Friday, February 13, 2015

Monks to the Rescue

This is what $10 gets you in Myanmar if you are lucky......

“So where do you sleep?” It seems like a simple question to answer, but in Myanmar, as a tour cyclist, accommodation is a complicated issue. As I mentioned before, there are guesthouses, but the ones that allow foreigners are tightly controlled by the government. Their prices are usually absurd or in no way reflect the value of the room for which you are paying. Obviously the government wasn't thinking about tour cyclists when they determined which guesthouses could take foreigners. For backpackers and other tourists who are transported from town to town, finding a guesthouse is no problem. But the distances between guesthouses is also a challenge for cyclists, sometimes there is a good 150 kilometers between each town that offers official accommodation for foreigners. Even for someone like me, who is up for a good physical challenge every now and again can get tired trying to reach an official guesthouse.

Day 1, I cycled 158 kilometers which included the hilly border climb and the treacherous road in order to arrive at a town with a guesthouse for foreigners. Granted there was one at kilometer 70, I choose to continue on and make the most of my day riding. On day 2, there were guesthouses at kilometer 40 and 140, again I opted for the long distance. Day 3 I did my pilgrimage and day 4 was lighter, cycling 110 kilometers to arrive at a town with a guesthouse. On day five I knew I had several options for accommodation at kilometer 90, 120, and 180, although I knew nothing about the hotels that awaited me. Not surprised, the first two had outrageous prices $30 and $40 dollars and were nothing more than a bed with clean sheets, air conditioning (I actually prefer a fan), and a private bathroom. I decided to carry on after seeing the second guesthouse. The owner tried to convince me otherwise telling me his guesthouse was ideal for resting and very luxurious, and that the next guesthouse was too far to reach the same day as I had an hour and a half of daylight.

Perhaps this was a foolish decision on my part, but the day before I had met Chirag, an Indian cyclist who had crossed the recently opened Indian-Myanmar border up north three weeks ago. He had recently graduated from university and was taking a year off to travel around Asia before furthering his studies. He was on a tight budget indeed and had plenty of tips for me on how to go about sleeping in Myanmar. Unfortunately we were traveling in opposite directions, but we managed to sit down and have a drink and chat for a good hour. He had been sleeping primarily in pagodas and never been turned away. He had paid for a proper guesthouse only 4 nights of the 20 total.

What a delight it was to meet Chirag.  We enjoyed a few cold beverages and exchanged practical information
After meeting him, I was restored with confidence that it was possible to evade the Myanmar police and manage to find other accommodation besides government sanctioned foreign guesthouses. I continued riding up the road keeping my eye out for a pagoda. They are everywhere in Myanmar, every village of 10 houses or more seems to have a pagoda, the problem being that most have loud music playing and people along the road who are collecting money for their sacred place of worship. These pagodas were out of the question as they called too much attention. I kept pedaling another 20 kilometers until I came across a small pagoda in a village that looked rather quiet. I pulled off and entered, trying to find a monk. Alongside a pagoda there is always a residence, and sure enough a monk came out. I signaled with my hand the gesture for sleeping as well as a roof/tent, and he nodded. He and another old many, who was dressed in normal clothing showed me to a giant room where there were a few sparse bed structures. One bed was already set up with a mosquito net, and there was another bed structure in the corner. The monk gestured me over. The two men prepared the bed for me, and then a few more people arrived, a lively crowd, men and women. For a good 10 minutes we played the game of charades using a few English words to try to communicate. I explained to them where I had come from. They were amazed I was traveling solo and that I had taken an interior mountain road to arrive at their village. They understood I had had a long day and was in need of a good rest. 

Conversation consisted of a lot of sound effects and hand gestures, both universal and comical means of communicating! The two boisterous women were delighted to have a female foreigner visit their village. They were my same age, married with children, and brought me to the wash up area. This was going to be an experience. How to bathe yourself in front of 2 monks, 2 women, and a small child? They were all just as eager to see how it be done as I was. They provided me with a sarong (which I now know I need to purchase) and helped me take a cold water bucket bath. It was absolutely divine! I managed to clean myself head to toe, shampoo and conditioner and all, and even wash my clothes. The women made a lot of hand gestures with suggestions for how to complete each action and helped me change into my clean clothes using the sarong to provide a bit of privacy.

After that, one of the two monks gestured to follow the women who would take me to eat. It turns out she lived across the street where she owned a small shop. Her name was Dee Da Ou and ironically she was just as lively and energetic as myself. A Burmese version of Melissa if I do say so myself. She sat me down on the table outside and gave me a cup of coffee and some green tea, a staple in Myanmar. To occupy the time, she painted my face with the yellow face paint, and the mystery was solved. It comes from the bark of the Thanaka tree which is rubbed against a stone with bit of water and then painted on the skin, first with the fingers and then accented with a brush on the cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead. I felt pretty silly, but Dee Da Ou was extremely proud. The young woman also showed me pictures of her family, a very proud mother of two, a daughter age 9, and her son, 6. From what I gathered she was one of five children herself and out of those 5 had one sibling who went to university and had a handful of pictures at her graduation ceremony.

This is how they prepare the yellow face painting, it comes from the bark of a Thanaka tree

Dee Da Ou with her photos.  She was very proud of her son who served his time as a monk when he was five.

It was midway through the picture session that I looked up and to my surprise found swarms of villagers intrigued by my presence. They were all curious with a big smile on their face asking the woman a ton of questions. They were in shock that I was in their village, but even more so that I had arrived on bike. For the next hour or so a steady stream of visitors came to see me. It seemed they were strategizing for how to get me fed. I myself was quite baffled by the situation. Locals aren't permitted to take in foreigners, but from what I could gather, pagodas couldn't turn anyone away, not even a foreigner. Aha! I had discovered the glitch in the government's tight control over tourism. They might normal tourists to use hotels, but tour cyclists could slip through the cracks and this was a perfect example. I hadn't passed a police control for about 30 kilometers at the previous town where there was a hotel. They most likely assumed I was staying at that guesthouse. However, I kept pedaling and found myself a pagoda, I was in the clear. Well almost.

Hiding in the corner of this busy restaurant, a rest stop for buses

Going to dinner was an adventure in itself. Never have I felt more suspicious and guilty as I did on that outing. Dee Da Ou took me on her motorcycle, about 15 villagers saw us off. We rode 5 kilometers to another town and we stopped at a roadside cafe where buses take their break. This was a good idea as it was plausible that I was just a tourist who had unloaded from the bus. We sat in the far corner of the restaurant and the entire time Dee Da Ou was on watch. She gestured she was safe guarding her motorcycle, but I think she was on the lookout for the police. Never have I eaten my meal so quickly, but the problem came when I went to pay. With the large wad of cash that I had exchanged, I had distributed the money in three separate places, but wouldn’t you know I had no money left except for $1,50 in the bag I brought? Usually I could buy dinner for under $1, but since we were at a tourist diner, prices were inflated and I was out of luck. Dee Da Ou Had no money on her either and so it was time to brainstorm. Stalling any longer could have been dangerous, giving more people the opportunity to see me. At times like this I get frustrated with myself for being so careless but also for having a huge language barrier. How could I tell them that I was honest and would return tomorrow on my way out of town to give the the money. So Dee Da Ou scurried off and came back 5 minutes later with cash. She must have gone to visit a friend and borrowed money. Boy did I feel foolish. We drove home where the other women from the bath awaited us. I had told them I was a teacher and it just so happened that her son was at school on that Sunday evening.

I promise Dee Da Ou was really friendly, she just looks serious in her pictures and has reason to be at the restaurant
She walked me across and down the road and there was a small school with all the lights off except in one classroom that was filled with about 30 little bodies, all standing to greet me. A few handful of parents were gathered outside to also greet the foreigner. What on earth were these kids doing at school on a Sunday night. I was introduced to the two teachers who spoke broken English and told me it was a special class. A special class indeed it was, that has a special visitor that night. For the next half hour, I talked with them, asked them questions and had them practicing their English. They were so proud and excited, you could see the glow in their faces when they interacted with me. English I'm sure, was nothing they ever used, just a theoretical subject they studied. Here they were telling me about their families, favorite sports, and what food they liked to eat. I shared with them the places I had visited. What an impacting experience. There was a small basket of chalk at the board, a sponge to erase and a few small light bulbs hanging from the ceiling to light the room. Girls were separated from boys, and there were about 4 in each row, 5 or 6 rows deep. The room was incredibly hot, or I was nervous, but I was sweating profusely.

Interesting how they all cross their arms in front of them, making them look so serious, but in reality they were fun loving and kind!

Bad quality photo, but an unforgettable teaching moment.  School visit number 51 in country number 22

The classroom full of students with hardly any lights on, studying at 8 pm on a Sunday night.

When my visit to the school was over, I went back to the pagoda to hang out with the rest of the locals who had a good laugh at the story from dinner that shared. This seems to be where locals hang out in town when they want to socialize. They had be pray to the monk, bowing on a straw mat along with them. We continued to converse some more and eventually I couldn't stop yawning profusely. They understood that I needed to sleep and so the women took me downstairs to set-up my bed. Luxury accommodation to tell you the truth, a bed with a straw mat, and a mosquito net. I used my sleep sack, but there was almost no need it was so hot. The only thing to my liking that was missing was a fan. The bed in the other corner was occupied by the elderly man I had met when I first arrived. He was Pa Pa Too and was 78 years old. I think he was basically homeless with little financial means and so the pagoda had taken him in and given him a place to live.
These two men worked at the pagoda and helped me get settled.

I went to bed at 9pm and slept soundly having the most peaceful night's rest in Myanmar. I awoke to blaring chants in the morning, probably sometime around 5am, but thankfully was able to go back to sleep and woke up naturally around 6:30. I collected my things and Dee Da Ou came over to swoop me off to her house to wash-up and eat breakfast. Changing in privacy was another challenging task as her backyard and wash area was completely exposed to all the neighbors in every directions. I was starting to gain a new profound respect for the Burmese. Privacy is just something that doesn't exist in this culture. Here I was in her “backyard” where they washed the dishes, clothes, stepped up to the 2 foot by 2 foot out house, all completely exposed to the neighbors. I managed change, wash up and went back to take my seat at her table. I was a bit slow to start in the morning, but soon I had a roti filled with a savory bean and chickpea paste in front of me to eat with my a cup of coffee Dee Da Ou prepared for me. Mind you her stove is an actual fire on the dirt floor of her house.

My little bed, the mosquito net was a must!!

I met Dee Da Ou's nine-year-old daughter that morning who spoke the best English of anyone. I thought I looked a bit tired and lacked my normal spunk, but she told me that I had a “smiley face!” which made me laugh. She was so eager to practice her English and talk, we chatted while I ate. She was riding her bike to school, so I got ready and went with her, not before Dee Da Ou painted my face again and I said good-bye to all the locals, who had again gathered around. On our ride to school, she was able to fill me in with more details about her life: 500 inhabitants in her town of Chan Dha Gone, they were currently in their “cold” season (although temperatures dropped to 32C (90F) if I was lucky), and Myanmar's three distinct seasons. Her face lit up when she told me her school has a library where she can go to read books. She was an adorable little girl. I said good-bye to her and the other students that we had picked up along the way to school and pedaled off to start my route.

She was so proud she got to ride with me on the way to school

We both have our faces painted, but I'm so white in comparison you can hardly tell
I love this picture, I"m still a bit groggy from sleeping and Dee Da Ou squeezed me so to pose for the picture!
I felt a bit uncomfortable with my face painted yellow because it meant that I had had close contact with the locals and I didn't want anyone to be suspicious of me or my activities. I hadn't been on my bike but 10 minutes when a man on my motorbike rolled up next to me and was asking repeatedly, Pagoda? I tried to ignore him and kept telling him where I was headed that day and also pointed to my earphones. Listening to an ipod is key in this country and a saving grace to clock out all the road noise, but this guy on the motorbike did startle me. How did he know I had slept at the Pagoda? Or was I just paranoid? At my first rest stop of the morning, I quickly washed my face and left no trace of the paint. I didn't want to jeopardize anyone's safety, but I had managed to find a different answer to my original question. As a tour cyclist, where do you sleep in Myanmar?

Honestly, the pagodas are just as good as budget accommodation here and you get much more of a true feel for the culture

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