Off the Grid in Burma, 2010 – Part 4

Bus to Inle Lake

      The bus left at 6 A.M. sharp, right on schedule. It seated about 40 people and there were only 20 of us on board. Twenty minutes later, we made another stop and at least 40 more people hoisted bags and boxes and cages of chickens up onto the roof, boarded, jamming into every inch of space, setting plastic stools in the aisles, hanging out the front door. The eight hour ride seemed like fifteen, and when we finally disembarked the few tourists on board rushed for the pick up trucks that would take them 10 km to Lake Inle. Instead of hurrying off, I crossed the street to a small shop where men sat drinking milk tea and playing a board game with pieces from a checkers set and a chess set. I ordered a warm beer and wiped the dirt off my face. A slick young man in fake Oakley glasses approached and sat down with me. “Going to the lake?” He offered his services to arrange everything from taxis, hotels, boat rides, trekking, even girls if I was interested. “I’ll take you up on a ride to Nyaungshwe, but after that, I’m all set.”

       The Teak Wood Hotel was recommended in the guidebook, but they warned that the owners might be a little pushy about offering tours, sometimes cheating unknowing tourists with exorbitant fees. When Mr. Oakly dropped me off, a woman approached me quickly and said, “Mr. Weelay, let me show you your room.”  She started describing the bathroom, the porch, the views, the quiet side of the building and how there were three beds to choose from, “Only $35.” I asked if she could show me the $20 room and give me the afternoon to relax and unwind before talking in the morning about other tours. As it turned out, she was pushy and pricey, so I told her I was a poor volunteer teacher doing work in Thailand and had very little money. She softened and helped me a great deal in the next few days.

       That night I took a bicycle to a restaurant near a canal that leads out to Inle Lake. After setting down a grassy tasting carp stuffed with herbs, the waiter suggested he could arrange all my travel needs if I would just give him a chance, “I can show you everything, at a good price.” Nyaungshwe is a small village, 15 or 20 minutes by boat to the main body of Lake Inle. The streets are dirt and full of holes and bumps, but a bicycle is a great way to get a feel of life in and around town. Several times I took long bike rides into the beautiful countryside farmlands, and nowhere did I meet anything but smiles and waves and greetings of “Ming-a-la-ba!”

       Lake Inle is situated in a valley surrounded by temple-studded mountains about 2,800 feet above sea level. The clear water, covering 45 square miles, varying in depth from 1 to 5 meters, is filled with moss and grasses rich in nutrients and several species of fish, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Most of the natives here are known as Inthas, but many other tribes, including many Shan, inhabit the area. Anthropologists from around the world come to experience the variety of cultures and their ancient lifestyles here at Lake Inle.

       The morning was cool, so I put on a Starbucks t-shirt and a long sleeve to cut the chill. My boatman, Manlo, was born naturally without medical assistance in a hut on stilts 36 years ago. Traumatized from the birthing process, his mother died shortly after he was born, so he was raised by his aunt, two sisters, and his father. As many men do, he learned about fishing at a young age, mastering a technique I’ve never seen before. We cut the motor and drifted around near several fisherman to witness this innovative, centuries-old fishing method. On a long flat teak wood boat, the fisherman stands at one end holding a long pole in his hands with nets strung across it like a curtain rod holding drapes. He balances himself on one foot while the other leg wraps around a paddle, making a figure 5 rotation through the water, moving the boat along slowly while he eases the net off the pole, laying it out in the water behind the boat. When the net is fully out, he circles around and connects the two ends and begins to pull it all in to retrieve the catch. It’s time consuming, requires great concentration, balance, and strength, and it’s amazing to watch.

       Other boats manned by grass diggers rake the bottom and scoop out clumps of mosses and grass until their boats ride low in the water. The grasses are used by farmers as mulch for bean and tomato crops, and as insulation to keep fish moist and fresh while being transported to market. The lake is life for the these people, and it seems that everyone has a task and a role to play in sustaining the communities. There are boat makers, basket weavers, bamboo farmers, pig farmers, paddy tenders, tool makers, wood carvers, silk weavers, and cheroot rollers, all contributing to the sustainability of this micro world in which they live. Very little is imported, but the most important is gasoline for the motors that haul goods and tourists across the lake. In Myanmar, there is a monthly ration of gasoline given to all owners of boats and cars. Whether for commercial or personal use, each registered owner of a motor vehicle is allotted 16 gallons per month. That’s not enough for boatmen, taxi drivers, farmers, or hardly anyone else, but the government limits its allocation so it can sell the rest to foreigners at high prices, filling their own greedy coffers with cash to control the masses. This quota system has produced a healthy black market business for Thai entrepreneurs, but the price is steep. The government gasoline costs about two dollars a gallon, where the BM product is about six dollars, a cost that must be absorbed if you rely on gasoline to produce a living.

       Later in the day, trekking through the forest with Manlo, visiting farms, small markets, and climbing hills to visit temples, we stopped at a small shop for a tea break. Manlo told me we could have tea for 100 kyat, “A good price.” One of his past customers had told him that coffee in America could cost as much as 4,000 kyat per cup. I told him it was true and unbuttoned my long sleeve shirt to show him the Starbucks logo of my t-shirt, explaining this was the company that sold four dollar cups of coffee. He just shook his head and said, “We can earn little money here, there is no opportunity.”

      There were six young girls sitting on the floor in a large open room, giggling and rolling cheroots. We sat and watched them and carried on light conversation while we sipped our tea. The girls ranged in ages 15 to 22 and had been doing this job nearly everyday since they were 14 years old. Rolling 500 cigars a day, they each make about 2,800 kyat per week, plus rice and vegetables for morning and midday meals. They were happy and had no expectations or desire for advancement. This was their appointed position, and what they would do until they were too old to roll 500 per day, had a baby, or became sick.

      On the lake in late afternoon, the red ball sunset began again as we drifted through the famous floating gardens at dusk. Hundreds of acres of bobbing, floating handmade clumps of moss, grass, and soil are growing beds for millions of flowers that will bloom in the winter season. The narrow canals between the floating rows are dotted with rattan walled huts on bamboo stilts. With the waning light, there was a quiet calm as residents tied up their boats, cooked over open fires on the porches, and waved with big smiles as we slowly motored through. “Hellooooo!… Welcome!… Ming-a-la-ba!” Being around these happy natural earth-loving natives in the twilight was one of the most touching moments I had in Burma. I imagined that in another half hour, the twinkling of kerosene lamps and candles would light up the Buddhas on the walls of the one room huts as a symphony of cricket clicks and frog croaks would lullaby them to sleep.

      As we landed the long boat at dark in the canal back in Nyaungshwe, I thanked Manlo for a day to remember and handed him a crisp ten dollar bill as a gesture of my complete satisfaction with his service. He bowed and then pointed to my t-shirt and said, “If I was in America, I could get two cups of coffee and a donut.” I yanked off my long sleeve, pulled the Starbucks shirt over my head and handed it to him. His eyes lit up like a skyrocket, he placed the shirt against his forehead, bowed again, and said, “Jay-su-miajee-dener.” Over the previous days I had come to use this term often, which meant, “thank you very very much.”

     In the morning the aggressive woman at Teak Wood Hotel approached me while eating breakfast. “So, did you like Manlo?” Yes, I said, he was a great boatman and a good man. “Okay, good, today I send you to a very special market, a black market in the mountains… no tourists go there. Only thirty-five thousand kyat.” This aroused my interest, but I had a long bike ride through the backcountry in mind, a day to rest, relax and find an expensive resort near the lake where I could have a fresh salad and do a little writing. She tried her best to convince me, but my resolve held. So she demurred and said her husband would like to talk to me before I left on the bicycle.

     His name was Mr. Tin, the owner of Teak Wood Hotel, and he joined me at my breakfast table overlooking a beautiful garden his daughter had designed, built, and maintained. He said he was a geology major, but realized long ago that a salary as a geologist working for the government would lead to nowhere and trap he and his family in a life of struggle. So, after many years working many jobs, he and his aggressive, determined wife saved up $800 and bought a worn out house, launching them into the lodging business. Over 15 years, they’ve slowly renovated the small house and now have this homey Teak Wood Lodge, made from teak wood, river stones, and concrete, beautifully landscaped and meticulously cared for. He is the builder and financial manager, his wife is the marketer; a winning combination. Now, their daughter and son-in-law help manage the hotel and will one day take over the ownership.

     I asked how was he able to build a business with such a difficult government to cope with. “I am not afraid. You cannot be afraid of the government. You must pay them corruption money, but if you understand them, deeply, you can negotiate and become prosperous.” He was a very interesting and open man, so we talked for more than two hours about health care, sewage, electricity, elections, construction methods, the pipeline carrying oil from the Andaman Sea to China, about landscaping, farming, the black market, the behavior of tourists, the future of tourism. We talked about human spirit, inheritances, children, grandchildren, the effects on community with regard to the male propensity toward infidelity. I asked if his people want a true democracy? “Yes, they speak this way, but do not act this way. Democracy begins here (he pounded a fist on his chest).” Then I asked him, “What do the young people hope for?” He quickly stated, “They have no hope! This is a problem. Without hope they cannot get out of the trap. Hope is the beginning, but it must be followed by personal action, even in the face of fear and danger.” We finished our chat and I peddled off with lots on my mind. After a few hours in the backcountry, I swung down by the lake and found a swanky resort where I gobbled up a delicious bowl of cold cucumber soup, a beef tenderloin and tomato salad, drank some lime juice, and wrote in my journal.

Rangoon (now Yangon)

      When arriving at the podunk airport in Yangon around noon, I was informed they do not sell tickets for outbound flights; I’d have to use a travel agent in the city. A young man at an information counter understood my dilemma and offered to escort me to town, help me buy the ticket at a travel agent, and return me to the airport for a 3:30 departure on PD Air, but he needed to have $145 now. Hard to believe it, but after my time in Myanmar and all the good people I’d met, I decided to just trust in this situation and follow with faith. It worked out great, the young man was a delight, and he delivered as promised. He was recently married and beginning his struggle on how to support a family, but he had the intuition that would serve him well if he nurtured hope and kept himself determined. I couldn’t offer him much but my travel book on Myanmar, which he gladly accepted. He asked me to contact him first if I ever returned to Yangon. He could help me arrange everything, “At a good price.”