By Frank Deese*
“Don’t be a tourist. Be a traveler.”
Karen seemed to get what Min Thant meant while I stood nearby distracted by the round eyes of Phoebe Cates, wondering what could possibly merit her poster being the only decoration on the bare walls of this dirt-floored Burmese home. Phoebe Cates was certainly pretty and spank-worthy enough for Judge Reinhold in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – but why would Min’s family worship her like a foreign goddess?
My girlfriend back then possessed all the adventurous impulses I lacked. They had taken her to Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Rangoon, and now into the home of Min Thant, a schoolteacher we met at an open market while trading our smuggled whisky and cigarettes for local currency and laquerware. I was here in October of 1985 only because I followed Karen, and now nodded my head to mimic her understanding. “Don’t be a tourist. Be a traveler.”
We bowed good-bye to Min; and I quickly asked about his unusual wall poster. He smiled sagely, answered knowingly: “Phoebe Cates!”
“Okay… But why her?” Min maintained his smile. It was either self-evident, or would need to remain, like the tourist/traveler thing, a mystery of the Orient.
We rushed to join our new American friends at Rangoon Central Station for the night train into the heart of Burma. We had met George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally the night before over an indescribably horrible dinner (prepared, no doubt, from a hundred year-old British cookbook with missing pages) at the colonial-era Strand Hotel. After weeks away from home, real American conversation felt luxurious, even over bad food. It was a pleasure and relief to once again understand and be understood in native nuance and sentiment.
The windows of the humid night train had no glass and at every station stop, local hawkers stretched in deep to loudly sell strange drinks and unknown meats wrapped in exotic leaves. Insects buzzed around the dim lights in the car’s center, and the “bathroom” on the train was nothing more than a dark room with a hole in the floor rushing over the rising and falling tracks that made the trip like an amusement park ride without any assurance it “must be safe.” I was vaguely aware this rocking train was, up to then, the most foreign place I’d ever been; but that appreciation didn’t penetrate the loud, opinionated company of George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally. We were three American couples on facing wooden train benches trading travel anecdotes, arguing movies and sports, insulated by continuous conversation from the strange world that became less and less comfortable as we traveled further back in time.
The tiny hamlet of Pagan, with its immense scattering of stone temples held inside a sharp curve in the Irrawaddy River, remained very much the place it was a thousand years ago. With one tuk-tuk driver per couple (a tuk-tuk is like a two-passenger motorized tricycle), we shot from Buddha to Buddha, more focused on the conversation than the beauty and timelessness of the brown temples rising from the semi-verdant landscape. George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally had forceful (and sometimes knowlegeable) opinions on every detail of what to see, what to do, where best to eat and not get sick; and, being travel-weary, Karen and I temporarily surrendered to not discovering for ourselves. For three days, we took comfort inside this four-person American tour bus whose final stop was an open-air cafe for bottled beer and “the best Chinese food in Pagan.”
Karen’s contact lenses hurt from the long day so she and I left early. We collected our things from the cheap plastic dinner table and headed to the rustic guesthouse to pack our bags on the mosquito-netted bed for the long and early journey back to Rangoon. It was hardly an hour later when George, Marcia, Leon and Sally thundered in, angry and indignant.
A tuk-tuk driver stole George’s flashlight!
George and Leon had noticed him looking at it earlier – then it was gone. Despite the young driver’s pleas of innocence, they planned to alert the local authorities.
“What did George’s flashlight look like,” I asked. “Was it gold plated? Diamond encrusted?”
“It’s not the value, Frank Deese, it’s the principle. The man stole and can’t get away with it.”
“It’s a two dollar Duracell flashlight,” Karen offered. “I have one just like it. You can have mine.”
But there seemed no way to stop them from sending this young man to the police in a police state – that is, until Karen discovered in her bag a second Duracell flashlight. She had two.
Uh oh… Our burst of private laughter faded quickly as we both realized how Karen’s mistake of taking from the table a flashlight that looked exactly like hers (but wasn’t hers) led to the abuse by angry Amercians of an innocent Burmese tuk-tuk driver.
We crossed the guesthouse courtyard to confess the mistake to George, Marcia, Leon, and Sally. We apologized, returned the flashlight and solicited from them anything we could do to make this as if it had never happened. But there was nothing. George focused all his anger, all the pompous self-assuredness we had surrendered to before, directly at us now, and quickly concocted a new truth. Marcia explained to us tearfully in our room that her husband believed we planned this all along, engineered it to embarrass him, but only confessed because our hearts bled for a hapless local. It was ridiculous and Marcia clearly didn’t believe it, but the weight in her expression suggested a much longer fight she had never been able to win. Leon and Sally were already in line with official account of our treachery. Karen and I were as good as foreigners – we could not be trusted.
“I’m sorry,” she wept. “I really liked you guys.”
As we sat close and alone on the train car heaving to and fro on the curvy tracks to Rangoon, we looked quietly out at the huts and rice farms in the rainy landscape. Exile hurt, as did the ugliness unleashed on the innocent by Karen’s simple mistake.
Karen reached deep into her bag for a Cadbury “Fruit and Nut Bar” she kept in a zippered compartment in case of severe homesickness. We ate it slowly, savoring each square, but barely noticing when it was gone as we were long into our own conversation about what we’d seen, the remainder of our trip, why Min Thant had Phoebe Cates on his wall – we still had no clue – and our lives back home. We noticed a Burmese family preparing dinner on the floor across the aisle and a group of loud teenage boys at the end of the car. As daylight dimmed behind the rain clouds, Karen fell asleep on the bench next to me and I now felt grateful those other Americans were two train cars away. But then, in the darkening train, I realized something troubling: I had to pee badly – and (out of spite) the night before I’d tossed my own flashlight into George’s suitcase to pathetically prove he was wrong about us.
There was still the faintest glow of dusk. Maybe my eyes could adjust enough to find that hole in the floor. But the “bathroom” was completely dark; and even with my pupils wide open, I could get little more than complete blindness in the face of a dire need. Did I dare step in and risk my leg falling through the dirty hole and breaking off on the moving track? I stood there helpless, clearly the best entertainment of the evening to the giggling Burmese teenagers nearby.
One of the laughing shadows reached into his knit bag, fiddling with something: D-Cell batteries? He slipped them into something else I couldn’t see, then switched on a cheap chrome flashlight handing it to me like Lady Liberty.
“Thank you,” I said loudly. “Thank you. Thank you.”
As I peed through the exrement-rimmed hole in the floor, the light in my left hand illuminating my golden stream splashing off the wood of the rushing track ties, I realized that – at least for this moment – I was not a tourist. I was a traveler.
And I sure as hell better not drop that flashlight.
*Frank Deese is a screenwriter, teacher, and former traveler living in Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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