Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

Irrawaddy River, Myanmar.

     Back to the river. On to the next stop, wherever that may be. A few big ships up here. Many with huge loads of timber that was recently raped from the northern forests of the country, illegal to export, illegal to buy or sell. That’s a lot of wood to be carrying for fun. About forty-five minutes later, yep, I see it. Next stop. The village of watermelons. Just across and up the river from the last village. Now this one is interesting. After being surprised by the village of bananas, all of us tourists are ready for this one. All the cameras come out, I’m crushed against the railing from all sides, cameras clickin’ away, tourists yappin’ away. Oh yeah, now this is vacation. The closest we can get is somewhere around twenty to thirty feet from shore. The gang-planks come out, the village gang-plank leader orders his troops to bring theirs out. He starts rallying, and/or just yelling at, the troops to hook em’ all up. Yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. Arms akimbo and waving everywhere. Helping where he can, throwing wood together into a bridge alongside the boys. I can only guess he’s yelling at how he needs to get the bananas off, get the watermelons on, get this stuff done. We need potatoes from the next village. Get movin”!!!. Load the melons, Everyone charge…

     The bridge is finished, the crowds who have formed on the shore suddenly burst onto the wood, the passengers on the boat waiting to get off charge from the other end. A maelstrom of mixing fruits that would make Snapple jealous. Bananas meet watermelon. Monks meet passengers. Bicycles go around the elderly. Elderly go around the off-loading and on-loading troops. A few go into the water. The captain of the gang-planks and troops still yelling and screaming, jiggling around like Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, sometimes on the gang-planks, other times waist or chest deep in the water. Playing the part, hamming it up for all the cameras still clicking away, throwing up pieces of watermelon (we were all on the second level), ever more animated as the time goes by. We brace for the “attack”, all eyes scanning the village for mini-munchkins, but nothing materializes. This village is different, the Spanish fort of Irrawaddy villages, all business, or mostly, not many kids. I could only guess that watermelons are just too heavy and unwieldy to be used by the children, who are all biding their time until the day they can get down to the next village. A woman slips and falls, the gang-planks becoming slippery. The troops start sanding them down, creating traction, helping the elderly navigate the slippery boards, repositioning the boards, chattering away. …I like to call that photo above “Do A Little Dance, Make A Little Love, Get Down Tonight …get down tonight” as a few of the troops were quite the characters, setting up the gang-planks, than, well, doing a little dance on them. That’s the gang-plank captain in the green shirt walking towards the water.

     The selling, trading, tasting, eating, clicking away, yapping and buying ensues. The Johnny Walker appears again, the women start touting their product. Watermelon. Whole watermelons, sliced watermelon, watermelon chunks, watermelon juice, fried, yes fried, watermelon, watermelon on sticks, watermelon in bags, watermelon salad, watermelon rind carvings, watermelon seed bracelets, watermelon seed necklaces, watermelon seed purses. Any and everything you could possibly do with a watermelon part is available. I gotta give it to them, they know watermelon, and are quite the entrepreneurs…

     About forty-five minutes later it’s just about over. The horn blows, the village kids on the boat scramble, the last of the watermelons are loaded, the village gang-plank captain is screaming from the deck below, the gang-planks are removed. A woman is seemingly launched from the side of the boat down below and into the water. Watermelons flying everywhere. She hits the water with a loud SLAP as everyone on the boat looks on in horror, one simultaneous “OOoooohhh” from the crowd. The woman surfaces, smile on her face …as her recently acquired Kyat slowly floats down the river. “Uhhhh” the crowd gasps …and points. The gang-plank captain to the rescue, jumping in behind her, gathering up the money and handing it back to her, with a lot of yelling and arm flailing of course. Seems we just found out what happens to people who are on the wrong side of the gang-plank when it’s pulled away. …that’s one question answered. Back to the river… Another stop at the village of carrots and it’s almost noon, maybe 1:00 PM. Each stop taking little more time, twenty minutes, a half hour, forty-five minutes.

     The boat looks like it’s getting a little lighter. A bit more room. Looks a little cloudy out, darker than it has been I should say, as it’s been drizzling for a while… That’s OK, we should be there in an hour. Storm clouds on the horizon. Some choppy seas, or, river. A little drizzle. A bit of light thunder. CRACK. A lightning bolt strikes the shore way too close, followed by what sounds like a thousand watermelons hitting the metal roof of the boat, as a fifty mile an hour wind gust hits us without a whisper of a warning and clap of thunder directly overhead. All at once, without warning, the rain starts moving sideways, another round of thunder and lightning, Crack! KABOOM!, the locals on the boat run for cover, we get instantly soaked, everyone tries to move to the middle of the boat, with their packs and everything else including the kitchen sink. It doesn’t matter. We’re soaked through in a second. Ahhh, monsoon season in the tropics, gotta love it. The storm only gets worse and the boat is heaving from side to side. The captain does what he has too. He turns the boat and heads to shore, and straight to shore, and doesn’t back down until he hits that shore, straight on, full force, up the bank, as far as he can go. At this point we see people on the shore just crouching down, holding each other and holding their possessions, trying to save anything and everything from blowing away with the wind, including the children. Nowhere to hide and nowhere to stay dry. Forward to an hour later, still sitting in the same spot. One of the worst storms I have ever seen, but we made it, and everyone is alive, unlike the storm in Sapa a few weeks before, and the boat is still, somewhat, floating. About 2:30 now, so we actually should be there soon, maybe, hopefully, god willing, but just happy to be alive really, so who cares, but what did happen to those people on shore? They’re gone now. Gulp.

     Shwwooo. That was close, maybe closer than we know. A few firm pushes and we are off again, albeit a bit slower, due to the still choppy and engorged river, and a bit wetter , to put it lightly. A few more stops. The village of potatoes, the village of carrots, the village of cabbage, the village of …well, there really is nothing here and not a hut or house in sight, just a bunch of people with their flip-flops off in the middle of a field on the edge of the river looking like flip-flops are the local crop… so the village of flip–flops, the village of the hut floating in the middle of the river where a lot of stuff is being unloaded and loaded, etc, etc. It just gets later and later. The seven hour, maybe eight-hour, already past the ninth hour, could be a ten-hour ferry ride goes on. We dry out by the wind, thank you Jesus. The ferry eventually trims down and everyone spreads out this time, actually having room to spread out. A cup of coffee at the “restaurant”, which is quite good, all the while sipping it thinking about that bloated rat that floated by earlier in the morning as the “restauranteur” pumps up more water from the river, as I talk to the waitress/busgirl/cashier, …as I think about all those people I know who wouldn’t touch the coffee for fear of some unknown deadly virus as they pour the anti-bacterial stuff all over them and starve to death for fear of eating local food. Well, bring it on I say. I’ve never had a problem before and a little bloated rat in my coffee ain’t gonna stop me!!! (I can feel the Karma changing already).

     We get to know the other tourists on the boat. The Chinese family. The Euro, Canadian, Australian, South African, who knows what he was guy that just talked way too much, about anything and everything, but most definitely about nothing. Ughhh. The same guy who pulled on two rolling suitcases in the morning along with a backpack on his back …and his front. Ten hours later, thinking back to that moment, now I understand. The Japanese girl, the most out of shape backpacker in the world …who actually looked like he just had a growing spurt because his clothes were way to small, short and just plain tight. Even his shoes looked like they were too small for his feet. Two Italian ladies, the Swiss couple of course, and a group of younger backpackers from Australia. A good mix. Throw in two Americans, a Thai and a Taiwanese girl, and things were quite international. The rest of the ride was smooth sailing, quite enjoyable actually, as we passed the tenth hour, eleventh, sun is going down, twelve-hour ferry ride. …note here that Bagan is only 90 miles (140 km) from Mandalay, where we started this journey …and I’m at 2500 words now, so I’ll hurry this along.It’s dark now, and we see the docks and lights. Yeeeah!!! As much as I love ferry rides in third world countries, it’s getting a bit much. At hour thirteen, 7:00 PM, we finally hit the dock. A real dock. Everyone out… WoooHooo… Wait a minute, not our stop. What??? Back to watching the dark. This is the village of most of the locals are getting off and laughing at the rest of us for still being on the boat. Damn. 8:00 PM, nothing. 9:00 PM, still going. The waitress/busgirl/cashier goes to bed for the night …ahhh come on, she was still sleeping when we got on the boat this morning. Can’t give her too much grief though, and you’ll see why in an up-coming post. 9:30 …the journey ends. All-in-all, fifteen and a half hours on the boat. …wish there was a fast tourist boat, but honestly, I’m glad there wasn’t. An experience I will remember for a lifetime, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I saw what the locals had to go through on a daily basis. How they travelled, traded, bought and sold. It’s Myanmar, and little variances in time have to be accounted for, no matter how big those variances are (over 100% this time). I probably learned more on this ride than a lot of people learn in years of social studies classes, plus it was a lot cheaper, and probably a lot funner also. An experience in itself, and one I would suggest to anyone. Don’t fly, that’s to easy. If the destination is all about the journey, this destination is well worth it. …even if it does take fifteen and a half hours to go ninety miles. Hey, it’s Myanmar!!!   …as I step off the docks/gang-planks/dirt bank and right into THE biggest scorpion I have ever seen in my life (the big black holy crap and I’m in flip-flops so I could possibly die if I take another step because the stinger on that thing is over an inch long type).

     About two weeks after we step off the ferry I see a news headline. “Irrawaddy ferry capsized by storm. One hundred missing. Fifty confirmed dead.” Damn. I hope the pirate queen is alright…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar X – Ferry Ride Photos