I woke up at 5:30, and shot my friend a text. He is the volunteer closest to me, who usually accompanies me on grocery shopping and ATM runs. I was up for the trip and ready to go. He responded:
Let the transportation circus begin.
Circus is his loving term for the unreliable way we get from one place to another. Unreliable is only partially accurate, though. It is usually always reliable in the sense that you can catch a ride before the sun goes down. The surprise factor is always who it is with, what you will be riding, when it will come, and how much you will pay. Volunteers have many options for transportation, and we often find ourselves utilising whatever gets us from A to B. Some examples are: ox cart, pony cart, trishaw, van, small truck, log-hauling truck (don’t recommend, very uncomfortable on the butt), car, and busses of varying levels of niceness.
In the city, trishaws, light trucks, and 3-wheels serve as taxis and depending on the city, range from 200 to 500 Kyat a ride (anywhere from 12 to 35 US cents). When using a light truck to travel a main road, it’s normal to pull over for people from other villages hitchhiking into the city. This is a very common practice, especially if you live on a major road. Though hitchhiking hardly feels like the right word, given that someone on the truck usually knows someone in your village and will hold your baby or chicken or groceries while you climb over people, bottles for recycling, and rice bags. Even now, when the truck seems like it can’t possibly hold any more people, I’ll turn to the woman next to me with wide eyes when we pull over for yet another hitchhiker.
“Don’t worry,” she says, unconcerned, “it’s just a boy. He’ll ride on top.” While the women and children get the dryness and safety of sitting in the bed, men are usually forced to stand on the back and hang onto a rope, or to the top.
It’s also common for a village-owned light truck to wait upwards of 30 minutes on one person running a little late for the truck. This can be frustrating if you’re from the West and know you’re waiting a half hour on one guy to finish his breakfast, but on the other hand, when I needed to stop at a house to buy honey, not a person on the truck (including the driver) minded waiting 10 minutes, and I doubt they would have cared if I’d taken up the shopkeeper’s offer for a cup of tea, either. Relationships trump time, and as a result, sometimes the “regular car” arrives at 8, other times at 10, and sometimes, not at all.
On this morning, we were headed to Taungdwingyi to buy some fruit and supplies, visit an ATM, and if we were lucky, have an iced coffee. In our villages, our access to fruit, some school supplies, and an ATM is limited. Iced coffee is, of course, out of the question.
We were to meet in Taungdwingyi, but we both had to get there separately, as we lived on separate sides of our Township. I packed my backpack with some cash, extra data, extra pants, and of course, ORS. Then at 6:30, I headed to my landlord’s house. I didn’t have the most certain idea of how I was getting there. My monthly trips to Magway were an easy, straight shot, made easier by the constant buses to Naypyidaw and Yangon from Magway city. But Taungdwingyi was going to require some extra flexibility.
I sat on my landlord’s porch. Her house is on the main road running past my village, and her neighbor is the unofficial bus coordinator, as the bus stop (more like cool bamboo tree bench) sits in front of her house. She had vaguely assured me the day before that I’d be fine, and that the car left at 6:30. While in the West, we’d often consult a bus schedule or maybe Google the answer, most people in Myanmar prefer to call a friend of a friend, or someone who would probably know the answer.
My landlord came out with fried cornbread and a kettle of tea and we chatted about life, the Myanmar train system, and the weather. While in America, we have a habit of rushing out the door in the morning with a cup of coffee and a granola bar (or nothing at all), Myanmar people are horrified if they find out you didn’t have time to eat breakfast and will promptly invite you in to eat. In Myanmar, nothing important can happen before a good breakfast, and there is absolutely no reason to rush a cup of tea or a bowl of mohinga. In fact, on the other side of Myothit Township, Nathan was experiencing just this. Despite his lucky early start, his car had made a breakfast stop for noodles.
After about 45 minutes, I asked my landlord when she thought the truck would arrive.
“Oh, at 6:30,” she replied casually. “Is it 6:30?”
“It’s almost 7:30.”
“Oh!” She said, startled. “Let me go ask the neighbor.”
She walked a couple steps to her left and shouted over, “Has the 6:30 truck for Myothit left yet?!”
It had. The next car would come at 8:00. My 6:30 truck became an 8:30 van, and by the time it arrived, I eagerly jumped in and thanked my landlord and her neighbour for their help. The first leg of my journey was taken care of, but the next step was trickier. As we made the half hour journey to the intersection, I pondered the meaning of my landlord’s cryptic instructions:
“When you arrive at the intersection, ask where the oil shop is. The oil man inside will help you, but make sure you get a good deal.”
“Is he a friend of yours? Do you know him?” I tried to ask. She just smiled and shrugged.
Normally being driven to the middle of nowhere and being dropped off to find a man in an oil shop would produce a bit of uncertainty, but I couldn’t help but feel an irrational sense of calm. People in Myanmar really do take care of each other, whether it means helping them catch a ride or feeding them or directing them to an oil shop at an intersection.
Luckily, I didn’t need to ask for directions. As soon as the driver pulled over, a thin man in a black hat and turquoise UNICEF vest ran across the road to fetch me.
“Uncle, how much?” I asked the driver. He shook his head. I thanked him profusely and he gave me a shy smile in return.
The intersection was a crossroads between Myothit, Magway, Naypyidaw, and Taungdwingyi. With no stop lights or stop signs and a barren, scorched earth appearance, it seemed like the exact place one could get stuck. (Think ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ house).
“So,” my oil man said, “the next car is a little late. It doesn’t leave until noon. It’s also 5,000 Kyat. Expensive.” He smiled apologetically, despite only being the messenger of bad news.
Both were disappointing, and I was certain Nathan had already arrived, and the next leg of the journey was 40 minutes or more. I looked at my phone. It was only 9 am. Oh well, I thought, pulling my book out of my bag, I did want to read more this weekend.
But as I sat down in the bench, I noticed there were many “light trucks” headed the direction of Taingdwingyi. Light trucks are short, white trucks with covered beds. This is how most people do short-distance travel and how most villages get their villagers to the nearest market. They also serve as taxis in cities, are hired for the day for pagoda-hopping, and for transporting supplies to markets and distributing goods to store-owners. I was thinking how it easy it would be just to hop on a truck from here for the remaining 16 miles.
The oil man was thinking it too.
“What about that one?” I asked as we scanned the trucks together, some taking the road to Magway, and others turning from Mytothit to Naypyidaw. “Is that car okay?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “not okay.”
We both watched the road and he suddenly sprinted to the other side of the intersection. After carefully inspecting the identical trucks, he stopped one rounding the turn and asked them if they were going to Taungdwingyi. They were, and he quickly waved me across the intersection.
I thanked him, and he grinned at me as I took off my shoes and sat on the bamboo mats inside. I had barely waited 5 minutes, and we were on our way. Inside this particular light truck were some very delighted people that a foreigner had landed on their family trip. I quickly found out that they were a family going to visit the pagoda for Martyr’s Day (side note… it’s Martyr’s day.) They asked me what I was doing in Myanmar, how I liked it, and in return they introduced me to their family. They invited me to visit the pagoda with them, but I told them I was meeting friends. We took some photos and they dropped me off near the pagoda.
“Brother, how much?” I asked the driver. He smiled and shook his head.
“Be happy,” he told me, and the family watched me as they drove away.
Though I’d assumed my friend had arrived much earlier than me because he’d left over an hour before me (and lived closer), we’d miraculously arrived pretty much at the same time. I recounted my journey there and he did as well, both amazed that despite stops for mohinga, crashing a family’s holiday, and various uncertainties, we’d both arrived (and within 20 minutes of each other).
We met up with another volunteer and spent the day indulging in cold drinks, fruit shopping, and site-seeing. I stopped to eat a popsicle every chance I got. As we negotiated in the market the shopkeepers would pause and excitedly tell the person in the stall next to them, “They can speak Burmese! They can speak Burmese!” I bought some pineapples as gifts for my landlord and co-teacher, and some donuts for the teacher’s lounge that week. I also found raisins (!!!).
By the time we were ready to do the whole journey home over again, we realised neither of us had a clue how to get out of the city. We met up with another volunteer’s co-teacher for our (2nd) iced coffee of the day, hoping she’d give us some insight. Unfortunately, every van going to Magway would take a highway not passing through my village, or the intersection we both had to arrive at.
His co-teacher thought, and she took us to the bus station to try our luck. Fortunately, there was a bus that could take us to the intersection. We said goodbye and a very heartfelt thank you to his co-teacher for helping us.
At the intersection, we were surprised to find somewhat of a party waiting for us. When we went to the oil shop, a large man with a wide face and a huge smile greeted us.
“Hi, I’m your special friend,” he said casually.
Nathan and I looked at each other and laughed, shocked. “Wait, really?”
So, I should explain- Myanmar (along with other countries, including China) have secret police that monitor where foreigners go and when. This may sound super creepy, but it’s really harmless, and comes as a benefit to us more often than not. Some volunteers never meet their ‘secret’ police officer, so Nathan and I were thrilled that not only had we gotten to meet ours, but that he was dedicated to finding us a ride home. We talked about the people he knew on Peace Corps staff, about our villages, and he introduced us to the other five men standing around and lounging in bamboo chairs, some police officers, some motorcycle drivers, some just men who worked near the intersection. The oil man was also there. They pulled up some chairs for us.
Nathan found a ride in about 10 minutes, but mine took a bit longer. After about a half hour, the men were relieved to pull over a car with an older man inside. They smiled as they helped me load my groceries into the passenger’s seat, and the policeman offered to follow me home.
Though in my village people can usually understand my Burmese with its many mistakes, often times when talking with strangers, they have trouble with my flawed sentence structure and accent. Likewise, when people talk quickly or use phrases I don’t know, I usually don’t answer their question right. So I found myself nervous at the prospect of communicating with this man in Burmese for over a half hour. But as we introduced ourselves, I found that the conversation flowed so naturally I surprised myself. We talked about cultural differences between America and Myanmar, the education system, learning languages, his job and his son. We even made a few jokes we both understood!
By the time he dropped me off, I was genuinely sad the conversation was over.
“Uncle, how much? Can I pay you?” I asked. He shook his head as if I’d asked something very silly.
“It was nice to meet you, daughter. See you next time.”
I was exhausted when I arrived home, but the transportation couldn’t have gone any better. No matter where I’m going, Myanmar transportation, while always surprising, always ensures I meet new people, have patience and flexibility, and am exposed to just how kind people are.