Since leaving Ottawa 10 months ago, we have travelled by 19 modes of transport, from once to a zillion times: car and taxi, plane, train, subway and skytrain, by foot, bicycle, bullock cart and horse cart, several kinds of boats (abra, catamaran, felucca, ferry, longtail boat, and speed boat), pickup and săwngthăew, and, last but not least, all sorts of buses!
Our most ... memorable ... bus trip was from Magwe to Nyaung U in Myanmar. At 4:00am, we sleepily walk in the dark along the deserted road to the bus station. At 4:30am after broken communication in English and attempts to understand Burmese signs by comparing them with Burmese characters in our travel guide, we secure seats on a full 20-seater bus to Nyaung U. And a full bus it is! A quick glance through the bus window confirms that there is no room inside the bus for our backpack. It is handed up to the man on top of the roof of the bus who ties down a mountainous heap of luggage and rice bags, a heap which looks like it will tip the bus. We are then motioned to enter the bus. At least 20 faces peer at us as we hoist ourselves onto waist-high piled rice bags, and crawl on our hands and knees down the narrow aisle to the only empty seats. Our seats are an unpadded wooden bench with an almost 90° angled back. The rice bags are also piled to the height of the bench seat in the leg space areas between the narrowly-spaced benches. Therefore, we each fold ourselves into our seats, our knees pulled up under our chins and pressed up against the back of the bench in front of us. The journey begins.
As the hours too slowly and uncomfortably pass, more and more passengers are squished into or onto the over-full bus: people sit on the rice bags in the narrow aisle down the middle of the bus, people sit on rice bags in the small space at the back of the bus behind the benches, people outside hang off the sides and back of the bus, and people sit on the top of the roof. This, I am quickly learning, is the norm in Myanmar.
Because I am tightly wedged into my seat, it is too great of an effort to turn more than my head to count the total number of passengers: there could be as many as 15-20 more in or on the bus, in addition to the 20 who are seated on the benches.
It is slow and uncomfortable travel. The road is in very poor condition. When the road is paved, we travel between 20-30km/h, and experience huge potholes, uneven and rocky surfaces, and precarious turns on the narrow road. When the road is unpaved, we travel even slower, experience the same things, but with dust. Adjusting my position in the few centimetres of space we share between the two of us does not alleviate the increasing pain that my spine and bum suffer as the hours creep by.
At the toilet stop, we crawl over the rice bags out of the bus with relief. I engage in a pleasant conversation with a man who is also waiting for the toilet. He speaks English well enough (I only know "thank you" and "hello" in Burmese) that we talk about Canada. When it is time to continue the bus trip, all sitting passengers strategically re-embark from back to front because no lateral movement is possible once on the bus. All remaining passengers then resume their positions hanging off the sides and back of the bus, and sitting on top of the roof. The journey continues.
Our next stop is for "foreigners" - even the language used in Myanmar well represents the formally and informally institutionalized distinction between tourists and Burmese. The front part of the bus disembarks so we can once again crawl over the rice bags out of the bus. We show our passports to the Myanmar authorities and each pay the 10 US$ entrance fee charged to foreigners who enter the Bagan area. Then, back onto the bus we all climb. A long 6½ hours after our early morning departure from Magwe, we finally arrive in Nyaung U.
After a bus trip like that from Magwe to Nyaung U, is it worth having a sore bum and spine for days on end when subsequently sitting on everything from the usual wooden seats to even a bed? The answer is undoubtedly yes. It is yes because of the conversation I had with a 10 year old girl who wanted to sell me postcards in Yangon, because of the many conversations I shared with a monk in Pyay, because of the conversation I had with a 9 year old girl on top of a pahto in Bagan, because of the crackers I ate with a group of children on the top of this same pahto in Bagan, because of the conversation I had with a waiter in a restaurant in Bagan where we together looked at the map of the world on the wall and pointed at Myanmar, Canada, Ottawa, and Vancouver, marvelling at the long distances, because of the 20 people who all watched me while I ate at a restaurant in Magwe, because of the kindness of the man who took me on his bicycle to find a room in Pyin U Lwin, and because of all the excitedly shouted "hellos" from countless children running to meet me in Myanmar.
It is yes because during the last 10 months, I am repeatedly learning how to unlearn assumptions about the daily travelling logistics in different countries. Assumptions are efficient short-cuts when conditions are consistent: I function with assumptions when I buy groceries in Halifax, rent a hotel room in Ottawa, or do banking in Edmonton. Because in different countries I am experiencing many ways of buying groceries, renting a room, and banking, for example, I ongoingly unlearn assumptions because they are not consistent from environment to environment. In Myanmar, I learned that the norm is to ask if a room has electricity, and if so, from what time to what time. I learned to not only ask "Do you have a room available?", but to ask "Do you take foreigners?" In Myanmar, only certain hotels/guesthouses are specially licenced to accept foreign guests. I was reminded that it is a luxury to be able to travel because many Burmese will never travel in their lifetimes outside the areas in which they live.