Monday, March 26, 2007

Myanmar: Monywa to Pakokku: 1 February 2007 (Written 19 March 2007)

When I woke up on the 1st, something felt different. I couldn't tell what it was. I still intended to leave that morning to head westwards towards Bagan, so I went to the roof to have my breakfast. All of a sudden it became very windy, and napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and the plastic flowers that were giving the dull wooden tables a bit of color went flying everywhere. Rain came unexpectedly in huge water droplets that were carried sideways by the wind. It was my first time seeing rain since I had arrived in Southeast Asia, and all the staff were also surprised, as it was the middle of the dry season for this anomalous rainfall to take place.

I ate my meal and went downstairs to chat with the owner about the buses headed to Pakokku; the previous day the young man at the front desk had told me that there would be a bus at 8.30am, and another at 12.30pm. I was actually concerned that with this thunderstorm my chances of travel might be affected, but when I asked I found out something entirely different. The man told me that due to the fact that it was a full moon, it was a holiday and there would be only one bus today – at 12.30pm. But, he insisted, there would be a steady stream of pick-ups headed that way. He said it would be less comfortable but I could pay a bit extra to sit in the front seat and then my bum wouldn't hurt as much. I decided to try my luck at the station and went with a trishaw who seemed totally unfazed by the rain.

On the way to the station, we passed what appeared to be a wedding; a corner of the street was decorated with bright pink, yellow, and orange ribbon and fancily-dressed people spilled out into the streets with fresh flowers and confetti. I almost stopped the driver so I could have a look but didn't want to ruin my chances of catching the 8.30am bus if it actually existed. We just crossed paths with a pick-up headed towards Pakokku as we were turning into the station, which had by now deteriorated into a maze of puddles in the dirt road so the trishaws were carefully navigating and skillfully avoiding splashing themselves and their passengers. The pick-up was very full, and the driver told my trishaw driver that it would be better for me to take the 8.30am bus to Pakokku. So it existed! We walked to the ticket stand, where they informed us that due to the full moon the only bus was indeed at 12.30pm. I stood silently for a moment, contemplating the fact that my only source of transport for the next several hours had just left minutes before me. The situation being what it was, I decided to buy my ticket and then wondered what I should do.

I decided I wanted to have a look at the wedding; had no clue how to communicate this so I said ‘pwe’ – festival – which I had been to the previous day so I knew the word very well. They said there was no pwe, so I consulted my phrasebook and was relieved to find ‘mingala s’aun’ – wedding – and they discussed what I meant. They explained to my trishaw driver where there was indeed a mingala s’aun, and after leaving my bags in their care, I was once again on a trishaw in the rain. I realized how absurd this was, for me, dressed in extremely informal clothing to turn up at a wedding with very minimal language skills, and considered asking the driver to take me back to the station, just as he stopped pedaling. We were at a completely different place than where I had seen what I thought to be a wedding, but here as well there were elegantly dressed men, women, and children. I asked nervously if I could just have a quick look, and the flower girls and doormen indicated with their hands and smiles that I was welcome.

I entered the large hall, and tried my very best to be inconspicuous and hid behind a large white column. Just as I felt I had seen what a wedding in Myanmar was like and I could slip away unnoticed, a gentle but firm hand held my elbow from behind me. I turned my head and looked into the eyes of one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She pointed to herself and said, “Grandmother,” in English, and indicated that I should take her hand and follow her. She had perfect posture, a neat bun perfectly tied on top of her head, and an exquisite tamein with unparalleled detail and intricacy. She walked with her head high, and commanded the attention of everyone we passed, who either smiled and called out to her or bowed their heads with respect.

600 8216She had me sit at an empty table and turned to call her grandson to come and keep me company. Jyou Zu Win, this 9 year old beautiful boy, was ready to befriend me and escort me without any reluctance or hesitation. He and his brother, sister, and friends urged me incessantly to eat samosas, chocolate cake, and drink guiltily sweet tea. I luckily had some origami with me and as soon as I took out the colored sheets of paper, a crowd of children formed around me. I was happy to be distracted with the children and we started writing our names in Burmese and English and Japanese and drawing pictures and doing all the lovely things that people do when the only common language is smiles and laughter.

I looked up as a photographer and videographer told me to look at them, as the bride and groom came to stand behind me. They were going around the room, taking photographs with all the guests who had attended, and had arrived at the table I was seated at. For an instant they thought that I was the friend of the other; until they realized that I was not from Myanmar and they both started laughing, pleased that they had a completely random attendee on their special day. My flock of children stayed with me even when I went to the bathroom; one boy was instructed, by his peers, to guard my bag, and the others held my hands and skipped along to show me where it was and waited outside – if I hadn’t stopped them, they may have come in with me.

Time flew by and at about 10.45am, I decided I should probably make my way back to the station since I wanted to walk back and had no idea where I was. Until then, the young men, all friends of the groom, had been watching me discreetly but without even offering any glimpse of acknowledgement. All of a sudden, they broke into disarming smiles, stood up to shake my hand, and walked with me to the exit to send me off into the rainy day. I told them that I needed a few more minutes, because as I was saying goodbye to everyone who had come into my life so quickly and would leave so quickly, but stay forever, I realized that Grandmother wasn’t there. I asked Jyou Zu Win to go and find her and he flashed me a smile full of dimples as he raced off, nearly knocking people over to go find her. She came, held my hand and took me outside in the rain. There was a chorus of “Dada!” “See you again!” “Cezubeh!” and “Sayonara!”

As I walked to the bus station in the rain, every single person I made eye contact with smiled or waved. Although the streets were much less crowded than usual due to both the full moon and the rain, there was a peppering of trishaws with mushroom umbrellas in primary colors, pedaling while keeping themselves and their passengers dry. I arrived at the station thoroughly drenched, and as soon as I sat down a very outgoing man wearing a red flannel shirt and bright green longyi came to chat. He asked me to write his name in Japan-zaga (Japanese), which I did. As soon as this was done, several men jumped up to rush over and tell me their names so they could see them written in Japanese as well.

The man selling tickets, Ko Myo, was particularly interested in conversing with me; he wrote the few words he knew in English on a sheet of paper, and since he knew “Arigato,” I decided to teach him a few more words. I only wrote down a few words, transliterating them so he could read them, but he kept studying it and repeating the words to himself under his breath, and looking mildly irritated every time someone came to buy a ticket and interrupted his lesson. Construction workers, happy to have a break from work because of the rain, came to leaf through my phrasebooks, and a tanakha vendor beckoned me over to say “Kirei” (beautiful in Japanese) and did my make-up for me. It struck me that even when I was trying to escape for a few moments to be alone to reflect on the land I was in and let it soak in, I couldn't escape their smiles, humor and warmth, which could be found in every corner, often at the least expected places.

Finally I was on the bus, and Ko Myo kept repeating “See you again” with such solemnity and determination that it was almost as if by willing it to come true, it would. The men stayed waving their hands until we had turned out of the station and could no longer see each other. Just down the road, we stopped for petrol. Descending and waiting, there was a young girl selling fruit that was something like an apple, green, but smaller, and more resembling a plum in shape as well as the stone inside. We waited what seemed an abnormally long time for our bus stacked with bananas and bicycles on the roof, until it finally came to let us all climb back on board. We encountered almost no traffic on this journey through lush green fields, hurtling westwards to Pakokku.

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