Portraits of the Early Monsoon
The monsoon works like this. During the wet season, which follows the hot, humid season and occurs at a different time of year depending on where you are, but generally in the summer, and in Burma between May and September—during that wet season, it is perpetually cloudy, and for about fifteen minutes every day there is a biblical deluge that floods the fields and roads, raises the rivers and sewers, and washes up everything in the world. Then the rains soften to a sprinkle, and then they cease entirely, and the world is a muddy wreck, though the air is much cooler.
In the heart of the monsoon, in August, it rains perpetually, but I was there during the time of the daily deluge, which caught me nearly every day in a place of some fascination. It is worth surveying the montage of them, with some necessary digressions, and so I will proceed.
I am in the home of Mysande when the rain starts coming down. She is a pretty Muslim girl, almost nineteen and studying Chinese at the Foreign Language Institute in Yangon, and she approached me in the road near the river in Bago and invited the three of us to her home, to practice her English. Ron, Gina and I sit around a table in a room in that oriental style, with packed earth just inside the entrance and a raised wooden platform beyond.
A grandfather slumbers soundlessly in a chair in the corner, halfway decomposed already, withered skin on a skeleton. Above him there is a shelf with some family photos, and on the back wall is a picture of the Kaaba and the name of Mohammed.
Myusande asks whatever questions she can think of—How old are you? Where are you from? What is your job? Where do you go in Myanmar?—and always her reply to our answer comes, "Ooh, hmm," as the wheels of Babel turn in her head. We ask about her family, her school, Yangon and the friends she lives with there, speaking Chinese over dinner,—“but I miss my mother,” she says, looking towards the old mam with a sly whimper.
"Gina," she says,—“you are very beautiful." Gina says, "Oh, no, you are very beautiful." "Thank you," says Myusande—that is, Theankh yeu. "You are very beautiful. I have gift for you."
From the rooms behind the curtained portico, Myusande produces a section of branch from the thanakha tree. She brought out a round grindstone from near the door and spread some water round it, then ground down the branch until she had a circle of khaki-colored paste. "It is for absorb moisture," Myusande explains when we ask,—“keeps your face clean and safe from sun." The girl sat Gina down in front of her and painted her face with a standard Burmese design: Pikachu circles on the cheeks, and lines smeared around the bone lines and across the forehead. "There," she says, "now you can go in the sun."
The rain had stopped as suddenly as it began, and the sun is out again and low, so we bid farewell to Myusande and her family and accept the gifts generously bestowed, regretting that we had nothing to give her in return but a promise to visit when we returned to Bago some lucky day.
There is no time for dinner. We get our bags and speed off to the bus station on three scooters, and our bus to Mandalay leaves at six, a nice coach with leg room, and I sip out of a flask of Mandalay whiskey to while away the hours, as the Burmans turn out all the lights soon after departure and start exhibiting slapstick soap operas.
Around nine, Gina asks when we will make a rest stop, and the driver and the two ushers say, "Don't worry, in a few minutes." By half-past ten, my flask empty and my bladder a stretched balloon, I ask when do we stop, and the lords of the coach, as omnipotent as the captains of sailing ships at sea, say, "In a few miles." At eleven, Gina is up there, and they are saying, "Just around the bend," and I have a Hindenburg of urine and defy my better nature by demanding of the captain, "Stop now. Stop now. Stop the bus now."
The bus stops at the side of the road. I would have felt bad about this, even with the tremendous rapture of my liquid relief, if half the bus had not gotten off with me to use the bushes and ditches at the side of the road. We arrived at the first rest stop a half-hour later, almost six hours after departing Bago.
I am in a beer and barbecue when the rain starts coming down. It had been a hot day in Mandalay until this started, and Ron and I are happy to sit there with our glasses full and watch the streets go to hell.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice, but I say water would also suffice. Weighed down like Atlas by the oceans that the clouds disgorge, the Burmans rush to and fro across the street, seeking shelter in storefronts or restaurants, covering their wares or their trishaws with tarps. Half a minute passes, and then the hurrying stops, though the cataract continues. Everything is already soaked, so why bother? A dripping Burmese girl with a miserable look pushed her bike slowly down pavement wet as the sea.
The gutter begins to flood, turning earth to mud, and carrying some horrible sludge into the beer hall. We retreat back as the whole front is filled with gray-green water, back to the inner depths of the place, and Ron and Gina and I sit at a table and watch it come down. After a while I put my head in my arms and fall asleep.
It had taken us all morning to find the Mandalay Beer brewery, and we found it closed. None of us knew it was a Sunday. (Later we learned that you need a government permit to enter the place—are they brewing secrets down there?) First we three tried to enter the Mandalay Palace complex, two miles square and ringed by a moat and wall, but foreigners can only enter by the eastern gate and must pay $10. We were at the western one, and anyway did not want to pay to see something that was rebuilt 15 years ago by forced labor, so we argued for a long and fruitless time with the palace guards.
“Why not?” we demanded on being barred. “You, different,” said a little Burman in a checkered longyi,—“You tall, me short. See skin?” He held his arm to mine. “You very white, me black. Different.”
Having failed to see both palace and brewery, while the clouds hung low and dark, we settled down in one of the open beer halls—a roof, three walls, and a stove—on the dirt road between the three. Gina went off to find a market, and Ron and I lowered ourselves into forty cent cups of fresh beer and big plates of noodles fried with sausage and quail eggs. The cook’s son brought out pannikins of green chili peppers, onion slices with sweet chili sauce, and chicken broth. “It’s good,” we said, and I sent the kid off to bring me more beer. A soap opera was running in the corner, and all the Burmese were watching it.
Gina arrived just before the deluge on the back of a bike pedaled by a slim girl with a black face. “I told her I wanted noodles, and she took me back here,” she said with a laugh. She ordered food as the sky cracked, and the bar boy ran over to get his pay before the rain began.
A few hours pass, cradled in the crook of arms, and then I wake up and rouse Ron from his own slumber. Gina is already gone. We hop out across the gray puddles and the wreck of the sideway, and the sky looks as dark as a death shroud and is as quiet as an executioner. We hail down a pickup truck heading south and stand on the tailgate, clinging to a rollbar and looking over the canopy roof, as all the benches beneath are full. On the sides of the road, vendors bail out their stores, drain their canvas roofs, and remove the plastic sheets from their displays of comic books, watches, sunglasses, and fruit. They retract their umbrellas and start their motorbikes and leave whatever temporary shelter they had found. Birds start to call out again, to fill in the startling silence, and the air is as cool and clean as the ground is wet and filthy.
When the truck stops a block from the hotel, the conductor tries to charge us a dollar a piece, and then to refuse us change, but the other Burmese yell at him and shame him into treating us fairly. We have a fine night of beer and barbecue, and Ron goes out to haggle rudely with the tuk-tuk drivers, to get one of the to take us to the ancient capitals that ring Mandalay. The next morning we leave north into a strange lowland country—scattered trees on the floodplain, spread out all the way to the creased mountains, and Reader, you never knew about these shades of green!
I am in a horse-drawn cart when the rain starts coming down. It is a jostling, two-wheeled affair on a road of rutted mud across the Utawei River, and that means "Small," but the rains have bloated it wider than its name. Tonton, the driver, stops briefly under a tree next to an old palace tower. Two Burmese girls run up to us with baskets of rusted bells and elephant statues and a desperate slant to their squinting eyes, halfway to weeping, but we do not buy anything. We urge Tonton on, and with a small whip he urges on Lamomere the horse, as the rain comes down harder.
Tonton goes up the road a ways and then stops in the shade of a banyan tree, and Ron stays in the cart but I run out with Tonton and Gina, through a gate in a stone wall and into a small sloping white stupa. The interior is under renovation, with a central sanctum and four anterooms pointed out at the jungle and road. I sit on a mat in one of these as the rain fell and write about what we had seen so far, the snake monastery and the temple, and the river-crossing to old Inwa.
In the wake of the downpour, when it becomes a gentle shower, the jungle erupts with two-hundred sounds—chirps and clucks and whistles and squawks, singing and chanting carried across the plains from distant speakers, the slow rumble of single-cylinder engines, the giggling chatter of children. It was a land of willowy firs and solitary palms and sacred banyan trees. Corn grows in some places, low and densely planted, and elsewhere herons pace the low water of the rice paddies. We stare out in wonder as Tonton drove us and Lamomere pulled us down the muddy channel of the road, lined with trees. Wheels and hooves sink inches deep but do not stick, as Lamomere pulled us on to Bagaya Kyaung.
There in the heart of a bamboo grove, the monastery is a stilted old teakwood fortress, black-walled with many roofs of red-tiles and upturned eaves. The floorboards creak, and dogs lounge in the resurgent sunlight. Inside, a sleepy young monk teaches a class of eight novices, their heads newly shaved, lined up on benches under a window, through which the jungle announces itself. The song of bird and cicadas and crickets drowns out the noise of children playing in the brick courts. Black wood columns reach up into the cavernous heights of the main hall, where three golden Buddhas oversee their disciples—columns big as any Olympian marble and carved from a single tree, so they resemble a dark primeval forest, there in the creaking, dusty monastery.
As we leave the monastery, an old Burmese woman, shaped like a sunken ship, accosts us on the wooden steps, a peddler of souvenirs with a basket of trinkets: long-stemmed opium pipes, old temple bells, Victorian coins, black statues of elephants and lions the size of a fist, emblems of Buddha and his Bodhisattvas, knives rusted into inlaid sheathes, and rings and chains, all dark and gritty as the sea-drowned sky. Ron and I refuse, and by the time we find Gina and rouse Tonton and Lamomere, the peddler has already walked to our next stop: basket slung over her back as she walks down the road, her face hidden under the low brim of her rice paddy hat, a keen-eyed girl following close behind.
We come to a broken brick structure under an open sky, a few cracked stupas and their fallen walls. A pretty girl with a round brown face waves us in and points the way. She has on a denim skirt and a wicker hat, and she is deaf and dumb. Her mother, the peddler, has laid out all her wares on top of a broken column. Ron and Gina start looking around and rebuff the trinket seller’s hassling, and I look over at the girl and see her wave me back into an old hallway.
I follow her along a brickwork wall that retains some of its plaster. The girl waves through an open door, the Vanna White of Burma, and I look in on a strange jungle scene: all the floor growing up wild between four pillars, evenly spaced, and three Buddhas at the far end, the center one of a magnificent size, meditating in the lotus position with his eyes half-sealed, his ears stretched long, and beyond the statue the fields wet with rain and patches of palms and misty mountains and a shredded sky in gray and white.
Ah, I remunerate, so like an epic of the jungle; and the mute girl waves me out of my reverie and gestures at the nearest of the columns, which is broken in half. A shattered brick wall runs along between the columns, all the way to the Buddha statues, and she points at these emphatically. I start groping along the wall of the open doorway for a handhold, but that short peasant girl brushes me aside and leaps ably and barefooted in a skirt to the broken pillar. She turns back on me, grinning wryly. I wrap up my scarf and follow her agile bound, and follow her on down the wall—such a strange scene we made—all the way, twisting around the remaining columns, to the great Buddha. I look up at his great and tranquil face and down at the girl’s beaming round one, and I catch her dark eyes and her smile and I laugh. We turn and scrabble back along the wall and leap into the hallway and return to the others.
Tonton takes us back the way we came, and we cross the river and rendezvous with our tuk-tuk driver. After a stop at Sagaing, and a walk up a covered stair to the pagoda-encrusted top of the hill, from which vantage one can see 600 more pagodas in the hills around the Utawei, including one shaped like a woman's breast, for when the king wondered at design, his wife pulled back her robe and showed him something worth his worship—after all that, we proceed in our tuk-tuk to Amapurana, "City of Immortality," once a capital and now a little monastery town. It lies on a wide and shallow river, very low now, so that the Burmans grow corn and wheat and poppy on the exposed shoals, and U Bein's Bridge sits high on its stilts, which in coming months will all sink under a rising tide, and they will plant rice and bamboo in the pools.
The teakwood bridge is more of a catwalk: a long wooden way, spanning nearly a mile between Amapurana and the island of Taughathaman. Maroon-wrapped monks stroll back and forth across the bridge in the day's waning hours, between the monasteries on either bank. They stop on occasion to sit on benches in the covered rest stops, where women sell shrimp and peanuts and strange fruits, and the monks, Ron and I notice with delight, stop often to chat with girls also taking an elevated stroll. Most of them are only inmates of monasteries for a few weeks or months, wherein feminine contact is forbid. Why not have someone waiting for you on the day of your release? Some girls had come dressed up for the occasion, and some robed monks sit on the benches of the bridge, looking at forbidden videos on a girl's cell phone.
Two monks approach we three as we start across the bridge, over the line of beached longboats, gaily painted and eyed. One speaks very good English and asks if he can join us and practice it. The other, much older monk speaks naught but a few memorized phrases, which he mispronounces so completely that we can not decipher them. Soon both are walking with Gina, who was talking with the clever young monk about education, and soon she has an entourage of six monks around her, though she does not think it strange.
Gina and I are just leaving the hotel when it starts raining a little, and it only rains a little this day. We walk to the little breakfast place near Royal Hotel while the rain prickles on our shirts and on the skin of our arms. Ron happens to be there and waves us over. The cooks are making something like French toast in their big wok, and we each have four of them, and I have fried rice and coffee, too. By the time we are smugly finished, the rain has stopped.
We take a bicycle rickshaw on the road around the palace walls to where twin lions, thirty feet tall, guard the entrance to Mandalay Hill, and we scale the covered stair to the top, stopping in temple halls along the way to see the Buddhas, statue tableau, and viewpoints, and to eat deep-fried crickets, which taste as empty as overcrisped French fries. When we have got back to the bottom, the sun has got its fingers through the cloud cover.
Gina and I wander around the temple district between Mandalay Hill and the moat and wall of the palace, walking through one containing the world's largest book, inscribed on 729 stone pages like huge gravestones, each housed in a separate stupa of white stone, lined up in perfect rows around the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Gold bells crown the stupa of each regal page, tinkling merrily in the wind.
We are trying to find another teakwood monastery in the area and are going the wrong way until an old Burmese woman rides up to us on her bicycle to tell us so. "I thought you were going there," she says, "but it's this way!" Her English is perfect. She teaches it privately, having learned from her father, who was some combination of Scotch, German, and San Franciscan—“He met my mother during the war. He went to her village, and they took one look at each other, and that was it. They had eight children."
Her name is Cherry, and she believes in love at first sight. Gina and I sit down with her on the squat stools of a teashop on the corner, and Cherry produces from her notebook an old sepia photo of a pretty young woman in an old-fashioned dress, wearing a sash and crown. "When men see this," says Cherry in her husky voice, "they fall in love with me, so don't you fall in love with me." Cherry's hair is tied back, and her face is shriveled and the color of raw pork, with a mole on her chin sprouting three hairs, half a foot long, but I can see some vestige in the square form of her features and in her dim eyes of the woman in the tired old photograph.
"My friend from Germany sent that picture," Cherry is saying,—“We knew each other in the beauty contest. I got second place in the contest for all of Burma. I also did Thai boxing. In a big tournament for all of Burma, I got second place, again. Then we went to Thailand for a competition, but I broke my hand in the first match, so I had to stop." She waves her hand as if to say, And that's that.
Cherry had been in the army for eight years, had married and had some daughters, and now she had her English students and the money her children sent, and she seems very happy, with all that freedom and unconventional vitality that sometimes possesses the elderly, and none of the bitter malignancy that often takes hold of aging beauties. She is past all worldly concern and ready for the hereafter.
Though not a Buddhist, Cherrye asks Gina on which day of the week and hour was she born, and says Gina is a white elephant, an elephant without tusks. I guess Tuesday morning for myself, and Cherry says, “Yes, you are the lion. Very quiet with a big imagination.” Gina agrees with this, and I do not mind, but say, “Lion is very fierce.” “But he can also be very timid,” Cherry corrects,—“When the lion is timid he hides under the cot. When he is fierce he runs up the tree.”
She waves at a trio of children on a blanket on the curb: two toddlers and a swaddled infant, playing in a pile while their mother works in the teahouse. "Everyone loves that baby," says Cherry. "She is the reincarnation of a man who lived in the neighborhood, who everyone liked. He was reborn in her. You can tell already. Watch. Everyone who comes up will say hello to her."
“Hey, you hear that?” says Cherry, and we hear a shrill whistle,—“That means it’s going to rain. You have to know the birds here in Burma. You know the bird, hoo-hoo—yes, the owl! In Burmese, you say zee-gwat, because he makes a noise like zee-gwat, zee-gwat. There is another bird whose call in Burmese sounds like, ‘Get the cart, brother-in-law. Brother-in-law, get the cart.’”
We have to hurry back from that end of town, all the way round the palace, on the back of a guy’s scooter, and I do not have time to get dinner before our pickup to the station. I am mortified. Luckily the drivers are trying to fit all the luggage in the bottom and bodily push a parked truck from in front of the bus. I scurry across the muddy junction to a teahouse and get fried noodles, covered in egg, and broth and onion with chili sauce from a grinning Burmese girl. Then I have to stop the bus from leaving without Ron, who is off looking for potato chips.
The bus drops us off in Kalaw at 2:30 in the morning, and we sit there watching the local scooter gang and befriending stray dogs until 4, when we walk up the hill to the Golden Kalaw Guesthouse. It is late enough, or early enough, that we can get a room without paying for that first night.
We are in the lounge of the Golden Kalaw when it starts coming down. Ron and I wait it out in the wide common room, full on breakfast, seated on the couch to watch the news on TV. The old man sits in the back and his wife in a corner, and their granddaughter with her cropped-hair waits for it to end so she can shuffle off to school in rubber boots. The downpour sounds much more pleasant when you're somewhere like home. From the balcony up above you can see it, running like a veil over the valley of the town.
The rain stops, and we walk out onto Kalaw's straight streets, along their plank sidewalks and past the sundry businesses and workshops that open onto the road, through the market, which is lively even when it's not market day, and we stop in teahouses and at the beer halls, with meat grilling out front and a karaoke video on the television.
The town is full of soldiers, grunts uneducated and unheralded, uniformed at sixteen and brainwashed into thinking highly of their Buddha-sanctioned state service, thirty years for which they are paid fifty dollars per month. They wear Nazi helmets with swastikas and eagles, out of deference to the strength and unity of the German people and their similarly fascist state. "They don't know what it means," says Ron as we inquire about it.
There are five camps around Kalaw and an officer's academy on the hill, though that is shut down this year—all the colonels are busy working for the upcoming elections—and it's impossible to get a map of the area. The military does not want any strategic details slipping out in the hands of trekkers. So foreigners have to get a guide, and the guides only have their walking knowledge of the country and their hand-drawn maps.
Tourists can only go to thirty per cent of Burma without a permit. These are the “white zones;” the “brown zones,” including the northern hills, require government permission, and the “black zones” are impassable places, ruled by state-sanctioned opium warlords. If a stranger wanders into one of these places, such as the vast stretch of Shan Army territory along the eastern border with Thailand, an observer will make a call to a nearby rifleman, who will shoot the stranger from ten kilometers away and ask questions later—or so I am told.
The Brits started the opium farms in Burma and Bengal to sell to the Chinese, and everyone was rich. Now in the Kalaw highlands they grow tea, vegetables, and rice. The families keep most of the rice they grow and sell most of the produce at the local markets, although they also make an interesting tea leaf salad in this part of Myanmar. The land is not so good for grazing. We passed a Nepali ranch where the Hindu family, following their traditional trade, maintained about fifty cattle, including thirty cows, though the milk they produced was hardly worth the expense and effort.
Most of the water buffaloes, stupid animals with their long horns curved back in a useless way, and the brahmin bulls, which bear a camel-like hump above their strong shoulders, were skinny things used mostly for carrying bullocks-carts down the rutted dirt pathways that thread the hills. Sometimes a Burman will take a herd of emaciated cattle out east, fattening them up with mountain grass along the way, and at the Thai border will fill their mouths with opium from the Shan warlords, and make a killing off meat and drug on the other side—at least that's what I heard.
The next day we leave for a trek with Robin, a stooped Sikh with a graying beard and a green turban, son of a large and prosperous family of Sikhs running the Golden Lilly Inn, who had been in Burma for a century. We had met Robin in the street before the rains, as we sauntered around town, a brown and black-snouted dog guiding us in, running ahead to chase motorycycles and smile at pedestrians, and leading an altogether fine and sunny life, in spite of the floodtide of blackened clouds.
Anyway, the most appealing part of Robin's offer, other than all the culture we would see, was the attendance of three girls from Spain. “Young or old?” queried the Jew, and the Sikh replied, “Young I think.” My eyes were wide and I said, “Three young Spanish girls? Yes, I think we should go.”
I am very excited as we go over to the Golden Lilly. Then I meet this fabled triad of Spanish girls, and it turns out that they are all around 30. One woman is Catalan, one is Mexican, and the third is just a Frenchman. The three of them are studying development in Beijing and wear trekking shoes they had bought in Kalaw. It is with inestimable disappointment that I set off behind them and our guide for our loop through the southern hills.
Kalaw is the Burmese word for wok, and the city is so named for its bowl-like appearance, surrounded by pine-clad hills with further valleys beyond. Our road takes us up switchbacks past homes and monasteries, vegetable gardens and mango trees, and a house where one of the Burmans hands Robin a big bunch of bananas.
As we come out of the hills and the pine woods, into a valley floored by rice paddies, now dry, we come across five veterans sitting scattershot and slipshod across the sunburnt hillside—ex-rangers, hired by a Bavarian hotel owner as keepers of the forest. They are all in their fifties, though they look much younger, and are lean and narrow from mountain campaigns. They wear their old uniforms but can no longer carry firearms. Instead they have long Shan knives, radios, and cameras slung from their belts.
Robin gives them the banana bunch as a gift, and the veterans survey us with grizzled curiosity and ask where we are from. They are impressed by Ron’s origins and compliment his country on the Uzi. In the army, they had used smuggled German G3s, Russian Kalishnakovs, Swedish artillery, and a few M16s abandoned in Vietnam, but those aren’t very reliable. We greet them politely and go our own way, leaving them to their business of checking on the water supply for the resort of their Bavarian lord.
Robin is honest and awkward, the kind of man who embarrasses easily and talks a lot anyway, and he forces a laugh every few syllables, as he points out all the plants he knows—some edible, some medicinal, some poisonous. Now he prides himself on knowing all the plants of the Shan hills, with as much pride as a man of his quiet nature can express, but once he had been a mechanic like his father and his father’s father, who came to Burma with the British Railway Company in the 1880s. Robin’s father worked privately for the British and then, during the Second World War, for the occupying Japanese.
Kalaw was sometimes bombed by B-52s returning from Japanese targets in the north. The bombers were required to return empty and would let loose their extra ordinance over the quiet hill station. Robin’s aunt was killed by one of these, and his uncle injured, when it swooped out from the formation they had been counting and bombed the empty field where they stood.
After the war, Robin’s family ran a transit company, moving material for the public works department with heavy Buick trucks. A financial crisis hiked up the oil prices in 1979, and Robin’s father sold the whole gas-guzzling fleet. Robin told his father to buy Japanese cars, but his father said, “I don’t trust them. Unreliable.” Rather they became mechanics, and later opened the Golden Lilly.
There are only a handful of Sikh families in Myanmar, the relics of the Raj, and they are slowly dying out to emigration and mixed marriage. To the distress of his parents, Robin refused an arranged marriage and married for love, to a Myanmar girl from Kalaw. They have been married for twelve years, and he is happy even though she did not like to make him Punjabi food. Ah, what we sacrifice under love’s humbling spell!
You would never guess the Sikh was so romantic, as he stoops up and down the rolling hills with their dead green color, past tiered rice paddies, thirsty for the endless rains that come in August, because there's no irrigation here in the hills, no other source of water but the monsoon. The area outside the Ayeyarwady would look like Egypt outside of the Nile if it were not for the seasonal rains swept northeast from sweltering India.
Hillsmen squat around pots of tea in the shade of a wooden shack, halfway up the slope of one of the hills, and one girl works in the vegetable field in peasant clothes and a rice paddy hat. They kindly share their tea with us and ask, through Robin, where we are from. Robin tells us that these are people of the Danu tribe that lives in the hills near Kalaw, one of the four tribes in the area, who speak different dialects and keep their own villages.
The Palaung tribe also lives near Kalaw, and unlike the others, they must marry within the tribe. Everyone in a village is related, and there is a high level of inbred deformities, especially polio. They have a strange marital custom where, after the wedding, the teenage bride goes back to her own longhouse for a month, after which time she is called out by her husband. The newlyweds go off to a distant field and live for a month in a shack, working in the day and sleeping in the shanty at night, when it earns its name of "Honeymoon Shack." After that month they go live in the husband's family's longhouse, sharing space with the extended family and the animals, and set in for a long life of marriage.
The Pao tribe lives further south of Kalaw, and we will come to them another day. Most of the villages we see—Hinkagore, Myinsanggone, and Myindaik, a few dozen houses shrouded in bamboo groves, in the hills on the western side of the Tong-La Valley, with the Knuckle Mountains to the east—are those of the Danu. Of the Taung U, with their long dark faces and natural houses, we see some, passing through a Taung U village of sixteen families called Bawninnkone, but a medicine man lives there who is one of the Pao.
The medicine man’s house looks like most of the tribal homes—a two-storied long house of woven bamboo, the bottom floor on a raised dirt foundation used for cattle, tools, and drying garlic, and the top floor, reached by a slanted bamboo ladder, for the family. The tin roof is slanted against the rain. Only the rich have tin roofs rather than the equally waterproof bamboo sheets, and despite the noise and the heat, they are a source of inestimable pride and prestige. We come down a steep hill over the stilted home and crossed a dirt yard where squares of turmeric dry in the sun. The brown roots look like ginger, and when broken open they are orange and smell like India. When properly mixed into a potion, they make good treatment for stomach ailments and Alzheimer’s. Passing them, we climb the bamboo ladder and enter the house.
There is an open room with a floor of bamboo mats that has the unstable feel of walking across an attic. A few posters of pop stars and Buddhas decorate the thatch walls, a few shelves with old pop bottles full of strange brown mixtures, and a shrine of gold and glass on a far wall, with offerings of flowers, candles, incense, and food arranged around the statues of Buddha and the local nat spirits, a sort of dryad. An open door leads into a kitchen area with a stone hearth, where a fire smokes under a kettle, and there is an open balcony off the far end where the family would wash dishes. It is a dark and smoky house, with only one window in the corner of the main hall, and seated under that window on a bedroll, the only item of furniture other than a round table—there in the streaming sunlight sits the medicine man.
He is eighty-four, as dried as the turmeric in the yard, as brown as a cigar, and he considers us with lugubrious eyes, lying there like an invalid. He wears loose Shan trousers and a baggy shirt, and on his head a green and yellow towel wrapped up in a Chinese turban, open in the center to reveal his bald pate. An ashtray next to him is full of reeking palm-leaf cheroots, and though he no longer smokes fourteen a day, he is still a considerable smoker. He has a whiskey flask full of mountain goat blood and wild honey, his own medicine, and Robin says, “It’s why he looks so young.” There is also a spittoon, a ledger, and three of his ten Pali spellbooks with runes and candle templates, potion recipes and tattoo designs. The medicine man is not just a shaman and alchemist, but also a tattooist, an acupuncturist, and a masseuse, and he has been in his life a farmer, hunter, and an instructor of a martial art called Bang.
We walk back along the train tracks, keeping our cameras hidden as we pass the fence of a military base. Burman peasants go the other way with loads balanced on their heads, and the hills turned green and gold in the slanted light.
Ron and I went out to the Chinese hangout for dinner. All these flying ants have hatched after the rain, and they fill the street thick as falling ash. They start coming into the restaurant through cracks around the window and suiciding into the food on the table, so the Chinese turn off the lights and bring out candles.
The topic of discussion is international support for Myanmar: China has a good deal with them, exchanging political legitimacy and UN support for dirt cheap commodities, especially metal, oil, and natural gas, and gas-starved India is looking for the same—but what about our mighty Western Powers with their moral agendas? The US and UN boycott Burma, spend a lot of time talking about it, while Western multi-nationals sweep in and get a great deal to extract resources and send them back to the eager markets of Myanmar's enemies.
Ron remarks, with typical Israeli cynicism, “But it’s like that everywhere. One hand says no, and the other takes. That’s how it is.”
We stop at a street grills on the way back, to eat some grilled something from a goat and some pancake filled with mixed banana and egg. At Golden Kalaw we sit in the lounge with the last of the whiskey and looked for a movie. The Untouchables ends and there is only some Russian news and Al-Jazeera. After a while the owner gets out a DVD that reads “Sharon Stone Sexy Goddess” and says, “Very good movie.” We say, “Okay.” He turns on Basic Instinct, and several Burmans sit around watching it intently with their legs crossed.
Several sex scenes later, I hear some drunken wailing from out in the street, and I shoulder my bag and say, “I’m going to see what’s going on.” Some distance down the street there are four Burmans sitting on a concrete divider on the side of the road. One of them is playing guitar, and they all know the songs—Burmese recuts of Western and Japanese hits, with Burmese lyrics substituted in. I had met one of them before and say hello. Then I am seated next to the guitarist, with a cigarette and a glass of rum—they only had the one glass.
“In Myanmar,” says the Burman with long hair, “we mix the rum with water.”
I say, “Sounds good,” and soon there are five cigarettes burning in the dark, everyone drunk and howling at the moon.
They play the kind of ballads you play at the end of the night, loud and noisy and never in harmony. The long-haired Burman flails around in the street and sings in a high-pitched voice. The man with the guitar is some sort of contest winner, they try to tell me, and is very good. Presently he sets his instrument in his lap and wants some rum, but long hair has misplaced the glass. He waved his lighter around the grass to find it and laughed. The guitarist takes a swig of rum from the bottle, then some water.
“You’re a champion,” I say.
“Not Inter Milan,” says the Burman.
“Ha ha,” says long hair,—“You hear? He is not Inter Milan. He is very clever, with the joking.”
The four of them are tour guides, relatives of the owner of the Golden Kalaw, and so they speak good English. They ask me if I can play anything, and I wave my finger like, wait a second, and dig my harmonica out of my bag. “Oh, harmonica!” I tell them I am not very good, but I can play some melodies. The guitarist start tuning their guitar. It is ninety-years-old, passed down from a teacher who was a grandfather to one of them, and they love the instrument like a little sister. They have to tune it with a pair of pliers because it is missing the pegs.
“You can wait?” the guitarist asks,—“you wait one year, okay?”
It is related that eighty per cent of Kalaw can play the guitar (and that 100 per cent likes to drink). The town is famous for its schools, and students come from all over the countryside to study there. When the locals find a pretty girl in one of the dormitories, they go out in a small troupe and play guitar in front of the dormitory windows. When more than one group wants to play, they take turns and compete to see who could play the best. For the most talented wailers, the girls would open the door of the dormitory and invite the boys closer for tea or coffee.
I wave at the guitarist and say, “The girls always give him coffee?”
“I’m not as he says,” says the guitarist, offended. “I am not as he says.”
We talk about girls for a while, and I ask the guitarist if he has a girlfriend. He mumbles something. I ask, “She is a Thai?” but the Burman says, “No, she is die.” I am shocked, in the way that only an utterance of mortality can shock, as if it were an invocation of the hooded one himself. “Oh, she died?” I say,—“My God, that’s sad. What happened?” The guitarist answers, “Cancer. She die three years ago. Now I am alone since then.” He seems like the sentimental kind of guy who will love only once in his life, as he tunes his ancient guitar and looks sidelong into the past.
He starts playing again, howling loud down the empty streets. Other drunks show up. One lays down in the road, waving his arms in the air and singing along. Another invites me to his apartment—“Only joking!” he adds. I play my harmonica along with the Burmese songs, the stolen Rod Stewart ones, and then we sing Country Roads in English. They howl out a final barroom dirge, beautiful in its drunken candor, and then I say goodnight and refuse all demands that I must stay. It is already late, and we leave the next day for Inle Lake.