Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Red Flag Goes Up

You come to my house to sleep?” The young guy asked me who was on his motorbike riding next to me.

OK!” I answered without even hesitating. It only dawned on me 20 minutes later that I should probably ask him with whom he lives.

Brother, brother, me.” He answered. 

A red flag went up. It seldom does when I travel by bike. Most everyone I encounter is incredibly friendly, helpful, and means well. They usually dowse me in unimaginable kindness and hospitality. Should I really be worried that I'm going to stay the night at a house with three men in a small village? I began to assess the situation while riding.

It seemed my day was all going to work out nicely after all. My plan to back track on the road I pedaled up to the mountains in the Shan state was all going according to plan. Earlier that morning, I took the train through the gorge from Hsipaw to Nawnghkio. It was a rickety old train that looked as if it was build a few hundred years ago that moved more sideways and up and down off the track than advancing forward. Never had I experienced anything quite like this. I was happy to get off at the small town of Nawnghkio where I had seen a small road that cut through and left me south, close to the Inle Lake region. The road seemed relatively flat from what I could tell on Google maps and appeared to go through several small villages.  

It's hard to see just how old this train is from the picture.  I've never been on anything quite like this before.  You could feel the train bounce up and down off the tracks and the noise was horrendous!

Talk about true business women, you will never go hungry or thirsty anywhere in Myanmar!

Not a recommended journey for those with vertigo

I started pedaling and was delighted by the scenery:rolling hills, fertile farmlands and very little traffic. This young boy had found me 10 kilometers into my pedal and I had 2 hours of sunlight left. My plan was to pedal until just about dark and then find a Monastery or a Pagoda to sleep. But this young guy had offered me a place to sleep, it would makes things a lot easier. Surely I could trust him and his brothers, look at where they lived. Everyone in the village will know I'm staying the night. They won't be able to harm me. I continued to pedal with him. He escorted me 30 kilometers on his motorbike. Obviously he was eager and excited to have me at his house. I thought we had arrived to his house when we pulled over to a large purple house on the side of the road, there were several people outside. “Your house?” I asked. It was his teacher's house he told me. We went in to visit.

The countryside was beautiful and the small backroad was even more peaceful
I could see the pride on Shin Thant Oo's face as he introduced me to two ladies who appeared about my age with several children standing by their side. It wasn't everyday a foreigner came cycling down his road on a fully loaded bicycle. In fact later he and his village neighbors told me it was the first time they'd seen a foreigner on this road. I guess that explained all the stares I was getting. They had me sit down and began firing off questions. Yes, it was an interrogation, but a most friendly one accompanied by laughing and giggling. Two sisters lived in the big purple house and both were teachers. One had two kids, and the other was single. From what I gathered, some of their students slept in the house as well. Their English was good enough to understand my situation, my travels, and my intentions to bike south on their road. There was an instant connection with them. The question surfaced again. “Where you sleep tonight?” I told the women Shin Thant Oo wanted me to go to his house, but explained that I was a bit worried as I would be sleeping with him and his brothers. They laughed and Shan That Oo blushed with embarrassment; he realized it looked a bit suspicious asking a solo woman to come to a house with 3 men. The women told me I could sleep at their house and in the meantime go to Shin Thant Oo's village tonight to visit. Problem solved and what a perfect solution. I went with Muyar Myingan, one of the sister's on the back of her motorbike and Shin Thant Oo guided us . The sun was setting over the hills and the colors were beautiful as we rode off on a small red dusty road up and over one of the hills.

His village had to be small if this was the only road to enter. Ten minutes later we arrived at a house, his aunt's house. It was a big house with woven panels for sides. They brought me upstairs and inside where his grandmother was, a 83 year old sharp and clever woman. I don't think she had ever met a foreigner before let alone been this close to one. As the norm goes when I am in the presence with locals, the group starts out small and then the people start trickling in, curious to meet me. I sat on the straw mats on the floors doing a lot more meditating and observing than talking. People started arriving every few minutes, cousin's uncles, brothers,......I couldn't keep track of them all. Muyar Myingan told me they all thought I was wonderful and so brave for traveling alone on my bicycle. I was overwhelmed and delighted to meet them and in awe observing their life. I started to feel guilty I had questioned Shin Thant Oo's trust. How silly of me to think this boy could have been threatening. His mother wanted me to stay for days, and was disappointed I wasn't going to sleep at their house, but I think I made the right choice as my bike was back on the main road and I would be in good company as well.

Muyam Myingan and one of her daughters, very friendly people

Some of the many people who slept inside the big purple house,......they just added one more to the list and it was no problem!

Shin Thant Oo and his family (Aunt, Grandma, and mother)  They never smile in photographs but as always happy in conversation which is ironic!

Incredibly friendly women delighted to have a foreign woman in their home.

This is the group of people that gathered in their home, although when I left there were another half a dozen visitors

After an hour or so of visiting and eating (no one else ever seems to eat, they just bring out more and more food for me) we headed back to the big purple house. This time I rode on the back of Shin Thant Oo's bike. He was glowing and was humming and singing the entire way back. My eyes were glued to the stars in the sky, what an impressive sight. The entire Milky Way band was glowing, not a bit of light pollution from down below. An incredibly magical sky. We arrived back to the purple house and I stored my bike properly and they guided me inside. At this point I was beat, so they showed me to the washing area, I took a plan and splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth and called it a night. It turns out Shin Thant Oo was going to spend the night as well, as he frequently does when visiting from University. He and the younger boy students slept downstairs on a long continuous bed surface, basically a big wooden board, and the girls were upstairs in two larger rooms. My bed was upstairs in the common area. A thin pad with a pillow and lots of blankets. This would do just perfectly. It was 8pm and I was exhausted. No one else was making their way to bed yet and the TV downstairs was blasting and some of the other girls were huddled together singing and reciting a poem or song it seemed. I went to bed within a few minutes, noise and all sleeping entirely through the night without having to get up once and go outside to use the toilet.

The next morning, I awoke to chilly air. After all, we were on high altitude plateau and this is what you get. The sisters were already preparing breakfast for the students and I washed up and waited with Shin Thant Oo and Muyar Myingan. They were preparing something special for me. We ate together and again, people started trickling in to see me. I do realize their visit is totally valid. A solo female white foreigner on a bike is quite a novelty, they have all the right to be curious and see this girl for themselves. Rather than ask questions about me, they were more concerned with where I was going. It seemed the road I was headed on was not safe. Usually I ignore the locals when they tell me this as they always seem to worry more than is necessary. The road on Google Maps seemed perfectly fine but they told me about a 40 mile stretch through a narrow gorge that descents dramatically with nothing around. They gestured guns and used the words "rebel fighters".  Now a real red flag went up.  From what I gathered, there are a lot of rebel fighters in the forested areas and the road isn't patrolled by police or the military, making it unsafe. They told me that no one goes past their village on this road and to truth, there was no truck transit on the road, meaning that it was not a major thoroughfare.  Yes, there were towns on the other side, but they were only accessible from the road's southern entrance. I was in disbelief. Surely I wasn't going to backtrack the portion I had pedaled last night?  How bad could this road be? If it were truly a dangerous road, where was the police? It was certainly interesting that I had managed to stay in this village without a single police or immigration officer stopping me. How could this be? Why had it been so easy? They told me the area doesn't have police as there are 4 military bases close by that patrol, but that the last base is just a couple of miles up the road and after that it is “no mans land” and no one from their village ever goes beyond. 

With a mattress no thinker than an inch I was out and slept all through the night for a total of 9 hours!

Muyar Myingan with both her daughters.

Breakfast, do you see how bundled up they are?  I put on my Goretex jacket to fit in really because I didn't really need it!

orn my Goretex in Myanmar

Three generations in this photo, Aunt, nieces, and great nieces, Shin Thant Oo is in the background on his motorbike.  The bricks on the ground are drying in order to start building another house
My plan had back fired! What to do? Do I ignore their cautions and proceed or back track. The latter seemed like such an effort and ordeal involving a lot of repeated pedaled kilometers and a ton of climbing. However, the more people I met the more faces of worry I witnessed as they heard I was going to try to pass on that road. It was true that there wasn't much traffic on the road and as I sat and watched the road that morning, no cars went beyond the last village shop. Eery! Some how in my planning, I had forgotten to ask people if the road I wanted to take for a short cut was safe.  I was too worried in the road conditions and the climbing involved!  After visiting their local monastery and a few more family members, I decided to hop on my bike and backtrack. I would ride to the main road where I had detoured, try to hitch hike the ascension, and then pedal down south of Mandalay and head up through the mountains on a different road which I knew other cyclists had used successfully. I said good-bye after an extensive photo opportunity and pedaled.

Luckily it was mostly downhill and I was amazed that the afternoon before I had pedaled so far and so fast. I was back on the main road in about an hour and looking for a big car to take me and my bike. Pick-ups are rare here, as a vehicle for personal transportation. All the pick-ups I see are local shared taxis, stuffed to the brim full of goods to be transported. No cars ever go empty on the roads here so I thought my chances of hitchhiking were slim. But to my surprise, the first car that approached was an empty pick-up. I didn't wait to hail him down and explained I was going back to Pyin-Oo-Liwn and asked for a ride. He seemed to be fine with the idea, so I loaded my bike in the empty bed and hopped in. Well, we weren't going to be fully loaded driving, but we did stop twice to pick up two other friends and headed on our way. I couldn't figure out what the three men were doing but they were observing the countryside quite keenly and looking at all the little developments along the side of the road. They were very thoughtful and gave me water and snacks. I kept my fingers crossed they'd drive all the way up the huge climb out of the valley and up to the next big town and they did. They left me at the top of the hill just before the toll booth and I got my bike down and began to pedal again. They had taken me 50 kilometers back, making my route for the rest of the day relatively easy going down a huge descent into the valley below where Mandalay awaited.

This time I would bypass Mandalay and carry on south. I knew there was a town about 70 kilometers south where there was an overpriced hotel for tourist called the Royal Orchid, thanks to Ian Mitchell's blog I had studied religiously. If there was a town with a hotel, surely there would be villages before and after with a pagoda or monastery, so I pedaled confidently thinking I could manage to find a place to sleep that night and avoid the pricey hotel. Although my route wasn't strenuous, I was tired and the sun was about to set. I couldn't tell exactly where I was on google maps and decided to pull off at the first pagoda I saw. Unfortunately the road was a lot busier and it wasn't so secluded. I wheeled into the pagoda, pulled out my translated note that asked if I could stay and the monk and a village women laughed and seemed to keep repeating this one word, pointing outside the sacred gates. So a man accompanied me down a small dirt road and through several narrow alleys to a big house. At first I thought it was a hotel, but then I realized it wasn't, maybe the house of the village head or a police officer. I couldn't be sure. But looking back now, I wish I would have gotten back on my bike and pedaled because I was at this house and under interrogation for the next 2 hours, well beyond sunset, making it impossible to go anywhere discretely.

The village pagoda, several of them actually

You can't visit a monastery or pagoda and not ring the bell for good luck!

I said good-Bye and pedaled back to where I had come from the day before.....

Man after man arrived and they were all curious where I was from, what I was doing and why on earth I was traveling alone. At first there was tension, but then that disappeared as a women brought snacks and the men wanted to know if I had facebook and I entertained them with some pictures. It didn't seem I was going to be able to sleep in the local pagoda, they laughed when they saw the pictures of me with the previous monks. An official police officer showed up. At first I thought I should be scared, but he was having a great time watching my videos on my website and trying to make phone call after phone call. Basically I told them I needed a place to stay because there was only a $50 hotel in the next town and I couldn't afford that. Phones were ringing right and left with the half dozen people gathered around. It wasn't until an immigration officer arrived that I actually had to get out my passport and they started copying down every word on my document.  Although they were taking pictures of mew, of course it never dawned on them to take a picture of my passport.  Inefficiency at it's best!

Not that I had anywhere better to be, but from what I could gather, they couldn't decide what to do with me.  An hour and a half had passed and the only progress made were the additional people standing around, only now the mood was rather amusing and there were plenty of peanuts and bananas to snack on.  They were baffled as to where I could stay for the night. I inquired if I could stay at the police station, and they just laughed. It was obviously that the police and immigration officers were starting to understand the predicament of a tour cyclists in Myanmar: long distances and few accommodations options makes for a challenging itinerary and unpredictable situations like the one in which I currently found myself. In the end, they told me they would drive me 15 miles to the town south, where there was a hotel . Yes, indeed, I knew of this hotel, I had read about it in Ian Mitchell's blog when he passed through. He said it was extremely overpriced and run down. I had repeatedly told them I couldn't pay more than $10 and they insured me that I wouldn't. So after about 2 hours of sitting around, eating loads of peanuts and bananas and trying to solve the problem, 6 of the men loaded me in the shared pick-up taxi that arrived and off they all carted me 15 miles south.  I was in the back with my bike, 2 police officers, two immigration officers, the village head, and another man whose ranking I didn't understand.  Normally I'd refuse to go in a car and pedal instead, but considering I had done a fair amount of back tracking today and the fact that they were taking me on a crowded main highway, I didn't protest. I was mostly in disbelief with how disorganized and inefficient the police and immigration officers went about doing business in Myanmar. If this were the United States, with all the encounters I had had with the police, they'd know all my life details from the last item I ingested to my average speed and the name of my first pet! These guys were absolutely clueless and seemed more excited to have their picture taken with a foreigner than the legality of the entire issue. I'm certain I will be a legend in their town and my story will be passed on from generation to generation!

For two hours they contemplated what to do with me.  I would have taken 2 minutes to help them decide!

I tried to tell them that taking a picture with their smartphone was less of a hassle, but it was useless.....Immigration on the left, police on the right.

It took us about a half hour and a lot of turns through a dark village before we arrived in front of a hotel that was completely dark except for the illuminated sign that read “The Royal Orchid Garden Hotel”. Here we were! I was curious to see how they were going to negotiate a room for me so that I didn't pay more than $10.  But to my surprise, or rather utterly appalled by their childish behavior, as if like a gang of teenagers who were trying to get away with some prank, the men quickly unloaded my bike from the back of the truck, piled back in, and sped away without saying good-bye or even taking another picture. Just like that they were off! A boy had come running out from the hotel and without even say hello, stated firmly $50! 

I laughed. You have to be kidding me,.....After all this I thought, I'm exactly where I knew I didn't want to be!  Exhausted and in utter appall with Myanmar's politics, I would have curled up on a park bench to sleep if there was one. I had no other option than to load up my things and go look for a place to hide my tent. I wandered down the dirt road in front of the hotel that was completely dark except for a few bulbs in front of a house. At the first house I came to there was a group of people outside so I showed them my note and pointed further down the road in hopes there might be a pagoda. They told me there wasn't. They pointed to the hotel and I told them the price in Kyat and shook my head. They stood there and talked amongst themselves and finally pointed to their house and said, “You, my house”.

The sign is about the nicest thing at the Royal Orchid Hotel
This was the house I approached in the dark. I took this photo the next morning after I had breakfast with them
I realize I should have hesitated or carried on, but I just didn't have the energy. I thought I could make them understand I just wanted to put my tent in someones yard, so I wheeled my bike up to their house. Here we go again I thought. It was completely dark and about 9:30 pm, I had no other choice but to accept their offer. Before I could get my bags off my bike they had me sitting at a table and started bringing out food and of course as with all my visits, the people started pouring in to see the foreigner. I couldn't figure out who lived in the house and who was just curious, but one thing was for sure, NO English was spoken. I was so tired and had no energy left I just went along with it all.

Then, with a lot of commotion, an older man arrived with impeccable English. He was here to get to the bottom of my appearance. I cold tell he was suspicious and wanted to protect his neighbors and was very uneasy having my stay with them. He asked me a lot of questions, very serious in his mannerisms. I didn't have the energy to be serious nor explain myself all over again. Although the tone became more relaxed, he told me that he was going to bring me to the Royal Orchid and I tried to explain I was just there and that it was too expensive. He reassured me that the owners were his friends and he would work something out, but I was ready to surrender regardless. I had no other option but to trust him. So after eating dinner with a million eyes on me, we wheeled my bike back to the hotel and he and his friend talked to a man, who seemed rather important, perhaps the owner or his son, and before I knew it I was brought to a room in a small bungalow. I don't know what the arrangement was, but I was delighted to finally have some intimacy and peace and quiet. It was 10:30 at night.

After a nice long hot shower, I curled up on the bed and went to sleep, laughing at the fact I was at the one place I wanted to avoid, The Royal Orchid Hotel! What an adventure! Did I learn my lesson? You bet! Choose your pagoda's carefully and avoid the police at all cost, they really have no idea how to help you!

PS. I stayed at the hotel for free!

On the left is the man who at first was so serious.  He turned out to be very nice and pleasant to talk with.  They made me a delicious breakfast

The crowd that gathered in the morning.  It turns out 15 people live in the house that I was going to stay in.  Like I said before, what is one more person when there are already so many people sleeping there!

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