It was perhaps too early in my recovery to push myself as I did, but I sped away from Mandalay and from caution on the seat of a bicycle to explore the regions outside of the city’s limits. The map I had scribbled down from the internet had so vastly oversimplified the routes I needed to take it was essentially useless. Getting to my first destination involved two sweaty hours of hard pedaling and exchanging gestures with strangers for directions. Garlic ginger sunflower seats tucked between my bag and the bicycle’s wheel mounted basket kept me nourished and stimulated as I hustled my way to the ruined kingdom of Inwa.
After crossing one last river by ferry, I was there. It didn’t really occur to me how disparately removed the ruins would be from one another once I got there, which meant I wasn’t about to get any respite from my tough bicycle ride. The lush grounds were rich with old stupas, monasteries, and fortress walls, but my exhaustion prevented me from being there completely. A constant tug of war was being waged inside my head, with my body pleading for rest and the adventurer in me cracking a whip trying to propel me forward and justify my presence there. “Sweet mercy, I need to sit down,” against “Let’s do it! There’s so much to see!” Climbing the extra step for the best vantage point, venturing a hike between inviting rice paddies, or trying an exploration of shady banana groves were all very tempting but too great a chore to justify. I was a diminished version of myself. Luckily the locals in Inwa didn’t seem to realize you’re supposed to overcharge tourists, so I kept my tank full, gulping down sweet coconut breads, fizzy lychee soda, and these amazing puffs made form chickpea flour at a cost next to nothing.
En route to my next destination, my path was impeded by a parade: children of all ages were dressed in royal garb and marched in groups or were carried by horses wreathed by colorful garlands and shaded by umbrella carrying tenants. Oh, and all this was set to Gangham Style – its catchy hooks having so captivated the world a day rarely goes by without my hearing it. The parade was capped off with an elephant dance performed by two dancers inside a sequined elephant costume. Set to a live band playing cutesy Asian pop with classical Burmese beats, the elephant twirled its trunk and kicked around in carefully timed circles to the rapture of all the village’s children.
Classical Burmese music is built on completely different foundations than anything heard in the west, and its sound is achieved by taking a xylophone, a couple bells, a few drums, half a dozen cats, and throwing all of it in the spinning back compartment of a cement truck. Popular music on the radio sounds quite like pop radio did in America, but twenty years ago. Cover songs are quite popular and the male youth prefer the sounds of Burmese KoRn. Particularly when they are wearing black clothes.
Having passed it on the way to Inwa, I had little difficulty finding my way to Amanapura, where the world’s longest teak bridge permits foot traffic over Taungthaman Lake. Long, but shallow, the lake invites local fishermen to wade in waist deep, all the way to the middle of the lake where they hunch over in tense pose waiting for the right time to jerk their poles and seize their quarry. The bridge is narrow enough to allow only a few pedestrians at shoulder’s width apart to pass, and the bridge crooks in the middle like a bent elbow in a long reach to the opposite bank. The far side is so far away the bridge almost disappears from view. From my vantage in the water, I watched a man who seemed to be a duckherd, ushering about a thousand ducks safely to the other side. I watched the mating dances of dragonflies who remain only briefly entwined in aerial love making before breaking free and setting immediately to planting eggs on a twig unfurling from out of the water.
Foot traffic on the bridge increases just prior to sunset, and homeward bound monks and fisherman dragging bicycles carting away the day’s catch all become silhouetted dramatically by the reddening sun, and their forms blend seamlessly into the silhouette of the bridge’s emaciated timbers of teak crisscrossing beneath them . All becomes mirrored upside-down when seen from a tiny peninsula jutting into the lake’s west bank, and the overall effect made for a beautiful and very memorable sunset.
I elected to risk getting lost again by attempting a more direct route back to Mandalay. I kept my bearing by playing a game I called “follow the white people,” as all the sunset chasing tourists were back into busses and taxis and headed the same way I was. If unsure, all I had to do was pause and study the passengers in passing vehicles until I felt again sure of myself. I had a big dinner and despite my expenditure of energy throughout the day, it seemed that during the sun’s setting I had finally reclaimed my health, and I celebrated the fact by singing idiotically 90s radio hits while slipping through hectic Asian traffic – traffic that no longer intimidated me but inspirited me by its kinetic energy and challenge. Just before I reached my hotel, I was magnetized away from my course by the lights and music of some kind of cul-de-sac sporting event. Six men in blue and yellow jerseys were pacing in a tight circle playing wicker football hacky sack set to live music, narration, and cheers whenever the hollow ball was kept off the ground at a notable length. With practiced twirls and contortionist kicks they took turns until one man stole the show and kept the ball suspended in the air by the exact same behind the back kick technique over and over for a few dozen bats before passing the ball along. I would have been happy to grab a chai and join the spectators but I had to steal a shower and wash away the day’s dirt before catching an overnight train.
Despite Mandalay’s hideous train station, I was counting on the night’s commute to be a welcome relief compared to my awful bus commutes. In my reclined chair on the train, I unfurled my shawl, leaned back deeply, and stretched out, enjoying the leg room. I was ready for a good night’s sleep to recharge my batteries, but shortly after we left the station, I braced myself for a different kind of night. All night long the train would alternate from the kind of smoothness typical of a train to severe bouts of convulsing back and forth up and down as if the train was skipping merrily in the air along a series of bounce houses by the roadside. After recovering from the first series of trainquakes all of the train commuters got up to rearrange their luggage to make sure it wouldn’t later avalanche upon themselves as they made optimistic efforts to get some sleep that night. Conditions later worsened when the night cold seeped into the car, more penetrating than my shawl could inhibit. Unkempt tree branches scratched against the sides of the train, generating stereophonic metallic screeches. When I reached Bagan at five thirty in the morning and latched on to the back of a pickup truck – too full to accommodate another sitter – my teeth chattered away and my legs shook violently beneath me with a restless night’s accumulated chill. I wrapped my elbow tightly as I could around the roof rack and hoped finding a room in Bagan wasn’t so difficult that I’d once again consider homelessness as a realistic option.