© 2011 by Robert Rosborough
I feel the dust hit my tongue as I step out of our minibus, avoiding a pair of goats that seem unconcerned that the rest of their flock is twenty yards down the highway. The highway in question – I use the term loosely since the livestock using it outnumber the people – is Burma’s main highway, running north from Yangon to Mandalay. Today my friends and I are heading to Mt. Popa, a sacred volcano in central Burma. We mill about – the dust, heat and smell of dung from the fields a decent tradeoff for the ability to stretch our cramped bodies.
We left our tiny hotel in Pyay early enough to anticipate spending a relaxing New Year’s Eve lounging by the pool in the late-afternoon sun at our resort in Mt. Popa. My friend Jeff has traveled extensively in Burma and says our drive is six hours or so. The “or so” is already looking like the salient term since it’s early afternoon and from my rudimentary map we appear to be much less than half way.
A couple of hours later, dreams of a poolside cocktail hour start to slip away as we slow to a crawl behind yet more water buffalo. They eye us lazily through our large windows as we inch by. Eventually we pull away from them, but the scenery still passes slowly. Burma’s abundant natural beauty is not always apparent along this road, which has become as monotonous as our guide’s talk of the rice trade.
As the sun drops low in the sky, our minivan’s shocks — or lack thereof — have clearly taken their toll. My butt feels like it has been sitting in a church pew all day. My boyfriend, Tim, looks to be in as much pain as I am, but a little prescription pain relief perks us up enough to pepper our guide with questions, including when we might try kun-ya, or betelnut, the local (legal) stimulant.
An hour after sunset, I long wistfully for the scenery that I had been so quick to dismiss in the daylight. The minivan’s vibrations make reading virtually impossible, my iPod batteries are exhausted and we’re at nine hours and counting. I recall a drive I once took in the back of a Land Rover on a pre-pavement-era Pan-American Highway, comforting myself that at least this time I will not have a concussion at journey’s end.
Somewhere around hour eleven we enter another small, dusty town but this time Jeff says excitedly that this is it. Given our non-resort-like surroundings, I am alarmed at the prospect that we had actually arrived, but it is only the village nearest the resort. The next day we would see its festive New Year’s celebrations: firecrackers and dancing in the streets, with dancers costumed as colorful elephants, animals central to the everyday and spiritual lives of many Burmese. (You can watch a clip of a Burmese elephant dance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yyx7I_n44XE&feature=related&hd=1.)
We wind our way upward for another agonizingly slow twenty minutes, and as we crest the hill the resort appears like an oasis. Towering teak and other native trees create a lush partial canopy over simple, elegant wooden buildings. Elevated wooden walkways perforated by the occasional tree connect areas landscaped with dense shrubs and blooming gardens.
Most impressive of all is the view, even in the dark. Beyond a swimming pool, an isolated peak crowned with a Buddhist monastery thrusts almost straight up to a height of 737 meters: Taung Kalat, on the flanks of Mt. Popa. This entire area has a colorful and sacred history, for Popa means “flower” in Sanskrit: the volcano is named for a flower-eating ogress who once inhabited its forest which today is inhabited by Burma’s most powerful “nats”, or local spirits, that are worshipped throughout the country.
The view is not enough to keep us long from the resort’s New Year’s Eve “banquet,” which turns out to be more aptly termed buffet. The food looks rather sad and unappealing—unidentifiable dishes dehydrating over flickering Sterno. But we have wine, a festive atmosphere and, most importantly, no minibus. We sit on a deck surrounding an open-air dining room, an improvised stage at one end. We learn there is a New Year’s Eve show, but after eleven hours of driving, the only items on my agenda are eating and sleeping. And a little New Year’s Eve sparkling wine.
Dinner, though – such as it is – revives us. We are conversing surprisingly animatedly when an odd thought passes through my head: a drag queen just walked by. Given where I am, this is unexpected, to say the least. Maybe the day has taken a greater toll than I thought. Before long, I register that a line of Burmese is snaking past our table towards the stage. I look up into the flirtatious smile of…another drag queen. In fact, the entire line is formed by young men whose smooth Burmese skin makes them look more like boys – in drag.
That we are all surprised is an understatement. Jeff has never seen anything like this, or anything else that hinted at a gay sensibility, anywhere in Burma. We are taking in this peculiar sight when Western music bursts forth from the dining room speakers. The first young man in line, dressed in a blond wig and attire that vaguely recalls Madonna, sashays onto the stage, lip-synching Vogue. The drag queen with the flirty smile turns out to be J.Lo, and the procession continues, one decidedly Western song per drag queen.
The performers are all hotel employees. Their colleagues cheer and giggle from the back of the room. When the parade of pop hits ends, what follows is…unique: a hands-free coconut peeling contest. J.Lo is pitted against another pop princess and, kneeling down, they have at their coconuts with their mouths. I think J.Lo is probably the only gay man in the troupe, but she is gay enough for everyone. It’s definitely my first homoerotic coconut peeling. With enough of the shell removed, she smashes the coconut against the stage with a lascivious smile, its milk bursting forth and winning her the contest. But she hasn’t finished. She gleefully laps up the milk from the stage, mugging expressions of ecstasy. After she is congratulated, the divas parade for a final bow and are gone.
There really isn’t much to say after that. It was different? Whatever it was, I was grateful not to have missed it. It certainly beat a cocktail by the pool. It was even worth that drive. Now, where did J.Lo go?
Robert Rosborough recently completed writing his first picture book: Leopold the Leafy Sea Dragon. He is a writer, editor, teacher and mediator with a background in engineering and art history and a former life as an environmental attorney.