Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Udon: Ahoy!

“Wee-I-Pee”, I say, enunciating each syllable with care. I fork over my 80 baht ($2) and get on the bus back home. I almost missed it, I thought. Carefully dodging the women who’d boarded to sell roasted chickens, I look for a seat. Only one available, next to a young woman, dressed neatly for a Sunday. I lean into the seat and sit down, taking notice of her outfit. Black slacks, formal shoes, and a red blouse. Across her chest, written in large black letters, “Life Ain’t Nothin’ But Bitches and Money.”

Stifling a laugh, I pull the blanket over me. Thais don’t mess around with the air conditioning. I’m not sure yet which is worse- freezing or burning my balls off, but for two years I’ve been periodically rotating between the two and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to have children. There was already a movie in progress, which is great because I haven’t seen a Jackie Chan movie in at least a few days.

Interesting, this movie is an actual Thai movie, so I don’t have to listen to awkward voice-overs. And it’s apparently about pirates, which is so wildly original I barely notice that the ticket-taker has made his way back to my seat.

Getting the bus to stop at my house is always difficult, because the drivers rarely know where my village is. So I have a prepared statement explaining exactly at which gas station to stop the bus, before what major stop, how many kilometers, etc. I’ve said it roughly two million times in the past two years, but it hasn’t gotten much easier. The first go-around, the ticket-taker will stare at me, puzzled that I’m speaking Thai, and forget to actually listen to anything I was saying. Which is reflective of my life, actually. Probably 80% of my first words to people are followed by, “What?”

“Where are you getting off?” he asks the woman sitting next to me. “Kao-Sang-Kwan”, she answers. The town next to mine. “Where is your husband’s ticket?” he asks. This is exactly why I don’t sit next to women on buses. Heaven forbid a white man travel alone in this country. “I’m going to Nam Phong,” I said as she blushes. “Alone”. “And I need to get off at blah, blah, blah.” He grunts and turns his back to take more tickets.

Udon is a city known for it’s falang population. It used to be an American Air Force base and still sports relics of the Vietnam War: fighter jets, VOA, and old, bald men with wives doubling as granddaughters. This very day, I had eaten lunch at a restaurant while a man with a tattoo of a lawnmower on his bald-spot stood reading an advertisement for an all-natural alternative to Viagra.

Sure enough, the ticket-taker turns to another falang, and having learnt his lesson, asks his young Thai wife where she and her husband are going. She gives him both their tickets and the ticket-taker moves on, having proved, as if it needed proving, that I am an idiot.

The audio/visual systems put in these buses are amazing. You will watch and listen to the movie playing, whether you like it or not. No conversations, no sleeping, nothing except you appreciating exactly how powerful these speakers kick. I imagine the driver and his rig are big hits in the local high school parking lot.

When Joe McGinn visited last year, he was impressed with Thais for putting up with this. Thais like action and horror movies, so you’re either being woken up by machine-gun fire or by five year olds screaming in terror while people are mutilated with a chainsaw. And the Thais just sit there and take it, too respectful to get up and tell the driver, “Hey maybe 2am isn’t the best time to be showing a Steven Segal movie”. Then again, when is?

Today’s movie, like I said, is about pirates. English pirates, actually, who have mobilized the Chinese to enslave the Thais. And the main falang character is now molesting a 10 year old. So that’s just great. I look back to see what the other falang thinks of this, but he and his wife are busy miming at each other, and aren’t watching the movie.

At Kao-Sang-Kwan, the woman next to me gets off, and I stretch out a little. The movie concludes with the Thais on the island expelling the English pedophiles by firing homemade rockets at their ship. As the injured vessel sails off into the setting sun, the credits start to roll. And, holy shit, there goes my stop.

I run up to the front of the bus yelling at the driver to stop the bus. I look crossly at the ticket-taker sitting next to him, who evidently didn’t tell him someone was getting off there. He steps on the brakes, and while the bus gently rolls to a stop, I exit. Just as the doors are closing behind me, I hear the driver say to the ticket-taker, “He’s very talented, traveling without his wife like that.”

I adjust my backpack, switching the cat litter to my left hand, and with the sun at my back, begin my walk home.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: Myanmar 3

Part III: That Classic, Myanmar Hospitality

He walked briskly up to us as we exited a restaurant, on our way back to our guest house around 8pm, because 8pm is late in Myanmar. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye, but decided to ignore him until he made his move. He pulled something out of his pocket and raised his arm, demanding my full attention. Josh and I stopped in our tracks, our only two options being to turn and run or face the music. “Hello my friend! Yipee! Come to eat at Yipee Restaurant!”

With a seedy mustache, a fake leather jacket and a long skirt, Yipee looked half used-car salesman, half you-caught-me-in-the-shower. “Yipee is new restaurant. Foreign food, very good! Myanmar food! Very close. Nobody know about Yipee.” He handed us a pamphlet, and thanked us profusely for hearing his pitch. Then he excused himself, and got on the back of a bike a woman was riding, on the hunt, again. “We’re going to Yipee’s tomorrow,” Josh said.

We were at Inle Lake, where tourists are herded to view the immense natural beauty that Myanmar has to offer. In Laos and Thailand, avoiding the herd is the key to getting a realistic feel for the country. Locals used to strange tall white people tend stop being friendly. This time we didn’t expect to make many friends since we weren’t blazing any new trails; In Myanmar it’s illegal to stray from the beaten path.

Inle Lake is famous for its boat trips, where you can visit small communities living on the lake itself in houses built on stilts. Situated between two mountains, the lake is an absurdly beautiful place to be. I could imagine waking up, and stepping out onto my porch to view the sun rise over the mountains in the distance. As we passed a school on the way, kids hopped in a small canoe and rowed to their next class. “Probably not the best soccer team in the country,” Josh quipped.

The plan that day was to visit some of the small businesses on the lake: a cigar shop, a silk weaver, a blacksmith. Josh and I each had our own personal agendas, however. I wanted to see cats jump through hoops and Josh was on the lookout for the Long Necked Lady.

We pulled up to the shop, tied up the canoe and stepped onto the dock. “The Long Necked Lady,” said our captain. Josh had previously visited a refugee camp in Thailand featuring the women of a native Myanmar tribe whose females fashioned gold rings elongating their necks. Josh’s Thai friends demanded he return with pictures of the Long Necks. We had up to this point been operating under the assumption that unfamiliarity with plurality in the English language had caused our guides to advertise these women as just one, Long Necked Lady. Sometime during our trip Josh came upon the realization that the Myanmar gov’t may just have shipped in a tribeswoman from the Long Necks and put her up in Inle Lake as a tourist attraction. But we were wrong, they didn’t ship in one woman, they brought in three. As tourists came in and out snapping pictures of the three woman weaving, they explained the gold rings that defined them to the rest of the world. Josh’s Thai friends will not be disappointed.

Our last stop on the Lake Tour was a temple famous for having trained cats to jump through hoops. I’m a cat owner, and have to poke my cats periodically to check if they’re still alive. Usually they’ll growl at me in protest and then roll over and pass out again. So I’ve trained them to roll over, and hoops are a logical next step. As we circled around the trainer, a collection of cats sat around visibly hating life and ruing the next time it’ll be picked to perform. With a reward of fried fish, the trainer eventually coerced one into jumping through a hoop. We started our way back towards town already hungry, looking forward to seeing Yipee for dinner.

As we trolled back into town, we passed women and children bathing on their docks. We saw a collection of kids splashing water and playing around. They caught sight of us, and with huge smiles waved our way. They were standing over the water by about a foot, stretching out to make sure we waved back. As we passed them, we realized that supporting them, half-submerged in the lake, were water buffaloes.

Josh and I were continually surprised and overjoyed at the incredible hospitality and kindness of the Myanmar people we met. With their wide smiles and waving, you wouldn’t know that the People’s Desire was to crush and destroy outside influence. To us it really seemed that they were happy to have us there, and we were certainly happy to be there, in the strangest of all places to feel welcomed.

That night we kept our promise to eat at Yipee’s. As we passed the landmark he told us, it became dark and we were unable to locate ourselves on the crude map on his pamphlet. We turned down a dark alley, hoping to eventually run into Yipee and his restaurant. As soon as we turned our shoulders, though, a bike came screaming to a stop next to us. “No No No! Yipee’s is straight ahead. No turn!” Yipee and his guerilla marketing campaign well at work. He escorted us to his homey, small thatch restaurant where we ate in candle light. At the end of the meal, Yipee insisted we take a shot of moonshine with him. “To Yipee!” Josh and I toasted. “My name is Mutuur,” he said. “Yipee is the restaurant. Yipee means happy. Very happy! Happy to have you!”