“It’ll all come back to you,” said John.
Nothing like hope, his hope, unfounded and unrealistic I thought, to get you through a tight moment. The tight moment being my possible, even likely, refusal to get on the motorbike that was my “taxi” to the bus station.
It was thirty-four long years since I’d been on a motorbike. Back then, I had all the gear. Like, you know, a helmet! And a full, made for the purpose, protective suit. (Wearing all that stuff was the only way Mum and Dad would agree to me riding motorbikes.)
Now, here I was in a town in Myanmar, in need of a lift to the bus station, which turned out to be more of a stop but I was yet to find that out, and my husband, helmetless and happy on the back of his motorbike taxi, was already disappearing along the road.
The staff from the Guest House were lined up in the carpark to wish me farewell. “All okay!” the manager said, reassuringly.
I straddled the seat of the motorbike like I had the bikes of my youth. There were titters from the younger staff, quickly stifled after scowls from the boss. Myanmar women sit side-saddle on motorbikes. They balance shopping bags, keep their long skirts firmly in place, and, this is the most important bit, maintain a decorous distance from the person of the driver. I shuffled further back on my seat and gave thanks I was wearing trousers.
How do I hold on? I yelled after John. There was no point asking the driver, he spoke only Burmese. And there was no answer from John. He was well out of earshot.
After those titters, it was clear holding on to the driver wasn’t an acceptable option. So, I did like I used to, back in the day, and placed my hands on my knees. Except, now my jaw was clenched, my teeth were gritted. I didn’t quite manage a good-bye wave to the cheerfully waving staff who were, no doubt, relieved to see me finally depart.
Along the lane to the main road, the driver, with my backpack balanced over the fuel tank, negotiated the potholes and the sleeping dogs. He did that, and I relaxed. I congratulated myself on my flexibility. On my adaptability. Hey, I was on the bike!
But at the main road the traffic was like this:
Yep, there were cyclists and motorbikes and tractors, and trishaws and trucks. Lots of trucks. Big ones and small ones, old ones and new ones; all carryinging heavy loads. I did okay, really and truly I did. Until one, there’s always one isn’t there, lumbered past so close if I’d exhaled I’d have been too familiar for, not comfort, survival.
The bike wobbled—only a bit but it might as well have been an oscillation the size of a large earthquake. Decorum went flying into the dust. I grabbed hold of that poor boy, my driver, squeezing the breath out of him.
His back stiffened.
There’s only one thing worse than a freaked out passenger and that’s a freaked out driver. I had to let go. And I did—mostly.
My friends, that wobble took me from passenger to driver. Had John been correct? Had it all come back to me, those freewheeling, carefree, pre-children days when a motorbike was my only means of transport? When I froze in winter and longed for enough bravery to go helmetless in summer? When I had a reputation for falling off the thing … at stop signs, at traffic lights, and when negotiating corners in residential streets? Had all that come back? Had I pushed the driver off and taken control?
Ah, no. Not exactly.
But I drove, nevertheless. It was a simple matter of looking over his shoulder and transmuting my instructions via one square centimetre of well-worn, freshly washed and pressed, cotton shirt fabric pinched between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. Yep, that’s how this Kiwi traveller rode pillion on a motorbike taxi in Myanmar and expected to survive: pinching her driver’s shirt!
I’d taken control, all right? It was nothing to do with reverting to babyhood. That little piece of cloth didn’t feel anything like my cuddly blanket from pre-language days. Of course it didn’t.
As a means of mind control, it did the job. My expectations were straightforward enough: stay clear of trucks and stick close behind his colleague and my husband.
We came to a set of traffic lights. John and his driver got across and continued straight ahead. We had to stop. When the lights turned green again my driver ignored the messages I was sending though that piece of cotton. He turned into a side road. More a dirt track than a road, actually. A pot holed, rutted dirt track.
You like me, no doubt, read the news. You, like me, no doubt, watch it on the Tele. And like me you’ll have heard the stories. You’ll know the ones. They have headlines like: Kiwi Woman Missing or Elderly New Zealander Abducted. (Journalists exaggerate about all sorts of things, including age. Me? Never!)
I let go of my safety blanket, I mean sophisticated communication device. Why? Decorum, personal space, no wrong ideas and all that, and it had stopped working!
Two buses were parked at the side of the track, two people stood nearby. I hoped the driver had brought me to the correct place, after all. He slowed but he didn’t stop. He did not complete a U turn and he did not take me back to the main road.
He accelerated away, down the track.
As for me? What did I do?
Well, I didn’t scream. And I didn’t panic, much. I didn’t clutch on to him in any way. I did remember to breathe. I did wish I’d set up that tracking thingy on our cellphones, so that John could come find my, ah, remains. Yep, I went there, right there. And I did think, well at least my last breakfast was a good one. Because: Burmese breakfasts!
The road got narrower. The trees lining it crowded together, the way they do in all good horror stories.
We came to a T junction. Left went who knows where? Later, John reckoned it was the road to the Railway Station. Right was the general direction of the main road. Luckily, my driver chose the right hand turn. Five minutes later we arrived at a dusty corner, where John stood staring at his phone.
He was beginning a text to me, apparently!
It turned out that corner, with one bus and one bus only loading luggage and passengers was the bus station. It turned out my driver hadn’t been sure where it was, either. As far as bus stations go, it couldn’t be more different from the Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal in Yangon.
We grabbed our packs, ready to climb aboard. Our taxi-drivers called us back. That one bus? It wasn’t ours. It was going somewhere else, entirely.
Good men that they are, our drivers waited with us for the bus to Meiktila. When it arrived they loaded our packs and made sure the conductor found seats for us.
Me? I surreptitiously checked the driver’s shirt. Specifically, the join between the left seam and the hem, at the back. Grateful there was no hole, no fraying, no harm done, and feeling ridiculously proud of my survival skills, I settled into my seat. It’ll be easy from here, I thought.
Have you ever caught a motorbike taxi? This is the place to share your survival tips. I need them!