Oh, Myanmar. You really made me work for it, didn’t you? Having your embassies reject my visa applications because I wasn’t applying in my home country, giving me the run around about the visa-on-arrival program, and then finally having mercy on my passport in Singapore, notwithstanding the “Don’t Even Think of Applying for a Visa Here if You’re Not a Legal Singapore Resident” signs at the consulate. And, now that I’m finally here, you’re trying to kill me.
First, there was the wily fish bone. I am not a picky eater, but I am a bit fussy about fish with little, thin bones. Perhaps there is a repressed, early childhood trauma at the root of it, I don’t know, but the idea of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat strikes such dread in me that I normally will have nothing to do with anything made from a fish smaller than a coffee table.
But, when my driver, Mr. Ko—who I only later discovered was not named Mr. Ko at all, but had told me to call him by that name (which, apparently, translates essentially to “Mr. Sir”), because he correctly surmised I would never be able to pronounce his real name—took me to a restaurant in a rural village in northern Shan State, and communicated as best he could in his limited English that the fish soup, made from a smallish catfish caught that day in the rice paddy, was the best, freshest thing on offer, I reluctantly acquiesced. And, of course, even though I was hyper-careful, I promptly got a bone stuck in my throat.
Pandemonium ensued in the little café. Good god, they couldn’t kill a foreigner, it would be terrible for business! After much shouting in Burmese and arm waving, the owner’s daughter rushed over with a bunch of bananas. Mr. Ko grabbed them, quickly peeled one, and handed it to me, urging me through hand gestures to eat it to knock the bone down my gullet. I put a hunk of banana in my mouth, and as I began to chew, Mr. Ko exclaimed, “Don’t crap!”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Don’t CRAP!” he insisted.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” I assured him, as I continued to chew the banana.
“DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DOOON’T CRAAAAAAAAAAP!!!!” he exhorted anxiously. Then, he put the back of his hand under my chin to stop me from chewing, and I finally got it. Makes sense, of course. The banana has to be in one piece to knock the offending bone down, not chewed into goo that would slide around it. But, I could, at least, breathe with the bone stuck in there, and I was imagining a plug of banana getting lodged on top of the bone and cutting off my air, so I was hesitant. But, they all seemed to think it was a good idea, so, lacking any better solution, I complied. And it worked. As soon as I swallowed a piece of uncrapped banana, the bone dislodged, and peace was restored.
Then came the treacherous train. Two days after the fish bone incident, I got on a train in Hsipaw headed toward an old British hill station in the mountains north of Mandalay. I decided to spring for the extra forty cents to have a seat in the “First Class” car, which, as far as I could tell, differed from the “Ordinary Class” only in the assignment of individual seats, instead of open seating on benches. Definitely worth forty cents.
When I got to my assigned seat, I noticed these fabric seat covers printed with a symbol that resembled saggy breasts. Having also seen this symbol painted on the entrance to various ladies’ restrooms, and noticing that the only other person seated in that area of the car was an elderly woman, I concluded that the symbol must be the Burmese character representing “women,” and these seats must be reserved for ladies.
I made a conscious decision not to think any further about whether they were specifically reserved for old ladies with saggy breasts, and whether or not it was fair that I had been relegated to that zone without a proper inquiry.
Turns out I was wrong, anyway. I later learned that the symbol is the Burmese word “ma,” which means both “women” and the abbreviated form of “Myanmar,” which is why it is printed on the seats of the Myanmar state railroad. So, there you have it.
My seat neighbor turned out to be quite a dame. She brought out tins of dried, sugared mango slices, tied plastic baggies of milk tea, and packages of cheroots—small, hand-rolled cigars—and passed them around to everyone, before producing a deck of cards and inviting folks to come play.
She didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm, let me tell you. Before I knew it, someone had upended a vegetable basket between the seats and placed a cushion on top to form a card table, and an ever-growing group of people crowded around, laughing, and smoking, and happily gambling away the meager contents of their respective wallets. She offered to deal me in, but I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing, so I judiciously declined.
Systematically, that fabulous old broad took each of those guys to the cleaners. When one of them busted out of the game, she offered to buy his cheroots off him so he would have money to keep playing. He went for it, and then she won the money back off him, leaving him without smokes or coin. She did it with such affable charm, though, none of her victims seemed to mind. I really admired her.
In the meantime, the train was bucking through the mountains like a bronco with a bee in its butt. The coaches jumped and jerked so violently, there were times when even my ample behind was thrown all the way into the air. We all had to hold on to keep from being pitched onto the floor, not that it disrupted the card game in the slightest. You could see through the aisle door how the coach ahead of ours was jerking and rocking back and forth like a metronome on amphetamines. It was more than a little disconcerting, but none of the other passengers seemed worried, so I figured it must be normal, and tried to roll with it. No pun intended.
I was concerned about angering Dale, though. He’s been pretty tame lately, and the fear of antagonizing him with this rock n’ roller coaster ride was real. Ultimately, after about five hours of being relentlessly jolted and jostled, I got off the train and got a private car down the remainder of the mountain.
That is why, when the train derailed in the forest about a half hour later, I was happily stuffing my face with Shan noodles at a roadside tea house, watching the “Chinese Horsemen” come down the highway from nearby China, carrying cheap, refurbished motorcycles—jocularly called Chinese Horses—on the backs of their own motorcycles, illegally importing them to waiting customers in the rural hill tribes.
I would never have known about the train crash, but the next day, in Pyin Oo Lwin town, I was accosted by a woman shouting “Hey, there you are! What happened to you?” When she caught up to me, she said she recognized me from the train, and that they had looked everywhere for me, but no one could find me. To the nonplussed look on my face, she said, “Did you get off early?” I said yes. “So, you don’t know that the train derailed?” No, I most certainly did not.
She then told me all about it. Apparently, three coaches, including the one I had been in, jumped off the tracks in the woods, far from any town or station, or even the highway. I worried about the card playing granny and her cohorts, but I was assured that no one was hurt, thankfully. The coaches had gone off the rails to the left, into a clearing, instead of to the right, which would have sent the whole train tumbling down the mountainside into a very deep ravine.
Someone called the police from a mobile phone, and the Gendarme soon came with pick-up trucks to get people out and down to the next decent size town, which was Pyin Oo Lwin. All train service between Mandalay and Lashio, the last town before the Chinese border, was suspended until further notice, so they could clear the mess off the tracks.
It all sounded very dramatic and inconvenient. I was so grateful not to have been there. Can you imagine? I would have crapped bananas.