Monday, August 20, 2007

Myanmar: Bagan: 3 February 2007 (Written 22 March 2007)

The next thing I knew, it was 8am on the 3rd. I was feeling more and more ill, so I decided that I would rest in the morning and hire a bike to go back to the ruins in the afternoon. I got some medicine, and as I returned back to the hotel, the woman was calling me over with the most animation I’d seen from her yet. She had a note for me, from my friends. I had no idea that I had friends in Myanmar that would know where I was staying and would write me a note, so I was rather suspicious when I took the sheet of paper. I opened it, and it was from Pascal! It said he had found out I was staying here, and he and Ricard were leaving that day to head southwest, and it would be nice if we could meet again. I was excited to hear from the boys who had shared my time from Yangon to Mandalay with me, and tried to find out where they were staying or how I could find them. The lady had no idea, so I basically walked around the street and asked every person who spoke English if they had seen a pair of European boys who were probably not dressed very well. It worked! I was told where they were staying.

I told the man at reception who I was looking for and he sent me to the roof, where my two favorite boys in Myanmar were chopping vegetables and tasting their salad. Ahh what joy! We chatted about the past several days that we were apart and ate guacamole and tomato salad and sat in the sun. We were indeed headed separate ways so I gave big hugs before we split.

In the afternoon, I took a bicycle from the hotel and headed to the ruins. The bike was in good condition, with a bell and basket and brakes. I am still precarious on two wheels, and I was hesitant but decided to give it a try. It went very well, except for the fact that to get to most of the actual temples you have to go on dirt roads which are often sand and the bike would skid and I would hover shakily before tipping over to one side, as I would laugh at how ridiculous I looked, and if anyone was witness, they would join in the laughter. My destination was San Thi Dar Restaurant. I had seen a posting in a guesthouse saying how friendly the family that ran it was, so I wanted to go see for myself; I had nothing else that I really wanted to see or do in Bagan, but I wanted to stay a bit longer to experience the feel of the place.

I found the food stall, and as soon as I parked my bike and approached the cool shaded tables, the man who owned the shop came and greeted me with the warmth that I had grown used to in Myanmar. I ordered lime juice, and before I even received my juice, I was given roasted peanuts, sliced banana, and tamarind flakes. I ordered a bottle of water and chatted to the man, and was given a lovely bamboo basket filled with toddy candy, a sweet made from the toddy tree.

The son, who was 10 years old, was playing checkers with a man at a table nearby, and he had a beautiful smile (seems to me most people in Myanmar who are smiling had remarkable smiles; more so than in most other countries I’ve been to). After the man left, the boy came to sit on a stool next to me. He said hello, and burst out laughing without me having said a single word. I asked why he was laughing, and he told me it was because I looked like a Burmese singer that was very famous. I decided to take this as a compliment and asked him if he wanted to play checkers with me. He beat me easily, then we chatted about Japan and did origami and his father showed me a Japanese/Burmese phrasebook that a Japanese tourist had given him. He asked me if I would be able to deliver a letter to this Japanese man and I agreed, so he asked me to go back the next day. I said ok, and asked for a recommendation of a good place to see the sunset. He told me of a temple just down the road, which would have a great view and not many people. I asked Pyi Sone, his son, to show me where it was and we sped off on our bikes.

When I arrived at the temple, Pyi Sone yelled out to a boy at the temple that I was coming, and I saw a figure race down the steps and run out of the temple, waiting for my arrival. The first thing he asked me was if I wanted postcards, but I tried out my phrases that my ‘kids’ the day before had taught me and he laughed and said, “Ok, but I’ll show you my temple anyway.” His name was Souzo, a 10 year old who came to this temple everyday for sunset. The view was magnificent. There were 4 tourists at the top, and the same number of Burmese children. Hot air balloons floated through the air, and the temples slowly faded into the mélange of purples, blues, and pinks that formed the sky and the land. As I left, I gave Souzo a crane and he told me, “Good luck Yuri. Always.” As I rode my bicycle back to Nyaung U, the sky turned a deep purple before transforming into a black velvet speckled with shimmering stars.

The next day, I arranged to take a trip to Mt Popa. A Japanese couple from my guesthouse and I shared a taxi and left at 7.30am on the bumpiest dirt road I think I had been on in Burma. I noticed the Orwellian aspect of the buildings we passed by, such as the Township Peace and Development Council. There were laborers on the roads, who did their best to protect themselves from the relentless sun but who looked to be struggling. They ranged in age from 6 to 80. We stopped to observe a village where a cow was directed to walk around in circles in order to have a piece of wood exert pressure on peanuts, where there was a strain and funnel to gather peanut oil. Our bums hurt significantly and we drank down palm wine to ease the pain, or just to get drunk at 8am.

The view of Mt Popa before you arrive at it is spectacular. This holy mountain is said to be home to the 37 nat spirits of the original Burmese religion. This mountain rises out of a flat plain, and is covered in green and has temples and pagodas at the top. Our driver let us off and told us he would wait at the bottom. There were stairs. Lots and lots of concrete stairways leading up the side of the mountain. And monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys. They were active, jumping noisily on the tin roofs and looking to cause trouble. It was a steep uphill climb, passing plenty of people with brooms who claimed, “Sweeping clean donation.” At the top, the view was breathtaking. The flat green plan below spread out like a big carpet of emerald, palm trees and rice fields covering the rich brown earth. We were asked to be in a photograph with a family of pilgrims, and we descended quickly before the monkeys made us their next victims and harassed or robbed us.

Back at the bottom, our driver was slightly annoyed that we had returned so quickly because he was still eating his breakfast. We waited a few minutes and off we sped on the same road we had come on. We arrived back in Nyaung U and I decided to have a siesta to escape the midday heat before heading back to visit my friends in the afternoon.

I woke up, and asked the reception for a bicycle. “No more bicycle,” she said with a grave expression. I panicked – how was that possible? There were bikes EVERYWHERE in Myanmar…how was I going to get there to pick up the letter I had promised to take back with me to Japan? I went around to several guesthouses to inquire about bikes and finally found one that told me they could probably get me a bike but it wouldn’t be a good one. I decided to try my luck and followed the 12 year old girl down a small alleyway that led to a bike repair shop. I was given a very old bike with barely-working brakes, a small very hard seat, and no bell. I’m pathetic on good mountain bikes, and hopeless on bikes like these. I paid and got on. I realized 10 seconds after I started pedaling that I was exhausted from the strenuous physical activity of the past several days and the long travel I had done. I tried out the brakes and at the slightest touch, my bike would skid. The seat was so uncomfortable I considered putting my fleece on it to create some padding. I debated actually stopping to take a horse cart, but then decided against it. I continued on the road, finally getting into the rhythm, and passed a horse cart on its left. As I passed, the driver called out, “Hello!” Without looking (my bike-riding skills are such that I can’t turn my head too far), I cried out, “Hello!” The man replied, “Remember me from the other day? Kyaw Kyaw.” I was probably 30m ahead already when it registered and I braked, basically falling off the bike. Everyone laughed, and I turned around to see my lovely driver from two days before. We stopped at Upali Thein because his guest wanted to see the fantastic frescoes, and I chatted with Kyaw Kyaw. His guest, a German man named Klaus, agreed that we could put my bike on the rack behind the horse cart and I could get a lift to the Museum. KK’s horse was acting up, it was very tired from the day before, and we were all laughing. KK told us how a few months ago, he got drunk and fell asleep in the cart. He woke up as he was arriving home in the horse cart, because his horse was hungry and went home on his own accord!

Klaus and I ate together, and Pyi Sone and I spent the whole afternoon together. I ordered prawn curry, and I was served a meal that covered the wooden table for 4 with white ceramic plates filled to the brim with a variety of savory delights: pumpkin curry, bean curry, chicken curry, peanuts, tamarind flakes, papaya, pineapple, banana, rice, and fresh fruit juice. I was shocked, and they simply replied by saying that I was doing them a big favor by taking their letter for them, and that Pyi Sone was calling me big sister; I was therefore like family and would be treated and fed as such. I lingered at the small rickety shop until sunlight was fading, and there was a soft purple glow about the plain; Pyi Sone hugged me shyly and kissed each cheek, and his parents urged, “Daughter, come back and see us again.” I began to cycle on the flat road to Nyaung U, my legs aching, but feeling like they had accomplished something that made the sore muscles worth it.

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