Outrunning my shadow in Mandalay – Burma

[This post is based on my experience during my first trip to Burma in 2005.]

As I was shoveling down yet another accidentally extravagant Burmese breakfast due to a communications mishap with the server, two trishaw (bike taxi) drivers sat down at my table and asked if they could practice their English with me. This all-purpose opening line was usually a precursor to some kind of offer of goods, services or a recommendation for their brother’s jewelry shop where I could buy and ship home a giant cargo container of precious gems to sell for a massive profit in my home country. Sure enough, the conversation quickly steered to my tourism goals in Mandalay and how I planned to get around.

I had no time or need for their trishaw-guided city tour pitch. I had rented a bicycle – the first time I would be piloting anything on wheels in months – and I intended to zoom around the city at high velocity to make the most of my limited time in Mandalay.

Not only is biking the quickest way to cover the great distances between sights in Mandalay, jockeying through the dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions faster than any other vehicle including motorcycles, but at a mere 1,000 kyat (US$1.10) for a full day rental, it’s also delightfully easy on the budget. Moreover, cycling in Mandalay provided an adrenaline rush only slightly less powerful than when I jumped out of an airplane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down.

The traffic in Mandalay is particularly lawless in a country where most driving conventions are improvised and faith in reincarnation is vital. Certain death is faced and somehow miraculously avoided every few moments while plunging through traffic conditions that would make a New York cabbie weep. Trucks and buses (and trucks-being-used-as-buses) spew noxious clouds of exhaust, many of the rattling cars appear to have been salvaged from junk piles or lashed together with spare parts, and noisy motorcycles swarm around and through any available opening. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris kicked up by all this mayhem coat your sweaty body while you suck down the hot, fume-choked air. At the end of a full day of biking around Mandalay, you look like you really did something.

Although I have to assume that tourists must be seen on rented bikes on a regular basis, locals nevertheless stared at me like I was once-in-a-lifetime peculiarity. Every few dozen meters people were yelling and excitedly waving at me from the sidewalk or shouting out of passing vehicles like they’d just seen Aung San Suu Kyi riding a rainbow unicorn. I eventually realized that all this surprised merriment might have had something to do with the speed I was maintaining.

I’ve always walked with purpose, at a speed suggesting that I was running late for a job interview. Since becoming a travel writer, I’ve actually kicked the pace up a notch. You have to. I ride a bike the same way. Even if I have all the time in the world, I pedal like I’m racing for pole position. Apart from arriving at every destination in a flop sweat, this manic impulse never really had any social ramifications until I was riding among the Burmese people who, out of respect for the admittedly unrelenting heat, ride about as slow as a bicycle can go without tipping over.

As a result, I was blowing the doors off my fellow bikers. My freshly shaved, streaking bald scalp and breathtaking speed were turning heads in all directions. With the rate that I was moving, people usually only caught a blurred glimpse of my purple three-speed and flowery handlebar basket before I disappeared into a cloud of dust.

A pickup-truck-cum-bus carrying a bunch of rambunctious guys encouraged me to speed up and catch them, which I did, whereupon one of the guys hung out the back to take my hand and they towed me along for about two blocks. I was having a blast and covering some serious ground. On my first day alone, I managed to visit a gold leaf workshop, the train station for a ticket purchase, the Fort and Palace, and a host of monasteries, pagodas and payas scattered around the city.

Before arriving in Burma, I’d read several accounts, some of them pretty recent, of Western travelers and journalists being shadowed by sometimes pitifully disguised, unsubtle government stooges. Though I’d already begun to get some traction in my travel writing career, even if the government had some gifted internet stalkers who’d tracked down my work, I didn’t believe I was anywhere near worthy of being followed around.

But now it occurred to me that if I did have a government shadow in Mandalay, they were gone. Long gone. With the pace I was keeping, threading through the gridlocked traffic like I was fleeing agents in the Matrix, only a helicopter could have realistically kept up with me. The rubber I was laying off that bike probably took years off the life of the tires. I fell into a reverie, imagining my government shadow, or maybe shadows, a mile behind me, lying in the street, gasping for breath, legs in spasms.

My overactive imagination kicked in. In a flash, I concocted a tightly edited visual narrative of me shedding government shadows left and right with the same pandemonium and unintentional success of Inspector Clouseau. Racing by, I’d upset a stack of boxes which collapse on one pursuing shadow. The smoking, over-stressed tires exploding on the bicycle of another. The shadow on a scooter running out of gas and beating on the gas gauge in comic frustration. I’d startle a guy hoisting a piano with a rope, causing it to fall just behind me, defeating another shadow. Toe-tapping banjo music accompanying it all.

I filled two gratifying days in Mandalay like this. A Caucasian blur exploring the city, punctuated by heartening encounters with locals, reflective stops at mostly deserted religious sites, and a running daydream of thwarted government shadows littering the streets in my dusty wake. Cut to a low-level intelligence general in a far off government office, slamming his phone receiver down and angrily shoving a pile of papers off his desk, having learned that the slippery American had eluded him again.