There is no place for me but Bago, once one of the most important cities in Burma, now a forgotten stop on Myanmar’s line to Mandalay. I wait each day at Bago Station. There are trains arriving from Yangon every morning and early afternoon. Occasionally, tourists ride the open-air train with the workers. It is cheap (only one US dollar), instead of the bus (for two people it is three-hundred kyat), or the taxi (forty to fifty dollars). They arrive full of train dust, determined to view our great Buddhas and holy altars, to inhale the incense, the cumin and coriander, to lose themselves in the rumble of trucks traveling Bago night and day, making sleep almost impossible.
This morning two persons arrived: a man much older than myself (I am thirty, although some say I look thirteen. It is the rice that does it, a single bowl each morning, like the monks in our monastery on the hill), and an old woman. The man, very white and somewhat weak looking, helped the old woman from the train as if she were parchment and could crack if she did not step carefully. The train steps are steep. Sometimes they are missing altogether and the passengers must leap from the train, throwing their baggage before them.
The train from Yangon to Bago was late this morning. Engine trouble, they said. This is not unusual. The train from Yangon is often late. I wait and wait until dark. Sometimes it does not arrive at all and I am left to bicycle home in the blackness. This is treacherous as the roads are rough; pot holes the size of graves waiting to catch you. I have fallen into several of these, bruising arms and legs, wrecking my bike, which, fortunately, my friend Tan could repair. My second wife bathed my bruises while our baby sloshed in the bath water. “Get another job,” she scolded. “This one is too dangerous.”
“What other job? There is no job but Bago Station.” She knows this as well as I. Tourists are our only income unless we become rice farmers, burning the fields before new planting, our faces black with soot. I tried that when I was younger. She did not like that either. The soot was difficult to wash. I remained black until burning season was over.
My two tourists seem confused. Tourists always look confused. There are no signs telling them which way the great Buddhas lie, or the Rough & Ready hotel, or a toilet to relieve themselves.
I approach, smiling my best smile. “Let me help you. I have lived here all my life.”
“Where is the ticket window?” the man asks, wiping the dust from his oversized sunglasses. “We need to book a train back to Yangon this evening.”
I lead them to the ticket office. It is a cubicle hidden near the back of the train station. The clerk is nowhere in sight. “He must be at lunch. Sit, he will soon be here.” But, of course, there is no place to sit, so they stand, leaning against the doorjamb to rest. Finally, he comes, sipping tea from a thermos.
“Passports?” He swallows slowly, seating himself behind his cluttered desk.
My tourist unfolds them from a money belt hidden beneath his shirt. “Train to Yangon tonight?”
“All booked,” the clerk answers, rubbing his belly, which overlaps his belt. “There might be a bus.”
“Where is the bus depot?” The old lady looks flustered, as if this could not be happening.
“That way.” He points outside.
“Do you have a map?”
The clerk smiles, waving his hand and, chattering in Burmese, addresses the next person in line. My tourists start to walk, probably thinking they can walk everywhere in Bago. They have no idea of the breadth of this city, how the Buddhas are at opposite ends. It would take a week or more to walk to them all.
I take advantage of the situation. “Come. I will guide you to the bus depot.”
The bus depot is almost impossible to find, as it is not really a depot but part of a coffee shop. Feng runs it. She has the schedule. She knows when the last bus to Yangon will arrive. “Five p.m.,” she says. “Be here. The bus will not wait.”
It is now two in the afternoon. My tourists are gray with train dust and tired. “Come, I will show you the Buddhas.”
They hesitate. “Can we walk there?”
“It is too far. I have a friend who will take us. Four passenger bus, very comfortable.”
“What is the price?” The man fumbles beneath his shirt.
I knew he would ask that. They always do. It is often the first thing from their mouths. They are afraid we will cheat them. But that is not my custom. I want only what is fair. “Twenty-five kyat,” I bargain.
“Twenty,” he says.
“Twenty-five,” I repeat, thinking if I say it often enough he’ll give in.
“Twenty two,” he answers firmly.
I agree, tired of repeating myself, but also because I notice two other guides waiting to steal my tourists from me.
My friend, Tan, waits with his tuk-tuk parked in back of the coffee shop. “This is Tan. He will drive us to all the Buddhas.”
“We must be back by five.” The old lady looks a bit jittery.
“You will be. I promise.”
I help them into the tuk-tuk. It is not easy, as the steps are loose and the seat boards rickety. The old lady hits her head on the metal rods upholding the cardboard roof.
“I thought you had a van.” She rubs the sore spot on her head.
“This is a van,” I shout as Tan revs his motorbike.
The tuk-tuk rocks forward, shooting the old woman across the aisle. Her son catches her.
“We could use some seat belts,” she mumbles.
“Yes, I have ordered some from Amazon. They will arrive any day now.” I laugh, knowing this is impossible. There is no such service in Bago. Very few have computers. I am hoping to buy one secondhand from one of the monks at the monastery on the hill. The monks have all the money, exacting a price for their prayers. I am sending my oldest son to the monastery, as I can no longer afford to send him to school. He will learn to be a monk, to beg for donations, to chant prayers at certain hours, to obey orders. This last will be difficult for him, as he runs from me whenever I catch him stealing mangoes from our neighbor’s garden. Our neighbor sells them in town, so it is not right that my son should steal them.
Tan steers through the vendors selling fruit and fish, chicken and beef, all the foodstuffs that I cannot afford. Flies settle on the chicken, making a home on the gizzards. The smell of overripe bananas overcomes the old lady. She presses a tissue to her nose as if to ward off some disease. I love the perfume of overripe fruit. It is a reminder of plenty.
We approach the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. It is often referred to as the Golden God Temple. It is the tallest pagoda in Myanmar. I help my old lady from the tuk-tuk. She stumbles, gawking at the Golden God.
“”Steady.” I take her elbow.
A government official approaches. “Ten-dollar entrance.” He holds up Lonely Planet to prove the entrance fee.
My tourists look surprised. Obviously they have never read this travel guide to Southeast Asia.
“Come.” Hurriedly, we reboard the tuk-tuk. I take them to the secondary entrance. “No fee here. Avoid passing the western gate.”
The old lady does not wish to take her shoes off. Perhaps her toes are crooked and she does not wish to show them.
“Mom,” her son says, “we have to take our shoes off. It is disrespectful not to.”
“I’m not taking them off. That’s final.” She starts to climb aboard the tuk-tuk. Tan rushes to help her. She smiles at him. He holds her hand longer than is necessary. It is Tan’s way. He drives quickly to the other pagodas, as time is growing short.
The Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha is my favorite. It is the second largest Buddha in the world. I could lie beside this Buddha all night. Secretly, I have done this, sneaking in after dark, spending the whole night pressed against its feet, kissing them, praying for my first wife’s happiness in the next life. Praying the dengue fever did not accompany her into the world she inhabits now. Praying she is relieved from all sickness, her beauty returned to her, the beauty she lost during the long fever. They could not attend to her at the hospital, as I had no kyat to pay for her care. She was placed on a cot in the corridor and left to die.
“It is four p.m. now,” I remind Tan. We have seen the Kyaikpun Pagoda as well, and the Maha Kalyani Sima, and the Mahazedi Pagoda, the Shwegugale Pagoda, and, finally, the Snake Pagoda, which my tourists loved because the entrance was free. “A bit like Disneyland,” the old lady blurts, her eyes glazed with pagodas.
I have seen this Disneyland on Feng’s TV when I wait for the bus to Yangon. It is true that our colors are bright like Mickey Mouse, the Seven Dwarfs, and Alice in her Wonderland. We take great care of our Buddhas, repainting them often, gilding the stupas, making certain the altars are swept clean. If we are careful of our holy sites in this world, we are promised a better life in the next.
Tan starts his motor. It catches, then stops. I help him give the bike a shove. “Get on,” I yell. “Once it gets going we can’t stop.“
But the old lady won’t get on. “Get a taxi. I’m not getting on that thing. I value my life.”
“You must get on,” Tan pleads. “It is the only way. No taxis out here.”
“C’mon, Mom, “ her son urges. “We’ll miss the bus.”
“I don’t want to die in that contraption,” she sobs.
Finally, we carry her on, seating her between us, holding her steady as Tan rocks the motorbike, trying to get it started. Ru—n-ru—n-ru—n. He sweats. Crowds gather, some laughing, some trying to help push the tuk-tuk over the ruts.
“They promised us a new road,” Tan calls back. “It is late in coming. Maybe never.”
We jolt forward and gradually begin to fly over the ruts as the crowd waves us on. Tan hoots as we speed toward the bus stop. Even the old lady has stopped complaining.
“The bus for Yangon left five minutes ago. It wouldn’t wait.” Feng sloshes some coffee cups in a pail of water. “Take them to the Rough & Ready. Ask for a room in back. The old lady needs some sleep.”
About the Author
Elaine Barnard’s stories have won awards and been published in such journals as Pearl, Southword, Timber Creek Review, Apple Valley Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Anak Sastra, Lowestoft Chronicle, and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.