During my trip-planning stage, I would have thought otherwise. I’d unearthed scant information about the attraction; my (granted, outdated) Lonely Planet guidebook ignored it entirely. Even my travel agent, Marcia Selva, who has visited Burma about 25 times over 16 years, has never ventured to the site. On the day of my visit, though, I could take credit only for being the sole Canadian-born, Massachusetts-raised Washington resident. I identified Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, French and an Italian woman, who frustratingly yelled at the rushing mob, “The queue is over here,” pointing behind her.
But I don’t want to overstate the Western contingent. I still saw dozens of cheeks and noses covered in thanaka, the yellowish cosmetic paste Burmese wear as sun protection and decoration (the pressed leaf pattern is particularly popular). We all stood together, plain and powdered faces, waiting for the truck.
The roofless vehicles depart from a covered loading dock in the center of a village that knows its customers. Strolling vendors sell sun hats, many frilly with lace and fake flowers, and bottled water. Locals cook up fried bark that tastes of crispy onions and offer samples of homemade fruit jams. Outside simple huts, craftsmen array their bamboo wares, including storage shelves and toy guns with wire triggers that emit a loud pop when squeezed. Inscribed on the firearms, curiously, were the letters “USA.” There were also some phrases in Burmese script.
“I’ll shoot you if you don’t love me,” Win translated for me. “All the women in the village will be widows.”
He laughed at the jokey phrases; I grimaced at the violent connotations and the misperception of America as a land of gun-wielding Rambos. Wednesday-borns don’t always chuckle in harmony, but maybe, through continued exposure and exchanges, we can strip away the false imagery and reveal the true nature of our cultures. If only I’d brought a Bob Dylan compilation to share with Win.
Boarding the truck requires patience and an internal cooling system. The imperfect procedure starts with a mad scramble to the waiting vehicle and a climb up a rickety ladder, though some prefer to jump in from the opposite side. Then you wait in the heat, sticking to your seatmate, as the driver tries to pack more people onto the long benches. Just when you think they’ve reached the 40-person maximum, another two people wedge themselves into the space once occupied by your elbow.
Once we were on the way, though, the cool mountain air wicked off my sweat, and the jumble of bodies snapped into place like Legos. The truck rambled up the hill, teetering around switchbacks, storming up the steeps, groaning and grunting for 30 minutes or so. And then it stopped. It could go no farther. Now it was up to our legs — or porters bearing visitors on Cleopatra-style stretchers — to carry us to the finish line.