The village idiot.
I reluctantly trotted off into the unknown.
All I knew was that I had 170km to get Kalewa, and 2.5 days in which to do it or i would not be able to cross the only border into India. The distance was not the concern, the warnings of extremely poor roads and very little in way of civilisation, that was the concern. I was aware of a village on route and potential truck stops, but no idea where or when.
So with trepidation I left Monywa and (remaining true to tradition) stupidly backed myself to find supplies a little further up the road so left with little food or water.
The roads were bearable for the first 30 km but deteriorated heavily as I climbed over the first mountain passes, struggling up the steep ascents in the now midday heat. It was dusty and sweaty work but for the mixture of beautiful views and being away from constant attention for once, it was well worth it. If i’d brought enough water it would of been perfect – but, it seems, that’s not how i roll.
After lunch a moped passed me on a steep incline and the man hopped off and began talking fast in Burmese. I gestured that i didn’t understand, at which point he untied a wooden construction from the back seat and began tying my front wheel to it. His plan was to tow me up the hill on his moped.
When you stop and think about it, cycling long distance is an entirely pointless/idiotic concept. We have planes, trains, buses, cars, mopeds, designed for the very purpose of machine-led travel. Why would someone choose this silly steel contraption with two unreliable spindly human leg ‘motors’? It is not logical.
The gentleman clearly shared this opinion so had fetched his contraption and sped after me. When i declined he simply couldn’t understand it. I’m a slight white man struggling up a hill on bad roads in the boiling sunshine and he had the solution. It did not compute, and why should it?
With an astonished shrug he sped off.
In the afternoon I descended into the valley that I would follow all the way to Kalewa. Huge, lush mountains to the left with river below, and my road which would snake up and down the hills to keep away from the flood-prone valley floor below.
Then as expected the road turned to rocks and deep sand.
And I ran out of water.
With little choice I set about pushing Eddie through the sand with my heavy bike sinking deep into the thick dirt and rocks. It was crawling pace and utterly exhausting. Sometimes the rocks were hard enough to pedal, but the bumps and jarring were painful for me, but more worrying was the effect on my wheels. If a rim buckled, there was no plan B.
I sweated away for an hour before collapsing by the roadside. A lorry passed as i lay beneath a tree and the happy driver stopped to pass two bottles of cold water out of the window. Although i will never know that man, i will always love him.
Saved from drinking from the river for a few more hours, another small pass was climbed before descending to find a small village in the cool early evening.
I had made 50km. Not enough.
Asking a man in a lorry if there was a monastery in the village created lots of conversation. I should legally only be staying in state-approved hotels, of which never existed outside of tourist spots. If i’d been caught camping or being hosted, we’d both be in significant trouble. Suddenly i was introduced to U Saw Win Maung, a young, energetic, positive, excellent soul of a man who worked at the only school and spoke only a few words of English (but confident at charades). He was excited to meet his first european and asked me to follow him to the monastery on my bike where the monks soon (somewhat grudgingly) agreed for me to stay.
I sat with the head monks, showing them the route on my world map and they loved it. Even the sternest of them laughed when i pointed to my saddle and explained how much my bum hurt. My Charade skills are coming on leaps and bounds these days.
The evening that followed was eventful.
Firstly, i was taken to U Saw Win Maung’s home where i sat at the table and was introduced to his 20 family members who got the special Ovaltine and biscuits out. They had never met a foreigner before so studied me in silence like an animal in a zoo. Again the pressure to perform got to me so i tried desperately to make the kids laugh before they swiftly ran away in tears.
Following this, the local maths teacher came to meet me, speaking especially good english seeing he’d never spoken it to someone who wasn’t Burmese. We sat and talked about the village, the school and Myanmar. He was a lovely man.
Suddenly the loud speakers of evening prayer and music roared into action and blared across the village. He explained that this was part of a religious holiday where they collect money from the monastery, and celebrate with songs and prayers. Acknowledging my interest he whisked me off to see the music in action, men sitting around singing and playing instruments whilst villagers watch on with bubbling cauldrons of food and children chasing each other in and out of doorways. Before I knew it I was sat banging a drum and trying to act as if I knew the tune.
Back in my monastery I’m sitting writing this under a big Buddha with the little monks in red robes laughing at my phone and how I type and the words showing up on the screen. They are absolutely gob-smacked. Fascinated. And although it’s an obvious and crap thing for a privileged western traveller to say, I was really jealous of them. Their lives are full of simple joy, community, safety and authentic optimism, uncomplicated by modern first-world culture. There is no anxiety. These people are poor, they are isolated, but they are happier than me. I told you it was a rubbish thing to say. But it’s what I felt.
U Saw Win Maung slept on the monastery floor with me that evening. Before we went to sleep he asked me about America. Of course, (as when i was young) all the ‘facts’ that he knew were from the fantasy of Holywood movies he’d seen. I tried to explain that the perception is far from the reality, and Myanmar is in many ways a much more special land. He asked if i had an American dollar bill, as he’d never seen one. And you know, i did have, stashed away in an emergency sock (in case it was required as a last resort).
And do you know, i told him i didn’t. This privileged, anxious little European, who had more money in a filthy sock that this incredibly kind man would see in years, was too afraid or maybe ashamed. I didn’t show him my stash of dollars. It was utterly shameful. It was a mistake. It was something to regret. Just to show him a dollar. In many ways it shows how scared still was, and i had not left ignorance at home.
The ‘music’ finally stops at midnight so I lay on the temple floor and closed my eyes. At 4am the monks arrive to begin morning prayer on the spot where I’m sleeping. It feels as if I blinked but apparently slumber time is over.
In my short visit I had met so many villagers and felt an iron-strong sense of community. They asked me to stay for another day, and had my permit not been running out in 2 days I definitely would have. I hope one day I will return.
For now, Eddie and I must get back to the sandpit.
And it begins.
Lorry driver rescues idiot.
Not my first pagoda.
U Saw Win Maung
Back on the road.