In Mandalay, Ethel made a declaration: "No more smoking. I quitting smoking." Ethel generally indulged in a Vegas cigarette a few times a day, and a cheroot or two at night. In fact, I had seen the bundle of cheroot that she brought with her on the trip, quite enough to last a couple weeks.
"OK, I can support that decision," I said.
"OK, then you help me: if you see me with a cigarette, you take it from me and break it!"
The German couple and I all laughed simultaneously. "Ethel, I can't agree to that. I can tell you right now that if I try to take a cigarette from you, you will bonk me on the head and give me a potato!"
"No no no! What I say I do! You help me, will be OK."
I dropped the issue, thinking it unnecessary to belabor the point.
Our trip to visit Bella had become the top priority in Mandalay, so first thing in the morning after we arrived we hopped in the bed of a tiny pickup fitted with a tall canopy and bench seating, bound for Bella's village.
For reasons I was never able to ascertain, every curb in Mandalay sat alongside a drift of fine, dry dirt. Even in the city, the air was continually full of dust, causing my lungs to collapse and my nose to turn into a snot faucet. From the pickup we watched as the colonial buildings became sparse and the roads turned from dust covered concrete to just plain old dust.
Ethel had the driver stop for directions a few times, indicating that it really had been quite some time since she'd been out to visit Bella. After some slow cruising through thatched homes lining the dirt roads, the truck stopped and we piled out of the pickup. Ethel, who had been sitting in the truck's cab, had put on her lipstick; even though Bella wouldn't be able to see the difference, Ethel knew she'd be the center of attention.
We'd stopped in front of a thatched home, tiny and virtually indistinguishable from the others that were set into the grid pattern of the neighborhood. We stood outside while Ethel entered the home and reunited with Bella. While we waited, we gradually drew the eyes of neighbors squatting in front of nearby homes and children playing in the dirt nearby. A couple squatting in front of their home frying up some flattened grain pancakes paused to gaze at the strangers in their midst. Surely a towering, hairy, German with chiseled features, a sunny blonde woman and an olive-skinned Caucasian were uncommon sights in these parts.
Ethel brought Bella out into the sunlight. "See, I am much more beautiful! What I tell you?!" Ethel boasted. Being pretty ambivalent when it comes to choosing women multiple times our ages, we all shrugged off the boast. Ethel carried on in Bamar and English, ostensibly introducing the lot of us, and reminding us that "her eyes are blind" as we gave Bella gentle hugs.
If Ethel was in her seventies, and Bella was a few years behind her, she didn't seem to be doing all that badly all things considered. Sure, she was blind and weak, but she, like her sprightly sister, had surpassed the Burmese life expectancy by a significant amount. Bella didn't feel comfortable speaking English and Ethel gladly took the role of communicating for everyone, surprisingly enough.
Bella led us into her home, one at a time, to show us around. The tour didn't take very long, as its square-footage hardly rivaled that of a workplace cubicle back home. In the front room, a water pot, a cup and a bowl resting upon a few wooden crates comprised her kitchen, while a squat wood platform covered in linoleum served as her dining room. The second room was Bella's bedroom; a similar linoleum-covered wooden platform served as her bed, next to which she kept a battery-powered radio. That was it; no more than 30 square feet.
Ethel had told us about an old photo of her parents and siblings that Bella possessed, and excitedly handed it to me. Unfortunately, years of touching the faces of their gown and deceased family had worn all of the faces right off the print; neither woman knew it, but the people were all but unrecognizable.
As I emerged from Bella's home, I saw that word had spread that there were foreign visitors; a sizable crowd had assembled outside. Ethel took charge and started barking instructions at everyone within earshot, and in short order, a circle of chairs was placed around a small table in the dirt in front of Bella's home.
Manuel, Alex and I each offered some cakes and cookies that we had picked up as gifts for Bella and we sat around munching the cakes and asking questions while the audience gathered around and gazed at the show. The couple that had been frying the pancakes offered us some to snack on.
A lot of watching took place: we were just as fascinating to the locals as they were to us, and Ethel explained that most of Bella's neighbors had never seen a Westerner before. Ethel's good-for-nothing son-in-law showed up and tried his best to give Ethel a hug, but she held stern and refused to return his affection.
After entertaining the locals for a while, I offered to Ethel that perhaps she'd like some time to catch up with her family without me. "OK, you making photo, run-around?" she asked. "Here, this lady show you village." I was paired with an elderly lady wearing a purple longyi and a plaid shirt over a paisley blouse.
The tour I received was very detailed, and while the old lady appeared pleased to be showing me the highlights of her neighborhood, I really wasn't sure what she was communicating due to her use of incredibly vague hand gestures. I did my best to over-express my reactions, hoping that she'd take the cue, giving enthusiastic "oohh!"s and "aha!"s as she gestured at the the train tracks, the monastery, the school for poor children, the cows, the river and the garbage pile, where the cows were grazing and the children were fishing.
The two of us attracted a fair amount of attention as we toured the highlights of the town, and formed a bit of a following consisting of curious children who trailed us through our monastery and school tour, and right back to Bella's place. Manuel and Alex had fared similarly and between our divergent paths, word had spread wide enough that school children had gotten wise to the guests that were strolling around their hood. When we reconvened at Bella's our respective hangers-on probably consisted of a significant portion of the town's population. Things worked out for a while, but the kids kept coming and Ethel finally got upset when she realized that the kids were walking out of school to come see the scene at Bella's.
Ethel yapped at the kids, first telling them to be orderly and sit quietly if they were going to watch, and then finally started yelling at them to get back to class.
Knowing that Bella was dependent on her deadbeat son, Manuel, Alex, and I had discussed donating a little cash to Bella, to make life a little easier. Ethel had explained that Bella's roof was in need of repair before the next rainy season or she'd be soaked.
We talked a bit about whether Ethel could live up here in Mandalay and help support her sister.
"Ooh, this I would love, but I can not. No tourist in Mandalay, too far from Bella house. No money in Mandalay. I think one day maybe we put water pump in Bella house, she make some money."
Bella's house didn't have running water, and she stored her daily supply in a water pot. "How would that work?" I asked.
"Oh, 80,000 kyat ($80), dig a well! Then have water in Bella house."
"How would that make her money?"
"Bella sell water to other people in the village. But no work: now too many people have well in this village, so water make less money!"
She almost had me thinking that a well would be a good charity case, but she talked me right out of it, proof that the laws of supply and demand were just as alive here in a little village outside of Mandalay.
That night, after returning to Mandalay, Alex requested that we do a touristy activity and catch a marionette show. As we pulled up, all of the trishaw drivers parked out front enthusiastically greeted Ethel; clearly she'd left an impression despite having not been seen by these people in years. They were visibly excited to see her again.
"OK, I wait outside while you watch show," Ethel said as we approached the door.
"You don't want to see the show too?" Alex asked.
"Oh I seen. Beside, I talk with trishaw drivers and..." she trailed off, grinning deviously and patting her sweater pocket.
"And what?" I asked.
"I have a cigarette!"
I sighed. "Damnit Ethel, give it to me. You asked me to do this."
"No! I want it!"
"Then you lied, you said you were quitting!"
"I no liar! I bluff!" she shouted, pulling the cigarette out and putting it in her mouth, taunting me.
"Now, you asked me to take it from you and break it. Do you want me to do that?"
"Oh no, I smoke cigarette, only one!!" She pranced around a moment before placing it back in her pocket. I shot my hand out and reached into her pocket, just barely breaking it before she jumped away.
"No! I smoke my cigarette! Only one!" She hollered, sticking the bent cigarette between her lips and prancing around some more.
I walked into the show, shaking my head. There was just no winning with this crazy old bag. To rearrange her words, what I care? She's old, she'll just die.