In Mandalay we hear that the road from Monywa to Tamu is closed. The worst flooding in living memory has laid waste to hundreds and thousands of acres of rice paddy in the Irrawaddy basin. Bridges have collapsed or have been washed away cutting off supply chains of relief aid. Close to one hundred people have lost their lives. Makeshift shelters straddle the roadsides on higher ground. The one land crossing from Tamu in Burma to Moreh in India cannot be reached and so our planned route has disappeared. Information arrives in trickles as opposed to the torrents that define the devastation. 3 days we are told, 7 days we are told but in truth there is no telling what lays ahead of us.
On August the 4th, the day our restricted area permits require us to be at the border we check in to the Northern Rock Guesthouse in Kyaukme, having retreated to the hills of Shan state. In peerless adaptability M and G excite at another new and unexplored living space, play is started as part of the natural cycle and to decompress from more bouncing buses.
My own thoughts seem hemmed in, locked. They begin and end without expansion. A paralysis of imagination is no help to our situation for we are compelled to imagine another way and another route. L, I sense, is shattered in spirit and motivation. Fatigue claws at her own attempts to chart another way yet she locates alternatives. What about south again? We have invested in permits and Indian visas, not to mention staying in Burma for an extended period with its relatively expensive ‘budget’ accommodation. We agree to investigate Indonesia and volunteering options there and in the meantime hold out until a couple of days before our visa expires, make the most of our time in the Shan hills and hope that a route can indeed be taken in to India. In an ever-changing world we wait for change.
Sitting in an institutional green coloured local café serving some beautiful chapati to a stream of locals eating in and taking out, we meet an extremely handsome and gregarious man who calls himself ‘99’. He offers us the opportunity to join him on one of his tailor made treks in to the hill villages. From the Palaung ethnic group, he claims to be a former freedom fighter with the Ta’ang (Paulang) State Liberation Army who spent a dozen years in the jungle fighting government forces and now enjoys his retirement as a trekking guide. An offer to good to refuse?
We check his name at our guesthouse and in return receive a knowing smile and next morning, as directed, we visit his daughter, the proprietor of ‘Venus’ beauty saloon. Within minutes 99 pulls up in his car and we are off to visit his home. His wife greets us, a middle aged woman wearing a gentle and beautiful smile. She serves us green tea, biscuits and pineapple slices. 99 is all go, whizzing around the house, producing inflight magazines and a Lithuanian travel magazine that displays his picture atop a steel bridge overlooking verdurous splendour. He speaks of the conflict and how he fought with his comrades in the forest. M enraptured by the fighting narrative picks up and empty plastic bottle, enters his own world and begins mock machine gunning the posters of beach scenery that hang from the sitting room wall. 99 watches him, tells him to wait, leaves the kitchen and returns with a hand gun. A real one. Thankfully he has removed the bullets and does not offer M the opportunity to trade his plastic bottle for the real thing. L and I sit mouths agape, pinching ourselves, 99 simply smiles and runs off to fetch something else to prove his credentials. M has a new hero.
The next day we find ourselves on an earthen track hemmed in by long stalks of corn dwarfing us on either side. We are joined by 99’s nephew Jonathan who in every action, whim and fancy desires to be like his Uncle, and a German mother daughter combination. 99 begins his repertoire of ‘magic tricks’ and in doing so thrills the imagination of M and G. A long blade of grass with a stick like stalk becomes a spear. Rust coloured dirt appearing below his knuckles on his closed fist suddenly reappears on his palm when the hand is tapped and opened.
We pass terraced rice paddy and bent-over workers swinging arms in synchronicity, but at this modest height mostly all our surrounds are corn fields, their presence somehow ominous and off putting. We are in Shan territory. We are told that both the food and clothes differ from the neighbouring Palaung who live at a higher altitude. We pause at a village for tea in the welcome shade of a bamboo house sitting sturdily on stilts. The ground is home to bundles of soy beans left out to dry and a group of very young children play on a small swing that hangs from the underside of the house. Our host, an elderly woman, seems to be the manager of this bucolic creche.
A dirt path takes us in a winding way up the oblong mountains, now all is cloaked in forest. We flit through small tea plantations and over milky streams, at once finding a couple of boys no older than M herding buffalo away from the forest, they seem caught between a world of work and a world of play. At another time a group of people, straw conical shaped baskets filled with tea leaf on their backs. We reach a Palaung village, neatly laid out in a hamlet of trees. We are hosted in the semi darkness of a local family’s bamboo house, glassless windows allowing incidental fissures of pale light to disperse light enough to see faces in the smokey interior. Outside the window a kitchen garden sprouts roselle, basil, soy, corn and tea. Their multi colours resplendent under a greying sky overhead.
We eat noodles to the drum of a monsoon downpour, a fire blazes in the corner of the room where three generations of family smile and nod at their strange looking guests. M and G are curious to all. An elderly woman in a long patterned dress with a towel like headdress arrives from next door and carries husks of barbecued corn. There is great warmth in both the sustenance of the food and the generosity of welcome. We say our thank yous and farewells and trek through a village that is home to no more than a couple of hundred people. The village is spotless and neat with sturdy housing and a golden pagoda at its hillside zenith.
We pass a school whose windows begin to fill with smiling faces and waving hands before we descend over slippery scree and a path scored in crevasses by the monsoon. We are joined by tea leaf pickers carrying bundles of the ivy coloured leaf in bamboo baskets. They find affable glee in our slipping and sliding and we are happy to share a bit of a laugh at our own expense. As the canopy opens a thick soup of clouds smothers the view and I note how difficult it must have been for those not used to the hills to infiltrate the resistance. 99 removes G from my hand and positions her on his shoulders, while I continue to slip down the hill he seems to glide unburdened it appears by his 20 kilo baggage. We disappear in to corn fields and learn that it is only recently that mono cropping started here. An agro business bought the land from a local politician and the corn that grows around us is shipped to China to feed chickens. Before long we are again on the main road and back in Kyaukme, saying goodbye to 99 and Jonathan knowing that we will not forget the time we spent in their gregarious company.