Day 75: So that's a Myanmar ginger plant
A woman and her sun walk through the fields between Inle Lake and Kalaw, Myanmar. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
IT TURNS out that we, under my guidance, have booked a three-day, two-night trek, instead of a two-day, one-night trek. None of us have the extra day. The new plan is to hike for most of today, then catch a tuk-tuk to Kalaw, where we can get a southbound sleeper bus.
There was a momentary scramble last night when the girls broke the news to me, after having already booked their bus tickets by phone via Kam's friend. I went downstairs to confirm that a similar solution was possible for me – we have different final destinations – then managed booked the same bus, though I would be getting off before Yangon.
The next morning, down in the sala I find David and the girls, drinking cheap coffee and taking in the neighborhood; not that there is much of a neighborhood to take in. The entire village, bigger than most we've seen is still just a collection of a couple dozen homes – a few of them two-stories tall – small garden plots, a monastery and a school – all connected by muddy paths torn up by wooden carts and cattle.
I want to ask David if he's thought any more about whether or not he'll incorporate dice into his decision making process – nothing big, just what bagel to order with which kind of cream cheese spread. However, it feels too soon to raise the topic. I've got a niggling feeling that he'll probably be thinking about the dice process more during the morning section of his hike.
Instead, we all watch the mother of a little boy, perhaps four years old, help him pull on his galoshes. Left on on his own in the scrubs along a patch of staked green beans, the little man with his baseball cap askew picks up a nearby hoe and gets to work, scratching the heavy tool across the dirt, doing his best to mimic what he's seen thousands of times already in his short life.
The little man gets to work. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Do you think you could live out here?” Mariacamielle asks the group.
There is a moment of silence as we ponder the possiblity. She then directs the question straight at me, its seems that she and Melissa have already been talking about it this morning.
“Of course, I mean people live out here, so I could live out here,” I say, not exactly answer the question. “We're such adaptive animals. People can get use to anything.”
The real question is whether or not I'd be able to happily live out here. If I was raised out here, I'm sure I would be happy – it appears to be a permanent disposition. However, being transplanted into these fields at this point in my life, completely disconnecting me from my family, friends and the more international lifestyle that I'm accustomed to, that would probably scrub away my smile.
Mariacamielle says she couldn't. She's too restless; there is still too much to see.
It's one of those hypotheticals that you can't really know the answer to until you're living it.
As we head out of the village, the trail quickly becomes a thick dark-brown mud path pocketed with deep trenches from bovine hoofs digging deep. We prance around the edges, occasionally sucking it up and tentatively walking through the muddy bits trying our best to avoid getting stuck and losing a shoe. Marciacamielle, in her hiking boots, gives up immediately and tromps through the puddles and mud, streaking the inside of her legs brown with dirt. Melissa, in her hiking sandals and socks, does her best to stay out of the mud, but it doesn't seem to make much of a difference.
The dirt roads and paths seem to have a regular flow of traffic. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The path narrows as we clamber over a couple rocks and begin to descend down the steep mountainside into vegetable filled valley.
We are forced to pause and step aside as a dark faced man with well-weathered skin urges his Water Buffalo along. The enormous beast with wide flat horns holds its head low as it begrudgingly allows itself to be led by a rope strung through its nostrils. Mau and Kam are cautious, keeping us at a safe distance from the animal. They seem to see a real threat, where we only see an unusual and powerful domesticated animal.
Further up, we catch the beast bathing shoulder deep in a pond. His owner crouches down nearby, still holding onto Water Buffalo's lead, passively watching it bathe. A pair of white ox pulling a cart with large wooden wheels is driven into the same pond. Though the sun has yet to reach full intensity for the day, it's already time to let the animals cool off after their morning labor.
Cows and water buffalo are led to a watering hole. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The girls begin to fall behind, their mouths happily moving faster than their feet, Now that we are meeting a tuk-tuk somewhere in the afternoon to hitch a ride to the bus station, cutting the hike short, we have time.
In the distance, between their bouts of laughter, it's possible to hear them composing a Dice Travels theme song to Estelle's “American Boy”.
“Taking pictures no decisions all the time / Rolling the dice to his own paradise / He really wants to share it with you / A random trip around the world / American Boy /American Boy”
Insert real music video via YOUTUBE>
Kam breaks off the stem of a short ginger plant, one of the thousands poking out of the fertile red field next to us. Its leaves are sharp blades, its stalk like a bamboo shoot. The distinct, healing smell of ginger fills my nostrils as he passes it to me. I know the smell, but looking at the plant, with its iconic root buried beneath the soil, I would have had no idea that it was ginger if I wasn't told, or sniffing every plant we pass.
When I was growing up we had gardens in our countryside neighborhood on the outskirts of Bloomington, Indiana. We actually lived in a town that was no longer a town: Sanders. Sanders was once a stop for a local train service. It had a post office and a single store. Then the roads were built and the limestone quarries, which supported those living in the neighborhood began to shut down. So the town became a collection of two neighborhoods. We lost our post office. This was all before I was born. But we still had gardens, at least at my house.
There several raised beds with lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins corn, radishes, cucumbers and so on. There were also a handful of fruit trees that were never very productive, as well as Golden Fall Raspberries and a strawberry patch. Despite this contact with homegrown food sources, I have no idea what most of the cultivated plants we are walking by produce.
It's startling how disconnected we, the majority, have become from our food sources. How is it possible to know only the fruit of a plant? I guess that's a fairly easy question to answer, though the answer itself is problematic.
A giant pile of picked ginger dries in the sun beneath a crab apple tree like a pile of leaves in autumn. I've never seen so much ginger in my life.
And all the ginger. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We pause in a wide open field, sitting in the grass, laying against our packs. David and his guide arrive and sit with us.
With a great amount of laughing the girls put on their Dice Travels production, then go into a second song they've developed called “Caca shoes” – basically “Shit Shoes”, which they do to a little jig to, showing off their muddy footwear.
Their smiles and laughs are contagious.
Mau pulls of the head of a plant to use as a microphone and interviews us, establishing an order of respect based on our ages.
Once things settle down a bit, I ask David if he'll start rolling dice to make decisions. He's momentarily pensive, carefully finding his words, rolling a familiar thought around in his head one last time before giving it form.
“Yes. Yes, I will,” he says. Thinking our paths will cross again before the day is out, I fail to get his email so I can follow up on how his rolling goes. However, I have faith that the dice will chose well, and that random selection of a cranberry bagel with plain cream cheese or a plain bagel with cranberry spread will not upset his universe, but in fact somehow make it slightly more delicious.
Back on the trail, we pass across rolling hills before coming to a stop at a giant perfectly circular hole in the earth. There are three of them actually, though one has caved in. At the bottom of two of them, which run along a deep trench, is a smaller perfectly circular hole.
Mau says something as we all peek into the depths.
“Elephant BBQ,” Mau says again, though I barely catch it.
“Joking. For making Lime,” he says.
David's guide, who is with us at this time as well, speaks better English and explains.
Huge chunks of limestone are somehow dragged way out here to the middle of nowhere, where they are thrown into the holes and then super heated from fires being stoked below them.
After being super heated the stone can easily be grounded up and used, among other things, for the Bettle Nut chew that is so popular in Myanmar. (The chew is the reason so many Burmese smiles are missing teeth are stained a gritty blood red.)
“They are too dangerous to light during the rainy season though,” the guide explains. A little rain can cause super hot rocks to explode like bombs.
Mau was hiking on the other side of the valley with the other guides brother when one blew up recently. He points at the giant collapsed kiln next to us.
“Boom!” he says with a laugh. “People say we cannot come down because it's too dangerous.”
Mau doesn't mention if anyone died in the explosion. Though, apparently, these kiln blasts do kill and maim people from time to time.
Further on, Mau and I are ahead of the group. A smattering of large, thick leaved military cacti press in against the path like pikes on an anti-cavalry line. Mau bends and twists the black little spiked tip of one of the leg-length leaves off the plant, eventually pulling the needle free.
“Put your name,” he says, handing the spike to me.
Though my name isn't carved into a single smooth skinned Birch or Ironwood or any other tree after several decades of tromping through the deciduous forests of Indiana, I take the needle and do a little advertising – though I'm sure it's for a limited audience.
The black spike digs deep into the wet flesh of the leaf, which will scar a light brown within days.
I carve “Dice Travels” into the the thick leaf, among a handful of other names on the leaves.
Mau takes the needle and writes "with" below Dice Travels. Below that, he adds his name. For him, a man with no email with no Facebook algorithm dredging up Memories, the scared leaves from these crude lines will be enough to help him recall these couple of days together.
Mau marks our trip in a Mission Cactus plant. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“When we were living together people thought we were lesbians,” Melissa tells me out of the blue. Given that I had a similar line of questioning about here and Mariacamielle, I'm not surprised. The two girls have a beautiful, affection friendship, something that is without a doubt love though at moments its hard to know the nature of the love.
Announcements like the one Melissa made earlier, which was that Mariacamielle had the best boobs, blur the lines further.
They are the perfect size, perfect shape, perfect boobs, she said. I was told if I could fix Melissa's phone, which stopped working after being caught in a rain storm in Bagan, I could have pictures they'd taken of them. However, the phone remained dead, and I thought it best to not weigh in with my own early morning observation. Not that it would matter either way, Melissa has made up her mind about Mariacamielle's boobs and their seems to be a general understanding between them about this.
Despite Melissa's post-pubescent boyish fascination with Mariacamielle's boobs, she in fact is teetering on the edge of landing herself a new boyfriend back home, which heavily discounts any theories about their relationship being more romantic.
“Do you hate Muslims?” Kam asks me as we walk beneath a Banyan Tree. He's wearing an uncomfortable smile, unsure of what my response will be.
“No, I don't hate anyone,” I say with a smile.
“That is good. I hate Muslims,” he says, with the same smile.
“I think all people are different, so even if there are probably some Muslims I don't like, I am sure there are some people of all religions that I don't like, but more that I do.”
“Yes, I think that is good,” he says.
There was something in the way he asked the question that made it seem like it had been kicking around his head all day. Though I prefer the company of Mau, I find the question, despite being bigoted, endearing, because of the honesty of it. Earlier Kam had asked me to read an email he'd received from the United States with regard to his application into the “lottery”, which would give him the opportunity to move to the US to work. It was a standard email saying that if selected they would not notify him; he needed to enter his number into such-and-such website.
Past fields of eggplants, heavy with their purple phallic fruit, we reach a main road. Or should I simply say, a road, a real road.
Our tuk-tuk is waiting. We pile in and do our best to enjoy a bumpy ride to Kalaw, sucking on chocolate lollipops that Mau procured from somewhere.
An angry woman starts yelling at Kam as we disembark at the bus pickup point. She's not pleased in the slightest with having us there. Probably because we didn't buy the tickets from here. Even after Kam's walked off to talk to someone else, she carries on yelling from behind her booth making a scene. Eventually, Kam moves us to another pickup point a hundred meters down the road, where a man examines our tickets and allows us to drop our bags at his shop.
Mau and I have had to track down someone to exchange some dollars for Kyat in a nearby market for me so I can pay for the bus ticket.
It's hard to say goodbye to Mau. Mariacamielle threatens, as she has many times today, to fold him and his family up in her pocket and take them all home with her. Not only was he part of the cooking team at dinner last night, but he single-handedly made lunch today, which was equally delicious. The man is gem in the kitchen, as well as just splendid company.
Mau gives us a each a package of preserved, sweetened fruit to snack on the long bus ride south.
Caught off guard in receiving a gift, when I feel like I should be giving one. At least tipping him, I fail.
Our guide Mau. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
After he and Kam pile onto a motorbike with a third man, the man who brought our luggage down from Inle Lake today, I instantly regret not giving him money.
I felt the need to tip him more than Kam, there was a subtle inequality between the two that made me want to support Mau. Unfortunately, I failed to do so.
Thankfully, Mariacamielle had given him an extra headlamp, so at least he had that. Without a headlamp, he explained in broken English and gestures that he often ended up driving a motorbike at night holding a flashlight in his mouth.
I should have rolled: pulled out a 20 sided die and given him the dollar value of the roll. For the next several hours the disappointment in failing to tip Mau echoes in the back of my head. I'll just have to track him down and shower him with a few gifts when I return to Myanmar on the motorcycle, as there is nothing else that can be done.
Mariacamielle and I flirt a bit over noodles, tea and soft, warm Burmese teacake. There is something in her character that is contagiously attractive.
The sky darkens over the four lane split highway cutting through Kalaw. The shops on either side glow, the artificial light illuminating restaurant tables and the interiors of souvenirs shops.
I've wandered across the street to replace my longi after Melissa, like a blood hound, sniffed about our little group, her noise quivering in search of a foul smell, which turned out to be a mildewy pair of pants that I'd changed into as my “clean pants” for the bus ride. The sour vinegar smell was bad enough that I complied with the suggestion that I wearing something else.
The die chose a red longi, which I wrap around my waist and quickly twist into a knot.
Back at work on my laptop, I watch Mariacamielle dancing on the sidewalk, Melissa is out of sight. Mariacamielle is overdoing it, clearly trying to shake her dear friend out of a funk. I suspect Melissa's pouting a bit due to the mild flirting between Mariacamielle and myself – they're already a wonderful pair, no need for a dice kid to come along and shake things up.
“She's grumpy,” Mariacamielle mouths at me from the sidewalk.
It doesn't take long for Mariacamielle's showering of attention on Melissa to pull her out of it. Pretty soon the two are back in their groove: crazy, funny and entirely wrapped up in their own wonderful world.
“Is this the bus?” Melissa, with her heavy French accent, asks the man in charge.
About a dozen inquires in, the man finally realizes that the young French girl is having a laugh.
“Here is your bus,” he says playing along, as a pickup truck with high bars welded onto the side for cattle comes to a stop in front of us.
The bus is an hour late. Then it's an hour and half late. Then it's here and we're piling in.
I'm not sitting next to the girls, but I tell Mariacamielle she can hold on to my beloved North Face hoodie, at least until it's time for me to get off.
They'll be riding the bus all the way to Yangon. I'll be switching buses, before then headed for Thailand and my motorcycle.
We say goodbye to the fields of Myanmar. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli