Great Expectations (The Journey to Mandalay, Burma)

Mandalay – The Janky Bus – Ford the River! – My Fear of Monks – Suffering – Riding on the Roof

Mandalay was disgusting.  I was utterly disappointed.  I made a vow to myself to never expect anything from a city ever again.  From now on, I would expect every city to be horrible so that even the most average city would seem like Eden.

I spent a few days wandering through monasteries and pagodas.  On a whim, I went to see a palmister who spent two minutes reading the lines on my palms before giving me the expected Delphic prophesy – I would get rich at 29, I would get sick at 31 and I would live to be 85.  He gave me a good luck bracelet and then tried to charge me for it.  I ripped it off.  Two hours later, I started to feel the rumblings of the sickness that would take me out for a week.  Coincidence?  I think so.

Actually the journey from Inle to Mandalay was more exciting than the town.  I always try to change up my travel methods, so I skipped the air conditioned bus and opted for a slightly jankier mini-bus.  It was the type of bus you hear coming long before you see it.  It stumbled down the road and paused for a second in front of me.  A pudgy Indian man with a fistful of cash stuck his face out of the window, spit a mouthful of red paan juice at my feet and asked me the usual question Where you go?  Mandalay.  Ok, let’s go!

 I rode in this contraption for about 5 hours.  The bus rattled down the highway, pausing only long enough for passengers to grab onto a ladder hanging off the side of the bus and pull themselves onto the roof.  The pudgy Indian man then climbed up after them, collected their money, and climbed back down into the cabin.

We snaked up through the Shan Mountains along brutally rough roads.  There were about twenty of us crammed into the back of this tiny bus, most of us sitting in seats but some people sitting on fold-out seats in the aisle.  If you ever go to Burma, make sure you don’t request an aisle seat.

Then we approached a bridge that for some reason was impassible, probably still bombed out from WWII.  The bus driver took one look at the bridge, backed up, drove down a dirt trail beside the bridge and stopped at the banks of a shallow river.  He ordered everyone to get out, then he drove across the river at full speed!  I could not believe my eyes.  Was my driver really fording a river?  Where the hell am I?  Traveling in Burma is like being on the Oregon Trail!  Once we crossed the river we jumped back in and continued on as usual.

People were jammed in the back, people hung onto the roof, and up in the front a Buddhist monk sat shotgun.  I’m not gonna lie, monks get a pretty sweet deal in Burma.  They are very highly respected and the people give them alms in the form of money and food.  And in exchange for providing a moral example and leading the people in their struggle against a repressive military regime, they are awarded permanent shotgun.  Every time I get in a bus, the monks always get to sit shotgun, it’s awesome.  If I had known about this rule as a 10-year old kid, I probably would have converted to Buddhism just to avoid the endless squabbling with my brother.

The last time I was in Bangkok, I didn’t know about this universal rule.  I was riding a local bus when a monk boarded the bus and sat next to me.  I greeted him politely, but the ticket collector approached me and tersely screamed Get Up!  I did.  The monk took my seat.  The ticket collector motioned me to another seat.  Sit down.  I did.  But now I have an irrational fear of offending monks.  Every time I see a monk, I smile and greet them in Burmese, but I still feel like I am not showing them proper respect, that I am somehow committing some unknown faus pas.  I call it fauxpasaphobia.

Our bus, monk in front, moved up through the hills and down into a lush valley of terraced rice paddies.  We passed through an unbelievable number of military checkpoints.  Every hour, we were stopped and our papers were checked.  Often times, money was slapped to the officer in charge.

We passed groups of men and women breaking rocks on the roadside like a chain gang from the 1930s.  I know that the government punishes prisoners with forced labor like this, breaking rocks to build roads by hand.  The Clash song came to mind…breaking rocks in the hot sun, I fought the law and the law won.  As our bus passed by, they paused from their work and stared through the windows into my eyes. The look on their faces struck me to the core.  I had no idea whether these people were being paid or not, but their faces said it all – their life was horrible.  Again, I was reminded of how blessed I am to have been born in different circumstances.

Suffering.  That was the emotion on their faces.  Deep, painful, life-long suffering.  It is something few people in the West truly experience.  Suddenly, the Buddhist philosophy started to make sense to me.  Buddha spoke of Four Noble Truths, and the First Truth was being displayed before my eyes: Life is Suffering.  They key, said the Buddha, is to avoid suffering by eliminating its cause – desire and craving.

These people were suffering, but many suffered because of their desire to be free.  Maybe the only reason the government still has power is because these people are devout Buddhists.  The government tries to equate this dismal poverty with the simple life of a Buddhist, but they are not the same.  By the government’s logic, the suffering will end when they abandon their desire to be free.

I met a man on the bus who stopped struggling for freedom, and he seemed outwardly happy.  He was a Chinese man who worked for the government.  He had fine clothes on his back and money in his wallet.  He would not stop bragging about his cushy job with the government, but it was hard not to notice the strong contrast between him and the lady sitting next to me on that bus.

This nice lady was carrying a beautiful baby girl in her arms.  She was taking the baby to visit her father.  In prison.  He had been arrested when the baby was 2 months old and sentenced to 11 years for political activism.  She was suffering, yet in the typical Burmese fashion she smiled and bore the pain.  I wondered, is it better to be in the devils path, or on his side?  Better to live on one’s knees or die on one’s feet?

The bus continued with people until we were packed to the gills.  At this point, I was suffering too.  I realized how little I had to complain about though.  Back home we are accustomed to a luxury inconceivable to these people, and yet we allow the slightest hiccups ignite fires of rage within our souls.  How could they understand our frustration when our first-class flight was delayed by an hour?  From their perspective, we are spoiled prima donnas.

This bus ride wasn’t even as bad as the overnight one I had taken to Inle Lake.  We had 2 flat tires in the middle of the night, and no one complained.  The driver flew down the bumpy roads and never even stopped for a bathroom break, and yet no one said anything.  The music blasted all night long and no one asked the driver to turn it down.  An emaciated kid spent the night sleeping at his mother’s feet on the floor of the bus while people walked all over him.  There were half a dozen babies onboard, but I never heard one of them cry.  They were tough kids.  They made the one-year-old version of me look like…well…a total baby.

They simply know how to suffer.  Whether they suffer from poverty, politics, or potholes, people simply put up with it.

The bus stopped in many small villages along the way.  Oxen pulled two-wheeled carriages down the dirt roads.  Hill tribe women rode in the back of the carts, dressed in black shirts and pants accented by colorful orange, blue and red borders.   Their heads were wrapped in magnificent orange head scarves and they wore brilliantly red hand-woven bags across their shoulders.

I rode the bus as far as I could and got dumped off at a highway junction.  I stuck my thumb in the air and waved down a pickup truck full of people.  For two dollars I got myself a seat on the top of the pickup truck.  As the sun slipped over the horizon, I zoomed north on the top of a dilapidated pickup and chatted with a monk.  In the tropics, the sunset brings out the mosquitoes…making my ride on the top of the truck a little more of challenge.  Eventually I had to tie a handkerchief onto my face to avoid choking on the bugs flying into my mouth.  This is how I rode into Mandalay, with sunglasses over my eyes and a handkerchief covering my mouth.  I was like some strange backpacking Bedouin riding through the steamy night on my big blue camel of a pickup truck.

After an enlightening all-day jaunt across central Myanmar, I arrived at the disappointing city of Myanmar.  I took it as yet another reaffirmation of the old adage: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

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