“The hill tribes,” I said.
“They’ve got some exotic ones there,” he said. “Women with necks like a giraffe. Ripley wrote about them in Believe It or Not.”
“The Padaung,” I said. “They put copper rings around a young girl’s throat and keep adding more as she grows.”
“Until she winds up with a neck a foot long.”
“The neck isn’t actually lengthened,” I said. “The ribs and collarbone are pushed down. If you remove the rings, the woman can’t hold her head up.”
“Out of shame?”
“No, literally. The muscles haven’t developed. Remove the rings and her head flops over and she suffocates.”
“Women,” he said heavily. “Who can figure them?”
“We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them, Tanner.” That last sentence came out as a dry croak, and he drank some water. “This past year,” he said, “SLORC decided to join the twentieth century while there’s still time. Started issuing longer visas, making a pitch for tourism. Let the Chinese come in and build hotels all over the country. Forced the minority tribes to pay a heavy labor tax, with each family sending a member to work on the roads. They’re getting good roads built, you have to give them that, but they’re not scoring high marks in human rights.”
“Are they getting tourists?”
“Not too many. Before they kept the reporters away from her, Suu Kyi was telling the world to stay away, that tourist dollars only helped SLORC. There’s another side to it, the argument that opening up Burma to the outside world is the best way to press for a change of government. As to who’s right, your guess is as good as mine. Mr. and Mrs. Tourist can stay home and read Kipling if they want. Far as I’m concerned, there’s only one person who has to catch the noon balloon to Rangoon.”
He didn’t have to tell me who that person was.
“Passport,” he said. “What kind of shape is yours in?”
It was rectangular, as I recalled, but that wasn’t what he meant. “It’s expired,” I said, “and that’s annoying, because it had a few years to go the last time I used it.”
“You haven’t renewed it?”
“I’ve been busy getting caught up,” I said. “And I didn’t know I’d be going anywhere.”
“I’m not sure it’s renewable at this point,” he said. “It’s probably too long out of date. You met young Cartwright, didn’t you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, you will. He’ll have some forms for you to fill out, and he’ll get your photo taken. We’ll see to the passport and arrange a Burmese visa. That usually takes a while, but I still have strings I can pull. By the time you’ve had your shots and got started on your malaria pills, your papers should be in order. A few days, I’d say. A week at the outside. You’ll get word as to where and when.”
It was hard to know what shots I needed. A yellow-fever inoculation, for instance, is good for ten years, and I’d had one in 1969. That was either three or twenty-eight years ago, depending on how you counted. On the one hand, I couldn’t explain to a public health official in a third world nation that I’d spent all that time in cold storage. He’d want to see the right numbers on my health certificate. But how would my system handle one shot three subjective years after the last one?
I got the shots the book said I needed and let it go at that. I had two days of muscle aches and low-grade fever, but it wasn’t so bad. Truth to tell, I was too busy trying to learn Burmese to pay much attention to how I felt. It didn’t come easy. A language is always more difficult for me when it has its own alphabet, and the Burmese alphabet was particularly elusive, with all the letters looking pretty much the same. They were made up of circles, with or without tails, and a page of written Burmese had the look of a colony of bacteria seen under high-power magnification. The letters didn’t actually wiggle around the way germs would, but after a while they seemed to.
The spoken language was a little easier, but it gave me trouble, and I wasn’t sure how much point there was in the little time I had. As far as I could tell, most Burmese had at least some English. The British had run the place long enough for their tongue to have had lasting impact, and what the empire had failed to accomplish in that regard was now seen to by CNN and SkyNews. If Burma was opening up to tourism, that meant they were opening up to English. In recent years it had become the whole planet’s second language.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’d always hated the whole idea of Esperanto, the simple tongue specifically created to tear down the language barriers between nations. As a man who spoke so many languages, I liked those barriers; they kept out other people while I slipped right past them. But the mother tongue of Chaucer and Shakespeare was a little different from the artificial creation of L. L. Zamenhof. I still disapproved on principle, but I couldn’t work up much in the way of righteous indignation.
I wasn’t sure how well English would serve me in the tribal areas. I read a dozen books on the country, and navigated the Internet to half a dozen web sites, most of them passionately anti-SLORC. Among the many intriguing facts I learned was that 350,000 of the Chin people lived in Burma, and that they spoke forty-four mutually unintelligible dialects. There were barely enough of them to make up a city the size of Albany, and the odds on being able to ask your next-door neighbor for a cup of shrimp paste were 43-to-1 against. When you butted up against a fact like that, it was hard to say it would be such a bad thing if they all learned English.
I had ten days to study Burma and its languages before the phone rang and Minna handed it to me and that same uninflected voice said, “Hotel Maxfield, Room 314, half past two.” A.m. or p.m., I wanted to ask, but he broke the connection before I could get the words out.
I’d never heard of the hotel, but I found it in the yellow pages. It didn’t even have a bold-face listing, and when I got to it, on Forty-eighth Street west of Broadway, I could see why.
The desk clerk eyed me suspiciously. I guess he wasn’t used to customers unaccompanied by young women in hot pants and halters. His face changed when I gave the room number, and he pointed me toward the staircase and told me unapologetically that the elevator wasn’t working.
The Chief was waiting for me. They’d had, he said, a little trouble with my passport. “It’s your face,” he said. “Dammit, you don’t look like you were born in 1933. We thought of doing some computer aging of your photo, but then it wouldn’t look like you, and where does that get us? Just look like you were using a stolen passport.”
“Couldn’t you get the passport and alter the date?”
“That would work fine for getting you into Burma,” he said, “but you might have problems reentering the States. The data on the passport wouldn’t jibe with what’s in the computer in Washington. That could set off an alarm or two.”
“Same problem if we took the easy way out and forged a passport for you. We’ve got good forgers, but they’ve got scanners that are even better. Makes it almost impossible to get into the United States with a forged passport.”
“Suppose it’s not a U.S. passport?”
“We thought of that. Give you a forged American passport for getting into Burma and a forged Belgian passport, say, for getting back to the States. Too risky, too much of a juggling act. Best thing was for you to have a legitimate United States passport, with the right photo and the wrong birth date. Same day and month, so it’s easy for you to remember, but 1958 instead of 1933.”
“But if it’s not a forgery and the date’s not altered-”
“We forged a birth certificate for you, and let the government issue a bona fide passport with an erroneous date.” He handed it over with a flourish. “Evan Michael Tanner, born 1958. Hang onto this, why don’t you? Be a nuisance to go through that again.”
I took the passport, flipped through it, winced a little at my photograph, found my visa for Burma.
“Tickets,” he said, with another flourish. “A bit roundabout, I’m afraid. You have to change planes twice, in Seoul and in Bangkok. Coming back, well, you may have to sneak out of Burma, so you probably won’t be able to use your return ticket out of Rangoon. But if you can get to Bangkok, there’s an open return to New York.”
I looked at the tickets. “Business class,” I said.
“We’re not working for Uncle Sam anymore, Tanner. And Rufus Crombie doesn’t make his boys sit in the back of the plane.” He passed me another envelope, a thick one. “Expense money,” he said. “Spend it freely and keep whatever’s left over.”
I was beginning to like the sound of this.
“You leave the day after tomorrow,” he said. “Not much advance warning, but the passport and visa took longer than planned. Sooner gone, sooner home, eh?”
“I suppose so,” I said. “There’s one thing, though.”
“Either I wasn’t paying attention,” I said, “or you haven’t told me yet. But I’m not too clear on what I’m supposed to do once I get there.”
“Ah. Well, the first thing you’ll do is take a sounding. Put out some feelers, get the lay of the land. Then you’ll want to go to ground so you don’t have some SLORC lackeys following you around all the time.”
“Then you want to look for the best way to destabilize the government, don’t you? You’ve got the dissidents in the cities, and you’ve got the ethnic minorities in the outlying regions. From where I stand, Aung San Suu Kyi looks to be the key.”
“So should I make contact?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said. “What the boys in the Company would call ‘contact with extreme prejudice.’”
I looked at him.
“Kill her,” he said. “What better way to make the balloon go up?”
He got a faraway look in his eyes. “The noon balloon to Rangoon,” he said. “Sailing far overhead.”
“You Americans,” Suk said. “Hopeless sentimentalists, and so illogical. You don’t eat dogs, you don’t eat cats, you don’t eat monkeys, you don’t eat horses-”
We don’t plant taters, I thought. We don’t plant cotton. But them that plants ’em…
“But you use monkeys for torturous laboratory experiments,” he said, “and dogs and cats as well. And you slaughter no end of horses and feed them to your dogs and cats. And the surplus dogs and cats, the ones nobody wants as pets, you put to death at great trouble and expense. You kill them, but you don’t eat them. You cremate them or bury them. What an absurd waste!”
“I suppose we could ship them over here,” I said. “Dead dogs for the tables of Thailand.”