At some point we’ll simply arrive somewhere, and if we can’t go any further by boat we’ll find some other means of transport. I’m not worried about that. I’m soon seized by a feeling of lethargy, as the landscape scrolls past like a film: pagodas, rocks, water, herons taking flight. Buddha’s message is blaring out from the loudspeakers of an approaching ship. Thankfully I don’t really have to move much.
‘On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin‘ fishes play…’.
Maybe Rudyard Kipling was thinking in his famous poem of the rare Ayeyarwaddy dolphins, which apparently help out the local fishermen with their catch, presumably working on commission. By the time someone yells out ‘dolphin!’, I’ve obviously already missed it. It’s submerged in the unfathomably muddy waters.
Just like hundreds of years ago, women are washing clothes, naked children are playing in the mud, and huts disappear beneath the huge trees on the riverbanks. It’s only when we dock that chaos breaks loose. Women with baskets full of lunchboxes, snacks and drinks spring aboard, hands full of fruit reach out towards the travellers, children wave, various sacks and crates are carried on and off. It’s only a few steps from the jetty into everyday life. A monastery, a small school – a shop, if you’re lucky – all these riverside villages are like that. Dust-coloured dogs snooze in the shadows. Those who have business to attend to bustle quickly off the boat. It can take a while until the next one comes. As soon as we set off again the whole place is still and lifeless once more.
My shoes are holding up pretty well, though by now they’re two-tone. The red dust has settled in the seams and creases, creating an interesting and fashionable colour gradient. They have a water stain too, because there’s always a few centimetres of water on the floor in the on-board toilet. It comes from the flushing mechanism, which sprays water everywhere like a sprinkler system. Still, at least it’s clean water. There are a few wooden blocks you can balance on if you want dry feet while you’re on the squat toilet. There’s no shower, of course, and I decide against washing myself in a barrel.
In the open lower deck there’s a kind of restaurant with an open fire and a large, battered pot for cooking rice. There’s also an assortment of beer, whiskey, crackers and an incredibly sweet coffee three-in-one mix. The attendants are sleeping behind the bar or around the stove, thickly swaddled in plush Chinese duvets with a flowery pattern.
The local guests – and a German couple from the blog ‘Silverpacker’, aimed at older travellers – have settled down between decks. There are numbered sleeping places marked out on the metal floor, and in the morning the deck is cold, damp and slippery with dew. The Silverpacker couple seem to know absolutely everything, and have brought self-inflating sleeping mats, all sorts of functional clothes and probably also night vision goggles and a mobile water treatment unit.
I find our acquaintance distinctly informative, and absorb information about remote parts of the world that would take forever to research by myself.
If war broke out tomorrow, I’d latch on to them immediately and abandon my travelling companion to his fate.
My photographer Ken seems to sense this. They’re a thorn in his side. ‘A single European ruins the picture,’ he likes to say, and he hates anybody who spoils his pictures as a matter of principle. He breathes a sigh of relief when we reach Katha – where George Orwell once served as an officer in the English army – and the Silverpackers disembark in the middle of the night (thanks to the delay) and without a hotel booking. There’s no need to worry about them.
The other passengers fit perfectly into our scenario. We’re given them codenames: the spy, the general and the lunatic. We don’t know whether ‘the spy’ is just pretending to be mysterious, but a few years ago I would have sworn that the government had ordered him to keep an eye on us. He chews betel and starts drinking before midday, and his whole demeanour is like a lean question mark with claw-like feet. He speaks surprisingly good English, and he sticks to Ken, who struck up a conversation with him, like glue. He and another group of men urge Ken into handing round a bottle of Grand Royal Whisky. I, however, have ensconced myself behind a book and a pair of sunglasses on the upper deck. I don’t think I’d survive listening to the drunken ramblings of the locals for three days. People greet me respectfully – apparently the book makes me seem like an intellectual.
I’m more interested in the two soldiers. ‘The general’ is a sunburnt Nepalese man, about one and half metres square, who seems to have eyes on the back of his head. He’s accompanied by a younger, silent soldier, who stares into nothingness with wide-open eyes as if seeing terrible visions.
We discover that ‘the lunatic’ was traumatised in combat and that ‘the general’ is taking him for psychological treatment in Mandalay. ‘The general’ may look like a cuddly teddy bear in uniform, his pistol in his belt, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. You wouldn’t want to bump into him on a dark night if you weren’t on his good side. We try to imagine what could have traumatised ‘the lunatic’ – certainly something to do with the rebels, who we’ve heard have recently been burning whole villages to the ground – but we don’t want to know the details. There it is again, the feeling that’s always fascinated me about Burma: sometimes you just can’t work out a situation and its players.
Maybe it’s all completely harmless – maybe not.
After an initial journey through spectacular gorges, the river becomes increasingly slow and broad, the temperature warms up and everything on board falls into a routine. You nod or exchange a few words with ‘the spy’ or ‘the general’. Ken’s drinking buddies feed us pistachios that they’ve bought in huge numbers when we docked at a village not marked on the map. The whole deck is covered in shells.
Soon the wind will have whisked them away.
We’re now eighteen hours behind schedule, but I built in an extra day as a buffer. Suddenly, however, everything goes very quickly. One last bridge, then Mandalay emerges from behind a bend in the river. We dock somewhere along the bank – why not the jetty, God only knows – and teeter across wooden planks onto dry land. There’s one final ascent up the moist, slimy embankment, then we’re standing in the dust once more, joyfully awaited by a horde of rickshaw drivers.
We’ve just missed our flight to Bangkok, of course – maybe by an hour – but it doesn’t matter. Getting upset isn’t going to help. A few metres further on there’s a stupa. I put my bag down and rummage around until I find my flip-flops.
I almost feel sorry for them, my trusty shoes, when I see them sitting there so alone in front of the little pagoda, and I cast a final backward glance as the rickshaw departs. So long!, I think. Someone or other will want you.
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Translation by Caroline Waight