Surreal Travel Moments

Posted by on Dec 20, 2012 in General Travel, Myanmar (Burma), Running | No Comments

There are moments in travel that are so surreal, they lend a magical hue to one’s memories of a place. These moments may not be the “big” ones; the first-time-you-spot-the-Eiffel-Tower or the watching-a-lion-stalk-a-gazelle ones, but they are the ones you will carry with you long after you’ve returned home, even without a photograph to remind you of what happened. In fact, I find these memories usually come from the small things. A slice of normal life in a place, twisted just enough to remind you that you are somewhere completely different.

I was recently remembering one such moment from Bagan. Pierre and I had gone out for a run through the town of New Bagan which, despite its modern-sounding name, was a little village with wide, dusty roads on which chickens and feral dogs ran freely. As in much of Burma, the local people would bathe, wrapped in their longyis, in their front yards with a bucket and a bar of soap. Because it was close to a tourist destination, we were not the only non-Burmese people around, but that didn’t stop people from giving us plenty of funny looks when they saw two tall white people in workout clothes running (for fun!) down their street.

Feeling ogled, but not threatened, we looped our way through the town and headed back towards our hotel at an easy jog, chatting about which temples we wanted to bike to that day. Our conversation halted when we heard the ominously loud thumping of hoofbeats thundering towards us on our right. We froze in our tracks when we looked over and saw a large bay horse bearing down on us at full speed from the intersecting road. Its eyes were focused directly on us, and I remember preparing in a flash to be trampled and barely having time to say “what the…” before the horse jerked to a halt not five feet away from us. It regarded us, breathing heavily, nostrils flaring, and I stared back at it in wonder. It was so unexpected, so un-horse-like. And then, just like that, the horse lost interest, turned on its haunches, and ambled away from us, back down the road from which it had come.

“What was that?” I asked Pierre, as we looked at each other with our mouths agape. I realized my heart was pounding, the adrenaline not yet subsided. Not knowing what else to do, we picked up our feet and our jaws and resumed running, marveling to each other the whole way back about how weird and cool it had been. Did the horse want to run with us? Did it spook when it saw people running? Was it just out for its usual morning gallop (by itself…) and our paths just coincidentally crossed? That long, drawn-out moment of eye contact with the horse was the most surreal of all; not confrontational, but not quite friendly either. What was it trying to say?

Looking back, I think Bagan — or more broadly, Burma — was the perfect place for something like that to happen. A place holding on to what we think of as the past (horses, running around the streets!); a place filled with surprises that could sometimes be scary. And now, whenever I remember Bagan, I remember that horse and its eyes, looking directly at mine.

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