Somewhere East of Suez 2/3
Originally published in Issue #4 of Leon Magazine, The Class Issue.
We are hungry and greedy again, so we take a lucky guess and enter a restaurant filled to its brim with people. We have found the place to be tonight. An intense chatter fills the restaurant built like a bungalow. A question about vegetarian food is greeted with a dazzling smile and a confident yes, although it quickly becomes apparent that the inquiry missed its mark. We blunder with the orders, not realising that in this restaurant, there’s no menu, then order platefuls of whatever we can through the language barrier: sticky black bean paste, potatoes doused with chilli oil and fried vegetables that they don’t sell in supermarkets back home. Communications are reduced to a string of smiles and repeating words to a confusion: the restaurant staff in Burmese, us in English, both parties simplifying their sentences into singular words. “Vegetables, vegetables,” we echo each other; “Sate, sate,” they feed back to us. In the blink of an eye, our long table gets covered with tiny bowls of tender but grey goat meat, stringy chicken and eggs marinated in a sweet and sour clear liquid. A huge pot of broth simmers in the middle of the table and four tiny spoons are brought out to us, the staff members lifting their hands close to their mouths, encouraging us to eat from the same pot.
We are so dizzy from the tastes, the smells and the sights that we forget that 300-odd kilometres west from here, on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, stateless ethnic mostly Muslim Indo-Aryan people are being violently persecuted by the Buddhist-majority government forces. Hailed as a leader of a democratic Myanmar, the Lady will stay quiet about it for months to come, then deny everything. We’ll later hear that representatives of the United Nations have been denied entry to the conflict zones and a few months later, thirty-thousand people belonging to the group of ethnic Rohingyas, stateless people, will be trapped in the mountains without food. Mountains of evidence will come to light detailing the horrific crimes committed in Myanmar, enough to fulfil the characteristics of a genocide. But tonight, it’s time to indulge in juicy meat and vegetables that melt in our mouths.
The next morning, we drive up and down the mountain and our friend Anna is feeling ill. She didn’t realise that tea leaf salad, the Burmese dish made of fermented tea leaves and crunchy peanuts, is highly caffeinated and greedily devoured almost eight portions over dinner last night. Knuckles white and cold sweat making her skin glow, she clutches onto her seatbelt as she lays splayed across the back seats, her body long and limp and her skinny legs violently thrown around the back of the bus with every bump on the cracked asphalt road. We are surrounded by young backpackers, their faces flush with the excitement of meeting some of their kind. We all bond over who has gotten themselves in the muddiest waters; who’s hiked side-by-side with teenagers armed with machine guns; who caught a deadly bug from the-most-delicious-street-food-ever. They are tired because of the flurry of faces and encounters; we are exhausted because we have been reading about the country’s wounds for too many bus trips in a row.
Yet we can’t seem to stop. We ingest information at the speed of a python gobbling up a mouse; we binge on facts about tea leaf salad, the Burmese military regime’s injustices, political prisoners’ plights, the fate of the Austrian woman who married a local prince and the state of affairs today. Ei has told us about the Jade miners in the North and the ethnic conflict in the Shan State, out of the permitted areas; in the very mountains we are driving through. We aren’t allowed where the separatists are camped out; no foreigner is to step their foot into the forbidden territories. We peer out of the dirty windows, our imaginations running wild. The books that rest on our laps tell the stories that unroll in the mountains that spread out before us.