Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Desolation Road

The Irrawaddy News
JULY, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Some poor country girls survive by turning tricks with truck drivers doing the lonely overnight run between Mandalay and Taunggyi

MANDALAY — The highway from Taunggyi to Mandalay is long, smooth and straight, but there are many distractions along the way. Cafés, karaoke clubs and gas stations all compete for the attention of truck drivers who make the overnight haul, carrying fruit, vegetables, furniture and other products from Shan State to Burma’s second largest city.

Occasionally, the truck drivers encounter a flash of torchlight ahead in the darkness. They know this means one of two things: either the police have set up a roadblock to hustle them out of a few kyat, or a sex worker is waiting for a truck driver to pick her up.

Though I am neither a trucker nor a patron of bordellos, I asked my friend from Mandalay if I could join him on his overnight route: the journey from Mandalay to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, and back the following day. He said he would be glad to have some company.

Because of the heat, the traffic and the frequency of roadblocks, most truck drivers travel by night. Trucks form convoys and the drivers quickly make friends with each other as they shuttle from town to town. As a truck approaches in the distance, a driver may slow down, flash his lights, wave, and sometimes pull up alongside his buddy for a chat.

We hit the road at sunset and headed out of Mandalay. Within no time it was dark, and the city was far behind us. The landscape was flat and dotted with trees, bushes and small hamlets.

Suddenly, like a firefly twinkling in the night, I saw a torchlight flashing at us from the roadside about 100 meters ahead.

“That’s the signal of a sex worker,” said my friend. “If you want to pick her up, you just reply by signaling with your headlights and then pull over.”

We could see her face in the lights as we passed. She looked young. Her face was thick with make-up.

Roadside sex workers usually ask for between 2,000 and 4,000 kyat ($2-4), my friend explained.

“So if you take them with you, how do you get them back?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I had just asked a stupid question, then smiled. “There are so many trucks heading in both directions, she just hitches back with another client,” he said.

He told me that drivers who take sex workers signal to other drivers with their headlights if they have a girl going in the opposite direction. They pass the girls on from truck to truck this way all through the night.

He told me that most of the sex workers are girls from poor villages along the highway who cannot find any other job.

These days, more and more university students are working the highway to make enough to pay for their studies. The driver said the number of roadside sex workers has increased considerably over the past few years.

“Do authorities know about it?” I asked.

“The police either ignore it or take advantage of the girls themselves,” he said. “Sometimes they refuse to pay or ask for a discount. The girls are afraid that if they refuse they will be arrested.”

Our first rest stop was at Shwe Taung, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Mandalay. It was late, but one restaurant was open. We went in and ordered something to eat.

When the waiter came to our table with our food, my friend whispered one word to him: “Shilar?” (“Do you have it?”)

“Shide,” the waiter replied without blinking: “Sure, we have it.” He told us that it would cost 4,000 kyat for a “short time.”

The waiter led us from the shop to a walled compound next door. There was no roof except the stars in the sky.

He called to a girl sleeping on a wooden bed, using her longyi as a blanket. She woke up and looked at us. Although she was obviously dead tired, she immediately got up and combed her hair.

She put a wide smear of lipstick on her mouth. Her bright red lips contrasted sharply with her ragged appearance and the dull, pungent room.

“Is she the only one?” my friend asked.

“For the time being, yes,” said the waiter impatiently. “The other girls didn’t show up tonight.”

“Where do they sleep?” I asked.

“Just here,” the girl said, pointing at the wooden bed.

“Do you have condoms?” I asked her.

“No. That’s up to you,” she said with a shrug.

My friend and I looked at the girl, not knowing what to say.

“You are my first customer tonight,” she said unconvincingly.

We apologized and sheepishly retreated out the door. As we walked away, I looked back at the house. Through the gaping holes in the brick wall I saw the girl lie down on the bed and pull her longyi up to her chin. Then she curled up and went back to sleep.

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