Saturday, January 2, 2010

Auld Acquaintance

Our night bus journey north to Kalaw begins with some negotiations. The woman at our bus office is selling us on to another company. We're offered two back-row seats. We express horror and outrage. So we're taken to another company and offered seats on the penultimate row of a bus leaving one hour later. We demand an immediate refund or better seats, which gets us somewhere safely in the middle - not too far back to have a bumpy sleepless ride, nor too far forward to reach the windscreen should the bus hit something. It hasn't taken long for us to realise that all the vehicles in Burma have the steering wheel on the right-hand side. But they also drive on the right. The government decided to switch over from the left - a hangover from British imperialist days - so now nearly all the truck, bus and taxi drivers can't see ahead when they're overtaking. There's another thing going on with our bus tickets - a government dual-pricing system for foreigners. We see how this leads all the locals to conclude that foreigners are rich and will pay over the odds for services, therefore it's okay to overcharge them. Of course, foreigners are rich and are willing to pay more. (Word is the bus journeys are hellish and many choose to fly.) But the overcharging can be irritating. Ultimately though, it's up to us to haggle and choose accordingly.

It turns out that we sleep so well on the bus that we miss the stop for Kalaw and arrive at Inle Lake instead at five in the morning. There are people around even those it's still dark and cold - we've climbed off the plains and into the hills. The village of Nyaungshwe is a quiet peaceful little place at the north end of Inle Lake, which is accessed by boat along one of the many canals. I've got a dodgy stomach so Gayle heads off to nearby Taunggyi to visit the market. Taunggyi is the provincial capital of Shan State, which reaches to the border with Laos and Thailand. This is the infamous opium-growing area and the Shan have been fighting on and off for independence since the British left. The people and their dialect are closely related to the northern Thai. Burma has many ethnic minorities and those in the hills along the edges of the country, like the Kachin, the Kayin, the Mon and the Shan have long sought to be separate from the Bamar-led Burma. A democratically elected government in Burma would not necessarily be the end of Burma's problems, but at least it may begin to address these unresolved claims.
petrol and diesel, not Sprite and Coke

When I'm fit we hire bicycles and head along the eastern shore where fields of sugarcane are being harvested, ploughed and replanted. Bullocks are being used to pull ploughs. Everyone wears wide-brimmed straw hats to keep the sun off. In some of the villages there are small monasteries and stupas dot the landscape. There are stupas all over Burma - more than we've ever seen before. We have developed snotty colds and coughs which won't go away. It seems all the Belgians we meet are similarly afflicted - they all say they're phlegmish. There are plenty of Europeans around but few British, presumably because of the boycott.

The next day Gayle finds a woman who has short hair who promises to take her for a haircut. I'm enjoying a stout in the late afternoon and wondering if she'll come back with the nun look when two cyclists go past - it's Andrea and Gerhard, the two Germans we met in Xiahe in China. We have kept in touch and arranged to meet here for Silvestre - New Year's Eve. The next day we take a boat with them out on the lake for a day. It's a tad touristy in parts but still a great day out. The lake is huge, surrounded by hills and marshy at the shore. There are lots of small stilt communities living beside and on it. Locals paddle their narrow boats with a strange upright technique, using one leg. A small boy is fishing with a large basket net. There are floating gardens the size of fields, where tomatoes and other vegetables are growing. At Inthein village it's market day. There are some tourist stalls but most of the business is between locals. Blocks of brown sugar, tobacco leaves and cheroots, spices, flowers, rice cakes that look like popadoms, DVDs, pharmaceuticals, all those little Chinese knick-knacks we rarely saw in China itself, modern and traditional clothes, and vegetables galore - possibly the best spread we've seen for ages and quite impressive for such a poor country. Behind the market is a paya on a hill surrounded by a petrified forest of crumbling brick stupas.

After lunch we are taken to some 'workshops' where there are the inevitable tourist stalls. But there's no hard sell. Boats made from hard wood, weavings made from silk and a thread from the lotus plant, cheroots rolled with star anise. We are taken around Nampan, a very pretty stilt village right on the lake.
Schoolkids are coming home in long narrow boats, farmers overloaded with produce paddle past. As we head back home the sun sets on one side of the lake and the full moon rises on the other.

In the evening we buy a small bottle of Mandalay Rum and a large bottle of Coke (it's come from Thailand and costs more than the rum) and celebrate the New Year with Andrea and Gerhard. There's also Franca, a Swiss Italian woman who looks uncannily like my aunty, and Helmut, an Austrian, who carries a card describing himself as an 'Adventure Traveller'. Helmut provides plenty for us to talk about as he flies around Burma on his second visit, taking photographs to illustrate talks (it's called Multivision) which he gives back in Europe. Helmut is prepared to pay for posed photographs and after a successful day he kisses his fingertips and declares with satisfaction "I got the picture!" This becomes a running joke as we too want to capture on camera the beautiful people and landscapes. But is this the only reason we visit places? It was very noticeable during the day how many tourists just seem to look at things through their camera and in the market I felt very conscious that the locals always had a wary eye out for the foreigners with their cameras. Gayle generally asks before taking photos of people, especially portraits. Some say no and some ask for money, in which case Gayle won't take the photo.

It's cool at night and by midnight we're freezing. We hurriedly toast the New Year in and walk back to our guesthouse. Out on the dark streets local youngsters are also celebrating, sitting around fires and singing songs. Firecrackers explode and then all is quiet.

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