Saturday, October 10, 2020

From ‘Road to Mekong. Four Women. Six Countries. 17,000 kilometres-an adventure of a lifetime’ by Piya Bahadur


……..we drove 300 kilometres into the Odisha countryside before I realized we had seen no woman out on her own. Not a single woman driver nor a dhaba-owner. The women we saw were either in groups or accompanied by men. The only unaccompanied women were the prostitutes at the truck stops……….

During my years in the US, I had seen almost an equal number of drivers of either gender. In Telangana, I had seen women working at toll booths and running dhabas…..


……the rural hinterland of West Bengal is relatively free of plastic because people here are too poor to buy packaged rubbish……..


The gods of the Indian highways are not our usual Krishnas and Ramas who resides in palaces and rule over a world with ghar sansar and domesticity as the central themes. ……The gods revered along the highways are the remote, rugged Shivji and the effervescent Hanuman……Though we see a smattering of Devi temples, it is her consort Shiva who is ever-present.


……as we were entering India’s northeastern states, that we began to see roads in real disrepair and highways getting more crowded. It was on this stretch that we met some of the worst roads one might see in India. But the silver lining was that there was road construction activity everywhere. ……people told us that these were the first roadworks they were seeing in almost a decade. The new government was bringing about changes that we in other parts of India do not hear about ………


…….Assam………..i was awestruck by the clean mountain air and relieved at the clean toilets and the spotless dhabas.


Motorcycling is one of the most gender-free passions……the average biker….questions are gender-neutral and completely unbiased…..


Under the India-Myanmar Friendship Treaty unrestricted entry is permitted within a 16-kilometre belt on either side. This may mean little to people living elsewhere, but to those living along the border it opens up possibilities.


…….on the Indian side, the villagers speak Hindi, English, and Manipuri; and just 30 kilometres into Myanmar, the English is broken and the Hindi absent.


…..Burmese women who caught my envious attention. I marveled at their slight build, fine features, skin to die for, and glossy black hair.


Rural Myanmar, much like India’s northeast, was refreshingly clean. The dhabas we stopped at and the toilets we used, whether attached to the dhabas or in people’s homes, were invariably impeccably clean……humblest of the houses, toilets would always have a bucket of water and a dustbin…….Mandalay, on the banks of the Irrawaddy, is a city of golden spires glistening in the sun, with charming people who do not honk on the roads. Even their vehicles were gentler: no sound and fury, no fume-spewing autos and carriers (apparently their fuel is of better quality), no overloaded trucks and buses……….Orderliness and a quiet discipline is the hallmark of the Burmese. From all reports, Myanmar has average levels of literacy. Yet, the country is kept scrupulously clean with regularly swept streets, ubiquitous garbage cans, covered food, no standing water, or visible piles of garbage. ……..The cows were familiar though. They had the same lovely eyes, the same colours of coat, and the same placid manner of cud-chewing and little care for traffic as the ones back home……..density in Myanmar is only abut 82 persons per square kilometer compared to 457 persons per square kilometer …….Driving through the mountain passes and cutting through the country on the approach to Thailand took us through pristine forests. Every time I thought that this was easily the most picturesque place we had crossed so far, we would turn a corner to a yet more charming view.


………Keng Tung, a small town surrounded by mountains about 150 kilometres from Tachilet on the Myanmar-Thai border…..selling….even Bollywood movie CDs dubbed in Burmese! Akshay Kumar seemed to be the local favourite.


Thailand announced itself with its smooth roads, far higher traffic speeds, and strict lane discipline ……..The pleasure of driving through Myanmar’s pristine silence was replaced by the boisterous vivacity of Chiang Rai’s urban landscape…….Unlike the more demure Burmese, the Thai motorists engaged with us more readily at traffic signals. ………Our motorcycles were also not the largest vehicles on the road any more. The Thai are known to be fond of heavy two-wheelers…….on their fabulous roads.


Laos was a surprise……..our ingress from the north……the country’s seductively virginal landscape – population density of 27 persons per square kilometre – captivated us: mountainous roads winding through unspoilt jungles, lush paddy fields, picturesque villages. Every turn on the wondrous mountain ranges, plains, and plateaus revealed a surprise……this country of myriad ethnicities in the gentle heart of the Southeast Asian peninsula……..the bloody history of the country in the recent past. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons it dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. Up to a third of those bombs failed to explode and today remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate. They kill or maim close to a hundred Laotians every year.


While western Myanmar felt remote and unconnected, traditional and vernacular, Mandalay seemed to be turning cautiously modern. Thailand was a visibly exuberant and glamorous economy, and Laos, hauntingly desolate with an austere beauty.


………how the Chinese, the Thais, and the Vietnamese migrated, warred, plundered, settled, and finally became Laos as we know today.


……….Myanmar had been pristine, Laos had seemed at peace, and Thailand very sophisticated. But Vietnam was ruins, the result of tens of thousands of bombs and several gallons of Agent Orange and napalm dropped by the Americans to strip the forest cover. It left the rivers and farm land poisoned and gifted the next generation with birth defects. The unexploded landmines still kill a thousand people every year. The need to rebuild had cast Vietnam in a state of terrifying industriousness. Every structure looked like it was designed to be a sweatshop. This was a nation in a hurry to make up for the time and work lost to war.

Almost nothing in the cities, towns and villages we passed was made beautifully – except the tombstones. The Vietnamese carve stone and wood well………….they had become a factory for the world. There were few gardens or interesting houses. There were no pleasant touches that impart a certain warmth to a country; instead there was a focused, frowning earnestness.

While the highways so far had been scrupulously clean, the road to Hanoi was conspicuously not so. Almost all the roads we drove along now were lined with industries, and the air smelt of chemicals. Vietnam had given itself over to industry in order to manufacture a new future……the effects of an extended war, pollution and landmines strewn over all of North Vietnam and large parts of the rest of the country have lasted three generations. It was a tragedy long enough for a people to lose large chunks of their tradition.


The traffic in Hanoi was a fantastic mess of two-wheelers. The roads were swarmed by petite people on petite two-wheelers. Industrious, sincere, determined they looked.


The Land of Million Elephants is what they call Laos. ……….Laos has been a memorable experience. The least westernized of the countries we had travelled through, its laid-back approach to life, the beautiful scenery dotted with pagodas, its comfortable pace of life…..


Images of the twelfth-century temple Angkor Wat could be seen anywhere – on the national flag.………The only country other than Cambodia to have the image of a building – a mosque – on its flag is Afghanistan. Cambodia wanted the word to recognize its identity through a living, ancient monument……


Thailand is clearly the most dynamic economy in the Southeast Asian peninsula. It thrives on individual business enterprise, which imparts to the country the vibrancy of a bustling marketplace…….its consumption-led economy, strong middle class, and vibrant society were immediately evident. It’s a complete contrast with the other countries in the region. War-torn Vietnam, having a larger manufacturing base, was dotted with sweatshops. Cambodia seemed to have only two classes: the rich and the just-above-subsistence class. The middle class…… significantly missing…….despite their economic limitations, Cambodia and Vietnam afforded us great riding conditions. We made great time on the fantastic Cambodian roads, averaging 130 kilometres per hour to the Thai border…….Vietnam had even better roads: even the curves could be handled easily at speeds greater than 100 kilometres per hour.

Movement across the borders for local people is seamless.


…….Thailand………..western style toilets are clean and aplenty……..There were well-appointed toilets at every gas stations……the roads too were smooth and lined with trees.


Once again in Myanmar I marveled at how clean the country was, the abundance of usable simple toilets, and the pristine mountains.


Back on our side of the border, we saw not a trace of fish oil and vinegar. How strange that a man-made border could wall off cooking ingredients from foreign lands. In the Southeast Asian countries we rode through, we found eating establishments mainly using soya sauce for seasoning. Salt was a tough ask.


We had several cups of the strong, sweet tea so native to all Indian roadsides. In no other country does one get this kind of tea, boiled to death with milk and sugar.


What we need is more women on the streets engaged in livelihood activities. Six weeks ago, I had felt their absence on the highway through Odisha. But through our northeastern states and the South East neighbours, I had seen women thronging the streets, markets and public places. I had seen the confidence in their eyes and in the self-assured flick of their wrists – handling vehicles, babies, and money with equal aplomb.


The filthy toilets we saw in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were a sharp reminder of the absence of women on the highways. They are absent because they have very little work that requires them to travel…….In our travels all across India’s northeast and Southeast Asia, we saw efficient, clean toilets and confident women. We had seen women filling our fuel tanks in Myanmar, handling dhabas in Manipur, collecting toll in Telangana. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar such women were conspicuous by their absence.


From ‘Bending over backwards. A journey to the end of the world to find a cure for a chronic backache’ by Carlo Pizzati


When you walk out in the streets in India, you will always find a meaningful experience. There’s an intensity of life here that you can’t find anywhere else……….


I remember a Neapolitan friend’s quip as soon as he came back from India ………. ‘Can you picture the streets of Naples near the San Paolo stadium after the Sunday soccer game? All those little flags and the noise in the streets, with the traffic all stuck? India is like that, but 24/7’