On Leaving Lydian Behind in Burma — By Jennifer Shipp
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On Leaving Lydian Behind in Burma — By Jennifer Shipp

John and I are on the final leg home after two months in Southeast Asia. For the first time ever on these long journeys abroad that we’ve taken since 2010, Lydian is not with us. She stayed behind with a man she met in Burma. In fact, partway through the trip, she abandoned us to rendezvous with him in Yangon.

As John and I retrace the same steps back through the same airports we took when we left home for Singapore in December, I can’t believe everything that’s changed. And how it feels normal that everything in our lives is different now. It was as though we knew that this would happen, but how could I have known that my daughter would meet a boy in Burma, of all places, and fall in love at first sight? Or that I’d absolutely adore this boy. My affection for him grows with each day as I talk with Lydian over the phone and each day she’s absolutely giddy with happiness even though technically, the two of them are stuck in Burma (or at least Southeast Asia). I feel blessed to have at least gotten to meet this boy (Naing Naing, pronounced Nine-Nine) while we were in Burma and as she tells me about him over the phone, I listen carefully, trying to construct a 3-dimensional image of him in my mind because I know it may be many months before Lydian and Naing Naing can come to Mexico. John and I have never been apart from Lydian for more than 24 hours at a time. So, it’s monumental that she was willing to stay with Naing Naing in Burma, a place with regular power outages, a primitive healthcare system, and earthquakes.

About two weeks ago, John and I got sick with malaria which turned out to be a small event in the grand scheme of things (though it was all-consuming for a few days, believe me). Lydian watched over us and as soon as we were well again, and obviously going to survive, Lydian hopped on a plane to fly from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Yangon, Myanmar (aka Burma) to meet Naing Naing. He’d traveled twice across Burma already during the time period when John and I were shivering and sweating, rolling around in our beds, wishing for death. The boy had $6.50 to his name, but he boarded a night bus three days after we left Burma (after hours and hours of phone and text conversations between he and Lydi) for Lydian in an effort to get a passport and a visa to come to her country (Mexico). His efforts were heroic, given the traffic and the bus conditions, but on top of that, Naing Naing gets motion sickness doing land travel. He traveled 8 hours on a night bus, not once, but twice in an effort to get to Lydian (on his first trip, he learned that his National ID card was expired so he had to return to his hometown, Bagan). And as he readied to board the bus the third time, Lydian decided to fly to meet him. And because by that time, she was head over heels in love with him, she got him a plane ticket so as to avoid making him do another nightmarish and dangerous bus ride across Burma.

Naing Naing had never even been on an escalator before, but he got himself to the airport at Naung U and boarded the plane fearlessly. Meanwhile, in Yangon, Lydian drew a heart on a piece of paper (the monks smiled at her when they saw it) and she held it up as she waited for him to arrived off the plane. She said he didn’t even notice the heart, he was so intent on just finding her. As soon as they were together, he carried her heaviest bag (I gave him bonus points for that), and they headed to a hotel together. They held hands for the first time on the taxi ride to the hotel.

So here we are, John and me. We’re about 40 hours into a sojourn that started in Chiang Mai on our way to Mexico City. We still have 8 or 9 hours left to go once we reach Mexico City before we finally get to sleep in a bed. But the trip hasn’t phased me yet. John and I have been working on a puzzle since we left Chiang Mai: how can we get Naing Naing to Mexico to be with Lydian? As an American, the answer seems simple: get him a visa. But there are only about 13 countries that Burmese people can travel to visa-free. And the visa requirements for Burmese citizens are hard to fulfill because of the way the banking system works in Burma and because this is a country that’s being slapped on the wrist by the Powers That Be (the United States and the European Union specifically). Most of the red tape has to do with human rights abuses in Burma, but unfortunately, it’s the people who’ve had their rights abused by the Burmese government that suffer the most for these sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU. So for now and for the foreseeable future, Lydian and Naing Naing are living in Bagan. That’s the puzzle: how do we get them both out of Burma so they can be together in Mexico?

Bagan is a very lovely place. Tonight, on a layover, Lydian and I talked for two hours and she told me that she was standing on a terrace overlooking a landscape of temples. Bagan is admittedly beautiful. It’s a small town that’s incredibly peaceful but still buzzing quietly with tourism this time of the year. The climate there right now is utterly acceptable, but by April, temperatures can soar as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And by July, rain makes everything uncomfortable all day every day. So Bagan is okay for now, but something tells me, it won’t be for long.

But while they’re there, Lydian and Naing Naing are thinking of elaborating on a tour business that he started a year ago (Crescent Moon Tours). As it turns out, Lydian was working on a tour company idea in Guanajuato, so this suits her fine and she and Naing Naing are excited about it as long as a visa to the U.S., the EU, or Mexico is forthcoming (any would be acceptable because all of these visas would make travel to Mexico possible in a screwy, roundabout way).

Ironically, if the two of them have a business in Burma, the odds that Naing Naing will get a visa is significantly enhanced (industrialized countries want to feel certain that Naing Naing won’t immigrate and that he intends to return to his home country). Lydian can work in Burma but only within a limited scope on her current visa and she and Naing Naing have to choose from 5 Southeast Asian countries to do visa runs every 30 days until we can sort out the next step toward getting either a U.S. or Mexican visa (either would work since a U.S. visa automatically makes Naing Naing eligible for a Mexican visa). This whole Burmese Visa Ordeal has broadened my horizons considerably. As an American, I’ve never had to do a Visa Interview. At the most, I’ve sent in extensive paperwork to visit countries like India, China, or Russia along with my passport and a month later the visa arrives in the mail. But Naing Naing has to bring a pile of documents with his passport to do an interview in designated locations (Yangon for the U.S. visa or Singapore for the Mexican visa). The interviews are nerve-wracking. The process is challenging. And most importantly, there is no guarantee that he’ll get the visa.

So John and I started contacting lawyers and doing research and it looks like there’s hope, but Lydian and Naing Naing will be living in Bagan, Myanmar for a little while. Two days? One month? Two months? Six months? They were going to get an apartment together there, but the options were scanty and a little scary so hotel rooms will suffice for the time being. Nonetheless, Lydian’s enthusiasm is not dampened. She has so much to talk about. Tomorrow, she and Naing Naing will go on foot to cross a river and go meet his parents in a small farming village nearby. Lydian is scared, but I know her…she’s also totally captivated by this experience. She knows it’s going to be cool. A part of me is jealous. What an incredible story!

Another part of me is incredulous.

How on earth did this happen?

If someone had told me when I was in high school that my future daughter would meet a Burmese boy in Burma and fall in love at first sight, I would’ve said, “Where the hell is Burma?” If I would’ve known at the beginning of this trip that we’d leave Lydian behind with the love of her life, on the other side of the planet, I would’ve been terrified to leave home. But before I knew that Lydian and Naing Naing were exchanging furtive glances across the vegetarian restaurant where they met, I liked this young man with the thick accent. He took risks to make sure she knew he liked her even with her parents (us) watching it all (there was a fruit plate incident, for example at the restaurant where he worked).

So, as our plane descends and the lights from Mexico City become visible along the horizon, I can’t deny that I’m awed. Life is weird and sometimes wonderful.

Like the lights of the city that at first look like nothing but an orange, glow, I’m anxious to see the bigger picture and figure out this visa thing. I suppose, in tales of true love, there’s always a dragon to slay, and a plot to unfold.

Now the sun is rising.

And I guess I feel tired. We’ll see what new developments today brings.

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