Serving in the Peace Corps means giving up a lot of stuff. There are the physical comforts, like hot showers and comfortable beds, and the experiences that you have to miss out on, like Christmas with your family and seeing your friends get married. I went into the Peace Corps knowing that I was going to be missing out on a lot, and I accepted that. But what I didn’t expect to be so difficult was the fact that I was also going to lose a lot of independence and even a little bit of myself.
Peace Corps has a lot of rules that are in place for safety and also to ensure that we integrate into our communities, which is vital to success as a volunteer. So volunteers have to be in their sites on weeknights and notify managers when they’re leaving and where they’re going on weekends. And volunteers aren’t allowed to drive anything motorized, leaving them at the mercy of the unreliable public transportation system. It’s difficult to feel independent when you have to rely on others for things as basic as getting to the ATM when you need to.
Living with a host family for my entire service came with its own challenges. My atheist self had to adjust to the giant, bloody crucifix that was displayed outside my bedroom door, lit with a special spotlight every night. I had to adjust to listening to the same pop music played over and over at top volume when all I wanted was silence, because it wasn’t my house and I felt like I couldn’t assert myself. I gave up complete control of my diet, eating whatever was served to me, whenever it was served, even when I felt like I would rather have anything other than another room temperature egg roll. I very much appreciate that my host family took me in and did their best with the weird American who was suddenly living in the corner room, but for two years I felt like a guest, and that quickly eroded at my sense of independence.
This is all a long, drawn out introduction to say that after Yangon I took a night bus to Bagan, Myanmar, where I got to ride one of these and it was super fun:
Bagan is essentially a village but from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the kingdom that would later become Myanmar. Between the 11th and 13th centuries more than 10,000 temples were built in the area around Bagan. Today around 2,200 temples, stupas, and monuments still exist in the area known as the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which measures 13×8 kilometers (approximately 8 miles by 5 miles). With a size like that visitors need an easy way to get around and explore, so ebikes like the one I rented are available everywhere you look. They’re electric, so they’re more environmentally friendly than gas-powered scooters, and they also top out at about 35 miles per hour, and that’s if you try really hard and maybe get a good tailwind as you head down hill.
At first I wasn’t terribly confident in my ability to drive a scooter since I’d never driven one before and hadn’t driven anything at all in more than two years. That was actually how I started to become friends with one of the girls staying in my dorm: a few of us were chatting and I mentioned that I hadn’t driven in two years and she said, “Me either! Wait, were you in the Peace Corps too?!” Turns out that the Peace Corps bond applies no matter what country you each served in, and we had a lot to talk about regarding our experiences and our transitions back home.
Luckily when I picked a rental shop the clerk told me it was no problem, one of the employees would give me a lesson. I was taken to an empty soccer field and given a very thorough lesson by a Burmese man who spoke very little English, but managed to convey through hand signals when he wanted me to change directions, spiral around him, slow to a stop, and speed up and slow down on command. Eventually he felt confident that I would survive on my own, so he took us back to the shop, handed me a set of keys and a helmet, and sent me off on my own. I was a little nervous at first, but soon I couldn’t get enough of zipping around to look at temples.
Temples in Bagan vary from tiny brick roadside structures to large, gilded temples where busloads of visitors pour out to visit and worship.
Larger temples are often ringed by vendors selling all manner of Burmese souvenirs. Paintings are common (and I bought three), as are lacquer ware, puppets, and longyi, which is the traditional skirt worn by both men and women. If I really felt the need for an opium weight I could have procured one of those, at a “Good price for you!” And everywhere I went there were people trying to sell strips of postcards to tourists, which were easy for me to ignore until they were kids selling hand drawn postcards on small pieces of notebook paper.
I would never have guessed how happy driving a scooter would make me. The ability to go where you want, when you want, without having to rely on anybody else? Turns out I missed that more than I thought. Independence is fun.
One of my favorite days was spent with the new friends I met in my dorm, riding around on scooters, stopping to explore Old Bagan, getting jasmine flower crowns, climbing temples, taking millions of pictures, and having lunch at a little restaurant where the owners were so happy to have us that they gave us two free dishes and a hand-carved bottle opener (which went to only man in the group) and chased after us when we were leaving to give us a big bunch of bananas. There was one point during the day where we were slowed to a crawl as we crept down the main street of a tiny town, through crowds of Burmese people on their way to some sort of religious festival, and I looked around in wonder, amazed that this is my life and that I found myself in that exact time and place when everything seemed perfect.
I loved Bagan and its relaxed, quiet energy, and decided to stay a little longer (without having to report my whereabouts to anybody or fill out any paperwork). My last day I headed out on the scooter on my own, but took off in a different direction than normal. I have an app on my phone that provides offline maps with user-submitted landmarks, and set out in search of one location that promised beautiful vistas through the trees. After a few wrong turns down dusty roads I found myself many kilometers out of town and bumping down a dusty, deserted dirt path, when suddenly to the left a cluster of abandoned and overgrown temples and stupas appeared.
Everything was silent except for the buzzing of the insects in the weeds as I crept around the temples, enjoying the solitude and appreciating that I was in a place that was (literally) off the beaten path.
And there was a stupa ringed in elephant sculptures, which was my favorite, of course.
In the end, I think Bagan was my favorite stop on my trip. I would have liked to see other parts of Myanmar but my schedule and the bus system would have meant spending just a short among of time in a few different places, and I’m glad that I got to really settle in and get a good sense of Bagan without rushing through and attempting to see everything as quickly as possible. And those electric scooters ended up being a highlight, reminding me what independence felt like, and reminding me a little bit of who I am.