On the trail in Kalaw: really stories with Toto

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Asia » Burma
August 13th 2014
Published: August 14th 2014
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A lone buffaloA lone buffaloA lone buffalo

grazing on a dried-up rice paddy.
Saturday, March 29, 2014

Week 3 of two months… Country one of four… In the scorched hills of Myanmar’s Shan State, I am in route from the small hill station of Kalaw to Inle Lake. I am on foot. I’ve opted to walk for two days amid the scenic hills of the Shan State in order to shorten one of many long-haul bus rides I was to take. Two Japanese college students whom I’ve just befriended and our Burmese trekking guide, Toto, are with me.


Day 1: Preparations take longer than they should, and we aren’t on the trail until 11 am. This means today’s 20 km will be hiked in the heat of the day. The sun is formidable. We skirt a rice paddy and pass by a water buffalo grazing lazily in the field. The fields are a permanent blaze with the mud-reds and burnt yellows of the dry season.

The true allure of the trek from Kalaw to Inle is cultural. A hiker passes through village after village of various tribes, many of whom still wear traditional clothing and live lifestyles not obviously altered by Myanmar’s burgeoning tourist population.

We wind up a hill past the tracks of a colonial British rail. It links Inle and the country’s eastern mountains to the central plains of the Ayarwaddy, the great river, which divides Myanmar in half and serves as its lifeline. At nearly the crest of the hill, the path snakes through a row of shade trees, where we are drawn into the first village.

Two elderly ladies beckon us into a small-roadside canopy built from bamboo and wicker. While one is at work at her handloom, the other offers us what the Burmese call “Chinese tea.” Meanwhile, she moves globs of blood-red betel from a pewter tin to her mouth. She smiles at us through her ravaged teeth.

But the ladies’ outfits are more striking than their orthodontia: blue robes and pants and a bright orange scarf twisting their hair into a cone. The outfit is significant to the village’s origin, Toto tells us:

There once was a dragon-woman whose husband divorced her. Upset, the dragon woman took to wandering. On her travels, she became hungry and found a frog. She
Offerings of teaOfferings of teaOfferings of tea

and a pewter tin of betel nut
was about to eat the frog, when the frog revealed that he could speak. He asked her not to eat him, promising that he’d repay her in turn. “How could he, the frog, repay her?” she wondered. She told the frog that she wanted to love again. In turn, he told her about a hermit who lived on a mountain. She tracked down the hermit, as the frog had told her, and there he was in his hut. While the hermit was away during the day, she assumed the form of a woman and left the monk a flower at his door. This continued for a few days, and the monk became curious who his admirer was. He vowed to figure out who left him the present. The next day, he hid and saw the dragon woman leaving a flower at his door. He fell in love with her at first sight.

She became pregnant by the man-no longer a hermit. But the pregnant dragon woman was restless and couldn’t sleep at night. So when the baby’s father was away during the day, she transformed back into a dragon and slept. One day, her
At her handloomAt her handloomAt her handloom

in the village of the dragonqueens
husband returned early from his daily activities. “My woman and child have been consumed by a dragon!” he cried, In despair, he flew away with his magic stick to Mount Popa, a religious site of pre-Buddhist origins in Myanmar, never to return.

Says Toto: the baby becomes the first of the tribe, and the tribe is named after the frog. The women of the tribe wear their bright colored headbands in order to resemble the dragon-lady. What’s most peculiar about the story though: the men live separately from the village and don’t help raise the children, just like the father of the story.

This sounds like a convenient excuse or an elaborate rationalization to me!

“It’s a really story,” Toto tells us.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“It really happened,” she says.

My Japanese companions and I exchange a quizzical glance.

We ask what the absent men do, and Toto takes the opportunity to tell us about her own younger brother and his drinking problem. Toto is from a village near the Bangladeshi border. She lived in the village before she came to
Local childrenLocal childrenLocal children

pose excitedly for the camera. In one of the more developed villages.
Kalaw to marry her husband nearly two decades ago. Before leaving, her younger brother drank himself to death on cheap Burmese whisky, which is full of all sorts of impurities.

“He became ill and went to the doctor. The doctor told him you can’t drink again,” she says. “He was good for a year. He listened! But then he forgot. He died soon after. He was maybe 26.”

This one strikes me as “the really story” here.

We keep hiking and break to make lunch in another village. We are invited into a man’s large, bamboo house to cook. It is around 1:30 pm and the sun has already worn us down. The two Japanese travelers take a nap, while I watch Toto prepare the meal from loose ingredients she has carried in a small school backpack: noodle soup made with packets of instant noodles; sliced avocados; salted tomatoes; and three or four varieties of sliced fruits – papayas, oranges, bananas. Toto won’t allow me to help, so I settle for keeping her company. As we eat, the Japanese slurp their soup. As we leave, Toto pays the homeowner a small
Starting a fireStarting a fireStarting a fire

The owner of the wicker house starts a fire for us to cook our lunch.

The trek continues and the sun is now declining as we climb then descend ridge after ridge. Toto’s bright red and white starburst umbrella bobs up and down in front of us like an island in a scorched sea. We pass by caravans of villagers tilling dry earth and a man bathing his buffalo in a stream. As we approach our destination, we pass through a steep gorge choked with motorbike and ox-cart traffic. This gorge is dangerous during the June to October monsoon. The riverbed we are walking along becomes a torrent every afternoon. Toto stops us. She takes the opportunity to share another “really story” with us.

In her village not so far from Bangladesh many rainy seasons ago, a girl squatted to relieve herself. She was wearing her longyi, the traditional Burmese outfit, a band of fabric tied around the waist to make a long-skirt, but no underwear. So leeches took the opportunity and crawled inside of her. After a few months, her belly began to swell. This upset her parents and brothers.

“Who is the man that has
Tilling the landTilling the landTilling the land

in front of a small gorge
done this to you?” they asked her. But she insisted there was no man.

“They hip her,” said Toto in a slip up, and made her feel ashamed.

Her stomach continued to swell, but she never delivered a baby. Eventually, she died. The family wanted to know who had caused them this shame, and they took her poor body far off to a hospital for an autopsy. When the coroners opened her up, they found many fat leaches inside of her. And they proceeded to burn down the room…

“That’s why I don’t pee-pee outside during the rainy season,” Toto said.

“WAIT, WHAT!” I say. I’m not sure if I’m more flabbergasted by someone believing this story, the idea of burning down a hospital to exorcise vaginal leeches, or the fact that Toto has been holding it for most of the day (even though it isn't the rainy season). What a folksy place, Myanmar!

This time, the Japanese college students and I are more loud in our objections, but we get nowhere with Toto.

We stay at a guesthouse cum general store. On this side of the canyon, one can feel the shift towards modernity. They have electricity and serve cold beer Myanmar. There is another group here, mostly from French speaking countries. For dinner, Toto prepares a feast of fried vegetables: okra, beans, cabbage, tomatoes. There is also a meat dish. We sit down to eat with our group, and Toto, whose husband, the former #2 guide in Kalaw who tragically passed away last year, complains about how hard it is to find good men in Myanmar. She insinuates that too many are busy drinking themselves to death.

Day 2: I sense the morning through the shutters of the simple concrete room and ready myself for the day. We’re on the trail by 7:30. We drag ourselves through the 15 km trek in 3.5 hours, barely stopping to rest. We are hiking due east into the sun. We climb a ridge and then descend through a couple more villages. Children come out to collect our empty water bottles. They will recycle them for a bit of pocket money. Some motion for us to take photos of them and
A parade of workersA parade of workersA parade of workers

heading back to their village in the evening.
demand to see the photos. Their bellies are bloated from malnutrition. One girl who barely looks 12 carries a wide-eyed baby. I hope it’s not hers.

We are gradually descending through what might as well be the African savannah, it is nearly devoid of trees. The few trees that cling to the red earth send leaf-bedecked branches 100 feet in every direction. We can start to see the green oasis surrounding the lake in the distance.

I am wearing running shoes, so the rocky descent to the lake is hard on my ankles. I strain my right calf and hobble the last two kilometers.

We reach a service road and stop here for Toto to prepare us one last soup lunch. Before we can continue further, we are charged a $10 tourist fee to enter the Inle Lake area. What this money will be used to support is not something one wants to ask in this part of the world.

We trod exhaustedly along an arrow straight canal. Men push a rusted machine on wheels around a flooded rice paddy. It churns the water into chocolate ooze. We are ushered onto a black canoe. The canoe is boxy around the edges and retrofitted with a speedboat motor.

The boat will take us to Nyangshwe (pronounced Nong-shway), on the north side of the lake. Nyangshwe is the tourist hub of Inle Lake and the main cluster of hotels certified by the government to take tourists. This is both a way to protect tourists and to keep tourist dollars within approved networks.

The scenery encloses on our boat. The canal is sometimes choked by lillipads so thick we slow and the engine roars as it pushes us through. To my left and right, there are rickety houses on high stilts. The houses sit amidst vineyards, separated by canals of ruddy water. The sky is blue but somehow enveloped in a haze. The haze softens the mountains on the lake's east side.

We finally pull into the main canal and begin heading north. Soon the canal converges onto the lake itself. It’s hard to tell where the vineyards end and the lake begins. We pass fishing boats that men propel with oars tied to their legs. They steer their boats with a graceful figure eight motion but the broad-rimmed straw hats atop their heads never seem to move.

I fall asleep in the sun. When I wake up, we are speeding along another canal. We dock at Nyangshwe and are escorted by Toto to our hotel. Then we say our goodbyes.

Toto will take the bus home. For all this effort, she will earn about $10 profit.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Young tribeswoman and childYoung tribeswoman and child
Young tribeswoman and child

I hope the child is not hers.
Plowing the paddyPlowing the paddy
Plowing the paddy

The water, chocolate ooze

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