I was in luck yesterday. I'd lost the phone number of my favorite taxi driver. But, the guard on duty at the school speaks English and knows my driver. Perfect. 15 minutes after he called, U Soe Min arrived to take me to Diamond Plaza for my weekly shopping trip.
Traffic, although it was mid-morning, was bad. It is never good in Mandalay. We took 35th St., one of the main roads. It's 4 lanes. Cars typically drive down the white line, allowing motorcycles to use the remaining road on either side of them. That's a great plan unless there's more than one car on the road. After a couple of near misses (motorbikes who tried to turn onto the road or make a left in front of us almost got wiped out) we made it to Ocean.
Mandalay is a major tourist site in Myanmar, mostly people fly in, spend a couple of days then head out to Bagan and Inle Lake. Most tourists are with tours, either large or small. So people seem to be more accustomed to seeing white faces traveling in herds, rather than alone.
Stepping out of the taxi at the entrance to Diamond Plaza always attracts looks. Many of the vendors and taxi drivers who congregate there recognize that I'm not a new tourist and just smile or ignore me. Yesterday as I was walking to the sidewalk I heard my name called. One of the Myanmar employees, a nice woman who was hired to work in IT, had spotted me. We chatted for a few minutes (I was thanking her for the ability to type this from my apartment) and then went on to do our shopping.
Our casual conversation was observed by those around us. Groups of white people speaking to each other in foreign languages (most commonly French and German, in my experience) is normal. White woman talking to Myanmar woman not as typical. Not that people were gawking, just noticing. It's the kind of standing out and lack of anonymity that I never quite got used to in Samoa. But easier here because it's a big city.
Once inside, I headed to the elevator. There were a group of young Myanmar women also waiting and as we all stepped on, they looked surprised, embarrassed...I'm not sure what all emotions. Did they think I was just standing outside the elevator to wish them bon voyage? Was it because I was at least eight inches taller (and 80 pounds heavier) than all of them? I don't know but there was a lot of glances at me, smiles and giggling.
Once on the third floor I made my way to Dollar Plus. I said hello to the guard who seemed to recognize me and zeroed in on the toy section. I want to stock up on new treats for the kids. Fun for them and self defense for me to have educational games for when they arrive early or finish their work early.
As happens in every store I go to, as soon as I reached the toy section, I picked up a nice young escort. A young Myanmar woman who worked there was never more than six inches away from me. Sometimes, I've been tracked by a covey of five employees, all huddled around me, watching intently. At first I found it annoying. Really, if you want to help just get the hell out of my way and let me look around. And, I'm really not planning to steal anything so you don't have to watch me like a hawk.
Now, I just say hello to acknowledge their consistent presence and go on with my shopping. They just want to be there to help me if there's anything I need. And to carry anything for me while I shop. That deck of Uno cards was getting awfully heavy.
After checking out with my stuff, I headed up the escalator one floor, focused on getting take away sushi for lunch. Standing on an escalator allows people to watch me unimpeded. Yup, I'm large, white and foreign.
I was greeted with smiles at the sushi shop, where they know me. Our interactions are limited to me pointing at the menu and lots of smiles, but it's a relationship, nonetheless. After placing my order, the girl waiting on me held up a cup, asking if I wanted the complimentary tea. Sometimes and I do, sometimes I don't. Today I did. She happily brought it. She also seemed happy that I had her keep the change. Ten cents, USD will buy a bag of fruit or vegetables in the local market.
After stashing the sushi in one of my bags, I was off to the elevator to head to Ocean, in the basement. I was the only one in the elevator and it was kind of nice. No staring.
As I entered Ocean, I stopped at the security guard to let him tape closed my packages (even though they'd been taped closed when I left the store where I bought them). We both smiled as we went through the drill. He's used to me by now.
Walking around Ocean, I got stares, giggles and was approached a couple of times by kids wanting to show off their English. They got stuck at "Hi!" I give them credit for having the nerve to approach a stranger. I get the stage fright.
When I go shopping on the school bus with the other teachers I don't get as much attention. I don't know if it's that we're always there at the same time/day and people are used to that or if it's that it's clear that I'm not a tourist, based on what I'm buying. Most tourists don't buy 12 packs of TP.
One consistent thing is that everyone checks out what I've got in my basket. Once, at the check out counter, one group of women got carried away and started moving stuff around in my cart so they could be sure to see everything I was buying. And they were discussing it. It was as if I was completely invisible until I said hello in Myanmar and started taking things out of the cart to place on the counter. They seemed a bit embarrassed then. I think their curiosity just carried them away. Today, no one touched, they just looked.
I wonder what they think of my purchases. What's with all the cheese and butter? But she's got a bunch of local vegetables. And why all the games?
After checking out, one of the many security guards (who also function as bag boys) helped me load up hands/arms with my full backpack and four large bags. Scrabble and Monopoly games aren't heavy but they are awkward when you're loaded down.
Up the incline escalator, across the ground floor, down the granite steps with no hand rails, across the busy street and I was back at the taxi. Another typical day of shopping finished.