musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

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This is the side of Mandalay that tourists never see. It’s not an especially pretty area and doesn’t offer amazing photo opportunities, and there isn’t anything of historical importance to see, but visiting this part of town has given me an immensely eye-opening perspective on the local way of life and the chance to know some truly wonderful people.

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I found 90th Street quite by accident one day a few years ago, cycling around the south side of Mandalay on my rented bike, no destination in mind, just wandering around and exploring new neighborhoods. This stretch of 90th Street is not much more than a bumpy dirt road, bordered by ramshackle houses and tiny shops. Children play in the street, motorcycles whizz by, chickens and pigs wander into the road, and monks stroll by holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the blistering sun. This street doesn’t look or feel like the rest of the bustling Mandalay, exuding more of a laidback rural vibe.

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There’s this little teashop on 90th Street, run by a nice man named U Tin Chit. The teashop is called Nwe Oo Aung Teashop, but I can never ever remember that name, so I just call it U Tin Chit’s Teashop.  The teashop has no windows or doors; open air, baby! It’s open round the clock; just like a 7-Eleven branch, they never close. As you might surmise, it’s not a fancy place. You can sit on plastic stools or wooden benches. Sit on the floor if you want, I don’t think anyone will mind. Have some tea, a bean-filled pastry or a tasty greasy snack. Stay as long as you like. Chat with the local men or the kids that pass in and out of the place, often stopping to stare at what’s on the TV in the corner. Maybe you can’t get anything you want, like at Alice’s Restaurant, but it’s a very relaxed place with friendly locals.

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I’ve been going to this teashop for several years, and each time I visit, the kids or my friend Ko Maw Hsi will take me on short excursions in the surrounding area; to a monastery or temple, a school, a jade workshop, a swimming hole, a little shoe shop, someone’s home. These are fun little tours and I’m discovering more of the area each time I visit, plus getting to know these people and their families a little more as well. I’m very fond of these folks. Even though they are quite poor, the hospitality they offer each time is beyond generous. At this point I think I can say we’re all good friends; Ko Maw Hsi, U Tin Chit, U Nyunt Tun and his sweet daughter Khin Nwe Lwin (who recently graduated from university), Moe Htet Aung, Khang Khant Kyaw, Zin Ko, Baw Ga, Yu Naing Soe, and the rest of the neighborhood crew.

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During this trip, Moe Htet Aung invited me to visit his home for the first time. I’d met his mother before, but I had no idea if there was a father living at home, or even if he had any brothers or sisters. From what I gather, it’s just him and his mom and a younger sister living in this house. It’s a fairly basic wooden house, at least one that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood. Like the others, there doesn’t appear to be any running water inside the home; families must bathe and use facilities outdoors. No real surprise there, but the real shock for me was the walk to the house. After turning down a series of narrow dirt lanes, surprised vendors greeting me with big smiles, we had to navigate a huge field of garbage to reach his house. That’s right, garbage. Trash, rubbish, scraps; an entire field filled with this junk. And I followed the kids as they nonchalantly traipsed through it all.

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Once we were at the house, I was offered hot tea, as is standard practice at most homes in Myanmar. They also brought out a chilled can of Red Bull, a beverage that I absolutely will not touch. I thanked them, but told them I was full and could not drink it. They told me to put it in my bag and drink it back at my hotel. That ended up being a good diplomatic compromise; I put the can in my bag and gave it away to a street kid an hour later.

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Someone noticed that my left arm was sporting red splotches; the result of bites from some sort of insect in my hotel room. The kids looked real concerned at my “injury”, and Moe Htet Aung’s mother announced that she had the perfect remedy; thanaka! You might not have heard of thanaka but you’ve seen it; it’s that yellowish paste that many people in Myanmar wear on their faces. It acts as a sunscreen, but many women also liken it to a beauty cosmetic and you’ll often see locals wearing thanaka in all sorts of pretty, creative patterns on their face. In any case, Moe Htet Aung’s mother told me that the thanaka will also soothe the skin and reduce the itching from the insect bites. She had me sold on the idea; let’s do it. And they did. And it did.

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After the doctoring was done, I realized that it was getting late, at least closer to the time when I needed to head back to my hotel to clean up before a dinner appointment, so I told them I needed to leave. I followed the crew of kids, which had someone grown in number during the time I was at the house, and we walked back across the field of debris, down the quaint little lanes and back to the teashop where my bike was parked. I waved goodbye to Maw Hsi and the other men sitting at the teashop. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I hopped on my bike (making sure my longyi stayed tied!). And I was looking forward to it; another day of new experiences with my friends on 90th Street.

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