two hours after falling asleep, i get woken up to leave. i’m totally groggy, and even though it’s the middle of the night, it’s still hot. as we walk to the boat owner’s house, i find out that the rest of naing naing’s family isn’t going on the trip, it’s just the two brothers but about 30 other people will be on our boat. all 30 or so of us are piled in a huge truck that can barely accelerate under the weight, and we make our way to the docks. we board the boat, and in a very short time i fall back asleep for a few hours.
by the time i wake up, the party is well under way. they are blasting this insane myanmar music at about a billion decibels. the music is completely nuts. sound like a bunch of people banging away on xylophones and yelling, and everybody is out of synch. people on deck are laughing and dancing and having a blast. i can tell this is going to be a fun trip. after a bit, i climb up onto the roof of the boat where the rest of the people are. everyone up there is *completely* obliterated. so absolutely drunk. people are stumbling all over the place, yelling, everyone is spilling drinks everywhich way, various containers of liquids are being dropped and knocked over…. total chaos! i feel like a really late arrival to the party and start doing some drinking myself. people keep stumbling up to me and repeating the same things over and over, but i cant tell if it’s because they’re really drunk or if, due to the language barrier, they dont know what else to say. everything is so crazy and so totally fun!
i find out that the festival we are going to is a nat festival. the burmese people, although buddhist, also believe in and worship nats which are spirits. this festival is to honor the nat named Ko Gyi Kyaw who is a spirit that loves: drinking, playing cards, and fried chicken. so, in honor of the spirit, everyone drinks like crazy. also, there are offerings to the nat on board the ship… in the front there are several large plates of fried chicken, complete w/ chicken head (which i was relieved that we wouldnt be eating), beers, and coconut offerings.
out of the people on board, i’d say about half were young men (from 18 to late twenties) and the other half was split betwen older people and little kids. everyone on board was related to each other in some way. everyone was someone’s brother, uncle, in law, parent, teacher, best friend, neighbor, etc. i felt really priveledged to be able to be a part of the group. everyone there was just so friendly.. it was incredible feeling to be able to take part in the festivities. everyone there went so far out of there way to make sure that i was well taken care of and to be sure that i was having a good time. one of the most common things i would hear from people was “are you happy? good! if you happy, i am happy!” and people were *constantly* making sure that i was well fed and bringing me food.
the food on board was kept in huge pots and used communally by everyone. people here eat w/ their hands instead of utensils, so everytime someone would go get food to put on their plate, they would just shove their hand right into the communal pot… so all the food you ate was most proabbly touched by every other person on board. plus, there were some infants on board. these kids would just walk up to the communal pots, and dig in, shoveling food w/ their increasingly slobery hands. i thought back to the time that caryn had complained about an indian waiter bringing out our forks while holding the tines instead of the handles…. ahh, if only she could be here now and see this! the food though, was actually really tasty. lots of rice, this weird fried fish mash that looked scary but was really delicious, the tea leaf salad, and some other random things. for drinking, i was the only one wussy enough to actually drink bottled water, everyone else just dipped their cups into the murky brown river. surprisingly, after the cups settled a bit, the water actually cleared a bit to only a lightish cloudy grey.
in some ways, after a while, the doting of everyone became a little bit too much. people were constantly telling to watch my step on the boat, or be careful while doing things. in fact, i cant even tell how many times i would hear the words “slowly, slowly!”. every time i would climb on the boat, or off the boat, or on the roof of the boat, or up the hill, or pretty much anything, people told me “slowly slowly!” and reached out to give me a hand. i felt like a little kid in some ways! yeah, i was definitely less agile around the boat then some others, but that doesnt mean i can’t handle myself… err, well, except for the first time i tried to fling myself up to the roof of the boat and ended up getting tangled in my bag then slipping down and crashing on the ground bruising the shit out of my leg. all of this was responded to w/ hearty laughter from everyone around. smooth.
i spent the rest of the next 12 hours on the boat getting to know everybody. everyone there was from this small neighborhood in new bagan. for many generations, everyone in that village was a fishernman, catching fish from the ayerwaddy river, but now times are changing. these days, about 70% of the people in town are either a “painter man” or a “businees man”. the former paint small prints (mostly copies of artwork they’ve seen in temples) and sell them to tourists, and the latter have small souvenier stalls set up near pagodas where they sell lacquerware and other crafts. obviously, tourism has affected bagan in a very big way. one particularly odd way that tourism has affected people here is their clothing. a lot of the people here try to sell stuff to tourists, and if the toursist wont buy stuff, the local will often volunteer to trade their souveniers for stuff.. usually t-shirts and whatnot. so, a lot of the people on the boat have this random assortment of clothing that they’ve gotten from westerners.. t-shirts w/ logos for Legoland, sean john collection, and even KGO radio. quite odd.
eventually, after 12 hours, we arrived at the village where the nat festival would take place. we got off the boat and went into town. true to everyone’s word, there wasn’t a single foreigner in sight. we wandered around a bit and checked out what goods people were selling. then, it was time to make offerings to the nat. the main offering that people give to the nat is flowers. you buy flowers and then bring it up to this little shrine where there is a statue of Ko Gyi Kyaw. people everywhere are on their knees muttering prayers etc. you bring the flowers up to the front, and a guy up there takes them and touches them to the nat statue, then hands them back. your flowers are now blessed. you’re supposed to take them home and they will bring good luck to your house.
after making an offering to the nat, and checking stuff out a bit more, we grabbed some dinner and then sat down to have drinks. everyone all over was in a very festive mood. the drink of choice for the evening was “rum and coke”, except that instead of coke, it was beer.. not that bad of a concoction! people at the stall next to us were singing karaoke. we spent a bunch of time chatting about differences between myanmar and america.. when all of a sudden, this crazy fight broke out in front of us. all of a sudden, these people were hella yelling, throwing punches.. others were trying to hold people back. crazy. no sooner had the fight started when everyone at my table jumped up and hurried me to the back of the restauyrant. once again, god forbid i get hurt. the people fighting broke apart for a bit then some people ran off, then i saw a bunch of people come running by w/ huge sticks. uh-oh!! i was worried that all hell was gonna break loose, when the restaurant i was at virtually shut down. they put up all these posterboard walls up in front, and within minutes we were closed off inside, and then were snuck outside the back.
as we scurried away, one of the people from the boat came up to me appologizing profusely. “sorry. so sorry we have to leave!! but police come! they will ask, ‘who fighting!’ it is us who is fighting!” and then i understood. part of the people from our group were involved in the fight. they needed to make a getaway from the scene. it turned out later that they are friends w/ the restaurant owners, who closed up shop in order to let them escape quietly out the back. we quickly darted through the village and back to the boat. apparently, it was really important for us not to be spotted. the people could get into some trouble for fighting… but if they got in trouble for fighting and somehow a foreigner was involved, they would be in serious deep shit. jail time probably. luckily, it was dark and we made it back to the boat without incident.
we spent the next few hours siting on the riverbank. Lwin and Naing Naing seemed really bummed that the fighting had taken place and that now we couldnt go back to the festival until morning. another of their friends spent forever telling me how much he despised fighting and that even though the fighters were his friends, he thinks they’re stupid for fighting. everyone kept appologizing to me, but i didnt really care too much. despite the fight, i had a really good time. anyways, i was much more interested in just kicking it w/ everyone than the festival itself. after a few hours, it was time to board the boat and go to sleep. they had set up this tiny little plank that you had to walk across to get back on the boat. it was a really skinny plank that was difficult to walk across, and the fact that everyone had been drinking all night, wouldnt make it any easier. earlier, i had heard someone fall of the plank into the water. i hoped that wouldnt be my fate, and inched across the plank “slowly, slowly”.. but i made it ok.
sleeping on a hardwood bench on the boat was definitely not the most comfortable thing. waking up in the middle of night having to piss, and therefore walk across the plank of death twice while sleepy, wasn’t the greatest. waking up the next morning w/ about a hundred bites from some kind of insect wasn’t nice either. ahhh, the perils of boatliving!