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Published: March 2nd 2007
It's late afternoon when I book into my bungalow on the river at Queen Guesthouse with a view across to the boat docks. The room has just been completed. I am the first occupant. The pine smells fresh and the boards on the wall are rough and splintered. I say good-bye to Alex, Keyo and Tutu, offering them each a tip. 'Time is money' does not apply equally in all parts of the world. For his three days work, Alex will earn 23$, a good sum in Myanmar. 'Time is time'. It takes a young woman three to four days to complete a tight-weave scarf that will sell in the market for three to four dollars. The vendor in the market and the woman's boss will take most of that. Everybody seems to have time here. They don't have money. While staying at Inle, I meet a group of young women who from eight to six each day, roll cigarettes in a laquerware shop. With amazing dexterity they repeat the process every twenty seconds: first, sprinkle a handful tobacco onto a plastic sheet wrapped around a small wood pole, then slip in a challuli leaf, roll it all back and forth,
and finally glue the end with a small wad of rice paste. They earn 500 kyats/ day and they are happy to be employed, to help earn money to pay for food for their families.
Next door I order a late lunch, a plate of fish curry and rice and washed down with a tall bottle of Myanmar beer. Traffic on the river is lively. Thirty foot long boats cruise up and down carrying tourists, westerners sport sunglasses and sunhats, Burmese wear light raincoats and hold parisols. More boats motor past with cargo set for the surrounding smaller villages or for the upmarket resorts on the lake. Discreetly, I admire two youths bathe on a jetty on the opposite bank, one in underpants, clinging firmly to his buttocks, the other in a rolled up longyi. They dive into the brown water. Their smooth skin is stretched tawt across their frames and dries quickly in the sun. I take an evening stroll through town, along potholed side streets and lush monastery grounds. Curios eyes quit their pursuits to watch the foreigner pass, returning friendly smiles. In the evening I meet the other tourists at the guesthouse for New Years Eve dinner,
a boy from Jerusalem, a Malay woman, a couple from Lisbon and an older couple from Lucerne. I arrange to travel with the Swiss couple the next day to the five day market at Indein. Late evening, the distant crackle and boom of fireworks cuts through the chinks of the floorboards and window joists. Before five, i am woken by the blaring music of a nearby pagoda where monks are being initiated.
New Years Day. Thick fog hangs low over the canal. Harry and Rosaline and I board our chartered boat. Vansan, the boatman, passes us each a blanket. Motoring up the canal, shadows appear and disappear, boats, people washing on the jetties, paddlers. Out on the lake, the engine's gurr echoes into the abyss. A lone Intha fisherman dances across the milky grey balanced on one foot on the stern of his skiff.
We are among the first foreigners to arrive at Indein. Already eight o'clock and crowded with young and old women scattered across tarpaulines selling produce and spices from heavy baskets. Their children play lost in the festive maze of clothing stalls and tea shops and barber stalls and the fish market where men hold up slithery
black fish wriggling and strung by their mouths in tens. Music pumps from the gambling area where a loudspeaker lures men with their 200 kyat bets. They roll large die, its six sides covered with animal drawings. I explore the tourist kitsch along the periphery which stretches for a couple hundred metres, table after table, as though Ali Baba's cave had been emptied. I haggle and settle for two pasas, bamboo sheets hand engraved with scenes of the life of Buddha or signs of the zodiac. I watcha young parapalegic man carving a pasa. The aroma of samosa, spring rolls and jaque entices me and I order a cup of lepeye at one of the tea shops. Across the path three young children sit impatiently for a movie to play on a big TV set up under a tarp. I drink it all in. So many beautiful faces, especially the Palaung women, their hair tied back in checkered scarves. The market is a thousand colours, a thousand designs, nuts, avocados, curries, chilies, silks. Harry and Rosaline are in their late sixties but act like newlyweds, or even highschool crushes. They kid with each other as we stroll into a bamboo
forest headed for the hilltop temple. The path is lined with tables displaying oddities, dolls, weapons, toys, instruments, most of the items look used and surely have each a story to tell. We follow a covered stepped gallery passing more and more tables, some selling beautiful lace. Shwe Inn Thein stands on a hilltop overlooking the lake and marsh and canals and behind it, the cliffs rising up over the valley. I wander through the jumbled maze of aging stele.
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