Are We There Yet?

Hitting rock bottom on Myanmar's Arakan Road.

By / December 2011

The old axiom “getting there is half the fun” may hold true from the deck of a cruise ship or the driver’s seat of a Chevy convertible, but there are some modes of travel to which it does not apply. An overnight bus ride through Myanmar’s Arakan Mountains, for example.

Not too long ago, having exhausted our possibilities in Gwa, a tiny fishing village on Burma’s western coast, my friend Jason and I decided to forgo another night at the 26-cents-a-night flophouse where we were staying and journey back to Rangoon.

At the bus stop, a wooden desk under a palm tree, we begged the transportation official to find us a spot on an outbound bus, the earliest of which was scheduled for 7 p.m. “Bus very crowded,” the man stammered, “no seat, must sit middle.” Having traveled on fleets of buses, we knew “sit middle” meant we’d have to spend the 10-hour trip in a jump seat. Small, hard, and low to the ground, jump seats, which fold from each row into the aisle, expose one to a bus’s every lurch and jolt.

In Burma, a country whose roads are rough and windy, riding in a jump seat is more like riding a bull. But a jump seat is better than no seat, we figured—I once sat in a jump seat for eleven hours on the way to Mandalay, and it was terrible, but I survived—so we forked over the 1500 kyat (about $1.20) for the tickets and went on our way.

After packing up our bags, we arrived back at the pick up point around 6:30 that evening. The bus arrived at 8:15, 45 minutes behind schedule. It was a beat-up city bus from somewhere in China that the Burmese government had, for all I knew, found in a junkyard and forced back into service. The Mandarin scrawl painted on the side was peeling. There were burn marks and other signs of wreckage.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany: Unlike overland buses, city buses are designed to transport people, many of whom stand in the aisle, short distances. In other words, no jump seats. We were without a seat on the bus after all.

We would not, however, be the only ones. The bus stop was a swarm of Burmese people. Surely some were seeing off relatives, I figured, but as the minutes passed no one hugged or waved goodbye. I counted 47 people for 18 seats on the bus—and then there was the cargo.

Two grime-covered Burmese workers were arguing over the best way to tackle the mountainous load, a heap of crates filled with dead and live fish, bound for the plates of the seafood-loving population of Rangoon. The crates of live fish, jerry-rigged aeration devices, were stacked up and down the bus’s middle aisle. The rest of the freight and luggage was piled in back, where two rows of seats had been ripped out to make room.

The bus was now completely full. The only problem was that no people had actually boarded. Even the Burmese, who live by a philosophy that there is always room for one more, looked skeptical.

When the driver finally called for those with seats to board, passengers climbed up and over the metal boxes and dropped down into the discomfort of their haggard chairs. After that, it was a free-for-all. The rest of us were expected to climb, sit, squat, lay, lean, fold, and finagle ourselves into any open space we could snag. Jason and I wound through the crates until we found a small clutch of real estate atop some fish crates and luggage in the very back of the bus.

Walls of fish loomed over us on three sides and a horde of sleepy, irritated Burmese—grunting, groaning, and cursing—pressed against us on the other. After several minutes, during which one of the bus workers reattached the back door, the disinterested driver pulled out a crank, stuck it in the grill, and began turning it furiously. The old jalopy began to hiss and wheeze and stutter. At long last, our rolling carnival was on the road.

It was a miserably hot summer night. Inside, the thick, oily smell of fish mingled with the smoke of countless unfiltered Chinese cigarettes, making it hard to breathe. As we drove through the mountains, the lack of air circulation, sharp curves, and heat wreaked havoc on several of the passengers who, unable to catch a whiff of fresh air, began to vomit, filling the bus with yet another stench.

An overweight, slightly intoxicated, wonky-eyed Chinese man, who was hunched in front of me, kept turning around and laughing hysterically in my face. To him, the situation seemed hilarious—even more so, apparently, because he had two distraught Americans to share it with.

A couple of hours into the ride Jason began to dig furiously through his bag for some type of drug to knock us out. He found a bottle of muscle-relaxers and we both popped two into our mouths, praying for unconsciousness. The pills made us drowsy, giving the scene around us, already heinous, a surreal and nightmarish quality but ultimately offering no sleep.

Shortly thereafter, the wonky-eyed man sat down on me, trying to usurp my territory. He motioned for me to maneuver my legs into an impossible position so that he could claim the space. I grunted and made a vague motion with my hands, keeping my legs firmly planted where they were, determined to win this battle. After a few minutes of sitting on my knees, wiggling and wobbling, he gave up and plopped back down in the hole where he had been before.

The hours crept by as we crawled through the mountains.

It was black and quiet outside, except for an occasional dying fire in some sleeping village and the nighttime noises of the nearby jungle. When I checked the time, every five minutes or so, my watch mocked me. Then the bus puttered onto the shoulder, felled by a flat tire, a common enough occurrence in Burma, and one that normally annoys me, but on this occasion it was a welcome reprieve, like an unexpected parole from prison.

Jason and I crawled out of the bus and, in the middle of the road, as the driver patched the tire, stretched out on the blacktop, sucking in the hot yet suddenly precious mountain air. But no sooner had we reloaded and ambled back onto the road did the fish crates stacked above us start to leak.

A steady trickle of brine and fish juices dripped down our backs, saturating our clothes and Jason’s backpack. It was 4 a.m., and I felt then and there that all hope was lost, that I was never going to recover from this ordeal. Even the sight of the outskirts of Rangoon in the early morning sun did little to lift my spirits. I had been broken, and by, of all things, an ex-Chinese bus on its last legs.

Finally, at around 7:00 am, the junker pulled into the station and Jason and I crawled out of our coffin. We felt like prisoners of war released after a long captivity. We were pale with nausea. Our bodies were stiff and sore. Our eyes were blinded by a sun we doubted would ever rise.

After such an ordeal, you feel like a ceremony is in order, something to commemorate the matrix you’ve survived, but to my dismay nothing happened. Our Burmese comrades stretched their limbs, picked up their bags, and dispersed without a word, as if all was well. As if they survived trips like this every day.

I looked at the bus one last time. The back door had fallen off again and the patched tire was leaking badly. We needed to hail a taxi. We needed to find showers and a couple of beds, but there would be time for that later.

What we needed more than anything at that moment was to watch the bus drive away from us, to look on as it turned the corner and disappeared for good.