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

A Time of Gifts

A lone red-robed monk walking between the banks of a flooded rice paddy, a black dog trotting at his side. Watching the monk slowly walk towards the rising sun, I marveled at the peaceful sight.

Sometimes the best pictures are the ones you don’t take with a camera; they are the ones that pass fleetingly, but remain engraved in your memory. I was on my to the airport in Mandalay this morning when I saw that monk, and even if I had a camera clutched in my hand, I don’t think I could have summoned the presence of mind to snap a photo, as transfixed as I was on the sight.

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In fact, my last two days in the country, back in Mandalay after four days in Shan State, I couldn’t take any photos at all, at least not ones that were properly in focus. While teaching an English class at Tat Ein village in Shan State, I had lent my camera to some novice monks, who were gleefully taking photos and playing with the zoom lens function. At some point the lens got stuck and they sheepishly handed the camera back to me. I looked at it, tried to zoom in and out; nothing. Tried to turn the camera off and back on again; nothing. Hmmm … Major Tom, we have a problem. I tried again and again, changing the battery and playing with the buttons some more, and the damn thing still wouldn’t work. Later that night, back at my hotel, I figured out a way to get the lens to close manually and then open again. Voila; I could take photos again. But when I tried to turn it off, the problem reoccurred; it got stuck and an error message appeared. I also noticed that the shots that I was able to take weren’t quite in focus. Looks like a job for the repair department at Canon.

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I tried to put the problem in perspective, reasoning that I’d already taken a lot of photos and had only three days left in the country, so I could live without my precious camera. But the very next day I had a trip to Taunggyi and Kakku planned with some monks from the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, and I really wanted some photos from that trip, mainly so I could make some prints for the monks themselves. My friend Ma Pu Sue saved the day, by letting me borrow her camera for the day. Her camera uses the same type of memory card as mine did, so that made it even easier. The only problem was that I took so many photos at Kakku that I used up her battery and had to resort to my faulty old camera for a few shots at the very end of the trip in Taunggyi and at a Pa-O village. Oh well, at least it wasn’t a total loss.

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It felt odd not having a camera to use the final two days in Mandalay. There were a few moments that I would have loved to have photos of. One was a group of children outside a monastery on 90th Street playing a game that resembled stickball, or baseball or maybe even cricket. They were using a flat piece of wood to hit a rubber ball around a dirt field. I’ve seen kids play soccer, badminton, chinlon, and other sports, but never anything quite like this one. I had a go and popped up the first ball thrown to me. I totally whiffed the second ball, but when the third offering came, I belted it high and far, over everyone’s heads. Home run!

That evening I took Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko to a restaurant that had karaoke rooms. Watching them sing Burmese love songs would also have made for some fun photos, but seeing their joy at singing those songs was worth the price of admission. My contribution was a rendition of “Top of the World” by the Carpenters and a weak attempt at Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Hey, they were the first two English songs on the menu and looked easier to sing than the Eagles medley. I’m just thankful that nobody was there to record that session and post it on YouTube.

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The last day in town I met Sophia, a young university student from Germany. We were both renting bicycles at Mr. Jerry’s bike shop on 83rd Street, and she struck up a conversation and asked where I was going. I told her that I didn’t have any real plans. My only real appointment that day was a trip to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street later in the afternoon, and dinner with Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko in the evening. I asked Sophia if she wanted to experience a Burmese teashop and she readily agreed, so we hopped on our bikes and headed to the Minthiha branch at the corner of 28th and 72nd streets. After a round of tea and various fried and baked breads and snacks, a woman and her young son sat our table and had their lunch. Later she introduced herself, Wan Thu Khin. Her 6-year-old son, Lu Phone, his cheeks smeared with thanaka, also introduced himself and showed us the English language lesson he was studying. After a colorful and possibly inebriated gentleman had walked by and introduced himself, the conversation evolved and Sophia asked where she could buy a Burmese longyi, women’s style, of course. After taking Lu Phone back to school for his afternoon class, Wan Thu Khin offered to show Sophia a shop in the nearby market. I tagged along and it turned out to be a fun outing, watching the women pick out a colorful longyi, trying it on Sophia, and then having it altered (for free!) at a shop run by a friend of Wan Thu Khin. We roamed the colorful aisles, stocked with every imaginable product you think of — from fruit and vegetables to electronic goods and mattresses — while vendors smiled and chuckled at the sight of two longyi-clad foreigners walking around. The final mission was to apply some thanaka on Sophia’s face, which a female vendor was happy to do. With longyi and thanaka, she had received her initial immersion in Myanmar culture. If that wasn’t enough hospitality, Wan Thu Khin, invited us to visit her home while we were in town. Alas, since I had to return to Bangkok the next morning, I couldn’t accept the invite.

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Later that afternoon, Sophia followed me over to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. On the way we stopped at Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a lovely old teakwood monastery, and passed several other old monasteries, including the massive Ma Soe Yein complex. At 90th Street, Sophia was the star attraction. I introduced her to U Tin Chit, Ko Maw Hsi, U Nyunt Htun, and the group of kids that soon formed. They brought out hot cups of tea and bean cakes, and then Ye Thu Lwin, a bright young student of English, showed up. He asked me; “What is your friend’s name?” I replied: “You can ask her.”  A bit shy at first, he ended up asking Sophia all sorts of questions in English, and she turned the table and asked him some questions too. I couldn’t help but smile at this exchange. Once again, I wish I’d had a camera to take some shots of all the cuteness, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

As we prepared to leave we were showered with gifts from U Tin Chit and some of the others; more bean cakes, apples, bottles of water, and some cans of Red Bull, the latter which I took only out of courtesy. I never drink that crap, so I gave my can to Mr. Jerry at the bike shop later. Before I left town that night the gifts kept on coming; longyis from Ko Ko Oo and Nyein Htun at Aye Myit Tar restaurant, cans of Myanmar beer from Kyaw Myu Htun, and a packet of thanaka paste from Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, not for cosmetic purposes, but to treat the insect bites on my left arm.

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I was reflecting on all this gifts and last-day events as my taxi took me to the airport this morning. As usual, I was moved by the kindness and generosity of the people in Mandalay, both old friends and new acquaintances.  I know that I sound like a stuck record every time I write about this stuff, but it bears repeating: these people are amazing. Far from wealthy in monetary terms, but rich in spirit. I may not have any photos as keepsakes of those last two days, but I’ll never forget any of those priceless moments.

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