The other night when I was on the way to teach my yoga class at the gym, the sun had just set. Dusk light was fading as I rode off. On a back road, I had to slow and weave to avoid creamy-white hump-necked cows slowly plodding down the road, heading home.
On the main road, I passed a motorbike with the man driving and the woman on the back clad in traditional passo and longyi. The woman’s hair was pulled back into smooth bun with a large comb sticking out of the side of the bun and a string of jasmine blossoms dangling from it. She sat side-saddle on the back and I saw her bow her head with her hands pressed together in front of her heart. It took me a moment to realize she was bowing to the Buddha across the road as they passed. I know that one. He has a square pavilion with open walls and a pointed roof over his bowed head. He sits serenely before a lotus pond full of tall green stalks that are sometimes graced by beautiful, full lotus flowers.
Closer to the gym, the turn signals of a half dozen motorbikes bleeped loudly into the night. Dust rose as we swerved and swayed around each other, as if choreographed to weave the lanes of the road into one.
After yoga, as I pulled back out onto the road, the mood had changed a bit. It was very dark, but dust still hung in the air. Street lights didn’t make much difference between the tree branch shadows. Mostly men were out now. There were more young men than old, bounding with a lightly contained wild energy. Some were still dressed in traditional wraps, but many had modernized or westernized. They were “cool” in layers of dark plaids and graphic Ts with nonsensical English, paired with skinny jeans and velour flip flops. Their hair was carefully coiffed into tall shining sculptures or topped casually with a side-tilted hat. No helmets here! Dark eyes and dark mouths turned to scan others on the road. Many of the men’s mouths were stained deep maroon from years of chewing betel nut. Often of the motorbikes were piled with 2 or 3 and sometimes even 4 men. Sometimes, these machines stayed in packs with others, as if they too were in a group of friends.
At a large intersection, I pulled up behind a pair of young men. Between the arm and torso of the one on the back, slick shining feathers extended out and curled artfully down. At first I wondered what sort of new fashion these feathers were, but then I realized the man was cradling a rooster, cupping its body on his lap.
At the next street light, I veered over to the right to avoid stopped traffic, which was unusual at that hour, even at 35th, which was one of the busiest streets. Cars and motorbikes were all honking, which is not unusual. As I neared the cross street, I saw two large motorbikes with two men each were lined up to race, gleefully and selfishly ignoring the others on the road. They were waiting for the next green light so they could blast off into the night. I turned the corner with a shudder. I hate to think what could be waiting down the dark road. Without cross walks, people often hobble across the road in dark unmarked areas, wherever it may be convenient to their destination. Dogs amble about lazily, oblivious to headlights. I’m guessing nothing came of it, because we likely would have heard about it the next day if something serious had happened in this small city.
Just after the bumps of the train tracks further down the road, I stopped at a pick-up truck lit by a generator and stacked high with vibrant, colorful fruits. I bought a large bag of small strawberries for 2,000 kyats (less than $2) and tucked them into the basket on the front of my motorbike for the rest of the ride home, hoping they wouldn’t bounce around too much.
I had to stop short a little further on as a car turned left from the right lane. I thought the car was only signalling that it was passing a parked bus, as they do. This time I was wrong. From there, it was only a few short, dark blocks home to our gated compound, closed off from the rest of the night.
I hope I never forget this night. In some ways you could say it was nothing special, but for me, it’s representative of the Myanmar I know. It’s interesting how day turns to night and simultaneously longyis turn to skinny jeans and reverent prayers turn to drag races. I think this may also be symbolic of modernization and things to come, though I hope the beautiful traditions of this magical culture live on.