An overwhelming glimpse of a past life


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Mandalay
January 25th 2012
Published: February 12th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

The sinister streets are dark lit only with torches and the beams emanating from car and motorcycle lamps lazily gliding by.Some streets are darker than I ever imagined blackness to be, the shadows a creation of what little moon light filters down into the deepest recesses. The little truck speeds along dusty roads in search for a place to stay, the only noise made on otherwise soundless streets.

It is four in the morning, the Dawn has not yet graced us with its magnificent presence and we are freezing, we are exhausted. Escaping Yangon on a freezer with wheels, a ten hour night bus journey where no sleep was had due to the chattering bones and chills which swept through me shaking my entire body inside out. To leave over-priced Yangon felt like a good idea at the time but upon reflection we look at each other and all we can do is muster the energy to just stare. Talking takes up vital oomph we just don’t have. Our stomachs still feeling the warmth of a coffee we downed at the bus station, it seeps slowly away out of our freezing skins as we chug along towards the guest house
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still working with type writers
we managed to track down, eventually. As bikes or cars pass dust flairs up from their tyres leaving a trail of dirt for us to breathe in. I can feel my lungs collapse under the visible pollution hanging in the air like some life force draining our insides.

We are greeted at the ET hotel with smiles and a helpful lady all too aware of how tired we are and cold. She tells us to wait as she fixes up our room and hurries us off towards the dining area earlier than usual in order to fill us with glorious instant coffee, a guilty pleasure, and wonderful fried eggs sunny side up. At this time in the morning after such a stressful journey I needed perfection and that is exactly what I got. As the eggs were being cooked I told Kalina a story from Vietnam and how I almost assaulted a poor chef as she cooked my eggs which were supposed to be sunny side up. As with all things in Vietnam I got sick and tired of the inconsistency and just wanted eggs like I had asked for: sunny side up. I stood in front of the chef with my plate at the ready to collect the beautiful golden domes only for the cook to burst the bubbles last minute with her evil spatula which only moments ago seemed so friendly. In that moment, in shock I screamed at the lady “NOOOOO! What are you doing?!” Sarah, my travel companion witnessed the entire debacle and taking pity on me whisked me off back to my seat to avoid any ugly scenes which may have occurred and to get me some proper eggs done.

After breakfast we climbed in to bed and slept later awaking from our much needed slumber in the early hours of the afternoon, later than expected and took our time getting showered and dressed ready to start the day by the early afternoon. We wandered the streets drinking in the sights the city displayed mesmerised by the simplicity of life here seemingly stuck in time. Like Yangon, I felt like I was transported to a gun-slinging Western film set with British colonel buildings. The markets, street stalls and street phones resided colourfully beneath these towering giants. It is in fact wrong to call them giants considering the high rises and sky scrapers we
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a refreshing break from our throw away culture
see today crowding our western cities as if in competition to see how many people can be squeezed in to the tiniest surface area possible. These formidable buildings are giants in their own right, they towered magnificently above the little people milling around but they were not as imposing or as ugly as the glass facades or cemented structures of the modern blocks we see today. They spoke of history, glory, and power but admitted their exhaustion after their years resting peacefully amongst the dusty main roads intersecting their way through them. Unlike other Asian cities, Burma’s are not filled with flashy cars and tuk tuks, instead an Ox cart trudges past atop with bales of hay and rider teetering on the edge of the precariously loaded cart; a clapped out forty year old car bumbles past noisily churning out a sickness from its exhaust followed by a motorbike with a man in a skirt behind the wheel. All I can do is gawp at the scenes flashing past my eyes, take it in and accept it. I love it.

There is no end to the strangeness; it is unreal, almost unbelievable. Women sit on the streets behind a table atop with corded angular plastic phones like the ones I remember we used to have growing up in the late eighties. They greet their customers, dial the operator and pass the phone to the caller before setting a timer. The night market is like no other; the tourist trinkets and cheap clothes which infamously line the Koah san road in Bangkok are a million miles away from here. Instead the market boasts a wonderful array of literature; educational text books, magazines, novels, fiction, in a vast number of languages. The skirts (longyi) the men and women wear are sold and look beautiful hanging high on the rails above tables smothered with torches and batteries. The stalls themselves are not flooded by street lamps but are lit only by a torch or light which is run on batteries. There is very little electricity here and clearly the stall holders are used to doing without it. Monks walk between the aisles of books craning their maroon clad necks to the furthest edges in search of something new to read. One monk stops to watch me take photos and shows me the DVD he has bought called ‘The Lady’, a politically motivated film about the struggles of The Lady they revere, known to westerners as Aung San Suu Kyi. The streets are filled with people, eateries spill out on to the road, tiny chairs and tables surrounded by middle aged men who pile up high thousands of dollars in the open. Men wear skirts as do the women, faces speckled with a yellow substance which acts as make-up but also as a sun screen. Wide grins peer at me along with the constant chimes of “Hello” and “Where are you from?”

We wind our way around the streets observing more and more surreal sights; a man hard at work writing up documents with a typewriter, the pavemenrt for his office. A man crouched down in the shade fixes an umbrella and I can only admire this fix-it society a world away from our bin-it mentality. A father pins a wrapped up cloth to a tree, when I look closer tiny feet poke out of the folds, a baby sleeps in peace whilst the world goes by. Palm readers line on street seeking shade under the trees as they predict great things which may come. I sit with one for a while as he reads my palm and tells me I shall be married, have one child and will travel widely. He tells me my life will change when I am 29 when my life line meets my heart line. I will live until an old age, in my mid to late 80's and will die peacefully in my sleep as apparently God will favour me for the work I have completed in my life time. The third fortune teller to tell me I am an old soul and am paying back the bad Karma I collected in my previous lives.

Unfortunately the next few days pass with the both of us bed bound due to some nasty sickness the doctor believes to be in the water. He tells us he sees it every day. He gives us medicine and rehydration fluids and sends us on our way refusing payment. The hotel owner drives us back to the hotel but not before stopping to get rice with chicken for us to eat, all too aware that we have not eaten for a day or two. The kindness from the staff at the ET Hotel and the Doctor was worth the $25 we had to pay.

We are on a time limit with this country, the visa you get lasts 28 days and of course this is not enough time to really explore a country. We didn’t want to just do the tourist route but getting permission permits to go off the beaten track was proving difficult. Not wanting to waste more time and happy that we had seen the main tourist attractions in Mandalay we set off for sleepy Sagaing as soon as we were well enough. But already my heart belongs to Burma; it won me in Yangon on the first day walking around the city; every day since I have fallen deeper and deeper in love with the kind people and their simplicity of life. The dust clogs my lungs leaving me coughing and spewing all over the streets, but it’s OK, I forgive you Burma. I spend day four and five in bed sick with a water-borne illness which results in a trip to the doctors clinic, but it’s OK, I forgive you Burma. It’s hard to hate a place when the people are so kind and inviting. They care about you here; they want to know who you are, where you are from, why you are here, what you are doing, where will you go to next.

It is impossible not to think philosophically about the world and one's place within it when you are faced with such an alternative universe. My life revolves around technology and communications over high speed connections. Sometimes I go to a wonderful little cafe called Nutmeg in Hythe where my mother has a beautiful jewellery shop and my home throughout my childhood and teenage years. We sit for hours sometimes drinking huge pots of tea and talking about the ways of the world and I miss those chats with her. I contact old university friends through email, skype, but more and more facebook has been the means by which I ‘chat’. I text the odd message to my friend Lois who lives in far-away London; it is only a £30 one hour train journey but we rarely meet. I remember the long conversations I would have with Ben sitting under a tree whilst at university when I struggled most after a heart break and needed a confident; we only see each other at gigs in London which in itself is rare as I have stopped doing those little things that I loved out of anxiety that it might conflict with my teaching. I daren’t let those kids know I had a late night and believed whole heartedly that I should be 100% on form for them. I reflect upon the way in which I conduct my friendships and can easily say I have failed at keeping deep and meaningful relationships with people who I once loved. I still hold them very dear to my heart but when I watch these people in Burma sitting at cafes greeting friends, chatting warmly before moving on to stop and chat to other friends they meet on the streets I feel a loneliness in my heart and yearn for those real connections; human connectivity through speech, touch, a night out, a chat over a bottle of wine, and building more memories, not just reflecting ‘on the good old times’. The internet, whilst has enabled me to keep in touch with those who are busy and whose lives have moved in a different direction, it has also allowed me to become lazy. Phone calls mean more than a text, a visit means more than a face book message. I let life take over, I allowed myself to be swept away by work and demands from pupils as well as the impossible expectations I placed upon myself until I became overwhelmingly exhausted and jaded but as I sit in a cafe the other side of the world when I couldn’t be further from those I need, more than ever I value the relationships I have/had and for the last time I resolve to be more active in that arena. These people have very little and can not rely upon technology as a means on contact so they develop bridges with other humans and they appear to be happy and content. I have witnessed their deep connectivity in the guest house, their kindness, their smiles, their interest in us. I know there are deep political struggles they have to battle with, but it is the people in our lives which are most important.


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12th February 2012

your blogs are like dessert even though it's 9am in snowy Colorado. beautiful, transportative writing as always, the kind that makes me tell my kids to back off so that i can have a few peaceful moments to read it. i hope you don't have too many more karma payback train-rides. :)
13th February 2012

thank you for your beautiful comment.

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