Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Well, there we were, on an open-air river ferry in a pre-dawn tropical downpour, the only First Class passengers on the entire ship. We had the upper deck to ourselves. I wondered if those people huddled on the two decks below us had got the better deal: warmth, companionship, shared food, shelter from the storm, and access to an endless card game. Too late to change our minds, the two pale-skinned women were in windswept upper deck purdah for the duration.
    And that was another thing: how long was the duration? We had no idea. We'd imagined four or five hours. As there apeared to be no food available for purchase, it was a good thing we had a couple of bottles of water and a battered emergency stash of Lance's peanut butter crackers. But six crackers (not six packets) wouldn't last long. And then what?
    As dawn came, the rain fled, and we could see the far bank of the Irrawady slipping past: low hills dark with vegetation and heavily sprinkled with the spires and domes of countless whitewashed temples. The near bank, and the tag end of cement block Mandalay, vanished in the mosit air and clutches of temples almost glowed in the moist air. It was an enthralling sight, at least for the first two hours. Then it began to appear as if, judging from the view, we hadn't moved.
    In late morning the ship's bell clanged and the horn hooted. The rumble of the engines changed pitch again and we slowly veered toward shore. The banks were low and greyish with ages of upstream who-knows-what. A mob of people had gathered, and formed a chain. A plank flopped out of the lower deck into the mud. People, bags, boxes, rolls of stuff, going in two direcitons. An impromptu flea market, including hands of bananas and large melons, sprang up. We watched from our balcony. By the time we'd identified some packages as containing food, and decided to give it a go, the gangplank had vanished and the ship was again making its way upstream.
    Same thing an hour later, without the food market. Could we bargain for bananas? Would we have to give up our flipflops or sunscreen, not our paperbacks. Kindle had many years before appearing in our world so we had each a half dozen paperbacks in lieu of too many tee shirts or an extra pair of shoes.
    By mid-afternoon, we were both pretty cranky. When the usual mob standing ankle deep in mud came into view, Lea was ready to move. There were a hundred or more people at this landing. Pooling our change, I gave her my personal food instructions.
    "Buy anything that doesn't have eight kicking legs."
    She returned a half hour later with a string bag of fruits, sticky rice, and some oddly-colored jellyish stuff that, after long discussion, we both thought the better of eating.
    And so the day went: reading, picking at sticky rice, peeling bananas, dodging little rain squalls from our elegant first class seating, and wondering when the hell Bagan would show up. The sunset was gorgeous, long streamers of luscious sherbert colors flung like banners across the purpling sky, all reflected on the pale surfaces of the scores of temples and the tarnished silver of the river surface. A delicious moment, marred only by our belly rumblings. I'd bet they heard us up in the wheelhouse. To make matters worse, someone on the boat was cooking something absolutely sensational.
    It was pitch black when lights began to appear on shore. A few at first, then more and more. Faint noises came to us across the water: a motorcycle, someone shouting, kids laughing. Laughing kids sound the same the world over.
    Then the ship slowed. We could hear a lot of commotion on the lower decks. The horn hooted, long and low, echoing back and forth across the inky water.
    Where were we?
    Then our tour guide popped out of the stairway housing, motioning frantically to us.
    "Bagan! Bagan! Come, come quick! Bagan!"
    We galloped down the stairs and fetched up in a shoving mob. A tiny baby stared at me from its wrapping on its mother's back. The tour guide had vanished. I asked the nearest person if this was Bagan but my voice was lost in the general uproar.
    The mob quickly filtered away. The horn hooted impatiently. The gangplank, ten inches wide, was empty. It stretched into the darkness. I couldn't see the end of it. A searchlight clicked on. Someone shouted.
    "Go! Go! Bagan!"
    We went. The gangplank bounced and swayed and we ran down. No point walking gracefully, this wasn't the QE2. I stepped off the wood and into the river mud. Immediately sank to my ankles. I had strap-on shoes; anything else would still be there.
    We looked up. The searchlight illuminated the bluff: fifteen feet up. A line of passengers struggled through the (let's call it) mud, their belongings held above their heads. They left deep pockmarks angling across the mud. There was no pier, no walkway, no planks, no nuthin.
    Where were our backpacks?
    The tour guide, busy pulling away the gangplank, must have read our minds. He waved his hands, pointed to the top of the bluff.
    Up there. Was it a bluff? Or were our worldly goods still on board the disappearing boat? We lifted our feet - they slurped out of the mud - and slogged upward. An older woman paused in her struggles, put her hand under my arm, tried to help me. How humiliating. She must've been in her eighties, but I think I'd still be there is she hadn't almost bodily hoisted me upward.
    Out of breath, confused, happy to be on solid, dry land at the top of the bank, we looked around. No luggage. No luggage office. No luggage handler. In the scrum of the arriving people and welcoming friends and relatives, amid scores of motorbikes, a dozen battered trucks, tiny taxis and push carts, there was complete chaos. Tiny lights had been strung in an enormous tree that all vehicles swung around and around. Another Merchant Ivory moment. It was cool, a light breeze plucked at my hair.
    Gradually, people met and mingled, got on bikes or into carts or taxis, and went away. We stood, silent, watching. We spoke not a single word of Burmese. The food stalls began to close up. We hadn't noticed them while the mob was there. They were on the far side of the circle and the lights winked out before we could get ourselves moving. Somewhere motorbikes kicked to life and roared away. Silence. The only light came from the tiny ones in the trees. I asked the question torturing me.
    "Is this really Bagan?"
    A tiny truck wheezed into the circle, navigated around the tree, stopped. Its headlights lit up two battered backpacks. We ran for them, checked them out. They were ours. I'd never open a present on Christmas morning with any more glee. A small, skinny man got out of the truck, walked over.
    "Hotel Bagan," he said with a smile as he bent to hoist up our backpacks. "Welcome."
    We were home.

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