A Long Night in Myanmar

Placed under house arrest in a ramshackle bungalow on the coast of Burma, a traveling anthropologist confronts his greatest fear and lives to tell the tale.

By / May 2011

It has been four days. Four days since I’ve rested, four days of fear. I moved into this dilapidated flophouse on a remote stretch of the Bay of Bengal exactly four days ago, and now I’m trapped.

It is February, as cool as Myanmar ever gets, still stiflingly hot. I sit on the porch listening to the waves batter the shore. Across the way, a mutt stares at me, wags his tail, chews his leg. As the sun begins to set and a cooler breeze sweeps the beach, I can feel dread rising within me. I fear the coming night, the noises and visitations it promises to bring. Above all, I fear the rats.

Every evening as I lie down beneath the mosquito net and blow out the candle, my room is overrun with swarms of them. They come up through holes in the wooden floor. They gnaw my backpack and devour my food and soap. I am powerless against them. I pass the nights in utter darkness, listening to their grotesque chorus, and pray that they keep away from me.

I linger for a few more moments in the gloaming, reflecting on what has transpired since I left Rangoon a week and a half ago and started picking my way up this rough coast. My goal has been anthropological research, but things have not gone well.

The jeep that I hired got stuck and flooded in the Lamu River. Later, I was bitten by an octopus while clambering out of a fishing boat in the surf. In a small village, north of here, I was forced to stand before 80 gawking locals and sing a solo rendition of “Happy Birthday” to a baby whose birthday had long passed. My misadventures came to a head late last week, when I was detained by the military police on suspicion of espionage and held under house arrest for three days as they questioned me and played with my flashlight.

The whole episode had the ring of farce. The officers screamed and swore and threatened to blacklist me. But one look at their crank telephone and the avalanche of papers on their desks suggested that if they ever did file a report, it had a good shot of getting lost. Finally, they set me free, but not without conditions.

For the remainder of my evenings in this sliver of Burma, I have been confined to this guesthouse, where the police can check in with me on a nightly basis to make sure I am behaving. By day, I travel up and down the coast and into the hills researching ethnic groups. By night, I am doomed to return to this hole.

Darkness is falling. I must rouse myself and get indoors before unruly packs of jackals begin roaming the beach and making their terrific clamor.

I gather up my notebook, water bottle, and empty tuna can. I use a stick to pet the dog and head inside as the tropical moon slides above the hills. I light my last three candles and place them on the little table by the bed. Maybe I should only light two, and save one, just in case. No, I can always buy more tomorrow in the village from the man with the red teeth.

I wash my face, my neck, my hands, and dip my toothbrush in the big barrel in the corner where the turtles live. I change clothes and shake out my makeshift sleeping sack, a sheet sown up on three sides to keep unwanted visitors from climbing into bed with me during the night.

The evening breeze is gathering strength, filling my room with scents of fish and fire and saltwater. I move around the room robotically, trying to secure my possessions from the coming scourge. What can I do? There’s nowhere to put these things to keep them safe. If only I had some rope, I could hang my backpack from the rafters. I am left with little choice but to hope for the best.

I spread the sack on the bamboo platform and gather the mosquito netting around it. I take one last mournful look around the room then climb under the netting. Propped on the bag of clothes serving as my pillow, I read Kerouac for a while — We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land — as the candles burn low.

Time passes. When the flames begin to gutter and die, I place the book on the table, blow out what’s left of the wick, and lay down my head. Within seconds, I hear scratches, barks, and chirps, some sort of rat communiqué no doubt.

They are scattering across the floor now, nosing into corners, deliberating about which of my possessions to destroy. I pull the sheet toward my chin, making sure there are no open gaps. All at once, I hear a loud noise coming from outside. The rats, hearing it too, scuttle chirpingly away. I make out a strange man stumbling around on the porch.

He kicks the wall, sticks his arms through the open window whose glass slats are impossible to close. He starts to yell in Burmese that is tough to understand. He is drunk, I think. I lie still, marooned in shadow. “I see you!” the man yells. He reaches through the window and attempts to unlatch the door to no avail. After a while, he circles around to the back of the bungalow and commences heaving rocks. I hear thud after thud against the rotting boards, but the ruckus is no longer loud enough to ward off the rats.

They pour into every corner of the room. They tug at a towel hanging from the table. In the moonlight, I see the towel fall to the floor and with it a pack of Ritz Crackers I brought all the way from Thailand, my last destination. Rats rip through the wrapper with ease. The room swells with the nibbles of a thousand teeth. As if on cue, the jackals begin screaming on the beach.

I am fed up, disgusted. I clap my hands and yell at the top of my lungs. I yell at the rats. I yell at the stalker. I yell at the jackals. I yell at everything within earshot: “Just shut up! All of you! And leave me alone!”

An interlude of silence follows, the deafening kind. Then I hear a small, almost imperceptible motion near my pillow, a sound like a gentle landing. Then I feel rat claws on my face.

I bolt upright, arms flailing. The mosquito net collapses on top of me. The pillow bag goes flying. I strain my eyes in the darkness, frantically searching for the rodent but cannot find him. I shiver in disgust and gather my knees to my chest.

The rat is gone but I still feel his tracks on my skin. I feel the fire of his fur, the tiny blades of his whiskers. In the heavy darkness, I thrash around for my pillow then collapse in forlorn despair. The rocks begin thudding against the wall again. The jackals redouble their ruckus on the beach. All around me, the rats paw.

Completely exposed now, I throw up my hands and surrender to the night. “Let them come,” I think. “Let them all come. Let them do whatever they want to me. I don’t care anymore. I give up.” And then something strange happens, something completely unexpected: I sleep.

For the first time in four days, I close my eyes and sink into a deep, peaceful slumber. When I awake five hours later, the drunkard and the jackals are gone. The rats have vanished beneath the floor, though the crumbs and droppings testify to their presence.

Only the sea is the same. In the morning sun, as in the moonshine, the waves collide on the dirty shore. Looking out at the expanse, I feel a flicker of pride spark inside of me. I am a soldier who survived a great battle, an athlete come from behind to take the trophy. But even if I am only a lonely traveler who weathered a terrifying night on the coast of Myanmar and lived to tell the tale, I am convinced of this: after what I’ve been through, I can do anything.

Anything, that is, except survive another night here. I gather my things and make for the door. When the soldier pays a visit tonight, he will find nothing but an empty room. Quicker with each step, I walk into the light.

 

Chris Watts is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.

 

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