After an impressive spread for breakfast that contained a controversial piece (sugar cookie or biscuit depending on which side of the pond you hail from), Vim and I joined the rest of the group for a cycling tour around Inle lake with the cheapest pieces of disjointed metal forming what they choose to call a bicycle. We hit the bumpy road/dirt path that led out of Nyaung Shwe with each pothole or emerged rock rattling me and the bike itself. The girls led us to a market that was a part of the area’s revolving five day markets located just off the water. It was no surprise to me that we joined the wave of other tourists passing through the stands of fruits, veggies, and fly ridden meats and fish as well as the more touristic items that the locals couldn’t help but pitch persistently. After a brief exploration of the market, Vim and I sat down for some tea as we have grown to do. With minimal communal language, we joined the locals, who took great care of us by welcoming us over with expectant waves. Eyeing their large disk snacks, I bought some of these thin round sheets of baked rice and corn crisps for the group to share. After enough time in the shade, we watched Richard aka the mad hatter (a nickname I just came up with since he has a collection back home of different native hats from the countries he has visited) negotiate a price for a bear tooth hat made by villagers in the far north of Myanmar. To get to the other side of the lake, we arranged two boats to take us as well as our one-gear rental bikes across the water. Again we continued our bird-like spotting of the fishermen and their out swinging legs forcing giant strokes of the paddle to their next fishing spot. The flip side of the lake led us on a route to a monastery residing on the top of a hill (further removed by a long, hellish, and unmatched set of stairs) and offering a view of the lake below and a greater appreciation for the mountainous landscape that wrapped itself about the lake. Further stilted lakeside resorts could be seen from above along with the many meager wooden huts that the villagers call home. More memorable than the view was the conversation with the one and only monk of the monastery who spoke quite good English. He filled us in on his story of somehow being the only monk here for the past eleven years but his company has grown over the years with the influx of tourism. After letting us snack on some of the extra bananas they had with them, the women working on the hill had the nerve to say (in so many words translated through the monk) that Vim and I could be good looking guys except for the scruff that covered our faces. Sorry ladies, this beard hasn’t seen the last of its days. After lunch, we biked the rest of the way back to Nyaung Shwe passing flooded rice fields that were purposely water logged. Men tilled the land using old techniques by way of beast and machine while the women got down into the earth and mud to pluck away at the ground. The final stretch of the bicycle ride took us over a land crossing that was shaded by trees on both sides making it a pleasant, breezy closure for a mostly sunny circumvention of the lake. After a break at a Western-style bar, Marine, Flore, and Vim departed for their separate bus journeys while Richard and I made plans to meet up later for a ride to a nearby vineyard for a sunset spot on the hill. Like many times before, it was hard to break up the family to say goodbye once more while accepting the reality that we may not run across each other again. The girls helped change each of us guys’ opinions of the French while Vim only humorously reinforced my view of the English. With my spare time before reconvening with Richard, I shopped for bus tickets to Bagan for the following evening. Not only did I save myself 2,000 kyat but got some travel guide advice from the travel agent on nearby local pursuits for tomorrow. With time running out before our scheduled meeting time, I needed to make some progress in that direction but ended up walking out into a sort of parade with a wobbly fake elephant leading the charge. I stood there in awe still confused about what my eyes were witnessing before a local welcomed me over to sit down with a chair he found to reside next to him. Oddly enough, he just so happened to be a tour guide with impeccable English so I took advantage of my good fortune by peppering him with a series of questions. The man had been a tour guide around Inle Lake for the past eleven years so he knew all too well about what Inle Lake looked like before the rate of tourists entering rose exponentially. He informed me of the growing concern by locals over the water level of the lake. Apparently due to a variety of reasons, Inle Lake has been getting more and more shallow over the years further comprising the fish population and the diversion of water moved to sustain the thirsty rice paddy fields that dot a great deal of land around the lake. Eventually we delved into the matter at hand, the ceremony that continued to unfold before us. Groupings of mainly women and young girls swept the streets in typically a singular fashion wearing unique dress in each wave with each representing a different village from which they resided. Most of these females were toting bills of 1000 kyat attached to baskets filled with what I surmised were offerings (a mounting figure when compounded by the growing number of participants that continued to pass by on the street). Interspersed with the women were an occasional rag tag group of older boys filling the airwaves with their native Myanmar music whether beating the drum or thumping two halved bamboo sticks together. So what was the purpose for all this time, money, and effort? This parade was in fact a novice monk ceremony that was working its way to the finish line of the largest monastery in town. Two young boys one possibly aged twelve and the other five or six sat on their own individual horses while dressed essentially as girls with copious amounts of makeup for the sake of appealing to beauty. And how could such a glorious ceremony be put together? The guide told me that the families of these boys donated anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 USD to the monastery for the sake of this ceremony and for the boys to stay at the monastery as young monks for seven days to a month. That figure took my breath away as these people clearly don’t have that kind of money to throw around in a whim. This was another example of Buddhist people putting religion over themselves to the point that I find it a tad bit absurd when the number of images of poor people compile themselves in my memory. As one last note, the girls had charcoal style beards painted on their faces for reasons I couldn’t understand. As much as I had wanted to stick around and watch the rest of the parade unfold, I had a commitment to keep. After meeting Richard we hit the same bumpy and dusty trail until I realized my already shitty bike now had a flat tire. A local helped me to pump up the tire but as expected it returned to its original state within a minute. Out of sheer stupidity, stubbornness, or raw, epic determination I continued rolling along albeit at a tick slower than before. Eventually we made it to the winery but a bit late for the sunrise that fell below the crest of the burgeoning mountains across the lake. The two of us joined a French couple for a wine tasting atop this hill overlooking the winery’s vineyards and the evasive light from far away. Using my resources, I inquired the French to explain to me how to properly drink wine. After a sniff, I sloshed the liquid within its glass in a clockwork motion before smelling once more now that the hidden notes should have been opened up after some kinetic energy. The consumption part finally arrived and the first glass did not taste half bad but with each successive wine the quality drifted to the way side. After downing those last forgettable glasses of wine, we rode back in the dark as my front tire crept ever so slowly towards Nyaung Shwe. After transporting my bag to a different, not so glamorous accommodation, Richard and I broke naan at an Indian restaurant for a much needed change of pace to the whirlwind of ethnic foods. We split a chicken dish and a vegetable curry with rice as well as an onion and garlic Indian bread. For the life of me I cannot come up with a good reason why I have yet to attempt to make Indian dishes at home in the kitchen. The country pumps out some great flavor and spice.
Dear Ms. Kitchen,
Don’t worry, papa will be home soon. He misses you as much as you miss him. Our chemistry is only a whisk and a stir away.
A Heart Broken Chef
After a long conversation that covered our various travel stories, our motivations for travel, and the divide that exists in understanding between people like us and the friends and family back home that may not understand where this desire comes from and have chosen a different path. For whatever reason, amidst the quirkiness that I bring to the table, conversations with me tend to reach deep beyond the bullshit that typically fills the gamut of chatter. After another much needed hot, refreshing shower, I slept in a room with two beds to myself without a care or snore in the world.