Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

GREETINGS FROM LAKSHMANJHULA, NORTHERN INDIA

Valentine’s Day has come and gone and I’ve been sitting on my balcony overlooking the Mother Ganges (or Ganga), watching the sun rise, listening to endless chanting, which starts around 7 AM, and admiring the intrepid Hindus who are bathing and doing their morning ablutions in the river. The 16th of February is Shiva’s birthday, so there are celebrations all around town, dancing, chanting and all kinds of things I can’t pronounce. Will report on them as I live them.

Not much has changed in this exotic, chaotic, disorganized, and beautiful country, except that the trains have improved and people sit talking on their cell phones as annoyingly as they do on the US trains. I was sitting next to a young man with an automatic weapon on his lap while on my way from Delhi to Haridwar two nights ago, and he let me know with a wink that he was guarding the VP’s sitting in front of us (the ones with the cell phones). Then, as if nothing had changed in twenty years he asked for my phone number and started in on the “happiness” line. I couldn’t believe it! Yes, folks, in India older is better. Ladies take heart.

I’ve just had two hours of blog disappear into cyberspace as a result of a power outage. This is something that happened often in Myanmar, but I hadn’t expected this in India. Fellow tourists said I was dreaming. Nothing worse than being snuggled up in bed ready to write and having the lights go off, and waiting for some time until the generators kick in with a loud clatter and they go on, again. Nothing worse, except if you’re on the internet and there’s no chance of retrieving your material. With that said, here goes again, a recap of my wonderful month in Myanmar and the chaotic aftermath.

To add to my former entry, let me say that not only do they sell car mufflers on the street, but shortly before leaving Yangon, I happened upon an enterprising fellow who was squatted on the sidewalk, making mufflers out of pieces of used metal. These people are amazing and have to be to cope with their deteriorated infrastructure, their lack of power equipment, and the appalling scarcity of basic goods and services. Every American who complains about a leaky faucet, a cracked sidewalk, or a dead battery needs to visit these hardy people who, despite their almost hopeless situation, still find the time to smile and greet you and welcome you to their country. They know a great deal about us as well. I was surprised, as I talked with people from many areas around the country, at how they knew about our government and its policies and talked openly about our problems in the world. Though they still admired us as a super power, they were critical of our present policies. They also spoke harshly about their own military dictatorship, taking a chance, since there are ears everywhere. They are a very accepting, long-suffering people, but there is despair lurking underneath. This was clear. But the women who run most of the guest houses, as well as their staff, are the happiest, most bubbly people I’ve ever met. It was a joy being around them.

Nobody mentioned Aung Sang Suu Kyi by name (the Nobel prize winner under house arrest since 1988), but referred to her, as my cab driver did, by pointing out that “she lives over there. You know. She is a brave lady. Everybody loves her.” And I was surprised when I went to the largest monastery in Myanmar, while in Bago, where 2,000 monks live, and saw a statue of Aung Sang on a white horse prominently displayed in the courtyard. By the way, the monks all over Myanmar are friendly and also very playful, getting a kick out of my taking their picture and, of course, showing it to them. This was a lovely monastery, off the beaten track, and without one tourist present.

After my experience at the Golden Rock Pagoda, I left my Seattle/Whidbey Island friends and hurried back to Yangon to meet James Wilson, my traveling companion, who had been having trouble getting his passport and visa back from the Myanmar Embassy (they don’t like us, but they like our money…and it better be new and crisp!). This wasn’t to happen for another week, so I tried, desperately, to get a bus for Taungoo to see the elephant training. That, too, was a disaster, since the bus schedules are chaotic and you must book at least a day ahead, if you can find someone at the haphazard central station who speaks English. I’m not complaining. It was an adventure…but one I’m not eager to repeat. So, off I flew to Kalaw, a small trekking town, by way of Heho, the nearest airport. I met a beautiful Canadian traveler, Donna Smiley, at the airport, munching the same tasty Thai cookies as I, and we compared notes as women traveling alone. I knew we’d meet again. Two weeks later in Hsipaw I found her sitting in the courtyard of Mr. Charles Guest House.

Since the internet is almost non-existent most of the time in Myanmar, it was nip and tuck to try to get a message to James about my change of plans. I could see him tooling into the Golden Lilly in Kalaw, with me at the May Guest House in Naungshwe, Inle Lake. I trusted that the lady at the Kalaw guest house would send him a message, and it got through. Miracle of miracles!

My two-day trek up and down the hills of northern Shan territory started with a harrowing ride over a dirt road so rutted I thought we might roll over. These rides, in cars that are so old they still have the steering wheel on the right from British days, were the most dangerous part of any trip. If a truck appears, you just move into a ditch or a shoulder, if there is one. You pass, mostly on hills, since you probably won’t meet another car, and after awhile it becomes a game of chance, of the thrill-a-minute variety. Most cars and taxis are metal shells with only a seat and no padding on the doors. The windshield is usually cracked and the windows won’t roll up or down. One taxi driver proudly announced to me that his car was 40-years-old. And still running. That’s ingenuity!

Our trek guide was a Sikh from the Punjab, whose family had been brought over by the British. He was a handsome fellow, Harri Singh Gill, who thawed considerably when I took a photo of him and said I would put it on the cover of Entertainment Today when I returned, complete with his coiled topknot and baseball cap. His cook, Taung Yo, was extraordinary and gave me an enthusiasm for Shan food that followed me the entire trip. His meals were extensive, loaded with fresh vegetables that he gathered along the way, and seasoned to perfection. The avocado salad was a winner at every meal, including breakfast.

The other two participants on the trek were a French couple, Vincent Richard, and his partner, Iisabella. They had been traveling for 8 months and had four more to go. We hit it off immediately, and the lively conversation kept me from dying of the heat, which was oppressive. I had no idea how little forest we would go through…none, in fact. The terrain became hilly, but still was incredibly dusty, with multi-colored cacti, a few bamboo plantations, and banana and pineapple groves. After lunch the cook gave me his jacket to cover my arms. It was a godsend! I was burning up.

That night we stayed at the Ponegyn Buddhist monastery on the floor with mats and quilts. It was a cold, but very special experience. At sundown the young monks started chanting in those wonderful boy voices, punctuated by the drone of the old monk. I taped this as I’ve taped so many chants during my trip. It was here that I lost my favorite orange T-shirt, by leaving it over the side of the humongous cement tub at the end of a courtyard where everyone was sent to wash. I thought I’d have to use it for a towel, but Harri surprised me with a towel from the monks, whereupon I left the shirt. It’s probably still there. That night the lights were supposed to go off at 10, but the novice monks were sitting, wrapt, on the floor watching some horror movie on TV. I couldn’t believe it! Even in a monastery those Bollywood/Chinese shoot-em-ups are playing.

We passed through eight different hill tribes with dramatically different scenery during those two days. Each ethnic group had its own headdress and traditional clothing and its special occupation, handcrafts, and farming. We saw several instances of cooperative house-building and peaceful endeavors utilizing the whole family. And. boy, did they have children! What fun we had photographing them and what fun they had seeing themselves on our LCD screens. Can’t wait to make an album of my pictures when I return. Harri was a big help explaining the various cultures and also got me a ride on a traditional cart pulled by bullocks. This was an experience I’d been hankering for. The huge animals went in and out of the ruts and the cart tilted sideways, jolting me until I was certain it would capsize. I’m glad I have a strong back.

Our trek ended at the village of In Dein, on one of the outlets leading to the main body of Inle Lake. There we took a long boat equipped with an outboard motor, and headed for the dock at charming Naungshwe. What a trip that was, but how glad I was to get to the May Guest House and make the acquaintance of its owner, The The ( pronounced Tsi Tsi), with whom I became friends for the next four days. I’m hoping to put the interview I had with her on this site, once I figure out the technology. And I have several other interviews I think you’d find interesting.

It was so great to get to an area of fresh air and, even though there was a lively market, as there is in all Myanmar towns, Naungshwe was relatively laid back. My first adventure was an evening paddle in a dugout canoe to see an old monastery at sunset and some of the houses on stilts hidden in the channels off the main lake. I didn’t do the paddling, but enjoyed the quiet after being in the loud motor boat.

The next day was a full day’s tour of the lake and some of its high spots, monasteries, and homes, all on stilts. More than 800,000 people of varying tribes live on the lake and it’s a fascinating place, watching people go up and down the river doing their work, digging up the weeds and the bottom soil, and making their own floating gardens, and even trying to walk on one of the gardens as it undulates beneath you. There are also unusual crafts–silver, linen weaving, and the spinning of lotus flower thread into cloth that tempts even the most hardened shoppers. I shared this day with another French couple, Christian Vandendaele and Sylvie Morin. At lunch we also met another couple, Canadians Peter de Groot and Sheila Wyn.

I noticed the friendliness of the Myanmar people more than ever in this town. I’d walk home from dinner late at night…not a streetlight around…and people would walk up to me and ask my name and my country. At first, I was wary…what did they want? To sell me something? One asked me where I was staying and I asked, “Why are you asking?” He looked perplexed, then rode off on his bike. I told The The about this and she said he was just being friendly and welcoming me to his country. How suspicious we have become. But Myanmar is most unusual in this respect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way everywhere. In my next installment I’ll tell you about an experience I just had in Delhi which turned out quite differently.

The next day James finally arrived. Hooray! Thus begins the second and final chapter of my time in Myanmar. Now I’m off to celebrate Shiva’s birthday. I can hear dancing, music, and chanting. This is, indeed, a special time in India.

Was I happy to see James! It didn’t take long before we were on one of those fast, skinny boats tooling in and out of the byways of Inle Lake. We made a special tour, eschewing the tourist spots and seeing bamboo houses on stilts hidden way back from the main river in the rushes. The extensive gardens, both vegetable and flower, were amazing, and the number of children playing near the water on flimsy docks (all of bamboo), or hanging out of open second story windows gave me the willies. But everybody waved…said Mingle-a-ba or Hello, and seemed overjoyed to pose for pictures.

There is a plethora of designs for these many houses on stilts, and each one has its unique pattern of bamboo and palm on the outer walls. The houses, usually one large room, are reached by beautiful curved bridges and walkways over the labyrinth of waterways that connect each village. Wait until April and you will see the pictures.

We decided not to spend time at the floating market, but, instead, headed for the monastery in the forest. This was definitely off the beaten track, and a long walk and climb in the noon day sun. I had finally found a white linen shirt that covered my arms, but it also kept me warm, something I didn’t need. The sun and I do not get along!

Halfway to the monastery we passed a new building with two ladies out front. They bowed and greeted us warmly. It turned out to be an orphanage for 46 girls, from 4 to 16, all of them coming from situations of destitution, death of the parents or caregiver, or families so large that they were starving. The girls were selected for their “potential,” and when we saw them all assembled and heard them talk, we realized that this was a very special place with a noble vision and the ability to make a difference to the hill tribes of Inle Lake. The woman in charge was a 65-year-old Christian lady, Helen, who said that her mission was to help the children of the world. She gave us the daily schedule, and since the children were all Buddhist, they started with a religious service before breakfast, then intense studies in math, English, history and their own language and literature. They also participated in the chores of the school, and the care of the garden. A busy day. Many of the children could not even speak Burmese when they came to the school, but now they were becoming fluent in both English and Burmese.

Before we left, the girls sang for us…Christmas carols in English. Then several of them stood up in turn, and told us their name and what they hoped to be when they grew up. This was a very moving part of our visit, and I taped both the singing and the children’s words. Ambitions ran from doctor, lawyer, tour guide, nurse, to pop singer. Helen said that these girls were the hope of their people. They would go back to their various tribes and inspire others to strive for a better life.

There was also a boy’s orphanage close by. Both of these institutions are supported by donated funds from one farsighted restaurant, and money from foreigners like us. We tried to give dollars, but Helen said the government would wonder where she got the money, so we gave our donation in kyat (pronounced chat). This was the most encouraging sign of change that I saw during my trip. The need is so great that it’s almost overwhelming, but when you see people like Helen and her staff, you realize that there is still hope for the people of Myanmar. Improvement comes in very small increments, but it comes. I’ve left out real names to protect those who are trying to make a difference in a land where human rights are non-existent and life is a daily struggle to survive.

As often happens when we headed for a monastery during the next two weeks, a little boy would attach himself to us, trying to explain the history of the area and, of course, hoping to get a small payment. This time we had skinny Obe Wa, who took a great liking to James, and stuck with us through the heat and the dust to the very top. And got his reward.

Our only tourist stop was to see the Monastery of the Jumping Cats, where a man has trained cats to jump through hoops. This was a lot of fun, and it was amusing to see a very bored Buddhist monk near the stage, sitting cross-legged, and reading the paper during the entire ceremony. Several cats sat at his feet, waiting for their turn to perform. Monks seem very casual in Myanmar and very approachable. We spent a lot of time talking with them and they were eager to talk to us and “practice English.”

The morning before we left for Mandalay, James and I strolled around the back streets of Naungshwe as the day was beginning. School children were bouncing along, dressed in uniforms (the lucky ones whose parents could afford the price of school, uniforms, and books. This is a very small percentage of the children, most of whom sell post cards or trinkets to tourists, instead of attending school). Several little girls followed me, fascinated with my huge camera. The little girls posed, arms around each other, giggling like little girls everywhere, and led me to their school, where I was required to photograph numerous friends. Walking back from the school, we saw people washing clothes in the river and men and women going to work on bicycles. Very few cars passed us, though now and then you’d see the heavy, three-wheeled tractor-like truck that I saw twenty years ago in China. Smaller motorized rickshaws with people hanging out of them, are also a main source of transportation in small towns. But mostly you can walk down the middle of the street…often a dirt road…and feel perfectly safe. By the way, my new EOS digital camera, though it takes great pictures, has been sent home with James. It was just too heavy and awkward with its two large lenses. I now have James’ Canon point-and-shoot digital and it makes a lot more sense, even though the photos aren’t so good, and I go mad without a view finder.

At 2:30 we said goodbye to our beautiful small town and the charming May Guest House and headed for the chaos and pollution of Mandalay. Little did we know, but at least we had a reservation at The Peacock Lodge, another fine guest house surrounded by flowers and run by a warm, congenial woman, Alice (her English name, of course). The smog, exhaust fumes, and dust hit us immediately upon leaving the new airport (new and nobody there…empty carousels, few passengers, empty parking lots). There were no street lights, but light came from the many tiny restaurants and business cubicles lining the streets and still going strong late into the night. I had to adjust to the big city, again. Walking to the restaurant that night I said to James, “I think I’ll just hop up on that sidewalk.” “No, no, Meg…it’s an open sewer.” In the dark I had seen what I thought was a black strip of pavement running down the middle of the walk. On closer inspection, it was an open sewer. I would have disappeared up to my waist. I quickly became more observant. This was closely followed by potholes and cracked pavement. From then on I took my headlamp on evening “walks.” It was like being back in Yangon. Vigilance!

Mandalay was a hoot. Most people don’t like it, but we enjoyed it, probably because of the wild rides in the trishaws, especially at night, and the exhilarating walk up Mandalay Hill (1770 steps) to the temple overlooking the city, and the hike down the road in the dark. And our full day of exploring three powerful historic spots, Amarapura (with the feeding of the monks), the island of Ava (Inwa), and Seigang, returning to see the sunset on the teakwood bridge of Amarapura. All of these are covered thoroughly in guidebooks and well worth a day. Riding in horse carts, haggling with children selling necklaces, eating in open air restaurants whose floors are packed dirt, and climbing up a huge unfinished temple after our boat ride to Mingun (have a photo of James under the famous Mingun bell) was made complete by the ride home in a trishaw after dark. They don’t have headlights and neither do the bicycles…only cars and motorcycles, which dart around you with inches to spare, while the driver seems to have a sixth sense about when to stop, swerve, or pass. I loved it! One motorcycle driver pulled up next to us and throttled down, asking us where we came from and telling us how much he wanted to get to the U.S. He was dressed in army fatigues, but that is typical of many men in Myanmar. Army surplus clothing abounds and is cheap. James whispered to me, “He’d better stop chewing that beetle nut if he wants to get into the U.S.” Yes, so many men here have red and rotting teeth as a result of this habit. Benign, maybe, but as disgusting as the pioneer days when chewing tobacco was prevalent. And here there are no spittoons.

The best part of Mandalay is the several monks we met, one of whom went with us to the royal palace and shared some of his ideas about the government and his life as a monk. All of this I have written in detail and these are the reasons for taking such a trip. The monuments and temples are beautiful. The people are more beautiful and ARE the country.

Some of you may have noticed, when seeing pictures of Myanmar, that the men and women wear long skirts, called lunghi for women and pa so for men. I decided I must try one, so bought a large piece of material with a typical Burmese design for a couple of dollars in the local market and had them sew up the side and show me how to wear it. Well, what a disaster this was! But the women loved it. Much laughter at my clumsiness. At the May Guest House several people of various nationalities tried, again, to show me how, but it was always crooked and, with my sneakers, I looked like Minnie Mouse wearing a blanket. Not my style. So someone will get a nice gift and can use it for a horse blanket as a last resort. Come to think of it, I have a niece who likes horses. But I did buy a silk lunghi with ties at each side and fared better. And a Shan blouse to match. I plan to wear them at a Myanmar slide show next summer on Whidbey Island.

James decided to go native our last day in Yangon, probably because I told him he couldn’t go back to Shwedagon in shorts. He bought a beautiful plaid pa so and learned to wrap it with a large knot protruding from the front. And he had the sandals to match. I have a picture to prove it. He looked absolutely stunning!

Early one morning, two days before we left Myanmar, we took an open-air taxi (small blue trucks with two small benches in the back, facing each other) to the railroad station and embarked on an expedition to Hsipaw, a small town high in the mountains ten hours from Mandalay. What a ride that was! The train negotiated several switchbacks before reaching a narrow trestle 500-1,000 ft. above the valley. It went very slowly and nobody moved. These old trains tend to sway from side to side, and the crossing was a bit tense. We bonded with a family and their 11-month-old baby boy. When the baby became fussy, James and I would entertain him with rhymes and songs. Both parents shared in the care of the infant, and it was a pleasure to watch. The train was a colorful caravan of Burmese types–middle class; tribal; dark-skinned; almost white. Everybody brought baskets of goodies and cylindrical metal containers for hot food. Thank heaven we had an ample breakfast packed by Alice. Nobody spoke English, but we felt accepted, and the people were eager to point out interesting sights along the way, letting us sit by their window to catch the views.

After a cold night in Mr. Charles Guest House in Hsipaw, we took a long morning walk, observing the stream of monks that file through the market with their large bowls clutched in their arms, begging for food. This is common practice in Myanmar, and the Motherland Inn in Yangon always kept a steaming pot of rice out front on a pedestal to serve them. I also saw my first display of debris for the evil “Nats,” under a tree by the river. I remembered the huge statue of Grandma Nat at Swerdegon in Yangon, where people came to light incense and pray for success in business.

In late morning we hired a shared taxi and sped down a road of harrowing hairpin turns all the way to the former British colonial resort of Pyin oo Lwin. Every now and then the driver would reach into his pocket and grab a small folded banana leaf full of beetle nut, and pop it into his mouth. I watched the wad in his cheek recede as we roared down, passing only a few new Isuzu trucks laden with cargo going to construction sites. Otherwise there was no traffic. Just before we reached town, the driver stopped at a local restaurant where we had our tastiest meal–rice with numerous veggie and meat toppings–all for about $1.00.

The remainder of the day we rode in a colonial buggy around the quaint old town and visited the magnificent National Kandawgyi Gardens. Started by the British as a botanical garden in 1917, they were fashioned after the Kew Botanical Gardens. Not to be missed.

Our last day in Mandalay was spent going from market to market, an open-air pageant to delight the eye and the pocketbook of any consumer. It’s good that my pack is full, but I did my part when it came to bananas (I like the ones in Asia–they’re small and sweet), oranges, and avocados. And we found children all around town who were thrilled to be given a piece of fruit. I’d buy a kilo for less than a dollar, and the children would swarm. They seemed to emerge from nowhere–dirty, in tatters, barefoot, but smiling ingenuously. Sometimes their mothers were sitting on the sidewalk under a flimsy shelter with a nursing baby, and they would bring the fruit to her. I think this was the first orange some of them had ever eaten. They didn’t even know how to peel it. Whenever children asked me for money, or indicated by putting their hands to their mouth that they were hungry, I’d buy them food from one of the many stalls on the side of the road. I noticed that they always shared the food with their younger siblings. As I’ve mentioned before, Asia is a place where children take care of children.

I could never get used to the pockets of poverty in this city. Going to the river one day we came upon a community of homemade tents housing families on the sloping river bank. It was morning and small fires burned for warmth as well as cooking. Barefoot children clung to their mothers. One woman sat alone combing her hair. When she saw me she called a child from the tent and posed for a picture. She was delighted when I showed her the image. Garbage was everywhere, though each family swept its small section of packed dirt. I imagine that these families simply move elsewhere when the rains come and the river rises. Nobody asked me for anything. They just smiled and nodded.

Our final adventure in Myanmar started with a ten-hour ferry ride down the Ayerawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan. We enjoyed conversing with people from many European countries, but met few from the U. S. I especially enjoyed talking with Lisa Lotte, a Danish woman living in Germany with her partner, Christof Rauch. Happily, we met them later on at a small restaurant we frequented.

We approached Bagan at sunset, its stupas silhouetted, dramatically, against the darkening sky. Before we could get out of the area we were required to register with our passports and visas and pay a fee of $10.00 to the government. This happened whenever you entered any tourist area. Locals go free. I hated the thought of giving money to the government, but there was no way around it. I dare not mention some of the strategies used by guides I’ve met, to keep the government from getting this money. I will only applaud their ingenuity and wish them luck.

Bagan was a town of over 4,000 temples of which only 2800 remain today. This was like no other place I’d been in my travels. A huge flat area dotted with ancient temples that gave me a real sense of antiquity. Some were crumbling from neglect, some were being refurbished. All had at least four statues of Buddha, each defining the inner corners, and many had exquisite wall paintings, faded with age. We explored these in our bare feet, climbing up narrow stone staircases and banks of very steep steps connecting the tiers of the various levels. Views from the top of some of the larger stupas showed miles and miles of similar temples, each with its own special charm, color, and design.

The story of this town is tragic, and we were told about it by our taxi driver while we rode to our hotel, and by several families we met subsequently. In 1990 the military government evicted every family from Old Bagan (now the home of fancy large hotels used by tour groups, but mostly empty), giving each family the equivalent of a dollar, and two weeks to vacate. They were sent to a barren area with no water, no housing, no electricity, and no buildings of any kind, and given a small piece of land. The families tried to bring as much of their old homes as they could dismantle. They had no water for a year, and many died of snake bites and broken hearts. We met one family with children they are struggling to educate by running a small restaurant. The wealthy tourists go to fancy hotels in Old Bagan, so they are being squeezed out. But it’s amazing what the people have built up in those 15 years.

We found a marvelous hotel, The Thiri Marlar, with rooms opening onto a balcony overlooking gardens in a lower courtyard. We decided to splurge…$25.00 for a double! The next morning we climbed to the roof cafe for our breakfast and who was sitting there but Lee, Yana, and Dale. What a wonderful surprise! Lee had just said, “I wonder where Meg is,” and I appeared. It was uncanny. A perfect coincidence that made our trip.

We spent the next four days visiting temples I can’t even pronounce. Some of us went by bike, but after the first day of negotiating sandy ruts and riding home on a perilous highway in the dark with no light, I decided to join Dale in a horse-drawn cart. Slow, but sure!

James became our unofficial guide, since he is a fount of cultural information and had read The Lonely Planet and a history of Burma before he even arrived. Lee knew the people and had close friends in the antique, lacquer, and restaurant business. We were a compatible, happy group.

Bargaining, as you know, is a way of life in Asia, especially in Myanmar and India. Lee is the champion, but I’m a close second. He specializes in Buddhas and textiles while I concentrate on the small stuff, like watches and jewelry. My watch gave out, so I decided to buy another. It went like this: “How much?”

“Ten dollars. Genuine Swiss.”

“I’ll give you one.”

“Three, Madam. Very good watch.”

Reaching into my pocket I produced my last two dollars. “This is all I have.”

“O.K., O.K.” End of deal. The watch was pretty good, but the strap broke.

It was difficult to resist some of the bargains in handcrafts and paintings, superb in Myanmar. Lee had been here before, and knew the number one maker of lacquer ware in the area, The Golden Cuckoo workshop in Myin Ka Par village. There are two grades of work: very fine and tourist quality with fewer layers of lacquer. I’ve never seen such exquisite work. We toured the shop and watched the artists as they designed and polished, starting by weaving a basic shell of bamboo or horsehair. This is an ancient skill. Dishes, platters, flexible cups, vases, and urns are made and decorated by hand with tiny sharp tools, adding new designs with each layer. Over twenty coatings of lacquer are applied over a period of a year. Orders come in from temples all over Asia, and the work sells for thousands of dollars in the States. We went a little crazy. On our last evening we were invited to the birthday party of the owner’s son, where we were asked to sing Happy Birthday “just like in America.” You can imagine what a thrill it was to participate in this authentic Burmese festival.

One day, after visiting three temples, we looked around for a restaurant. We were hot, tired, and generally rung out after crawling up cracked stairs in old stupas and examining artifacts in dark places that required headlamps. Often we were prohibited from taking pictures, and were followed by a custodian who, for some reason, didn’t trust all those Americans and their cameras. Hmm.

We stopped at a farm in Minnanthu village and walked into a pleasant courtyard housing farm animals, including the big Brahman cattle with the hump. Vegetable and flower gardens abutted the property. It was an idyllic pastoral scene.

“Where can we find a restaurant?” we asked.

“You can eat here with us,” was the answer.

We sat under a shelter and watched several men thrash cornstalks into silage, and a young woman spin cotton into thread. There were plums drying on the ground. The seeds would be sold to the Chinese. And a litter of puppies played in the dirt. James bought a white shirt with Burmese trim. Totally ethnic.

Then came lunch. The appetizer was chunks of papaya dipped in sesame seeds, followed by boiled tea leaves, ginger, and peanuts with white beans. The main course started with a hot chili lime soup with cilantro and ended with a tasty noodle veggie dish. Hot tea and fruit were dessert.

All of this food had been prepared by Grandma, who graciously allowed us to photograph her in the kitchen. A proud lady and a proud family.

As I leave Myanmar you must understand that much was unspoken during our many conversations, although much was inferred. I am in a quandary about just what to tell, since any inkling that an individual is criticizing the government can land him or her in jail, and jeopardize the family. So I have to be very circumspect, not easy for me. I do feel, however, that despite the few times you pay government fees to enter temples, visiting Myanmar is a good thing, if only to talk with people, patronize their establishments, and let them know that the rest of the world is aware of their plight and we, as individuals, will support those working for change.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. mully

    Hi Meg,

    This was most interesting ready, the living was a lot more demanding. sounds special to meet Jim over there. soon you and Cary will be together. Have a great rest of your time. It is so wonderful that you will get to meet sonam, Tsering and our family. and get to go to Rewalsor. I will be thinking of you. While you are listening to all the chanting, just breathe and you will be transported into the vast expanse along with the other practioners. Sending Love, mully

  2. Judy Wyman

    Meg,
    Glad to read your latest entry. Have been waiting for it! Sounds like you are having a great time. We miss you! Love, Judy and family

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