to me and asked if I was heading for Mandalay. I told him no and showed him my ticket on my phone. “You are too early,” he said. “You must go away now and come back in two hours.” “But where shall I go, and what shall I do?” I asked him. As if it is airport officials’ jobs to make sure the travelers have something interesting to do. “You just have to go away and then come back.” “But look, there are no chairs for me to sit on and there is no food. I am very tired and hungry.” He looked at his watch and looked concerned. “You are very hungry and tired, is that right?” I nodded. He smiled a smile of understanding. And he could fix my problem. “I know what I will do,” he said determined. “Follow me.” He took me behind his check-in counter where his other staff was still sweating over a computer system that appeared to be obsolete. “Sit down here.” He gave me a red plastic stool to sit on and I could have a good behind the scenes view. “I will personally check you in. Only you. Just wait a little, OK.” I nodded and smiled. I tried to imagine something remotely close to this happening in my country.
A few minutes later he came and got me. Again: “Follow me!” Then off we walked. Past the lines, past the staff, through security without a boarding pass. Past sleepy tourists, up the stairs. “I want you to get some food and upstairs here we have three restaurants. You can eat and relax and then at one o clock I will come back and get you and I will check you in. So which restaurant do you want to go to? That one? OK, now you sit here and relax and then I will come and get you.” And then he was in off.
So here I am now, drinking a cappuccino and watching the Burmese around me slurp their lunch noodles. I am thinking that what I have just experienced today is trust on a level I seldom experience in the West. I don’t know how long the people here will be able to trust strangers the way I experienced today. I hope it will be for a long time. And I will make my utmost to deserve the trust of my new friend. When he comes to get me, I will be sitting here, exactly where he left me.