At Heho airport, I expected to see my little old lady waiting for me with her half-toothless grin as I deplaned, but that was not to be. So I went outside, and sat on the benches to wait for her. Perhaps she was running late. Twenty minutes later, she came waddling up the dirt driveway shouting at me.
"Where you go?! You here all the time?! I waiting for you outside the gate all this time! I tell guard man I need to find smiling face young boy and he finally let me in to get you! And you just sitting here?!!?"
"Shit lady, I didn't know you were outside the gate, I figured you could come to the building!"
After berating me for my obvious lack of any common sense, we boarded a hired van which rumbled over the unpaved roads, rice paddies glimmering outside, flat tire flapping beneath, Ethel carrying on about the "German couple" she had met along the way. I immediately had visions of a camera-toting, fannypack-wearing couple in khakis saying "yah" and pandering to my American Jewishness.
"They are young couple. You will like. I tell them you nice American boy, always smiling! They have good personality, I promise you like. If you do, we have them join us on the boat and save some money. See, Ethel always thinking," she said, putting a stern, know-it-all look on her face, and tapping her temple, "if you like them, you save money. If you don't; no problem, I tell them go away."
Fair enough. I later met Manuel and Alex and came to find out the story of how they met Ethel. Apparently, they opted for the 20 hours of misery, and took the bus from Yangon to Nyaungshwe. Somewhere along the way there was a bathroom stop and Alex went into the ladies' room to take advantage of the opportunity. The room was described to me as a long shack with several holes in the ground, and the ladies apparently just squatted next to one another and got down to business.
"Can't you see I love you? Please don't break my heart in two," someone was singing. Yes, the little brown lady at the end was singing. Elvis. "That's not hard to do 'cause I don't have a wooden hmmm."
Apparently this slightly loopy lady had already been noticed by Alex and Manuel, as at the start of the trip they saw her raise a stink with a passenger on another bus who Ethel believed was sitting in her seat. Apparently she caused such a fuss that the lady gave Ethel her seat, until the ticket checker discovered that Ethel was on the wrong bus entirely. At which point I assume Ethel ate some crow and then headed over to Alex and Manuel's bus. Well, with an introduction like these, the Germans were wise to agree to Ethel's suggestion that they spend some time with her and the smiling American boy.
Indeed, Ethel, not being the bashful sort, entertained us with song from time to time. She was partial to Sinatra and Elvis, and between her accent and not really knowing the lyrics, she'd fill in holes with little hums and made-up words. One song was always followed by at least a second, interspersed with an "OK I turn cassette" statement where she'd pick something up off the nearest table, turn it over as if she were flipping a tape, and then continue with the second song.
One afternoon in particular, I remember sitting in the sun adjacent to a village near Inle Lake, having poured the contents of a 1000 kyat ($1) bottle of Myanmar Rum into fresh green coconuts, she entertained us and the locals, relishing in every bit of the attention, and gleefully singing Wooden Heart in between bits of trash talking. Sound travels at 340.29 meters per second, but to think that 46 years after Elvis committed it to vinyl, thousands of miles form Memphis, this tiny little alien would be entertaining tourists and coconut vendors in Myanmar would have had to impress even the King, if someone were to tell him.
My first afternoon in Nyaungshwe, prior to being introduced to the German couple, I left Ethel and rented a bicycle to explore the area. Ethel had set us up at the Bright Guest House. Not listed in my Lonely Planet, it was a fine choice: impeccably clean, quiet, and Ethel had negotiated a price so that I secured a room for each of us at just a hair more than the going rate for a single room. Aside from the price, the location was perfectly situated such that I didn't learn there was a tourist center to the town until months after my return and a friend reported back after having stayed in another part of town. The point being, the town exuded an Old West feeling as far as I was concerned, with wooden buildings fronted by porches lining the quiet unpaved roads.
I took one such road right out of town and soaked in the serenity of the lakeside atmosphere. Trees formed a temperate tunnel along the packed dirt roads, and the town's geography kept things flat and easy to negotiate by bike. Nyaungshwe is located on the northern end of Inle Lake. Small clusters of homes hugged the shore, many of them built on stilts right into the lake or the surrounding marshlands. Hand-carved canoes parked out front.
I picked a few random neighborhoods and walked my bike over their rutted paths towards their stilted straw homes. Chickens, surely rife with bird flu, scurried across the paths while pigs lazed in the shadows, bemoaning their inevitable destiny as someone's dinner. In such a neighborhood, I came across a couple of young girls, one sporting bright pink lipstick, indicating that I wasn't the first westerner to visit cross her path. Somewhere along the line, a tourist visiting Myanmar realized that the Burmese women like make-up (as evidenced by their use of thankaha) and decided to offer a local woman some Western make-up. Spoiling the lot for the rest of eternity, Burmese women who have had exposure to tourists now ask for cosmetics, creating the same sense of entitlement that third world children feel when asking tourists for pens, candy, or whatever some selfish tourist decided to hand out at one time or another.
It was late afternoon and I came across a handful of elementary-aged boys who had clearly tarried on their way home from school. They each had handmade slingshots that they were silently hunting birds with. They knelt beneath the trees, stoic until they released their stone. I never saw a boy make his target, but with the amount of concentration invested in the process, I wouldn't have been surprised if they had.
At a bend in a road, I came across a concrete pipe jutting a few feet out of the earth, and knew by looking at the apparatus hanging into it that it was a well. A cleverly rigged cantilever hung a bucket made from a recycled truck tire which was used to draw out the water. After peeking at the bucket, I saw some locals approaching and took a step back.
Apparently one of the after school chores for Burmese youth is fetching the family's evening water supply. The first customer was a little boy of about 8, toting his earthen water pot on an ingenious contraption fashioned from a bamboo pole with a wheel. A perpendicular piece of bamboo held the pot by reed handles and the boy leaned the pole against his shoulder and wheeled his empty pot here and his full pot home.
Other kids of about the same age all arrived, one carrying plastic antifreeze bottles, one carrying metal vegetable oil containers, and one little girl arriving with her earthen pot on her head. They patiently took turns, smiled at the freakish foreigner who was so fascinated with what was sure to be the most menial task on Earth, and trotted off to their respective homes and suppers.
In the evening, I was introduced to Manuel and Alex, and we headed into town for some dinner and a beer. We got on just fine and when we returned to the hotel a few hours later, Ethel was in a tizzy.
She just started talking, and for a moment or two, I listened, but she quickly lost me and my eyes sort of glazed over, as did those of the German couple. I caught bits and pieces, something about her talking with the hotel owners, her hair, her sweater, her leaving the hotel, it being dark, her returning to the hotel... and she just went on and on. Finally, after literally several minutes of ranting, I interrupted.
"Ethel, can I just make sure I understand what you are saying?"
"Yes," she said, taking her first breath in quite some time.
"Am I to correctly understand that all you have told us the past fifteen minutes is that you weren't sure where we went for dinner, wanted to make sure we were OK, but didn't because it was so dark outside?"
"OK, Ethel. Here we are. We're safe, and dinner was delicious!"
This was the first of many situations where Ethel tore through words with little respect for conservation, in order to convey something that could have been easily summarized in one sentence.
Good thing I wasn't paying by the word. But it just wouldn't have been as fun any other way.
For some reason, my circadian rhythm settled upon an early-to-rise angle for the entirety of my trip. This afforded me the luxury of catching sunrise just about every day, the highlight of which was watching the daily procession of monks as they filed barefoot down the streets, lacquerware alms bowls in hand, saffron robes complimenting the morning hues, while local homes and businesses doled out dollops of rice to each one.
The morning monks were always "novices" or samanera; young boys, usually about 10 years old, who have done themselves and their families the favor of taking up robe and bowl in an effort to end the cycle of suffering and rebirth that Buddhists believe we are all involved in.
One morning, shortly after the procession, Ethel gathered the German couple, an Australian man, and I together to chip in on a boat with which we could explore the lake region. We peeked into life on the lake, seeing daily labor at weavers, blacksmiths, and other factories, all slightly tainted by past visitors who had been passed through these parts with similar curiosity.
The highlight of the lake trip was catching Ethel talking trash at the cigar factory. There, young women squatted on the wood plank floor and whipped a cheroot together from tobacco, a leaf, some newspaper, and some glue in a matter of seconds.
"You know, when I was young girl, I made cheroot too."
"And now you just smoke them?" I teased.
"Yes, but I no inhale!" insisted the old lady.
"Well, I can't picture you rolling a cheroot as well as these girls, I am sure you are much too old!"
"You talk like that, I give you a po-tay-to! Ethel hollered, raising her fist in my direction.
A "potato" was her word for a lump on the head, delivered with her brown little fist, but which came with a surprising amount of force for such a tiny little lady.
Having successfully riled her up, she barked something at the girls on the floor, who scooted over and made room for Ethel to grab the makings for a cheroot. She took her time, making up excuses along the way about how they make them differently nowadays and how she was very out of practice.
"No, I understand," I explained, "I am sure anyone would forget how to make a cheroot after 100 years."
A sneer was thrown my way, followed shortly by a brand new cheroot. Nicely made, I might add, considering it really had been the equivalent of probably my lifetime and a half since she'd made one.
We visited the market, the monastery where bored monks had taught cats to jump through hoops, and boarded our boat again around sunset. As we were lulled by the hypnotic ooommmm of the motorboat, the sun dipped behind the hills surrounding the lake and the quiet little villages. We were visited by a flock of begging birds who paced us, gliding just above our reach. Sea gulls, rats of the bird family back home, they somehow seemed so much more graceful gliding above peaceful Inle Lake.