The Road to Mandalay

The path back through time
The path back through time


“We’re not lost,” Seinn smiled at us from the front seat of the SUV. “There’s some construction, so we have to take this ro—” a huge crater slammed the front wheel down to the substrata of the earth’s crust and tossed Seinn from her seat and into the troposphere. She landed with a hopeless thud. “This road,” she sighed, and put on her seatbelt.


The driver turned and hocked a Betel-leaf loogie out the window and into the scorching dust of Myanmar.


Lost or unlost—I didn’t care; I was gawk-eyed and shutter clicks from the back seat. “This road,” I mumbled to myself, “is the path back through the reaches of time, far back into pulse of the British eastward fetish, to the seat of colonial Orientalism, to the heartbeat and the culmination of all things exotic.


“This is the road to Mandalay.”


“Why do you keep mumbling over there?”  That was Andy.  She didn’t get it.


She didn’t get that this name and this legacy are etched so deeply onto the cultural subconscious of the West that we’ve taken to naming Vegas mega-casinos after its opulence. Mandalay—it captures in a breath the rich folds of exotic promise: the spices, the mingling races, the dripping history of slaves and suffering and lavish dreams of the half-unknown swooning through half-remembered sunsets gleaned books half-read and half-slept in the midnight firesides. Mandalay—the promise also of razor-edge opium syndicates circling through its waters, and the blossoming life of the forests and rivers on its borders.


Oriental opulence?  Maybe I better rethink this scene
Oriental opulence? Maybe I better rethink this scene

“Mandalay,” I thought, “will prove a land of deep jungles of towering palms stretching over the muddy plains, each step filled with cries of far-flung birds and the howl of invisible monkeys and the gleam of rubies in rooms wrought with gold.” Mandalay—I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. And this road would carry me right to its doorstep.


But about that road…

humble homestead of the Irrawaddy plain
humble homestead of the Irrawaddy plain

I pictured it differently, somehow—my mind’s eyes saw… well, I’m not sure what it saw… maybe valleys brimming over in misty rainforests, split by mighty rivers churning toward a crystal sea. Maybe blazing green rice paddies and glowing green tea fields… Maybe redcoats mounted on elephants and chasing away tigers… Maybe opium dens and Fu-Manchu’s and swarthy rascals pirating frigates on the rolling Irrawaddy… Maybe the staid West coming to futile grips with the multitudinous color and dreamscapes heaped in everday exoticism of the East.


I don’t know.  Just give me something with mustached colonials in khakis and safari hats.


It’s possible I read too many old books.


In any case, here’s what we found on the route from Bagan to Mandalay: an arid land of ankle-deep dust, thin roads scratching through flood plains’ pan, a super-heated breeze lolling over it all, and the famed current of the Irrawaddy strangled to a trickle. Water buffaloes lowed and groaned and swatted flies, and dust coated all the palms’ leaves so thick that a good rain would bring three inches of topsoil out of the trees and back to the earth. Dust clouds hung heavy and forever in the air, stinging the eyes and choking the nose and settling on lips, then tongue, then tasted in the throat.


landscape of inner Myanmar
Landscape of inner Myanmar

Yes, it was January, the heart of dry season, and as we rolled through the villages on the way to fabled Mandalay, we saw the locals scattered along the roadside in all manners and dusty coatings and dusty squints, from the boys chasing one another across the low-water bridge whose river was nothing but dust, to the tiny old men and women who paused under their loads to watch an SUV sprinkle them in a cloud of orange powder.


“Normally the road is much better,” Seinn tried again to explain, “but now, well there’s the construction. It goes on about three months out of the year—the other months are too hot or too wet, so it kind of never gets done.”


We nodded and kept staring out the windows. No apologies were necessary—this route fetched us off to time immemorial and immaterial. This was the slow road trip through a dream we never knew we dreamed.


Here, the rhythm of humanity clicked more steady than a metronome–the rise and fall of heat and rain, of youth and age, of hope and despair and stress and frustration and joy.  All is read in the lines etched into the smiles or frowns or distant stares of the populace passing on bicycles.  Planting and reaping, shoots and withered leaves, deep roots and tall tassles–all seen and all accounted in this road to Mandalay.


What's left of the mighty river
What’s left of the mighty river

The village life and village roads were certainly a far cry from the mega-highways trucking north from Yangon. There, wide stretches of multi-laned traffic speed across the kilometers of Myanmar’s rich belly. Huge trucks and brightly-painted tour buses by the dozens plow up and down, back and forth across the plains, their wind-whisked progress checked only by the vast oases of fuel-and-diner stop points: anomalies, truck stops on steroids, shopping malls of snacks and fuel punctuating the distances at intervals regular enough to set your odometer by, and peopled with the traveling masses of tourists and locals alike. They feel like an airport, look like a 7-11 crossed with a rest stop, and transform your road trip through the East into a Route 66–with rice and fish sauce instead of burgers and enchiladas.


Before you know it, you’re back on the highway—quick and easy and painless.


Opt instead for our hapless construction detour, though, and you’re more likely to get stares. “It’s like they’ve never seen anything but buffaloes and motorbikes here,” mumbled Andy from the seat beside me.


“Uh-huh,” Seinn muttered between chats with the driver. “We’re not lost.”


But her smile had faded.


I couldn’t help but wonder that the people here made farms work through such brutal dry seasons—fields that should be skeleton parched were somehow bushy green with unseen irrigation. Beans grew vibrant under the shade of palm-frond sun-blocks, and corn scraggled out of the cracking soil and somehow survived. I saw fields of melons, and the white buds of cotton, and rows of cabbage and papaya and lentils and grains.


So that's where all the water went
So that’s where all the water went

No wonder the nearby Irrawaddy, whose crooked course our route was tracing, ran so low.


Villagers calmly hoofed away at slow, grinding bikes and puttered along on scooters—slipping the afternoon sun away en route to another village, another string of tiny shops and sun-splattered homes that all seemed sleepy and all the same. All so very much the same.


The heat penetrating to the back seat, the slow wash of life, the weary monotony of the rolling scene—it was infectious, and my eyelids soon found themselves impossibly heavy. Just when I started to doze off, Seinn and the driver erupted into a flurry of chatter. There, there, there–they pointed to an inconspicuous side road. They gestured and argued in the impossible song of the Burmese tongue, that melody mixing gentle Thai and dancing notes of China, and waylaid several locals with intense queries.


“Please no,” Andy whispered into her fingers. “That is definitely not the right way.”


It was a desert path of brambles and withered palms, punctuated by dusty shacks and plodding buffaloes melting in the heat-squiggles. Import those and a few rice hats into a documentary on the Dust Bowl, and you can picture the scene clearly enough. “There’s no way the tour buses turn here,” Andy kept whispering. “This can’t be the right way.


Sure enough, we turned here—hung a left from the paved road and started bouncing along that dusty ribbon of potholes and mounds in the Myanmar untraveled by the mega-busing tourist crowds.


“It’s the construction,” Seinn stated from the front seat.


We said nothing.


Fording what's left of the river
Fording what’s left of the river

The road was cut away by river beds, and without a 4-wheel drive to mark your dusty trail across them, you weren’t getting though. We forded those rivers reduced to puddles. We climbed out on the far bank to chunk over roads best left to tanks. We roared a giant dust cloud in our wake that settled silently on the sleeping, unprotesting farms. Muddy smears in the river beds were the sole sign of moisture.


The large farms shrank to family-size plots.


The only irrigation visible, stagnant men with a mound of buckets.


We nodded and bounced along behind a string of scooters. The road was one lane, less than a county road back in Missouri, yet we were sharing this with cargo trucks and ox-carts and mopeds filled with young families staring at us as we honked and passed.


Of course, then there’s the matter of a bathroom break.


“When we get to Mandalay,” Seinn started, “We can—”


Rest stop anyone?
Rest stop anyone?

Mutiny and rebellion ensued—we’d been holding it far too long already, and the potholes and bouncing weren’t easing our bladders.


I was up for a lonely tree and leaving my mark in the dust, if you know what I mean, but the girls opted for a bamboo outhouse at a nearby homestead. The owners smiled kindly at us, bourgeoisie who disdained the doing business in the bushes. Wiry chickens scratched in the yard as we fidgeted the I-need-to-pee dance, waited our turn behind the bamboo screen over a hole in the ground, and wondered why on earth we hadn’t stopped sooner. More family woke up from sweaty siestas and came to the door to watch us wait in line. We thanked them all, and left bananas and oranges as a parting gift.


Mandalay lay somewhere over the horizon. By late afternoon, Seinn and the driver had vindicated their construction detour by bringing us the storied city gates.


Looking back at the route
Looking back at the route

In the meantime, my bumbling over the dusty landscape of the Irrawaddy floodplain had inspired an appreciation of rural Myanmar. This glimpse at life’s cycle spinning unchecked through yet another generation of tiny smiles and sad stares, of rusty bicycles and sun-squints and friendly waves, of dusty corn struggling alongside feeble cotton patches and gnarled beans, remains one of my favorite memories of the Golden Land. All the sparkling pagodas of Shwedagon and the pious temples in Bagan and the storied romance of Mandalay come kneeling before the miracle of life played out in the dusty, humble villages.


This is where humanity laces its tender fingers among the gnarled roots and moistened soil and churns up something we can live by.


Andy still thinks we were lost. But I couldn’t be more pleased or more humbled by what we found.


We made it to Mandalay
Made it to Mandalay


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