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The Barf Phenomenon – Myanmar | We're Not There Yet

I can’t believe that in all my smack-talk about the bus situation here in Myanmar, I have neglected to mention one of the most common occurrences of all: the barf phenomenon. I was a little worried the first time we boarded an overnight bus and were each handed a small, clear plastic bag. I had read that the roads in Myanmar were rough to say the least, but I had also read that the road we were taking out of Yangon was newly completed and we had sprung for the nicer air-con bus. Within minutes of pulling out of the bus station, people started puking. It was like that scene in the movie Stand By Me, you know, the one where the fat kid starts puking and everyone around him starts puking just from watching him puke. Like it was staged or something.

Time after time we watched the same scenario unfold: within minutes of the start of the ride, everybody was puking. Little kids, their mothers, couples, middle aged men, everyone. Except for tourists. I never once saw a tourist get sick on a bus ride in this country which is either a testament to the hardiness of the kind of travelers who make it to Myanmar or highlights a glaring lack of conditioning of the Burmese people. I thought that maybe it is because Burmese people aren’t used to long bus rides, but it happens within minutes of the ride, even on flat roads, and I’ve seen what I feel like is a pretty good cross section of people in different types of buses, going to different types of destinations and they all just can’t hold on to their lunches.

The fact that every bus is distributing barf bags by the fistful suggests that everybody knows what to expect. Which leads me to wonder why people insist on boarding a bus so poorly prepared; it is possible that motion sickness medications are tough to come by out here, but there have got to be better ways. Perhaps skipping breakfast is in order when you know you are about to get on a long distance bus ride. Families come laden with tins full of food and don’t hesitate to lean out the window and buy whatever snacks might be on offer: sliced fruit, fried samosas, chicken feet skewers, you name it. These same queasy passengers also never pass up a lunch stop no matter that they know that they will be parting ways with their meals before it is even digested. It is so egregious that I felt nearly compelled to start pulling people out of line at the lunch counter and figure out a way to communicate that pre-cooked fish curry is probably not the best choice for the next leg of the trip, particularly if that passenger is sitting in my immediate vicinity.

On overnight bus rides, you’d figure that getting people to sleep as quickly as possible might also deflect some of the heaving, but bus drivers instead choose load music videos played at rock-concert frequencies with the lights turned all the way up. And then they stop for snack breaks every hour or so.

We have had moments of queasiness on particularly bad roads that we just grit and bear but we just don’t understand how the barf phenomenon can continue untreated. We are usually able to put on our headphones or take a nap or just keep our heads buried in our books, but every now and then we are seated next to particularly dramatic pukers. This was what happened today on our bus ride from the beach back to Yangon. By all appearances, we were traveling with a big group of middle class Burmese who had just taken a little weekend getaway. These were not poor people, unaccustomed to travel, but people who came prepared with distractions like handheld video games and comforts like throw blankets and fluffy pillows. But they were all sick, all around us from the first bend in the road. It appears to be pretty debilitating; I watched a mother with four young kids as she retched her guts out while her children stroked her back and then slid down to the floor of the bus where she rested her head on the seat for the rest of the ride. Yet she still insisted on packing in a full meal at the lunch break and made sure to grab a few extra barf bags from the attendant when she re-boarded.

I am sympathetic- anybody who has had an experiences with motion sickness can understand how miserable it feels, but I think something has gone wrong here. Maybe just a little more mental fortitude is in order to show these people that the buses are not the masters of the human body. We may be bent and shoved and pushed and folded into overcrowded buses in unthinkable configurations, but he one thing we can do is hold onto our cookies. I have been on buses all over the world, on hairpin turns on mountain passes in Guatemala, on a 40-hoir odyssey across the Pampas of Argentina, stuffed in with live animals and people who smell like them in Indonesia, but I have never seen a group of people so poorly suited to riding in a moving vehicle in my whole life.

Change is coming to Myanmar and nobody knows what things will look like in 5, 10, 20 years. I, for one, hope that the image of the country in the future does not include a puke-laden bag being tossed out an open bus window at 60km- because that’s just gross.

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