Children returning from the cafeteria after school – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Burma isn’t doing all that well. I hope with all my heart that things will go better after these recent political changes, that the situation will be resolved in a positively democratic form.
A trip to Burma will necessarily bring you face to face with the poverty of Southeast Asia, although Burma is a country that’s rich in its own way, where it is rather the poor distribution of riches and interests of the few have created an incredible social inequity. That notwithstanding, Burma – or Myanmar if you prefer to call it by its recent name arbitrarily forced upon it by the ruling military power, – it is one of the happiest countries that I’ve ever visited!
One of the most visited tourist centers, Lake Inle, in the interior of the country, halfway between the two large cities of Mandalay and Yangon, is a stop not to miss. Lake Inle is in fact a freshwater body of water that combines fascination and tradition, where the local population lives in harmony: vegetables are cultivated in floating gardens and fishing is done in its own unique way. Tourists are coming in larger numbers and arrive to have a closer contact with these fascinating and silent fishermen while they connect with this unique aquatic environment.
A fisherman at work on Lake Inle – Photo by Matteo Bosi
On the beaten paths
I spent three nights on the banks of that lake in a tiny town called Nyaung Shwe, outfitted with unpretentious little hotels, with a traffic-filled central road saturated with the stalls of local merchants. After an hour I had already explored the local temple and found a few reference points, among which was a curious wood oven pizzeria where, by coincidence, we wound up for dinner. The pizza maker had the chance to learn how to cook from an Italian but if he did, in all honesty, I’d say he forgot it.
The classic tour of Lake Inle provides a day trip to the southernmost point, exploring the towns built on stilts, with chaotic motorized canoes that will have you cursing for having paid handsomely for the tour. The noise of the Chinese-made engines is the background that profanes the timeless peace of the lake.
Every little town along the shore has something unique: the market, the silver carvings, rather the manufacture of cigars. A continuous come and go of canoes brings you to visit these stilts where tourists incessantly pour in and where you can’t help but buy something: because, you know, those same artisans depend on the tourist-filled canoes that call at their wooden stalls.
Too often, the tourist stops at Lake Inle just in time for a canoe tour. If I was content with that tour, I would have never visited the best part of Burma, and experience that will forever stay in my heart.
Motor canoe on Lake Inle – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Off the beaten path
My husband and I arrived at Nyaung Shwe in the morning, and we right away rent a bicycle to explore the lake from outside. It’s not a bad ride, with ups and downs on soft hills passing by scenes of everyday life in the villages. There were buffaloes in the streets and children playing loudly on the sides; I greeted everyone just to use the only word of Burmese that I learned, Mingala Ba, while they immediately responded Hello.
On the eastern shore we arrive at a long bridge over the water that connects terra ferma with the stilt villages: and there, with no motorized canoe, we let ourselves get tempted by really cheap tour with a local boatman who, just as is tradition, rows with one leg, keeping balance with the other and his hands free for other uses (fishing, usually). They learn this technique very young, rolling their leg around the paddle and developing a sense of balance that only those sinewy perfect bodies know how to maintain.
The school of Mang Thawk on the banks of Lake Inle – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Getting back on the bikes we pass from this peaceful exploration into the full modesty (and happiness) of life on the shores of the lake, to a vineyard of French grapes that dominate the hills of the region drawing precious water to irrigate the plants. Wine is very expensive and this stop is popular with young backpackers. Quite a different environment than the tiny village with barefoot children we had just visited. Not longer after that we understood how much that water would be precious if directed elsewhere.
On the side of the road, dryness of the ground, the backs curved in the fields, the kids playing with bamboo balls. And four lines a few meters long, crammed fill with children’s shirts and shorts. And that signal that I’ll never forget: the orphanage.
The day after we did that motor canoe tour so warmly recommended in all the guides. We would not have found that inviolate peace of the village the day before; rather a tourist unloading machine that’s become the only source of support for these areas left to themselves.
The dryness of the mountains around Lake Inle – Photo by Matteo Bosi
I really wanted to see another part of Burma. The day before on the balconies of the houses on the water, I saw the Giraffe Women, of Kayan ethnicity; their roots are not from this area, but the tourist market pushes them all the way here to make the them subject of the photographs that will be flown back home in tourist memory cards.
We decided to go with a local agency, the nice Shwe Ngar (firstname.lastname@example.org), in search of a guide to do some trekking in the area. We had no idea of where to go, nor how to orient ourselves in a place that outside of the beaten paths is practically wild. For his part he relies on another agency and finds us this young man, Akka, who became our guide and above all our friend.
We leave quite early: this guy shows up in flip flops and repeats to us twenty times to buy water, lots of water, before starting the climb at the end of the road. The backpacks are weighed down by that and a few supplies, among which are delicious treats that he offers us when he notices that the heat has begin to affect our lucidity. Ten minutes on foot up the mountain, perhaps not more than a kilometer from the “civilization” of Nyaung Shwe, we find ourselves in proximity to a Buddhist temple and the adjacent school.
School with half a roof – Photo by Matteo Bosi
It was us three, twenty kids and a teacher. The inside of the school had desks that my dad, if not his mom, used, and the classes were divided by wooden screens without any form of privacy. Half of the school was just walls, without roofs, and the kids were crammed into the half that allowed them to avoid being cooked by the sun.
They were taking their English exams: each one had a handwritten paper from the teacher, who even in English.. can’t speak a word. A paper and a pencil, nothing else, some of which have an eraser in top: the fortunate ones with an eraser were also the most bothered by classmates who shuttled between their desk and their friend’s for every necessary cancellation.
“What do they need?” I ask Akka.
“The teacher says pens, pencils, notebooks. Especially notebooks.”
A class during an English lesson – Photo by Matteo Bosi
I am fascinated by a little girl that keeps making mistakes. She needs an eraser and quickly runs between one desk and another exchanging her pencil with her classmate to not steal too much time; no one complains, this sharing shocks nobody.
A little further on, still fascinated by the serene faces of the children that clash with our thoughts of the right to study and learn, we stop to observe a small garden cultivated by the nearby monks. A lemongrass plant fascinates us in particular, which from the time we arrived in the country we became big fans of its scent.
“Akka, do you think we might take a bunch with their roots to bring back home?”
He doesn’t even get to translate when the monk pulls out a spade and starts extracting the entire bush. We stop him before witnessing the slaughter and convince him that we only need a small tiny piece. All three of us try to refuse his gesture and keep that corner of the garden undisturbed. Now in our backpack we have lemongrass with roots and soil, a bottle of water less and all our provisions.
Our tour continues up the mountain, between the house/store of a farmer filled to the brim with recently harvested corncobs, to the plot of dry land in the middle of nowhere, shoveled by hand by the mother and child. We finish at the village up top.
The kitchen and homeowner – Photo by Matteo Bosi
We ate seated on the ground as guests in the house of an inhabitant of the village, while Akka cooked with the pot over fire inside the house, a house made entirely of bamboo…half intoxicated by smoke from the fireplace and with terror that the walls might catch on fire. When we head down in the afternoon, in our backpack we still have the lemongrass, but no more supplies, very little water and not even one of the toothbrushes I worked to steal from the hotel. The kids at the fountain go crazy at the sight of toothbrushes (there are those who give candy… me, toothbrushes). Akka tells me that some of them still use banana leaves to brush their teeth.
In the evening we brought Akka to dinner in the quasi-Italian pizzeria, that with that tour full of emotion and life in his country, he most certainly deserved. His sister also came, who wore a party dress for the occasion.
The English assignment – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Lend a hand
The day after, we had to leave, but not before noon. We ask Akka to accompany us on our last tour, the most important one.
First stop: the market. We load up on 10 kg of rice, 12 school uniforms (white shirt and blue shorts) mixed between boys and girls, 15 bars of soap, 120 notebooks, 50 pencils, 5 erasers, 5 pencil sharpeners, 5 rulers. We call a guy with a rickshaw for the rice because it’s unmovable and cram the baskets of our bicycles with all the rest.
Second stop: theorphanage. The guy on the rickshaw pedals at an unseen speed and goes right past us. When we arrive at the entrance, the kids are all on the lawn and play and yell at us in disarray Hello. Many of them aren’t really orphans, but working conditions and linking difficulties make them temporarily so: to attend school they have to leave faraway villages, to which they return only once the year ends or the harvest requires it. A gentle woman welcomes us in perfect English:
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, that’s why you know of the orphanage.”
“Mmmh… actually I saw all those shirts hanging in the sun the other day…”
“Don’t you know that this mission was started by an Italian during the Forties?!?”
And you call it what you want, coincidence.
Kids during the lesson – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Third stop (if your spleen and kidney haven’t exploded on that occasion I’d say they can take anything): the school without a roof. We go back up the same path we ascended with difficulty the day before. The teacher couldn’t believe that we came back, but when she saw us the Burmese composure betrayed her a bit and a moving smile was the greatest gift we could have asked for.
The kids were all gathered around tables of this enormous cafeteria organized thanks to the donations that the monks donate every morning. They don’t keep anything, all that they receive in excess is redistributed to those who don’t have.
Fourth stop: they invite us to lunch. Burmese food is delicious, but often not too safe. The day went by like that, at the table with monks, teachers, and the kids of the school without a roof, and others of the town school, who at each meal are transported back in a Spartan-like truck.
Akka and his sister at the pizzeria with me and my husband – Photo by Matteo Bosi
Not necessarily contact with an association or the ONG is required, especially in a nation like Burma where they make it hard to operate. Sometimes, all it takes is someone with the right sensibility to effectuate your desire to help. And if in your journeys you don’t run across a school or orphanage, you will certainly see many, many monks: they will know how to make good use of whatever you wish to give to Burma. Even just your smile.