"I HATE Trump!"
We exited the Yangon Railway Station in a huff after the first cabbie we talked to wanted 15,000 kyat to drive us to our hotel near the airport, nearly double the going rate. Allison thought we should talk to more drivers inside the station, but I was adamant that this was a waste of time. In my opinion, any cab driver who hangs around a train or bus station is a rip-off artist—"End of story!!"—or at least I felt that way at the time.
So we walked down the road with our backpacks, arguing about who had the better strategy for getting a cab to the airport. I’ll concede now that Allison may have been correct: There’s no harm in talking to a few drivers, rather than storming away. But at the time, I thought she was out of her goddamn mind. Fortunately, our bickering was interrupted by a skinny middle-aged Burmese man in a longyi and a Members Only jacket.
“Hello, hello! Where you go?” He waved from the darkness of a parking lot behind the road, hurrying toward us.
“Airport Inn,” I said cautiously.
“Yes, yes, airport,” he said, ignoring the “inn” part. That was fine. The hotel was basically inside the airport. How much more difficult could it be? “10,000 kyat.”
“We paid 8,000 last time.” I forced a smile and tried to remain calm.
“OK, OK—9,000.” He smiled back at me ... sincerely?
Allison shot me a look that basically said, Do the deal. Don’t argue with this guy or storm away childishly.
As we piled into that cab, my curiosity was aroused by the way he insisted on putting my backpack in the passenger’s seat rather than in the hatchback, even though it didn’t really fit—but I didn’t think too much about it because after a month in Myanmar I had accepted that there was so much about the way Burmese people did things that was illogical and inefficient to me, but that that was (basically) OK.
Allison’s bag sat between us in the backseat.
"How long you in Myanmar?" our cab driver asked.
"One month," Allison said. I started to zone out as Allison began rattling off the list of places we'd been—Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Golden Rock...
"Myanmar ... " the driver interrupted. He paused like had something very important to say. "One big village."
"Ahhh," Allison said, no doubt approving of this idea. I thought I detected a touch of cynicism in his voice, like perhaps a country of 53 million people where only 34 percent of the population has reliable electricity isn't so charming after all.
The conversation lapsed (I wished he would pay more attention to the road, frankly), and few moments later we were startled to hear snoring behind us.
We peered over the backseat, and indeed, there was a man asleep in the hatchback, a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He looked quite compact and cozy, even though our driver was stopping and starting and leaning on the horn frequently, as everyone in Myanmar does all the time. (Allison had observed on more than one occasion that drivers in Burma basically use the horn like children do, to announce their presence—“Beep beep, get out of my way!” as they drive as fast as their vehicle will allow.)
“Who’s your friend?” I asked the driver. “It guess it's been a long day!" I wondered if they were driving in shifts.
Silence from the front seat; peaceful snoring from the back.
Finally: “Him? My father. Very old.”
This didn’t seem to be a topic he liked.
Allison and I, on the other hand, had a lot of questions—but before we could figure out how to ask them, he changed the subject to politics.
“Your president," he said in a loud voice: "Obama! Good man. He come to Myanmar two times. Myanmar leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—you know?—his friend.”
We nodded, and said, yes, we did know. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of Myamar’s most famous and influential democratic voices and its de facto president. She lived under house arrest for the better part of two decades before finally being released in 2010. Like Obama, she’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he was one of the leading international voices who advocated for her release in the 2000s. In 2015, her party won a landslide victory in the national assembly, and she would have assumed the presidency herself except that Myanmar's constitution bars her from doing so because her husband (and therefore children) are foreign citizens. A new position, State Counselor (akin to Prime Minister), was created specifically for her.
“But soon, no more Obama," our driver went on ominously. "Soon, Trump.” His whole mood seemed to change as he contemplated this.
“We don’t like Trump,” Allison said firmly, trying to reassure our suddenly crestfallen driver.
I sat back and sighed, dreading how many times I was going to have to have this conversation over the next few months.
Suddenly, Allison started tapping me and mouthing something I couldn’t understand. She was staring at the front seat with eyes that looked like they were about to roll out of her head. She grabbed her phone, began typing, then flashed it in my direction:
“HE JUST TOOK A HUGE SWIG OF WHISKEY!” it said on her screen.
I stared back at her for a few moments, mute, as she looked at me expectantly.
“I don’t know what to say about that.”
This statement felt extremely lame, but it was true. Dealing with a whiskey drinker can be delicate (I know, I am one!), and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. He didn’t seem drunk to me, and anyway, perhaps he could handle it—unless this was out of the ordinary and he really was drunk, in which case he might become unpredictably angry. I considered. I’ve certainly driven a car after having a few drinks, though usually not hard liquor (it’s far more unpredictable) and never for an hour in busy traffic in one of the most chaotic cities in the world.
“I HATE Trump! HATE Trump!” he shouted, with surprising anger. Now that I knew the situation, it seemed obvious. I doubted a Burmese person would talk this way to a foreigner if he weren’t intoxicated.
“We don’t like him either!” we reiterated, suddenly worried. This was almost as bad as a political “discussion” on Facebook.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, until the whiskey-sodden Burmese patriot who held our life in his hands piped up again.
“Where you fly?”
“Back to Thailand!” Allison said enthusiastically. In typical fashion, she was very uninhibited about telling Myanmar people about our plans to go to Thailand (and vice versa), despite the centuries of history of war between the two countries. I was a little more circumspect. My feeling about telling people my travel plans is usually a vague smile and clipped answers that I hope convey “None of your damn business,” but then again, that’s one of the (many) reasons I need Allison.
“Heh, yeah, Bangkok,” I interjected meekly. “Then we’re probably heading south to Malaysia.”
“Thailand, no good!” the driver said emphatically. He took another swig of whiskey. “Malaysia, no good! Is! Is! Muslims, you know?”
I didn’t know. But I gathered that he didn’t like Muslims. A lot of people don't. So there was at least one thing he could have talked about with Donald Trump. When the car stopped, as it did frequently in the bumper to bumper Yangon traffic, he turned around in his seat and started gesturing with his hands to make himself clear.
“Is. Is!” He started tracing letters in the air. “I-S. I-S! You understand?”
Now I got it. ISIS. Yes, I remembered hearing something about that.
“We’ll be careful.”
Right now I was more worried about getting to the airport alive. “How about Cambodia?” I asked. Surely he didn’t hate all of his Asian neighbors.
“Cambodia, good. Very nice people. Laos, good. China, no good!”
We shared a laugh about that one. Based on its size, economic power, and cultural influence—and the generally loud, annoying conduct of its tourists in other countries—I had been calling China the “America of Asia” for a while now. I doubted whether many people in the smaller countries nearby had much more than tepid, obligatory respect for the Red Dragon to the north. I had lived in China myself for five months a few years ago and still have ambivalent feelings about the place, as indeed many Chinese do—which also is similar America.
We rode again in silence, until our driver brought up another new topic.
“Hollywood!” he exclaimed suddenly. “America movies, very good. Angelia Jolie. You know?”
“Yes, she’s very famous,” Allison said with a laugh. “Very beautiful.” She seemed relieved.
"She hasn't been in anything in a while," I said, piping up stupidly. I hoped this wasn't about to turn into a conversation about breast cancer. Or Brad Pitt. I should have let Allison carry the conversation.
“Very good action movie too,” our driver continued, apparently changing the subject slightly. “Fast and Fury, you know?”
“Yes, Vin Diesel.”
“Paul Walker, my favorite. Very handsome, good man.”
“Yeah, it was sad the way he died … ”
“Big crash. Big fire!”
This was becoming too much. We’d seen a terrible accident just the other morning. We’d been in a bus on the way to Kimpun and seen an overturned pickup truck taxi on the side of the road. The trucks can fit up to two dozen people and are usually packed. Bodies in various states of injury were strewn about in the dirt next to the road. The top of the truck cab had been smashed, and Allison said she’d seen a child inside spitting out teeth and blood as a man held him and wailed for help. Our bus had slowed down to observe the scene briefly, but it all happened so fast that I was not able to absorb many details beyond the confusion and injuries of unknown scope and severity. I tried to reassure Allison afterward that we didn’t know that anyone had died.
“No, no, Fury-us,” our driver said suddenly, correcting his pronunciation. He took yet another gulp of whiskey.
Did he fancy himself a driver like that—like a car thief, or an actor who plays one in the movies who actually dies in a car crash in the real world while driving way too fast?
“What are you drinking up there?” I said finally. “Whiskey? Rum?” In Asia the local stuff is usually called either one. Technically it's "blended spirits."
“Very cold,” the driver said, rubbing his arms and pretending to shiver for effect.
Now that he mentioned it, the air-conditioning was going full blast. It was like a morgue in there.
“Yeah, but take it easy,” I said.
“We’re just a little nervous,” Allison added sympathetically, wisely down playing the situation.
“OK, OK.” He rolled down all four windows and started smoking instead. We were stuck in traffic again.
I was about to ask him for a cigarette myself, when at last we turned down Airport Road. We passed one hotel that was definitely too large and nice to be the $15 dollar a night one we’d booked. We pulled over, and the driver got out and walked across four lanes of busy traffic with his whiskey bottle in his pocket to ask for directions. Allison and I remained in the backseat, not saying much.
This was all fine.
We didn’t want to do or say anything to jinx it.
Our driver returned looking triumphant.
“I know now. Not far.”
A few hundred meters later, he turned left, making a virtual U-turn across those same four lanes of traffic onto “Airport Avenue”—a tiny lane off Airport Road where our hotel was allegedly located. He did this with such confidence and aplomb that Allison and I nearly applauded.
And yet, impossibly, we still weren’t there.
The lane became narrower and narrower as we drove, until there was barely room for a single vehicle and all suggestion of a commercial hotel property faded. There were only private residences, perhaps abandoned now, hidden behind large, mysterious gates.
He stopped to ask for directions again. After a long conversation that included many hand signals, he somehow managed to figure things out, turn the car around and head back in the direction we’d come from.
We finally found our hotel on another tiny road off the one were already on.
“See, very cheap,” Allison said triumphantly, indicating the flickering “Airport Inn” sign that greeted us.
Even so, Myanmar hotels take hospitality very seriously, and a porter rushed out to greet us.
Before the driver could stop him, the porter opened the hatchback, and the old man, who had not stopped snoring the entire ride, woke up and came tumbling out, startling the porter.
“My father, very old,” the driver said as the other man calmly adjusted his baseball cap and longyi, gave us a toothless smile, and walked up to the passenger seat, which the driver had already cleared of my bag in the confusion.
That matter settled, he turned to me.
“You said 9,000,” I protested.
“Many turns,” he said, indicating with his hands the obscure darkness we’d just navigated.
“Yes, yes!” Allison said, staring at me with disbelief. For once, I was being the cheap one. This was fair. It had been a long and winding road, and he hadn’t killed us all on the way. Surely that was worth $7.35.
I pressed the money into his hand, and we all thanked each other. I resisted the urge to hug him before we ran inside after the porter, who had already disappeared with our bags.