Dust had woken up early to greet us; dawn was still hours away as we rolled further into Myanmar. The late January air was brash and I was traveling with a man I’d been in a long and challenging relationship with. He and I were several weeks into a long trip through South and Southeast Asia. We had crossed into the country by air via the city of Mandalay, eventually heading east through the darkness on to the next destination – the township of Nyaung-U. I don’t remember much about the bus route that night. I had begun to withdraw into myself, lost in thoughts of events back home. Maybe I bought a bag of oranges from a girl at a bus stop. Maybe they were delicious.
From the drop point there was a frenzied negotiation for a taxi to take us to our nearby accommodations. The bus passengers were politely swarmed as we stepped down from the coach into the square. Details were confirmed with little common language and we quickly left town. As the taxi approached the Bagan Archaeological Zone, a swath of scruffy country revealed itself over several miles, hugging the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River. The landscape overflowed with thousands of religious monuments in varying stages of decay. Most were erected between the 11th and 13th centuries A.D. when Bagan was the seat of the Myanmar dynasty. Each building is a brickwork vessel of ornate detail. Many of the temples remain active, safeguarding representations of the Buddha in diverse postures of mindfulness, compassion, and enlightenment.
Approaching by night the panorama is illuminated from ground lights below the interspersed monuments and pagodas. Some are enormous, the size of a city block. Others are small, the size of a backyard shed where a venerated lawnmower might live. The nighttime backdrop teems with glowing brick behemoths of varying sizes; it feels dreamlike, as if families of clay giants have hunkered down to slumber, scattered across an ancient, dry plain.
We were making good headway for such a sleepy hour. In no time things were arranged at the guesthouse and we had rented scooters, ready to zoom off into sandy shadows. The plan was to catch the sunrise and the staff had recommended climbing to the top of a ruin about five miles away. There were scads of these structures to explore in the area, but this one was less traveled, unmarked on any official map. Our hosts haphazardly made a circle on a photocopied drawing of Bagan, wishing us well.
Back in the US, that same day, my mother would undergo surgery to have her flesh and bone American knee replaced with a fancy French titanium one. She would later name the knee Claudette. While I’m reasonably familiar with significant surgeries affecting immediate family members, something about this one had me on edge.
I’m not sure how mindful I was of the fear rising up from within. It’s strange where vulnerability strikes. I had traveled long and hard to the other side of the world, but now I was feeling overwhelmed by events at home. I wanted to crawl in the bed at the guesthouse, like a giant toddler, swaddled in the scratchy hotel comforters. I planned to send good vibes to my mother from deep inside my blanket fort. “Good luck on your surgery! End Transmission.“
I was caught off guard. Our fantastic scooter ride to a new dawn was approaching and it didn’t seem like my travel partner could focus on anything else, let alone summon compassion for me. His own mother had gone through surgery a month prior and I had guessed he would be infinitely more empathetic, or at least supportive. Instead he was irritated and impetuous. I tried to clarify my feelings and it became apparent he didn’t even remember what kind of surgery Mom was about to undergo. I was completely disappointed. In exchange for being vulnerable, I was feeling guilt and being shamed. “Get your shit together. You’re overreacting. We’re missing this.”
He wanted to see the sun rise, now. My response was serious anger. We were officially fighting. I became furious, totally disgruntled. Fine. We would seek out the infernal sunrise. Maybe it would burn his retinas.
I left the sanctuary of my itchy comforter and we packed out; back on our rented scooters, we headed into the dark. My ride was faster, perhaps fueled by my spite, and I accelerated as necessary, racing further away each chance I got. The condition of the paved road evolved as we traveled to our destination; first to pebbles, eventually transitioning into finer and finer sand. Speed became difficult. Control became challenging. Well-worn ruts appeared from nowhere, unexpectedly grabbing at the small tires, holding me hostage or shooting me off course in an unexpected direction – the ride was a metaphor for my emotional state.
Within half an hour we had successfully found our way. The locals still use many of these temples, even the ones that are seemingly hidden, crumbling or timeworn. Nature may destroy the edifice, but proper respect demands shoes stay at the door. Barefoot and constrained for time, we pushed past the bats and the giant Buddhas. From the ground floor I discovered the hidden staircase to the roof and near the landing, a door outside. Back in the open air, I found an external ledge that circled the highest accessible part of the structure.
I scurried away from the sun to the opposite side, seeking out some solace. Across the landscape in front of me hundreds of other ruins were awakening, washed in the intensifying pinkish burn of dawn. The vision was spectacular and immediately humbled me, so much so that I sat my ass down. In the distance twenty hot air balloons began their ascent. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself and stay pissed at your companions when the horizon is spewing up hot air balloons. Believe me, I tried.
As phenomenal as this was to me, I’m certain the sunrise balloons are a mundane occurrence over these plains. Simultaneously, it was a deeply personal message, tied to a very specific memory of my mother. I took it as a sign that she would be okay. Here in the land of Buddha, I decided I might channel some inner compassion and rise above the uncomfortable emotions I was feeling that morning. They could all float away. A special experience was on the horizon.
Continued in Buddha & the Scooter II
I don’t think my mother would have enjoyed exploring those temples in Bagan. She’s not adventurous in that outdoorsy way. However my parents did have a hot air balloon when I was younger. They shared it with..