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Through sick and thin: haze and hope in Myanmar


I never imagined that Myanmar would see me sprawled across the isle of a rickety bus, wearing a skirt and doing everything in my power to avoid changing my position. It was a miracle that I had managed to find an old seat cushion for my face, though, and I’d only been kicked in the head once. Also, the skirt was damned comfortable. A hell of a way to spend an evening, I’ll admit, but it would probably do to back up for a moment before we get to that.

Inspecting Mandalay’s airport, one cannot help but notice that the atmosphere is eerie with its drear and lack of commotion. After my companions and I disembarked our plane, there was so little happening around us that the tone for my trip to Myanmar had been set early; here was a country that had only just begun shining a beacon of light towards the rest of the world, and a people whose enthusiasm had never been allowed to shine openly. After exchanging negligible amounts of currency, I found myself careening towards Mandalay on deserted streets with a man who had seemed to be the only taxi driver in the airport.

Myanmar picture

Pagodas, awash in yellow and green light, protruded like cold stalagmites from the barren earth. The smell of wood-fire (a byproduct of the local style of slash-and-burn agriculture) hung heavy and omnipresent in the air. My buddy Luke, ever the enthusiast, spoke earnestly and with vigor about the political and historical situation in Myanmar. My own excitement was accentuated by the sensations of this land I’d dreamed so often of visiting in the past. I didn’t want to view Burma as an enigma, hostile and hopeless, but as somewhere real, somewhere fraught with human lives simply making their way through time, regardless of circumstance.  There was air of reservation about the few people we had encountered, which seemed to fit quite well into the dim landscape projected before us. Behind their eyes, though, there were glimmers of hope, wisps of possibility in a country that been through so much.

Mandalay’s air, like its architecture, is distinct. There is a choke, like the collar of a pulling canine, that hangs just above your knees and flitters into your nostrils. It’s not acrid, per se, but stagnant. The agricultural smoke mingles with the exhaust of vehicles produced cheaply, that are now very old. There are trucks and tractors trudging along the road with their motors exposed, suspension belts spinning their tires along in plain sight. Insectile, almost hostile, these lengthy and conspicuously barren vehicles emitted the odor of neglected maintenance. Factory smoke, the smoke of burning rubber from tires, fields burned asunder so crops could be turned anew, all seen as easily in the iridescence as smelled.

Myanmar picture

There’s a few other things that stick out about Mandalay – firstly, it’s dark. Near the beginning of my wandering trek about the town, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why the city felt so ominous. After a while, it becomes clear that there are no streetlights, no stop signs, and no stop lights. Driving here is a miracle and a terror. The alleys and streets are choked with darkness and trash. After a right turn, I came upon a mother and child digging through the largest pile of side-walk garbage that I’ve ever seen. These spectral beings reached into the heap in a state of surrender that seemed to border on acceptance, their stark faces accented by the shadows cast from what meager light could be found. I moved on.

Food was, of course, a prerogative. After passing a makeshift market, characterized  by lamps hanging from motorcycles to illuminate knock-off goods atop blankets, I stumbled upon a food-stall. Clientele was minimal and the mood was solemn.

I sampled curries and dahls with balls of rice. My longing for consistent protein saw me taking a small chicken wing as well, avoiding the prawns that sat beside it. It took one bite for me to surmise that the chicken was no longer safe. As for how long it had been sitting in the choking haze I’m unsure, but it must have been longer than four hours. The red of the small vein under the bite I’d taken sticks in my memory for some reason, and after being disgusted by it I mustered up the idiot courage to take another bite.

The night in our hotel saw me slick with cold sweat, curled into a fetal position to mitigate emerging aches. As time ticked towards departure, I tried in vain to keep down any form of food, or even water. Without discrimination, all things rose again from my stomach to splash, with force, into the maw of our hotel toilet. For a moment I considered staying, telling myself it wasn’t possible to travel in such a state. I would meet them in Bagan, yes, that is what I would do. Soon, however, it was time to go.

I boarded the bus. The driver and his wrangler (the fellow in charge of getting people on and off the bus in a timely fashion) were not the kind of fellows to display compassion for someone’s ails, and I was no exception. I had to take the seat in the back, even while pleading with them to let me sit closer to the door. They either did not understand or did not care. I seated myself, prepared water, and did everything I could to breathe and think about anything but rotten food and the churning in my stomach.

We had driven for maybe half an hour before stopping to pick up another passenger. I knew that if I remained on the bus it would be soiled with the contents of my stomach, so I stepped off into the gag of Mandalay’s heat. Squatting on my toes, gulping the thick, ground-level pollution into my fragile lungs, I rocked back and forth until I spewed another painfully pressured torrent onto the pavement. I was regarded with nonchalance by all the Burmese, and a pretty Korean girl (our new passenger) stepped over my diluted form to board the bus. The wrangler got off the bus and tapped me on the head. It was time to go, and if I didn’t want to be left behind I’d need to board. So, board I did, pushing away thought and doing whatever possible to summon some inkling of will not to die.

The drive from Mandalay to Bagan traverses a desert dotted haphazardly with palm trees and townships reminiscent of America’s Old West. Small streams line up against sporadically organized piles of garbage, and most of the landscape is conspicuously devoid of people or animals. The sun thrums across the ground, and the horizon seems to intersect with a mirage of dust or sandstorms, though there is no wind.

The bus eventually arrived in Bagan, and I’d managed to choke down water and a few grapes. Though dehydration allowed the sun to bake into my head, I was excited to be here. My sickness seemed to be on hiatus, at least for now.

Even as a World Heritage site, Bagan shares the hesitant aura that we’d grown accustomed to in Myanmar. People are quiet, and even tourists are in short supply. One could believe they were in any normal town had it not been for the hundreds of temples sitting in rows along Bagan’s main street. The tackiness of other tourist destinations, with giant billboards and smiling faces hovering over the shops of tour operators, were absent here. Historical acuity and authenticity rung out like a bell over the quiet, arid landscape.

The sun-drenched plains had their sprawl of temples interrupted by mountains visible in the distance, the first I’d seen in Burma. This place is unlike any other; one can wander amongst temple complexes for hours without supervision, climbing as high as they wish, fitting their way up through cramped and musty staircases to emerge at the foot of crumbling Buddhas. The more far-flung and smaller temples seem to betray no sign of human interference, and sometimes must be gained by shimmying up ruined staircases and crawling through windows near the top.

Myanmar picture

My next stop in Myanmar was Inle Lake, famed for harboring an abundance of culture distinct from anywhere else in the country. Deciding to torture ourselves in the spirit of saving money, my friends and I opted for the night bus, an 8-hour journey from Bagan’s far-flung bus station. I had begun to feel churning in my stomach again after Bagan had granted me a day of solemn relief. Bouncing to and fro in the back of a chartered pick up, I did my best to find a spot to aim my sickness should it decide to make another appearance.

My innards tamed before we boarded the bus. A few of us in the group, myself included, were clad in saris, an exceedingly comfortable style of Burmese dress that would be called a skirt anywhere else in the world. It was clear that the only renovations done to the bus to make it suitable for long-distance travel were painted across its exterior. After an hour of sitting in a dilapidated seat and leaning my head against a window, I felt the familiar tug of sour muck tossing about in my stomach.

The pain started high, and slowly begin to sink towards my bowels. I knew that the slightest twinge in my sphincter would unleash a diarrheal torrent onto the bus, and reacted accordingly by assuming the fetal position in the aisle. I was stepped over occasionally, with my head being kicked once as passengers shuffled about. At this moment, my face pressed against the gritty sand carried around by dirty shoes, I thought about an Australian woman we’d met at the airport. Her husband had, in the very town we were headed to now, experienced a bout of food poisoning of upmost severity. Such severity, in fact, that his appendix ruptured. They made their way to a dingy, ill-equipped medical station on the outskirts of the town as soon as his pain had become unbearable. In broken English, doctors had alerted him that he would need emergency surgery, right then and there, if he did not wish to die. Unsure whether to be more afraid of his internal or external conditions, he was put under anesthesia and, miraculously, saved.

The pain had become such that I began to wonder if I was in for the same. At least 4 hours remained on the bus, and the driver didn’t seem keen on stopping for a bathroom break. All that could be done was to allow the shiver of cold sweats to distract me from the fire in my intestines. Finally, mercifully, the bus began to halt. With my friends watching, both amused and concerned, I beelined towards the restroom. There was but one available stall, featuring a squat toilet that didn’t seem to have hosted many patrons who could aim or flush. There was a squadron of flies and an odor that made my head reel more forcefully than the bus had.

I was ecstatic. Undressing, I sunk my head between my knees and allowed nature to take its course. Such a course was unrelenting for all of ten minutes, but it was unaccompanied by the spasmodic projectile vomit from the nights before. I emerged from the stall to a troupe of shocked Burmese men, of whom I may add are usually unperturbed by even the most wretched of sights. There had, though, been quite a commotion. Sauntering towards the eating area in higher spirits, I proceeded to tell my friends and a few strangers what had occurred. To my surprise, the Korean girl who had stepped over me in Mandalay was there as well. She noted that my condition hadn’t seemed to improve much, and offered me an apple. I declined.

Sleep found me for the rest of the bus ride, and found me again when we arrived at our hotel in the dead of night. Morning shined a new light into my now emaciated shell as the comfort of well rest replaced the ache in my muscles. Inle Lake proved easy to reach with the help of private boatman named Aung Lin, whose toothy smile revealed a seemingly daily habit of chewing betel and smoking cigars. He announced that he was the man to accompany to Inle Lake, as everyone apparently knew him, and that he would take us anywhere and everywhere, over the course of two days. Keen to conjuring a hearty laugh from his impressive paunch, Aung Lin was an easy man to like. I accepted, bought Burmese rum, and headed down the river.

I hadn’t enough energy to actively perceive the sights ahead. Instead, I simply allowed for an impression to befall me. Scarlet sunbeams casted long shadows of the lake’s famed fishermen, who paddle with a single leg while balanced on the nose of their canoes. Rimmed by floating vegetable paddies, stilted lake-huts hummed with the activity of their sun-weathered inhabitants, who vacillate between a reliance on agriculture and tourism. We visited cookie-cutter trinket shops, witnessed traditional handicraft, shot slingshots, and dined on seafood. One of my companions, Jacob, spend $60 USD on a silver coin that was ‘surely one of the very few left in the World’. After a review of our skeptical faces, doubt crept into his visage as well. A bout of muttered curses and brooding would follow him for roughly an hour afterwards.
After returning to town after a night and two days on the lake, I lit up a cigar with Aung Lin and the other boatmen. They were a jovial bunch, whose professions allowed them to make a substantial living through Burma’s now-burgeoning tourism industry in the area. Everywhere I’d yet been the Burmese had seemed, if cautiously, to welcome foreigners, and even open up about their lives and the traumas in their country. Burma was lacking the familiar apathy towards the throngs of tourists that haunt beaches in Thailand and Barcelona. Our presence and curiosity seemed to represent, for them, an assimilation into a World which had forgotten about them for half a century.

Myanmar picture

As I made the final run towards the airport in a hired vehicle, I noticed a large pile of trash being burned on the side of the road. A man was balancing a tire on the end of a stick and roasting it over the flames like toxic rubber marsh-mellow. Shirtless spectators, all smiles, squatted on their heels and stared approvingly at the blaze. Even in the throes of such a destructive display, I couldn’t help but be moved by what seemed like nascent hope shining through them, through our driver, through the children on the street. In the shadow of sickness, this place had written a smile on my face. The power of a momentum that spirals towards a better future, even amid pain, illness, or poverty, is infectious, and was now the second infection I had contracted here.

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