I was hoping for a quick in-and-out situation when I had returned to Yangon – take care of a few errands and be on the first bus upcountry – but all the buses were booked solid. The third travel agency I visited was able to save me the one seat on the one bus they had left for the end of the next day. I felt thoroughly finished with Yangon and eager to move on, yet I was stuck and the feeling of immobilization made me clench my teeth with frustration. A mere consolation, this gave me some time to be productive and I gave myself a to-do list to pass the time, and a couple of off days probably wouldn’t be bad for my pathetically optimistic budget.
Freed from the duties of the sightseer, my pace had a deliberate slowness to it that I hadn’t felt in some time, and I was better able to soak in the city’s atmosphere and get closer to its people. Very quickly my temperament changed from bored anguish to curious contentment as I watched monk boys thumb through sidewalk racks of pirated DVDs and I helped myself to Myanmar’s devilishly good street food. With an appetite that’s becoming increasingly difficult to suppress, I have become terribly fond of Burmese pancakes – served either savory with nuts and green onions or sweet with thick slabs of coconuts. After stuffing my face with pancakes I stopped at a noodle stand to wash it all down with Chinese green tea. Here, mealtimes are spent at tightly packed sidewalk stalls sitting on tiny pastel colored plastic furniture I would normally think is built for children. After downing my third cup of tea, I took my secondary wad of cash out from my chest pocket (I’ve started keep my large and small denominations separate – it helps my bargaining power in getting change when I need it (It can be terribly difficult to have change made, so I keep my sanity by making a game of it)), but the sweet guys there refused any payment. Again, I’m having a hard time getting people to take my money – though the reasons this time are infinitely more pleasant.
I then proceeded to play a game; let’s call it hot & cold charades. I would stop someone on the street with a friendly “Mingalaba”, take off my hat, pantomime cutting my hair with scissors, and point in a wild circle with a confused look on my face. After a few rounds of the game I found myself getting closer and closer until a group of gentlemen playing that popular sidewalk bottle cap game gestured for me to turn around, so that I could see the barbershop behind me. No longer coping with Nepal’s chills, it was time to kiss my beard goodbye, so I drew up an illustration of what I was hoping to accomplish and handed the sheet to the wild haired young Burmese barber. After double checking a couple of the finer points in my sketch, he then took electric trimmers to my face and glowing tufts of brown hair tumbled down to join the mess of black on the floor. Finished, I stood up and whipped out my money clip. Once more, a young man smiled and twisted an open palm in my direction. He wasn’t going to take my money either.
On a tip, I headed toward the Chinese temple by the river for sunset. I crossed the street and took a vantage point along a long gangplank leading to a pair of three storied commuter boats. The place was simply abuzz with activity: the city’s traders making their mass exodus back to their villages across and up the river. I hugged the rails of the causeway to stay out of the way of streams of shirtless and tattooed workers hustling huge loads of pineapples, coconuts, and everything else in large bundles upon their hunched shoulders. A thick layer of sweat made the lines of their sinewy muscles shine in the sinking sunlight. Below the causeway long motorboats rushed in to meet the long lines of commuters waiting at the river bank, to take them to the other side. Each motorboat was then tailed by a cloud of seagulls hoping to catch prawn chips and rice puff from villagers enjoying late afternoon snacks.
I decided to hop onto one of the larger cruisers to try a different perspective from the top decks, but just getting there proved to be a journey. Every floor was so packed with people, goods, and livestock, every few meters of progress was a separate gauntlet to navigate and the very air was thicker with humidity than outside the boat. The bustle outside couldn’t nearly match the clamor inside with tired traders noisily vying for comfortable and disappearing real estate and hawkers of every sort weaved through the crowds with nasally pitches hoping to make the day’s next sale. I only added to the spectacle and was greeted with much amusement and perhaps a little annoyance for my trying to navigate the throng of their daily commute. I got off the boat just as the deckhands were untying the mooring cables for departure, and then the sun was nearly at its climax. Very soon, the whole world was depicted in graceful black silhouettes basking in a golden solar luminescence, textured with the smoke of motors and the white ripples of the river. It was wonderful as I stood on the bank delighting in the beautiful minutiae of other peoples’ lives, and I kept my finger hot on the shutter button the whole time.