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Friday, 03 July 2009

New Year's Eve in Burma - Page 3

Written by Janis Mitchell
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It is the last day of the year and Pam, Judy and I are in Bagan, Myanmar. Until about ten years ago, it was impossible to enter the country, formerly Burma, for more than a week. This ensured a minimal influence from the outside world. The near absence of transportation guaranteed outsiders could not venture far beyond Yangon, the capital. But with an eye on the tourist dollar, the outrageously repressive military government extended its visas for up to one month. This extension played a large role in ending Myanmar’s preparation for the advent of tourism.

New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellFor four days the three of us were accompanied by Aye-Aye, a gentle and slight Burmese young man we hired to collected us each morning and drive us in his horsecart to the most revered and exceptional ancient shrines. There we slowly and carefully scaled the hundreds of steps to the top, where we stood awestruck, marveling at the majestic vistas in every direction. Little children of three or four, carrying younger siblings wrapped in a pouch on their backs, scrambled fearlessly up to join us.


New Year's Eve in Burma, Bagan, Myanmar, Ayeyarwady River, holiest Buddhist sites, burma, drive to Rangoon, Janis MitchellAt times we all sat on the steps together to watch the sun set, and sometimes I’d leave the others behind to climb down and sit in the shade giving an English lesson to Aye-Aye, who had never been to school, but had taught himself. Aye-Aye, we learned, had been supporting his mother and sister since his father died when he was six years old. First as a fisherman, it had taken many years to save up enough to buy his horsecart. He rented Madonna, the horse, for three dollars a day, and, only earned five dollars a day as a driver. It is hard to imagine how he supported his family on a two dollar daily profit.

Finally it was time to return to Rangoon (now Yangon) and the twentieth century and the plane that would carry us to Bangkok and home. Though Aye-Aye had never been outside of Bagan, he had a more affluent friend who not only owned an old car, but had the connections to locate enough gas to drive us to the capital city the next morning. A deal was arranged by Aye-Aye, and the next day the three of us stood surrounded by our luggage and tried to remain calm as the battered, creaking jalopy pulled up to get us. Aye-Aye popped out of the passenger seat proudly introducing us to his friend, the driver, who beamed at us with a mouthful of beetlenut that, from long use, had stained his lips, tongue, and teeth a grotesque blood red. Though most Burmese adults chewed the mild stimulant incessantly, its startling appearance came as a shock each time we saw it.

After our gear was stowed in the trunk of the car, I unstrapped my cheapo $10 Radio Shack digital travel watch and put it on Aye-Aye’s slim wrist. Rummaging through my back pack until I found the tiny instruction booklet, I wrote my address on the back and questioned how he would ever figure it out, since I hadn’t. First, I supposed, he’d have to learn to read the numbers which were different from the symbols used in Burma. The confusion on his face made me realize this was probably the first gift Aye-Aye had ever received. Each day, he promised, he would pray to Buddha to protect me and one day bring me back to his beloved Bagan. He had had someone write his address in English for me: Aye-Aye, Horsecart #5, Bagan, and pressed it into my hand as we formally shook hands and said good-bye.

Looking out the back window as we rattled noisily out of town, I watched Aye-Aye grow smaller and smaller, his hands pressed together to his chest, bowing again and again and again until I could no longer see him.

The drive to Rangoon was an experience in terror. To begin with, our driver, I discovered, hadn’t slept in two days, having just returned from another chauffeuring job. No amount of beetlenut could compensate for his exhaustion, though he kept stuffing wads of it into his mouth. Opening his door and leaning out to spit the last wad onto the road without so much as slowing down, we sped bumpily along the dusty, potholed dirt road, trying to dodge the chickens and cows ambling along. Once, when there was a clog in the fuel line, we pulled to the side of the road and watched our driver lift up the hood, disconnect the fuel line, put it into his mouth and suck until his cheeks were filled with gas, then casually spit it out, problem solved.


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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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