Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Aw, rats!

I have to do something about the rats. They've been a presence in the henrun ever since I got the hens, and that's only to be expected, but this long, cold winter has had them chewing so many holes in the henhouse that it's beginning to look more like a colander. Not small holes, either: a good 7cm in diameter which, considering how they can elongate themselves to squeeze through gaps, suggests I've been nourishing some mighty rodents there.

The henhouse is an old Wendy house I got for free: a pretty little cedar hut with shutters on the windows and a crooked chimney, but the timber is thin and soft, and offers no resistance to sharp teeth. In the past I've painted hot chilli sauce on vulnerable areas (works better than you'd think and has the advantage of satisfying mental images), nailed flattened tin cans along chewed edges and poked screwed-up chicken wire into holes, but I'm beginning to think the whole building needs swathing in metal.

I did once, since I have a long happy history of mouse ownership and am reluctant to kill the rats, buy a humane trap which did actually catch one, a biggie too. But then what? I took the mesh box up to the house while I thought about it, and when I put it down on the deck our dog came up for a sniff and the rat lunged FORWARD and HISSED and made us both jump.

I put it in the car and took it a couple of blocks to a little service road that leads to a sewage treatment station by a creek, thinking that would be rat heaven, but I was hardly even out of my seat before a busy-body old woman who lives alongside came fussing out shouting, "You can't drive down here! It's not a public road!" I told her I'd only be a minute and she retreated, suspicious, and went back inside to twitch her net curtains at me. I was tempted to say, "Don't worry, I'm only here to drop off a rat," but decided that might possibly inflame the situation.

The rat leaped off into the long grass when I opened the cage and I often think of him when the dog and I walk through that way. No doubt his progeny are thriving. Hopefully they'll be boring holes in the old witch's house too.

And today's travel connection? Well, in 1980 the OH and I did the overland trail from NZ back to the UK and when we were in Burma (which should never be called Myanmar until democracy is restored there, and shame on NZ for kowtowing to the military dictatorship on that one) we took a ferry down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Pagan, leaving very early one morning and arriving in the evening of the following day. It was colourful, fascinating, thoroughly entertaining at all the stops, extremely uncomfortable even in the cabin of privilege up in the bow, and highly educational as regards the capabilities of the human body in extremis. Because we went all that time without using the loo once. Because the cockroaches? They were as big as rats.

>>> It's a feature curiously absent from the tourist literature, that a visit to Burma will leave you with a deep respect not only for the country and its culture, but also for the resilience of the human body.

Don’t get me wrong: it's a beautiful country, the people are wonderfully friendly, there's much to see that is interesting, spectacular and unique, and Pagan has to be one of the seven wonders of Asia. Though it was years ago, I will remember my visit for ever – but, it has to be said, as much for what I discovered about myself as for what I learned about Burma.

Of course, this is far from being a bad thing: travel has always been as much about psychology as scenery, which is why OE is considered by potential employers as significant a pair of initials as MA. Rather like an Outward Bound course (minus the possums and flapjacks) the trip to Burma pushed my boundaries and made me step way outside my comfort zone.

How did Burma test me? Let me count the ways:

1) Courage: Normally a keen supporter of recycling, I'm strangely unenthusiastic about it in the context of air travel. Burma Air’s battered Fokker Friendships, crammed with rickety seats cannibalised from other aircraft – possibly also trains and buses – did not inspire confidence. Nor did the bald tyres and the cracked, bumpy runway. And somehow the steward, fag hanging from the corner of his mouth as he dished out the pallid chicken, cabbage and banana dinner, was not someone whom I felt, in an emergency, would know what to do. These things are important when you are about to fly over the Himalayas.

2) Patience: Burma has discovered the answer to unemployment. It is bureaucracy. Any process involving official forms is split into so many stages that you feel as though you are trapped in a hall of mirrors, with desks and queues wherever you look, and no sign of the exit. Hours can pass as you work through the system, relentlessly sweating and crawled over by the stickiest flies in the universe.

3) Restraint: After a week upcountry where the most memorable meal was in the appropriately-named Soe Soe Restaurant in Pagan where I was asked, ‘You want meat? We have chicken or frog’, we stormed the genteelly decayed (and, we later discovered, bed-bug infested) Strand Hotel in Rangoon, ravenous for recognisable food. We should have been alerted by the fact that each item on the excitingly ambitious (but in practice, almost entirely fictitious) menu was tagged not just with a price, but also with a time: soup 20 minutes, fish 35 minutes. The soup actually took 45 minutes to be brought to us luke-warm, and when we complained that people who arrived after us had been served first, we found ourselves in a Beckett play: ‘They were here first.’ ‘We were at the door when you opened.’ ‘They’re still waiting too.’ ‘We can see them eating.’ ‘They ordered at 6pm.’ ‘You didn’t open till 7pm.’ ‘But look, they’ve got their meal!’

4) Lateral thinking: In Burma, an alarm clock is no longer just an early-waking device. It's currency, and can be bartered for lacquer-ware bowls, painted parasols or colourful woven silk cloth. A ballpoint pen will deflect knee-high naggers, cute but persistent. Duty-free gin is not for drinking, but for exchanging on the black market for large bundles of kyats.

5) Self-denial: Basic and, on the face of it, irresistible physical urges became optional the moment I stepped on to an Irrawaddy River steamer. The food-type substances that were concocted on a ramshackle barbecue on the deck were not worth the effort of picking my way through a re-creation of the crowd scene from Exodus. The bare boards of the bunks in the cabin, and the whine of mosquitoes, made sleep a fond memory. And rat-sized cockroaches, that gave every surface in the toilet a shifting coat of shiny brown, ensured that going to the loo became dispensable for the entire 36-hour trip from Mandalay to Pagan.

[Unpub.]

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