On the Streets of Mandalay

It was a balmy night in Mandalay. (Sometimes it’s hard to avoid clichés, especially when writing about exotic tropical locales that evoke nostalgia.) We were waiting outside our pleasant boutique hotel for our taxi to take us to a classical Burmese music and dance performance, when a pickup truck pulled up. The driver released the tailgate and looked at us expectantly.

“We’re waiting for a taxi,” I explained. The driver nodded. “Taxi,” he said, motioning for us to climb onto the bare cargo bed. We had seen our share of Asian pickup trucks being used as passenger transport vehicles, but they invariably have benches for seating, however rudimentary. Since it did not look like it would be that simple to order a replacement cab that would be any improvement, and curtain time was approaching, we clambered aboard and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the bare metal floor. Fortunately, the ride was short, albeit rather bumpy on the city’s less than smoothly paved streets.

The evening was still young, and the weather still pleasant, when the show let out. Perhaps because we represented half the audience, the theater manager escorted us out to the street, where we told him we planned to walk back to our hotel. He shook his head: “I would not recommend it,” he said. He declined to elaborate, but continued to insist we let him order us a taxi.

“At least, get us a bicycle rickshaw,” we suggested, not wanting to repeat our previous experience on the naked, slatted metal of a pickup truck. It did not take long for a bicycle to appear from around the corner. A thin young man dismounted with alacrity; smiling, he greeted us politely. We shook hands and examined the contraption he rode in on: instead of the expected rear passenger seat, there was a side basket that looked more suited for carrying groceries than people. We wedged ourselves back-to-back into narrow brackets: I was next to the driver facing forward, my companion facing backwards.

It seemed doubtful our skinny driver would be able to transport his load of two hefty Westerners, but he had no trouble pedaling the three of us down the flat streets. In fact, he had enough energy to start talking.

“This is my lucky day,” he said, the happiness evident in his voice. I was surprised at the level of English proficiency displayed by this simple rickshaw driver.

“I haven’t had any passengers all day,” he continued.

It was after 9.30 p.m. I wondered how long he had been working that day. Did other rickshaw drivers frequently find themselves in this unfortunate situation?

“I was hoping I would still find a passenger. Now I can get some food to eat.”

This stunned us into silence.

“So, this is my lucky day,” he repeated, pedaling vigorously.

“That makes us very happy,” I managed to reply.

We arrived back at our hotel and dismounted. We added a tip that doubled the fare, but still seemed ridiculously low. We shook hands again and took photos that celebrated our meeting. I wished it had been appropriate to give him a hug. His cheery disposition, in spite of the obvious hardships he has to contend with, was both astounding and inspiring.

Many people debate the morality of visiting Myanmar and thus indirectly supporting the oppressive totalitarian regime. I admit to having occasional qualms myself. Then I think of the charming, long-suffering Burmese people from whom I bought meals and souvenirs -- and especially one undaunted, hard-working young man whom I was privileged to save from gnawing hunger one evening -- and I know that spending a week with the residents of Yangon, Mandalay and Pagan was a never-ending lesson in the resiliency of the human spirit, and one of the greatest travel experiences of my life.

B Gordon

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