I didn’t have a flashlight and my friend’s was dying, so we decided to just lay down where we were. Not that we had any other options. It was a little after 3am and nothing was open even if we had been able to see it. We felt around for an area that didn’t give off the impression that it had recently served as a toilet, lay down and drifted off to sleep. Five minutes later I woke up with a bunch of stray dogs examining me with their tongues. Oh, well. Why start getting any sleep now?
At first light, we made our way into town, waited an hour for some tea shops to open and waited there for another hour for the first jeeps to pull up. They finally did sometime before 7am, so we negotiated a price and waited until our 8am departure time. At eight, we were told the jeep would leave at nine. At nine we were told ten and so on, until we finally took our seat around eleven.
While waiting, I was talking to a local English teacher. He was Burmese (ethnically, I mean), but he had been dispatched to this area to teach minority children. He was not happy in the least, partly because he couldn’t speak a word of the local language and none of his students could speak Burmese. He also didn’t like the fact that the area (his school was located another hour or so to the north, he said—I didn’t think of this at the time, but at Burmese speeds that probably put it about 50 meters behind us) was basically a war zone and he was seen as one of the enemy.
He was very open in voicing his displeasure with the assignment his government had given him (and also with his salary, which was pathetic even for local standards). In fact, he was one of the few people I met during my month in Myanmar that felt comfortable talking openly with a foreigner. I’m sure it helped that he was the only one around who could speak English, but he was also very disrespectful with the local government representative. Deservedly so, since the weasel came by a few times to extort some money from us, but got shushed away unceremoniously each time. I only hope the teacher didn’t pay for that later.
He mentioned that he made it a point to talk to all the foreign visitors who pass through, mainly to practice his English, but also out of curiosity. What he really wanted explained was why all foreigners are always in such a bad mood. For example, the last group to visit, two young American guys who were there a week or so before us, flipped out when they put their bags on one of the jeeps and it promptly took off the second they turned around. It was only going to get gas and would come back soon after, but no one told them. The locals just couldn’t understand why they might get upset by this or why all foreigners who came there got upset. This should have served as a warning: as bad as our journey had been up to this point, a point we had basically considered the end of the trip, since we were just a short jeep ride from Indawgyi Lake, things were about to get much, much worse.
As I mentioned, we were finally allowed on the jeep around eleven. I should mention: they call it a jeep. It’s not really a jeep. It’s a very old, over-sized pickup truck that has a home-made metal structure in the back that functions as three rows of benches for passengers. You’re basically sitting on a couple of rusty metal bars with another two rusty metal bars supporting your back and another one digging into your knees. As I’m sure you can guess, it’s extremely uncomfortable. Until you start moving. Then you long for the original discomfort.
On the “roads” in that area, which are really just a succession of various sized holes, differentiated from the surrounding farmland solely by the fact that the farmland is actually flat, those metal bars start to feel like metal baseball bats and some roided-up gorilla is using your body to practice his swing. If you’re a student of history, you’ll remember that the Catholics experimented with just such a jeep during the inquisition but ended up deeming it inhumane and going with the rack instead.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; although we were sitting on the jeep, we were far from leaving. Once we had packed twelve people into the nine seats, we did start moving, giving us a little hope, but we soon realized we were just cruising the town looking for more fares. After we had picked up another ten people and all their baggage, we returned to our starting point where we met a truck carrying furniture and a second jeep with more people on it than ours.
It goes without saying that we all had to give up our Geneva Convention defying seats and stand around for an hour watching twenty workers smoking, chewing betel nuts and supervising two guys as they piled half an IKEA’a worth of furniture onto the two jeeps. Then the passengers and their luggage were stuffed into and piled onto the furniture. When we were finally all set to head out, the driver came by to collect half the fee we had agreed upon from all the locals and then demand twice that again from us.
Now, a lot of people will say you should expect to pay more as a tourist and I don’t disagree. That’s why we agreed to a price that was double the standard. But once you agree on a price, it shouldn’t change. When we tried to reason with the driver, he flipped out. He started pacing back and forth like a crazed lunatic, gesturing wildly and yelling about, I’m guessing, the injustice of it all. You encounter guys like this from time to time (more in some countries than others—especially India and, from what I’ve heard, Vietnam)—guys who get angry at you for not letting them cheat you. My rule is: never ever give these people what they want. Ever. No matter what.
In this case, we obviously went straight to the driver of the second jeep and quickly agreed to ride with him for the same amount we had originally agreed upon with the maniac, who immediately came running over and attacked the new driver. Literally attacked him—he started shoving him around as he tried to slap him repeatedly. As a result the new driver would no longer take us.
From this, the situation deteriorated to the point where the asshole was demanding we pay twice the value of his jeep and he wouldn’t let us on the other jeep either. And he wouldn’t just drive off (remember, we had passed the original departure time by about four hours at this point) because he knew we would get a ride with the other jeep the second he left. So he kept stuck around and kept yelling, hoping we would give in as most people probably, and unfortunately, do. He even went so far as to start taking pictures of us which he threatened to give to the government, so of course I took a picture of him taking a picture of us.
Many people will wonder why we even bothered putting up a fight when the increase he was asking for amounted to very little in western currencies. I’ve been told many times that guys like him need the money a lot more than we do, so we shouldn’t be so reluctant to pay more. But you know who else needs money more than we do? Orphans. If you’re going to be giving away money, don’t give it to the guys who make a living scamming you and their fellow countrymen too (let’s not forget that); give it to someone honest or to some poor orphan.
Basically, there was no way this guy was getting any money from us and since he had to do his job more than we had to get to the lake, he had no choice but to give in eventually. Over three hours later–that was when the other passengers finally started to turn against him. Before that, they all hated me and my friend thanks to the driver constantly telling them things in their language and obviously not making us out to look very good. But after three hours no one could possible fail to realize who was at fault, so finally the second driver got a little more courageous, took our money and off we went.
Series continued in part 6: Arrival at Indawgyi Military Base