Monday, February 16, 2015

Just Another Day Cycling Myanmar

They meant well with the name, but definitely not a classy hotel like the watch brand
I wake up at 5am, oh no.....somethings not right. I spend the next two hours going back and forth between the bathroom and my room at Hotel Rolex, which definitely didn't live up to it's name.  The food finally caught up with me! What was it? The water I got from the local ceramic pot, dinner last night even though I had actually splurged and gone to a proper restaurant with an menu in English? Maybe it was the ice that went in my sugar cane juice that I saw fall to the dusty ground and then get rinsed off with the stagnant water from the wash basin? It isn't until I'm an hour into my ride that I realize it was the fish salad from dinner, or at least that is what I keep repeating as I burp non-stop on my bike.

Diarrhea definitely wasn't in the plans today as I have a fairly big day ahead of me. I'm not at the most glamorous hotel so staying an extra day to rest is out of the question. In between my visits to the bathroom, I manage to sleep in until 7am. How on earth am I going to pedal if I go to the bathroom every 10 minutes? Breakfast is awaiting me in the lobby, but I can't even look at the food. I set off, determined I'm in good enough shape to make it.

The Ayeyarwady River is massive now in the dry season.  I can only imagine it's flooded banks during the rainy season

I had been traveling up the East side of the Ayeyarwady river, but today I wanted to explore the road on the west side. I've been told it is a good road. I cross an immense bridge, that spans two kilometers, a massive river indeed, as I'm sure it swells during the rainy season. I pass a police station on the other side of the river and I ask them for the road to Chauk. Little did I know I would be escorted by an “under cover” police throughout most of my day who magically appeared at every tricky road junction to guide the way. 

I love the police slogan in Myanmar,.....need you really ask?
My first escort starts just after the bridge with two young guys on a motorcycle. “Who is your country?” This is the question that everyone asks me. The people here are fascinate by tourists, a novelty and they always want to know their nationality.  I tell them Spain. I pedal for 10 km and they follow. The road is bumpy, just like all the other roads in this country but there seems to be less traffic on this side of the river. Just when I think I have lost them, I realize they were replaced by a solo under cover police. Again he asks, “What country?” Again I answer, Spain. I ask him a one word question, “Police?” The answer is obvious. He's a bit better at escorting than the first two and stays a good 300 meters behind me. 

My first police escort, very non-threatening gentlemen who laughed when I took their picture

I take in the scenery. Pagodas everywhere. I feel like I've already arrived at Bagan, but this is just what you see when you aren't on the tourist route in Myanmar.  Pagodas surround me old and new.  Where the old ones are crumbling and coming down, new ones are going up.  Along with the statues and decorative doorways and wall, I forget about my unsettled stomach which rumbles and turns at every divot in the road.  I stop and take photos, my escort stops as well, so I get a photo of him, and he takes one of me. How many people in Myanmar have a photo of me? A handful of policemen and many locals too!

The pagodas and ruins I stumbled upon

I continue on. This was not the best day to have a police escort. I need to stop every 20 minutes to go to the bathroom.  I should be embarrassed as I wave the toilet paper in the air, a universal symbol for toilet, except in SE Asia, where they don't really use it!   I usually try to stop every 40 kilometer for a snack, but today I need the extra sugar and fluid and stop after thirty.  I now have my third escort following me, a true tag team effort on the part of the Myanmar police. I skip the little town lined with shops and carry on to a smaller family establishment.  I prefer to support a rural family and their shop than one of the cafes that line a small town. I catch my escort off guard and take refuge in the shade. The family that runs the shop is also taken off guard by the foreigner who plops herself down and quickly drinks a glass of fresh sugar cane juice. When I leave, my escort isn't around.....but it only takes him a few minutes to find me on the road again. I put on my ipod to block out the constant hum of the motorcycle behind me and take my mind off of my currently state. Today is going to be a long day, I actually doubt I will make it, but I don't know my alternative..... My stomach is very unsettled and I have zero energy and even less motivation.

When I pulled over for pictures so did he and pretended to me engaged in conversation, although he broke into a smile when I took a picture of him

Thankfully I get wrapped up in my audiobook and before I know it I'm in another town.  I cross a police check point assuming there is no need to stop as they have me tightly controlled.  My assumption is incorrect and they come chasing after me on motorbikes. They are immigration officers. I apologize and give them my passport, which has also had a fair amount of photographs.  They copy down my details and of course ask me the ever so popular question that always gets an answer of disbelief.  Alone?  I nod.

I pedal on and to my surprise, I'm no longer escorted by a police officer. I've got some privacy, perfect for an emergency pit stop.  You aren't ever truly alone on these roads though.  Houses, farm stands, and villagers carrying on their daily tasks dot the road, as well as broken down vehicles who just couldn't hack the roads.  As I continue to pedal the road conditions worsen: No wider than a bike path with frequent patches of gravel.  Maybe this is why the police has given up on me?  The roads are so bad, that even the bridges are made out of wood rather than concrete. But to my surprise, there are still makeshift "toll booths" collecting a toll from time to time for cars and trucks to pay.

These bridges are tricky for me to maneuver, imagine for a truck.....

By this time I'm halfway through my day distance-wise, from what I can tell and I decide to stop again at the next town I see. I'm extremely dehydrated and need more sugar. I choose a store which looks promising.  There is a small fridge which I equate to cold drinks.  No one is in the store, but it doesn't stop me from opening fridge, only to find that it isn't plugged in.  The juice is in the freezer section which is as warm as the air outside.  At this point, I just appreciate the fact that it is wet and will quench my thirst.  A young girl comes as I point to the Lychee juice. I sit in the shade on the bench in front of the store and gulp down my juice. When I look up, there is a crowd in front of me. There are more to the side,....more by my bike. They are all just staring and talking, their eyes fixed with an incredibly curious face. I'm entertained by their presence and can't help taking a picture.  I go for a second juice, gesturing that it is really hot, but actually today isn't that warm, temperatures are in the low 30Cs (90F) and there isn't any humidity.
They were amazed with the automatic timer.....Notice the Barça jersey, ever present in SE Asia, anywhere!

I love this photo....notice my clean underwear hanging off my bag, they sure don't seem to notice.....

I say good-bye and continue to pedal.  At this point, my bum is rather numb, no matter how comfortable my Brooks saddle is, nothing can take on the pot holes and bumpy asphalt of Myanmar. I  consider myself lucky, it would be a much more painful ride for a man.  I would definitely refrain from cycling here if I were a young man and want to have kids some day.......

The road gets a bit better at the same time I notice my 4th police escort who magically appears at an intersection to gesture me to turn left.  I wonder what was down the road to the right?  Today is not the day to explore.  I try not to look at my speed, knowing it will take another 3 hours before I'm in the town I've been told has a hotel, Chauk.

With 30 kilometers left, I stop at a cafe, and make my last pit stop and rid myself of my last police escort.  They don't like the local people to see them, they never stop to rest with me. Another warm juice, but the sugar does me well.  The homestretch is horrendously long with a steep climb, but the thought of a cold shower and rest keeps me motivated. I cross over the bridge and go back on the east side of the river and arrive in Chauk. Hopefully Chauk is like every other town in Myanmar with a hotel or two along the main drag so you never have to detour (and also contributes to a noisy room).   This time, however I don't find a hotel so I have to stop and ask. I am pointed in the direction and pull up at Dream II, with pictures of palm trees on the hotel sign. I ask the women if she has a room for one person, and she gestures no. What? You are full? No rooms? Then she uses the gesture I've learned here that means Sorry, I can't help you and it dawns on me, this hotel can't take foreigners. 

I ask for a hotel for foreigners and she tells me the name of Jessica Hotel and points me down the road. I carry on pedaling. By now I'm so exhausted I'd sleep on a park bench if I could find one. For a good 15 minutes, I try to find Jessica Hotel without success. I'm frustrated.  Where are my police escorts when you need them? They escorted me for about 80 kilometers today, but then abandoned me when I got to a city. Don't they care where I sleep?  Didn't they realize there were no hotels for foreigners in Chauk.  I give up and decide to pedal out of town looking for a pagoda. Within a few kilometers I ride by what seems to be a large monastery as there are a lot of small monks playing in the yard.

The head monk on the left who had his eyes fixed on me from the moment I rolled up.  His assistant on the right was ever so friendly

This man spoke the best of English and his wife was the one who cared for me so when I first arrived.

After a few other phone calls, some more men arrive. There continues to be a lot of silence and pondering the situation and then they tell me that I can stay. Relief sets in. I see a few men go off with blankets and a mosquito net to prepare my room while the main monk and a few other men who act as translators sit with me. They want to offer me a meal, but I lie and tell them I already ate. I can't imagine their response if I were to use charades and sound effects to describe my ailment.  Basic conversation and silence continues until they can see I can't stop yawning. The sun hasn't set, but they walk me over to a new building in the monastery, a huge new building, I should stay with a lonely bed, Buddha, and bathroom. Now more people arrive, children and other people from the neighborhood. Some monks are outside trying to get water hooked up to the bathroom, by running a hose to the ceiling and into the PVC pipes. It takes about a half hour and I just sit and watch. It's a community event preparing the room for the foreigner and they are so excited to have a visitor.  Now it's me who gets to stare at them.

Word travels fast at the monastery that a foreigner is present

My shower.  I'm super efficient with a pan and cold water
When everything is finally ready, they show me how to work the water, toilet and fans on the ceiling. A truly luxurious accommodation compared to budget hotels in Myanmar, and best of yet, it is peaceful outside. A few giggles from the curious monks substitute the sound of chaotic traffic and relentless horns. I realize, and appreciate, how lucky I am to be sleeping here. They leave me be, show me how to lock the door, and ask for my passport to copy. I comply and wash up. Cold water is the norm and I bathe myself in yet another cold bath that revives my energy.  It's 7:30 and I'm ready for bed when I hear a knocking at the door. I knew the people from the neighborhood were too curious not to come over. Outside a young mother and her two daughters come in. She wants me to pose with her daughters in a photo and then invites me to her home. Despite my exhaustion, of course I accept. The Burmese I meet seem to be craving interaction with foreigners, it amazes me! I should probably feel guilty for not staying at a proper guest house registered for foreigners, but instead I feel delighted because I know my presence for these people is very special and will be memorable, even if we can hardly communicate.

They love taking pictures with me and I give them my camera as well!

I walk with the young woman and her daughters to their house. The women explains to me that she works at a small shop and lives with her sister and mom. She is so excited to have me in her house you can see the pride in the expression on her face. I meet her other family members and we converse using very basic English. The other women and children from the monastery appear with their same jolly faces.  I'm content observing the situation. I do realize that there is something unique about traveling as a solo young woman, especially on a bike. Not only does it make for a natural bond among women in any country, there is an immediate respect and admiration that is exchanged by both parties. Traveling by bike breaks down any cultural barrier that might exist otherwise at the sight of a foreigner, washing away any sort of fear or threat between me and them.

Very thoughtful women and children

With fans on the ceiling and a mosquito net, and multiple plugs.....what more could you ask for?
Very politely a half hour later, they take me back to the monastery where a monk is waiting to let me in to my palace, at least that is what I called the giant room I occupy. As he opens the door, he gestures to me to pray to Buddha.  It's 9pm and I'm shattered. I set my alarm for 6:30am although I know I will be awakened before that to the sound of the morning prayer. Today is just another day on my bike pedaling,  although thankfully I rarely have the stomach issues.  I'm not 100% recuperated by any means, but I'm in the most peaceful of places and well looked after.  The monks once again have come to my rescue and the local people have showered me with their kindness. I can't ask for much more than that at the end of a long day's ride!   

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