ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY
Myanmar– I’m sitting in the bar of the Strand Hotel, feeling the silken smoothness of the oil soaked teak, luxuriating in the overwhelming smells of ginger flowers, lulled with the sounds of the patala, the 100-year-old native xylophone being played in the lobby. I have returned with two fellow travelers–a British medical sociologist and a hydrologist from Sacramento. The last time I stood here, five years ago, the hotel was like having tea with my 90-year-old dotty aunt, who had crumbs all over her knitted sweater but was too senile to notice. Now the strand is transformed like Raffles in Singapore, from frog to princess, into a resort that would make Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump proud. Purchased by Aman resorts and restored well beyond a casual face-lift, this makeover is an apt metaphor for the explosion of energy that is reflected in the entire country. Nowhere is Asia can a goal of increasing tourism by a factor of 40 times be dreamed of, much less realized. I sit sipping a Scotch in their cocoon of a bar, reliving the past weeks. For the moment, a road trip of 14 days has washed away. Nearly forgotten are the endless hours of riding in a Mazda van listening to the mind-numbing cassette tape–playing tracks of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” at a speed that raises it half an octave too high and plays it 17 percent too fast. The drive and the driver–horn honking, spitting, drooling out the window, smoking 555s–is now behind me. I’m in a hotel that filters the chaos of the world outside and hermetically seals me in an environment that allows in only the most relaxing aspects of a classical culture. Noise and frenzy are checked at the door. Time is compressed. The weeks spent in Myanmar, the former Burma, run together as a travel adventure film meets “Mad Max”– on the road to the future from a hazy, romantic past. The film runs backward as we sip our drinks and recount landing in Yangon (the former Rangoon). A new international airport is being built in Pyay, 50 miles east of Yangon. The airport taxi drives on the right. The orientation of traffic has been reversed from left to right. The same date saw the currency change from dependence on the decimal system of 100 to denominations of 90 and 45. (You cannot imagine what it is like to count change based on a system of 90s 45s and 15s). The road is a visceral experience. It is not a neutral body of cement and asphalt. It is far from the romance of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It is the basic conduit that funnels all levels of society and commerce. The road is being built with rocks broken from larger rocks by jackhammers and convicts. The rocks are piled in neat squares and shipped by truck to form the base of the bridge that span the Irrawaddy River form the roadbed of the airport. Old women smoking cheroots, young children, their sarong like long-ghis wrapped around their legs, spread the baseball-sized rocks which will form the new road bed from Pyay to Yangon, covering the 50 miles of the new airport road. The money is good–any money is good where the average income is $234 a year. Their faces are visible only when headlights pierce the night and reflect the workers in the darkness. Hotels are flourishing all over Yangon and Mandalay (still called Mandalay). “Joint venture” is the mantra sung with China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. The United States is conspicuously absent. The present government of 90+-year-old General Ne Win is portrayed in the U.S. as closed and brutal; the opposition embodied in recently released Nobel Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, as open and peaceful. The Myanmar government’s response is to paint a picture of sane, stable environment for investment and tourism. When I stand atop the pinnacle of the Anglican Church, overlooking the hotels that are flowering all over the Yangon, on view is a country seeking to retain an identity and embrace involvement with the rest of the world. The largest country in Southeast Asia, it is on the brink of dramatic change. In the past five years, Myanmar has gone from strict isolationism to development’s embrace. Right around the corner is a transformation from the passivity and acceptance of Buddhism to the materialism of television. Looking out on the rooftops, satellite dishes bristle in the shimmering heat and brilliant sun. The mind boggles, trying to visualize the results when elephant handlers in remote jungles receive generator dishes–introducing a culture that has been essentially unchanged for generations to “Melrose Place.” We drive by a pagoda in the distance at 40 mph. The drivers turn, in synchronized motion, place their hands in a praying position and face the shrine. Sheer terror of uncontrolled forward motion screams into my mind as a I realize I am the passenger of two people who believe strongly in reincarnation. We travel on. The road continues, sporadic and spasmodic. Bagan. the jewel of civilization, awaits further north on the east side of the Irawaddy River. For the moment, travel to the western shore is limited to a ferry. We ride packed against a family with live ducks standing next to a truck with diesel continually running. The only honking is from the ducks. This part of Myanmar will unfold so quickly when the bridge unlocks the key to easy transport east/west. There is another checkpoint on the waiting bank, with more questions about who you are and where you are going. I continue to visit a herd of 80 elephants working the teak forests. Myanmar Timber Enterprises, as well as logging the world’s largest reserves of teak and the major source of hard currency for the country, are interested in developing the path to ecotourism. A 14-mile stretch from the nearest village of Myanmar, consumes three hours of bone-jarring travel in Hino logging trucks. I lose track of the number of times my head hits the roof. A week with the elephants and the noise of the van replaced with the gentle wooden bells of the elephants make the journey more than worthwhile. Rather than build permanent roads to accommodate logging trucks, the elephants pull logs that weigh tons as they daintily step over rocks and through streams. Their impact on the environment is less damaging than the roads. After being limited to experiencing elephants in the zoo and at the circus–seeing them work–pulling logs of over a ton, smelling their sweat and their gases, is a visceral experience. As they walk by, there is an overpowering smell-a mixture of sweat, breath, farts and dust-a smell of pure labor. The noises issued range from bellowing, grunting, trumpeting to a prehistoric earthshaking rumble–a deep, ominous, threatening thunder that surrounds you in nature’s pure mega bass. It’s an experience like none on Earth– frightening and exciting. The privilege of the elephants has to be reconciled with bathrooms that are a hole in the ground. A bucket of water and half a coconut shell exist in lieu of toilet paper. This is the jungle– amenities are limited. But, on the up side, dinners consist of barbecued deer testicles, fried sparrows and Heinekens. Two days from Yangon, we fall out of the van on frozen legs to face each stop–each new adventure. From a distant hilltop, we watch the sun rise and strike Mount Popa. This is a city of pagoda set like a golden jewel on a volcanic mountain attainable only by an accent of 500 steps. If you are too tired, two men sit with a basket chair suspended on poles to carry you up the steps for a few khats. Monkeys, who populate the mountaintop city, wreak havoc on any object left on the ground. Monks and children picnic at pagodas, sleep between prayers and resume worship having consumed a pleasant meal and nap among a family that is devoted to each other and Buddha. We travel three days from Yangon, a short day from Pegu, before arriving at the dirt goat paths of Bagan (formerly Pagan)–now being paved with broad concrete boulevards. This city of 2,000 pagodas, stupas and temples, abandoned by the ruling monarchy in 1267 in the face of the approaching Genghis Khan remained much as it did in the 700 years intervening. . . until recently. The village has been moved out of the archaeological zone to a few miles down the road. Animals no longer roam the temples; visitors are no longer allowed access to the tops of pagodas to view the sunsets across the Irawaddy, as was permissible only five years prior. The old man fortuneteller who reads palms under a 15-watt bulb–literally at the end of the power line, at the end of time, is gone. The land changes; not only physically but in a temporal sense. The pressures of tourism will eliminate the naiveté, beauty, isolation and silence. They are traded for accessibility and a shower with hot water. To drive through the country is to see a world that is inaccessible by plane. Considering the risks described by most major airline safety organizations and the sheer thrill involved when you are confronting the use of parts of an airplane never recognized when landing at Bagan. . elevators, rudders, ailerons are all brought into very active focus when landing among the cross winds of the desert of Bagan. . . You might want to drive. The road describes not just direction but economics and history. When you are on the road after dark, walking home or to the fields, you are a peasant with few possessions in your pocket. You are part of the small migration from palette to labor that goes in pulses all over the world. Spiritually and historically, this is the same road that meanders through the Incan Empire, crosses Pompeii and intersects in modern Myanmar as it reaches out to open into the 21st century. The road, bearing its burden of poverty and backbreaking work, is punctuated by opulence and wealth of golden and white pagodas. Look beyond the roadside stands, the width of a garage entrance and incandescent lights of yellow, red, and blue hovering over a dinner, low wooden stool, small wooden table, rice and curry. . . and you see a procession of steps leading to a towering onion dome of gold leaf dwarfing the landscape. The pagodas are innumerable, endless, heart stopping– the Buddhist soul of the society. This is a road that, in spite of efforts at repair, is constantly hammered by heavy trucks and monsoon rains. Unimaginable torrents are regular events. Rivers and streams swallow sections of the asphalt with caprice. Men and boys shovel dirt scabs onto the wounds of the road. Theirs is the task of Sisyphus. They hold out hands, palms up to receive of offerings from the driver going by. These efforts keep the road to the level of impossible rather than impassible. The road circumscribes the central mountains of Myanmar. You go north to get south, west to go east. I chew gum to act as a buffer, a primitive mouth-guard to protect my teeth from the asynchronous jolts and jars. Hell is being reincarnated as a vehicle suspension system in Myanmar. Night falls and the stream turns more dramatic. Heads are coiffured with balanced, loaded baskets, defying gravity. There is the endless flow of people straining to earn a livelihood flowing through the darkness. These are people defying time and energy. From predawn to post dusk, the traffic continues with oxen and cart, bicycle and pedestrian. The road threads the land, the peasants blanket the spaces in the road left by the trucks, lorries and carts. Movement becomes an instinct. Lose that instinct and the violence in the meeting of vehicle and person becomes disastrous. The lane crumbles slightly, the road ceases abruptly. There is no definition between road and non-road. Passing is an adventure- a cacophony of vehicles, honking, trucks responding, car waving, monks watching, villages smiling as we pass–off the road, in the dirt, around a truck, in the middle of a curve, with the driver ahead, signaling lazily with a casual arm that the road ahead may be clear. Our driver coaxes the diesel engine and slowly accelerates around another blind corner as he leans and spits out the window a stream of crimson betel-nut juice every three minutes. The road is darkness, stillness, quiet. A strip of asphalt parenthetically bracketed by oxen cart tracks, two meters apart, on either side, enclosing not just the road but time itself. These are the same dimensions that thread through Incan, Egyptian, Greek, Syrian civilizations. these parallel lines define time and describe economies. They echo the faces on the people who sit at dawn, on the back of oxen, on the seat of the carts. The wheel creaks as the wooden axel turns. The peasant and beast of burden share the road. They have traveled the same paths through time from the invention of the wheel, the domestication of the ox to present day. These wheel ruts are the same dimensions in all civilizations. These ruts describe how far we have come and how far we have to go. The asphalt pierces these tracks sporadically. They intersect on bridges too small and roads too fragile to segregate the traffic. Frequently the cultures meet. This is vehicular Darwinism. Occasionally, the road is dotted with trucks overturned, and a chorus of a thousand will surround the scene. Half of them had to have been on the truck. Every horizontal surface that moves is filled by a living being. A truck cab is shared by four people and there is a reflection of three or four others that ride above the cab. Seat belts don’t exist in a land where the road cannot be taken for granted. Where are the people who were sitting atop the truck when it overturned? Nowhere to be seen. The first paved road of the world, recently discovered, led from quarry to the pyramids of Giza. These roads are close relatives and must have been developed simultaneously. Turning south after seeing Mandalay, central Myanmar, the repetitiveness is brought to a sudden halt as a bicycle rider turns into the path and freezes himself on our windshield. He slides off as we skid off the road to a halt, with only “Wake Up Little Susie” continuing in its maddening ignorance of the tragedy it has accompanied. The rider lies momentarily still but is quickly poured into a three-wheeled trike-shaw and pedaled off to a hospital holding his head and chest. “Not to worry,” everyone is told. “He was careless,” as his mangled bicycle lies among his scattered vegetables. Rude as it is not to give full attention to the disaster at hand, I find a bathroom to use, as one must always take advantage of the moments when the car is not hurtling forward. A half-hour later, with necessary officials conferring and assigning proper blame, the incident passes with little consequence, except for the villager, who probably had a great deal of the family resources tied up in his bicycle, now totally unusable, and who will answer for the days of work lost, the food on the road rather than the table. Speed limits? They exist only from a pragmatic view. The road is full of chasms, anachronisms and surprises. It is completely intolerant of inattention and mistakes. The tape continues during the 14-day journey; it winds, unwinds, rewinds and plays again. It is occasionally drowned out by children or monks with aluminum urns and dancing coins, soliciting money for monastery and school. Don and Phil continue their off-key chant as we are stuck behind traffic and follow the 30-meter lazy-eight line of cow urine– a dark calligraphic line scribed on the brown dirt. The tape persists as we drive across roads, bouncing over washboards– endless perpendicular cornrow intersections. A distance of 350 miles takes three days of 12 hours of real work. After each stop, it is squeezing back into the van and the seemingly endless encounters with the road, the tin buckets jangling for alms and the monotony of Don and Phil and their quest to get Susie home on time. Night, black night; riders ride on night-black road in silence-the-stillness of the landscape, the groaning of the wooden wheel, the rich/dull ring of the wooden oxen bell accompany each other’s rhythms. The riders, the carts, the bicycles come out of the darkness as we stop and fill the van with diesel from 10 gallon tanks we carry. They pass as mute ghosts, night shadows. When I return from Asia, my suitcase opens and a flume of diesel fumes wafts out with such force it is amazing the sensory stimulation has escaped customs. The odor is so pervasive it should have set off the metal detectors. The trip home mirrors the journey there, with a 14-hour flight from LAX to Taipei, four more hours to Singapore, an additional three hours to Bangkok, and the final hour to Yangon. Yet I count the days until I can return again to watch the sun set over the Irawaddy, I would even get back on the road.