I was up just before dawn in Yaungshwe this morning, dressed quickly in the chilly damp air, breakfasted wrapped in my shawl, looking out at foggy streets dotted with the occasional monk on his morning round, then climbed into a car to go to Heho airport, an hour’s drive to the north.
After about half an hour, as we started climbing up the curves of the steep road that leads to the upland where the airport sits, we emerged from mist. Looking back I could see, framed by the long lines of morning-light-etched hills to the east and west, a soft billowing white cloud, lit by early sun, that hid the lowlands. Underneath it, I knew, lay fields of rice stubble and dried stalks of harvested corn; children heading to school in their white shirts and green lungyis; men and women on small motorcycles heading to market or to work, others walking out into their fields, carrying a machete or knife or mattock; the occasional oxcart with high wooden frame, pulled with slow deliberation by a pair of white oxen; villages of wooden houses set on stilts, and a few houses made of cement and built on the ground; small teashops already busy with morning customers, the steam rising from their handle-less cups of tea. And a little farther away, the river leading to the lake was already alive with long powerful boats, headed out to pick up loads of tomatoes from the Intha villages on the lake, or loads of tourists from the hotels out there. On the lake itself, early fishermen would be out in their small narrow wooden boats, paddling them out to their nets, or already out there and paddling standing up, one leg wrapped around the paddle, leaving their hands free to work with the nets. Farther out still, people would be streaming in boats and on foot or oxcart toward whichever lake-side village has its market today.
The markets operate on a five-day cycle, moving from village to village in sequence. Pa-O people, who mostly live up in the hills, travel down to buy meat and fish; and to bring vegetables to sell. The Intha are there with strings of small eels, as well as larger fish and dried fish. men gamble in one corner, and at the edge of the market a blacksmith hammers at a red-hot implement, dipping it back into water to cool it, perhaps, then checking the trueness of the edge and hammering some more. Standing nearby, his helper (often a grown son or daughter) will be working the bellows. It’s an ingenious design, those bellows:. Two fat lengths (four feet or so) of bamboo are set on end. From the bottom small hoses lead to under the coals of the fire. The helper has a pole with a wad of cloth at the end, and slides them alternately up and down the bamboo shafts, driving air down under the fire. The alternation means the fire gets a regular even supply of air and stays steady. And the bellows work is relatively effortless, as well as being nicely far from the heat of the fire.
I’ve now got a sample of the rice liquor made by a Shan guy south of Inle Lake; it comes as 20, forty, and sixty proof. I have a bottle each of the twenty and forty, smooth-tasting and delicious. His still arrangement is another ingenious design, made of cermaic and bamboo, simple and effective. I’d like to take the Burma food tour people to visit him, as well as to a village market or two.
All this is such a lesson in ingenuity and creativity, as well as in the food basics that our manufactured world can hide from our sight.
I’m sorry to be leaving, and happy to think that I’m due to be back here in February. Then, too, I’m sure I’ll come on more local technologies that are new to me. There is so much to learn here in Burma.
Next step, after Rangoon, is the trip home, via a night with good friends in Bangkok. Toronto with its chilly air and festive lights feels far away still, but it’s approaching fast in my mind’s eye... I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Dom and Tashi and with friends, all of whom I’ve seen little of in this busy fall of book tour travel plus Southeast Asia time.
The warmth and conversation of my extended family of friends is so precious. And it’s while heading home that I most often take the time to reflect on its wonderfulness.