Monday, May 26, 2014

En route from Dawei to Ye, Burma (Myanmar)

Odd clock tower in Dawei -- colonial?
When I arrived at the bus station this afternoon something weird happened.  Before that, I checked out of my guesthouse at noon, and the owner, who had seemed money-grubbing to me, gave me a big bag of rambutan for the road and shook my hand affectionately.  I ate at my breakfast place and said goodbye—everyone marveled at the heaviness of my backpack, for which excuse I have the giant bag of mangoes my friend gave me stuffed at the top.  My motorcycle taxi graciously stopped to help me buy a ticket on the way to the bus station, and while driving there, the breeze blowing my hat back, the shacks with their Majesty Whiskey awnings and random assortment of goods and low plastic tables where men sit chewing betel and drinking tea, passing dusty bamboo houses with ornate teak shutters—I realized how much I already love this country.

Thailand may lose its moniker as Land of Smiles.  People smile at me, genuinely, curiously.  I trust these people.  Maybe I shouldn’t—trust no one, as Mulder says—but I do, even the taxi drivers.

Last night I wandered farther afield for dinner.  Generally I try to find a place where there are at least some women eating, although even that is rare.  As with many other country I’ve traveled to, the women seem to stay in after dark.  At this place I saw two women seated and felt relief.

Then I came in and ordered and the women got up to make the food, and I realized it was just me and a gaggle of dudes, few eating, most drinking and chewing and smoking and watching American movies (a classic, Lake Placid 2) and staring.  At me.  I ate, quickly and alone.  They offered me beer, and by the end of my meal three of them had joined me at my table, the ones who spoke the best English, eating their bar snacks.

One kept telling me:  it’s not dangerous here.  Honesty.  Respect.  Honest.

I believe him.  I feel much safer in this situation than I would have elsewhere, even in the States.

But then the bus station.  I’m waiting alone at the VIP stall, lined up between the packed booths for local chicken buses.  The walls are bare plywood, two by fours, and wire.  Burmese pop music blares.

A woman approaches, looks like she’s selling something from a bag.  She gestures at me, speaking to the front-desk people.  She’s going to try to sell me something, I think.  Good thing I have plenty of snacks.  I can legitimately say no.

Often people don’t try to sell me things here because it’s too much work for them, the communication, which is nice.  People are less pushy than in Thailand.  She approaches, speaking fast unintelligible Burmese, gesturing, pulling 200-kyat bills and mysterious packets from her bag.  She wants money, I know, but for what?  She holds her hands in prayer, holding them up to the sky.  Is she begging, or selling me an offering for Buddha?

Then she begins groping me.

She squeezes the fleshy part of my thigh above the knee.  My first thought is she’s demonstrating how much more money I have than her, my fat legs, my meaty body.  Then:  is she trying to sell a massage?  She keeps going, squeezing up my leg, uncomfortably high, then down my calf, along my hairy shins, harder.

Finally I uncross my legs and draw away.  She stops, keeps asking me for money.  Although Jesus says “give to anyone who asks” and I try, I’m even less likely to give her money now.  I try out my Burmese.

I don’t understand, I say.  Na ma le bu.  I pull out my Myanmar phrasebook.  No thank you, I try.  No, thank you.

She doesn’t understand my pronunciation but finally leaves me alone.  As she goes, I see her try the same thing on a man arriving on a motorcycle, beckoning at his bike, massaging his arm.

I’ve been reading feminist blogs, partly because I love them (Everyday Sexism, Feministing, Jezebel, Rookie, This Is Thin Privilege, xoJane) and partly for inspiration, as I travel, a woman alone.  I’m reading Maiden Voyages, a collection of essays by solo women travelers.  They call themselves “women of independent means and without domestic ties.”  I’m thinking of changing my masthead to that.  Or:  “that ideal Gorgon, the strong-minded woman.”  My email has been medusaj for more than a decade.  The earliest essay is a letter from a woman who traveled alone to Turkey in 1716 to join her ambassador husband.  She scandalized her elite friends by adopting native dress.  A later solo traveler, in Illinois, had to use her trunks to block the door against a man trying to break in on her bathing.  And I think I’m brave.

So my feminist friends are always talking about the prevalence of groping, how common it is, just one example of the sexism women have to fend off every day.  But here I am, fending off another woman.  If a man had touched me that way, I’d call it harassment, borderline assault.  Does it change, if a woman does it?  What was she doing anyway?  Giving me a Buddhist blessing?  Was she a shaman?  Am I now cursed?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like rape to me, call the Germans!