The next morning, I woke up feeling lousy. Flu-like symptoms were creeping in, and my mother's voice took on the shrill, doomsday tone that it does inside my head "you're going to die of bird flu!"
So I showered, dressed, and realized I didn't have one red cent in kyat, the local currency, so I couldn't even buy myself breakfast. In Myanmar, the going rate for a legit money-changing deal was about 450 kyat per dollar, but on the black market, one could get 1,200 easily; bypassing sponsoring the military junta, and getting to add "bought money on the black market" to the resume. Well, the old lady said she could help with that, so I tracked her down at her office. The corner of Mahabandoola Garden St and Mahabandoola Rd, against the western wall of the Immanuel Baptist Church, Yangon, Myanmar. Next to the fat lady.
I was still 50 feet from her office when she appeared in front of me, amidst the bustling crowd. "I knew you would come, I have been looking for you!"
"Well, I am going to need to change some money, and you said that you could help?"
"Yes yes! I will get the Chinese man! He you can trust. He will let you count very slowly, no rip off. You go get your dollars, I go get Chinese man. Meet me at Mr. Brown's!"
So I headed back to the hotel to fetch my dollars. My stomach was beginning to grumble; somewhere between hungry for breakfast and ready to barf. I was beginning to sweat, and I was pretty sure it was a fever, despite the heat of the city.
Back in the neon-pink hue of Mr. Brown's, Ethel and I went to the counter to purchase some shakes. When in Myanmar, you need to do like the Burmese, so I followed her lead this time and ordered a bright pink milkshake.
The Chinese man was sitting at a table in the middle of the brightly lit café. He had a bag at his feet, ostensibly full of local currency. We had two pink milkshakes. I had three bills. This was not the shady, back-alley, look-both-ways and watch-your-back transaction that the term "black market" implies, but my mother would be able to sleep at night if she knew it went down like this. Well, at least I was sweating profusely. As promised, the Chinese man stacked up the equivalent of my $250 in kyat, rubber-banded in 10,000 kyat bundles, and let me count every single one of the 300 bills. The resulting wad was far more than could fit in my pocket, and was enough for many Burmese to rent a flat for a year, so I sucked down my pink milkshake, much to my grumbling stomach's chagrin, and hustled off to the hotel. To drop off my cash, and to vomit the entire pink mess back up again. And with it, my malaria pill.
After I'd emptied my guts, I headed back down to the street to find Ethel. If she wanted to show me around Myanmar, she could start with a clinic, as I felt like hell. She was happy to oblige, and jabbered on as we wove through street food vendors, hopped over open sewers, and dodged brick-red betel-nut loogies that seemed to erupt from every other Burmese male.
By the time we got to the clinic, my stomach was feeling better. I was pretty sure that it was having taken my malaria pill on an empty stomach, rather than the bird flu. And while I knew that I didn't have bird flu, the doctor concurred after taking a variety of tests, prescribed me a sack full of medications, including a more appropriate malarial for the region, and I was out the door for under a dollar.
Feeling a bit better, and having surveyed the lay of the land when it came to Ethel, it was my determination that, while I didn't need a guide, this blathering old lady would be worth dragging around with me, even if she somehow turned out to be a burden at some point. She was very open to my notions of spending some time together, and then letting me do my own thing, as well as being willing to translate any small thing I heard, right down to the man shouting with bananas in his hand at the market. (I knew he was only saying "bananas, one kyat!" but its worth double-checking to see that he's not saying "I'm going to throw this at the white guy, on the count of three!").
So I asked Ethel what she'd want in return for her time, which could have been as much as two weeks, if I liked her company.
"What I need?!" she said, using her patented phrase indicating she was a low-maintenance woman. "I am poor lady. I do not need fancy clothes. I do not need much. If we have time, I show you my home. I live in small apartment, no light I have. My rent is $30 a month. If we spend two weeks together, and you can pay two months of my rent, I will be happy."
Sixty bucks. For some things there is MasterCard, but old ladies in tow can be priceless. Sold.
So we set to work planning an itinerary. Ethel told me that a plane ticket from Yangon to Heho, near Inle Lake, my next intended destination, would be $40. A bus would cost next to nothing, but would take over 20 hours. Forty bucks for an extra day of sightseeing and a lot less ass pain? No question.
"OK, I want a flight. I can pay your fare and we can both go to Heho and then Inle."
"Yes, you could pay for my plane ticket. But if you do, I will take it back to the travel agency, buy a bus ticket, and give the rest of the money to poor people. As you like."
I liked her attitude. So, knowing that this generosity would surface again at some point, I agreed to send her away on the bus that day, with the intent of meeting her at the airport in Heho a day later.
"Take it easy," Ethel implored as we parted for the day.
"Of course, I can do this stuff."
"Well today you are eating chicken curry, but tomorrow never knows!"
True words, Ethel. True words.
My solo day in Yangon was punctuated by filth and tested my patience for third world accommodations. I woke, my stomach still feeling woozy, and went down to partake of my free breakfast that was included with my stay at the City Star Hotel.
I waited in line behind some Burmese businessmen and was served some toast and scrambled eggs by an attendant behind some stainless steel serving pans. As I filed towards the grimy jar of butter, an attendant overseeing the operation grabbed my attention and took my plate from me. With his right hand, he plucked a hair from my eggs, and smiling, content with his work, he handed the plate back to me. I gave him a look of "whew, glad we took care of that!" and sat down at my table to watch Footloose on TV and slowly munch down my eggs and toast.
On Yim's recommendation, I moved to the hotel he'd been staying in until that day, the Garden Guesthouse at a savings of several dollars per night, and with little sacrifice in accommodation, according to him. Scanning the room as I dropped off my gear, he seemed somewhat right, but close enough for my standards.
For the bulk of the day, I walked the mile or so to Shwedagon Paya, the largest and most famous pagoda in Myanmar. There, I tiptoed barefoot from one section of stone floor tile to another, avoiding the marble tiles which were unbearably hot on my tender tootsies.
There was a poignant moment when amongst the serenity of the praying Buddhists, I could make out somewhat familiar music. Sure enough, there was a scaffold built from bamboo upon which two men were diligently repainting and intricate wooden archway adjacent to a reclining Buddha icon in front of which a handful of Burmese meditated. Or listened with inner smiles to the rendition of Bon Jovi's Blaze of Glory sung in Burmese that was being played from the workers' radio.
I made eye contact with the workers and we shared a wink and a grin indicating that I appreciated what they were doing.
In the evening I took a somewhat methodical attack at the downtown area, traversing back and forth down every street that paralleled the water, making my way towards the shore and then back into the core of the city again. My stomach felt progressively better over the course of the day, and when I smelled a familiar scent I knew just what I wanted for dinner. On one sidewalk, a man in a tank top and longyi frantically stirred a giant wok full of what had to be pad Thai over a flame so hot that I could feel is from several feet away. A fan targeted at cooling the chef blew the delicious scent across the sidewalk and I was lured right in.
I sat at a squat plastic table, upon a similarly diminutive stool and licked my lips in anticipation while I applied a palmful of hand sanitizer in preparation. The pad Thai was just the right spiciness and full of flavor. Just what the doctor ordered. But not quite exactly what I ordered: as I approached the final bites of my dish, I stumbled across a sizeable black fly, legs and wings mangled amongst my noodles and egg. What can you do? I'd already eaten most of it, picked at a little more that was situated across the plate from the fly and eventually gave in and left, not full but certainly not hungry.
As I continued to walk the streets in the darkness, I found myself in areas more populated by trucks and buses than I had been the night previously. In the darkness, the headlights illuminated glowing cones in the dust and exhaust that filled the air. I noticed that I held my breath whenever I was near obvious sources of exhaust or dirt, usually reminded by the visual provided by the headlights. Once past the headlights, I'd release my breath and resume normal breathing, having duped myself into believing that the air was any cleaner where the headlights didn't illuminate the pollution.
Sometime around midnight I returned to my new guesthouse for bed. Completely exhausted from walking numerous miles in the heat for the entire day, I stripped down to my boxers and washed my face and brushed my teeth. As I folded back the blanket and was about to get into bed, I noticed a black speck on the worn white sheet. I put my glasses back on for a closer look.
As I feared, it was a bug. A flea? A bedbug? I had no fucking clue, but there it was. And with my exhaustion, the late hour, and being nearly naked already, it seemed wiser to just pick the thing out with a piece of toilet paper rather than dressing and starting a midnight hotel search. Before all was said and done, I pulled three or four similar bugs out of the bed. I wrapped myself in the silk sleep sheet I brought with me, to give me some sort of barrier between my bare skin and the vermin waiting to devour me. As I laid back and turned out the light, I fired up the air conditioner to ensure a sweat-free night's sleep.
As I laid there in the darkness, I heard the occasional chunk! sound followed by a flicking sound which I was just certain was the sound of giant cockroaches being sucked into the air conditioner and being spit out in tiny chunks of chilled bug guts right over my waiting mouth and nostrils.
I slept that night, though certainly creeped out and vowing to dissuade the world from ever staying at the Garden Guesthouse. That said, was there anyone in this world that would have braved that night along with me? I thought about the ex back home and the screams, stomping of little feet, and general chaos that would have ensured if she were there with me over the course of that hairy, dusty, buggy day. It had been a pretty nasty day, but there is a certain amount of triumph in knowing one can survive those moments unshaken. Aside from times where it's been too late or I don't have a choice in hotel, I still intentionally choose low-budget hotels on these trips for a number of reasons. Encountering bugs and filth give me empathy for the daily annoyances that the locals deal with; staying at a hotel that would be expensive to a local would put me at odds with the environment I am there to take in, creating senses of entitlement and of animosity between myself and them; I see no sense in spending much money on a room I will do nothing more than sleep and bathe in, leaving more money for more trips in the future. And of course, removing the pleasant amentities of home helps put the world into perspective and makes life that much more pleasant and tolerable back home in the sanitized and organized. But that's how I think, not necessarily many other people. Was I destined to brave the third world alone for my entire life?