Friday, March 27, 2015

A Pearl, Inle

The only sound was that of a single oar pushing aside still water.  A man stood at the bow, turning the oar in figure eights with his leg, the wood trapped in the nook between calf and thigh.  The boat drifted toward a series of dark teak structures that would be my digs for the night, a semi-circular oasis surrounding a lush jungle garden.  Once the boat reached the dock, all the forward motion of the previous ten days came to a complete halt.

To reach this stillness required a great deal of speed and noise.  Motorbikes swarmed my car as it made its way out of Mandalay, nearly all the riders sensibly helmeted.   One exception was a longyi-clad  grandfather sitting cross-legged on the back, calm and composed as the driver raced through the intersection.  The highway to the airport was brimming with life, as vehicles and pedestrians alike utilized this well paved stretch.  A young woman sat with her toddler in the shade of a mile marker.  A young monklet trailed a long line of older monks, naughtily dipping into his begging bowl.  

My plane followed the hilltop pagodas to a landing strip currently being extended to handle the bigger jets to come.   At the moment this Heho airport was quite small, and its name had me humming an old punk anthem by The Ramones.  I found my driver and to my surprise was led to nice 4x4, from whose high seats I had a good view of the surrounding countryside. The houses here looked at lot sturdier than those of the lowlands, the brick walls offering more protection against the cold at this high altitude of 1200 meters.   Eventually, the road led down through a series of S-turns, above which the hillsides had been horribly shorn of trees.  The former military government had made a great deal of money from timber exports, and only 25% of Myanmar's native forest remains. 

The road leveled out, and we had returned to the heat of the plains.  But unlike further south, there was a richer color to the earth.   A couple of new bungalow hotels spread across the open land, the back of their compounds fortified by spiky sugarcane fields.  The colors deepened further the closer we got to the lake, arriving eventually at the bright green of newly planted rice.  

I was led to a long pirogue fitted with a dragonfly's tail of an engine.  It roared to life as I joined a procession of tourists in similar boats, completely ignored by locals and wildlife alike.  My own boat was the only one to leave the main channel, as it cut its way through a narrow channel lined with grass.  A lone egret stood still atop a high stalk.  Pagodas and huts sat upon platforms built a few meters over the water.  Beside them, men were hoeing their fields which were comprised of weeds and earth pulled up from the bed of the lake, then packed down into long rows.  Beyond this, the Inle Princess Hotel rose up, and for a moment, I expected to be greeted by Col. Kurtz himself.     

My own bungalow was at the very edge of the compound. I did very little for the next 24 hours but sit on my back deck, trying to read but constantly pulled away by the scenery.  Plumes of smoke rose from the plains and high hills beyond, as the farmers burned off large swaths of former growth in order to prepare the soil for the impending rice planting.  Some of these bits of black ash came spinning along the breeze and onto the surface of the pond before me.  A cowherd was on the other side, sitting in the shade of a lone banana tree as his animals plodded along through the grass.  A group of puppies was nearby, yelping and nipping at each other and their mother who was acting nonchalant.  The air was rich with birdsong, including one with a particularly demented scream.  At the high heat of mid-afternoon, all life seemed to disappear completely, leaving behind a silence near complete but for the rustling leaves of the banana tree, an almost butane hiss which almost seemed to contribute to the heat.    I found myself feeling very far away from the world.  There had been protests and mass arrests a few days earlier in Yangon, which had me keeping a single cautious eye out for further developments.  But in a secluded place like this, it was easy to ignore all political problems.  Rather than worry, I went inside to crawl beneath the mosquito netting for a nap.

The following day, my boat returned to take me out on the lake proper.  It was of a far greater expanse than I'd expected,  and breathtakingly lit by the sun of morning.  Silhouetted against the purple hills were hundreds of men in their respective boats, fishing or dredging up weeds to build new seed beds.  They stood in their narrow pirogues with the sure-footedness of water fowl, and equally muscled and lean.  The women seemed to all be in the market, sitting on plastic sheets and selling their wares.  A large majority were Shan, in their tell-tale colored blouses and head scarves.  The only thing in motion were the foreign tourists, looking large and lumbering as they made their way between the shaded rows.  The Burmese by comparison were all in the Phaung Daw Oo Paya pagoda that was quite busy this market day.   A number of people were applying gold to the five gold orbs that no longer had any resemblance to the Buddha statues that they had started as. After seeing the gold pounders in Mandalay, I had no interest in joining them, so turned and made my way back to my boat, which bobbed alongside dozens of others in the still water of the canal.  With a pull of the cable, the engine started with a roar, a roar followed by a series of subsequent roars, which led me all the way back to Kyoto, to my home, and to this very desk.

On the turntable:  "Urgh!  A Music War"
On the nighttable:  Daniel Mason, "The Piano Tuner"

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