There’s a certain time in life – often in our early-to-mid 20s — when we don’t really think about consequences. According to the National Institute of Health, “The brain undergoes a “rewiring” process that is not complete until approximately 25 years of age.” In other words, our brains are like a house being built on Christmas Day: we’re not fully “moved in” until after the 25th.
Looking back at my youth from the perspective of a middle-aged man, I probably wouldn’t get off the train at Bago on my way back from Pagan to Rangoon. It’s not that anything bad happens to me. I’m just not sure it’s prudent to grab my bags and disembark in a town that I know nothing about, 40 miles from Myanmar’s capital, with no idea where I am going to stay or how I am going to get to the airport the next day. It is just one of those many rash decisions I make back then, ie. “I hear they have a cool Buddha here. I’m going!” For context, let me explain that Myanmar (then called Burma) had some crazy rules back in the day. When you arrive in the country, you have to 1) Change $200 in local currency 2) Enter all your expenses onto a form they give you 3) Make sure you stay in ONLY government-sponsored hotels and guest houses. To top it off, you need to show your form upon departing the country, hopefully demonstrating that you’ve been a good boy or girl and followed ALL the rules. In other words, we’re talking about a fairly controlling, repressive government that is not to be messed with. And yet, there I am, hopping off the train in search of novelty and adventure, even if it means potentially breaking a few rules and dealing with the consequences.
As it turns out, Pegu is a pretty cool place. Its market is what you want a Southeast Asian market to be: crowded, colorful and cacophonous. As Myanmar isn’t seeing many tourists at this point, I’m quite the novelty in town…a white guy with a backpack. School kids all want their picture taken with me. And then there are the barter opportunities. A man trades a teak cup with me for a Bic pen and a stick of deodorant. A pair of teenage girls agree to pose for a photo in exchange for the shirt off my back – literally. (I always did like that Hofbrauhaus t-shirt!). The Buddha statue I have come looking for is particularly spectacular: 4 bodhisattvas seated back to back, facing in 4 difference directions. The stop in Pegu has definitely been worth it!
Yes, I wind up staying in a non-sanctioned guest house that night and eating in a non-sanctioned restaurant. Yes, I hitch-hike back to Rangoon (another government no-no). And finally, here I am at customs, ready to surrender my infamous expense form and wondering if I’m going to be in trouble. Fellow travelers met along the way suggested that I spill coffee on the form to render it unreadable. Others insisted the I just bribe the custom officer with cigarettes. None of these solutions sit well with me; instead, heart in my hand, I simply hand over the form and hope for the best. To my amazement, the custom officer takes the form, looks me in the eye, and tosses the form in a bin without even glancing at it! I’m home free. Literally.
(It’s easy to find ourselves “on the train” of life, steaming along in a certain direction – sometimes of our own choice, sometimes not. And yes, there are always consequences in “hopping of the train.” It’s almost never prudent. The art of living is knowing when to ride and when to jump. I’d say in general, my best experiences have always been when I took a mad, rash leap into the unknown, trusting that I have the skills and wits to land on my feet. What train are you on? Is it time to disembark?)