Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A land of hope and stories


Yangon retreated, streets bled slowly of traffic and people, as I pedaled north with my friend Al, a TV camera crew and a thundering headache from a cheap and pesticide-scented red wine I’d knocked back the night before, or so I thought. When Al and the camera crew peeled off a fever kicked in, chased by diarrhoea of a Hiroshima quality and my hangover theory faded with the urban clutter. The murdered chicken made into Yangon street food was wreaking revenge, and its target was my intestines and Burma's roadside foliage.

By dusk I was a tremulous train wreck of a man, but I found the owner of a guesthouse, all would be OK if my imminent coma was near a toilet.

‘I have a room but I’m afraid you cannot stay. No foreigners.’

‘Please!’ I beseeched him ‘I’m sick and there’s nowhere else to sleep’ adding some operatics: a belly clutch, a wobble, a loose-mouthed nod that foretold some medical disaster on his doorstep.

‘I’m sorry. The soldiers will punish me’

Great, I thought, and cursed the military junta, adding my woes to their various sins. Forced land confiscations, torturing advocates of democracy, recruiting child soldiers, and now this.

That night, as my fever clambered to ever greater altitudes, I sneaked off the road into a fruit tree plantation to rough camp (which is flouting the law in Burma). I scrambled urgently out of my tent every few minutes, in the style of an army recruit, to squat in the ant-filled dankness, and besieged by mosquitoes, I hoped vaguely that the sonorities of bowel gas didn’t alert the Burmese army to my whereabouts.

The next day I rode until I found a hotel in a town in which the entire street became a stadium: pop-eyed people stalled, slack jawed, as I pedaled by. Travellers, and their dramatic pantaloons, are coming to Burma but few reach these backwaters and I swaggered about in search of dinner, enjoying my new-fangled VIP status. Tourism is not the only change, technology too has proliferated: two years ago Internet was virtually non-existent outside Yangon and mobile phone sim cards cost 200 dollars. Now Yangon has a beguiling clothing store called Facebook Fashion, complete with the logo, a ‘Epson’ sign has been laid over one of the giant Buddha effigies inside the Shwedagon pagoda (which is either product placement or people are now praying to Epson) and there is even an ‘Apple Store’, though it is an un-ironic rundown shack with a jumble of fractured circuit boards and dusty radios that, charmingly, has borrowed the name.



Drivers in Burma are afflicted with that particular Asian compulsion to use car horns so loud they must have been borrowed from oil tankers. Outside Asia, and New York, if anyone sounded their horn for that much time you would expect them to have sustained a gunshot wound to the head and be slumped lifelessly over the steering wheel. Here cars barrel past in a frenzy of clamor and dust and then a flapping hand flies from a window, the right hand window of a right hand drive car which drives on the right hand side of the road, and three letters, tall and robust, pitch up in behind your eye lids – W T F. The explanation: Cars come from Japan, Thailand or India (all of which drive on the left) but in Burma they changed the driving side of the road to the right, to snub old colonial associations probably, (though it is also rumoured one of the General’s wives was told by her astrologer that it would be better this way) and now overtaking means placing the least flappable of the posse in the passenger seat and is as perilous as donning an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt and striding into a military base with pamphlets and a megaphone.

North of Pyay the country turned a vivid green scattered with oxon and carts, devoid of modern farm machinery. Women in rice hats set about their crooked work in the paddies, all for the accomplishments of subsistence and lordosis. Its women who build the roads too, and women who work the shops, and women who care for the children. Many men in Burma have the more sweatless tasks of loafing in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand, or approaching me by way of a self-important march and announcing their position in the army or police so I can acknowledge their status and pay due respect. It’s unsurprising though in the context of an authoritarian military regime or government (insert whopping inverted commas) - it’s the minority groups, the women and the poor who always pay the biggest price.



Cycling through Burma I get the impression, however self-aggrandising this may sound, that my being here will find its way into stories: my stories, of a Burma then unsmeared by mass tourism, and those of children I meet who may one day recount stories of the old Burma to the next generation: the military state before Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and their memories of the flagship tourist they saw as a child - a hirsute, odorous man on a bicycle, tired enough to wear an air of disaster.

Various rules for tourists are enforced in Burma: I am not allowed to be hosted by locals, to camp or to stay in guesthouses. My only option then is the more expensive hotels, of which there are few. So, petulantly, I got into the habit of pitching up to the local police station at dusk, bouncing my shoulders and declaring that I had nowhere to sleep thereby saying, in roundabout fashion, I am your problem. There were myriad phone calls, notes scrawled and debates made until eventually I would be delivered to a monastery or police station where I could spend the night. If I surreptitiously wild camped and had to explain where I’d slept at roadblocks the following day, I would tell them the town with the nearest hotel, and when that town was 80 km away and it was 10 am, I was relying on them thinking me some sort of super-human which I played up to by broad arm stretches and furious moppage of sweat and ‘yep, tough morning’.

In villages I saw young men and boys, their lungis rolled up into Sumo-esque pants, launching their bodies into martial art style flying kicks, aiming to connect with a rattan ball : a sport called Sepak takraw. I often sat to watch these games of incredible dexterity and skill: imagine volley ball but you use your feet and the aim is to go for the smash. Even these photos don’t do it justice.




In eating houses it often felt like a pit stop: a whole team of people, unasked, would busy themselves around me: a lady would fan me to keep me cool, a guy would apply oil to my bike chain, another might put a waterproof sheet over my bike if it was raining, someone would draw me a map and bring me water. Paying was denied me even after pained guilt-wracked pleas. Everyone would smile copiously and it would make me ponder the enamel dissolving betel nut and another of life’s ironies: the Burmese are a people with the easiest smiles, and the worst teeth.

In one village a girl shot to my side, armed with a phrase book entitled ‘English for Ladies and Gentlemen of Business’ a pamphlet from antiquity compiled by the Burmese regime. ‘Do you have any rubies or gems to trade?’ she asked. I shook my head and borrowed her book to find the appropriate response ‘I’m afraid Madam the matter is quite one-sided’. I also noticed the delightful advice if the esteemed business visitor wants to travel the country: ‘These days the hill tribe people are far-seeing, they come down to the plains to visit the spreading markets, like us’.

The girl, who was in her early 20s, struck me as unusually forthright for a Burmese lady, but her intentions soon became clear.

‘Are you married?’
‘No’
‘Do you have fianc√© or lover?’
‘Um, no’
‘I don’t believe you! Give me your passport’

I handed it over

‘Beautiful’ she cooed as she appraised my photo, which was odd since I had always considered my passport photo to smack of someone with a long history of freeganism and paedophilia.

‘I want to travel so much’ she continued. ‘But I have no sponsor for my passport’ Then she looked me dead in the eye, her stare more suffused with determination than desire.

‘My name is Maiah, you will remember me. This is where I work. You can come back here any time’

By the state of me, I surmised that she must really, really want out of Myanmar.

In the tropical wet season there’s futility in scoping the sky for signs of rain, you make slit-eyes at the horizon instead, where a mist sweeps in with the fervor and bite of a Saharan sandstorm. After some torrential bursts in the south though the rains eased and then ended, the fields bieged and were split by rocky gullies. The rivers dried to nothing, vast bridges ranged over sand and succulents. The change of landscape brought with it a powerful feeling of progress: I was moving fast. In this scrubby semi-desert I wild camped, a nameless wild herb perfumed the air and for the first time, possibly since somewhere in Mexico, I left the fly open: there were no mosquitoes in the gloom. In the still dusk I watched hummingbirds zip in and dunk their long beaks into flowers overhanging my tent, and in the bliss of the alfresco and star-lit night, I flopped into sleep.

Bagan: A vast array of ancient temples spots the land for miles. In town the ubiquitous rubble and ladders attest to the explosion of construction for the coming tourists. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Burma and I watched tribes of travelers take to scooters and motorbikes, sitting rigid, upright and uneasy, to explore the surrounds.


Bagan
For my planned detour to Burma's mountainous Chin state I didn’t have much to go on. No tour reports, altitude maps or the like, just a patch of orange on my map, as blank as a desert, with the dim names of a few diminutive settlements joined by roads that, with their million sharp wiggles, bore the semblance of electrocuted cartoon worms. My main worry, among a shed load, was that it wouldn’t be possible to ride 900 km over 11 days, usually this would be a cinch, but I had to factor in all the unsealed dirt roads, the 20% grades, the climbs to 3000 metres above sea level, the monsoon turning earth to mud: July was the worst month of the year to be there. I wasn’t even confident I’d be allowed into the state by officials. As far as I knew, no foreign cycle tourer had cycled any of the roads I planned to ride for years or decades. On the road towards the mountains I was offered an alternative: a rod straight temptress of a throughfare, flat probably, soothing my passage to India. I deliberated. It was wet and cold already, it would be worse up in the mountains. But regrets, I remembered, never chase adventures such as this. So I gulped hard, and launching into a game of one-up-man-ship with myself, I paid a wistful glance at the easy road, but instead turned my handlebars hard to the left and set off towards Chin State.

I decided not to worry about miles or kilometres or speeds; instead I’d concentrate on hours. If I got up early, and was on the road for 6 am and ended at sunset with just a few short breaks for food, then maybe I’d make it before my VISA expired. Early one morning I came across two beshawled women, crooked and witch-like, shuffling down the misty road, grinning at me, and I knew I must have arrived: one of the women bore the facial tattoos that mark some of the older women of Chin State, and have garnered them so much renown. The history of the practice is a little cloudy, perhaps the practice arose to make the women less attractive so they wouldn't be kidnapped by neighbouring tribes. Which to me unnervingly resonated with the practice of cattle branding.


The road twisted into the clouds: on one side of me was a cliff face, lost at times to landslides which I edged around, on the other side a white oblivion, sometimes bright white and heavenly with sun, other times leaden and threatening, but always thick and masking. Near Bagan I had invoked the scarlet smiles and waves from Burma’s betel nut addicts, further out I was met by stone-faced astonishment and I left behind me an array of people statuesque and blank in awe. But as I went up and up, on dirt roads, I found muffled mountain people, an almost Andean evocation, who exploded into half-mocking laughter as I hammered down on my pedals and was chased out of town by snakes of voluble children. In the shabbiest indigent mountain communities leery women would quicken their shuffles, children would scatter, men would shrink into doorways. But always when I approached they would shed their edge and invite me in for tea.

There were only two towns on my route in Chin State, and the villages had no fresh produce, just stale biscuits and noodles and the suggestion of future scurvy, but even in the most desolate of settings I would see the wooden boards declaring ‘National League for Democracy’. Children and chickens would dissolve out of puffs of cloud that drifted through the streets along with men shouldering ancient rifles with enormous barrels, and women puffing pipes, cloth wrapped around their heads. These women led me inside where we all sat around a sputtering fire, the steam rising off my damp clothes blending with the wood smoke, and as the wind rattled the tin roof, and we crouched on our hams, sipping tea in silence, we all wondered what I was doing here.




The cloud obscured the vista from the roads cut into mountainsides but as the wind plowed into me, and drizzle steeped my beard and made glistening morning cobwebs of my arm hair, I felt hardy and alive. It was cold at 2700 metres high though, I warmed my hands on my brake-heated rims after the downhills. When the wind gusted enough to clear the cloud a vast scene launched from the murk: forested peaks dressed in cloud and menace, proving me minuscule. Up here the lowland tropics were a faded photo in my memory, now it was mossy, windy and wet: Wales on steroids. Up two vertical kilometres, down one, up two, down two, up one.

The villages were draped over ridges instead of cut into mountainsides, perhaps because of a particular peril of the season: Landslides. I saw their aftermath every five or ten kilometres, sometimes huge ones blocking the road and only motorbikes could get past so that now no cars or trucks could follow me and if there was a mechanical problem with my bike, I’d be walking out, and that could take a week or more. On cue my right pedal began to click ominously and I realised the bearings were shot. There was nothing for it but denial.

On one precipice-edged mountain road I paused as fist-sized rocks cascaded down the mountain ahead of me. I chose my moment, switched on my Go Pro and pedaled madly past the raining earth and slate. I turned to watch the ongoing tumble when a huge section of soil flowed off the rock face like water. I didn’t feel in danger though until the entire slope suddenly subsided, three trees came crashing down the mountain submerging the entire road, and then the landslide moved horizontally in my direction: I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard shouting, as was later revealed in the video footage, a very bad curse word and the name of a certain deity.

I came out of the clouds and cycled through rolling primary forest, the road was furnished with mud and dozing buffalos, and I had to stop and haul my bike. By night I rough camped, and one morning I woke to find a bloody patch on the wall of my tent – a leach had attached itself to me and feasted, and then I’d turned and squished it. Sometimes I slept in villages, often the local pastor or teacher could speak some English, and sometimes the village prodigal son was home from the States, a refugee on leave. In their stilted wooden homes the walls owned a picture of a blue eyed, lightly bearded Jesus as well as Avril Lavine (her image in remote villages around the world is one of life's conundrums) and then in the households of the more prosperous, photos of their kids, their faces pasted eerily onto the bodies of other children in suits, on boats or at the seaside. Many times I was told that I was the only foreigner to have stayed in the village, people assumed I worked for an NGO. ‘Where is your interpreter?’ they asked. Once, I was told, a Frenchman had come. ‘On a bicycle?’ I asked ‘No no! A motorbike. Nobody comes here on a bicycle. Except you, Englishman.’


Flat. F-L-A-T. That is what the pastor had said about the road out of Chin State. He’d even demonstrated, with a horizontal swish of his flat hand, and so there has been no semantic mistake, ‘flat’ is not Burmese for ‘vertical’. At every bend I glanced up from the jagged rocks that ‘paved’ the road to find my eyes settling in dismay on something that looked more suitable for base jumping than mountain biking. Deity-decrying terrain. Eventually I made it up and significantly closer to deep space, through my habit of piecemeal optimism: I trick myself time and again into believing that the next uphill bend (or mile, or day) will be the last. If I were more intelligent or cynical doubt would rob me of the mental ability to ride up big mountains. A week or so afterwards, in India, another man described the road as flat. Are you sure? I asked. ‘Yes yes’ he replied. ‘Flat. But it does get a little cold. Especially when you get up into the clouds’.

I made it to Kale, closing in on the border and found a bike shop to get new brake pads. The zesty and sweaty mechanic in charge was wearing a singlet that depicted a swastika (you may think this to be a symbol of Hinduism, but I have my doubts). He motioned frantically for me to sit and then tried to remove my brakes with a cone spanner, before I could tell him he needed an allen key he began bashing my new shimano xt brakes with it! ‘Stop Stop!’ I yelled, ‘what are you doing?’ He pointed to a little mud on the rim which he had decided to remove with ultimate force. Then he gabbled something incomprehensible, jumped onto my bike and cycled off. ‘what the fuck!’ I think I yelled and another mechanic explained he had gone to the workshop ‘but I can replace brake pads!’ I said exasperated. Now a smack-happy nazi was joy-riding my bicycle around a strange Burmese city and I was haunted by the vision of bike verses truck, a scenario I had avoided for 65,000 km. He returned in 20 minutes, both wheels were paralysed through rubbing pads. I adjusted them as he grinned on, and I regretted my funk - he was only trying to help.

Eventually I got to Tamu and checked out of Burma – a country that has worked its way into the answer of that much posed question: 'And where is your favourite place?' Not all Burmese people share my sentiment, and why would they? Many are locked up for political reasons and various groups are still persecuted, especially Muslims in Rakhine. Land is still being confiscated. The army consumes around 40% of the country’s money, about 2% is spent on healthcare - a fact I was reminded of as I looked out over rice paddies, at the bent women toiling, as two cutting edge Burmese fighter jets split the blue Burmese sky.

I leave you with the words of a wooden plaque in the immigration station in Tamu which I had to commit to memory, reasoning a photo may not go down too well.

The Myanmar Spirit

The simple-minded Myanmar has no envy for persons of a fair complexion. Nor hatred for the brownishs. Nor differentiates with the blackishs. Nor judges those of different faith. Myanmars have a brethren respect and affection for all.

But if the affairs of our nation, country, land, history, religion or culture are interfered with by foxy-trick, the persons will be dealt with severely, with all our might, whether big or small, black or white, until the last word at the very end, even if we have many injuries and are lying in a pool of blood.


Thank you this month to Al and Jess and Horizons school for having me do a presentation for the students. 

Next up: India.