So I bought a shadow puppet. The first week into my trip I purchased a fragile, Balinese shadow puppet that now had to be lovingly wrapped in bubble tape and hung from a small brown bag tied to the top of my backpack, swinging to and fro and lightly hitting the bottom of my chignon as I walked. The problem with obtaining such a uniquely shaped and potentially breakable souvenir the first few weeks into a six month trip is that I now have the responsibility of said shadow puppet for the rest of the journey and this silly souvenir almost cost me thousands of dollars.
“Are you alright?” The driver asked with his toothy, red-stained smile from chewing betel.
“Me? I’m OK thank you. How are you?” I responded as I climbed up the stairs onto the ‘VIP’ sleeper night bus, named the Silver Snow Express. “Does it even snow in Myanmar,” I wondered. The seats reclined and we had pillows and a small blanket to try and create as comfortable sleeping space as you can in a bus navigating through the night on the road north to Mandalay. There were only a handful of riders so I was internally wishing for a quiet as I gently placed my shadow puppet out of harm’s way into the overhead bin.
“While I’m at it I may as well throw my camera bag up here too,” I thought, impressed with myself for making the most out of my limited leg room.
We settled in and then a woman who took our tickets, dressed in a peacock blue longyi, our stewardess on wheels, walked down the aisle and distributed a small, white box with a golden emblem on the front of the Eiffel Tower. French pastry on a Burmese bus, questionable, but I’ll take it. The monk sitting next to me picked up the box, examined it and smelled the plastic wrapped pastry quickly before setting it aside. Monks usually eat only once a day so I assumed it was wishful thinking for him.
We talked for the next few hours, about America, the philosophy of Buddhism, a surprisingly deep broken English conversation for a night bus ride. Then the lights dimmed and the loud music quieted and I finally fell asleep.
“You, eat rice now,” a voice called to me as I opened my eyes, sat up and peered through the filmy window of the bus looking at a large road side rest stop.
We had pulled up to a group of bamboo roofed huts, pink and green plastic stools dotted around simple tables. I checked my phone, 12:30am. I wasn’t sure who was up for rice in the middle of the night but then it became clear that it was everyone but me. The rest stop was a bustling scene, workers grabbing snacks and cigarettes, other weary travelers slowly walking off their buses and like ants all filing into the food areas for a quick meal before driving off into the darkness.
I sat near the bus and watched a young girl selling packages of betel nut. She reaches in a bucket for several small leaves, swiftly brushes them with a paintbrush she retrieves from a hollow coconut filled with a white lime paste. With one hand she was effortlessly splashing the leaves, sprinkles spices on top and rolling them into small pouches, placing four in a clear cellophane bag. Humming to herself in tune with the pop music playing from her small radio on the table, her hands moved quickly and swayed along with the beat.
“Are you OK?” The driver asked again as I boarded. I shook my head and made my way to my seat thinking to myself that this must be his token line in English.
Several hours later the lights brightened and I was awoken from my restless slumber. We had arrived in Mandalay. Everyone quickly collected their things and I fumbled for my phone as I reached for my bag. The taxi drivers and motorbikers all collect at the front of the entrance, “Where you going, where you going?” they shout to you, a jarring arrival. I procured a ride and a small boy wearing an over sized brown fur coat. He returned promptly on a small motorbike and like a cape his chocolaty fake fuzz flapped in the wind behind him. Looking at the bike and then again at my bag I said, “No bike, I need a taxi.” We found a driver and were off down the road. I had an unsettled feeling in my stomach and at first I thought it was from the lack of sleep until it hit me. I had left my camera bag and that damn shadow puppet on the bus.
Throwing my hands in the air I yelled, “We have to go back,” and began pointing frantically to the direction we had come. “My camera,” I explained, “Camera on the bus.”
The driver who spoke barely any English was presumably worried about my ranting and yelling and throwing of hands. He pulled over on the side of the road and got out of the car, I’m guessing to find someone who could speak better English and decipher why I was so upset. We had been dropped by the side of the road in town so I was unsure where my little puppet and camera would be headed at the moment and my heart sank thinking the worst.
I quickly resorted to charades hoping that would get his attention. What a site, it’s 4 or 5 am at this point and I’m on the sidewalk outside of a car parts store, my arms flailing about making a camera sound, click, click, as I drew a square next to my face with my fingers then motioned as if my hands were on the steering wheel as I pointed to the direction of the bus.
“Camera on bus!” It all clicked finally so he jumped into the car and we sped back to the pick up spot but the bus was nowhere in sight but the two monks, like bald angels donned in maroon cloaks were sitting on the stoop. I explained the situation and the monk pulled out his phone and called the women who worked on the bus. As it turned out he had known her family from when she was a child and so he contacted her to see if we could catch the bus before it left town. Nodding and smiling as he hung up the phone, we found out that the Silver Snow Express, my camera and that shadow puppet were all waiting for me at the bus stop. My driver, another gentleman who spoke better English and I hopped in the car and headed for the bus depot.
At the doorway of the bus the girl in the peacock skirt held my bags in her outstretched hands. I thanked her profusely and then turned and thanked the driver too for waiting.
“Yes, yes, you OK?” He asked again.
I loud relieving sigh left my mouth and I responded, “Yes, thank you. Now, I’m OK.”