Sometimes I think I travel too much. This year I’ve spent only 50 nights at home. The world as I experience it is easily understood and not that difficult to navigate. For us globalised souls, our differences aren’t that great and nowhere in this interconnected world is truly foreign.
That is what I thought, anyway, until I went motorbiking in Myanmar – no internet, barely any electricity – and lay in cold huts at night, buzzing with a sense of wonder, the emotion thrilling for its own sake, but also because I thought somewhere along the line I’d made some wordless deal and sacrificed wonder for experience.
In New York in September I met my English friend Florian for lunch at a nice Italian place in Brooklyn. Lunch went well, the wine flowed and by 3pm we had made a fairly mad plan to meet later that year in the remote Shan state to ride through the hills. The next thing you know it’s late November and, after a flight from Delhi to Mandalay and five-hour drive on narrow roads, congested with lorries coming in from China, I met Florian on the second floor of a less glamorous cafe, the sort where you spit on the floor or ash your cigarette in the food. We were served rice and beers by a tough looking seven-year-old, who in between collecting bottles sat in a corner and played Justin Bieber videos on his phone.
I have a fear of riding on motorbikes, assuming that I will probably die if I get on one. Even short trips on the back scare me. Only days before, a rickshaw driver in Delhi had pulled over to the side of the road and inexplicably demanded that I drive the rickshaw down the two-lane highway. Which, to be polite, I actually did.
I wasn’t driving this time. Florian got two local guides and myself and his friend Katharine rode pillion. On that first day we rode for around six hours, stopping in villages along the way for powered milk coffee, or the local speciality, Shan noodles, thin noodles in a fragrant, almost clear lemongrass broth.
They said it had been four years since any Europeans had been to the village
Even at the lower foothills there was a feeling, as we turned corners, of vertiginous, killer drops. We passed shady glades and dense jungle – the green deepening or lightening depending on the sun. Shadows of eagles moved across the sandstone cliffs and the sky was bright blue. If anything the mountains there reminded me of the sea – wave upon waves of mountains, up and down. Riding through them on the motorbike felt like being out of the back behind a set of waves, on a surfboard, being gently risen and dropped by some natural force.
The road changed constantly, demanding focus and attention. It was paved for a bit then we’d hit rocks and rubble, goat tracks where the tyres of the Kenbo bikes could barely fit. We rolled along the verge – the drop down was so immense that the guide begged me not to move an inch, lest we plunge to our deaths. At one point we passed a road gang, young Burmese women and men – mostly in their late teens or early 20s – in the sun making the road, chipping bits of stone with primitive looking tools. Earning around $100 a month, the workers lived in roving camps – tarps set high up on the road, facing these million-dollar views. That day, indeed the whole trip, we passed very few other cars, except ominously two ambulances, crawling up a pass, and saw no other foreigners.
At night we stopped in a village of maybe 50 houses. They said it had been four years since any Europeans had been to the village – locals looked at us curiously, children hid behind their mothers’ skirts. We were the guests of a man we called Uncle, who spoke limited English but seemed to just like our company, eating with us and smiling as we talked at a clip. Uncle’s house doubled as a surgery and we were to sleep in sleeping bags and mats above the shop next door. Florian was given the fluffier mattress at the head of a neon Buddha shrine and the next morning householders positioned themselves around our snoozing bodies and prayed.
At night up this high it was freezing and we shivered in our hats, stockings and layers of jumpers. We opened a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and sat down with uncle and some of his five daughters, a couple of his friends and neighbours. The whisky was drunk, rice wine was called for, we downed warm Myanmar beers and ate rice, egg, mustard greens and tinned beef and talked into the night.
Uncle was a widower, his wife a victim of the country’s deeply inadequate health care. She died 10 years ago after a backyard abortion gone wrong. Uncle was a doctor trained by the army and his house was full of dusty boxes of syringes and medical supplies – scissors, tweezers, bandages and creams.
“He pulls bullets out of soldiers,” said our guide. Only the year before it was unadvisable to visit this village due to fighting in the area between the frontier town and here. But peace, or a sort of peace, has returned to the area.
Florian and I had talked at length about the Rohingya and what was going on in that part of Myanmar. But, in this village, at the opposite end of the country, the talk around the charcoal fire was of their own war. One of the young men around the fire was a soldier for the rebel army. The TNLA and was tasked with radioing the rebels’ base to say who was coming in and out of the village.
Later that night, looking out the window across the deep, deep valleys and those rolling peaks, our driver saw an explosion. Bombs going off in the hills, he said, but nothing more was mentioned of it. All I saw outside was an immense spray of stars and heard nothing but the silence and the far off rev of a motorbike. It was divine.
On the second day in Uncle’s village we were invited to a wedding. We’d spent the morning swimming in a river and arrived to the wedding party in our dusty clothes and dirty feet. We fretted about our outfits. They were borderline insulting. We took the main table in the bride’s parent’s house and were served rice and mustard greens and tofu by the bride who didn’t seem at all perturbed to have her wedding day crashed by pale strangers. All around us were older women dressed in the deep blue of their tribe.
But some things don’t change from culture to culture, country to country. The groom, 32, looked like he was about to throw up from nerves. He was pale and grave in his black suit and white shirt and the colour only returned to his face when it was over. The bride, 24, covered her mouth when she smiled. They exchanged their vows kneeling before us. Us Anglos (the village by now had dubbed us the “Anglo Three”) were hushed and reverent. The bride and groom and the Anglo Three posed for official wedding photos on the road, all of us barefoot, the Anglos scruffy and the bride and groom starched, young and beautiful.