Somewhere East of Suez 1/3
Originally published in Issue #4 of Leon Magazine, The Class Issue.
“Have some fried fish, it’s my favourite,” Ei insists. She’s in the habit of ordering the same dish wherever we go: humble pieces of fish with a side of simple steamed rice. She never finishes her plate, and instead, insists on feeding the rest to us, giggling at the amounts of food we eat. We suspect that she thinks we’re greedy — and we are.
We get dizzy from choice in every small joint we go to and end up spending thick bunches of cash on steamed fish, sautéed watercress with fragrant garlic and tangy tea leaf salad. Ei’s taken us to her favourite restaurant, where we sit in silence and stare out at the murky Irrawaddy River that lazily grazes past the restaurant’s manicured lawn on its way down from the Himalayas to southern Myanmar. Ten years ago, the mighty Irrawaddy River flooded in the aftershock of the Cyclone Nargis, washing at least 140 000 people to their deaths while a silent military dictatorship watched the events unroll. Ei gestures towards a now-empty green pasture to the right, telling us that it used to be her home village. Beyond the now-tranquil river and the fluorescent green paddies, mountains seem to grow from nothingness, their peaks shrouded in mist. Nobody has the audacity to ask why the village isn’t there anymore. Instead, we divert our attention to a plate brimming with potato salad doused with fresh chillies that burst in your mouth and make the tip of your tongue tickle. We quieten down again. “You truly need to have some of this fish,” Ei tries one more time, her soft face melting into an elegant smile.
We take our mopeds through the sesame fields, speeding past temples and decaying statues. When we finally arrive at Ei’s favourite pagoda, our clothes are coloured by fine yellow dust. Ei climbs the side of the pagoda like a gracious ancient Burmese statue, her tiny hands gripping the nearly thousand-year-old yellow bricks. She checks each nook and cranny with her tiny flashlight with the authority of someone who grew up at the root of these temples. “I don’t think there are any snakes’ nests here,” she reassures us as we climb after her, struggling to keep up with her nimble feet. When we get to the top, we sit in silence and admire Bagan, the ancient town that spreads out beneath our feet, putting up its finest display of its thousands of Buddhist temples and monuments. Tonight, there’s little time to think about the corrupt governmental Department of Archaeology that we hear rules this ancient town, covertly selling expensive plots to hotel chains and cutting locals farmers’ livelihoods year by year. It’s Dhammasetkya Day, the first day of Buddhist Lent. The decrepit temples fill up with rowdy teenagers, old women, and large families. As we stumble down the pagoda and fly on our motorbikes on the main road, honking our horns to signal that we’re still alive, we see the sides of the roads littered with Burmese tourists getting henna tattoos or watching puppet shows. The air is electric.