March 16, 2009

Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek, Myanmar

Kalaw is a small mountain town, with fresh air and paved roads, which is popular on the tourist circuit as either a base camp or starting point for different treks around the area. I had made my way there with the intention of finding some other traveler’s who wanted to share a guide for a three day, two night hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake, another one of Myanmar’s highlight attractions.
I was lucky to immediately meet Angie from England who was not only interested in the same trek but happened to be a very compatible personality as well. Much like me, at the same age and on the road for four months longer, she was also redefining her life through travel. We had spent our first night getting acquainted with each other over dinner, and then with some whisky, some new Burmese words and some popular music bands over drinks in the town’s tiny eight-stool bar.
The next day we arranged for the trip and met our guide Alex, who was a bright and energetic local with great English skills and ten years experience with trekking. We told him we wouldn’t mind sharing the trip with other people, if there were any, but that we also would be fine if it was just the three of us. The three of us (Me, Angie and Alex) were a harmonious combination, but fresh clarity does not always spring from harmony, and it seems as though that is exactly why John from Canada joined our group.
We picked John and his
porter up on the morning of our departure. John had vests and pants with lots of zippers and gadgets of all kinds hanging from his small daypack. He also had another medium size bag that was being carried by Kalo (Kalo from Kalaw), a nice boy who he had hired to transport the bag with us for the three day journey. Angie and I both asked John why he didn’t send his bag ahead to Inle Lake by truck like the rest of us. His reply for why he hired a porter was “Because I can” and then proceeded to refer to Kalo not by his given name but rather as My Porter. I thought of asking John why he didn’t hire another porter to carry around his mother so she could wipe his ass along the way, because at 51 years of age I wasn’t quite sure he was capable of that task.
Right away, the surrounding nature was beautiful and varied. Alex spent the morning explaining a lot of the plants and trees while telling us to slow down and take time to enjoy where we were. Yes, take time to stop and smell the poppies. Poppy plants, I learned, were being harvested in abundance and, along with the state controlled gold and gem mines, it was part of the reason that there are restricted zones such as the one I had to hire an escort through upon my arrival at the border. There is also a rising problem with heroin addiction in a number of villages and on my previous excursion outside of Hsipaw with Ko Palaung, we sadly attended the funeral of his 27 year old cousin who had died of an overdose.
I passed the time by engaging in a Burmese language lesson with Alex and by afternoon I was nearly fluent with phrases like “I am tired”, “I am hungry”, “I am good” and “I am happy”. However, the most useful word I learned was not “Thank You”, “Please”, or “Welcome” but rather the one used to describe someone as a “crazy jerk “, which phonetically sounds something like sow jue. Sow Jue started to roll off my tongue in shorter and shorter intervals as the more time I spent with John, the more incidents that occurred, which started to expose the depths to which he was a “crazy jerk” .
We had one such incident at the home of the medicine man. After lunch, Alex asked if we wanted to visit the local doctor, who is a traditional medicine man servicing the villages with remedies made from plants. We arrived at this 75 year-old man’s house and promptly took off our shoes and went inside. He sat, simply, on the floor of his home answering all the questions that Angie and I had. We were interested in the process of making the medicine, what types of illnesses he cures, how he learned to heal and if he had any children to pass the gift of healing to. While we were busy learning something new, John was in the corner being…well, John.
When we entered this man’s home, John never bothered to take out his earphones, which was still blasting music from the ipod attached to his arm. He sat his heavy frame on the floor and proceeded to immediately take out his oversized-in-your-face camera and click three shots of the medicine man without ever even saying hello or engaging in any conversation. Then he put his camera away and lied down with his legs spread as if he was at his buddy’s house watching a football game. When he pointed his upturned feet at the medicine man’s Buddha alter, Alex nervously asked him to change position so that he would not cause any offense, to which John grunted and turned. While the rest of us sat and talked, John lied on the floor listening to his music. When we were finished with our visit, he put the equivalent of a dollar bill in the greased nook of his palm and, on our way out, slipped it into the hand of the medicine man as if he was doing a great service to humanity, while in actuality he had only managed to cause another offense. I was tempted to ask the medicine man if he had a cure for arrogance and ignorance, but all I could mutter was sow jue.
We had spent our first night in a small village. When I had gone into the kitchen to hang out with Alex and the wife of the house, she had become curious about me. “Where does she come from?” she asked Alex. “How old is she? And where is her husband?” Then she kindly told me I was pretty (Thank You). Then she kindly asked me if I was a virgin (?).
The second night we slept in a Buddhist monastery. After a beautiful but long day’s walk in the heat, we arrived at the calm and peace of the monastery, which was nestled in a kind of forest. There were other traveler’s there as well and we all had curtained off quarters inside a large wooden structure with Buddha statues. There was a group of ten young monks residing there, whose voices became an inevitable 4:00 a.m alarm clock during their morning prayers. As we were leaving, I happened to look in my wallet and found that I could not account for about $30. I thought I must have put it somewhere and yet all day I just couldn’t do the math in my head. It wasn’t until we already reached our final destination of Inle Lake, when Angie looked in her wallet, that we realized we had been robbed! In a Buddhist Monastery! My goodness, is nothing sacred anymore? Maybe it was payback for secretly wishing the monastery was a cold beer stand after the day's long hike. When I announced the misfortune, my friend Alberto emailed me and asked if I had gotten a description of the guy….shaved head, red robe?
When I thought about taking this trip, I had wanted an athletic and scenic way to get from point A to point B. But like most travel, it is usually never that simple, and I am grateful for that. Even though John had exhausted my vocal chords by being such a sow jue all the time, he also reminded me of exactly why I was traveling and how much I had seen. By observing him, I realized that it was possible to travel all over the world and never really see a thing. Sure, John can say he has been to Burma, but I personally witnessed him shut out the words and culture of the people with his music and solicit a friendly hello only if he was going to get a picture out of it.
He taught me that instead of blindly blazing a trail through this world, I will let the world gently blaze its’ trail through me, through my mind, through my heart. I have learned the most when I have tossed my fears aside and just jumped into the amazing bubbling cauldron of humanity. I am sure now that I started my trip as one person, but that I will certainly return as another.

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