Su Su, who works out of a tiny cube on a traffic island in Rangoon, has been making predictions about love, health, careers and travel since 1990. She doesn’t need much fodder — just your birthday, including the day of the week, and $10.
With these aids, she initiated a one-on-one with the cosmos, which whispered my personal forecast in her ear: I would meet someone special in July or August, move to South Korea to work for an NGO in 2015, and suffer from hypertension after age 50. And I should eat more peas.
Despite Su Su’s convictions, and my eagerness to embrace her vision of my future, I know that my tomorrow is uncertain. And I’m not alone: Burma’s is also hazy.
The country wears a cloak of mystery and mystique intensified by images of golden stupas rising out of dense jungles and Buddhist monks silhouetted in the morning mist. Over the centuries, Burma has been a tug toy among invaders (the Mongols), colonists (the Brits) and occupiers (Japanese), yet none of the marauders could dull the sheen of the Golden Land. The aspirational destination shines bright in our imaginations, a wounded yet beautiful starlet dogged by darker forces.
For nearly 50 years, a military junta ruled the Southeast Asian country, which it renamed Myanmar, affixing to its chest a scarlet letter that repelled conscientious travelers. Many tourists avoided Burma altogether, while others would try to minimize the money flowing into the government’s pockets by patronizing only independent enterprises. The joy of visiting Burma came with a taint.
But in 2011, a nominally civilian government assumed control and unspooled a string of reforms. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest, won a seat in parliament, as did other members of the once-banned National League for Democracy. Some political prisoners gained their freedom. The National League for Democracy, with Suu Kyi’s blessing, lifted its travel boycott with the caveat of practicing responsible tourism. (Note: Parts of the country, such as areas along the Chinese border and in Rakhine and Shan states, are closed to tourists or require a special permit.)
Although the guilt of traipsing around Burma hasn’t completely disappeared — the ruling party still maintains ties to the military — it has abated. The scarlet letter has been temporarily removed.
So in late January, I packed a duffel for Burma, leaving any emotional baggage behind — no tortured conscience, no sputtering excuses, no apologies. A firm believer in engagement, not isolationism, I hoped to connect with a people and a place previously cut off from the rest of the world. My campaign: to embrace Burma, not to shun it.