Saturday, 15 March 2008

Day 296 - Meiktila

Of all the countries I have visited , this has to be the one that most reflects just what it must be like to live here, and it's not for me I can assure you.

I have made alot of friends in the past couple of days, some I am sure would like to read this and so as not to affend them too much it has been toned down a little, but I am sure you can read between the lines.

The place is still challenging and it is a hard place to travel in and definately not a place to cycle around, infact anybody who decides to cycle here must need their bloody head tested.

Tuesday was another trip to the embassy, still no arrival of funds. The Foreign Office in London were chased up, but due to time differences I had to wait 5 hours and just made the last bus back with 3 minutes to spare but some much needed cash in the pocket, so at last I was ready to leave the following morning. I will write a letter of complaint and asked for the 61 pounds fee back as it seems to have been an admin error there.

It was great to be back on the road again, a feeling of total freedom, but there are other problems here. My map has no distamces on, nor do the signposts, so judging how far I can get is very hit and miss. To make things worse most towns have a guest house which I can find by asking around, but they have to be licensed to take foreigners and most aren't. That means I have to keep going until I eventually find one that will let me stay. Added to that it is very hot between 12 and 3, around 43 degrees, but I can't stop as I don't know how far I will have to go, so I have been doing 150k plus every other day, much further than I would like.

But I did find a gem of a place in Toungoo, a guest house on the edge of town, down a little track, a wooden house and very peaceful. When I arrived I was not shown a room but force fed with fresh fruit from the garden and fresh lemon juice, the staff were so friendly. One woman, the friendliest, helped me with the bags to the room and whilst in there she said "Please will you kiss me". I was somewhat taken aback and didn't know what to do or say, again she said "Please will you kiss me". "Kiss you?" I said, but she said nothing. It's a very different culture here but I thought I suppose it wont do any harm, so I am just about to give here a little peck on the cheek when she said "Please will you kiss me your passport". Crikey, that was close, she would have one heck of a shock. Later the owner showed me around the garden, something she takes great pride in, but a bit of a jungle. I saw pineapples growing for the first time, but she also grows bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, mangos, papaya, chillies, star fruit and coffee to name just a few. What a wonderful relaxing and friendly place to stay, just what I needed.

Breakfast the following morning was in the price of the room, and wow, what a breakfast. Lots of fruit from the garden, bread and curry, banana panckes, toast, there was no way 2 people could have eaten it all, despite me giving it my best shot. I was away by 7:30, expecting another long day, it was! All was going well, I was really enjoying the cycling and I felt great again. Just after a lunch stop I was stopped at a road check and asked to show my passport. All sort of details were noted down and I was asked to go across to the teashop across the road for questioning. After a few minutes an officer's daughter turned up to do some translation whilst I was question and my passport was taken away for photocopying. After about 20 minutes I was free to go on my way again. A few kilometres further on I was aware that I was being followed by a motorcyle, then two. They stayed about 50 metres behind, but I could always hear the motors a little way back. As I continued I also became aware that there was quite a network of people involved as when I crossed bridges and passed junctions there were always people there on radios. At times they pulled up alongside for a chat, just the usual questions, what is your name, where are you from. They told me I had to go into Pylimana for the night and they would escort me. At the junction to Mandalay they wouldn't let me turn right but insisted I turned left and I was to follow them to a hotel, fine by me, I had gome further than I wanted to already. I was told it was only 1 or 2 miles but after about 3 I stopped for a drink as I was so thirsty. 2 came and sat opposite me and 3 stayed across the road. I asked why they were following me but the answer was always evasive, I asked about 15 times before one eventually said "I am on duty". He asked to see my passport but I said no. He asked again so I asked for his ID but he said he had left it at the office, but the other one produced his. I handed it back and said it looked like a student card and still refused to show my passport. They ordered drinks, so I immediately finished mine and left. Further down the road they said I was to turn right, but my gut instinct said turn left. I asked somebody the way to a hotel and he pointed left. My friends said I had to go right 11 miles to the tourist hotels that would cost at least $50. I said "You told me 2 miles back there and now you are telling me 11, you can fuck off!" and off I went to the left. Needless to say they didn't take my advice and followed me. I ignored them from then on and soon found a motel that said they were full. I questioned whether they took foreigners but they said no and confirmed where those hotel were and that they would cost between $50 and $100. They also told me I could stay at Tatkon 50k towards Mandalay. I didn't want to go further but it was better than following my friends so at 15:20 I set off in the hope of getting there before dark, but as soon as I left the hotel my frinds went in. I was followed the whole way, the whole route was swarming with people on radios, practically every bridge and juction the whole 50k had them. I needed to stop for more food and checked a few places out but they only did full meals and I didn't have much time so I just carried on. I noticed 2 on a bike stop at a food place and they then rode alongside me saying "food, food" but I didn't even look at them. As I neared Tatkon I passed a very arrogant looking guy on a radio. As we entered town he was on my right shoulder so I eased up and asked him where the hotel was and he just laughed. I repeated the question with the same results and he started to pull away. What I did next wasn't the brightest thing to do, I caught him up, forced him off the road and made him stop. I asked the question again bit got no answer, but at least his laugh had gone. A few hundred metres further on was a police station. I have used them before for hotel infomation so I went in. They obviously knew who I was and the welcoming commitee was out, my friends followed in. Crikey, they were police, gosh I hadn't realised. I went in and asked where the hotel was and was told to sit down. I sat down and repeated my question and was told "Don't talk". Somebody came and sat near me so I asked the same question. He put his finger to his lips and said "Shhhh, don't talk". Oops, I felt I could be in the shit here, so I got up and started to walk out and Boss Man said very firmly "Sit down and be quiet", I just walked passed him and out of the building. He followed me and asked "Where are you going?". "To find a hotel before it gets dark" I said. "Please sit down" he said, I left assuming that ecen in Burma it is not a crime to ask where a hotel is. There was no sign of a hotel and a number of people said there was one in the next township, a further 22 miles. I went into a restuarant and put my bike behind a bus. I asked for veg curry and rice, but they brought out no end of dishes. I was rediculous, nobody could eat all that and no doubt I would have to pay for it all so I got them to take 5 dishes back. I was now really glad of my Audax cycling experience as I set off at 19:00 in the dark, still feeking pretty good. To the best of my knowledge I wasn't being followed and added to that it was nice cycling with the temperature now under 30. I soon passed another check point where I had to show my passport and within minutes I was being followed again. It was now harder to tell how many were around in the dark, but there were a few. One pair came up and made contact and said "We are Police, you are safe now". Later they pulled up alongside and offered me something. I couldn't see what it was so stopped. I was a packet of cigarettes! I asked them how far to the hotel and they said "7 miles, on the next township". I eventually entered the township and saw what looked like a guest house so stopped. 5 motorcycles surrounded me and they said it was full and I was to follow them. Soon we arrived at another, this time there were another 4 police outside waving me on, but I stopped. They told me I couldn't stay there but I insisted I needed a bed for the night and I was going to check. A motorcyclist raced in ahead of me, said a few words and sure enough it was "full". With these tactics I had no chance. I asked if they were taking me to the police station but they insisted I had to follow to a guest house. I asked if I was being arrested and they laughed and said no. So I just had to follow as our bloody great convoy of about 10 motorcyles passed good looking guest houses and out the other side of town until the street lights stopped. I stopped and pointed out that there would be no guest houses that way, but they insisted there were. "How far?" I asked, "7 miles" said the one that had told me 7 miles ages ago. I was furious "You told me 7 miles in the next township about an hour ago and now we have passed through it. I don't trust you, there will not be one in 7 miles. You either arrest me or I am turning back". "OK" he said. "Does that mean you are arresting me?". "OK" he said again, but I soon realised they weren't going to arrest me, so turned back followed by the Keystone Kops. I stopped at a large outdoor cafe, the mood changed as soon as we entered. There was nowhere to sit but I table emptied immediately and I coild sense the discomfort in everybody. I sat down joined by 2 police, all the others sat around another table, all eyes in the cafe on me. It was 21:15 I had ridden over 200k through the heat of the day and I had had enough. I asked why they were following me, about another 15 times, but got no answer, they went to their mates. I made up my mind to spend the night sat in this chair. Police came over every now and then for a chat then went back. My bike was near them and I didn't trust them so brought it over next to me to laughter around the whole cafe, that made me feel good. 3 more police came back and asked me where I would spend the night, "Here" I said. "Where?", "Right here in this chair". They left and later returned and said that I could stay at a guest house, but it was very basic. Their mood had changed and they were all very friendly, shaking hands, pouring me more tea than I could drink. We left in convoy back though town and 3 police went into the guest house I checked earlier, then came out and took me into one opposite. All the police came in and gave me a hand with my bike and baggage, which I didn't like, they even showed me to the shower. After a shower even more police had arrived, immigration unit apparently. Only one seemed any good, another filled out a form that took about 20 minutes that I could have done in one, the others all had their little note books out, it was pathetic, like a bunch of school kids on an outing. It was all friendly though as they started to teach me Burmese including "I love you" that I kept telling them I wouldn't be needing. At midnight they finished having photocopied every page in my passport 5 times. Most left but I suspect at least one spent the night there.

At 7:30 this morning they were there to greet me. "You have something to eat and then we go" I was told. I replied "I decide when I eat and when I go, you will just have to follow". I paid but the price had risen from 2000 to 5000, no doubt for the police. I refused to pay any more than 2000, it wasn't worth it, it was a dump with walls made of hard board, so thin that when people in the next room made noises I thought there was somebody in my room. I went to the same cafe as last night for breakfast and dragged it out for an hour. There were police on the road and at the table next to me. I set off but was only ever aware of one motorcycle following me as I tried not to look back. At a check point I was allowed through and I am sure they were called off there. The rest of the ride to here was uneventful and I was so relieved to be alone again.

I am sure this is not the end of it. I am concerned that they will "find" something on me so to that end I will not let them near my bike again or touch anything they offer me. I really want to be out of this place, but at least I can go whenever I want, at the moment, the people living here don't have that luxury.

There is no need to worry about me. Tomorrow will be another long day to Mandalay and I will do my best to post on Monday so that you know I am ok. I had been warned by Sonya that I would be followed here, but I hadn't expected the level of harassment. When I told her I was going here she said "What on earth do you want to go there for?" I am asking myself the same question now.


Jörn said...

Worried Germans (Judith and Joern - Andre is sleeping already) in Wanganui, NZ think you should leave before something happens. Besides that, best wishes from the southern hemisphere!

Tony said...

Blimey! What a very easy and peaceful time I was having on a wet and windy 300 on Sunday!!