Fiona Hyde’s journey around the city of Myanmar moves her. She writes about overcoming initial discomfort, understanding custom and finding connection.
i. First impressions through glaring sunlight and burgeoning infection[restrict]
Plastic and trucks and unloading and squatting and the sarongs and women with white-yellow paste rubbed all over their faces and carrying stuff right aloft on your head and much hotter sun and markets and scooping betel and rice into wide green leaves and generators humming so loud and traffic traffic traffic and barrels lined up on the street and crumbling colonial buildings with washing up to dry and more bugs and everyone carries umbrellas to hide from the midday sun and intersections with bridges that link up a square above and selling stuff everywhere all the time on mats and in bins and from the back of trucks and from baskets and trays and the backs of parked vans with a racy picture pinned up inside for the boys and puppies being taken care of by an underpass and then somehow like a mirage a luxurious shopping mall in the middle of the chaos and at night time in side streets the food carts throng and there are no street lights but instead fluorescent tubes strung across the buildings and a man follows me and it’s hot and there are none of the familiar signs, not really. I am sick. I am miserable. I drink three litres of water and go to bed in a room like a cell.
ii. Then I learn
The yellow paste is called thanaka. It dries into the skin and on some people it looks almost golden. Some people smear, others carefully apply in a circle or square. It’s made of ground bark.
The sarongs are called longyi. They are metres-long pieces of material, wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot, falling right to the ankles. When I first land and drive through the city, it looks like a lot of men are wandering around with a towel still around themselves, fresh from the shower. A man opens his and adjusts it, and I see that it’s a cylinder of fabric. I don’t wonder where they store their stuff until I see a man in a shopping mall with a wallet jammed down the back of his longyi. Ah, I think. Of course.
iii. Venturing further
I pass by the train tracks by accident, because it doesn’t look like a station. As I go over I realise my mistake and I go back and see shelters built of corrugated iron and plastic sheets of what was formerly a billboard advertisement I think. I’m going to take the the loop train — one line that cirlces the entire city of Yangon and takes over three hours to complete. End to end.
At the train platform, women sit and lounge on the stone and wooden seats, selling food and shouting conversationally to one another. A lot of people lie around asleep including one man on a surface of cardboard spread out. The train station platform itself is built from corrugated iron too, just like the shacks that have sprouted up around it. I read online that the Myanmar government privatised the rail system a few years ago, initially built by the British in 1954, in order to modernise it. They already tried to install air conditioning a few years back but apparently it failed. The new investors are Japanese. There’s a sign on the train later with a Japanese flag. If they’ve modernised it, I truly can’t imagine what it was like before.
I wait. A woman walks over holding an entire tray piled high and wide with red grapes balanced on her head. She pulls out a squat red plastic stood and sits down while also removing the tray, in one fluid motion. I find myself wondering how long it takes to learn how to do that, but then I notice she has a small dark cap on her head, intended to bring the whole endeavour some stability. Still.
The train only comes twice an hour. I’ll be on it most of the day. I hope I have enough water. I’m already thirsty so I conserve it. I’m sweating profusely from the 15 minute walk here. I know I don’t have enough water. There’s rubbish everywhere. Plastic, old crates, discarded ad hoarding, massive bags, old doors, old gates. I wish I had brought more water.
I sit and think. It’s not just the thanaka and the longyi. The other clothes are different. Women wear ankle-length skirts, sometimes with matching tops, but always long skirts. Some men wear jeans and shorts, but most wear longyis. I’m glad I brought dresses that fall to my lower calf. I’d feel even more out of place in something short — and I’m already getting a healthy amount of stares. I am at Lanmadaw station, and I might have had a better chance at blending in at Yangon Central.
Another woman walks by with a tray balanced aloft. I regret my admiration for the first, because this is far more impressive, due to the tray itself containing several other tricky objects — what looks to be either a red bucket of rice or a red rice steamer, lots of bread, a vase or jug, all up there on the tray. She’s across the tracks and I watch her as she mounts the stairs to exit the station, not missing a beat. Her arms swing as she walks over the bridge above and disappears from my view.
Another woman crosses the tracks with a tray on her crown, similarly impressive as it involves a bucket of sauce. I see now it’s not a special flat cap that helps, it’s a specially folded scarf, which she whips off and hangs on her shoulder. There is plenty to see, and it’s all things I know nothing about.
The train arrives, all windows and doors flung wide, people sitting on the steps at the open doors. It rocks from side to side and the steps up are steep. People grab on to one another to hoist up and down. Older people are let in and out first. It is crowded, cheek to jowl. There’s restrained but evident eyes at me (not quite stares but a watchfulness, say) when I get on the train, which I interpret as “what are you doing on this train?” I have to say I’ve been asking myself the same question. Perhaps I should have eased myself into Yangon with a pagoda visit and some noodles.
People pass through the stuffed carriage selling grapes and avocados and limes and oranges and watermelon slices and calendars and water and betel and cigarettes and banana fritter and eyeglasses (yes!) from wide red baskets or bags or trays but all shouting, doing the whole hustle bit. The grapes look dusty. The avocado looks huge. I don’t buy water, more of which later. The avocado salesmen are exceptionally loud but in my opinion the most successful. An older woman near me insists on seeing the produce nicked with a knife to prove they’re good before she commits to buying. The two avocado men are happy to indulge.
When I get on the train, it begins — what’s going to keep happening all day. When a seat becomes free, the other passengers insist I take it. I say no thanks, as there are older women around me, but they insist. I resist the first time, then take it the second time it happens. I get the seat because I’m foreign. I sit in it knowing that, not entirely comfortable.
The ticket inspector comes and the man who motioned for me to sit down gives me a nudge as a heads up but the inspector checks everyone else’s and skips me, smiling with a mouth full of betel that makes him look as though his gums are running and dripping blood red. After, I turned to the motion man and breathe out a snort of mirth and we shrug our shoulders. We both know why I didn’t have to pay, I suppose. I’m foreign.
A baby gets on, and sits beside me as the motion man vacates his seat for her. The baby is watchful, with big brown expressive eyes, resplendent in a sun hat and yellow thanaka paste on her face. She stares at me and I cross my eyes at her. She stares at me again, this time for a long time. This is one person who I can stare deeply back at. But then she gets distracted by the sun blind on the window behind me. The train keeps moving. I stick out my tongue, puff my cheeks up together then alternate them, frown and smile, more crossed eyes, but nothing makes her laugh.
The train becomes a window into some abject poverty. Travellers recommend you take it to see “all walks of life in Yangon” but I soon gather what that is a euphemism for. Poverty. People lying on mats on the ground as clothes circle the bushes and grass by them, drying, no real shelter or structure to their homes. This is what the people meant and I don’t know what to think. It’s tangled up in my mind as the scenes change quickly in the open train windows. What am I doing here?
We pass one station where a toddler stands in dirty clothes with no shoes, surrounded by adults, chattering away. Another time we go by people scavenging in a large skip, digging through the rubbish. The shacks get more broken down looking, supported by planks and poles, discarded tyres lounging at the opening mouths of shanty markets. I see a washing line created by a stick slung up between two branches. We stop by another train and through the two open doors I see a woman wearing a traditional Burmese straw sunhat, a pointed flat cone. Another appears, then I start to see them everywhere.
At another stop, a woman boards with a massive bag of white plastic bags, up to nearly her shoulder. It’s like an iceberg of plastic. I see that by the side of the tracks she has come from a group of people sitting down sorting lots of plastic bags into colours. One of them helped her heft the bag aboard and off we go again. They must be able to sell the white ones. I wonder where. Something else, in a list of many things, that I don’t understand.
Thamaing. The train has cleared out a lot. A few stops later. Now the countryside, with abandoned skeletons of large buildings jutting out of overgrown grassy thicket. The train empties out even further and my motion man leaves. The baby is asleep. Everyone leaves so I do too.
We change trains. I walk across the tracks and get onto another one. A man asks me where I’m from and what I’m doing. Like that, he says it: “What are you doing?” Good point, well made, I have to say.
On the new train I confirm it’s the loop and it is. I wish I had more water but I squandered my chance with the sellers on the other train. This train is practically empty but for a well-spoken shaven-head man and an older woman, plus a clutch of teenagers and mothers down the other end. They advise where to go. “How do you find the climate?” the older woman asks. It makes me think I must be sweating quite a lot. They’re surprised I’m alone, I think. Sometimes in situations like these, I kind of am too.
The man who crossed the tracks with me has broken English but the shaven-headed man translates his questions for me. The tracks man has very bad cuts on his head and his feet are not in good shape, but he’s forcefully nice to me and asks me about how I like Myanmar. He scarpers suddenly and I wonder why, then I see an official looking man in uniform has gotten on. We still haven’t moved. I’d have paid for him if he didn’t have the fare. He might not have let me though. He’s gone anyway. Then tracks man is back a few minutes later and I’m strangely glad. We can’t understand each other but he’s committed to cheerfully trying as many times as it takes. It’s uncomplicated because it can’t be anything else.
A man comes around banging a silver bowl. I look questioningly to my interpreter across the way but it’s hard to hear him and the old woman who have been helping me so far. Change for the monks, their robes. I think. I give 200 kyat at their encouragement and they tell me it’ll be good for me. Or I think they do, I can’t really hear and I hate asking people to repeat more than twice. I realise, slowly, that I’ve been left an entire bench on the train to myself and I scooch up one side of it closer to tracks man so people don’t think they can’t sit next to me. Or that I wanted it all to myself.
The poverty increases as the train advances. Tents now, some without four sides, and no running water at all, judging by the water kegs stacked around. Builders get on chewing betel, throwing leaves into their mouths that’ll make their spit crimson and stain their hands from the casing. A shanty town where the rusted corrugated iron is supplanted by leaves and branches passes by.
Tracks man, with his poor feet and cut-riven head, tries to give me his water when he sees I’ve run out. Very hot, he says. He’s right, but I’m not taking anything from him. I feel a strange, sad swelling in my chest that he even offered. I think the large bag he is carrying may be all he has. He asks me for 100 kyat when he gets off and I give him 500 and he insists on leaving the water. Though I’m ashamed of myself for it, I won’t drink it because I’m afraid of it.
The older woman gets off and says TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. I say thank you and she repeats it, making eye contact. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
When the train goes over some bridges with no walls or supports, then rocks from side to side, I feel my stomach move. Take care of yourself. The water bottle falls over. It’s tempting but the answer is still no. Take care of yourself.
A woman selling cuts of watermelon has her son with her, his face covered in the yellow paste. He responds to my faces, pulling his own, and the three of us laugh. I’d buy her watermelon but it’s covered in flies, though she does her best to swat them. A woman sorts through long plant leaves behind us, tying them into posies. The landscape becomes more lush and like jungle, and the shelters change to look almost like tree houses but on the ground. We pass a patch of plastic that has thatched itself and knitted into the ground, covering it like St Bridget’s cloak. We pass a market. We pass many.
A plant slaps me in the arm to remind me it’s not safe to hang my elbow out the window to that extent — it warns me that next time it’ll be a road sign. When his mother goes into sell watermelon in another carriage, I take out 100 kyat to slip the boy. I wait for my chance. I bought three embroidered elephants I didn’t want in a market in Chiang Mai because a girl was selling them to pay for her care. I resolve to bring them in my bag so I can dispense them in Yangon. I curl the 100 kyat into a roll in my hand.
Look at me, attempting altruism, and yet I won’t drink this water beside me, despite how thirsty I have become. They’re right. What am I doing here?
The train moves. I don’t get my chance and he’s gone anyway. I make a note about the elephants, for another time.
v. Close the loop
Suddenly, an expanse of flat green fields. There is a crop that grows in murky water and the people harvesting it are submerged to their waists to pick it. More hats, wading. Geese, a rooster, sleeping dogs in the sun.
When I thought I’d seen rubbish earlier, I hadn’t seen anything. We pass rafts and rafts of it, all piled up and smelling foul. It backs onto a settlement of houses. It swamps a river we pass. On a farm, neat walls between sunken crops are built out of the rubbish and plastic. Grass grows on top of the plastic walls.
Drifts of scrap metal and the smell of burning. I see a man with slaughtered chickens hanging down slack from two sticks held across his back. The loop closes and we traipse back towards central and downtown Yangon. The train fills slowly, the sellers return. All my new friends have gone. Something smells good and I search — cut flowers being carried astride someone’s shoulders in tarp.
Those first people on that second train were so nice and interested in me that I felt like a fraud. They must think I’m a nice and interesting person to be here, with them, on this train, and I saw their genuine happiness at my presence, smiling at one another and at me. It’s a struggle for me to believe I am either of those things, that I’m really nice or really interesting. I smile at another baby across the way and pretend I am, as best I can, so we all can enjoy the ride. The city comes back.