Bound for Bagan

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It was black and the chill of the morning dew made me glad I'd worn my krama tied about my neck for the tuk-tuk ride to the ferry dock. The driver had just taken our luggage and we were slowly climbing out when a man's face jutted toward mine lit by a single candle chewing the words, "You want Banana? Water?" I asked that he please let us get out first and then perhaps we'd buy something, "We're not quite awake yet, dear." High on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River on the dirt-packed road were scattered wooden tables overflowing with bottles of water, fruit and baked goods illuminated solely by candlelight. Women with beige paste circles on their cheeks smiled with baskets of bananas atop their heads as we looked around confused in a sleep-deprived haze. "Faite attention" the turbaned Burmese guide yelled to the bus load of French tourists as they descended the steep stone steeps to the ferry below. Tight-lipped and squint-eyed they marched down the stairs seemingly oblivious to the hawkers while clutching their boxed breakfasts embossed in gold with the names of their four star hotels. Their porters followed grunting with large suitcases balanced on their heads and under their arms. The scene was as though we'd stepped into an old colonial etching heavy with ink.

Cameron went ahead to find out where we should go to buy tickets while I sat near the road surveying the scene in silence. I could no longer see her waiting in line under the yellow light of the old wooden ferry dock and assumed she'd gone into a room behind the counter. I paid a porter to carry one of our bags down and found her. It was like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel. She sat in a wooden clapboard room with two art deco armoires and bamboo chairs. Across from her at the battered teak table a maritime worker copied information from loose papers into a leather-bound ledger. Next to her was a European woman and her Burmese guide. They sat in silence and I followed suite. The Burmese woman told her that we were waiting for the chief to decide if it was possible for us to acquire seats.

We sat with ramrod posture, plastered polite smiles on our faces and waited. The line was growing outside the ticket booth and a man in the front thrust his passport through the barred window with a fifty-dollar bill tucked inside. The guide leapt to her feet, instructed us to get our passports and insert the $16 fee inside and then place them in front of the clerk. "Should we slip in a bribe?" I asked her. She shook her head firmly. We held our breath and then he reached for our passports. A British couple pushed their way in front of us just as the clerk handed us our tickets over the husband's shoulder.

We had the best seats on the boat. We were seated in the dining level in wide dark wood and rattan cushioned seats in the first row facing the window. We stepped out on deck just as we began to push off. The boat's searchlight was scouring the boats in the harbor. An old open double-decked ferry chugged along next to us its freight tilting the aged souvenirs from the Empire. On the riverbanks small bonfires outlined the thatched huts on the plaines. A fisherman in a canoe threw his net in the black mirrored river and waved.

Burma was waking. Slowly the sky was warming from violet, to amber to pastel mandarin. And then from behind the golden stupas of the temples it came just as Kipling said, "and the sun comes up like thunder out of China."

The captain sounded the horn and two spry workers descended starboard. The dry season has barely begun for Burma and already the river is adrift with sandbars. Looking through his binoculars he called out orders to them as they measured the level using black and white bamboo poles. We snaked from side to side and several times it seemed as though we were headed directly for land only to make a hairpin turn and return in our wake. Once we were stuck for over three quarters of an hour until another ship came along and gave us a nudge.

In the dining area under a rising sun the colonial grandeur and mystique was fading fast. A portly Chinese man in shorts and polo shirt hacked up mucus with such force that I could barely make out that lovely old tune, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" on the now cranked-up karaoke machine. Unfortunately however he remained silent throughout a hideous cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman." Of all the dumb luck. A hideous American couple with baseball caps talked about the wonders of Baltimore with their equally repellent and bloated German cousins. The rest of the boat looked as though they could have charted their own boats for the day but were gracious enough to entertain the less fortunates like ourselves. While bogged down on a sandbar we were witness to a shrill tête-à-tête about the trunk loads of souvenirs they'd purchased. I wondered who should be thrown overboard first so we could sail again. My bets were on the Chinese man because even with the almost deafening wind on deck his guttural violent forcings were terrifying. If he put up too much of a fight however I'd have gladly thrown the irritating American woman over even if we'd already kicked it up a few knots just on principle.

Meanwhile an English couple; he in khakis and a red ascot, she in pearls and a sensible dress and their son in oxford and navy blue twill settled into their picnic lunch beside us. The mother passed out etched silver cups and then out came the tonic followed by the gin. When the son asked if it was too early for cocktails the mother quipped haughtily, "But we've been up since four this morning!" It was only 10:35. Cocktail in hand the father strolled the deck puffing away at his cigarillo. For some it seemed the dream of the Empire still lives on.

The quoted nine hour journey was stretching into something closer to twelve when we spotted on the horizon just a smattering of the over two-thousand temples of Bagan. The rough winds seemed to hasten our docking as we headed to shore. But where was the dock we wondered and why are all of those people standing on that steep muddy hill? "Oh you've got to be kidding me. That is not the jetty. Are you sure?" Indeed it was the dockless mound, little more that a mudslide on an incline was where we were pulling to shore. Those of us who had to actually touch our suitcases ourselves gathered them up and headed down to line up. Two thin uneven planks were thrown to shore and we were expected to balance ourselves and our luggage across to "dry" land. I knew I'd never make it and Cameron was hesitant, as well. I turned to two porters in navy cotton jackets and asked, "Do you think you could help us with our bags?" We negotiated a price and dragged ourselves up the slippery mound behind the men grunting up the hill as they hoisted our bags to their shoulders.

Tomorrow the temples!
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