When I get to the bottom of the temple steps, the hotel staff is waiting for me. Two of them, boys almost, have followed me here on their motorbike, determined I owe them for one of my five nights in their hotel. A night for which I paid online, three days ago.
We have had this conversation already once today, at 5:25 a.m., when I asked them to call the taxi that was ten minutes late. The sun only rises once a day, and this was my last chance to see it in Bagan. I was not willing to wait patiently while the light rose through the morning mist that hangs over the temples and sugar cane. Instead of calling the taxi, they started sifting through a registry notebook.
“Is the phone number for the taxi in this book,” I asked, smiling, in my English which is broken from conversing with non-native speakers for weeks on end. It is unfair to speak grammatically proper English when you are talking to people who only know half the words (which is of course many more than my two words of Burmese). The remainder just get in the way, so I’ve learned to take them out. It reduces confusion to a tolerable level for both parties. “I get you phonebook,” I ask, pointing to the phonebook, never used, on the lobby table.
“Yes, yes, taxi coming. And you pay for the night of the 11th?”
“I’m sorry?” It’s what has replaced ‘excuse me,’ in Myanmar. For everything.
And so the conversation went, the poor clerk, speaking to me in his five available English phrases, both of us trying to be polite while not giving ground. I explained that I had paid, online, on Agoda, just like all the other nights.
Not only did I pay, but I gave the day manager the reservation number. My name was on the welcome board outside the door that day, though I was already riding a bike through a countryside of red temples, covered in dust and sweat, flipping off my flops at the bottom of steep temple stairs whenever I could to climb to their tops, wander their hallways, kneel in front of their giant sandstone and gold leaf Buddhas and ask for a little wisdom or peace.
I promised him that I did not owe him any money. And then I pointed to the whiteboard on the wall where it was clearly written in Burmese from the night before: 5:15 to Buledi for sunrise, 8:00 a.m. to airport for room 501.
And then I lost my composure, and said he needed to call the taxi right now because my friend was waiting and the sun was coming up. And it scared him, so he did.
We made the temple for sunrise. We stayed for two hours, climbing up the steps in pitch black and watching the mist creep, the light change, the hot air balloons rise above us with a loud, repetitive hiss of helium. We listened while fifteen Chinese shutters went off repeatedly, watched professional amateurs with tripods set up shots, joked about gently nudging them over the ledge to get them out of our own photographic frames.
The cold air turned warm with the appearance of orange on the horizon and at last, we decided we were ready to climb down, get some coffee, and move on from temples to lake, and that is how we found ourselves standing by the taxi with the hotel staff, holding two of my three reservation receipts and convincing me I owed them for the middle.
They won’t budge. I promise them it would not be good for me either, to owe them money. I get their email so I can forward them my reservation number. They point at my phone and tell me to get it for them, but what can I find them, at a temple? I have no internet, no phone service here. Travel Companion mentions we should go back the ten minutes to the hotel and use their internet to get the number, put this whole thing to rest. And so we do. On the way, I begin to question myself.
Maybe I didn’t really make the reservation? With all the problems with the promised free wifi that goes out for ten of every twenty minutes….with the rainstorm that knocked out the power and added a welt to the already buckling ceiling of my room …maybe I didn’t feel motivated to add another $43 to my tab?
At the hotel, the wireless isn’t working. The day manager is there and I remind her I stood in front of her and gave her the booking number. Maybe it isn’t so nice to tell me I am lying? They invite me into the office to use their computer.
I take off my shoes and enter. I try to load web pages that move at the speed of a 1996 dial up connection. One of the young men from the temple stands over my shoulder, waiting. The others huddle in reception, flipping through pages of registration receipts. And then I hear it. From the young man who was so determined in the temple.
I close the internet browser, push back my chair, and walk out of the office. “Thank you,” I say. “Chi-zu-be.” And I go to have my coffee, and fly away.