March 27, 2009- There’s really no public transportation option from Mandalay to Inle Lake in Nyaungshwe, so I’ve hired a private driver to deliver me to my next hotel. He arrives at 8:00 a.m. on the dot, but doesn’t speak a word of English. I can’t complain- I’ve been super lucky so far with all of my drivers and guides speaking English, and as long as he knows how to get me to my destination I don’t care if he’s not chatty. One of the hotel porters takes my itinerary and goes over it with the driver to ensure he knows where to take me. I have no idea if he understands or not, but he nods and we take off into the crazy Mandalay traffic. Along the way we stop in an alley to pick up a local man and his two teenage daughters. Maybe “private driver” doesn’t mean what I think it means. None of the three new passengers speak any English, either, so it’s a quiet ride. That’s fine with me- I’m absorbed in the scenery.
Soon we pass out of urban Mandalay into the countryside and into the foothills of an impressive mountain range.
The road quickly becomes rutted lanes of rocky soil where the driver maneuvers around horse carts, children pulling cattle, and flat bed conveyances powered by what look like lawnmower engines.
Two hours into our trip, on an extremely secluded stretch of mountain road, we get a flat tire. The driver pulls out his spare from the back, but it’s also flat. Without a word he takes off down the road, awkwardly rolling the flat spare in front of him. Gas stations in this part of the world are nothing more than random wooden pallets stacked with plastic petrol jugs, so I have no idea where he’s going or how long we’re going to be sitting here on the side of the road.
11:00 a.m.- we’ve been sitting here on the ground for over an hour. Still no sign of the driver. The father of the two teenage girls has flagged down a couple of passing motorists in what I can only assume is an attempt to find the guy a ride back if he ever gets the tire refilled. Only a few cars have passed us in the last hour, so mostly they sit on our collective pile of luggage and read their Bible. I think they may be missionaries but have no way to ask.
11:15 a.m.- a young guy on a motorcycle stops to deliver our driver and his newly repaired tire, and the men get to work fashioning some sort of jack out of a pile of rusty metal pipes.
At 1:00 we stop for lunch in a little mountain town and a barefoot boy with a crowbar fixes our flat tire for a spare. Against my better judgment I pick at some fried noodles, but if the next two hours are anything like the last two, they’re not going to stay down. The road the winds around the mountain is just a pile of rocks, and I’ve taken to calling our car the Vomit Comet. I don’t think a 70’s era Toyota Corolla Hatchback (with no air conditioning!) was meant for these conditions.
2:00 p.m.- Less than five miles down the road from our lunch stop, we get another flat tire.
Good thing the boy at the restaurant fixed the last one. Not sure what we’ll do for the next (oh, you know it’s coming…)
While he’s fixing the tire, a very, very pregnant girl approaches the driver and, apparently, asks for a ride. She’s clutching her lower back with both hands and breathing through her teeth, obviously in great distress. The fact that we don’t have any seats left doesn’t seem to phase either of them. He wedges her in between himself and the gearshift, and away we go. I feel horrible for her. She’s perched on top of the emergency brake and crashes into my shoulder every time we hit a bump. So, about every four seconds. Every time she apologizes desperately. “Sorry, sorry!!” seems to be the only English she knows. Every time I tell her it’s fine and try to make more room for her. There isn’t any more room to make, however, and I can’t help but notice she’s breaking out in a cold sweat and clutching her stomach more frequently. Oh, shit.
Twenty minutes into the ride she starts to vomit. (I’m surprised it took that long.) The driver has scrounged a plastic bag into which she can be sick. (Burmese people are endlessly resourceful.) He asks her a tense question I don’t understand. Her eyes fill with tears and she clutches her stomach even harder. He turns and says something I don’t understand to the man in the back. They look nervous. The possible-missionary man leans forward and asks me tentatively, “You know…deliver…?” He crosses his arms and rocks them in a universal sign for cradling a baby.
“No!” I shake my head forcefully. I did not sign up for this. I’ve never even held a baby. He seems to understand and pats the pregnant girl on the shoulder, saying something that sounds encouraging. I hope he’s encouraging her to please not have a baby on my lap. It must have worked, because she’s still miserably pregnant an hour later when we deposit her at the end of a dirt road. I watch her retching miserably onto the ground as we drive away.