On the Streets of Mandalay
Street scene by Bradford Duplisea
Street scene by Bradford Duplisea
It was a balmy night in Mandalay. (Sometimes it’s hard to avoid clichés, especially when writing about exotic tropical locales that evoke nostalgia.) We were waiting outside our pleasant boutique hotel for our taxi (summoned by the front desk) to take us to a classical Burmese music and dance performance, when a pickup truck pulled up. The driver released the tailgate and looked at us expectantly.
“We’re waiting for a taxi,” I explained.
The driver nodded. “Taxi,” he said, motioning for us to climb onto the cargo bed. We had seen our share of Asian pickup trucks being used as passenger transport vehicles, but they invariably have benches for seating, however rudimentary. Since it did not look like it would be that simple to order a replacement cab that would be any improvement, and curtain time was approaching, we clambered aboard and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the bare metal floor. Fortunately, the ride was short, albeit rather bumpy on the city’s less than smoothly paved streets.
We were greeted warmly by the theatre manager and invited backstage to check out the costumes up close and observe the performers as they put on their make-up. There were only four people in the entire audience (including us); still, the dancers and musicians gave it their all through the unabridged, colorful performance.
The evening was still young, and the weather still pleasant, when the show let out. Perhaps because we represented half the audience, the theater manager escorted us out to the street, where we told him we planned to walk back to our hotel. He shook his head: “I would not recommend it,” he said. He declined to elaborate, but continued to insist we let him order us a taxi.
“At least, get us a bicycle rickshaw,” we suggested, not wanting to repeat our previous experience on the naked, slatted metal of a pickup truck.
It did not take long for a bicycle to appear from around the corner. A thin young man dismounted with alacrity; smiling, he greeted us politely. We shook hands and examined the contraption he rode in on: instead of the expected rear passenger seat, there was a side basket that looked more suited for carrying groceries than people. We wedged ourselves back-to-back into narrow brackets: I was next to the driver facing forward, my fiancee facing backwards.
It seemed doubtful our skinny driver would be able to transport his load of two hefty Westerners, but he had no trouble pedaling the three of us down the flat streets. In fact, he had enough energy to start talking.
“This is my lucky day,” he said, the happiness evident in his voice. I was surprised at the level of English proficiency displayed by this simple rickshaw driver.
“I haven’t had any passengers all day,” he continued.
It was after 9.30 p.m. I wondered how long he had been working that day. Did other rickshaw drivers frequently find themselves in this unfortunate situation?
“I was hoping I would still find a passenger. Now I can get some food to eat.”
This stunned us into silence.
“So, this is my lucky day,” he repeated, pedaling vigorously.
“That makes us very happy,” I managed to reply.
We arrived back at our hotel and dismounted. We added a tip that doubled the fare, but still seemed ridiculously low. We shook hands again and took photos that celebrated our meeting. I wished it had been appropriate to give him a hug. His cheery disposition, in spite of the obvious hardships he has to contend with, was both astounding and inspiring.
We were to discover that the genuine warmth of our new young friend was quite typical of the long-suffering residents of this beleaguered country. Taking simple conveyances like the bicycle rickshaw and long-distance buses gave us the opportunities for these remarkable encounters.
Once, on our long trip back to the capital city of Yangon, we stopped for a dinner break at a new rest stop. With only two buses in the spacious unpaved parking lot, we were sure we would find our coach after dinner and headed off to another adventure in eating from a menu written entirely in Burmese.
Before sitting down, we went to wash our hands at a row of gleaming new porcelain sinks lined up outdoors. My fiancee paused as she pondered whether or not to use the water to also brush her teeth. Noticing her hesitation, a little girl beckoned her over to the sink — and proceeded to demonstrate how to turn on the tap.
We played it safe at dinner, eating vegetarian noodle soup, and returned to the parking area. Imagine our surprise when we suddenly beheld no fewer than six or seven identical buses, none of which bore any familiar markings or a single letter in a Western language.
We slowly made our way along the row of buses and narrowed down our choice. We were about to board when we noticed several people gesticulating to us frantically. One of them approached and motioned me to come with him. We — and a few other interested onlookers — followed him around to the bus on the immediate left, where he pointed emphatically. As soon as we’d climbed aboard we knew this was the right bus — and our fellow passengers affirmed this with nods and wide smiles. Not a word had been spoken, but our community of caring travelers had watched over us and made sure we were not stranded.
Many people debate the morality of visiting Myanmar and thus indirectly supporting the oppressive totalitarian regime, even as it appears to be inching towards democracy. I admit to having occasional qualms myself. Then I think of the charming, long-suffering Burmese people from whom we bought meals and souvenirs — and especially one undaunted, hard-working young man whom I was privileged to save from gnawing hunger one evening — and I know that spending a week with the residents of Yangon, Mandalay and Pagan was a never-ending lesson in the resiliency of the human spirit.
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