Hope For the Guest

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after?


March 2016

The Greener Fields

“Kumar, it is good to meet you” He said as he held my hand gently and smiled into my eyes. It was cold and the ground was wet from an earlier rain. The world was bustling with faces asking if I needed a taxi. I made Kumar as a friend with the simplest of human abilities, I smiled and spoke honestly. People seem to see inside me, faking respect or calmness never seems to work like being them works on the world around me. I had already seen worlds of chaos and dirty feet, months of discomfort and rancid smells. New friends have become a matter of proximity, people like certain things and even some of the more ruthless tuk tuk drivers will pause in their rush to make a buck if you show them you’re actually looking at them, not just the idea of them you’re making up.

Meanwhile back in the western world a light turns green and all the cars begin to move only once it is fully green, the red light stopped all of them just as definitely. People move about in very important little routines, faces glued to their screens and minds somewhere off in the ether trying to keep up with the constant swimming in a very shallow sea. People say “Ah poor kids in China, It must suck not to have what I have”.

Somewhere a ways off the taxi driver says “8 thousand” knowing that this price is double the regular price but he only knows that this western face was handed everything on a silver platter in a country with all you can eat french fries. Later that night he walks away from a group that wouldn’t take the double priced taxi ride. ‘These greedy westerners’ he thinks, he doesn’t understand how someone with so much could be so stingy. ‘Don’t they know that I would kill for what they have? Don’t they know that one day of their work would pay me for a month?’.

In the other place a couple lock their bikes up outside a coffee shop and go in for a ten dollar latte. They’ve been enjoying the misty early morning riding through the quiet streets of the city-suburb town. Its the only morning each week that they get to spend together, they wish that they could be together more but forty to sixty hours stands between them. They look forward to retirement so they can enjoy more mornings together.

While I’ve been traveling I’ve seen so many people obsessed with the desire to be Someone else doing Something else. Dark skinned people want to have light skin and light skinned people want to have dark skin. A tourist who left home with an intense frustration from the meaningless feeling their work gives them meets a young man supporting his family of six who dreams of making it past his hand-to-mouth life.
They both might think they want what the other has, they both might never have what they want. There are a million good lives to live but still each person dreams of the one they aren’t living.

I think many people spend years and lives with goals so unreachable that they never get a chance to see how equally hollow what they dream of is. Some people reach these goals and then find that their goals expand. People fight over who’s dream is better for everyone and many people devalue their gifts because they aren’t what they wrote off to Santa about. It seems to me that there are two choices, to love what I have or to get what I love but the process of achieving my goals sucks if I don’t love the journey. In reaching my goal I may only find that goal was traded for years of misery. And what is worse I may not have a thankful bone in my body to enjoy the dream once I’m finally asleep.

Trained to be American

I woke up, pulled on my pack, and was in a taxi to the airport in minutes of opening my eyes. I had woken up before my alarm, I usually do these days. Hardly any of the little things that used to ruffled my feathers do anymore. Six full months of diving into the unknown everyday has had an effect on me. My mind fights back, it tries to be on time and organize my surroundings into orderly boxes like it was back home but it never really works. Its just an old habit, its about as much use as picking up bricks as souvenirs.

The other day I was stuck for ten hours in the middle of a bus journey, it was suppose to take 17 hours total and instead it took 34. I asked “how long until we arrive?” so many times, no one knew the answer and no one seemed to think it was an appropriate question. I’ve ever heard that people in Myanmar see it as bad luck to ask how long the journey will take. Over time I asked less, it started to dawn on me that it didn’t matter and the mindset that needing to know came from doesn’t even support me in the US. No one knows the future, every time our guess is wrong we get upset and ask for compensation. In Myanmar no one seems to care if their bus journey takes two days instead of one, they just curl up where they can for a nap if they get tired. I look at all the signs of a different way of seeing the world as an alien must look at a new world. I have the suspicion that it is very different but everything I see is judged on learned patterns of behavior.

The other day on the plane I had a little girl digging her feet into the back of my seat. My first reaction was to get upset for her disturbing me, but then I realized that there was nothing negative about what she was doing. It didn’t hurt, it wasn’t uncomfortable, it actually almost felt like a massage but still something in my training told me that it was against my social customs so it was rude. I tried the whole plane ride to see it differently. She wasn’t trying to hurt me and the idea of disturbing another person without causing them any real physical discomfort seems to be less or lacking in the Asian countries I’ve been to. If I am in the way and someone needs to get past me they will usually push me aside or just push past me, not in a rough way, they just don’t seem to feel a need to apologize for entering my version of personal space.
I shook hands with a village elder the other day and I noticed that a handshake is very different here, the act of sharing touch with another human being seems to have similar meaning but it feels more free to enjoy it in most of the places I’ve been. Men will hold their hands together while smiling or continuing to greet each other, its not the firm quick kind of custom that it is in the US. Men feel comfortable touching other men gently. There isn’t the strange aversion to what seems to be seen as non-masculine types of touch. I quite like it, handshakes in the US don’t make me feel the kind of connection that they can here.

Even after six months I can barely take a step back to see my cultural training for what it is. I wonder how long it takes to learn to be a different way from the way I’ve always known. When I arrive home in two months I will have spent almost a year abroad out of nearly twenty-three. This is all, the rest of my life was spent on the west coast of the United States.

I needed six months to even start to see the way I am as a type of training.

Journeys in Myanmar

My alarm went off at 2:50am, I promised that I was going to meet the moto-taxi driver in front of my hotel in a few minutes. My mind wasn’t groggy like it usually is waking up before any reasonable human being gets out of bed. In my strange clarity I realized something ‘This is stupid, I’ll pay him and go back to sleep’. The night before I had learned that the train up north would leave at 4am so I asked one of the taxi drivers outside to meet me at 3am. “You promise?” the driver had asked several times, it seemed like he had been screwed over by tourists a few too many times.
However when I did more research I found that all the sources of information said the train was leaving at different times, the most common time was around noon and the least common was 4am. I realized this and went out to tell the driver but he was already gone. I could have not shown up, I could have just kept sleeping, but I don’t like how tourists give themselves a bad name just like that. Just the day before I was hearing about how the Myanmar government wasn’t allowing people to be on the temples at Bagan because a video of some tourists drinking and striping on one of the temples went viral. That kind of thing is a huge shame, because of that group of tourists all other people visiting Bagan will be allowed less freedom to experience the site.

I decided I wouldn’t make that driver think even worse of tourists, I would go to the train station at 3am anyways. For some reason this made sense to me before going to sleep but when I woke up it seemed crazy. I went downstairs at 3am, paid the driver for his trouble and went back to sleep. Later one of the hotel employees told me the train would leave at noon. I got a moto-taxi to the station but the train was suppose to leave at 4pm.
I got a bite to eat and waited for 4pm to roll around. It finally came but the train didn’t leave until 6:30pm. I was already about to lose my mind when the train finally began its lurching journey north.

Hours later I was surrounded by drunk policeman and soldiers who kept trying to hand me frothy white liquid in used water bottles they called “beer”. It didn’t look great but then they shoved a plastic bag full of some kind of cooked winged creature. “Bat” the self appointed translator policeman said. Now I had to try bat, and if I were to try the bat I better take a swig of the “beer”. It just seemed wrong to ignore their pairing of the two, it would be like eating the wrong cheese with a glass of wine. Or it would be like that if the wine was homemade and the cheese was a flying rat.
“Oh very good, thank you” I said as my internal voice was gagging. The bat was tough and terrible tasting, the “Beer” tasted rotten. They assumed I would love both and then instantly become a part of their drinking party so when I refused all other food and drugs they tried to give me they did appear somewhat perplexed.

The drinking had finally turned the soldiers and policeman into incredibly wiggly, rag doll sleepers. The one on the seat in front of me was probably getting sever spinal damage as the train bounced him up and down. Everything smelled like the awful “beer”. The policeman that had fed me the bat came over and handed me his hat. “Gift for you” he said. I was confused but I took the gift. I wore it so he could take a picture of me but it felt wrong to wear someone else’s uniform so I stowed the hat in my backpack. I had a sneaking suspicion that this policeman was going to get a talking to by his superiors after arriving back at the station. He then curled up on the floor cuddling a little boy like a teddy bear. I fell asleep sitting with my legs tucked up to my chest, it was understandably uncomfortable though and the lady next to me seemed like she was uncomfortable sleeping with only half the bench. I saw a space just my size on the floor so I tucked myself in between baskets of tomatoes and the sleeping policeman for a few hours of bone jarring rest.

“Be here by 5 or 5:30am” I was told two days later after a stop in Naba, my hip was still bruised from sleeping on the last train.
The train left at 9am. And naturally my western mind took “5 or 5:30am” to mean be there by 5 just in case. I have come to think of most of my preferences or ways of thinking as a factor of being raised in the US. Often they make my life harder than it has to be here in Asia. I think I’m in one world but I’m actually in another. Its like I’m from the moon but when I’m on earth I expect to jump just as high, its my expectation that makes it hard for me. In reality there are many intelligent and efficient ways of doing things here in Asia that only look bizarre because I don’t understand them from the minds that created those systems.

A few days later I was getting on a bus back to Mandalay from the farthest north that foreigners are allowed without a special permit. I had been told by three or four people that the bus ride was 9 or 10 hours. That sounded great to me since taking the train would take 30 hours. “We’ll arrive tomorrow morning.”one of my fellow bus-riders told me. The bus was scheduled to leave at 10am. “Oh okay, thats good” I said as my heart sank deep into my stomach. I wasn’t feeling very excited for a 10 hour bus ride but this news caused silent panic. I just didn’t feel up to it. “seat 43” I said when the guy next to me asked. “haha thats the back row.” He said. Now I was angry, I picked the bus because it would be more comfortable than the train. I knew that I didn’t have any right to be angry, but I was angrier still when I realized that my seat was not only in the back row but it was the middle seat. I was sitting in the middle of 4 other people. It is the worst seat, I don’t normally feel sad or depressed from things like this but for some reason this really lowered my mood.

10 hours later I was being elbowed on both sides while trying not to breathe because of the smell of shit or vomit. I had to brace myself with both feet just to stay in my seat.
I and everyone in the backseats had been launched into the air many times in the past hours. I almost hit the ceiling nearly 2 feet above my head.
Sleep was out of the question, if I fell asleep I would definitely be thrown down the isle where there were several plastic bags full of vomit sliding back and fourth on the floor.
I don’t know why but people puke on pretty much every bus in Myanmar, they had already handed out bags 3 or 4 times because the bags before were used.
I cringed as the guy next to me puked again. I thought horribly about how I had accepted some finger food he had offered me earlier. I don’t know where the smell of shit came from but it was continually wafting around.
The lady next to me had no sense of personal space, she couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes before she would shift around elbowing me and generally waging war with my bubble of space. The guy on my other side kept falling asleep and through unconsciousness he was waging his own little war. At one point he fell asleep in a way that made his hard knee caps slam into my arm over and over. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m now bruised.
I wasn’t very happy with the situation.

Eventually I reached a state of calm.
My music player had died hours before so I tried to hear the last song I was listening to in my mind. I still wasn’t happy when the lady next to me would wake up and elbow me a few more times before falling back to sleep and I was starting to freeze from the air conditioning but my mind wasn’t quite as cluttered. One of the worst parts of the journey wasn’t the external parts but it was battling with my negative thoughts. I was in such a bad mood that everything in my mind was stuck in negative loops. I got a headache from the stress of dealing with my mind. The calm helped the headache go away and by the time I arrived in Mandalay at 4am I felt okay, not great, but I felt better mentally than I did when I first left.

In the last week I have spent almost 60 hours in trains or buses.

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