Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mandalay: Bridges, Horse Rides and Ice Cream

February 27, 2013

4am came pretty quickly on a sleepless night, but the excitement of what we were about to witness helped get me up and ready.  I turned on the lights and headed in to the bathroom for my morning duties when everything went black and silent.  "Matt?  Did you pull the room card out of the little slot?" I yelled from my black cave.  Just as I said that the power came back on.

Myanmar doesn't have a reliable power grid, so we had been asked to bear with them when it comes to power outages.  They don't last long, but they are a little inconvenient.  At this point, we were reminded of this fact.

We went downstairs to the lobby where our awesome hotel people had packed us up a breakfast to go. Five little white boxes that looked like birthday cake boxes.  Made me excited to dig in.

The driver had said we had about a 45 minute drive to the U Bein Bridge, so we all quietly settled in to our seats and opened up our goody boxes.  Individually wrapped were an egg, a white roll, a croissant roll, a banana and two slices of white bread.  We learned that Myanmar people usually had things like fish soup and rice for breakfast, but those are less packable, so most of our free meals consisted of white breads and some form of mayo.

It was still dark out, so we had no idea where we were being dropped off, but the driver pulled into a dark, still village and opened up the doors.  We were greeted by two mangy mutts that acted as our escorts for the entire day.  The one with the most fleas we named Chewy since he had to stop every few feet to chew on his back and itch his head.

The driver pointed in one direction and said that he would wait there, so we got out our head lamps and walked to the beginning of the teak bridge.

The full moon was out, so after a few yards we realized that we were able to see well enough without any light.  The drive said it was about a mile across, and we had an hour until sunrise, so we decided to walk all the way across then choose our location for the sunrise.

The air was cool and the sounds were magnificent.  No traffic noise, just soft water sounds, crickets, roosters and chanting monks in the distance.  There was a tall pagoda in the distance that we could see someone moving around on with a flashlight.  I don't want to use the word eery because it was scary, but it seems to fit the most with what we were experiencing.  Kind of a magical eeriness since we were so alone yet surrounded by life.  People were sleeping on the bridge and down underneath the bridge on the banks of the lake.

The sound of the teak wood creaking and moving under each step made us feel like intruders in the silence, but the excitement kept us going quietly along.  Once we got to the other side we found ourselves in a market place.  We walked underneath the bridge to a place that must be a large eatery during the day.  It had palm coverings over a large area and stacked up plastic chairs.  We walked past a pile of things that turned out to be a family's bed.  A small face poked out under the mosquito net and looked at us.  We waved, but he must have been scared by us because he popped back under the net.

We realized that we wanted to be on the other side of the bridge for the sunrise, so we hurried back across as the sky started to become blue in the East.  Chewy must have thought we were playing a game because he started whining and barking at us the faster we would move.  He jumped up and nipped my hand, which startled me, but I realized he was just being playful.  We couldn't shake him, so we just ignored him and tried not to get his fleas.

The birds started to wake up which added to the symphony of morning sounds as we found a spot underneath the bridge where we could walk right up to the bank of the lake.  We settled in next to a few other photographers and Danny set up his motion-control timelapse to capture the sunrise from behind a tree.

Mark and Larissa shot up on the bridge while Matt and I shot the action down on the ground.  A little home across the river that fed the lake had some motion, and we assumed a fisherman lived there.  Matt and I wandered around getting shots of silhouettes crossing the bridge in the sunrise light, and as the sun rose higher and higher the world was saturated with color from the dark gray that it started as.

It was the absolute most magical sunrise I have ever experienced.  We were in a different world, and it felt fake.  It felt like a move set that someone had arranged for our shooting pleasure.  Cue the farm woman to come out and wash some clothes.  Cue the river boats to head in with their fishing nets.  Cue the man on the boat to put in a wad of beetle nut as he stared into the lens and smiled.  Cue the standing man on the oxen cart to ford the river and come up next to us on the other side.  Cue Chewy whining from the top of the bridge...oh Chewy.

We watched this world come to life.  Mark and Larissa had figured out a way to climb down from the bridge to the other side of the river where the man's home was.  I'm not sure what word to use for the structure because it was mainly sticks poking out of the ground with cloth strung across it.  "Home" works.

The found him sitting at the edge of his land staring at them.  He wasn't moving and just watched them approach.  They assumed that he was fishing, but didn't see any fishing poles, so they hunkered down and started shooting the fishing boats that were down and around the lake across from them in the distance.  The man came over and watched the screen on the camera for a little bit and Larissa took a photo with him.  He seemed to like that, so he then showed them what he did for a living.

He showed how he had nets on the ground and little dead birds on posts around them.  Birds would land on the nets thinking that the dead ones were just chilling in a safe spot, then he would pull one stick that would release all the nets, capturing the birds for him to sell.  It was a pretty neat moment for them.

We decided it was time to head to the feeding of the 1,000 monks, so we went back out to our cab driver, pleased that he was still there, and got in unable to contain ourselves with the excitement that we had from the morning's events.

Now, what follows is a giant string of misunderstandings that we ended up resigning to a fun experience, but for most of it, we thought we were on the right track to seeing the 1,000 monks eating their one meal of the day.  We got to Innwa, a little village across a river about 15 minutes from the U Bein Bridge, and the driver dropped us at the top of a hill where we could catch a ferry across.

We were bombarded with young kids trying to sell us jade necklaces.  They each picked out one of us, learned our names and then talked about how they would be lucky if we bought from them, but unlucky if we didn't and not sell anything for the rest of the day.  We found out that they could do their spiels in five different languages because I spoke to them in German, Larissa in Spanish and then they whipped out French just to show off.  We all declined, so they followed us down to the ferry and saw us off yelling that they would remember us and we would buy when we returned.

We were glad to be on the ferry, which took us a short distance to where there were two women washing their clothes and three older boys bathing at the dock.  We got off and walked up the hill where there were a dozen kids waiting on what looked like a bench for a bus stop.  They all hopped up and immediately chose one of us to heckle to buy their bells, necklaces and gongs.  It's actually very overwhelming because you want to be kind to these young people, but they are only interested in you if you'll buy something from them.  I wish they didn't have to do this, and I wish that they could just be kids.  I wish we could have had genuine conversations with them rather than small talk littered with the fact that we were ruining their luck by not buying anything from them.

Our sinky pony takes us away.
We made it to the top of the hill and found a road packed full of horse carts and their drivers.  We were once again swarmed by drivers wanting to take us to the four locations in Innwa by horse-cart.  We tried to ask about the monastery with the feeding of the monks, and they pointed to a sign which had a monastery on it.  I was confident that it matched the one we were looking for, and we asked if we could walk to it.  "Hour and a half by horse," they said.  Alright - we'll ride the horse-carts.

We thought it would take an hour and a half to get to the monastery, but they were actually selling us a horse-cart tour of Innwa that lasted that long.  It was 9:00am and the monks started at 10:30am, so in our confusion we thought we'd get to the monastery on time.  Well, the monastery we were looking for was closer to town than the U Bein bridge and the driver didn't want to back-track, so if we weren't going to that monastery first, we weren't going at all.  We insisted on being at the U Bein bridge for sunrise, so we didn't realize that ruled out the monks.  As we road along, we were thinking we were in the wrong place because we don't remember Thom and Joani describing a bumpy horse-drawn cart ride to get to the feeding of the monks.  But, we were committed at this point, so we decided to enjoy it and get some shots of the backroads of Innwa.

A temple in Innwa.
My favorite moment was during our horsecart ride.  The little pony that was pulling the cart with myself, Matt and Danny in it was much faster than the pokey pony that Mark and Larissa had for their cart.  We soon found out why...

During a sharp left turn, our pony deliberately lifted his little blond tail and released the largest pony toot I've ever experienced at close range.  He was rocket powered.  Luckily, I was rolling camera, so you can see the ride, hear the gas release then hear the driver and I giggling at the event from behind the camera.

After our unintended tour of Innwa, we headed back for the ferry and caught it across to join the jade girls who really did remember all of us and tried to sell us necklaces again.  We told our driver that we wanted to go see the monks now, and he told us that we had missed it completely.  We were sad about it, but had the horse fart video so decided that it was a worthwhile experience and headed for lunch.
An ancient swimming pool in Innwa.

The driver brought us back into town where he dropped us at a restaurant that he said had good Myanmar food.  We took the five concrete steps down underneath a building that led us into a dining area complete with a courtyard where the family lived and did their laundry, etc.  The walls were covered with paintings of the surrounding area and of Buddha and pagodas.

The man that owned the place quickly sat us, and got us fixed up with the usual multiple bowls of curry salads, white rice and curry of our choice.  We chose chicken and mutton (pronounce moo-tawn here) and felt that the food was sub-par.  The owner would come over and fan us with a little, flowered, hand fan to shoo away the flies that continually accumulated on our bowls and bowls of food. When very assertively how the food was, we assured the man it was the best Myanmar food we had had yet.  He smiled and then fanned us some more.  It made him happy that we approved, and we wanted nothing more than to keep him happy.

I must note that his fish soup had an extra helping of fish sauce in it, and I was unable to choke down any of it.  I just don't like fish sauce.  Have I noted that yet in this blog?

After lunch, we bought some extra bottles of water and asked the owner to take us somewhere to buy a longhi (pronounce lawn-gee) for Mark.  It's basically a man-skirt which all the men around Myanmar wear.  It's quite becoming and also very cool, and Mark wasn't about to miss out on a fashion statement.  The owner brought us across the street to a woman who picked out a nice subdued plaid, unwrapped it and sent Mark outside to our cab driver who tied it up for Mark.  The restaurant owner saw the slop job that the cab driver did of the longhi and worked his magic again by going around the back of Mark and tying a big lump in the top of it.  He seemed very pleased with his work and showed it off to the cab driver.  They jokingly argued a bit, but both seemed to approve of Mark's new bottoms.

Larissa spotted an ice cream stand and pointed and said, "ice cream!" to our cab driver.  He shook his head and pointed to his car.  "Ice cream!" he said.  We looked at one another and decided he was going to drive us to ice cream, so we got back in the vehicle and bid adieu to our new foody friend.

The driver took us to a little eatery that felt like an old cafe where he ordered us each a scoop of white ice cream.  It really hit the spot in the heat.  It wasn't a fruity flavor, but also wasn't vanilla.  He said it wasn't coconut although that was the closest taste I could use to describe it.  Regardless, it was good.  Danny was sure we were going to get sick off of the milk, so he took a Pepto, but the rest of us re-syncrhonized our watches and decided to be the test group.

The next stop was the airport for our flight to Bagan, and because of our scheduling mishap, we were a good three hours early, so we found a cafe that served beers and had cheesecake and beers and talked about our amazing experience in Mandalay and laughed about the horse again.  While we sat and chatted, a rough-looking fellow walked over and began speaking in Spanish to us.  Larissa answered him back, since she's fluent, and he then realized we weren't from Spain.  He could have sworn Danny was from Spain, so he said he's leave us alone.  We offered him a seat at our table, and after much coaxing, he finally joined us.

He had the pink, dried juices of beetle nut down the sides of his mouth and in the creases of his fingers, and he was drinking a Sprite because he said he had drank too much the night before.  He blamed it on a Canadian who kept him drinking and talking all night long.  The conversation turned to our ages, and he teared up when we told him we were all 25 and 26.  He said he had three sons.  The oldest was 35, the middle was 29, and the youngest, his favorite had passed away at 24.  He had committed suicide.

At this point in the story, he choked up and insisted on buying us another round of beers.  We didn't want any more, so we convinced him to buy us one more to split, at which point he had pulled it enough together to say that his son hadn't even left a note.  No word as to why his son had left him.  He started crying again, so he turned away from the table trying to pay our check.

Larissa was very good about keeping him talking and comfortable, and she asked about other things like the countries that he had been to.  This calmed him down a bit until he got to this most recent trip and told us that a month ago his son had taken his own life, and within the week, he was on a plane to Thailand, Sri Lanka and had just come to Myanmar.  We wondered if his travel was a journey to discovery as he tried to figure out his son's suicide.  It was tough to see his pain, and after a little longer, he headed outside to have a smoke.  We saw him later in the airport, but he seemed embarrassed, so we were friendly from afar.

We got on the plane which turned out to be a short flight to Bagan and had just enough time to chug a soda and get a 20-minute nap before landing.  We went out to negotiate a cab ride to our hotel, and found a group of men with regular cabs.  They said they couldn't fit the five of us, so we'd have to take two cabs.  Larissa pointed to the cabs behind them which were vans from a different company and asked if we could go in those.  The man looked at them, then looked down at the ground and said, "Yes."  We headed to the vans and got a single van for half the price of what the other guy was trying to charge us.  They're too honest to even scam us here!

We had a quick ride to the Oasis Hotel where we were greeted with mango juice in martini glasses.  We clinked glasses and arranged to have a cab in the morning out to the temples for sunrise.  We decided to turn in early, so we had dinner at the hotel.  They had a lovely patio with an order up dinner of Chinese, Myanmar and spaghetti if we needed our Western food fix.  The power went out three times which left us all in total darkness for a few moments, but by this point, we were used to the event.  After the second outage, our waiter lit a candle in the middle of our table.  It was magical.

We had rice, noodles and fried bananas and honey for dessert.  It made for a tasty end to a wonderful day.  We headed for bed in order to prepare for our 4:30am wake-up call for sunrise video from the temples.