Back in Yangon it was time to get down to business and wrap everything up. I arrived at night and selected the sparkling Panorama Hotel at a whopping $25 per night, so I could get air conditioning, a full load of laundry, and a nice bed after the nights on the road back to Yangon.
I walked around the city that night with an air of confidence: it is rare in my travels that I return to a destination, and having been in Yangon two weeks previously and learned a whole world about Myanmar in the meantime, I was ready to take the city with a whole new attitude.
In the dimly lit night, I grabbed a tiny plastic stool at a street corner food stall bustling with locals. I had spied my favorite dish, ono cow sway and requested it when the serving boy saw me. Everyone sitting near me expressed surprise and excitement at the notion of a foreigner who knew what he wanted. I even knew that it was ok to gesture for seconds when I finished my first bowl. I used the communal rag to wipe my fingers and face, and bade farewell to my new friends, a terrific experience at a whopping 20 cents.
"Chesu te mada!" I thanked them as I walked off.
Later in the evening three young boys took an interest in the stranger on their street and after some whispering and giggling, one decided to test out his English.
"Fuck-ah you?!" he said, clearly lacking confidence in whether he was saying what he wanted to say.
I smiled. "Me ming a loo lah." I returned, without missing a beat, and took a turn down the next street.
The next morning, I headed directly to Ethel's office. Ethel had been back in town since splitting ways with me in Mandalay. We had a quick tea near her office and chatted. She'd been feeling a bit under the weather since Mandalay, which is why I believe she was swearing off the cigarettes.
"Oh I am old lady! Not feeling well," she said. Somehow the health conversation shifted to teeth and eating preferences. I knew that Ethel didn't eat hard foods, due to her teeth, but she took things to the next level, insisting on showing me that her main incisor was loose. She had a great sense of humor about her condition and shoved her rotting mouth in my face to show how her decaying big tooth was loose enough to pull out if she had the inclination to speed up the inevitable.
Our main goal for the day was to pick up some packages containing statues I had purchased in Bagan and had transferred to Yangon, and then to visit her daughters. Ethel hired a cab and barked directions at the driver who took us to a typical ten-story building in a quiet corner of the city and got my packages. We then headed towards a dense residential area shaded by trees and crisscrossing wires carrying illegally spliced electricity and television signals into the apartments.
At the base of one green building, Ethel yanked on the string that hung a bell and a clip from a third story balcony. She hollered up as she yanked and after a few moments. A female voice called down.
"Cherry daughter!" Ethel exclaimed by way of introduction when the young woman arrived at the base of the stairs. A small boy in tow was getting over a good cry when he got to the bottom too. Ethel's grandson.
We ascended the stairs and I was shown around. The apartment was narrow, no more than 15 or 20 feet at the widest point, and relatively long, maybe 60 feet or so. The walls were painted the same green as most of the buildings in the city, the efforts of a city-wide whitewashing effort that took place in the 1980s. The floor and walls were made of concrete.
Just inside from the balcony was the living room of sorts, where the two plastic lawn chairs were pulled together so that Ethel and I could sit. We were adjacent to the one other piece of furniture in their living room; a wooden shelf with a small TV and DVD player, both covered to fend off the dust. Ethel explained that rent here was 4,000 kyat per month ($40) including water and power.
Beyond the living room was the main room where three woven mats were lined up parallel on the floor, comprising the bedroom for Cherry, her husband and their son. A wire stretched across the wall, acting as their closet, hung their clothing. The kitchen had a window that looked out to the dirt alleyway below. The counters were formed from concrete and an exposed pipe delivered water to their stainless steel sink. A small wire rack displayed their small collection of dishes. The bathroom was attached to the kitchen and was literally a concrete cell with a spigot.
After a short chat and some antics with the grandson, we walked to "Anna daughter house" and had a short interaction in the stairwell; her more rotund daughter was self-conscious about the state of her apartment and preferred that I not see it. Ethel was disappointed that Anna's daughter was out at the market at that moment, because she saw me as a perfect candidate to marry her granddaughter. I was off the hook on that one.
Ethel insisted on treating me to a bowl of mohinga, a tasty fish soup that is common throughout Myanmar. After we finished eating, it was time for me to go; off to India, reputed to be more insane and less developed than anything I'd seen before. Ethel explained that she would send me to the airport in the cab on my own.
"Why don't you just come with me? I can pay the cab to drive you wherever you want to go next?" I asked.
"No," Ethel said, looking at her feet, visibly saddened, "it will be too sad. I cry."
There was no convincing her. We talked, I renewed my promise to send friends and strangers to come meet her and to come and see her again some day before she dies. We hugged and said farewell. There was no telling how much time she had left on this planet. As the cab pulled away, she said her token farewell, "Take it easy."
And sure enough, once we got on the road and the cab driver turned on his tape deck, I heard the first non-Burmese-sung American song I heard in Myanmar: Take It Easy by the Eagles.