Ethel was a good judge of character; she was absolutely correct that I would get along with the German couple she had picked up, and the three of us had agreed that we should travel to Mandalay together.
Ethel, ever the humble one, boasted of her matchmaking skills and assured us that she would find us a driver and car for a reasonable price. We looked in our guidebooks, and said that we would do some homework also, to compare prices, and then reconvene. The going rate appeared to be a little higher than it was when the book was published: we were being offered rides for about 75000 kyat ($63) for the group of us.
When we found Ethel again, she was loudly touting the offer she had found.
"I found for you very good deal. We travel, you, me, German couple, stop in Pindaya cave pagoda, all for 75,000 kyat!"
"Is that the best you can do? That is the same price we could get!"
"Ooh, it is," Ethel said, lowering her voice to her serious business tone, "gasoline very expensive now, so price goes up."
We got into a conversation about the price of fuel, and apparently the line the populace had been fed was that the hurricanes in the southern United States and the tensions between the US and oil producing nations had led to rising prices in Myanmar. This sentiment was believed and propagated by anyone from drivers to hoteliers who had to run their hotels on gas generators during the routine city-wide blackouts that occurred every evening. This was, however, a difficult story to believe, considering that Myanmar produces 57% of its oil, compared to the U.S. who produces 37%, for example. But that was the story that the military junta sent out, and that the populace consumed. We tried explaining this to Ethel, and she appeared to understand; one down, 42,909,463 Burmese left to convince.
Our car was a well-worn Toyota Corolla station wagon, and knowing that our resident gentle giant, Manuel would need the leg room offered by the front seat, I took a peek at the back seat to see if there was an optimal spot back there. There wasn't. Over the decades, the back seat had supported so many asses over jostling terrain that the entire seat sagged to the point that the knees rested a few inches above the butt regardless of which seat one took.
Having no further preference, I was surprised to see Ethel, with her wilted, 70-year-old frame demand the center seat, sitting "bitch", so that Alex and I could have window seats. I knew my body would be screaming after this trip, so I couldn't imagine how Ethel would cope, but she insisted.
After we'd all loaded all of our belongings in the car, settled all the butts into seats, and the car was started, I noticed the overwhelming smell of car exhaust. I hoped against hope that it would dissipate as we took to the road.
As we started down the first firm, semi-paved roads out of town, I marveled at the old lady next to me. Here, I would be sitting next to this babbling character for the next 12 hours, and who I had not witnessed actually shutting up since I had met her. This could be a long trip.
On the whole, I loved talking with Ethel. She was never wont for having money or possessions, often declaring "I no need eating, I no need things. What I need?!" and doling out money to the other poor folk she came across. Yet at the same time, she was grimly aware of the importance of money for survival, which she summed up in one of her favorite phrases, probably taken from a tourist t-shirt years ago: "No money, no honey, no funny!" she declared, whenever we pointed out a similarly toothless old Burmese man we thought might make a good companion for her.
Ethel did have a honey at one time, and probably was probably looker herself, many decades ago. Ethel and her husband were jewel traders at one time, a career that afforded them a comfortable lifestyle and even permitted them to travel outside the country on a number of occasions. Together, they had a son and two daughters, of whom only the daughters still lived. "Cherry daughter and Anna daughter," she called them. Both lived near Yangon, in borderline squalor according to Ethel, but not quite as bad off as she herself lived. If I was interested, I could meet the daughters when I returned to Yangon. Life was good for Ethel until she discovered that her husband had been keeping a young girlfriend on the side. Ethel wasn't having it. She told him he could keep the home and the money and that she was taking the children and that was the end of it. She never remarried.
"After the divorce, I am very sad, I go my first time to the opium den. I go into the room in the back and lay down and have nice long opium pipe. Just that moment, just that moment, the police they come into the opium den to make trouble! Everyone is going to jail, but the police man, he is my son! He hit me in the eye, so hard I see stars! I see stars and he send me home, no jail for me. Never again opium for me!"
Ethel had a younger sister, Bella, who lived outside Mandalay. "Her eyes are blind," Ethel explained, before claiming that she was the prettier of the two. I immediately agreed to go visit Bella when we were in Mandalay, which was incredibly exciting to Ethel, as she had apparently not seen her in five years. Bella was stubborn, like her older sister, and insisted on living near Mandalay, where her good-for-nothing son lived as a trishaw driver and occasional drug dealer, sending just enough money to his mom to keep her alive. Ethel lived in Yangon out of necessity: virtually all tourists land in Yangon and start the circuit there. If she were to move to Mandalay, she would likely find fewer tourists, and many of them would already have found guides to accompany them. Tourism hasn't been huge in Myanmar for the past few years, and Ethel had been unable to convince a tourist to accompany her to Mandalay in five years until she met me, thus I was the conduit for the sisters to reunite after all that time.
As we left the cities, the road turned to unpaved, hard packed dirt with protruding rocks. Even as the car reached a cruising speed somewhere in the area of 30-40 jittery miles per hour, the exhaust smell wasn't reduced. We were destined to be short a few more brain cells by the time we arrived in Mandalay. Opening the window reduced the carbon monoxide, or so it seemed, but increased the amount of road dust we inhaled drastically. Somewhat self-consciously, I donned my cloth mouth and nose mask that I picked up in Vietnam a few years previous. The Germans thought it strange until they realized what they were breathing, and then took to holding their shirts over their faces for most of the drive.
Ethel was undeterred and her lips kept flapping hour after hour.
"Ooh, after leaving my husband, I take my daughters and we live in Indian man's house, helping cook and clean. One night, my son sneak back into the house at night after go out with his friends. Indian man no like this, so he must sneak very quietly. My son hide under bench in the dark when he hear Indian man wake and walk around the house! Indian man not find my son so he went to the toilet but in the dark he sits on bench and poops on my son!!"
The landscape quickly turned to the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. The red dirt road wound its way through shockingly green hillsides, delineated into rectangular plots dedicated to rice, wheat, and other crops. Bright yellow fields played a stark contrast to the greens, consisting of yellow flowers used in Buddhist offerings.
At one point, Ethel was leaning forward, talking the ears off Manuel and the driver, when I turned to Alex and said "I wonder how long she'll carry on for. Do you think she can talk the entire 12 hour trip?"
Before Alex had a chance to respond, Ethel leaned back and turned to me. "What you say?!"
"Nothing, just chatting."
"You be careful!" she threatened, "I have ears like elephant and eyes like ananas!" Ananas meaning pineapples.
"OK, lady, I know elephants have big ears, nothing like yours of course, but since when do pineapples have eyes?! Is this a Burmese thing?"
"What you saying? Pineapples have many eyes when you cut them!" She raised a potato-inducing fist at me.
I knew what she meant, but responded by rolling my eyes. "Suuure, maybe in Myanmar."
The driver, who otherwise remained silent for the duration kept himself alert for the 12 hour trip by munching kunya, chews containing betel nut. Burmese men and women munch these things all day and night, believing them to be digestive aids as well as stimulants. The kunya themselves are made from thinly sliced or chopped areca seeds, a dash of a variety of spices that smell like Indian incense, and a bit of flavored tobacco, wrapped in an areca leaf, and bound together with a runny white paste that the locals say is "calcium". I had tried them in Yangon, but Ethel didn't know this.
When chewed, the betel nut turns the saliva red, and stimulates the salivary glands. The streets and walls of Myanmar are stained a brick-red from the constant spitting of red drool. As one might expect, the red saliva also stains the teeth, and compounds the abhorrent dental care in the nation, so smiles from the locals are often dark red, crooked affairs with gaping black holes and rancid gums. What they lack in beauty, they more than make up for in sincerity though.
"Know what this is?" Ethel asked, grabbing one from the driver before he could toss it in his mouth.
"Yes, you try?"
"Sure, I had one in Yangon, but I will try again," I said. The Germans hadn't tried them and were hesitant. I assured them that they wouldn't permanently stain their teeth with one try, and that the reputed buzz was nonexistent in my experience.
Ethel demanded that the driver supply all of us with kunya and he obliged. They tasted much like they smelled, which was quite pleasant, somewhat soapy. They are kept in the cheek and continually chewed, but not swallowed. Much like how an experienced tobacco chewer will not need to spit, an experienced kunya chewer won't either. But we weren't experienced. I had found that I was able to keep my salivating to a minimum and swallow the extra without ill effects, but Alex couldn't quite work it out. Some time later, when we stopped for a walk around, she noticed that by spitting out her window, she had managed to cover the entire door and back panel with red spit and chunks of betel.
Exiting the car into the searing afternoon sun, Ethel donned her brown sweater and turned to me as I stepped into the heat. "You no need a jacket?! It is winter! This why you sneezing so much!"
"Christ, lady, are you kidding me?! Look, I just stepped outside and I am already beginning to sweat; you have to be out of your mind!" She shrugged and bundled up in her sweater while we wiped the sweat off our brows, stepped into the dusty road and took in the stunning scenery around us.
As the road wore on, we wound through mountains and Ethel wore on through words. She certainly used more than her fair share, and I became adept at simply tuning her out for sometimes hours on end. When the topic of the government came up, however, I tuned back in.
As Ethel had mentioned back in Yangon, it was dangerous business to talk about the government. Myanmar, then known as Burma, enjoyed a brief stint of Democratic self-rule from 1948 to 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup to install his harsh regime. The new regime had a very effective Ministry of Scary-Sounding Militaristic Names who named the organization SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). Probably in order to patch up the bad PR that comes with a name like SLORC, the junta had its Ministry of Positive Spin change SLORC to SDPD (State Peace and Development Council). It was these same name-oriented Ministries that changed the old names such as Burma and Rangoon to Myanmar and Yangon.
No matter what you call it, the government wrests tight control over the populace, censoring news and preventing email access via the use of an American company, Fortinet's, blocking software (except in internet cafes where the proprietors are wise to proxy-server configurations that dodge Fortinet's detection). Indeed, Big Brother was constantly mentioned in hushed voices, but rarely seen. I hadn't felt any presence or seen the military junta but a few soldiers on a truck or two or a toll station here or there, which I suppose spoke to the effectiveness of the sense of fear they had imbued upon their residents. A hands-off, but-we-won't-hesitate-to-kill-you approach.
Apparently the driver understood no English, so the car was a safe place to discuss such matters. Ethel explained how most people in Myanmar long for democracy, an effort championed by the eternally-imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite pressure from the UN, and the world at large, the Burmese government, actually a military junta, refused to release her.
"Ethel, why is the Burmese government moving its offices?" I asked, referring to the event that nearly led to me not getting a visa into the country.
"Ohh, well they first tell the people that it is for better feng shui. Then they tell the people that it is because we will be attack soon. They need office with more protection, underground."
"Who is going to attack Myanmar?"
"The United States!" she replied, incredulous.
"Now, Ethel, why on earth would the US want to attack Myanmar? First off, we currently have our hands full, second, you will notice a correlation between who we attack and oil production, but while you have enough to sustain your own country, I hardly see it being enough to go to war over!"
"Oh, but the US wants democracy, and the junta will not allow it. They want to go to war to make democracy here like they do in Iraq, Afghanistan, blah blah,"
It made sense: I could see why the junta would tell the people this. With no access to the internet, filtered and censored news, and a pitiful education system, the Burmese hardly have the world perspective to question the junta's statements. And it sure is easy to paint the Americans as a threat, considering that the junta knows the US wants to spread democracy. Why would they do this though, particularly if it was ostensibly pretty far from the truth? To increase control over the people, we concluded. Binding the people against a common, if fictional, enemy, whether it is the American democratization monster, or the elusive "terrorist", the government brings the people together, and makes them more susceptible to the whims of the government. With the junta's move to the jungle, and the declaration of the threat of US invasion, the junta only assured its power for longer, and enables it to justify its continuing human rights abuses.
All around the world, the same song.
Suddenly, the unexpected happened. Shortly after the government discussion, Ethel hit a wall. She didn't slow down like a toy running low on batteries, she didn't give any warning yawns, she just shut up. Silence. Eyes shut, mouth shut. The sudden difference in volume surprised everyone and looks of humored surprise were exchanged throughout the car.
It didn't last long, of course, and as we changed speed to approach Pindaya cave, she picked up right where she left off, babbling on about the 8,000 Buddha statues that resided in the cave. We tiptoed barefoot through the natural pagoda. When my foot came across slimy spots on the floor, I immediately feared the ubiquitous kunya loogies, but was later relived to realize that moisture dripping from the stalactites was the source of the wet stuff.
After exploring the caves, Ethel resumed the storytelling.
"American lady, she my friend, come to Myanmar a few times. She have very rich husband who is lawyer but he no travel so she come alone. She find me she says 'Ethel, together we spend $40,000 in Myanmar!'
This was no small feat: with a typical entrée costing 800-1000 kyat (80¢ - $1), and a hotel costing $8-$10, one would have to buy apartment buildings to move through that kind of money.
"We stay at Strand Hotel, very nice! There, we drink rum and rum and rum. Then we go to pool! I touch little water, I go pee pee! Automatic! Two times! Then we go to hotel room and I think my cigarette maybe make small fire. Hotel man come in all yelling! 'What you do! You burn old hotel!' but the lady just give the hotel man many dollars and everyone is OK."
"Wow, Ethel, I am sorry that we can't provide an experience like that!"
"You know I no need things," she said sternly before breaking into song again. "Que sera seraaaaa... whatever will be will beeeeee..."