I had great anticipation going into Myanmar, we had been thinking about this secretive country since South Korea. It always seemed a long way off, and now we were on its doorstep. We were pulled into a small office, it was smart and simple with a charming desk and two chairs. We sat down readying ourselves with a rehearsed explanation of what we planned to do in their country, having been frightened by yet another bout of border know-it-alls saying “Oh, it is so dangerous, they don’t like foreigners, it is very backwards there, you might have trouble.” We had a warm conversation with the officer, he told us of some good places to visit, he smiled and laughed with us, they took our picture and off we cycled through busy streets with waving people, smiles and following eyes, honks and beeps and hellos.
Music by Blood Orange
We stopped at a junction about 8km after the border and looked at our map. It showed the road in front of us wiggling tightly across the mountains. The map didn’t show the road turning left, the direction that more cars were choosing to head. Deciding to find out where the road went we followed the puttering trucks with exposed motors, the whizzing mopeds with 3 astride, the crumpled cars without glass in the windows and such rust it looked as if the cars had giant cigarette burns in the paint, and rusted holes large enough to see the feet working the pedals.
Choosing this road turned out to be a good choice. It was a new highway of sorts. Instead of the possible 2 day drag across the mountains we had about 45 minutes of sweat and the rest downhill all the way into a flat plateau that stretched out as far as we could see. The bright orange dust from the roads had been kicked up so high and drifted so wide that it blanketed the plants surrounding the road which left us with a view that was 80% fluorescent orange. Beyond the highway there were palm trees as tall as 5 story buildings, dry grass and farming, white bulls pulling carts with men standing astride them like Roman chariots holding onto the reins, and women carrying great bunches of hay and sticks atop of their heads.
It was a massive oversized landscape, the people had not yet made their country small with buildings and they remained its humble inhabitants not its controller; the figures in the fields looked like ants even at a close distance.
We made a small turn off the highway and onto dirt roads into villages where houses stood on stilts with fences made of wiggly branches and roofs and walls made of small flat dried leaves. Humbler than the most humble we have yet seen. The people are alert, quick, and industrious, no one drunk like many countries we have gone through, their faces are bright and ready and helpful, and even in the smallest of villages people have some basic English. English is more widespread than anywhere else we have been which is great for us because it makes connecting with the people easier.
I have taken to drifting off, wondering how my life would have been different if my family was born in a Myanmar village. My mum would be one of the many beautiful, kind, strong village woman, but she would be queen of the market place, jack-of-all-trades, helping with the tarring of the road, taking care of the village children, caring for the elderly and having the fattest, healthiest cow.
My dad would own a restaurant, it would be typical and dark but clean, blue plastic chairs, warm service and a meeting place for many of the men, he’d be the hospitable man of the village, many people coming to him for help and he’d be able and willing to give it.
My oldest brother Simon would’ve gone off to the city, Yangon most likely, to work in a small technology company up 8 flights of stairs, after he had spent his youth begrudgingly fixing the village TVs.
Nigel would be a tradesman, like he is now, everyone knowing he made the best thatched roof. He would love his work mates but ultimately prefer to work alone, as the evening train bounced by, one or two westerners looking out the window would see his dark silhouette against the newly darkened sky in the evening atop the scaffolding, preferring the work site to listening to the repetitive conversations around the nightly fire out front of our family dwelling.
The youngest of my brothers, Michael, would be a teacher at the school, he would bike to and from with 4 laughing children on his bicycle while the others ran behind him or rode beside him. The 2 on the back rack holding onto each other, one on his saddle as he stood up pushing the pedals and one on his handlebars.
Me? I would’ve gotten pregnant and be sitting on my man’s wagon (lets say it’s Dan), both terrible at any duties. I’d be the worst cook in the village, I’d hate the household chores, our crops would fail, our cows would go hungry. But boy would we drive that cart well, and I would make the finest textiles in the village.
The roads in Myanmar are terrible, that is one thing people had gotten right, it is like ridding a trotting donkey, our arms were aching by the end of the day from weaving and ratting our way along. We camped our first night in a monastery. Having one of those moments not believing our luck that we are able to live this life – that we unholy people are in this holy place, on our bicycles, making holey bread, cooking our meal, and discussing unholy things under the holy night sky.
We often feel #blessed in varying degrees of intensity, but this night felt like everything was right with the world. Something in the darkness, hearing soft chanting, being greeted by worshipers, moving softly and quietly, finding pleasure in the menial tasks of cleaning our pots, stretching the stiffness away, cool water on our necks and faces.
Once we arrived in Yangon we spent a few days creating, organizing, setting out into the town, watching and eating in the city. It’s a city which only 10 years ago was under candlelight in the evenings, the streets would become empty as family and friends retreated back into the dirty and decaying but enchanting colonial buildings. It is a grid system in Downtown Yangon and each street is a current of movement and buildings, washing hanging off rails, bellies poking through balconies surveying the laughing and chattering pods of people below. The colors of the buildings are soft and run like watercolors at the corners or under windowsills making it easy to imagine it all as a painting. The city is intimate and tightly packed. Each street having a single type of store, all the photo shops are together, the printing shops are together, there is a lane for people who sell strawberries, a lane for people who sell shoes, a second hand book lane, there are shoe streets, making every street look like a market street.
We met Drew in a hostel in Yangon, within half a day he was planning to come with us. I was casual at first, not thinking too much of it saying, “Yeah! That would be great! Lord knows we need another person to talk to.” I was jokey thinking that this would pass. And after a while I began to see that he was quite serious and small amounts of fear began to ebb around the nonchalant attitude. Not about fitness or his lack of touring experience – we all know how I feel about being the slowest in the group so I was pleased to potentially no longer be – it was the intimacy of bike touring, sharing a lot of pain and frustration and happiness, exhaustion, and desperation is difficult. This might be a surprise but Dan and I are rather anti-social, we’re good for an hour or two then we retreat. But in non-typical Jorja style I was looking to the positives: I am not one to stifle anyone’s courage and bravery like Drew was showing. It shouldn’t be such a big deal, we bump into bike tourers who have been cycling together for a while after meeting on the road, but for Dan and I, it is a big leap, we share our lives online and like to do so but in reality we are well…like I said…anti-social
I told Drew all this (I think) and he is still bang up for it.
He applied for his Indian visa, and his permit to cross the border the next single morning, and we rode off to meet him at a bike store to see if they had a suitable bike. We met an Australian who owned a bike shop who sold Drew his personal Surly which was dusty and unused but after the bike shop workers descended on it within 10 minutes it was shining, with new cables. Jeff (Bike World Myanmar) added some racks, saddlebags, a helmet, 2 bottles, some spare tubes and a slap on the back as a parting gift. We left Drew in Yangon to wait for his Indian visa to arrive and get to know his new bike while we started cycling northward to where we were to meet – in Bagan.
We had met and stayed with a couple that was here teaching in an international school and Robin assured us that he had camped in Myanmar (it’s illegal) so we were confident. But the police have been on our tail making sure we don’t do exactly what we were planning to do. We have been tailed by mopeds, and stalked by undercover police, they note our route and call ahead to tell the next town to expect us. We had cop on a motorbike right behind us one night forcing us to ride well into the night to get to the town we told them we were going to. The roads were quiet and there were times when it was pleasant but as the night went on, the blackness got deeper and my dynamo light (which was the only source of light for both of us) penetrated just a few meters ahead making it hard to navigate the pockmarked roads and bulls pulling wooden carts and dogs chasing us through every town. The dogs were a shock because during the day they were very timid, shy and pleasant animals, in the night they chased us frighteningly down the roads on our back wheels, Dan telling me to ride faster and we sprinted through towns making the road rush like a treadmill in my light.
When we got into town the police found us and took us to a guesthouse and charged us 30,000 Kyat ,10,000 of which was given to the police officer for some reason. Unfortunately the next day was much the same, the surface of the road got worse and the 120km we had told them we’d do turned into 57km. We had to stop and we pulled into a monastery to ask for somewhere to rest in the evening, they thankfully said yes, immediately set up a bed in their secondary Buddha hall, gave us nut salad to eat, tea and sweet coffee to drink and gave us some soap and a bucket to wash ourselves in the well in the front garden.
We spent the evening being taught how to bow at the pagodas, showing them our embroidery, and me trying to lock eyes with the nuns to see if I could find what was behind this mysterious life they lead, as if I could get to know them more if I could just look into their eyes longer. We then listened to their chanting on their sound system being broadcasted to the nearby village while we fell asleep under the flashing LED lights surrounding the Buddha’s head.
In the morning we were woken by another bout of sound system chanting, and invited to breakfast, which was supplied by a family from the village. We waved the best meaningful wave we could and rode on for the moment…alone.
It’s hot, real hot…like Africa hot, and we have started the horrible act of buying our water. My basket is full with empty bottles, a reminder of our shame and as we are drinking 6 liters or water a day, my bags have become places to put my plastic bottles too as I fruitlessly hold on to them for a place to recycle them. We have a Steripen but it doesn’t change the colour, remove the floating contents, and improve the taste, it just makes it safe for us to drink and with the baking hot sun coming from above and the radiating hot road coming from beneath our appetite for clean, fresh and often icy cold water is too great.
Myanmar has been the most rewarding, most shaping countries I have yet visited. Rich tradition isn’t trying to be maintained; it is the way of life. It has sparked a flame of fashion design in me, which I thought was dead but seems to have been laying dormant.
Traditional dress is always worn and in silhouettes I have never seen before, a mix between Victorian posture and tribal resourcefulness.
Children and men herd goats up the sides of the road wearing traditional skirts, fabric wrapped around their waists, bare chests, a long stick, everything a different shade of golden brown, their skin dark but bronze, walking with a grand wide woven hat sat poised on their crowns, elongating the bodies into fashion show proportions, their cattle kicking up light brown dust in a dramatic cloud. The textures, the shapes, the colors, the patterns are sending my brain into a depressing tailwind because I know it will be forgotten. It is an artist’s dream – the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, the most beautiful men who are not threatening. It is a good place.