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Walking to the Lake

By Philip Coggan

Four a.m. Lights come in sight. A town. The bus stops, apparently at random, in front of shuttered shops. Two passengers get down. I ask: “Kalaw?” Yes, Kalaw. By the time I get my bags and get down the two passengers have vanished. I’m alone with a dog under a streetlight. The dog stalks over to sniff my legs. A man appears out of the gloom. He has a piece of paper with my name in pencil. “Are you Mr Philip? I’m Thun Ti.”

Next morning Thun Ti is at my guesthouse early, with two porters. My bowels are at war, still fighting off the greasy chicken curry I had at a rest house somewhere outside of Yangon. The porters are to carry our food and backpacks. We set off through the fields, following footpaths through rolling hillsides of red earth neatly parcelled out by windbreaks. Falls of crab-apples lie in the ruts. Women are harvesting sesame, boys are taking buffaloes out to graze the wheat-stubble.

Around midday we come to a Pa-O village. This is where we are to have lunch. The path is lined with brilliant red chillies set out to dry, and more chillies outside every house. The floor of the headman’s house is of wooden planks, polished and luminous, covered with golden-hued bamboo floor mats. The porters have come ahead of us and are preparing lunch. The fireplace is a slab of clay, six inches thick and edged with thick baulks, in the centre of the wooden floor. A bamboo rack for cooking utensils hangs from the roof, black with soot. The headman’s wife is a grave and dignified woman who asks questions about Australia as we sip Chinese tea from tiny bowls. What do people do in Australia? Are there villages there? Now is the harvest season, she tells us. Tomatoes have black rot this year, but rice and chilli are good.

The headman’s mother is here. She looks immensely old, wrapped up in a blanket against the winter chill, but her eyes are bright and she chats with Thun Ti. This is what they talk about: A few days ago a horse wandered into the village, this very village of Paw-ke. The people of Paw-ke use buffalo for ploughing, so everyone knew at once that it must be from outside. The horse just wandered about, going into house-yards and out again, eating the flowers. But a horse is a dangerous animal, especially for young children, so she had great fear for her grandchildren and tried to keep them from following the horse as it went from yard to yard, you know what children are like. Then after ten minutes a stranger arrived, and he caught the horse and put a rope on it, and so it was safe. She asked him where he was from, but he didn’t understand Pa-O, and so from this she understood that he was from far away. Then he took the horse and left.

The old lady has not travelled much. As a girl she walked to Kalaw every market day, across the hills, but now there is a market at Aung Ban, which is nearer, and a small market in Paw-ke for little things. She has never been to Nyaungshwe or Taunggyi. When she was young, a basket of dried chillies would buy cooking oil and some dried fish, but now it would not even buy oil. But things are also better now. Now there are tin sheets for the roof instead of thatch, and plastic floor mats to save the trouble of weaving from bamboo, and plastic buckets for carrying water. When she was a girl, they had only clay pots. Plastic is a great blessing.

The name Paw-ke means Special Father in Shan, which is nonsensical. In Pa-O it means nothing at all. But another Pa-O word, Paw-kai, means wild ox, and perhaps this was the real name of the village. This is what Thun Ti tells me when I ask for the meaning of the name.

We walk on through fields of sesame and chilli, with rice in the valley bottoms. By mid-afternoon the farmers are preparing their ox-carts of rice straw for the journey home. An hour later we rest in front of a rock face. A slit in the rock leads to Pattu Pauk village, where we will spend the night. I’m trying hard to hold out till we reach this village, reputed to have a clean toilet. What did Freya Stark do for her bowel movements while exploring the mountains of Luristan, ‘in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered’? Did Wilfred Thesiger ever struggle to control a mutinous rectum while crossing the Empty Quarter on a camel? Great travellers don’t mention these things, leaving the rest of us feeling amateurish and inadequate.

Pattu Pauk is in shadow, for the sun is already behind the ridge. The village is surrounded by bamboo groves and wheat fields. A toddler catches sight of me and bursts into tears, much to its mother’s amusement. Bigger children are excited, run up to the yard-fences to see the foreigner. A line of ox-carts comes home down the village street, the last controlled by a child of no more than five years. Cows are brought into yards and tied up next to hayricks.The porter-boys are preparing a fire in the headman’s house. I get to use the latrine, holding on to two bamboo handrails, trying not to piss my pants (squat toilets are meant for sarong-wearers).

It gets suddenly chilly as night falls. Chanting outside, a wild rise and fall of children’s voices. Thun Ti says it’s the novices from the village monastery. They’re collecting vegetables, which they do once each five days. He translates: “Chilli, salt, tomatoes, pickled beans, ginger, garlic, we collect all kinds of vegetables; the house in the east, the house in the west, come and make offerings!” In Pa-O it rhymes. The little boys must be cold and hungry (they don’t eat after midday), but they sound lively and happy.

After the monklings pass, someone nearby turns on a ghetto blaster. Burmese pop-songs fill the night. The village doesn’t have electricity, but there are car batteries. The village headman, our host, squats by the fire, warming his outstretched palms. He invites us to a village get-together, a feast to celebrate the end of the rice harvest. We take flashlights and go out into the fireflied and popsonged night. All the village is at the feast, dignified elders to giggly adolescents and shy children. We stay for an hour, as the gossip passes round. Eventually we take our leave, and I settle by candlelight under a mosquito net and layers of blankets. The ghetto blaster goes on and on, banal tune following banal tune, as I fall asleep.

We set off soon after daybreak next morning, through wheat fields and then uphill through pine forest. On the way we come upon a herd of cattle led by three of four wiry and tough-looking men. Thun Ti doesn’t greet them, and they don’t acknowledge our presence as they pass. They are smugglers, heading for the Thai border in baseball caps and rubber flip-flops. If they run into a Burmese army patrol or the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation (who have made peace with Yangon and are in charge of their own fiefdom), they will pay a small fine and continue on their way. But they would prefer not to have to pay.

We stop to rest under a huge banyan tree – Thun Ti calls it a peacock tree. Animals: Thun Ti says there were rabbits and deer when he was a boy, but they’ve been hunted out. But there are wildcats (civets?) and monkeys. Sitting here under this banyan tree I hear: crickets; leaves rustling; a cow lowing; an odd clopping sound, quite rapid; another cow. No birds. A small herd of cattle suddenly erupts from behind us, with a man and a woman and a young boy in charge. The odd clopping noise was the wooden cattle bells.

All along the way we are meeting people: a young boy with a shaved head who has just finished being a novice in his village monastery, and is now herding his father’s cows; some men cutting bamboo for a new house; an old woman carrying sesame in a basket on a strap across her forehead. Thun Ti seems to know them all by name. They are his friends, he says; his family helps the villages with things such s finding a teacher for a village school, or purchasing medicines when someone is ill.

Eventually we reach the edge of the Shan plateau and start to descend steeply. The heat and humidity increase, the vegetation grows markedly more sub-tropical. We follow a gully where villagers are cutting bamboo, down and down, till abruptly we are on flat land. A little irrigation canal cuts across our path, and we follow it until we reach vegetable gardens and houses. The houses develop into a village, and the irrigation canal leads into a much wider canal, where a speed boat waits to take us up the lake to Nyaungshwe.

Philip Coggan

http://www.theArtichoke.net


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