Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Unlucky charms

This tale starts almost a week into a trip to Burma. I've met up with my aptly named friend of 25 years, Dangerous Dave, who having just ended a 4 year marriage, is on his way to start a new life in Vietnam as an English teacher. To summarise, Dave and I met up a week earlier in Bangkok, before hopping on a flight to Yangon, a few days there and an horrendous overnight bus journey to the romantically titled Mandalay, where we hired 2 scooters and have spent a most enjoyable 4 days riding across Burma. This week in itself will eventually make it into one of my life stories but for now I will concentrate on the latter part of our trip.

The day begins with drama, is sandwiched with even more drama and ends in melodrama, worthy of any James Bond script. We are now in the beautiful Inle lake area, where we spent a dramatic, previous day in the middle of the lake, watching our supposedly experienced canoe captain, cowering from the rapturous cracks of thunder and almost blinding lightning strikes which threaten to bombard our vessel at a distance of approximately 100 metres. Even the usually unflappable Dangerous Dave is passing comment on how too close for comfort the strikes actually are. He exclaims that he has never seen lightning hit the water before. I assume it is nerves that drives our laughter, whilst in an seemingly unlaughable situation. That is, moored up to a post in the middle of an enormous lake, nature throwing all it as at us, with our captain, cowering in the back of the canoe, shielding himself with an umbrella. He assures us that, to his knowledge, only one person has ever died on the lake from a lightning strike. I am not convinced but it is the only consolation I have to offer my mind.

How we ever made it out of that lake alive is only for god to answer but here we are a day later, leisurely breakfasting before setting off on out scooter for a 200 km stretch of mountainous terrain. In retrospect, we were never going to do this in one day, as it happens this was not written in the script anyway. Exiting the breakfast hall we meet our canoe captain, who appears to have much larger testicles than the last time we saw him. He wears a smile upon his countenance which is as wide as his frowns of yesterday were long. The reason for his joyous behaviour, we are to find out is the fact that we are all alive to enjoy another breakfast. Of the twenty or so canoes that were on the lake the previous day, one had been hit by lightning with the loss of one and serious injury of 2 others. It seems that our concerns were not unfounded after all.

We depart Inle Lake, glad to be alive and full of excitement for our forthcoming trip to Bagan. With far too much confidence, we crack on at a pace which is certainly far faster than the roads or our brakes should allow. Before we even leave the immediate area of the lake, I have been in a heart murmuring slide of the back wheel, which miraculously terminates before I slam into a wall. Dangerous Dave and I race through the mountains between Inle Lake and Kalauw, with pleasure pumping through our veins, as we pass everything on the road, including, cars, trucks, buffalo and cart, tractors, motorcycles and check points (which we are supposedly supposed to stop at). We reach our lunchtime destination of Kalauw in time for brunch. We have stayed here for 2 days already and therefore know the exact restaurant that we are heading for. The 7 sisters restaurant, run by -wait for it- the ancestors of 7 sisters. Great food, slow service but lovely people. The slow service is not too important because we have made up enough time to allow for a drawn out brunch.

Throughout the journey, Dave has decided that his helmet is not a necessity and in turn I have stupidly elected to discard of my own helmet. As we leave the 7 sisters restaurant, heartily foddered and watered, I tie my helmet to the back of my bike (much to the disdain of the 7 sisters ancestors) and we accelerate off into the distance with the staff waving us goodbye. Little do they know that I am to be back there within 15 minutes and then again within 30 minutes.

Dave sets the pace and I follow, not too far behind, shooting through the checkpoint on the edge of the village as we have become accustomed. We have been warned, that in this country of military junta, we will be stopped, cross examined and told to turn back. In reality, the guys at the checkpoint wave to us as we fly by, with no helmets and exceeding the speed limit by some considerable margin. What follows is a dangerous set of hairpin bends, which continue for around 10 km, as we make our way down the mountain. Rapidly descending the mountain, I briefly take note of the flower seller as she waves her wares at me. Our paths are to cross again in the very near future.

As often happens, my intuition tells me that something is not quite right. I turn around to discover that I have lost my helmet, somewhere on the mountain. Realising that Dave is too far ahead of me, I turn around and ride back up the mountain in search of my redundant head gear. Once again I ride past the flower seller, who is frantically waving her flowers at me. I casually think to myself, "It's a helmet I need love, not your flowers". It does not occur to me that she may have actually found my helmet. By now, Dave has managed to realise that I am no longer in his shadow and has met me on the mountain. I leave him searching for my helmet as I head back into the village. Before I know it, I am back at the 7 sisters and have been given a new helmet. With much determination I get the family to accept $10 from me and tell them that if I find my helmet, I will be back (I don't think for one minute that this will be a reality).

Once again I begin my descent of the mountain, taking a second to wave at the security check point guards, who are by now, almost too inanimate to lift their arms. In the distance, I see that Dave is standing next to the flower seller in a bus shelter type structure. I also notice that the flower seller is holding my helmet. She speaks no English but it is not hard to deduce that she has recovered my helmet and now wishes to sell me a flower (which turn out to be lucky charms). I delve in my wallet and give the lady $2. Dave also buys a flower which he wears around his neck. He informs me that this is the first lucky charm that he has ever bought. In hindsight of what is to come, I assume that this is going to be his last. This village is beginning to feel like the village of the damned. Will I ever escape? Off I go, back up to the 7 sisters restaurant to trade my helmet back in for $10. This time, the security post guards don't even bother to look.

Returning to the bus shelter, I give the flower seller the $10. The look on her face is enough for me to understand that she has never even seen a $10 note before. Upon further investigation, I notice a semi naked baby in the shelter. Dave later tells me that, through a process of gesticulations he understands this to be her child and the bus shelter to be her home. I leave, feeling happy to have given the lady the money but confused about global inequalities.

After, far too many false starts, Dangerous Dave and I finally set off, destination Bagan. Typically Dave sets the pace and I follow in relatively close pursuit. The scenery on this section of the trip is breathtaking, beautiful mountain valleys of lush greenness, farmers tending to their paddy fields, buffalo grazing by the roadside and people happily waving to us, oblivious to the poverty they exist in. Dave and I are really motoring by now and even running out of fuel does not break our spirit. I merely coast down the mountainside until I come across a roadside stall with bottles of fuel. These are everywhere in Burma and make life very convenient. What is slightly worrying however, is the fact that we are blatantly heading into storm. With each KM we cover, the sky turns a darker shade of grey.

I guess that a wiser man would say that the odds of finishing this trip in one piece are not in our favour. We are on bikes that have slightly defective braking mechanisms, going far too fast, down hairpin mountain bends, on roads that are so pot holed they can barely be defined as such. There are so many obstacles, such as buffalo, people, trucks and tractors, that at times it seems like you are playing a computer game. This is especially pertinent because I am listening to the Prodigy on my headphones, at full blast -thus setting my mood. Add to this that we are donned only in a pair of shorts with our crash helmets tied to the back of our bikes. Some may call it stupid, some may call it irresponsible, others reckless; I call it fun and a real sense of living.

Village after village passes us by and we are received by the same response at each one. Those lazing by the roadside, leap from their vegetative state to wave at us, roadside construction workers (usually ladies), leave their posts to frantically gesticulate, soldiers, police, farmers and just about any other profession you can think of, cast us a smile, as we race on by. This is life turned up to 11, I feel as alive as a man can get. The dark clouds looming on the horizon, it could be argued, are an indication of what is about to occur.

The roads have been particularly bad, as we approach our impromptu end. Just before the final village of our trip, we make one last stop to retrieve the water bottle which has flown out of Dave's basket. Examining Dave's bike, we think that he has cracked the frame in half. Fortunately it turns out that the plastic has come slightly loose. It would have come as no surprise if the frame was cracked in half, I must confess. With the damage report carried out we head off again, at lightning pace.

As we enter the final village, Dave, thankfully is in the lead by around 5 seconds. We cast our customary waves at the village folks and weave our way through the settlement. I see Dave disappear over the crest of a hill, although I am unaware that this will be the last time I will see him and his machine connected. As I race over the same hillside, I am confronted with a scene of carnage with Dave's bike spinning out of control and his body performing involuntary gymnastic moves. There are several trucks creating obstacles on the road and I am assuming these are the cause of Dave's spill. The cause of Dave's spill is revealed to me sooner than I would have liked, as my own front wheel hits a patch of oil and I wrestle with the steering column. I think that it is fortune rather than skill that ensures that I do not end up in the same bloody pile as Dave.

Let me tell you! if you are to have an accident of any kind, then I am the last person that you want around you. I have not got the foggiest idea what to do, despite completing a first aid course in 1985. My plan of action is to get off my bike slowly and hope that somebody that actually knows what they are doing turns up at the scene. My plan in this type of situation always seems to work. By the time I have reached the scene, Dave is surrounded by a gaggle of people and somebody has taken the lead. I quietly observe his injuries, take note that he is conscious and then tend to his bike in an effort to divert my mind. I inform Dave that his chain has fallen off and detect irritation in his voice at my seemingly low appreciation of the severity of his condition. Surprisingly he does not seem to mind, when I ask him if I can take photographs of the crash. I think, by now he realises that I am to be of little use as a medic.

Dave is hoisted off the ground and walked to a waiting scooter, his face has turned a strange shade of grey/green and he is hobbling pretty badly. There are injuries to the whole right side of his body, a lump on the back of his head and nasty looking cut on his left elbow. I do however note that his lucky charm appears to no longer be hanging around his neck. He is a little cautious about riding on the back of a bike to the hospital but he has little choice. His scooter/ambulance drives him off and I am left in charge of gathering his goods. I am happy to see that all the village appears to have gathered together to assist me in this task. We soon have his bike upright and his possessions gathered. Rather amusingly as, we gather his stuff together another scooter, bearing 2 people comes over the crest of the hill from the opposite direction and loses control on the oil slick. Somebody else goes to help and ends up falling on his arse. It is like the key stone cops out there.

A rather tubby man, who is semi naked, grabs Dave's scooter and gestures that I follow him as he pushes it away. We end up at a repair shop, where the proprietor puts the chain back on the bike. Despite my protests he accepts no compensation.
I then follow the tubby guy, through the village to the hospital. To make things worse, the heavens have opened up, as those once threatening dark clouds, release their pressure, all over the village. I am myself semi naked (and tubby, as it happens), as I fight my scooter through the cascading rain, like a world war 1 pilot through the bullet filled skies. People line the sides of the road to watch. Word has obviously got around that the idiots, who raced through the village not 10 minutes earlier, have met a well deserved sticky end. They display a mixture of emotions, ranging from laughter, excitement and sympathy. One guy, I note is particularly excited and jumps from leg to leg punching the air and laughing.

By the time I reach the hospital, Dave is lying prostrate on a wooden bed surrounded by nursing staff. Think world war 1 in the trenches. Imagine the makeshift hospitals that they had there and you've got a pretty good picture of the hospital where Dave now lies. There are many patients in the hospital, who appear to have terrible illnesses. However, Dave is seen to right away and he is given a level of attention which is worthy of any hospital in the world. The lady dealing with him, I note is wearing a fake Gucci t-shirt. I have no idea why but this seems to stick out in my mind. It seems ludicrous that these people hardly have enough money to eat, yet they want to be seen in a labelled top, albeit fake.

Word gets around the hospital and people appear from everywhere in their pyjamas. They surround Dave's bed and peer in bewilderment. The fact that his body is ripped to shit does not mean anything to them. The fact that there are 2 foreigners in this rarely visited neck of the woods is far more intriguing. Dressed in their white robes, they kind if resemble zombies, their vacant stares add to this conjecture.

Outside the rain crashes against the corrugated iron roof of the hospital, adding more atmosphere to the whole experience (not as though it needs any). Dave, as you can imagine is stressed out and seems to be taking his anguish out on me for not retrieving his bag, which contains some pain killers and a change of clothes. The bike is still at the repair shop, a good 3 minutes down the road. The semi naked, tubby man ensures me that he will bring it up when he has finished. I give it a few minutes before going to get it. When I eventually walk out of the door, I stand in a puddle and go up to my knee in soft mud and water. As I fight my way out of this quicksand like substance, the tubby man appears with the bike and bag. However, by the time I have fished out Dave's pain killers, the nurse has stitched him Rambo style without any form of sedative.

In a further twist to the tale, a doctor appears and takes control of the situation. He informs Dave that this is his lucky day because he is a district doctor based in Thazi (23 km away) and is only in the village because there has been an outbreak of dengue fever in the area. My mind is awash with 3 thoughts, 1, At least Dave's lucky charm was good for something, 2. Dengue fever must be the reason for the zombies, overall sickly appearance, 3. Fuck, can you actually catch that shit? The doctor then disappears to finish his lunch, which we have apparently disturbed.

Dave decides that he wants to freshen up a bit, which is hardly surprising since his body is full of road dirt, his shirt is hanging on by a thread and his arse is hanging out of his shorts. I prepare him some fresh clothes and assist him to the door, which he exits and walks full on into the pouring rain. The nursing staff and hangers on, then watch as Dave stands under one of the corners of the building and allows the water to cascade down onto his naked flesh. Rather amusingly they point out the best plants which I can use to wipe him down. It's as though this is an everyday occurrence.

It takes around an hour for the doctor to reappear and by this time we have got our possessions ready for a sharp exit. We make a very loose arrangement with the nurse to look after the bikes and give her the number of the guys that we hired the bikes from. We have arranged to drop the bikes off at 3 pm at Bagan airport in 4 days time. A plan with more holes in it than Dave's bleeding torso, especially since they asked for no deposit, passport or credit card. The village that we now find ourselves in is a good 150 km from Bagan airport and I begin to wonder what the outcome of this little arrangement is going to be. Right now, the most impending task is to get Dave to Thazi hospital for an x-ray of his knee which is where most of the pain is currently focused.

The doctor drives us to his hospital in Thazi, along 23 km of road, which has more holes than tarmac. The doctor is a rather peculiar chap, who laughs at the end of any sentence, whether it is funny or tragically serious. You know the type, you could tell him that you mum's died of cancer , your kids on a life support machine and your wife's left you, only to be met by a torrent of laughter - oh stop you're killing me. I am not too sure how much he English he understands but I find him a rather endearing character with an infectious personality (I hope that is the only infectious thing he has).
One of the first things he says to us, is, "I saw you riding through the village", this is followed by silence before he says "you were driving very fast". Of course this is met by his own laughter, "hahahha".

If we thought Thazi hospital was going to be any better than the previous affair then we are sadly mistaken. Ok, it's certainly bigger and therefore has even more zombie like patients surrounding us upon our arrival. We pull up in the car park and I escort Dave into the reception area. Within seconds the reception area is also full of patients, who are curious to know who, what and where these 2 strange specimens have been picked up from. There is a look of genuine bewilderment on their faces, as they make a circle around us and whisper to each other. Not knowing what else to do, I wave at them. Some timidly wave back and others remain vacant, staring at me as though I have just arrived from Mars. All the while Dave is filling in papers and answering questions. I take note that there are several dogs walking around the hospital with no apparent owner. Nobody, seems to acknowledge their existence and this includes doctors.

Eventually, Dave is ready to be transferred to the x-ray department. Well, I say transferred, what I actually mean is that Dave has to struggle to get up and then stumble 100 metres to a rather dingy looking outbuilding. During the 100 metre stumble, he encounters uneven ground, pond like puddles, huge drops and a wayward pig. The pig wanders the hospital grounds at its leisure, in what appears to be a never ending quest for food.

There is no door as such on the x-ray room, a moth eaten green curtain is draped across the open door frame. I muse over the function of this curtain. Is it to prevent access or to protect against radiation. The curtain is parted in the middle and resembles a pair of giants trousers. Dave disappears into the room and I stick my head through the curtains with catlike curiosity. Given the surroundings I am not expecting anything fancy, nor am I expecting the torture chamber of which I am confronted. Many years ago, I visited the S21 torture camp in Phenom Penh. The X-ray room at Thazi hospital does not look too dissimilar. As I leave the room of my own free will, the nonchalent pig is attempting to make his way in. I clap my hands and chase him off.

Dave re-emerges from his gamma chamber, shaking his head in disbelief at what he has just witnessed. Apparently, when the radiologist pushed the button to take the skeletal snap, the contraption not only made a large electrical sizzling noise but the lights in the hospital dimmed. Whilst he has been in there, the police and immigration and have arrived and are waiting to question us both.

What I have failed to mention until this point, is that it is actually illegal to hire motor cycles in Burma. The guys that we rented them off, were out to make a few quid and rented us their private bikes. Like I said, we exchanged no details apart from a telephone number and a time to meet at Bagan airport. Before we set off, we were warned by the hotel owner in Mandalay that we would not be able to make it accross Burma on scooters without getting stopped by the police. He did however back down on his convictions when he saw that we were going to completely ignore him anyway. He then changed it to "we should be ok, as long as nothing happens". These words are now ringing in my ears "as long as nothing happens". As we walk to the office to be interviewed by the police, I look at Dave's broken body and think, "Oh fuck".

There are 3 officials in total, 1 policeman and 2 immigration officers as far as I tell. I am expecting the worst but my feelings of anguish are soon alleviated when they begin their line of questioning. Using very broken English and poor translations, they seem to want a rundown of our iteniary for the past week. Where we've stayed, places we've been, what we've seen etc. We could have spun them any old bollocks to be honest and got way with it but we tell them the truth. All the while, I am waiting for them to ask me for my International driving license, which I blatantly don't have. Fortunately they never ask. They do however take photocopies of our passports. From what I can gather, they are more concerned about the reputation of their country as an safe place to travel. In actual fact, it is Dave and I that are unsafe to travel, Burma has served us incredibly well. The whole time that we are being questioned by the officials, the zombies have encircled us. We later find out that many of them are dying of malaria. I guess I should be happy that we have kept them entertained in the final stages of their life. Their curiosity reaches its zenith when Dave gets an injection of pain killer in his buttocks. I never knew that dying people could laugh so hard. I half expect to see them drop, there and then.

The laughing doctor has picked up on Dave's previous horrific injury, which ironically he sustained in another motor cycle crash. I say "picked up" but he would have had to be blind not to. Dave has a gash the size of a shark bite out of his right leg. It turns out that the laughing doctor is a master of skin grafts and is particularly interested in Dave's skin graft. Dave informs me that the doctor wants to show Dave one of his recently skin grafted patients. When I see a very sickly patient, hobbling accross the hospital forecourt, I do not for one moment think that this is the patient in question. The guys on deaths door and laughing boy has got him to walk from his bed, so that he can show off his handy work to Dave, who by the way does not give a fuck right now. The doctor is obviously proud of his hospital and to be honest we both have a great deal of admiration for him because he prides himself on the fact that the hospital does not accept any payments. The patients are all as poor as it gets. By use of a translator, I have a conversation with an old lady, who wears her arm in a sling and a smile on her face. It turns out that the lady has fallen in the paddy fields whilst picking rice. I can not even begin to comprehend the life's that thses people lead but it brings a lump to my throat that their are people that care about them and provide free medical care. It's a pity the taxi driver that the doctor hails for us, is not blessed with the same feelings of benevolence. We are charged $25 to take us 10 km tp Mektilla(cheeky bastard). As we exit the hospital car park, the doctor beckons our cab to stop and when we wind the window down. He shouts "good luck David". As our cab exits the hospital car park, we can still hear him laughing.

The journey to Mektilla, where we know of a great hotel on a beautiful lake (not that we care right now), takes a lot longer than it should do. The road is terrible and there are no lights to illuminate the way. Poor Dave gets bounced from pillar to post, whilst I am feeling less than comfortable in the back of the pickup truck. We arrive about an hour later and head to the Honey Hotel, which is in fact fully booked. To be fair, Dave did ask me to check out whether it was going to be full or not but I convinced him that I have never been rejected from an Asian guest house yet. Fortunately is too stressed and sick to rub my nose in this fact.

We end up, at another hotel on the other end of town, which is vastly overpriced, totally run down and full of over friendly staff, who appear only to be this way because they want tips. Dave settles in the best he can and I go off with one of the over friendly, tip hunting vultures to fetch some Chinese food. There are many worries on our minds right now but one of the most pressing one is about the scooter owners. We purposefully did not give the police their telephone number, but we are concerned that the nurse in charge of the bikes, did. Dave and I have vowed to ring the guys in the morning to sort it out. To recap, they are in Mandalay, a city that we left over 4 days ago and have been travelling away from ever since. Their scooters are hauled up in the first village hospital car park where we abandoned them after Dave's involuntary gymnastic display. This village is literally in the middle of nowhere, at least 300 km from the street where we picked the scooters up. My mind is all consumed in this issue, as I drift asleep.

Just when you thought this story could not get any stranger, the following morning adds a new twist. Dave and I awake fairly early and head out of our door for breakfast. As we emerge from our room, we are confronted by a familiar face. It takes a few seconds to recognise this face as the person that rented us the bike. Unbelievably, the guy has travelled down through the night with his friend and his uncle, on several buses. The nurse has rejected their plea's for the return of their bikes and has made them get a written confirmation from Dave and I, that we are OK and will not pursue this further. From the village hospital where Dave crashed, they have retraced our steps to the town hospital, where we encountered pigs, zombies and torture devices. The laughing doctor has directed them from there to the Honey Hotel, where he believed us to be. From there the manager has directed them to the overpriced shit hole where we now reside. As we slept, this band of super sleuths have travelled through the night. It is now 7.30 am and their efforts have been rewarded. Of course I write them the confirmation letter and in turn they try to help us find a private taxi driver that is not going to rape our wallets. As it happens, these are harder to find than a traffic policeman that gives a fuck in Burma. In our efforts to find a driver with a conscience however I am rewarded by the sight of a chain gang of prisoners crossing the road with balls and chaina on their feet (and I thought that this shit only happened in the movies). Rather bizarrely they all turn, smile and wave when they see me. I am happy to brighten up their lives.

We eventually book 3 seats on the bus to Bagan, 2 for Dave and his injured body and 1 for me. The bus is full to capacity and it is easy to see that somebody has been ejected from their seat to make way for the crippled foreigner.

Dave claims that he will never ride a motor bike without a helmet again. I doubt this very much. However, I don't doubt his claims that he will never purchase another lucky charm.


Less Dangerous Dave said...

brilliant! another Mitton classic !

Anonymous said...

I was married 4 years, ya bastard. dave

Anonymous said...

I mean I wasn't married 4 years - I was married 5 years. dave

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