Cowardice in the Reedbeds: Gap Year Week 31

Hot and dusty. Somewhere in the middle of the Myanmar countryside, sometime around siesta. I’m walking down a road and composing this blog post in my head. I do this often, especially when I’m on my own. I like knowing I have the shape to articulate my experiences within. I place myself within a narrative. This is where I am, this is what I’m thinking, this is where I’m going.

Where I’m going now is the bottom of the hill to find my boat again. I’m not entirely certain how I arrived on this road from where I started, but I’m sure I can find my way back to the heap of planks where my boat driver had indicated I should get off. After all, the canal was only so long. And I’m an obviously clueless tourist, ripe for interrogative directions.

It’s been a long, warm day. I arrived on Inle Lake sometime this morning, woke up to the soft sunrise on the paddyfields outside the window of the overnight bus. Magically, in my sleep, we had teleported from outside Yangon—where, late last night, I had missed the departure time and had kindly people chase the vehicle down with me to some isolated highway petrol station—to here, halfway or so across the country.

rural countryside.JPG

It is two weeks since I came back to Myanmar from the Philippines. At work, I’ve been writing papers and doing research and trying to run programs without my computer crashing. In the evenings, I’ve been exercising as well as experimenting with baking and cooking for the first time with varying success. (One day I succeeded in a marvelously moist and rich chocolate orange cake. The next I put baking soda instead of flour in a stew.)

Like that, the time has silently and steadily slipped past. It’s half a week till I leave Myanmar for good.

***

I had planned my trip to Inle Lake to get out of the city. See a little more than Yangon for two days. Anyways, lakes and wetlands are good for birding. Maybe I’d see something new—though I knew, going without a guide, or indeed more than basic preparatory research, the chances were low. But it wasn’t like the bus tickets were expensive, and, I mean, I could sit at home and watch TV, but should I, really?

Hence the hot and dusty road. I am taking the long way back from the pagodas I visited at the top of the hill, a cluster of thousands of temples constructed by someone whose name I only heard in French when eavesdropping on a tour group. I walked slowly around them, peering into the shadows hanging from the open mouthed doorways. Some of the structures stand halfway to dust, their bricks thickened with weeds, but in the crevice where the statue nestles, fresh incense bowls always gleam. In front of the main Buddha in the inner temple, a couple from Brazil stood in silent prayer. Outside, the bells from the metal spires chimed in the wind, and I waited listening to them for several minutes, thinking of the gods here.

more pagodas 2.JPG

When I sat to put on my shoes to leave, I said hello to one of the French tourists.

“Are you traveling alone?” she asked me.

“Yes.”

“You’re so brave,” she said.

I smiled at her agreeably, and then her boyfriend came out and she left. But as I walk, I replay her words and the small ring of shock in her voice. Is any of this a brave act? No, I decide almost immediately. There is no bravery involved in any of . There is just me, and the afternoon humidity pressing on my shoulders, and my thoughts drifting past. Bravery implies a kind of force to it. That I can reach down within myself and find a hard shining nugget of courage, a rock I can build cities on.

But traveling alone isn’t that. Deep down I find nothing but a quiet naïve belief that everything will pan out. My hands can hold all the things I need. I’m centered: what I do is what I want, and vice versa. I choose where to turn, not in spite of anything or anyone. There is no one to fight. That’s not brave—that’s just navigation.

***

Back on the boat, as the sun begins to set, my boat driver navigates to a village canal. There doesn’t appear to be any souvenir stands of the kind he’s spent the day leading me through in overpriced succession. When I met him in the morning, I’d tried to combine Google translate and universal hand gestures to get across the point I wanted to visit the birdwatching centre on the lake. He had shrugged and taken me to a handlooming shop.

Now, I glance at him in confusion. He gestures to the back of the houses we’re next to and flaps his arms. I turn to look, properly look, and realize the vegetation is thrumming.

Waterbirds—hundreds, maybe thousands, of cormorants and Asian openbill storks and ibises—are coming into roost for the night. I stand and watch them for nearly half an hour as they wash over in waves, disappear into the raucous trees, which seems like they should overflow with the numbers but still keep taking in another ten, twenty, thirty birds settling in, ruffling their feathers, tucking their heads under their wings.

The smell of their guano is rich and unmistakable; everything presses around me, noise and smell and movement oversaturating the air. These aren’t new or unusual birds; this isn’t a new or unusual event to me. But I’m transfixed by it. The solidness of being in this place: the undeniable exhilarated aliveness, every call and wing flap we are here we are here we are here. I am here I am here I am here.

waterbirds.JPG

***

The next day I rent a bike from my hotel and drive out of the town, following some GPS coordinates I dredged from an Internet forum for a particular species of bird known as a Jerdon’s bushchat. It’s not a particularly attractive bird, though dapper in a compact black-and-white way, but it’s resident in exactly the type of reed bed agricultural activity loves destroying. I make a few wrong turns, but I get there eventually, standing across a small canal. I can see the reedbeds three hundred meters away, but I realize that without a spotting scope I won’t be able to find anything as small as what I’m looking for in them. I can’t see any way to cross the water.

After I investigate the cluster of houses nearby, a young boy starts following me, hand outstretched. “Money, money, money, money?” he asks. “Money?” I wonder which tourist taught him the word, or perhaps his parents; he doesn’t seem to know any other English. He keeps his hand on the back of my bicycle as I wheel it, and I ignore him and swallow my complex rationalizations. Eventually he leaves.

I decide to ride along the edge of the field and see if there’s a way to cross into the reedbeds anywhere else. For most of its length, there’s nothing; most villagers seem to traverse the ten-meter width in boats tied to the back of their houses, and the cows that graze it have no issue wading through. Eventually, at the very end of the field, I find a bridge, though calling it that is an overstatement. It’s a couple of rotting bamboo poles strapped together with twine and strung out across the water. I look at it and ride past. Then I sigh, turn back, and park my bike.

I’m terrified of heights and of falling. In a situation like this I’d generally elect a more foolhardy vanguard and follow, tightly clutching their hand. But now I get on carefully, clutching my backpack as if I hold it tight enough it’ll remain dry if I fall into the river. I make it halfway across before my legs seize up. There’s nothing to hold on to and my muscles clench up in a panic, root me to the bamboo; I totter.

But it’s not like I have a choice at this point, do I? Slowly and painfully, I force myself to lift a foot, inch it along. Again. Again. It’s such a clichéd image I make. Girl overcomes fear of heights and proves value of independence. Realizes if she wants to move, she has to move herself. Crosses the stream to maturity.

***

I make it to the end, and find the bushchat perched on an open pole in under a minute. At the edge of the reeds, I look up. There are two storks circling the hills. A flock of egrets clouds upward from the distance reaches of the field. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, open them.

I can see the days unfolding before me. I’ll leave soon and cross the bridge back to the road. It’ll be nerve-racking but I’ll make it across. I’ll go and ride my bike along the hillside paths after, careen down the slopes, make ill-advised detours, stop at pretty fields and take bad photos. I’ll have lunch, maybe nap, take the bus in the evening, go back to Yangon, return to work. I’ll bake a few more cakes. I’ll finish my projects. I’ll leave Myanmar for Singapore.

And I can’t see too far ahead in this story, maybe, but it will all happen. One after the other after the other. The time passes in joy and frustration and anticipation and fear and adrenaline and sadness. And what I witness now is my life in creation. This is something I make, something I grasp, something that belongs to me as much as this wide, peaceful sky.

hills.JPG

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