CaBloWriMo: Two feet in front of me

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I could not see more than two feet in front of me, which was hardly any great loss. The action was all right here, hot metal hissing angrily at spattering rain, the dull tang of sodden diesel fuel pressing about the sinuses and clutching at lungs, the irate and incessant blaring of horns.

To go forward is to live. To stand still is to die. Time is money, and you are in my way.

To my right is the yawning gutter, last resting place of the careless, the overly cautious, and those too poor for a knock-off diesel-powered knock-off Chinese Honda. To my left is the roaring knock-off diesel elite of the new Viet Nam, bearing livestock, live bees, gas cylinders and family members lashed lazily to rusting back racks, a perpetual motion comedy disaster perpetually waiting to happen.

In the middle is me. I ride a bicycle, but am conspicuously too white to be poor. If I am not poor, it follows that I must be crazy. All Tay are crazy. You should see the prices we will pay for vegetables. Clearly wrong in the head. I am not insane enough to ride without a helmet, however. I value my head over my hairstyle.

I do not want to meet my end in the gutter, yet with every breath I feel diesel knife through my face mask and facial membranes, subtracting days from my life span, every second in this toxic embrace costing me minutes out of my time at my destination: that sweet new cafe with the beautiful bittersweet ca phe sua da and the roof terrace with the breathable air, and the quiet.

I jink left through the tiniest of gaps and surge forward, into the the boiling bloodstream of the city. Nothing keeps this Tay from her ca phe; not even you, Ha Noi.

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Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay

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The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 


A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.