"I'm sure this place has a decent bathroom."
Allison and I have been in Yangon for three days, and we are both unaccountably exhausted. Is it something we ate? The 94-degree heat? The mental stress of having to be on high alert to avoid being hit by a bus, swallowed up a crowd of people, of falling into a giant chasm in the sidewalk anytime you step outside your hotel room?
We've been using the word "dire" a lot lately. The other night we saw a dog literally eating rubble. The street had been torn up and there was a mutt standing in the nearby debris munching away. The next afternoon, as the sun beat down, I saw a dog emerge from the sewer though an opening in the oversized sidewalk curb, halfheartedly chase a pigeon, then slink back into his hole. Better to wait until sundown and eat rocks.
At the night market, around the corner from that dirt- and street-chunk-eating dog, people were selling chicken and ducks by candlelight. The candles were stuck right into the chests of the split-open carcasses, which still had their feet attached, separated from the concrete by a sheet of newspaper or a few giant leaves. Allison said it reminded her of a séance. At these same markets during the day, the meat is hounded by flies. Some vendors make an effort to shoo them away; others do not. Small mats of vegetables are set up directly in the middle of the narrow road, positioned perfectly so that if a car drives down the street, it can pass right over without touching them. No one minds a little exhaust on their greens here.
As we sat on 19th Street, the main street with anything resembling Western bars, drinking Myanmar brand beer (slogan: "Brimming with optimism") and eating kabob burgers, a grubby 8-year-old girl with a sleeping baby in her arms approached our table, staring at me with mournful eyes. The waiter, a handsome teenage boy, pushed her away with an amused smirk. She sneered at him and scampered away, the baby's head bobbing on her small, dirty shoulder.
No one will be surprised to hear that the bathroom situation in Yangon is harrowing as well. Filthy little squatty potties and rows of ancient, unwashed urinals that cost 200 kyat (15 cents) to use. Allison quickly declared that the toilets in Thailand, which had set the previous standard for dire in her mind, were quite nice by comparison.
The other morning, we decided to forgo breakfast at our hostel, which started at 7 a.m., in order to get an earlier start and avoid the blazing heat that sets in by 10 a.m. or so. We didn't feel motivated to try a truly authentic Burmese-style tea shop, so we stopped for a few pastries at some kind of Vietnamese coffee chain. There was English on the menu and pictures you could point to. In other words, it was more "attainable" (that's the word we use when something extremely foreign seems actually doable)‚ especially in our groggy, travel-weary state.
Since it was a chain, the shop was cleaner and "nicer" than most street-side restaurants in Yangon. The waiter punched our orders into an iPad, and next to us a group of well-off local teenagers sat eating ice cream and giggling at their smartphones.
Despite the light breakfast of pastries and tea, my stomach didn’t feel quite "right." We'd been eating a lot of Indian food for the past couple of days, as it is generally tastier and less incomprehensible than Burmese food, and I was beginning to seriously doubt whether I could make it much longer without a detour to the toilet first.
"I'm sure this place has a decent bathroom," Allison ventured.
"Really?” I was incredulous. “I'm not ready to say I'm 'sure' about anything in Myanmar yet. This place might have a decent bathroom, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. It might also look like a horror movie in there!”
I was about to go on at some length about the bottomless depths of my skepticism and how if you’re going to use the word "sure" you better really be sure, but Allison got up abruptly, cutting me off.
“I'll go check it out.” she said, hurrying away. Apparently her stomach wasn’t feeling quite right either.
I poked my custard pastry with a tiny fork and tried to ignore the rumbling in my belly.
Several minutes later, Allison returned, her face a mixture of amusement and disgust.
“I couldn’t go,” she said, arranging herself at the table and sitting up very straight, like there was something impossibly serious that needed to be discussed. “I don’t know if I can even describe what’s going on back there.”
“What? I thought you were sure it was going to be nice.” I snorted, hoping she could feel the full force of my correctness.
“First of all,” Allison said, ignoring my derisive laugh, “there was an enormous pot of curry being cooked directly under the sink outside the bathroom. It was huge and bubbling and so hot. Like chicken curry or something. Right under the sink. The bathroom was occupied, which is why it took me so long, and when the guy came out it was obvious that he had just taken a shower in there. He had a towel over his shoulder and the room was all wet and steamy. And there was a lit cigarette butt right next to the drain. The smoke was literally twirling in front of my face. I just couldn’t—”
“He was smoking while he showered?” I said, as if that was the most implausible detail.
“I don’t know! It was so bizarre. It’s like a locker room, a kitchen and a bathroom all at once back there.”
“They’re cooking curry under the sink? This I gotta see this for myself.”
“Better bring some napkins,” Allison said. “There’s definitely no toilet paper in there.”
The whole situation struck me as comical, of course, but also dire—I had to go. Now. It wasn’t optional. Allison had to be exaggerating about the conditions inside. It's happened before.
As I rounded the corner to the bathroom, there it was, exactly as she had said.
Under the sink, right where people wash their hands when they come out of the bathroom, two young Burmese guys were stirring the most enormous pot of curry I’ve ever seen. The pot was at least four feet wide, bubbling red and orange, more like a cauldron in a cartoon than any kind of food-prep I’ve seen in the real world.
I closed the door tight behind me, but I could feel the heat and smell the curry through wall. There was also a faint odor of cigarettes, although I didn’t see a butt on the floor anymore.
Oh my god, am I really going to do this?
I sprayed the toilet seat down with the “bum-gun,” unbuckled my pants, and hoisted my money belt out of the way, mumbling a prayer.
As I emerged from the bathroom. I felt dazed. Physically relieved, but emotionally—overwhelmed. A small new psychological scar was already forming, but I tried to focus on the reality at hand. The cauldron of curry was gone, but a bucket full of white-hot logs remained under the sink. It was giving off so much heat that I had to stand a few feet away and fully extend my arms to wash my hands.
As I ambled back to the table, vaguely ashamed of the humiliations the human body continually puts us through, I could see Allison was already laughing.
“I told you!” she said. “You saw the curry cooking under the sink, right?”