Lessons in Myanmar #2

The people in Myanmar have your best interests at heart, at all times. Even when they don’t really know what your best interests are.

Take my adventure to collect my baggage from the airport as an example.

I had decided that the only way to ensure I brought everything I needed with me was to pay (quite a bit) for another 25kg to be flown as cargo out to me in Myanmar after I had departed. My bags were collected and paid for with ease at the British end and an email was duly sent confirming the action.

This is when things started to go a bit wrong because the Internet link they had provided to enable me to track my luggage across continents and into Myanmar didn’t work. I had no idea if the plane had arrived when they said it would and, without a working SIM and a non-existent grasp of the language, a phone call was out of the question.

I decided my best course of action was to rock up to the airport and find out, as I didn’t want to incur storage fees by leaving the baggage there while I waited for the British end to respond to my email informing them of their failed link.

So that’s what I did. Armed only with money, my passport and my not working phone, which had copies of the emails I had sent and received during the process stored upon it.

The taxi ride to the airport was typical. It was the first time I’d got a taxi alone out here but I felt perfectly safe, even when the driver pulled up on a busy road, got out and opened the bonnet and tinkered around for a few minutes before climbing back into the car and continuing on his way.

I was dropped off at departures and from there I started my quest.

First port of call was Airport Information where two pretty Myanmar girls with very little English interpreted my request as lost and found luggage, not cargo. I was sent to get a security pass (and part with my passport, which was stored on a shelf in the security office in exchange for a pass!) and cross into departures to ask at the lost and found office. Which was easier said than done because I couldn’t find it! In the end I asked a security guard who sent me in the right direction to look for the Myanmar Air Office. However, getting other people to understand his instructions as I repeated them took some effort.

A very helpful lad at the security gate before check-in (wrong way round I know!) took me up into the offices above the terminal. There I got to speak to representatives of Vietnam Air (who were the company flying out my bags) who redirected me to… Myanmar Air Office. But where was it?

This time I had to cross into check-in, which included bag check and body scan, and find the office in the far corner of the terminal. Finally, I had the right place. Or did I? At first, they produced a book that clearly said lost and found. I patiently explained (for the nth time) that it wasn’t lost or found but cargo, shipped out after my arrival. Eventually, I was taken to a lady at a table outside the office who was able to find my name in a different book and begin the process of … the paperwork.

Now, the problem was identity. I had had to exchange my passport for the security pass I needed to access the office on the other side of the security gates. Luckily I had my British driver’s license with me, which they readily accepted. Then, columns were filled in, numbers noted and signatures exchanged. I had the paperwork I needed to claim my baggage.

So where was it? Oh, up the road at the customs house, just a two-minute taxi ride away.

Throughout this entire process I had been extremely calm. I knew that eventually I would end up in the right office, talking to the right people and that I’d get my bags. I had been warned that misunderstanding was inevitable because the Myanmar people will say yes to everything, even if they mean no or ‘I don’t know’ or even ‘what the hell are you on about you stupid woman!’ Because they want to help, and they try really hard to help, even when they are not sure of what it is you need help to do. I simply had to trust that the cargo company had done its job and the airline had delivered the bags and that someone would eventually deliver me to them.

A taxi picked me up and drove me to the customs house just up the road. I feel guilty about that as I asked him to wait and didn’t pay him, little knowing how long it would take for me to collect my bags or that he couldn’t park and wait for me. When I eventually made it out he was gone with his fee, however minimal that might have been, unpaid.

The customs house was another experience all together. I lost count of how many people I was shuttled between; how many betel nut stained smiles and bemused stares I got; how many times I walked between tables and rooms; how many chairs I was offered to sit on while I waited for someone who could a) understand what I wanted and b) could help me get it. I got to the point when they said ‘one minute’ meaning anything from two to ten, I would simply smile and say ‘no problem’ and wait. Everything was done in triplicate, with carbon paper and at least 3 different stamps, manually adjusted and inkpadded, and signatures galore. It was a glorious lesson in good, old-fashioned paper work but, you know what, everything got done and eventually my bags were released to me, in tact.

Plenty of thank-yous in my awful pigeon Myanmar successfully communicated my gratitude and I headed out of the warehouse with several lessons learnt:

  1. Patience is a virtue
  2. Smiling is key
  3. Explaining yourself very carefully, with gesticulations and email back up won’t always get you what you want, but you will see lots of things and meet lots of people
  4. Always ask, ask and ask again until you are completely clear
  5. Expect them to do the same
  6. Know that misunderstandings can and will happen
  7. Relax and let it happen
  8. The people in Myanmar really do have your best interests at heart

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