Hamlet Hospitality (Bago, Burma)

My bus arrives – Description of travel – Unexpected detour – Mixing with the locals – A lesson learned
I chose my destination: East to the sacred Golden Rock at Kyaitiyo.
Despite waking up at dawn I was still stuck in Yangon at 10 AM. My guidebook had warned me that transportation in Burma was slow, and as I watched the time tick by I realized it was an understatement. My bus was already two hours late.
Then an old bus rolled up in a cloud of dust, pulled to a stop, and people spilt out onto the dusty ground.   The driver ran to the back of the bus, opened a small hatch to access the engine, plunged his arm deep into the engine between whirling belts, and hit a switch to turn off the motor. My bus had arrived.
Just then I was almost decapitated by two men carrying twenty-foot long blue PVC pipes, which they threaded through an open window and piled into the aisle of the bus. It took them twenty minutes to finish loading these pipes before we could get in the bus.
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There was no baggage storage and the seats must have been designed for midgets. My knees were crammed between my chest, the seat in front of me and the wheel well below. A small television hung loosely from the ceiling at the front of the bus and blasted Burmese music videos at full volume.
The engine started, the driver slipped the bus into gear, eased off the clutch and we jerked forward onto the highway. It was hot, loud, cramped and slightly painful, but I could only laugh at the situation. Yangon disappeared behind us and we passed small villages, rice fields, water buffalo and pick-up trucks with passengers hanging off the back. I watched the passengers’ heads gently sway back and forth with each turn. Jays Photos 134.jpg
This bus ride was going to take almost all day so I gave up hope of reaching the Golden Rock before dusk. I decided to get off the bus at a small town called Bago and spend the day exploring it’s streets before continuing on to the Golden Rock after nightfall.
Even though Bago was a small town, I was immediately approached by a man who wanted to offer me the usual services: taxi, hotel, bus tickets, and money changing. Crap. I assumed Bago would be a quiet town free from touts and the other inevitable by-products of tourism but I was wrong.
He showed me pictures of each of Bago’s sights and offered to give me a tour on motorbike. Though I had originally planned on seeing these sights, his pushiness really turned me off and I passed on his offer and told him I would rather explore Bago on foot. I saw a small pond surrounded by tiny bamboo huts and decided to check it out.
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I walked past the lake and turned down the small dirt street running through the small hamlet. The stilted huts were made from bamboo shafts and woven pieces of wood. The men were relaxing in hammocks while the women cleaned pots, swept the floor and prepared food. Children played soccer in the street, clothed in the oddest assortment of hand-me-down clothes. One kid wore a shirt with a picture of George Bush on it with a toothbrush mustache that said “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
 The children’s faces were covered in thanaka, a traditional form of makeup. There was no electricity, no running water, no concrete or tile, and no pavement. This street probably looked the same as it did hundreds of years ago.
Jays Photos 137.jpgThe entire village was staring at me in disbelief. One kid dropped his soccer ball, dumbstruck by the presence of a foreigner on his street.
Total silence. I tried to say hello in Burmese: Um…Min-gala-ba…
Everyone erupted in laughter and all the kids dropped their playthings and surrounded me. They pulled me through the streets and showed me to their families. They yelled Picture! Picture! and giggled as I took pictures of them and showed them their own faces. I must have been the first tourist here in aJays Photos 143.jpgges.
One of the kids’ mother beckoned me to come into her house. My time in India taught me that these random invitations are always the most memorable travel experiences. This time was no exception.
My new mother sat me down and immediately gave me a cup of tea, a leaf-wrapped cigar, a bowl of rice, some vegetables and a piece of dried sugar cane juice. This family literally gave me the best food they had to offer. For desert they wrapped me up a piece of paan, which is a green leaf smothered in lime paste (the mineral, not the fruit) and wrapped around a betel nut. The entire village stood in a semi-circle around Jays Photos 145.jpgme and giggled as I chewed the betel nut and spit the red paan juice onto the ground.
They spoke no English, I spoke no Burmese. Randomly one of the villagers was of Indian descent and happened to speak Hindi, which I had picked up during my time working in India. I sat here the whole afternoon, eating whatever food they gave me and speaking in pantomime and broken Hindi to my translator. Jays Photos 156.jpg We laughed together for hours as we discussed family, home, culture and food. My host communicated her desire to come to America, but sadly said she would never be able to make the journey. She said she was poor and that I was rich and she jokingly asked me to take her children with her to America. I felt so guilty when she said this and at first I pretended not to understand what she meant.   What could I say to such a direct statement? You are rich, I am poor. I will never see your country. Yes. Sadly, you are 100% right, though I wish it were not this way.
They tried to get me to stay the night, but I told them I had already bought my ticket to the Golden Rock. They pointed to a large bucket of water and suggested I take a bath on their front lawn. I declined. Then they pointed to my crotch, but I declined their offer to pee behind their house. I thanked them for their hospitality and said goodbye. By the time I walked back to the bus, I had about twenty children following me down the street. Thanks to this unexpected detour, my stomach was full, my head was light from the endless cigars and my teeth were stained red from the paan juice.
I learned a lesson that day. I had not visited any of Bago’s sights, in fact I had not even ventured farther than 100 yards from the bus station. But I had seen more of Bago than I would have had I gone sightseeing. I had stepped outside of my comfort zone and immersed myself in the world of a small farming village in Burma. I had struggled with the language, I had been forced-fed food of questionable origin, and I gained insight into the world of a poor farmer. Some people say traveling is an escape from reality, but my interaction with these people was anything but that – it was direct confrontation with the harsh reality of global inequality. I am traveling through South East Asia on $15 a day, yet to them I am still a fabulously wealthy man. I walked away from their village with my mind full of thoughts, hopped on the bus and ruminated as I watched the sun set over the rice fields of Burma.
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