On travelling and on staying put

Riding backwards on a bicycle built for three

We’ve been in Myanmar about two weeks now, travelling close to the ground (usually about 6 inches from the pavement when facing backwards on a trishaw) and grinding our way from Yangon to Moulmein to Kyaiktiyo to Yangon to Mandalay to Hsipaw and I’m tired.

For about two days I have been wanting to stay in bed with a book, a cup of tea (strong, milk, no sugar) and no need to look at things. I’m rather fried on looking.  While we were hiking to the hot springs this morning, using a hypothetical map similar to the optimistically wrong one in Yangshuo (the one with the vital bridge that wasn’t yet a bridge), ankle deep in very sucking mud on ox trails deep in village territory in the pouring rain, I started snarking (in my head- I’m not crazy enough to snark aloud just yet) about the concept of endless travel as being a good thing.

I have been living abroad, for the most part, since I was 19, but my tolerance for and patience with long-term mobile travel seems to come shuddering to a halt somewhere around, oh, let’s say, the 2 week mark. My record so far has been 2.5 months in Eastern Europe in mid-winter (starving, freezing, poor) a dozen years ago, trying to kill time in a cheap place between my UK visa expiry and my flight to Cape Town.  I believe I lost my mind a number of times during that trip. Similarly with the trip Doug and I embarked on when we left Turkey, 2 months from Mexico City to Costa Rica.

Why, you may ask, am I so bad at actually travelling when I seem to compulsively need to throw myself into scary, unknown situations on a regular basis?

Good question.

I’ve come to the realization that I’m much better at dealing with places when I have time to slowly work my way in. We’ve been spending around three or four nights everywhere we’ve been so far in Myanmar.

Soaked, muddy and tired

In those places, we’ve been running around, climbing things and shouting hello at everyone who greeted us (so many!) and flagging down motorcycle taxis and trishaws and trying to change money on the black market and trying to fathom what it is that we are doing here.

My introverted, hermitty brain has had a very hard time taking it all in and processing it. Hence the desire for bed and strong tea and a closed door to the outside world. Travelling like this makes my senses reel. I can barely even write about it.

Two years in Kayseri? Certainly! Four years in Istanbul? Yup! Six months in Cape Town? Three years in London? Aye! Places with a quiet space to retreat to, places where I can (slowly slowly) start to make sense of things.

That’s one aspect.

The other thing that’s been grinding through my brain is the idea that when travelling at speed, everything is pretty much a zoo or a theme park. No matter how much you research, no matter how humanely and consciously you travel, you’re still just speeding through someone’s town, looking at them, taking pictures of them, then buggering off. You may strike up conversations, learn some astonishing things, but really, you’re barely scratching the surface.

In the markets

When walking down the roads here, with doors wide open for brezes and shops half poured out onto the sidewalk, I want to peek in and ask the shopkeepers and inhabitants and cooks a million questions:

What are you doing?

What are you making?

What are you eating?

Where are you going?

I want to poke my head in and take photos of their sizzling pans full of curries and noodles, of their babies playing on the cracked bare wooden floor (the ones who shout out Hello!), of their marvelous melange of shop goods and bolts of cloth and electrical surge protectors (circa 1957).

But I find it very difficult to do so without feeling absurd and greedy and rude and horribly invasive.

I imagine being back at home in Canada, sitting on the front steps drinking coffee, when a tourist from RandomStan comes up and says hello in a language I may or may not speak, who then comes up to me and starts taking pictures of me drinking my coffee on my front steps, then says Goodbye! in that language I may or may not speak. Repeat this a few dozen times a day. I’m annoyed already.

When I live in a place for six months or six years, I have time to slowly poke my head into people’s lives, invited, welcomed. The subtle issues become apparent and recognized and dealt with.  There are so many subtle issues in Myanmar that I can’t even begin to tackle them in only 25 days.

We aren’t unwelcome here (Myanmarians are remarkably sweet and open, considering what they’ve been through) but I feel like I’m tip-toeing through their sitting rooms at times (I’m not but, really).

Maybe I should just move here.

Will you be my neighbour?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.