Where is the road calling you?
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As our bus crept into the station in the heart of Yangon and we were once again entering the chaos which had become so foreign to us in recent weeks, I found it impossible to wrap my mind around the idea of us leaving Myanmar so soon. Perhaps just as surreal, we had left the peaceful countryside peppered with the most primitive of villages for a massive concrete jungle. A slow, traffic battling taxi ride instantly confirmed we had ventured to unfamiliar territory, passing a multitude of towering buildings stacked side by side as far as we could see. Of course we knew full well before ever arriving our time spent in a big city would be a far cry from our usual interactions in local villages where English was seldom heard let alone spoken, but that didn’t mean we weren’t equally as excited to see what Yangon held in store for us.
We hoisted our packs and secured them to our backs, discovering the office at our guesthouse of choice sat a full four flights of stairs above us. If not for the assistance of the staff following check-in, the meat of our asses may have spontaneously combusted after having to climb another four flights simply to reach the door to our room. Without a doubt, if there were any possible amount of cellulite left on our bodies, it would melt away over the next few days while conquering eight flights of stairs in ninety degree weather every time we returned. With the absence of an elevator, a mild cardio workout forced us to carefully calculate the importance of each and every departure.
Nevertheless, the staff could not have possibly been more pleasant and attentive, ensuring we were issued polite parting words each time we walked past the front desk. The streets surrounding us instantly reminded us of our time in Mandalay, though much more organized and orderly than we had originally expected. With cars parked along each side of the majority of the streets around us, delivery trucks consistently blocked through traffic for extended periods of time. Yet in the midst of the commotion and strings of cars forced to wait during stretches of unloading, not a single horn echoed or a raised voice bellowing four letter words of profanity to express any amount of frustration could be heard. On the contrary, a commendable display of patience impressed those of us more accustomed to witnessing middle fingers and frantic antics during similar events.
A local market not far from our guesthouse offered us the opportunity to seek out what we hoped would be unique and original souvenirs. Although we found the heavily loaded stalls of the same trinkets and fabrics we had seen all along a bit underwhelming, we continued to feel the kindness of the local people passing by throughout our entire visit. Even in the big city of Yangon we were surrounded by people excited to offer greetings and smiles at nearly every turn. It seemed if ever there were a country capable of working our cheek muscles to their fullest capacity, Myanmar was certainly a top candidate. For that very reason, we found some of our most enjoyable time walking through the bustling streets and interacting with those eager to communicate with us.
Few things could raise our spirits higher than the discovery of a small, grungy yet incredibly popular Indian restaurant. Our mouths salivated in response to the aroma flooding out onto the sidewalk, compelling us to enter. To our surprise and absolute joy, we had found thalis with never ending rice and curries as authentic as those we still dream of from our time traveling throughout India. The option to ignore the presence of silverware and eat strictly with our fingers only further enhanced our pleasure, drawing the attention of the locals using the same method. We struggled to hold our moans of utter satisfaction to a minimum as we packed every available inch of our stomach, creating a look I once thought only expecting women in their first trimester could achieve.
As much as we thoroughly enjoyed gorging ourselves on one of our absolute favorite cuisines, few things could be revered as equally impressive as the Schwedagon Pagoda. Standing in front of the towering golden stupa weighing half a ton and decorated with diamonds on the peak was a humbling feeling I won’t soon forget. Every Buddhist in Myanmar tries to visit the famous pagoda at least once in their lifetime. Those in attendance while we were slowly shuffling our bare feet over the warm tile floor holding the heat from the midday sun seemed overwhelmed with curiosity, requesting group photos with us on several occasions. Their smiles only grew bigger when reviewing their pictures as they walked away, laughing and peaking back over their shoulders to wave goodbye one final time.
Vendors lined the stairs of one of the entrances to the temple where I would willingly be convinced to purchase a string of mala beads I had wanted since first entering the country, finding it impossible to resist the charms of an elderly woman with high hopes of making a sale. I thought about how walking away from her and witnessing the disheartened look in her eyes would feel like a dagger to my own heart. I may have rather endured a jolt of electricity to the nipples than the lasting memory of those weathered, wise eyes staring deep into mine with disappointment. It wasn’t the first time one of us had been molded like putty in the hands of someone so endearing, and something told me it wouldn’t be the last.
Our exploration continued as we captured scenic photos during various times of the day, mesmerized at times by the brilliant shades and glimmers transitioning on the golden rounded edges with the falling sun. The influx of visitors increased rapidly with the dropping temperature, better accommodating those seeking to avoid the intense heat throughout the day. We were told during the hottest periods it was nearly impossible to walk on the tile ground surrounding the pagoda, creating an environment more conducive to a fire walker than a wandering tourist.
With few other items on our agenda before leaving Yangon, we decided to ride the “circular train” making a loop around the city to observe the difference in the lives of the local people. Our midday journey reminded us one final time of the absolute poverty the vast amount of the population fights to overcome each and every day. Tiny wooden shacks resembling abandoned chicken coups served as shelter for generations of family to share. The characteristic faces of those glancing in our direction as we passed by held stories of hardship and struggle, yet not a single person neglected to return our smiles with one of their own.
An incredibly sweet woman working on learning and practicing her English was seated next to Jessie, explaining to her that the average salary of one living in these areas was a meager 30,000 kyat per month (about $25 USD). I couldn’t help thinking how the same amount wouldn’t even provide us with a full tank of gas for our car back home, nor cover our electric bill for a single month. If ever there existed the purest example of those forced to live without, we had found it throughout Myanmar. Although I could never discount the poverty we’ve witnessed over the years in many other countries, most notably in India, we continued to feel drawn here…inspired and feeling a sense of absolute necessity to return on our next trip to continue our giving.
With our flight back to Bangkok quickly approaching, an excursion to the local post office in the market near our guesthouse had become a priority. On the outer edge of the souvenir market bursting with shops and countless memorabilia, we climbed a dirty, grimy concrete staircase to the level above us, following the signs labeled “post office” with arrows taped to the wall guiding us to our destination. We stepped into the large, open room with looks of confusion, wondering if we had made a mistake. A lone woman approached us from behind a long wooden counter, confirming we had indeed reached the post office.
A crinkled, faded piece of paper listed the shipping rates for the two options we had available to us, encouraging us to opt for the more expensive of the two in hopes that our priceless package of sentimental purchases would arrive back home without issue. Numerous times the woman felt the need to assure us of the office’s authenticity, obviously noticing the slight hesitation and doubt in our eyes. Due to Thailand’s strict policy of never taking an image of Buddha out of the country (whether it originated there or not) and the fact that various items we had purchased were exactly that, we were left with little choice other than to take a leap of faith and hope for the best.
The usual receipt complete with a tracking number was nowhere to be found, forcing us to extend absolute trust in the lone postal worker. We couldn’t help but laugh at the overall situation, fully aware there were never any guarantees when attempting to ship home any item from a third world country. Even so, we immediately reminded ourselves of varies other situations when we had left a post office in other countries with our fingers crossed and shoulders shrugging while shaking our heads and wondering if we would ever see the same box again.
Not until our very last full day in Myanmar would either of us experience any sort of discomfort we couldn’t overcome. My usual sensation of full-fledged hunger emanating from a groaning stomach when waking up that morning had been oddly replaced with an unsettling feeling. Hoping I had simply allowed too much time to pass between meals, I pushed myself to join the others at our guesthouse in one of the small communal areas where breakfast was served each day. Rarely had food been so unwelcome in my body, quickly inspiring a rapid sprint back up the four flights of stairs to our room where I fumbled with our room key and nearly teleported myself to the toilet without a second to spare.
Thinking it was possible I had eaten something the day before I shouldn’t have, I convinced myself I could re-visit the market with Jessie one final time before leaving Yangon. Within minutes of arriving, I knew I had made the wrong decision, my eyes widening in response to the sweat pouring down my body and hairs standing on end as I clenched with full pucker power of desperation. The minimal fee for using the public bathroom could have been a thousand dollars in the moment and I would have agreed, scampering down a dark hall and rounding a corner only to find four rusty brown stall doors locked.
There have been very few times in my life when I can remember being truly fearful of an involuntary explosion, yet these instances always seem to happen while traveling. As one of the doors opened I all but pushed the man emerging out of my way, completely disregarding the wet sludge and poorly aimed human waste surrounding the porcelain squatty toilet combined with a putrid odor nearly causing me to vomit as I hovered. I exited back out into the market saturated with sweat and wiping my forehead with relief written on my face. It was a look each of us has come to know well, not to mention one much more welcome than the opposing possibility of disappointment and embarrassment.
Even while traveling back to Thailand the following day in a state of nausea and uneasiness, terrified of eating or drinking anything because of the repercussions; it was hard not to reflect on our time spent in this magical country. As the plane gained altitude and I watched the ground shrink slowly beneath us, memories of everyone who had touched our hearts raced through my mind, my eyes welling while peering out the window. We hadn’t even left Myanmar airspace and already I couldn’t wait to return, anxious to continue with our mission of helping others in need.
Myanmar had opened a special place in our hearts we never even knew existed. I knew in that moment we had been forever changed.