Beyond the bridge the time bends.
In a village
In the morning along the road there are oxen pulling wooden carts. They walk slowly on the sandy roadside rising a cloud of dust all around. Who went on the field earlier, is already ploughing with a wooden plough.
However, each day starts at the betel stand. It’s here where the locals gather as if it was a morning assembly. Agile fingers of the seller prepare wrapped bundles of fresh leaves with spices and pieces of hard nuts. It has a refreshing taste. Almost every man and some woman chew it, spitting red saliva on the streets. When I stop nearby for a morning coffee, I’m welcomed by red smiles. The red smiles jump on a pickup a moment later. It came to take them to work somewhere outside of the village. Who didn’t find place in the back of a truck, climbs on the roof rack. Some go away on scooters carrying a machete to cut grass or an axe to chop wood which must be gathered to cook. Nobody in the village has a car. Now it’s just me, local women and street dogs. Sun rays shining through the leaves of trees along the road sting my eyes. For consolation I get instant coffee in an unwashed cup.
The stand is made of bamboo sticks and covered with a roof made of dry leaves. Houses in the village are similar. Women buy here fried pies and bundles in palm leaves. They stop to talk a little with their neighbours. One of them is immediately surrounded by street dogs. She buys them packed cakes and gives one to each of them. Luckily, I finished mine before her arrival. Someone washes their clothes by the well. Somebody else draws water in plastic canisters hanging on a long, wooden stick. I pass him later when he carries his heavy yoke to his home. Sometimes there’s electricity in the villages. Sometimes there are no high voltage lines by the road.
But there’s always a Buddhist monastery and a temple. I don’t even need to search for them. First I hear them. By the road there are fund-raisers shaking metal bowls in which little stones rattle. There’s loud music from the loudspeakers, sometimes, in addition to all that, somebody speaks through a microphone. In the evenings though, when I put up my tent under the stars, Buddhist mantras sang in the monasteries are my lullaby.
Sometimes I encounter road works. Usually they widen the road a bit. Men and women put stones in a ditch. Hot tar fumes from metal barrels. They pour it by hand through a metal sieve. Once they pour tar at the gate of a very posh golf course. I pass by quite a few of them. They belong to a different reality.
In a town
It’s always clear that the town is near because there is rubbish by the road. Garbage dumps spread on both sides of the road both at the beginning and at the end of each town. Sometimes someone searches for cans or plastic bottles in between the rubbish. Then, there are suburbs, petrol stations, some work places. Wooden houses change into brick ones. There are big temples and hotels. Then, regular shops appear. Some of them have signboards in English. It seems that it’s more stylish because not many people speak English here. Mobile phones and mopeds are sold. In the centre it’s busy like in a beehive, especially near the market. A crowd of buyers mills around, hundreds of scooters manoeuvre between cars, pedestrians and street dogs. Everyone honks. A policeman whistles. There are songs coming from loudspeakers. Rickshaw and pickup drivers advertise. I think that locals had to develop some sort of selective deafness not to lose their sanity. Sometimes there’s a shorter or longer blackout when the local energy network can’t support too many users.
I stop by a shop where Cristiano Ronaldo assures from a poster that he hasn’t got dandruff anymore. Burmese people walk all around me. Usually, they wear longyi – a piece of cloth that looks like a long skirt. Men look surprisingly good in it. Women’s, children’s and rarely men’s faces are covered with thanaka. It’s a sort of whitish face mask made of ground bark to protect the skin from the sun. Usually faces are covered quite roughly but, when there’s an important occasion, elegant leaves or other complicated shapes appear on women’s cheeks.
Sometimes I encounter mysterious parades. One of them is led by elephants! People in smart clothes march in a colourful procession on the side of the road. Women carry trays of fruit on their heads. Then, there are the younger ones walking in a row, sometimes also musicians. But the most important are the children. A few of them ride horses or ceremonial carts. Traditional umbrellas protect them from the sun. The owner of one of the hostels explains me later that that’s how local 5-year-old boys enter monasteries for the first time to stay there for some days. Later they can either remain there or come back to their families. It’s a big, important and expensive ceremony. Probably a Buddhist equivalent of our First Communion.
In a city
On a highway I’m surpassed by a brand new Hammer. Cycling into the city, I pass modern blocks of flats and office buildings. In the centre there’s a shopping mall. I go inside, endlessly curious, because after everything I saw before, a shopping mall looks like something from outer space. And it really is. In the middle there a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Locals, mainly Buddhist, take selfies with it. I do too because Christmas is coming soon. On the ground floor there are shops of Armani, Boss and big cosmetic companies. There’s also a completely empty coffee shop. A cup of coffee here costs more than a proper meal in town. I go upstairs on escalator. In Benetton and Espirit shops the cheapest shirt is 60$. When I enter, I’m immediately surrounded by all the shop assistants as I’m the only potential client. It seems that it’s cool to hang out here but local people just sit by a fountain downstairs without venturing into dangerous zones of cash registers.
In the city, apart from the normal street life, there are expensive restaurants and, sometimes extremely posh hotels. And also garbage trucks. When they pass, it’s announced by a man walking in front of them with a bell. At the sound of the bell women jump out of their houses with rubbish bags. Who is fast enough, is lucky.
On the streets of Myanmar time crawls zigzagged wherever it wants and bumpy tarmac carries me not only through villages and towns but also through different epochs.
‘Bye, bye’, a man waves to me. He is a proper wheelwright with a cell phone connected to 4G Internet.