Once the boat finally stopped in the trash strewn bus station of Mandalay, I darted to the English speaking Burmese woman in search of my passport. They led me to the bus ticket counter where they again asked the French girls to look through their bags. At the sign of this I threw up my head in dismay. By this time, I hoped that immigration would have known the whereabouts of my passport and that it would be arriving shortly. The Burmese woman even went ahead to look through their belongings herself. Sure enough from one random pocket came out my passport. A small part of me thought ‘really, really? All of that frustration and it was there the whole time’ but mostly I was relieved by the fact that the passport was now within my possession. After that had been taken care of, I needed to deal with the hairy situation of gaining transport onward to Hsipaw, a trekking village further north. The whole confusion lay in the fact that the Burmese and English expression for the town is different so the limited English speaking attendants had no idea where I wanted to go (in Burmese: t-bow). Apparently few buses went there so I decided to go to Pyin Oo Lwin first instead to check out an old British colonial town featuring English style buildings. The downside was that I would have to wait until the taxi got a total of four passengers so there I sat waiting and waiting. While I waited they gave me a plate of cut up papaya, for which I replied ‘min-ga-la-bah’ and in response I heard a chorus of giggled laughter. Once the taxi finally arrived, one of the passengers helped load my luggage into the taxi. I would love to hear the actual reasons behind their kindness. Maybe since I am one of the few white people amongst them, they would like to leave a good impression of their country, or the people are simply that kind. The taxi didn’t hit the main road as I expected but took a maze-like route through side streets before we got anywhere. On the open road, the taxi passed a farmer tilling and flattening his land by standing on a cylindrical wooden post as two ox pulled him and the log along. Every once in awhile, I got to see a family of four squeezed onto a motorbike: father in front driving and daughter clinging on tightly while the mother sat on the back holding onto their one year old child. Once in Pyin Oo Lwin and after I checked into my hostel, I relaxed for awhile still beaten up from the bus ride to Mandalay. My neck was perplexed and out of sorts from the bounce house journey through the night. One of the Burmese working at the guesthouse said ‘good morning’ to me even though it was already one in the afternoon but I returned with a ‘good morning’ as well. As I walked away, I heard his friends tease him for that salutation. After that moment I would say ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’, or ‘good evening’ to him depending on the time of day as it turned into an inside joke between us. I rented a bicycle to explore the town for the day but before taking advantage of its one-speed capabilities and off-kilter pedal I got lunch since I had only eaten the papaya thus far today. I have sort of lost my appetite lately, maybe from the monastery’s training. Even if I am hungry before a train, bus, tuk-tuk, or motorcycle taxi journey, I refuse to eat because of the slaloming hills and booby-trapped roads. Anyways, I ordered a true Burmese tea leaf salad for the first time to compare it with what I managed to mix together on the streets of Yangon as well as a mutton curry. Those two dishes came out shortly after looking manageable in their portions. Before I had an opportunity to take my second bite of the tea leaf salad, my waitress started placing dish after dish after soup bowl after bouquet plate of veggies, all of which caused my eyes to grow bigger and bigger. Clearly I didn’t order them and asking her what they were was a misguided request. As what seems to be customary in Burmese culture, extra dishes are made available for consumption but are by no means free of charge. I do wonder what happens if a dish isn’t touched. Will it be brought back and sit around collecting dust amongst other things before being served to the next unbeknownst customer? Either way, the mutton curry was tender to the bone and the tea leaf salad quite similar to my version plus tomatoes. It is worth a taste because the flavor is so unique unto itself but not something I can not live without. I continued chipping away at the small dishes but left well over half the table untouched. As I have grown to discover, Burmese people love their oil, salty brines, and fried foods. I liken the experience to McDonalds. You eat it enjoying every last bite because that is what our tastebuds crave despite knowing how unhealthy it is. Not until the fat wall smacks you upside the face do you begin to regret it. I hopped unto the bike pedaling a poor rolling pace along the main road as faster traffic passed me by. Seeing me mosey along must have been comical to the locals based on their deep red grins. Pyin Oo Lwin as a city itself isn’t overly special, not a place needed to be seen while in Myanmar. Sure it had horse drawn buggies pulled from the Old Western past but it was more so for tourist appearances. The main draw or point of Internet is the botanical gardens south of town but with the limited time I had I didn’t feel like paying the fee. So I chose to spend the day getting lost down side streets before asking for help to find my back, refilling on needed supplies, and searching for the few golden temples that dotted the skyline. My most enjoyable stop was their central market, located near the poor rendition of the Big Ben clock tower. You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy walking through a market. Markets tend to touch on every sense: the aromas of the food (both good and poor), the brightly colored array of vegetables and fruits, the burning fires that heat the oil of their deep fryers create an intoxicating campfire incense, and the ten-notch energy that reverberates amongst the stalls and down the streets signaling where all the action is. Since Pyin Oo Lwin is so far north yet still east enough, it has many influences from Thailand, China, and Indian in their food. I wasn’t hungry but with the smell of the deeply spiced curries and grilled meat shish-kabobs wafting in the air I momentarily had second thoughts. On the other scale, the dead chopped up fish, pork, and poultry assaulted the nostrils as well as the eyes with the buzzing rats hovering over the non-chilled food before touching down on the tarmacs of the scaled, de-feathered, and skinned animal products. Also, only in SE Asia, or at least in Myanmar, would a shop owner have to chase away cows from their food stalls. The sun had yet to set but I was already content with going back to the guesthouse to ease my way into sleep. On the way there, I stopped by a group of men playing a game foreign to my growing worldly eyes. One of them encouraged me to inch closer as I approached. The game had a wooden board in the shape of an X with a soup bowl rested in the center into which the players would roll a set of 6 small shells (similar to the ancient-style currency I used in Lopburi, Thailand). For as long as I stood there watching closely as the game unfolded, I had no idea how the game is player. It partly has to do with how many shells roll face up or down which determines how many spaces you can move your chips around the board. Hopefully one day I can get included in one of these streets games but I enjoy just watching these locals pass the time with a favored evening activity. Back in my room, I chatted with an English guy for the longest time about a variety of things, mainly revolving around him helping me plan my future travels based on what he has done thus far in SE Asia. I know I have mentioned this before but we delved into the topic of why Americans travel so infrequently, most especially out of their own country. He couldn’t believe we get 10 days off per year when in England it is against the law to have less than 24. These people in Southeast Asia don’t know how poor their living conditions are since they wouldn’t know otherwise based on never being exposed to how the other half lives. In just the same way, we as Americans don’t think ten days is too little. That’s all we know and have thus grown accustomed to that limitation. While I washed up after another sweat fest, I looked into the mirror and saw a pathetic attempt at a beard. It has been a solid month at least and it looks just as patchy as before. It reminds me of a bald man who has yet to admit he doesn’t have a full head of hair. He tries and tries to cover up his bad spots with whatever strands of hair remain on his scalp but his efforts will never be capable of fooling passersby. I will give my beard till the end of Myanmar to get itself together otherwise I will need to raise and wave the white flag. After getting an evening snack of fried up quail eggs and chickpea, tomato, and green onion scoops, he gave me ideas for Indonesia before I slept in an actual bed, letting my neck rest softly.
Breaking Burma Day 92: The Road Leading Out of Mandalay