March 14, 2009

Mandalay, Myanmar

The seven hour bump fest…I mean, bus ride from Hsipaw to Mandalay on a seat that made a block of cement seem like a cloud of cottonballs, which had my legs acrobatically contorted on top of a pile of rice sacks, and which left in the chill of early morning with broken windows, was my first introduction to “Traveling in Myanmar”, where the personal journey between places and the ones shared between other traveler’s become stories of legend.
There was the German guy who took a boat from Mandalay to Bagan only to end up helping to push it back into the water when it somehow found it’s way to a dry patch of land, turning a 12 hour ride into a 24 hour ride. Then there was the Canadian who was told the train would leave at 7:00 p.m and was assured of it’s near departure every two hours after that until 11:00 a.m the next day. Or the Dutch guys who made it up North and back by train whose story never became fully clear because it seemed as though they were still suffering from some sort of shock. Just like pointing at an item on a menu you can’t read, arranging transport in this country is a crapshoot and your never quite sure exactly how you will get to where you are going: bus, train, boat, pickup truck, motorbike, trishaw, tractor or ox cart are all possibilities. And blown out tires, overheating engines, and super cramped conditions for the tremendously long distances between place to place, I learned, is all part of “Traveling in Myanmar”.
The word “Mandalay”, in my mind, had always conjured up exotic thoughts of teak and tigers; a city where chalky businessmen and overworked locals scored out a tenuous existence under a blistering pink sun. But no sooner did I step off the back of the pick-up and onto the colorless, loud, and dusty streets, that the picture of my Mandalay was lost forever in a cloud of motorbike exhaust and generator smoke. Even if I squinted my eyes, I still couldn’t see any teak or tigers. Instead, all I was left with was a clear visual of how the people in charge of this country are greedily hoarding the wealth of it’s natural resources and forcing it’s citizens to scrape together a living on unpaved roads and limited electricity.
Tempted by the possibility of fresh air, I accepted an invitation by a friendly German to share a hired taxi for the day and accomplish the “sites to see”, which are mostly outside of the city proper, in just one’s day time. Our friendly guide Thien Thien picked us up in a Jeep Wrangler and so, smothered in sunscreen and sunhats, we were off on a whirlwind tour of the old ruins of Mingun, the pagodas of Sagaing, the island of I forget and the 150 year old teak bridge in Amarapurna, which allowed me the opportunity to slightly revise my image a bit. For starters, it was teak, but standing on this bridge watching as the sun turned into a fiery red globe over a golden pagoda which was surrounded by beautiful rice paddies, seemed to capture, if just for a fleeting moment, the mystique that the word Mandalay used to always invoke.
I had become, at this point, officially obsessed with taking pictures of monks, so when my guide asked if I wanted to see hundreds of them line up to take lunch at the most well known monastery the next day, I quickly agreed. I was chasing a photograph that another traveler had shown me in Hsipaw that could have been on the cover of National Geographic. I wanted this picture, but when we got to the monastery, all I could see were hoards of tourists circling the monks as if they were animals in a zoo. If the monks took a step, fifty cameras went off, if the monks put a spoon of rice to their mouth, fifty cameras went off, if the monks farted, fifty cameras went off. Not wanting to take part in the anthropological invasion, I asked if we could maybe find something else to do that was less touristy and more local.
Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.
As we were riding back toward town, we passed a little village with a lot of commotion. Curious, we stopped and saw that the locals were hosting their own form of Ultimate Fighting whereby two people, inside a makeshift ring, sit on opposite ends of a suspended bamboo pole and hit each other with pillows until someone falls off – best out of three. When we arrived, the crowd was going wild over the match between two drunk men, one who was turned upside down on the pole and taking a fluffy beating in the face until he finally fell off into the waiting pile of hay on the ground.
I was enthralled by this game, and even more so when I saw two women get in the ring and battle it out. Thien Thien saw how much I was enjoying myself and turned to me provokingly and said, “You know, I can tell the announcer that you want a challenger.”
“What!? Me!?” I shouted with fake surprise as I had already been plotting in my head how I was going to get into that ring. “No, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t….unless of course I could challenge Miss Beetlenut Face over there.”
Miss Beetlenut was the winner of the last match and she looked tough. Chewing on the local bettlenut leaves like a thick tobacco, spitting the red contents of her mouth on the ground every two minutes, she was using her lack of femininity as a scare tactic. I wanted a piece! But before I even confirmed, I saw Thien Thien talking to the announcer and the next thing I heard through the microphone was “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, FOREIGNER, blah, blah….”
All at once the entire village turned to me, took a pause to stare in curious confusion and let the words of my challenge register, then they erupted into an excitement akin to the Boston Red Sox’s winning the World Series. Whistles started blowing, old people were woken from their naps, previously bored teenagers who were once smoking cigarettes behind houses and shops came running out from all directions, babies were placed on shoulders, even the dogs were howling with wild enthusiasm. I safely concluded that a foreigner and a local in the ring was definitely a first for this village.
Sitting on the pole, pillow in hand, staring down Beetle Face, I was determined to make village history, but no sooner had the fighting begun and I was already losing my balance.
Round 1 – The Foreigner is Down!
Quickly readjusting from an un-victorious roll in the hay, I got back up on the bamboo pole amid heavy jeers from the crowd. I had no reputation to uphold, but I pretended I did and when the whistle blew the second time I went right for Beetle’s red teeth. Keeping my focus and my balance throughout the stuffed onslaught, I felt her start to waver.
Round 2 – The Local is Down!
Barely allowing my opponent the time to get up from the hay I was already in fighting position. Using momentum to my advantage I went straight for her face again, but this time, she also went for mine. It was only a few seconds, which felt like minutes, and I had already taken a few good whacks to the temple and the jaw, but in the end, I let the Buddha’s teachings of balance be my guide…literally.
Round 3 – The Local is Down! Victory to the foreigner!
The crowd exploded and I became an instant celebrity. Mothers wanted me to shake their hands and kiss their babies, single men were proposing marriage and the old granny’s would have let me sign my name across their chests had there been a marker available.
As Thien Thien treated me to a drink of cold pressed sugarcane for my victory, I realized that my ideas of mystique and intrigue could play out in many different forms; sometimes as a beautiful setting sun, an exotic name, or a nice whack in the face with a pillow.

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