I eat lunch in a family home in the tiny Pa’O village of South Nan Nwè, a cluster of bamboo homes in the hill country around Nyuang Shwe. Like all traditional Myanmar houses, the house is on stilts, the main living area up the short stairs, the open cool area underneath used for shelter from the sun, or storage. In monasteries, this underneath is often where the monks sleep. This family has two beds in their
open area, but they are filled with garlic, drying out to be taken to town to sell.
My trekking guide lays out some unidentifiable crispy treats to eat while he cuts me a mango and uses the family’s fire to create vegetables and noodle soup. The cooking fire is inside the house, defying physics and adding intolerable waves of heat to an already overheated day. I sit eating alone in the main living area, where the family also
operates a kind of shop, fried snacks, hanging sparsely from the wall, soft drinks, cans of beer and bottles of water stacked in the corner. Like every guide I’ve had, Thu Rain eats separately from me. I have read that it is typical in Myanmar home for guests to eat first.
The two children first peer at me around the corner, and then come closer when I lure them with pictures on my iphone. The little boy leans against me, sturdy little body sticky, smelling like a small
barn animal. The little girl fingers my eyebrow ring, and her brother joins in, poking me with his grubby finger. I find a video on my phone of the Niki boys dancing, and push it on, and two older women come in from the other room and crowd around to watch, sucking hard on their cheroots, the ubiquitous strong Myanmar cigars.
The women’s faces are etched deep, darkened and desiccated from sun, most teeth long gone, heads wrapped in bath towels, like many of the Pa’O women I’ve seen. They seem too old to be the mothers of the children, but I really have no clue about their ages. Poverty, and sun, and endless cheroots have worn through their bodies quickly.
As I eat, an older man, his head also wrapped in cloth, comes and sits
cross-legged on the floor beside me.
He starts to thumb through a small paper notebook. I crane my neck, wondering what he is writing. Another man joins him. They pass the notebook back and forth, and start to write something in another, bigger notebook that is filled with handwritten script. The second man pulls out what seems to be some kind of comic book, thin cheap pages covered with line drawings.
I watch them for a while, and point to the notebook. The older man hands it to me. It has numbers, sequential, one per line, and he’s written notations in Myanmar next to some of them, through the book. Some pages are full, and some have one notation.
I’m baffled. They are very intent, speaking a little but writing fiercely. The two women come in and watch them as well, speaking occasionally. I slurp my noodles with a spoon, wiping my mouth and fingers on the toilet paper pulled from the roll set on the low table.
My guide comes into the room. “What are they doing?” I ask. I wonder
if they are making lists for the market, learning English, doing astrology. It could be anything.
“Lucky Draw!” says Thu Rain. He explains that they are choosing their
lottery numbers based on what they have dreamt. The book with the images tells them what dream symbols correspond to what numbers. “They can pay 100 kyats, and if the number comes, 50,000!” That’s a return of about $50 for a ticket that costs a dime.
I dig in my wallet for a 200 kyat note, and then point randomly at a
number. 591. I poke at it with my finger and urge the money on him.
The older man starts to write something, and a few minutes later,
hands my guide a tiny slip of green paper with Myanmar notations on
it. “I will play this for you,” says Thu Rain. “No,” I say – tell them to play my number with my money – maybe they will win!
Everyone laughs. And somehow I get the impression that they are far less interested in playing the foreigner’s number than the ones their system points to.
I ask Thu Rain how to thank them in their language. He asks them in Myanmar, and they reply in Pa’O. I try to repeat the sounds. They
laugh but clearly appreciate me trying. I buy a bottle of water, retrieve my sunglasses, go outside, put on my shoes and wash my hands at the water flow that comes full from a pipe, a natural spring. “That little boy was sticky,” I say. “Sticky,” repeats Thu Rain.
We resume our 18 mile trek, more hills, more sun, small plots of sugar cane, garlic, turmeric, onions, the leaves they use for the outside of cheroots, which they dry in special ovens in the next village. Thu Rain in his longhi, straw hat and “slippers” (green flip flops), me
in my predictable western hiking gear. I ask him if he wears underwear with his longhi, and he tells me no. He asks me if I wear underwear, and I show him the built in bra on my wicking prana top.
We understand each other.
When we arrive back in the town, I’ve worn him out. “That is the fastest ever,” he says, marveling. I go in search of ice cream.