Breaking Burma Day 93: The Local Flavor of Hsipaw

I left Pyin Oo Lwin early on in the morning by taking a motorcycle taxi to the bus station. After a bowl of Shan noodles in hopes of settling my stomach, I boarded the bus, a vehicle I could have never pictured in a thousand tries. The cushioned seats were stained so many colors I could not begin to guess what their original design was. The aisle itself had stacks of rice, flour, sand, or some sort of mixture filled in plastic bags running the full length of the walkway limiting whatever headroom the vehicle began with. As the only white person in the bus amongst many other places I had been, I felt like a jigsaw piece trying to fit into the wrong puzzle it was designed for but the puzzle has yet to seem to mind, mostly welcoming me with open arms. After a deceptively long journey I arrived in the land of Hsipaw. Once I checked into Mr. Charles Guesthouse, an impressively well run outfit, I went for a walk with a map of the town in hand. I came to Hsipaw to trek through some of the surrounding villages and see how they go about their daily lives in the ways they survive and sustain themselves. Hsipaw is in the Shan State of Myanmar and has many villages nearby and far filled with these Shan people and other tribes that have a culture and language different from the Myanmar majority. I passed through various side streets and witnessed Myanmar people living their lives whether by keeping up their homes, gardening the rice and tea fields, or preparing food or other products for their in-home stall. The main place of interest on this short tour is a place affectionately termed ‘Little Bagan’. Little Bagan has several old crumbling brick temples but obviously a far cry from the hundreds of temples that make up the real Bagan. I found so many homes and monasteries in the area made of teak wood that when used artistically in rudimentary Myanmar architecture can be a lovely sight composed of overlapping weaved patterns in a deep reddish brown. I also saw many kids playing and smiling, two of which (a brother and sister) came up to say hello and wanted to give me high fives. The pair were so adorable I couldn’t help but get a picture of their beaming radiant energy. Without the map I would have never noticed it but sure enough a rough, all dirt football ground lay just to the left of me with two goals made of three thick pieces of wood each and no net to speak of. When I got back to the hostel I would make a point of finding out when the locals tend to play. At a nearby teahouse, I sat down with a couple of middle-aged German men who I saw but never spoke to while doing my afternoon walk around Hsipaw. Over some highly sugared tea and a samosa salad, I chatted with them for awhile. Once at Mr. Charles, I booked a three day, two night trek. I only planned on doing two days at the very most but a German lad more or less convinced me otherwise. We joked that we would become best of friends by the end of the trek. Every time I saw him around I would always say ‘hello, my friend’ or ‘hey bud’ as a joke. With the next few days taken care of and planned for, I went in search of the new football stadium that apparently sat just across the street. The only directions that I was given for getting to the football stadium were that it was across the street. The stadium was most definitely across the street but finding the entrance was another story. Down some back alley streets I found myself amongst onlooking locals. I revealed my desires to a family by saying ‘football’ and kicking with my foot. Having understood the mother seemed to have instructed her son to show me the way. The son led me past their home and down their sort of driveway to their backyard where I found a stone wall and ladder. After a ‘thank you’, I climbed the steps of the stairs upwards and downwards to the other side before walking through dried bush to the stadium. The term ‘stadium’ should be used relatively as this was a stadium but not in the way we normally see it in the Western world. The stadium contained loose fitting wooden benches running upwards with a rippled metal sheet as a roof. The field itself was downtrodden in appearance but proved worthy for play despite being a dusty dirt pitch with stubbles of ashy green and yellow grass dotting the surface. I can proudly say that I was the only white person within the stadium’s confines venturing to play a game with the locals. I introduced myself to the one and only elder in the group who looked like a coach to see if I could join in. He then led me to a circle of Burmese guys my age who were playing a game of keep-away. For a while I eased my way into the play working on my touch and conditioning through some hardcore hustling defense. Even though we could only exchange the word ‘hello’, we communicated sufficiently through hand gestures and found a common humor through team play like any kind. While this makeshift mini-game went on, young boys kicked the ball around and juggled practicing their skills so that they could one day play with the big boys. Eventually the moment led to where I would step onto the pitch for an actual game. Playing first goal wins and then switch, I managed to play for quite awhile as I realigned my coordination out of the thickness of the cobwebs for a game I am quite fond of. I could have been the worst player on the field and I wouldn’t have cared less. How often can I experience something so genuine and local as this? I had a blast and can now tick off another country in which I have played The Beautiful Game. As the last game went on with me on the sidelines, I chatted with a Burmese guy who managed to know a bit of English. He was awfully curious about where I was from, what I do, and who my family is. He told me about his dream to see the U.S. one day, specifically California because of all the movies that seem to travel to every nook in the world. Although he is studying to become a lawyer and seems quite smart, it is sadly a long-shot for him to achieve such a goal. I encouraged his dream but I couldn’t help thinking about how difficult it would be no matter how hard he worked and strived. To think I am here traveling the world as young as I am, I know all too well how blessed I am by the simple fact that I was born with white skin. After playing some American music (a little Eminem since that was the only artist he could think of) which brought other players around to listen, I left to get something to eat. Joining some German girls that I recognized from the guesthouse, I ate some tea leaf salad and soup (also getting a taste of ginger salad) while trying to convince them to participate in my crazy plan to go see the morning market tomorrow. From what I read and was told, this market was unlike any other. Villagers from the surrounding villagers come down to Hsipaw to sell their goods and wares starting at 3:30 in the morning till 7 am. Since foreigners rarely come for obvious reasons, they sell specifically to the needs and tastes of locals. Knowing all this, I wanted to see these people in their typical dress going about their everyday ritual at the market before the sun rose, of all times. A couple others from the guesthouse joined us for supper as well. One rare American traveler taught me the typical way Burmese exchange money by always handing it over with the right hand while their left hand cups their right elbow. To think of all the people I have offended. Anyways, I continued to talk to the German girls before ending the night to get some much needed rest.

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