As I look out the window, I see how the miles downhill pass me by. “Shit, I think” I could have cycled here! It was well deserved, to feel the speed of a downhill after all those kilometers of hard work from the day before. But I was in Myanmar and in Myanmar everything is a bit different. And so I was in a car right now. A police car to be precise, with my bike in the back of their truck.
It was dark outside. It was already pretty late.
On my left side sits the driver, a young police officer. At the back, a colleague of him and his wife. Yes, you read it right. The wife of the young police officer joins us for a ride. As I mentioned before, in Myanmar, everything is a bit different. And still, this is nothing compared to the little invasion of roughly fifteen people who I had the privilege to meet in person just a little while ago. All of them were gathered just for me. For this flashy, exotic, uncommon appearance of a Dutch lady on her bike.
On her own. In Myanmar.
The country of strict rules and closed regimes. From armies filled with militaries and police officers, all of whom enforce the laws to their utmost best. And so it happened, quite frequently, that this women on her bike cycled straight through their rules and structures. And they would make it perfectly clear that I should know this.
I look at the police officer next to me. He smiles. He is happy. But I am everything but happy and content.
Three weeks ago, I had crossed the border into Myanmar and this was already one out of many little contacts I had with the police. For the third time in a row, I now got ‘personally escorted’ after breaking the rules and hearing the same old words, over and over again:
“You can not stay here”. “For your own safety”.
For my own safety !? Don’t make me laugh! I rarely had felt so safe before. At no other place in the world you will find the people as gentle and friendly as here in Myanmar. But their rules are anything but that.
There really is no greater contrast imaginable than the open and soft facial features of the people here and the closeness and coldness of the regime that they live under…. And it’s the policemen that best illustrate this dichotomy.
In all kindness they will point out the facts and show you the problematic situation you are facing. Even those who enforce the rules with a big gun will greet you with a warm smile on their face. Just like this young police officer next to me, who personally escorts me to the apparent ‘appropriate destination’ for ‘people like me’.
Tourists, as they call us.
It may be forty kilometers away, this special tourist site called Inle-Lake, no bad words are spoken throughout this massive ride that has to be driven (free of charge, for those who wonder). Anything, to fulfill their task: to bring this lady on her bike back to ‘safety’.
And so it goes.
Little lost sheep brought back to her Flock.
It remains a big mystery how they managed to find me, time and time again. But that they found me was no longer a question. So it was and I had to deal with the consequences.
It was close to midnight when they knocked on the door. It was a loud knock of a man, that’s for sure. A couple of hours before, I
had locked the door. Just like the monk had told me to. I had locked the door and I went to sleep. But I was awake straight away when I heard this knock and those well-known words that goes along with it: ‘you can not stay here’.
‘Shit’ I thought. ‘Not again’.
I opened the door. The same monk who had let me in, four hours ago was on his side. “Sorry,” I said with a sorrowful expression on my face. I know it is against the rules of the regime to stay in a temple overnight. Sigh. But it was the only option. Honestly it was.
The day had started well with the intention of taking a short-cut to Inle Lake, which is one of the most famous sites in all of Myanmar. But never before had a mission failed so spectacularly.
Never before had I been so lost.
What started as a ‘short cut on dirt roads’ ended in a scene straight from ‘into-the-wild’. After cycling for hours and hours on a road that slowly went from highway, to country road, to dirt road, and finally a unbikeable dirt path, I became so lost that I tied my shirt into a tree to mark my location and then set off on foot to find the long sought view of the road. But nothing was further from the truth. As I reached the top of what I thought was the final mountain, surprise, surprise: a new top of a mountain appeared. Without the slightest sign of any road nearby. With a disturbing feeling in my belly I started to descend back down. I was lost. For a good one. And let me tell you, that was something new.
I mean, I had chosen the wrong roads before. I was refused to enter certain routes (I have to say, that happened mostly in Myanmar). I had taken routes that were not really what you would call ‘accessible by bike’. But never before had I followed a path (or perhaps better: a track) for so long and had it disappeared as snow in the sun, after I followed it for too long. That was new. As well as this intense feeling that came along with this realization. I guess they call it desperation.
I was lost. And now?
And I knew, there was only one thing to do. I should take that same road back, even if that meant that this big effort of pushing my bike had been merciless for nothing. And so I turned.
The way back turned out to be just as difficult to unravel as the opposite direction, and it’s hard to express in any words how relieved I had felt as I finally discovered something that seemed like it was no longer a possibility: a road! I felt even more relieved when I, not so much later, found this temple as dusk was setting in for the evening and the monk decided to let this lady in.
But let me tell you that, this relief had disappeared in one second when I heard those huge thuds on the door.
I knew what was going to happen.
And so here I was, sitting in this police-car, again.
Slowly, slowly, we got closer to our final destination. The policemen still being super satisfied with the success of their little manhunt for the night. Me still feeling a little less impressed by this big show of the night.
Only one thing has been on my mind for the whole ride. And so I gather the courage to ask that question out loud. How did they find me this time? I had asked myself that question while looking outside the window. I had arrived at dusk when it was pretty much dark. It was a super small street in a super small village, on top of a big hill. There were no people on the street, no kids playing outside. Everybody was safe inside, this time there was not the slightest reason to hide. Yes I was pretty sure, nobody had seen me this time.
With eyes filled with curiosity I looked at the policeman.
He starts laughing when he reads the confusion in my eyes.
“It was the Monk,” he says.
Full of disbelief, I look at him. I don’t understand.
“He called us,” he replies.
And so it turned out that the monk had informed the police officer about my unexpected visit. As I said before, in Myanmar everything is a bit different. As there’s no other place on earth where the people are so warm, so soft, so good, but also so mercilessly humble and submissive. Rules are followed, laws are enforced.
The car stops its engine and my bicycle is taken out of the truck. After a moment of taking selfies for the agents, it is time to say goodbye.
So here you are, in the middle of the night, at the front-door of the reception of this tourist-hostel. Brought back to the flock, yet feeling slightly lost after this massive ride in the night. But still there is space for a smile, as I realize:
Even though I got pretty lost on my way,
I still made it to my final destination for the day.
p.s. One good thing about getting lost is that you show up in places where nobody is expecting you… and so the excitement (or call it simply ‘fear’ in some particular cases) will be big!
p.p.s. Next time part two of this story