Tuesday, March 26, 2013


This happened a while back. We'd gone to Mandalay, in Burma (Myanmar), to take a boat up the Irrawady River to Bagan. We'd overnighted at an almost-empty hotel the night before, as the boat left at dawn. In the middle of the night a humongous storm broke, the rain so heavy it woke us up.
We were scheduled to be picked up at 5:30AM but the driver apparently preferred to stay warm and dry. The night manager of the hotel managed to find us a taxi but it was 5:45AM and a 20 minute ride to the ferry dock and the ferry left at 6:00AM. The rain still bucketed down, dawn was nowhere to be seen (probably sleeping in). The taxi driver may have been trying out for a Grand Prix team. We got to the river right at 6:00AM. We were in the only car. The driver blew his horn.
It was scene from a Merchant-Ivory film: pitch dark and deserted, with two tiny lights at the top of the bluff overlooking the river, silvery streams of water dripping off the trees, the lights, the archway that led to the boat which we could barely see in the gloom. Frenetic activity somewhere below us. Nobody up top except the two of us peering out of the dry taxi. But the ferry appeared to still be there.
A man rushed into view, coming up stairs of some sort, and beckoned us forward. He must've been an official: he had a shirt on. We got out into the rain and followed him through pouring, ankle-deep water to the edge of the bluff. We looked down. And down some more. A twenty-foot wide set of stone stairs led to the water. We started to edge our way down, water cascading around us. We began at the same level as the boat's wheelhouse. It seemed to take forever on those mossy steps.
The boat, what could be seen in the darkness, was three levels plus the wheelhouse, and appeared to have open sides. It was painted, where it was painted, dark green. Thick groups of people with large bundles crammed the lowest level. Workers shifted and loaded things, clanging and thumping.
We got down to the gangplank. Literally, a plank, one single narrow, sagging stretch of water-slicked wood. Below it, down in the darkness, I could just see the dirty white swirl of the Irrawady. One by one, we crossed, stood facing the packed wall of people already aboard. Everybody was still standing.
Sketch, second level, Bagan ferry
"We've got first-class seats," I said to myself. "Where's the seating?"
The man who'd told us to go aboard, who'd taken our small suitcases, waved from a doorway and  shouted something. The crowd opened a narrow pathway. The man led us up a dimly-lit stairwell to the next floor: again chock full of people and their bagged belongings, most of them sitting, some of them sprawled out in sleep. Babies fretted, mothers stared blankly at the rain dripping off the open fretwork, a group of young men played a card game under one of the few lamps.
The man said, "First class up," and we followed. And then we were in first class. We stared. Dawn had finally arrived, or at least a lightening of the sky so that outlines were just barely visible. We could see the shoreline, almost eye level, almost visible in the still-falling rain. We could see trees, and a group of men carrying huge boxes on their heads, descending the stairs in ankle-deep water. We could hear and smell the river as it slapped past the hull.
And we could see an almost-empty deck, open, with rain drifting in. The rusting metal deck, three feet in from the railing, was puddled. A gust blew more rain into the puddles. There were four once-white plastic lawn chairs, available at any garage sale for a buck each. One chair was broken and tilted toward shore. I was beginning to feel the same way. The man went over to the chairs, tipped the water out of them and moved them a bit farther away from the rail. He pulled a rag from a pocket, wiped the chairs, then wiped his nose and put the rag away.
"First class," he said, pointing at the chairs. "Tickets?"
"Where's our suitcases," we asked, handing over the papers. It was chilly and we wore light clothes.
"Bagan," he replied as he pulled our tickets apart. "You get Bagan."
"When do we get to Bagan?" In time for lunch, hopefully?
"Tonight?" We hadn't eaten breakfast; the hotel kitchen had been closed, as had every food shop we'd passed. "Is there a restaurant on board?"
He stared at us, as if he'd never seen Americans before. He probably hadn't, not on board this ferry in the rain and the slowly-paling darkness. He grinned and shook his head, waved one hand toward the prow of the boat. Upstream.
The boat's horn tooted, the sound echoing off the bluff. The faint rumble that had been under our feet grew stronger. Clatters and shouts from the region of the gangway sounded. Then the bluff, and the stairs, slid away and the ferry glided away from Mandalay.
"Bagan," the man said. "Tonight."

No comments:

Post a Comment

I try to answer all comments, but when I'm on the road sometimes I'm not near internet cafes. Patience! Eat some chocolate! I will get back to you!