Day 74: Pastoral perfection discovered in Myanmar
The trail snakes through gardens packed with a veritable feast of vegetables being cultivated by locals. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THE steep slope of the mountain pass gives way to fields of corn and sunflowers, held in by bamboo fences reinforced by thick gnarly shrubs and cacti.
The mountain range is as much of a mountain range as the Appalachians in North Carolina, or rather the foothills to the Appalachians in Tennessee. The pass we've just taken to the high lands was cut into the mountains by Buddha when one ancient king was unable to pass and needed some god-like assistance. From a distance, across the fields both those with thick with crops and those covered by short grass and large metaphoric rocks, is Inle Lake, a shimmer of silver nestled between two green mountains.
This morning, the tuk-tuk sent every pump in the lumpy road around the lake up to us, seeming to create mountains out of anthills. Mariacamielle with her stunning auburn hair and Melissa looking like she learned to dress for trekking special in Country Living magazine, asked why I didn't roll for today's activities.
“What were my other choices that seemed reasonable? I could stay in Inle another day and do nothing or I could come out on this same trek by myself. This is perfect, you're wonderful company and two days, one night of trekking is exactly what I can do,” I explained.
Momentarily mesmerized, I fall behind the group, which consists of Mariacamielle, Melissa and our two guides Mau and Kan. Lovely yellow sunflowers are smiling back at me from across a fence. Tall and proud they rustle in the light breeze, shifting their weight as the wait for nothing in particular.
Kan loops back for me. As we start catching up with the others, there is the strong smell of summer in Indiana; the sharp green, acidic smell of tomato plants.
Shortly after, we arrive in a small village connected to the world by only dirt paths, no roads. A few groves of unmarked bamboo grow tall. At their base are tangles of long, hair-thin bamboo fibers. Like saw dust in a mill, the mats of fibers and split bamboo cover the shaded ground, not far up are the results: large woven bamboo baskets.
We're ushered into a tall, two-story cement home. One side of the main room's floor covered with freshly picked tomatoes, green with patches of light orange. On the other, are a couple floor mats and two tables. A single tourist, a man in his mid to late 30s from the UK sits on the ground at one of the tables. His guide chats with ours.
Sitting on the step-down doorway to the kitchen are a handful of woman, locals to the area – not Burman. Their faces glow in the natural light coming through a window. Their age is worn like proud battle scars, beautiful in a way that can only be created through experience. Their heads are wrapped with neon-orange and red checkered scarves.
We were welcomed into a home and served lunch. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Comfortable on the floor at our table, I pour the girls and myself tea as we nibble at fried noodles and cookies as we wait for lunch.
The man from the UK, let's call him David, is fascinating. He's on a three month assignment from London, gathering information in the field, reporting back and then lobbying for certain policies and laws.
“I know it sounds patronizing,” he says.
But it doesn't, that's how foreign policy works. If the UK is giving about 100mn pounds – not what it was before Brexit mind you – a year to Myanmar in foreign aid, they have good reason to be trying to exercise a certain amount of influence on the countries development. Not to mention the western need to establish strong ties in Myanmar to help contain the Sleeping Dragon – China – who, lets be honest, is no longer sleeping.
Feeling fairly well informed about current attempts for policy changes, most notably the move to tackle the Army land grabs that destroyed so many people's lives in the name of a failed attempt at communism. The issue of landownership is always a deep, difficult problem to untangle, especially in countries were people have been using pieces of land for generations, but have no documentation to backup their claims to the land. Under the communist rule in Burma land that was not claimed by the owners as being used for agriculture – though a glance at the rice paddies would clear up any issues – was commandeered by the military and re-purposed to further the business interests of the leadership.
I am, of course, doing my best to sound educated on some of the topics, but really just prying in hopes of getting some insight on the land grabbing, which is a problem we regularly reported on in Phuket, though the issue is private investors and government officers colluding at the local level to steal national park land and not the central government stealing land in the name of socialism.
I am able to at least ask the right questions to draw out David's deeper understanding of the situation, which can then be added to the sketchy framework that I'm building. The jade trade, estimated at 31bn dollars, and Suu Kyi's bold move to reign that in – as gem mines, including jade, continue to be a major focal point of conflict in the region – are topics of specif interest to him and the UK. Though, as he points out, even with diplomatic sources, it's very difficult to get a real picture of what's happening that far north in the conflict zones.
David heads out before us, though we will catch him several times on the trail and end up sleeping in the same homestay has him.
There diversity of crops from one plot to another, even within a single garden creates a lovely bouquet if greenery as we continue our hike. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about the fat, flat pumpkin leaves, with their vines snaking across the dirt, their tired yellow blooms, sulking in the shade, or having already succumbed to the weight of bearing fruit. They are joined by the thin stalks of green beans, soy beans, peanuts, corn and even potatoes. My hand pulls a lock of fine corn silk from the crown of a cob of corn.
Rolling the fibers between my fingers I take another deep breath of home.
Our washed out, blood-red path cuts along the rolling hills, between the fields. Opening up to expanses of rocky pasture before plunging back into the low fields. Though we aren't surrounded by untouched wilderness, it is nature.
A Burmese man takes his white, long-eared Bhramin cow out to pasture, hammering in a wooden stake to keep a bull in place. Burmese woman with a brightly colored headscarf carries a woven bamboo basket, while another plants seeds in freshly turned soil.
It's a pastoral dream.
The beauty of the fields and people are not lost on us. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The sun which was beating down on us as, pulling the moisture from the ground, making the air thick and hot, has disappeared behind flat, gray stratus clouds.
“This is the best thing ever!” Melissa says with childish wonderment.
Mau's finger sweeps across the tiny even pinnate leaflets of a Bashful Plant (Mimosa pudica), which quickly folds up its tiny leaves in response, staying closed for three to five minutes before again opening to the sun.
Melissa's fingers poke and poke, leaf after leaf, the scientist in her completely enamored by the cause and effect. Due to the energy expenditure necessary for the leaves to close and open, as well as the disruption of photosynthesis scientist have yet to conclude why the plant has evolved this way. However, the most popular theory, which of course doesn't make it necessarily correct, is that it's a defense mechanism.
There is a loud pop sound a few steps up the path from Melissa, who remains with the shy leaves.
“It's so cool,” she says. Melissa spends the rest of the day in her sunhat, twirling a long piece of quartered bamboo, poking leaves as we pass them – just in case they too are prone to .
Holding a triangular leaf over his closed fist, Kan slams his palm down again, popping a leaf like a bag of crisps. I try and and try, eventually getting it, while Mariacamielle manages on her first attempt. The key isn't the position of the leaf on your fist, as I suspected, but part of your palm that hits the leaf, slamming air down so hard the leave breaks.
Though Kan introduces me to the popping plant, it's Mau who seems to be constantly pausing to surprise us with this bit of knowledge or that small insight, all done with the biggest smile in the world.
As a man who is nearly constantly smiling, even Melissa was making fun of my buffoonish grin in the tuk-tuk – a smile for no particular reason – Mau is the King of Forever Smiling. The enormous grin that crumples up the sides of his face like balls of paper and draws out the crows feet around his eyes is deep, honest and beyond explanation. He's simply filled with an unwavering happiness, at least at this moment in his life, though the lines in his face seem to point toward these particular days of happiness being no different than normal for him.
With the others far ahead, Mau stops to show me yet another secret of his world. I say his world because in his 42 years of living he has known no other world.
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime,” wrote Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad / Roughing It. It's a mantra picked up thousands of young, restless backpackers, who despite there “new, open minds” look down on those back home who have never traveled, never owned a passport.
It's a sad thing.
Yes, when the backpackers go back to there tiny home towns ten years later, towing along their stock pile of big stories about far off places, their friends, now with a husband or wife and maybe even kids, say nothing has changed. And at a glance, nothing has. But for those who are present, those who don't feel trapped, but are pleased to remain in their own small corner of the world, there is change. There is growth.
It's small and beautiful, more fit for poetry than story telling, so they don't tell the stories, because they can't compete on grand scale of an classical epic tale. So, young travelers continue running about failing to understand that though the nomads path is theirs to walk, it is not for everybody. Yet, everybody who is present will get where they are going .
“Thailand, no; Yangoon, no; Bagon, no; Mandalay, no,” Mau says, explaining how he's never ventured beyond a few days hike of the area we are now in.
Mau pulls off a leaf from a tree for which he doesn't know the English name. Carefully, he snaps the stem, peeling it back with out breaking it completely. He gently blows, producing tiny little bubbles. A dozen or so iridescent spheres float up toward the blue sky.
A man who can blow bubbles from the leaves is teetering on the edge of magical realism. To further bolster the magical air of the moment, try as I might, I'm unable to replicate what he did.
The path widens into a muddy ox road as we approach a basket weaving operation. Among the bamboo thickets are about dozen young men, all sitting on the shredded remains of bamboo stalks. They are divided into production groups, a couple splitting long stalks, a few shaving the stalks down, others weaving them into baskets. Wafts of blue smoke, to keep away the mosquitoes, drift across the cleared area the men are working in. The boss man, with a smile of rotting teeth not uncommon in Myanmar, asks Kan for a Myanmar cigar, which Kan finds and gives to him.
We pause to watch locals process bamboo stalks and weave them into baskets. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Further up, a small pack of beautiful children linger at a distance, shyly watching us pass. I pause for some photos, which just makes them more shy.
“Show them at least,” Mariacamielle says as I am about to walk off.
Of course, I've gotten so bad. I forget how much people like to see pictures of themselves.
I slowly walk over to the kids, half afraid that I might end up accidentally chasing them off. Down on one knee, I start flipping through the pictures. The girls point and smile. The eldest, still no older than eight, is wearing little makeup and a headdress. She looks like she's recently been at some ceremony. The rest are wearing a rag-tag assortment of clothes. Little gold earrings are a give away that they are all girls, even the babies here can be identified as male or female from their ears.
“Oh, this is perfect,” I say. “I have balloons.” I had nearly forgotten that Andrea, a woman I met in Chiang Mai, had suggested that I buy and bring balloons for the children in Myanmar.
I start with blowing up a blue balloon while the French girls blow up pink ones and Mau takes an orange one. I blow one up and then let it go, it farts itself up into the sky. The children laugh. Soon the group of youngsters is happily clutching a handful of balloons.
We blow up some balloons that I brought with me on the hike for a group of local kids. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We're only a few dozen meters up the trail when we here the first balloon pop, the young girls just smile, unafraid of the loud noise.
“Do they make biodegradable balloons?” asks Mariacamielle. I have no idea.
The red ox path Ts into a white, crushed-rock road. Across the road is a small tavern. Of course it's not actually a tavern, but that's the feeling, a bit of a business at a junction point. We take our shoes off and climb onto the cement porch. Someone clears a pile of cymbals and gongs from the only table.
Inside the three-storey building is a group of a dozen or so men, all wearing the same green and blue headwraps, gaily drinking and smoking. The group of musicians are on a return trip from a Buddhist ceremony where they were playing, stopping off for a little revelry on the way home.
I shyly peek in. The men are sitting in a uneven oval, smiling and laughing as they talk.
Mariacamielle disappears inside. There is the sound of two small gongs being played in unison. Inside, Mariacamielle has found herself a seat between a couple of the men by the door. One of them is showing her how to play the gong.
No doubt, she just plopped down and asked, “Can I try.” This seems to be her standard line for everything, and a great one, as it has let her attempt weaving at the lake and even drive the boat for a bit.
Soon, we are all inside, and the entire band is in action. One older man, rests an ozi, a traditional goblet-shaped drum, to his chest keeping everyone on beat. Two other men stand with a thick bamboo pole between them, suspending a pair of gongs.
Other men sing along, while others start to dance, their hands led by soft wrists snaking through the air like cobras. Mariacamielle and Melissa join in. Eventually David, who arrived at the tavern a few minutes before us, takes over the ozi.
After several songs, and a great deal of laughing, we are on our way.
Mariacamielle in her own amazing way stirred the entire room of men into a musical frenzy. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“This is good. He is from a different tribe then me and I am from a different tribe from Kan,” says Mau. “All different, but friends.”
With more than 130 different ethnic groups in Myamar, many of which were played against each other during British rule – divide and concur – the tension remains between the groups, long after independence in January 1948.
This month, cease fire talks are about to get underway with three rebel groups that did not sign the cease fire agreement last year. One of the main tensions outside of the Islamic-Buddhist conflicts that are regularly boiling over in the country, are between the Kachen and Burmen, as the Kachen, a warlike people, were brought down to the south by the British to help suppress the Burmen and maintain control of British Burma during the colonial days.
Mau, who is always glowing with a smile, seems have found a way to turn it up to an eleven, positively beaming at seeing his fellow country men fall into song together.
“I'm just going to steal you and put you on my motorbike,” I tell Mariacamielle. This “can I try” attitude and her childish smile seems to open all the doors the average traveler, myself included, is too shy to try, shutting out so many fun experiences.
The clouds are darkening to the west of us, along the mountain range. Across the fields of corn and rice paddies, the clouds are growing taller, the wind blowing them our direction. The girls are lagging behind, speed is not their forte, though then again, what's the rush?
I refuse to acknowledge the first few drops of rain, the light misting which proceeds the storm. Hopefully, we'll make it to the lodge before the rains arrive. We don't, but the rain passes quickly.
A bent woman hanging onto a walking stick moves through the thick mud ahead of us as we enter a village.
“She's 82 years old,” Mau says without seeing the woman's face. These are small villages, with no vehicles that Mau walks through weekly. It should be no surprise that he knows or recognizes most people, but at the same time it is.
We pull up under a small thatch roof sala with a bamboo table in front of a two-storey, light blue cement house with yellow trim. This is the homestay we're staying at for the night. The owner, is a stout, healthy looking woman who is a teacher in the community. Her son, the head monk at a nearby monastery, wanders through the yard, his burgundy cloak pulled up over his head.
David is already at the table. We'll all eat together.
Out back, I strip to my underwear in the dark, pouring buckets of well water over my head, shivering in the cold, wet night air as I scrub the dust from the day off with a borrowed bar of soap. Sopping wet, I dry off with my dirt t-shirt and then quickly switch from my underwear into a pair of running shorts, momentarily butt naked in the backyard. A longi would be perfect under the circumstances, but mine seems to have disappeared since leaving Bagan.
Inside, the men are hovering over a pair of ceramic pots, glowing bright orange from the coals beneath them in the darkened kitchen. We are called together for dinner. Our guides eat separately in the kitchen, while we gather around a large round table in another room.
Sitting on the floor, bowl after bowl of freshly prepared food appears in front of us, taking up more room then we have space for on the table.
Mau kneels down, with a smile that melts our heart, always waiting for us to look at him before talking, making sure everything is okay.
Everything is wonderful. There seems to be a bit of nearly everything that we passed in the fields on the table in front of us. There is a dish of pumpkin greens, one of green beans and egg, pickled bamboo stem, even a little fish. Silence falls over the table as we pile in, the only sounds are sighs of approval or asking for a dish to be passed.
After dinner, Mau borrows Mariacamielle's headlamp so he can do dishes. I disappear upstairs, having filled what crevices of my stomach were left after dinner with the soft, orange flesh of ripe sliced mangos.
David lingers in the doorway of our bedroom.
“Come on in,” I say, sitting on the floor with my back against the wall. He situates himself on the pile of blankets in the corner.
Fascinated by the fatalism, the “radical” disregard of liberalism's mantra of “the self” defined by our choices, David seeks a better understanding of Dice Travels.
“Have you gotten anyone into doing this?” he asks.
“Yeah, there is a girl in Ethiopia, who I gave a die to and has played with a friend there. There is also a woman I met who was suffering from PTSD, who probably uses the dice more than even I do,” I say, also touching on the fun I got into in Bangkok due to sharing the dice life.
We dig into the world of accountability. A man who likes to take his time making decisions, David is going to sleep on it, but might pick up the die – at least for the small stuff.
His genuine interest, intrigue and thoughtful approach to everything we've talked about, mostly Myanmar legal policies and American politics, is inspiring.
I don't see any of Dice Travels as terribly radical, but he uses the word, which feels me with a very strange sense. Of course, it's easy to make it radical – it simply depends on what you're willing to put on the dice.
After David leaves, open my book to read.
I close the book. Mariacamielle is fast asleep on the mat net to me, Melissa also close to sleep, despite the light pouring into the room from a single naked lightbulb in the archway of the doorway, providing light to our room as well as the main room of the second floor, where David is asleep.
After reading to Mariacamielle, I think how nice a little kiss on the cheek would would be, but she is now fast asleep, breathing softly.
In the silence, the words I was reading out loud to the two girls – words written by Tea Obreht as she recounted the story about the man in the Balkans who could not die – resonate in my mind, their feeling in my mouth still delicious. Under a thick, brightly colored blanket, one of the many from a pile in the corner of the homestay, I am happy. I've missed the silence of the countryside; the sound of my fingers on a keyboard with only a few shy insects accompanying me from a distance.