Countless times (because I stopped counting) I was told I couldn't do what I wanted to do. Unless it's a dirty psychological tactic intended to get me to do what you warn me against, that approach never works. Each person, one after the next, responded negatively when the question was broached. Usually without hesitation and occasionally with furrowed eyebrows and a head tilted sideways. I stopped counting but I do recall the first incident. He was an Indian man who lived and worked in Yangon as a biology teacher — someone who understood the Myanmar Situation much better than I. We met on a street in Bangkok, near the embassy where we both needed to square our visas. Since the information I found online about a) renting a motorbike and b) driving it around the country, was sketchy, incomplete, and contradictory — and because he lived there and I did not — I decided to ask: “Is it possible to rent a motorbike and drive it around the country?” 

“No, no, no... You can't rent motorbikes in Myanmar,” he confidently replied, a little too confidently if you ask me. “Maybe a bicycle is better. They’re cheap too. You can buy a new one for $40.” As kind and as helpful as he was, even giving me his contact details and offering to meet me in Yangon during his free time, I recognized that our perspectives on this matter were not aligned. He was too mainstream, and, as I saw it, a little too confident in the mainstream way of doing things. Besides, the tourist visa for the Myanmar Situation was only good for 28 days. How much ground could I cover in 28 days on bicycle? Also, I had done the bicycle thing before and didn't particularly love it. The tedium of having to find a way to secure your bike at a new hotel every night, loading and unloading the saddlebags during an exhausting day spent huffing and puffing, inhaling exhaust and dust from passing cars and trucks… Mostly, there was spandex, both as a concept and a groin squeeze. No, there would be no bicycle involved. I needed an engine.

For reasons I struggled mightily to explain to certain dad-like others, or to reckon with myself, I was obsessed with traveling in Myanmar by motorbike. Precisely due to the fact that renting motorbikes was not an established industry, or condoned in any measure (according to all the (mainstream) naysayers), procuring one became all the more of an obsession. The motorbike aspect of this obsession was so integral to the overall deviating-in-Myanmar notion that without a motorbike I had no real explainable purpose (to myself or to certain dad-like others) for deviating in Myanmar. Even with the motorbike playing its starring role, there were other contextual difficulties in attempting to explain the whys and the whats of this endeavor — as in, “Why Myanmar?” and “What do you hope to accomplish there?” How to explain, and have it make sense to the average respectable person — one who believes in the norms about working a hard 40 or 50 years, scrimping and saving all the while, good-golly, in order to retire to your golden years in comfort, with kids and grandkids and what have you — after quite spontaneously selling my house and abandoning my career to spend x years writing a dense, heavy-like-a-stone piece of social commentary which stood a minuscule chance of taking me anywhere but back to my previous line of work, once my hopes and dreams and life savings were depleted, that during this book-writing, no jobby-job phase, I would first live in Berlin (where all the poor dreamers flee with their “projects,” only to get lost in any number of bodily pleasures) then Thailand (ditto re: projects and bodily pleasures), and while in Thailand I would take a monthlong deviation in Myanmar, now that the Myanmar Situation was opening up despite its ongoing conflicts with armed resistance groups in numerous regions of the country, because I wanted to a) rent a motorbike and b) drive it all over the place? The above-noted “opening up” detail generally covers the “Why Myanmar?” question, leaving “What do you hope to accomplish?” still unresolved.

In addition to being economically isolated and/or traumatized by American and European sanctions, now partially relaxed, the Myanmar Situation was closed to outsiders for so long that — as it was now, partially, opening its doors — the Situation was ripe for a person of my constitution. The partiality on both sides of that equation was itself the ripening factor for a person of my constitution. Absolutes are for war correspondents or cruise ship passengers. Allow me to clarify. If backpacker as a travel category falls squarely at the midpoint of those two absolutes (which, admittedly, is a dubious claim considering the sheer number of poseur backpackers out there, right now, in this very moment), I, as what is henceforth dubbed deviant tourist, stood somewhere between backpacker and war correspondent. (For the record, poseur backpacker as a category of its own sits between backpacker and cruise ship passenger, but much closer to cruise ship passenger than any poseur backpacker is willing to accept, because that's what it is to be a poseur: one who poses to be the other. Also, war correspondent is not at all a form of tourism, as such. It is the point at which tourism reaches 0%, according to this highly subjective spectrum I’ve manifested from thin air — poof — like that.) In other words, for one such as myself, the partiality of the Myanmar Situation in general (kind of settled here but warring with certain tribes there, kind of open to Foreigners but not everywhere, becoming democratic but not in any substantial way) fueled the obsession to procure a motorbike (specifically). And in order to live up to the nobility of this admittedly self-defined category deviant tourist, I would drive this motorbike all over the place, without knowing the specifics of the Myanmar Situation, in general.

I had vague images in mind. Images of lush tropical forests untouched by tourism and the global market. Forests I would first have to find, then explore. (Note: in this fantasy the real exploration didn’t begin until I had reached the forest.) I liked these images and followed them blindly, thinking I would recruit someone to teach me about surviving in the forest like a real jungleman. In this imaginary world of mine I also hiked alone to stunning, cascading waterfalls, whereupon I proceeded in scaling those waterfalls (because that's what a jungleman does upon discovering waterfalls in a forest). In order to find these forests I needed a motorbike and the freedom to go where I wanted to go, alone, without depending on public transit, travel schedules, and government permission slips. If asked, it wasn't a plan I could translate or explain in any coherent way. When questioned by certain dad-like respectable people, any answer I gave was in large part bullshit, to be honest.

All I knew or understood, and this intuitively, was that I needed to drive a motorbike in Myanmar. If I could put it together in space, all else would be explained in time. Flowing real time.

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What's The Story?
Despite ongoing civil conflicts Myanmar has recently opened its doors to foreign visitors, promising reform and a transition to democracy, and Ash Hoden is inexplicably compelled to explore the nation’s jungles. Through a back alley winkie-wink handshake he acquires a mechanically prone Chinese motorbike, which it is illegal for him to rent or drive, and takes to the road. Evolving from a blind stumble to a wide-eyed limp, the voyage reveals a stark, behind the scenes glimpse of the social and environmental conditions found in this oppressed and unsettled nation. Assuming economic isolation equated to an abundance of raw wilderness, he finds desolation instead; frontier zones where resources were plundered and shipped to international production zones, further impoverishing tribes who depended on them. Rather than isolating Myanmar’s natural resources from market forces, international sanctions exposed them to lawless pilfering by its military regime. Aimlessly driving from sucky here to sucky there, struggling to find cause for continuing such a seemingly pointless endeavor, he slowly comprehends the nation’s distinct cultural conditions — preserved by force in a vague midpoint between tradition and modernity.

Myanmar is a fledgeling, incoherent conglomerate of ethnicities and folk tribes, all struggling to survive under an oppressive regime. It is a window through which the preliminary stages of constructing a nation-state are on display, complete with the need to establish a national identity as a means for homogenizing disparate people into a uniform, contemporary notion of The People — much the way it happened in the United States.

Layered into the adventure itself, elucidated piece by piece with each twist and turn, is the birth of a philosophical framework for living an exquisitely less obedient life. The meaning and excitement of Deviation as an ethical pursuit blossoms in tandem with the meaning and excitement of the author’s own deviation. Involving crossings through war terrain, detainment in a remote military outpost, frequent mechanical breakdowns, and lots of pondering about the nature of it all, this is Deviation’s origin story.
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On the road in Myanmar
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Deviant Without a Cause
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Deviating to Myanmar
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