Once Upon a Time in Rangoon

Once Upon a Time

Burma Row

Once Upon a Time in Rangoon

It was 1986. Two Journeys clients who had traveled with us to Nepal stopped over in Burma on their way home.  Their taxi driver in Rangoon (now Yangon) struck them as very special, and when they returned to Michigan they told us about him. The taxi driver's birth name was Seep Bahadur Chetry. His Burmese name was Win Tin. He came from a small village, from a family of flower farmers, and he called himself "Kishan", which means "farmer." He wanted to be a tourist guide.

Tour guiding in Burma? Are you kidding?

In the early 1980s we were reluctant to get involved in Burma. At that time, we had programs in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In Burma we would have less room to maneuver. We would be forced to accept government tourist services and strict limitations on itineraries and interactions. 

But there seemed to be a different kind of promise in Kishan's story. The Journeys travelers told us that Kishan was eager and warm and smart, that he had an indomitable spirit, and a big dream. He wanted to be an independent guide. He had no foreign contacts and no government connections, and he didn't even have a Burmese last name.  His grandparents had immigrated from Nepal when they served in the British Army and then settled in the hill station village of Maymyo (now called Pyin Oo Lwin), north of Mandalay. When the British left, the Chetry family stayed.

Kishan wanted to be part of a bigger world. His ambition to become a tourist guide made his friends and family laugh. He didn't even speak English. How would he get training?  Kishan borrowed books and listened to English on the radio, and he practiced speaking aloud with dogs and cows whom he found to be more patient than doubting friends. (Indeed, Kishan is a "dog whisperer" though no one knew that term back then. He has an uncanny ability to calm and amuse dogs.) He left home with no finances and no education, and found himself in Rangoon taking on all manner of odd jobs. He was a flower vendor. He was a taxi driver's helper, assigned to hunt for passengers. Recognizing that foreign visitors and foreign ideas came into Burma via the airport, he would station himself there. Over time, he had learned enough to convince desperate arriving travelers that he could help them handle the bureaucracy.  He made a fantastic impression on  the Journeys alumni who recommended him to us.

Kishan had no phone, fax or telex, so we wrote to him on an aerogram, the super lightweight blue writing paper used for international mail back then.

Objectively desperate and relentlessly optimistic

Kishan's response came by letter several weeks later, and led to more correspondence. He convinced us he would take wonderful care of our clients. We came up with a plan, and sent our first travelers. They had lots of travel experience, and were game for an adventure, though they got more than they bargained for when their timing coincided with a violent military crackdown on the fledgling democracy movement.  Kishan shepherded them safely to the Rangoon airport for their departure and he was then trapped in the airport for two days while fighting raged in the city. 

From August 1988 until 1991, Burma was closed to foreigners. Government repression was intense. Kishan's family joined him in Yangon. They had no money, and they struggled to obtain enough food to eat.  We managed to reach Kishan via his neighbor's telephone, and we learned something amazing about the capacity of a resilient human being -- that it's possible to be objectively desperate and relentlessly optimistic at the same time. Yes, things were hard, Kishan confessed, but he was confident that If we could loan him $2000, he would get through this difficult period and he would surely pay us back. It's hard to explain exactly what it was that led us to believe in Kishan, but we knew we wanted to help him. We had no assurances as to when Burma would be safe, and when it would again open to tourists, but Kishan instilled faith.

In 1991, Will made a personal visit to Burma to determine if there was any hope of restarting a Journeys tour program.  Will -- a former Peace Corps volunteer from Nepal --  surprised Kishan and his family by speaking Nepali, their household language. This deepened the appreciation the family already felt for the assistance Journeys had provided, while Will's appreciation deepened in return.  Kishan had not wavered in his determination to start a private business. They traveled together, pooling their creativity on what could have been a hopeless search. They identified small hotels and restaurants not owned by the government, and they recruited guides who were university instructors instead of government civil servants.

Office in Myanmar

When Kishan applied to become Burma's first licensed private tour operator, his enthusiasm won over the government officials who came to believe that he was not a threat. He opened his business as "Journeys Nature and Culture Explorations" and repaid his loan more quickly than any of us would have imagined.

It Goes Both Ways

Kishan and Will USAIn 1993, Kishan visited us in the USA.  We still remember the first time he walked into the Journeys office, so totally delighted to be here, greeting each person with an exuberant protracted hand-pumping, making us all feel so incredibly happy and so fortunate to do what we do and to know him. He photographed everything, from the McDonalds drive-thru to the supermarket check-out to the squirrels in our yard, and his enthusiasm never waned.  We have had lots of wonderful, meaningful, visits from our colleagues from around the world, but none has matched that first visit from Kishan for the appreciation it gave us of the privileges of our own society. 

To this day, Will is moved as he recalls his trip with Kishan to Washington, D.C. on a clear autumn day. Kishan wore a suit, and so Will dressed up too. They posed for photographs in front of every great building and monument, with flags waving.  Kishan explained to Will that he needed to bring these pictures home as souvenirs but also as inspiration: this was the kind of society he hoped would some day prevail in Burma.

During the two decades that followed, the paranoid military government of Burma (re-named "Myanmar" by the generals) kept things under extremely tight control. Kishan managed against all odds to develop his private tour business.  He trained guides and drivers and local hosts during this period, but the international boycott effort discouraged most American tourists from visiting. Journeys  in Ann Arbor was named to an international "Dirty Dozen" list because we defied the boycott. We continued to feel strongly that we could help more people in Burma, and facilitate greater and deeper understandings, if we encouraged visitors. Every traveler who took us up on our offer reported back to us with appreciation and gratitude.

Few people are aware of the important role played by private Burmese citizens such as Kishan in situations like the infamous Cyclone Nargis. This 2008 event is considered the worst disaster in the history of Burma, resulting in an estimated 138,000 fatalities. The government of Myanmar did almost nothing.  International relief efforts were handicapped by government suspicion of nations like the US and Britain which had been trying to enforce vigorous boycotts of the country and then were suddenly eager to bring in military-style relief plans. In the void, the tourist industry mobilized vehicles and manpower to help rescue the wounded and stranded, and to communicate to the outside world the need for private contributions to help care for refugees of the massive flooding. Kishan and his staff were at the forefront of the relief effort.

Now, in 2012, with Burma allowing democracy and encouraging more private enterprise and a more open society, Kishan's optimism has been rewarded.  When we meet, we trade stories of the early days and reflect on our good fortune in finding each other. We remain aware that Kishan is a perfect example of indefatigable persistence, and we realize that his continual search for the positive in everything, is key not only to his success but also to his joy.

Will and Kishan & Family

Photo: Will with Kishan, Vidya, and their sons in Myanmar, 2011.