“You are drug trafficker,” said my interrogator. “Yes?”
“You come to Myanmar, buy drugs, sell drugs. Destroy moral fiber.”
“Never,” I said. “I’m all for fiber. I know how important it is.”
“You got drugs in pack.”
“They searched my belongings at the airport when I got here,” I said. “They didn’t find anything.”
“This time,” he said confidently. “This time we find.”
But they didn’t, and it didn’t make him happy. There were some more rapid-fire exchanges with his subordinates, and you didn’t need to know the language to realize he was pissed off – at them, at me, and at the stars in their courses.
He barked a command, and they pulled drawers out of dressers, ran their hands over the bare closet shelves, crawled around looking under the furniture. And they came up empty.
Well, Burma, I thought. What could you expect from the Third World? His American counterpart would have come well prepared, with some contraband of his own to discover if he couldn’t find any of mine. But this crew was so sure they’d find that foil-wrapped brick in my knapsack that they didn’t have a Plan B.
“I don’t know what you’re looking for,” I said reasonably, “but it doesn’t look as though you’re going to find it. Why don’t you tell me what it is and perhaps we can look for it together?”
“Shut up,” he said.
I opened my mouth, considered, and closed it.
“That. What is that?”
He was pointing at my waist. “It’s a Kangaroo,” I said. “A fanny pack, they call it, because if you turn it around” – I demonstrated – “it rides on your fanny. Of course, they don’t call it that in England because a fanny is something different over there. I don’t know what they call it in Canada.”
He held out a hand. Obediently I unclasped the Kangaroo and gave it to him. He opened it and shook out its contents onto the bed. No foil-wrapped brick, but how could there be? The brick was substantially larger than the exterior dimensions of the Kangaroo pouch.
“Now take off clothes.”
“Couldn’t you just pat me down?” I patted myself down to give him the idea. “Nothing here,” I said. “Nothing at all.”
“Take off clothes,” he said again, and one of his men aimed a gun at me.
I took off my clothes. My pants, really, because that was all I was wearing. And my undershorts. And, at his insistence, my money belt.
“American currency,” he noted.
“Well, yes. I suppose I’ll be sorry I didn’t take traveler’s checks, but-”
“Now you bend over.”
I braced myself, as one does for a routine prostate examination, and I wrestled with every man’s two great fears at such a time – that it will hurt, or, worse, that it will feel good. Neither came to pass. The procedure, let us say, was not overly invasive.
“Put on clothes.”
“With pleasure,” I said. I got into my shorts, then reached out a hand for my money belt. He just looked at me. “I guess that’s a no,” I said, and put on a shirt and trousers. I picked up my belt, and he took it away from me.
“It’s just a belt,” I said. “To keep my pants up.”
He put the end through the buckle, draped the noose he’d thus formed around his neck, and mimed hanging himself. “Not safe,” he said.
“But that’s ridiculous,” I said. “You can’t expect me to walk around without a belt.”
He looked at me.
“Oh,” I said.
He bent over the bed, sifted through the articles he’d shaken out of my Kangaroo. He opened the little flashlight, examined the batteries. He checked out my Swiss Army knife, as if contemplating a concealed-weapons charge. Then he picked up a foil-wrapped condom and thrust it at me.
“You are on sex tour,” he said. “Come to corrupt women of Myanmar.”
I didn’t even try to answer that one, and he threw the offending article back on the bed.
“You drug trafficker,” he said. “Yes?”
“I think yes.”
An-ah-deh seemed to have gone by the boards, so I figured to hell with it. “I think you’re full of crap,” I said. “I don’t approve of drugs, let alone traffic in them. I hardly ever take aspirin for a headache, and I certainly don’t-”
“Lariam,” I said.
“Lariam, just like it says on the wrapper. They’re malaria pills.”
“Well, anti-malaria pills, actually. You don’t get malaria from a pill. You get it from a mosquito.”
The Lariam tablets, like the condoms, were individually wrapped in foil packets. There were more of the Lariam, though. I had to take one a week while I was in Burma, and was to continue the regimen for four weeks after I got back home. They contained mefloquine, the prophylaxis of choice now that most strains of the disease were resistant to chloroquine. (If you build a better mousetrap, someone once told me, God will build a better mouse.) Lariam wouldn’t prevent infection, but it would kill the parasites once they got in your bloodstream, before they could be fruitful and multiply. And it would remain effective, I suppose, until evolution unfailingly produced a new strain of Lariam-resistant little buggers.
The man in charge tore open a packet, took out the pill it had contained. He touched the tip of his tongue to it.
“Bitter,” he announced.
“Well, of course it’s bitter,” I said. “They’re not after-dinner mints.”
“Very bitter,” he said accusingly.
“Very bitter indeed,” I agreed. “After all, they’re quinine.”
“A form of it.”
“I think heroin,” he said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “That’s very amusing. Heroin for malaria protection.”
“No need for quinine,” he said. “There is no malaria in Myanmar.”
“I know,” I said, “and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.” He stared at me. “It’s a song,” I explained. “Little green apples? Roger Miller? Never mind.”
“Heroin,” he said authoritatively. “But we see. Send pills to laboratory, test them. See if they quinine or heroin.”
“Fine,” I said. “You take them, and let me know what you find. Meanwhile I’ll just continue to enjoy your beautiful city and-”
“You come,” he said. “You go to jail now.”
“For little while,” he said, “until we get report from laboratory. If pills are what you say, then you will be deported from Myanmar and returned to your own country.”
“But why? For telling the truth?”
“For giving false information when registering at hotel. For claiming to be tourist on visa application and pursuing commercial interests.”
“Oh,” I said.
I waited until we were crossing the lobby to ask what would happen if the pills were heroin.
“Then you a drug trafficker,” he said. “And we hang you. Not with belt, though. We use rope.” And he said something in Burmese – a translation, I suppose. And everybody had a good laugh.
The cell was a cage built into a corner of the room. It was a perfect ten-foot cube, with the floor and ceiling and two walls making up four of its six sides. Steel bars formed the other two sides, with a door fashioned in one. It had swung open to admit me, and had swung shut with me safely inside. A padlock the size of a man’s hand assured it would not swing open again.
There was a mattress in one corner of the cell and a chamber pot in the other. That would have been fine for one person, but there were two of us. My companion was sitting cross-legged on the mattress when they shoved me into the cell, and he didn’t change position or utter a word until they left. Even then he remained silent until I looked up at a sound of rhythmic thumping overhead.
“He’s dribbling,” he said. “The guard. Dribbling a basketball. Didn’t you see what they had on the ground floor? There’s a basketball backboard and a few other odds and ends of athletic equipment. When he can’t stand sitting at the desk and staring at me, and when he doesn’t feel like stretching out on the couch and ignoring me, he’ll go upstairs and shoot baskets. I don’t know if the ball ever goes through the hoop. There’s no clue from the sound if he’s missing or making his shots.”
He grinned. “The accent, right? Yeah, I’m from Melbourne. And you’re a Yank.”
“From New York.”
“Never been there. Always wanted to go. What did they get you for, mate?”
“Lariam,” I said.
“Lariam,” he said. “What the fuck’s Lariam?” His eyes widened. “You mean for malaria?”
“Against it, actually.”
“Stone the crows,” he said. “You can get high on Lariam?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then what do the sodcutters care if you take it?”
“They’re going to analyze it,” I said, “and see if it’s heroin.”
“No, of course not. But I’d guess the lab report will say whatever they want it to say. If they just want to deport me, they’ll say it’s Lariam. If they want to kill me, they’ll call it heroin.”
“Kill you,” he said. “Would they do that?”
“I hope not.”
“Stone the crows.” He got to his feet, a very tall and slender young man with shaggy hair and a full beard, all of a reddish blond. “What we’ll do,” he said, “is we’ll sleep in shifts.”
“I won’t be able to sleep.”
“You think so now,” he said, “but wait until you’ve been here a couple of hours. If the heat doesn’t put you to sleep, the boredom will. Don’t suppose you’ve got a cigarette, do you?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Very wise. Fucking things’ll kill you. Wouldn’t help if you did, because the sodcutters’d confiscate ’em, same as they did mine. Took me belt and shoes, too. Yours as well.”
“So we won’t hang ourselves, though how could you? Nothing to hang from. And the shoes are a right puzzler. Mine didn’t even have laces, they were slip-ons, and they took ’em anyway.”
“I think they’ve got something against shoes,” I said. “Not just in monasteries and pagodas. I think they disapprove of them altogether.”
“You ask me,” he said, “they hate the whole idea of feet. Fucking sodcutters would be happier if everybody was cut off at the knees. We’d all be scooting around on little wheeled platforms, eating rice and kissing Buddha’s arse.”