Ten hours in a mini van. Ten hours in the very front passenger seat—the seat of honour, the seat with the prime view of the landscape, initially flat but later precipitous.
It was also the seat with the best view of the oncoming traffic and, most alarming of all, I found, right next to a driver proud of his dodgem skills.
Yep, it was one of those travel days. The sort that provides repeated opportunities to practice patience, as with this break down.
It was also a day that provided the chance to prepare myself for impending death. (John, when he applies his editing skills to this post, will dispute such a suggestion but editing is all about the coma, the semi-colon, the clause, the sub-clause, even on occasion the spelling. Editors don’t get input on content—or do they? All joking aside, and in the interests of fair representation of the facts, I’ll post soon about getting around in Myanmar.)
For me, practicing patience and preparing for impending death both involve a smile, okay maybe it can get a bit fixed, and some serious self-talk. The inner voice my grown-up self uses with the worried or impatient me is a voice which sounds firm, kindly, wise, and reasonable. It says things along the lines of, “You wanted to do this, remember?” It usually has a calming effect especially when the view is wonderful, the anxiety is closer to excitement, the problem is as simple as an unexpected delay.
On this travel day everyone seemed happy as we regained ground lost by the earlier break-down. The driver was humming to his jaunty Burmese pop music, some passengers were chatting, others slept, a mother fed her baby. John was taking photos of the view. I alone recognised our potential fate when a car careened around a hairpin corner directly into our path. Impending death called up the voice my frantic self uses to the panicked me. And that’s a voice no-body ever wants to hear. That voice screamed in my head: You paid MONEY to do this? You PAID to die, here?? I wish I could say it’s the only time I’ve heard me speak to myself like this—but that would be a lie.
It was a moment when I learned the true value of a driver with the reflexes required for fast-paced dodgem.
It wasn’t all bad in the front seat. From that vantage point I did, eventually, learn how things work on the road in Myanmar. What I initially interpreted as chaotic and dangerous, isn’t. Our driver that day and every other day knew exactly where he was in relation to all the other vehicles on the road at all times. The frequent tooting is important, too. Drivers are telling each other “I’m here, right behind you” or “I’m coming around this corner” or “Yes, it’s safe to overtake, now”.
Several hours after my fright, smelly, hot, stiff and sore, I waited with John to check in at the hotel. The cleaning staff were scrubbing the floor of the vestibule. I breathed in the refreshing, clean soap smell gratefully and remarked to John, They’re fussy about the cleaning.
Our room was worth waiting for. It had a kettle. Small, white, plastic, but most certainly a kettle. A kettle that sang a siren song to the packet of English Breakfast tea bags in John’s pack. A packet he had carried, at my request, for weeks. Weeks without a kettle to call our own. Weeks during which I had developed a taste for Chinese tea and Jasmine tea. For a tea lover, the tea houses in Myanmar are amongst the best travel experiences ever. We spent many happy hours in them.
Nevertheless, some days, and there can be no doubt this was one of them, are vastly improved by the simple pleasure of a cup of freshly brewed tea savoured in the privacy of your room. And, Mr Dilmah, I reckon a cup of your tea has never been so well deserved.
With jingles from every tea advertisement I’ve ever seen on the telly running through my head, I said to John as I popped open the lid of the kettle: It’s time, Reverend. ( Any tea and Coro lovers out there? Remember those days?)
We both laughed. Mine was the first to die. Someone had used this kettle before us.
A someone who had seen fit to brew their tea directly in the kettle.
Someone who had used a very leafy infusion.
Some person who had, I hope, enjoyed their cup of tea.
A fellow traveller, perhaps. In a hurry, perhaps. That person had left the dregs of their tea behind.
And those dregs were now a brown, leafy sludge topped by a healthy, spore-filled fungi.
I, however, had not stoically managed squat toilets when necessary, neither had I accepted the front seat with good grace, nor had I faced death as it careened towards me and managed to stifle my screams only to give up on my chance of a decent cuppa at the first hurdle. No sirree.
I grabbed that kettle and I marched down the marble stairs … actually, I picked my way down, carefully—they were treacherously wet from the cleaning.
I showed the kettle to the receptionist and I told her clearly in my very best English that I required a new one.
She examined it and, her face full of suitable disgust, she shouted in Burmese at her off-sider who scurried away with the offending appliance. I repeated my request, New kettle?
The receptionist may only have looked sixteen and she may have been no taller than me but she had the authority of my High School Principal. With a snap of her arm she gesticulated for me to get back up those stairs to my room.
Kettle? I ventured, again. That arm of hers snapped, again. As to my resolve? Well, it dissolved.
Yep, I did as I was told.
I put it down to biology. The adrenalin which had coursed through my system all day long had given one last surge at the sight of the unusable kettle and then it was all quite gone. I was done in. Clinging on to the bannister against a fall on the slippery stairs, I made my way back to our room.
Five minutes later, there was a polite knock at my door. Instead of the new kettle I’d requested I was given, with a smile, an apology and a bow, the old one.
Too tired now to navigate the cultural divide let alone the language barrier, I closed the door.
Hope fluttered briefly as I popped the kettle’s lid again. Perhaps it would be clean.
And it was. Sort of.
The mould was gone and so were the spent leaves. As for the brown sludge? Most of that was gone, too. But large, deep, dark brown tracks clung tenaciously down the sides and in every crevasse.
It was an entire ten minutes of scrubbing at the kettle with one of the hotel’s complementary toothbrushes before I accepted I would not be having a cup of Mr Dilmah’s English Breakfast tea that afternoon.
Acceptance didn’t come graciously and it most definitely didn’t involve even a fixed smile. Behind the closed door of our hotel room there may have been a pout, perhaps a grade three meltdown on a scale of zero to five. Some days on the road are like that.
Fortunately, our very next hotel did have a useable kettle. We extended our stay by two nights, not because of that. It was a very beautiful place. It really was. Patience and preparation were easy to practice there.