The kind of journey that makes you take up drugs.
A bus pulled up to the spot where the white dirt road met the black asphalt of the highway. Sergey and I had been sitting on our backpacks by the roadside, staring out at the hundreds of crumbling temples that make up the ancient Burmese valley of Bagan, but in our minds we saw only the brutalist narco-architecture of Yangon, the bustling capital where we were headed.
As the bus’s accordion doors folded open, we brushed the white dust off of our packs and pulled our tickets from our wallets, steeling ourselves for the 14-hour ride ahead. The doors ejected a stream of pinch-faced Burmese men, who disembarked in single file and stood around stretching their necks. Only once a woman at the very back of the line had grabbed her bags from the undercarriage and wandered off did they gather themselves and file back on. I looked at Sergey. He shrugged. We climbed aboard.
Throughout our month-long stay in Burma, we had been warned repeatedly against buying cheap bus tickets. Being young, and brash (and, in Sergey’s case, Russian), naturally we smiled, nodded, and ignored this advice. Within the span of the following 14 hours, like a slow-developing Polaroid, or a traumatic memory dredged piecemeal from the depths of the psyche, the logic behind these kindly suggestions would become vividly, painfully clear.
In buying the cheapest class of transportation, the notorious ‘middle seat'”a metal chair that folds down to fill up the aisle while the bus is in motion, a characteristically cruel but efficient Burmese invention”Sergey and I unwittingly volunteered ourselves for a torture more elegant and terrible than any Burma’s infamous Military Intelligence could invent. It would be a facile exaggeration to say that the next 14 hours were like having bamboo shoots hammered under our fingernails. More crucially, it would miss the point. This was subtle, mind-warping, PTSD-inducing, Guantanamo shit. Think stress positions. Think sleep deprivation. Think SERE-fashion aural bombardment. Now add the smell of dried fish paste (if you’ve never tried it, just envision a pet store in the post-apocalypse, where all of the goldfish have been left to mummify in the bottoms of dry aquariums; stick your nose into one of those aquariums, inhale) and you’ve probably got the right picture. But I get ahead of myself…
As our fellow ‘middle seat’ passengers dejectedly filed down the aisle and folded down their seats, I paused to ask the driver if there was any chance we could upgrade to a real seat at any point, since we were riding all the way to the capital. He assured me that just as soon as a seat opened up we could switch. Something in the scummy twinkle of his eye implied that if I snuck him a few extra kyat, the process might be expedited, but I was tired of greasing squeaky wheels, and anyway I didn’t have much money left to spare, so I grabbed my pack and slunk down the aisle.
Settled into my spot three rows from the front, I immediately noticed two things: One, that the seat itself was little more than a velvet-draped slab of iron, as cushion-less and unyielding as the Statue of Liberty’s comely copper-green ass; and Two, that this particular seat slanted ever-so-slightly portward. Since to my left sat a monk”whom normal people are not allowed to touch, for risk of being condemned to twenty innumerable eons in hell, according to Burmese folklore”the latter was of particular concern (in the (very) long run, that is).
As if in response to my prayers, a white hand reached down from the seat in front of me, offering salvation. In its palm lay two powdery pink tablets. Two weeks before, in a moment of divine foresight, or perhaps just sheer giddiness at Burma’s lawless medical industry (you must remember that there is no Tijuana in the Russian Federation), Sergey had invested in two packages of prescription anti-anxiety pills in a pharmacy back in Mandalay. Recalling a disastrous night I once spent tangoing with fake Xanax in Bolivia, I was hesitant to pluck the pills from his hand at first, but then I wiggled my rapidly numbing ass.
I swallowed them dry.
The drugs kicked in, the bus coughed to life, and I melted back into my seat. An outdated television bolted to the ceiling flickered to life, casting a bluish glow. The fuzzy picture resolved on an empty stage and, behind it, a crudely painted image of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Two actors stepped on stage and began to chirp back and forth in clipped syllables. The audience exploded into tinny laughter. This had to be a nightmare. No. It was a pwe”a traditional Burmese soap opera, which blends acting, song and dance, and can typically last upward of twelve hours.
The first chords of the distinctive pwe orchestral score filled the bus: a bizarre, hallucinogenic bubble music performed on a xylophone and mandolin (Plink, plonk, plunk. Plink, plonk, plunk), a faint fluttering horn (leeah, leeah leeah, leeeeee lah leee) and the intermittent, alarming crash of symbols (KLANG! KLANG! KLANG! KLANG!). The whole thing”the strange music, the poor speakers system, the high decibel shrieks that passed for dialogue”made my intestines squirm.
I closed my eyes. We floated past the moonlit countryside. Crystalline bubbles popped all around me, and far-off voices bickered unintelligibly, like alien captors. Just as I was beginning to drift off to sleep (set to dream, no doubt, of noisy, sub-aquatic sex scenes involving Snorks), the bus slowed and pulled over to the side of the road. I heard the clank of folding metal behind me, and turned, groggily, to see that the middle-seat passengers behind me were getting up. With a sudden nausea, it became clear to me why all those men had stepped off the bus when we first boarded; before anyone could get on or off the bus, first all of the middle seat passengers had to fold up their seats, pick up their shit, and get off.
Sergey and I stood shivering in the night air as an old man hauled a bag of rice and a rusty bicycle from under the bus and rode off.
“Is this going to happen the whole time?” I asked Sergey.
“Fuck. This.” Sergey said, cracking open the little orange bottle once more.
“Gimme one of those.”
Since middle-seat passengers aren’t issued seat numbers, in re-boarding the bus we all got different seats. By pure luck, I was now six rows back, which was preferable not only because my new seat didn’t lean to the left, but also because it meant that if I didn’t have to stand up every time someone in rows three, four, or five wanted off. Since it was always preferable to snag a seat farther in the back, what resulted was a kind of demonic game of musical chairs. A pattern emerged: just as I was beginning to fall asleep, the bus would pull over; we would all disembark, crowd around the door, and then (politely, for these are still Asians, after all) elbow one another out of the way to get first dibs on the back of the bus.
The night passed in this fashion. Due to the pills and the lack of sleep, I slowly became unmoored, lost track of time, began to stare dumbly (like everyone else) at the endless soap opera, my eyes aglow but vacant. Some time in the early dawn we stopped at a restaurant for a bathroom break. Sergey and I were seated at a small plastic table drinking big brown bottles of Myanmar brand beer, looking bloodshot and miserable, when the driver walked up to us. He informed us that at the next stop, a seat would be opening up, which we were free to take.
Sure enough, at the next stop a couple in the fourth row got up and vacated the bus. I tapped Sergey on the shoulder to wake him up, grabbed my bag, and headed for the open seat. But when we got to the fourth row, the seat was no longer empty. Instead, there, taking up two seats, sat a portly, heavily made-up ladyboy, who cooled her (his) glittery brow with slow, languorous strokes of a folding fan. Behind him (her) sat another, skinnier ladyboy, who had also commandeered a row all to her (his, its, universal, no) self.
“Umm, the driver promised us this seat, once it opened up.”
The fat ladyboy curled her plump upper lip toward her nose, creased her eyes, and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, the fan still waving, slowly, slowly. Fuck, I heard Sergey whisper behind me. I turned and marched up the aisle to the driver’s seat. He told me that he had promised the seat to us and to one other couple of Americans.
“What other… (but even as I said it I remembered them, a man and a woman, who spent much of the ride chatting up the ladyboys, cackles and floppy slaps on the wrist. But surely that had been a dream…)?”
I turned around and saw that the open seat, our seat, had been filled while our backs were turned. In it sat two content, exhausted white people, a man and a woman. Behind them sat the two ladyboys, fanning themselves with smug smiles on their painted lips.
By now all of the good middle seats had been filled, as well, and ultimately I ended up in my original seat, three rows back, tilting ever leftward, towards the monk’s maroon robes, teetering ever closer to damnation.
Surely a deeper lesson was to be gleaned from all of this, perhaps something to do with the cyclic nature of existence, or karma, or hubris, or the merit of birds-in-hands versus birds-in-bushes. But I was much too tired and stoned for such profound ruminating.
The only lesson I learned was this: Always be nice to a fat boy wearing a dress, because you know he isn’t afraid of shit.