Burmese Days

After the sun went down, the light became tranquil, somber, and some might even say sublime. The green field, the white of the cattle egrets, the brownish black colour of the water buffaloes, all became softer, less bleached and in the case of the buffaloes turned from an indiscriminate black to the hide brown, sable of animals. But very quickly dusk passed into night. The mountains in the horizon misted over into grey, greyish blue, the lake itself glassy and the puddle where the buffaloes had bathed reflected the sky and the edges of grass.
We had spent the day driving from Kalaw through Pindaya to Inle Lake. The Shan valley travelled with us all day. The patches of red earth, yellow and brown were separated in some places by bell flowers, pink in the sunlight and held up by their stems and bunched together rather than in straight lines. And there were women, in the typical hats, made of bamboo. They were dressed in longyis, colourful longyis and blouses that fitted tightly and then short or long sleeved coats or shirts. We came across a group who were friendly, jovial, laughing and talkative. They remarked how beautiful Jan was and that I had a good heart! We showed pictures of the children and grandchildren and of my mother. They couldn’t believe that we were that old. They agreed to have their photos taken, one objected in a teasing kind of way, that she was far too ugly to have her photo taken. One or two, were disinterested or shy.
The fields were dry still, the rains yet to arrive. The earth was in expectancy state, dry, raked over, tilled, and in some places planted ready. The midday sun shone, brazen, but here at almost 4,000 feet the temperature was bearable and air was not close, not humid and cloying. The sweat that had poured in Bagan was not in evidence and the thirst, the drinking and drinking and the dry dehydrated lips and the moist silky skin were a thing of the past. In Bagan, the rains were long overdue and the monks had set to chanting to hurry the rains.
Pindaya was a town around a lake with several Buddha statues in caves at the top of the town. Buddha statues practically all in bronze or covered in gold leaf. Some recent ones in marble and two covered in lacquer but moist and hence rejecting gold leafs- these are thought of as special, as sweating Buddhas and auspicious. There was a series of bamboo Buddhas, hollow and light but still stunning. Families with children and grandparents were trudging through the site, taking photos and marvelling at the astonishing achievement of sculptors and the generosity of individuals, families and firms dedicating the Buddhas for their own selected niches- part of the process of merit making in Buddhist culture. A young family asked if Jan would agree to have a photograph taken with their son and so she did.
Pindaya had several Banyan trees, some well over 200 years old and the branches spread out screening out the sun and providing shade for the few people selling wares from their mobile stalls and their were horses and their riders resting whilst waiting for custom.
We had spent the previous night at Kalaw, a hill station where the British escaped from the impossible heat of Mandalay or Rangoon from May onwards. It had been a small village before the British decided upon it. There were the most incongruous colonial buildings, large mansions in large grounds, some empty and deserted but some done up and brought back to their previous glory. Norfolk pine, alpine trees, interrupted Bougainvilleas and Flamboyant trees. Frangipani, oleander, and hibiscus were all in bloom. But, the stray, feral dogs of Myanmar were inescapable. Several were panting whilst they lay on their sides and here up at over 4,000 feet there were furry dogs as well as the usual dogs without fur. I found their howls and tortured barking quite disturbing. Our hotel had a garden that would be the envy of many- English roses, pink bell flowers, crotolaria, and orchids carefully cultivated and laid out in the English fashion. The gardener was serious and absorbed in his duties.
One of the colonial houses was in ruins, abandoned to the elements. It had a drive way leading to a portico. The entrance looked out downhill to the town. In pagoda fashion, there was a central pillar and a fireplace and chimney here. Four rooms opened one into the other; all that was missing were Buddha statues. The interior was painted regulation colonial yellow. We had lived in a house very much like this, but built with wood panels painted black, probably creosote, when I was a child in Kano, in Bompai. There was a platform without balustrades leading to the road. Inside in the main sitting room was a fireplace and we did light fires in what was the cold harmattan evenings. When you sat outside and looked out, you could see men on donkeys or horseback.
There was a station, a stop on the way from Mandalay to Rangoon in Kalaw. The trip takes 21 hours. The station was painted in colonial green, a colour that I’m familiar with from Nigeria. The station Master’s office hadn’t changed since 1885 or thereabouts. There were steel trunk boxes delivered probably from Liverpool in late 1800s, an Avery weighing machine made in Birmingham in good working condition, weighing goods in the local VISS weight. The Myanmar railway like its Nigerian equivalent runs on a narrow gauge, and has a single track with passing points. The signalling was exactly as I remember it from my youth and the turning wheel was extant. In the office, the assistant to the station master, a small scrawny man was counting out aloud the money pouches of ticket sales and throwing them into a larger bag, with a witness watching whilst the Station Master, actually a mistress (an obese woman) sat impassive at her desk observing the goings on. The larger bag was then put into a steel trunk box. I had flashes of American Westerns with bandits waylaying a train and then stealing a trunk box or safe before retreating into the distance and blowing it up with dynamite. Very quaint and preposterous.
I have been thinking of the characteristic calm and serenity of the Burmese. It is as if in a squall with tempestuous winds, a leaf was merely to float, bobbing in the breeze, and be still, as it floated downward. Exactly how the Burmese are, a stillness arranges itself around them, whatever the flurry of words, the broad grinning, the silver in the eyes, and it is unfathomable. I suppose it is the monastic training, the silence at meals, the grasping of what it is to meditate, and that self possession of the monks that transmits itself to someone as restless as I am as serenity.
In the heat of the afternoon, you can see the men standing at the end of their sampans, one leg wrapped round the oar, not a single wasted movement, the day drifting by and the single oars man going about his business in a languorous, some might erroneously say, indolent manner.
In the men there is a gentleness, not precisely a meekness or innocence, as it is harmony that is allied to courtesy and politeness and then induces the same in the Other. I have only ever found the same in Fiji. And the women, as George Orwell says in Burmese Days, are without curves, androgynous, yet sensual and sexual too in a restrained manner. Even though there’s a tradition of not holding your gaze for long, but there’s no averting of the eyes in shyness or humility either. The women look directly at you, holding your gaze in a penetrating evaluation, I suppose of manliness or worth. There’s no obsequiousness. I am reminded of Yoruba sculptures of kneeling women. The women are always straight-backed, never bent over double, in the abject meekness that is revolting. Here then is the alliance of restrained subordination and unrestrained self-respect. This balance, respect for the Yoruba monarch and the fragility of his rule, mark a not so covert social contract. These Burmese women demonstrate the same motif in their stance.
To return to this matter of asexuality and heightened sensuality, it wasn’t Ma Hla May, John Flory’s paramour in Orwell’s Burmese Days, that most illustrated this combination of apparent conundrum in Burmese women, but the dancing girl, who was described as “very young, slim-shouldered, [&] breastless”. And, it was in her dance that Orwell captured this sensuality:
the girl began to dance. But at first it was not a dance, it was a rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting of the elbows…By degrees her movements quickened. She began to leap from side to side, flinging herself down in a kind of curtsy and springing up again with extraordinary agility, in spite of the long longyi that imprisoned her feet…The music struck up, and the pwe-girl began dancing again…Still in that strange bent posture the girl turned round and danced with her buttocks protruded towards the audience. Her silk longyi gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still rotating, she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then-  astonishing feat, quite visibly through the longyi- she began to wiggle her two buttocks independently and in time with the music
I think that Orwell was here unbeknownst to him describing what twerking is. Here we have a diminutive physique, androgyny yet a haunting sensuality and beauty.
Our guide in Mandalay, Aye Aye, was 5 foot tall and had shiny black hair cut to just the nape of her neck. This was unusual since Burmese women tend to wear their hair long and bunched up at the back of the head. She had bright mirthful eyes. She was 38 years old but looked 24, was the eldest in a family of five but still lived at home with her mother who was dying from cancer. Her father had died unexpectedly at 52 years from a heart attack. She came into her own when we visited a Mother Superior at Sagaing. Sagaing was a world apart. The streeets and drives were lined with Bougainvillea, Flamboyant, and jacaranda. There were stupas, monasteries everywhere. Golden domes flashed in the morning sunlight. There was a haze in the sky. The blue of the sky was a bleached, washed out blue. The Flamboyants were in full throttle, the red exquisitely red and the leaves an intense green, loudly proclaiming here we are! The fresh new leaves of the Tamarind were delicate, like the people themselves combining gentleness with innocence.
Before the visit to the female monastery we watched 300 young monks in their crimson robes line up and file into lunch carrying their bowls, their faces impassive and inscrutable. The bell going rhythmically and benefactors proudly dishing out rice. The monks walked and ate in utmost silence. There was no loquacious adolescent, nor was there any restlessness or mobile phone. There was not a hint of ADHD.
The Buddha had himself visited the Sagaing hills but also in previous lives had lived as a frog and also as a rabbit in the hills up above Sagaing. Hence, the entrance to the town was guarded by two statues of giant frogs.
The female monastery was one of the few in Myanmar. The Mother Superior, if I might call her that was 74 years old and had been a nun since she was 12 years old. She was lean and about 5 foot tall. She had two silver incisors (probably Mercury amalgam fillings) that shone when she smiled or laughed. She wore the pink of nuns and her head was shaved, cropped close and she  had that glint in the eye of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was something pure, something trusting and open, something also of peace and contentment in her demeanour. We talked about life, she left her village at age 12 years and had been a nun for 62 years. She had only recently learnt how to use a mobile phone. She cannot drive but travels by car. Her assistant is another sister who is also a nun and a niece helps with secretarial duties and she is also a nun. It was interesting to find that in talking to a religious person, it was the mundane, the very ordinary daily human tasks, domesticity I suppose that we talked about. That’s the glue that binds us humans together, not as you might expect serious esoteric philosophy.
Her advice to us was to include retirement of the mind alongside the physical retirement from work. Not to continue to feel worry and concern for the children. She also said that our visit signified some important link with her and also with Aye Aye, from our past or past lives, and I added that the Yoruba too believe something similar, that “Omi l’eniyan”- people are like water and mix so thoroughly that it was impossible to predict when we might meet again and under what circumstances. She liked that idea.
Aye Aye had acted as our interpreter and it was clear that she had great rapport with the nun. They spoke easily and fluently with one another. There body language was relaxed and there was mimesis and unconscious mirroring. There was much laughter, much mirth, and we, even though we had no Burmese, felt included and understood. We knew that Aye Aye was thinking of spending a week as a nun and the haircut from lengthy to short was in preparation for entering a monastery. But we also knew that her mother was deeply upset about the haircut. By the end of our time with her it was plain that she was in two minds about entry into the monastery for a week- she said something about not wanting to further upset her mother.
Have I said yet that Aye Aye was chestnut brown rather than the calabash yellow of the Mother Superior and as a child had endured her siblings teasing her by calling her ‘The Indian’. This preoccupation with skin tone that is seen throughout the Orient is strange given the immense attraction of the silken sheen of the roasted nut brown tone but I suppose it’s a matter of each to his own.
We are now at Lake Inle. It is nighttime and the cicadas here have that metallic chorus that we have only previously heard in Borneo. In front of our room the lake is now so dark that one cannot make out where the sky ends and the lake begins. There is a restfulness that is native to the rural world. Yes. Surprisingly there are no frogs calling.
At dawn, before the sun was out, just as it is after dusk, the light was soft. Everything was in its proper place. There was no quickening or slackness. We headed out on a long tailed boat for a local market, one that held once every five days. The folk from up on the hills, travel 3 hours by boat with their goods, mostly vegetables, to sell. The Bao women were the most distinctive. They were dressed in black longyis and black ingyis and then a tunic over the ingyi. Each woman wore a different headdress, bright colourful materials, green and brown stripes, orange with dark squares, and on and on. Some of the younger women wore colourful tunics, purple or sometimes indigo rather than black longyis. And their wares were ginger, turmeric,  chillies, tamarind seeds, tamarind leaves, tea leaves, bananas and garlic.
This market was not as colourful or bustling as that in Mandalay or Chauk. There was none of the jostling for space, not enough of the women with bags full of produce and what Nigerians call provisions. Instead of the colourful umbrellas and personal parasols, there were awnings of not so brightly coloured cloth hanging off bamboo poles in a lopsided fashion. The range of produce was also limited. The fish was mostly carp, butter fish and minnows. The souvenir stalls were pitiful as the tourist trade was significantly down. One woman practically begged that we buy something from her, just to start her off, for luck. We bought a small silver pendant in the traditional round pattern. It was a pleasant backwards and forwards bargaining between us. The market was laid out behind the large pagoda that sat confidently at the waterfront. The wares were placed on the ground and business was conducted with men sitting in the lotus position and women in the equivalent female position, one thigh on the ground and the other leg upright. To select goods one had to stoop down, sitting in the customary position, on one’s haunches.
The pagoda here was special. It had five Buddhas that had been encrusted in so much gold leaf that they were no longer recognisable as Buddhas. Rather, there they were, five golden globules! As with all things in the Buddhist tradition, there was an an accompanying story: Nyaung Shwe had previously been ruled by an Hindu maharajah and he had decided to move the Buddhas from their rightful place. The first new site quickly burnt down but the Buddhas survived and the next also burnt down but again the Buddhas survived. The astrologers adviced the maharajah to return the Buddhas to their original site and once they were returned, order was restored and there were no further disasters, that is until 1965. In commemoration of the return of the Buddhas to the current site, an annual festival takes place with the Buddhas placed in a magnificent royal barge and rowed in procession, in a regatta to all the surrounding villages along the Shan hills on Inle Lake. In 1965, the royal barge listed to one side and one of the Buddhas fell out and sunk. There was determined searching in the waters for it but to no end. On returning to the pagoda, there they found the Buddha washed up on the bank. Since then this particular Buddha has come to be regarded as the guardian spirit of the village where the pagoda stands and on the annual festival, only four Buddhas are taken on the royal barge to the outlying villages.
These villages on the south bank of the Inle Lake specialise in one of a number of crafts: weaving with lotus fibres or silk, silver work, and cheroot making. Weaving and cheroot making seem destined to die out. It is tragic that weaving that was originally passed down in families is now almost exclusively the province of older people. The fabrics are impressive and the methods are painstaking. But mechanisation and the absence of respect for high quality products, and the fact of cheap and poorly made materials on the market have signed the death knell of these crafts.
On the way back from this trip we stopped to admire the ingenuity of the farmers who created the floating   farms. Composted water hyacinth and pondweed are staked with bamboo poles into the lake bed and then become bedding for tomato plants. Rows and rows of these floating islands make up an immense garden on the lake. The farmers stand at the prow of their sampans, and bend down weeding, or doing whatever it is that farmers do. There are channels, like canals to allow boats through, and some farmers have enough money to build modest houses on stilts at the end of their plots. It looked for all the world like allotments.
Tonight’s sunset was another blood red event dyeing the lake and the puddles of water pinkish purple. Next morning the dawn chorus of cicadas broke like amplified steel guitars, to borrow George Orwell’s description. The lake was flat as a pancake. Across it water hyacinth seemed like knobs in a cloth. At this early hour the water taxis were yet to start their trade but the men collecting pondweed were out and working before the sun was up at its zenith. It is a marvel, like magic, how a single handed oarsman can both stand erect at the flat stern of his sampan whilst at the same time using the end of his oar to dig into the lake, raking up pondweed. And, yet not fall over or even for the canoe to tilt or swing in the wake of other powered boats. I noticed that our boatman cut his engine when we passed one of these oarsmen. What consideration for the safety of another boatman.
Our trek, when we finally decided to have one, took us past a village at the shore of the lake. Then inland to rice fields where the men weeded the pasture. Here as usual there were feral dogs hanging about like layabouts. The fields lay in the shadow of the hill range and the patchwork of fields sloping upwards towards the hilltops had that wonderful alteration of green from the purely verdant to fresh lime green and then the newly seeded fields, brown in the sunlight.
We were aiming for the Bao village uphill and after two and a half miles we arrived. There was a gravel road into the village, and the hills dominated the horizon. Children stood about or walked in the shadows of the houses. The houses were of palm frond mattings, knitted crossways into a pattern of calabash colours against a deeper brownish black. The roofs were of corrugated iron. The houses were raised up on stilts and in this downstairs space, livestock including goats and pigs lived. In one house a young girl was making baskets. Next to this storage space, at one of the houses, a man lay prone on the ground, in only his longyi, pulled tight in between his groin. His chest and torso were naked. I thought, here is the proverbial village idiot. As we approached he shouted in a guttural voice that was unpleasant. We made to avoid him. We learnt later he was drunk, had quarrelled with his mother and had lay in the open all night. I assumed that he was a drunkard.
We stopped for a drink at a grand house, partly restaurant run by a couple. They weren’t open for business yet but gave us mangoes and home made crisps. The man was the village elder and discussed with N his water scheme- to bring water from a spring, down the hills and then collected for use in the village. This discussion reminded us that the government was absent, that self reliance was the mode, and that the people were patient and uncomplaining. The wife was a courteous, kindly woman with a burnished yellowish brown face, who spoke an unaccented English. Their home looked out to the lake, with the most beautiful fields in sight and the breeze gently lifting the leaves and swishing against our skin. We could have stayed their forever, that’s our pleasing the aspect was.
The walk back downhill was brisk but the sun was now at its zenith. We were drenched in sweat. We caught our boat and came back to our room. Tomorrow will be another day.
Photos by Jan & Femi Oyebode

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