Betelnut, Onions, Babies and Me

“Is it true that you’re stuffed into public transport with too many people, chickens and babies in your lap?  Just like you see in the movies?” my Dad asked.

No, it’s not true.  But only because stuffed implies that you are the last thing to be wedged into a ramshackle Korean minibus – which looks like it was donated in 1922 by a bankrupt toy maker – with an entire village of Burmese, including farm animals, produce, used car parts and an entire warehouse of Lactosoy milk boxes.

No, in Burma, backpackers are never lucky enough to be stuffed into the seat for which they have paid three-times the “local rate”.   Instead, we – with our Anglicized addiction to queuing up early – are unfortunate enough to be always braced underneath the chickens, puking toddlers and other chain-smoking passengers.  Because the country’s market for independent travelers is still relatively small, there do not exist those modern, well-kept bus companies one finds elsewhere in Southeast Asia.  For most routes, your over-priced ticket is simply covering the costs of the 21 natives who will ride with you.

The route from Meiktila to Kalaw is marked in blue.

Let me give you my favorite example. 

Route: Meiktila, Mandalay Division to Kalaw, Shan State.

Approx. 200 ks/60 miles; 6-10 hours, depending on whom you’ve asked.

Naturally, I arrive with my companions – the Kiwis, Hadyn and Marcus – at the bus station exceedingly early.  Of course, the wily driver swears we are running late.  “The last minibus leaves right now,” he argues us into purchasing three seats.  I save these giraffe-height gents two middle seats; being short-legged, I clamber over 4 other passengers into the non-reclining back seat.  No one else gets in the bus – which does not depart – for another 20 minutes.  “This is great,” I shout up to the boys, “I can actually stretch myself out for once!”

Famous last words.

As soon as the vehicle actually motors out of the station, our trip becomes a children’s counting song.  “One human, two human, three human packing peanuts….”, adding and adding until I can guarantee we broke several laws of physics.  Even though I’m relocated to a temporary wooden seat in the isle, the van is so over-engaged with baggage and passengers, I’m surprised no one died of suffocation.

In the back (Row 6): Four fully grown adult males + one female; they spend half the trip with arguing with loud words, because they are too compacted to move their hands.  At one stop, someone attempts to crawl out of the window in evacuation.

In Row 5: An uncomfortable family reunion; auntie, mother and father, with a cheerful toddler and a miserable baby.  Grandma repeatedly shushes the newborn screaming behind my head, to no avail.  The father  falls asleep with his head – leaned forward – on my own shoulder. Cramped even more uncomfortably next to them = two tall Americans with regret written all over their pale faces.

In Row 4: Hadyn and Marcus in the double seat, me perched half onto an unyielding overflow chair and half onto a giant bag of onions.  One leg is jammed under Marcus, the other bent up to my neck.  Two other teen girls share the remaining one chair to my left, where their floor space is already taken by empty jerry cans.

Also on top of the vegetables: Two wizened grandmothers, towels wrapped around their heads, who light up cheroots and proceed to blow ash all over our clothing.  Plus a bag of potatoes, and the driver’s assistant.  Realizing the futility of the situation, he spends most of the ride leaning out the open door and trying not to tumble out on steep curves.

In Row 3: A man of questionable character with abnormally long fingernails, ponytail, and horrible addiction to betelnut.  He spits this gross red chewing snuff out the window – and unintentionally, back onto our laps.  Compulsively turning around every 20 minutes, he grins decaying teeth at us as if to say “Isn’t this grand fun?”  I feel bad for the middle-aged woman and another matronly octogenarian next to him.

In Row 2: A very quiet trio- two older women and a young child.  And, when we become truly crowded, whomever else will fit.

In the passenger’s seat (Row 1):  A monk who, out of traditional respect, is given a wide berth.  Sacrilegiously complaining “Buddha would have squished in with us,” I laugh righteously when two more women are (finally) placed up front with him, and their market shopping bags.

That’s right, 35 people in the space for 21!  At no point in any other dimension would this be safe, especially as we  switch-backed on gravel roads WHILE workers hand-tarred them!  Gasoline tankers PASSED us! No roosters this time, but we’ve been in that one, too…

Not the minibus to Kalaw, but just as crowded... at least 40+ people are seated in the back of this work truck to Nwa Le Bo pagoda. The vehicle's original carrying capacity? 15.

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