Shaken and Stirred

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

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

I thought that I knew how horrific traveling overland in Asia could get. I was wrong.

All the warning signs were there. The day prior I culled the usual information (i.e., make and age of vehicle, amenities, road conditions, etc.) and received conflicting information. One travel agent told us it would take seven hours, another said ten and I was thinking that ten could turn to thirteen. It was the usual pack of lies. Why I even bothered to ask I can only attribute to force of habit and an undying wellspring of feckless hope. I was not surprised that little I was told was incorrect but I had no idea as to just how gruesome a bus journey could actually be. Yesterday we debated over and over for hours whether we should hire a taxi and spend the extra money or take the bus. We couldn't find anyone to share the expense of justifying a hired car so we made what would be the worst decision of my entire journey.

It began much the same way the others had with an excruciatingly early scheduled departure time. One of the charming teenage boys at our guesthouse woke us promptly at 4 a.m. and fifteen minutes later we sat outside shivering on a bench staring into space as the town slowly came to life. In the black and still of morning the market people, illuminated by the flames of a bonfire drank tiny cups of tea as they set up shop. A radio cracked a forlorn trill of a woman's wail. From the lane behind us came a single monk cradling his mendicant's bowl shuffling his bare feet. Behind him came the flip and flop of a school child's sandals and in between the creak of an overloaded lorry and a dog's yelp. We waited cherishing what I knew would probably be the last bits of magic for the better part of a day.

Forty-five minutes later with no bus in sight the hotel clerk advised that we walk to the station ourselves. We followed his lead as he helped us with our luggage for the full one minute walk just ten doors down the dusty street. I neither batted an eye nor raised an eyebrow.

Then it came. Hulking around the corner in a fit of dust the squealing piece of tin creaked to a lazy stop in front of us. I was incredulous. My mouth agape I felt a twinge of nausea tingle in the back of my jaw, "You've got to be fucking kidding me." Indeed it was a Japanese bus as the agent had told us but what he neglected to tell us was that it was a hard bench preschool bus and perhaps it was ten years old but that was around the time of Hirohito. The hotel clerk took care of our bags as we ducked inside the rusted can of a bus. We found our narrow seats above the wheel toward the rear in front of two other women who appeared equally bewildered. One British, one Norwegian both in their late fifties and well-traveled we instantly bonded in our shared disbelief.

The bus groaned slowly forward rocking from side to side into the dirt craters as we forged our way out of town. Without any streetlights we bumped through the dark while the only splinters of dusty light slivered in from headlights of passing trucks as they forced us off the road. I reached for my bag and pulled out two new white cotton surgical masks and handed one to Cameron. It was a dust-filled sigh of relief yet still it did little. I wrapped my krama around my neck and mouth and even then I could smell the dirt seeping through. I turned to the Norwegian behind and said, "At the next stop what do you say all four of us hire a taxi?" All but her eyes were obscured by the sarong wrapped tightly around her face, "Thank you! Yes!"

The road wasn't only made of packed dirt it was also but one lane. Observing the law of the road we screeched to a halt for any passing vehicles larger than ourselves. We pulled over frequently. Ours was a tiny bus made to seat but 20 though 32 people found their way on board. Every jump seat was filled and the front was so packed that the door had to remain open the entire time. To keep from being jostled and slammed forward we had to hold on the entire time, slide low in the seat and fold our legs with our knees in the back of the seat in front of us. To sit freely was an invitation to physical injury. I felt like a kernel of Jiffy Pop knocked about vigorously across the eye of a hot stove. We stopped again and a bicycle was lifted and roped on top while passenger number 33 melded in.

We pulled into an open-air restaurant for a break three hours later. With no cabs in sight and little traffic it looked dismal that we'd be able to find another form of transit to our destination. The Norwegian went to find a phone. No phones. Checking our guidebooks we noticed that we were outside of a nearby town where we'd be able to possibly find a taxi. A nice Burmese man with gleaming teeth and flawless English told the driver that we wanted to get out at the next town. It was a little after 9 a.m. and time for breakfast so we sat and commiserated while I sipped powdered coffee that tasted like rust and Cremora. Twenty minutes passed and all but four people were still eating. Two haughty English girls in gingham-checked shift dresses and two curly-headed Scandinavian hippy women with meaty hands sat slowly sipping bowls of noodles. Everyone else was already in the baking tin can or squatting near it staring and waiting. I climbed onto the first step of the bus and on the step clapped my hands loudly and announced, "OK LET'S GO! CHOP! CHOP! COME ON!! We've got to GET A MOVE ON!" The girls with the pork chop hands leered my way and I didn't wait to see what sort of look the working-class Laura Ashley girls had for me as I clapped, shouted and crawled back to my seat. The locals glanced gratefully in my direction, smiling. Two minutes later the bus lumbered along.

The Burmese with the lovely teeth came to us moments later and told us that he'd spoken with someone up front who knew a taxi driver who'd take us to the town of Kalaw near Inle Lake. We gathered our things and waited beside the road for our taxi to come and pick us up. The four of us all in pants with pale skin in a country where 99% of the population wears skirts and bears dark skin were anthropological studies that the natives of the small hamlet were drawn to like months to the flame. I imagined that we must've been like the caveman dioramas at the Museum of Natural History or perhaps a "Land of the Future" exhibit at a World's Fair. We were immediately descended upon by eight wide-eyed men lead by a South Asian Muslim with white muttonchop beard wearing a lavender checked lungyi and plum shirt. He confronted us with the usual cannon of queries: age, profession, nationality and marital status. When I responded that I wasn't married he suggest a nice Burmese man and pointed to his son who was wearing a nazi swastika motorcycle helmet and was chewing so much betelnut that he looked as though he'd just bitten the head off a chicken.

Finally our driver in a large shiny mini-van quietly and smoothly glided toward us. We spread out in the heavily cushioned seats complete with frilly slipcovers. It seemed too good to be true but we'd actually struck traveler's gold. The ride snaking through the dirt and gravel covered mountain roads had us commenting every few minutes or so, "can you imagine how that bus is going to navigate this?" The scenery turned from barren mountain villages leaning toward parched streams to verdant villages and trickling brooks as we rounded our way toward the other side of the former British hill station of Kalaw.

The air was dry and cooler amidst the leafy town and Alpine inspired rooftops seemed oddly apropos even in exotic Southeast Asia. As this was as far as our driver was willing to take us and only two hours from our final destination we found a charming restaurant and enjoyed a nice leisurely lunch. In a wood paneled room, our freshly-washed hands lifted our glasses of local strawberry wine as a cool mountain breezed fluttered the white lace curtains. We clanked our glasses, "To the survivors!"

The imploringly polite ladies of the Seven Sisters restaurant organized a car for the rest of our journey to our guesthouse on Inle Lake for five dollars less than we'd initially thought. Simon, our driver in impeccable English alerted us to points of interests along the way. It was a breathtaking and relaxing drive down the mountain and just as twilight bled across the sky we pulled into town of Nyanug-Shwe by a glistening placid lake.

Last night in Bagan as Cameron and I were heading back to our guesthouse I told her that she had not really been to Southeast Asia until she'd taken a dreadful bus ride. While it was only three hours of sheer hell I felt safe in saying she's paid her dues.

I can honestly say without hesitation that the extra twenty-five dollars I spent today was the best money I've spent during my entire fifty days of travel thus far. Next time I'll think twice - maybe thrice before venturing on a bus again or least make sure that I don't pack my bottle of gin in my suitcase.


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