Idling in Inle

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

For the past several days we've meandered through local produce markets, crouched at tea shops, returned "Hellos" and "Mingalabas" from curious passers-by and been entertained by children cartwheeling and jousting with sticks for our amusement. Our main concerns throughout the day were where we were going to eat for lunch and dinner. Nyuang-Shwe has been a welcome break in the journey but we weren't ready to leave quite yet until we'd ventured out again for a full day's excursion on the lake.

Yesterday after a heaping bowl of Shan noodles with peanut sauce and a refreshing Lemon Sparkling beverage (all for less than one dollar) we were promenading down by the canal when I ran into some familiar faces. It was Magali and Max the Canadians whom I commiserated with for the 14 hour and 40 minute journey from Cambodia to Bangkok last month. They were planning a boat trip the following day, as well so we decided to chime in and join them.

The next morning on our terrace while enjoying a Burmese breakfast of mohinga noodle soup we were gazing out over the rooftops when we were suddenly startled. It was Freak-Out Sister's head craning over my shoulder as I was lifting my cup of so-called coffee. It was sheer Burmese kabuki. Her sandalwood paste was splotchy all over her face and had clearly gone unwashed from the day prior, her hair hadn't been brushed and her bulging eyes were crusted with sleep, "Sistah what you doing today, sistah?!" I gasped as she leaned in with a frozen smile waiting for my response. Gaining my composure I mendaciously explained that I'd run into some friends from Cambodia and they'd already chartered a boat and invited us along for free. She wasn't buying it but then she cocked her head back and darted her eyes all about and then swooped back down again, "Sistah!!! When you go to Rangoon?! You need plane ticket to Rangoon, sistah?!!" We told her when we'd need to fly out and that yes, we'd be happy if she got our tickets for us. That seemed to mollify her and if not it at least got rid of her. She squinted and smirked, slipped on her sandals and threw herself on her scooter and revved off in a cloud of beige dust. You could practically see the abacus floating above her head as she counted her commission.

Freak-Out Sister's early morning ambush impeded our departure so we had to scramble down to the dock where Magali and Max were already waiting. This hour and a half journey would take us to the furthest town on the lake and a market that was more or less the same as the last market we went to a few days ago. It was so "same-same" in fact we recognized two of the same souvenir salespeople whom we'd bought from earlier in the week. Mr. Lip-ah-stick was there still asking for more "presents" and I curtly told him that I'd already tried to give him a present but he'd refused.

All week we'd been coveting a certain tribe's costumes and Cameron and I were on a quest to buy some. It seemed we'd hit the jack pot when we'd climbed out of the boat and saw the entire marketplace teaming with Pao-O women. The Pao-O tribe are without a doubt the most chic in all of Myanmar in their long black shirts, v-neck smock tops and bolero jackets with bright orange and cobalt stitching. They are also the most suspicious and are always leering about and staring and gawking and I'm pretty sure that if given half the chance they'd hack us to bits. Nonetheless their costumes are brilliant and with our driver Soe-Soe's help we acquired two new full sets of costumes. The Pao-O came and scrutinized us and one of the women insisted the first jacket was too short for me and was snarling and making a chopping gesture on her wrist. I changed jackets and then she jerked a nod of acceptance and almost smiled. They were certainly amused by us buying their tribal wares and later in the day three of them stopped us and actually smiled. They gestured to our bags acknowledging our purchases and for the first time in a week I looked into a Pao-O woman's eyes and didn't feel a shiver down my spine.

Last night at the Internet cafe we asked the owner if we'd paid 10,000 kyat (11.50) for a boat trip how much the driver would receive we were horrified by the response. "About 500 kyat" he told us. He said that the larger portion goes to the boat owner and then to the person who secured the trip. We then asked how much commission the driver received when we bought things at certain shops with him and were told roughly "five per cent but for some shops he'll get 200 kyats just for having you step in even is you don't buy anything." We'd told Magali and Max this yesterday and since we liked our driver we decided to go wherever he wanted to take us. It became a running joke. "Listen, Soe-soe we don't give a rat's ass where you take us - if you get a commission we'll go. At the end of this day all we want to see are some damn cats jumping through hoops at the monastery. The rest is all icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned."

So Soe-Soe took us everywhere. "Silversmith?" Sure, why not. Cameron tried to buy some tiny ruby earrings there but I convinced her otherwise while the salesgirls talked so much smack about me in hateful tones it's a wonder I walked out alive. "How about the silk weavers?" Absolutely! We all ended up even buying hats there - matching hats and we looked like complete buffoons wearing them all at once as we tooled about the canal towns. "Cheroot cigar makers?" My God what a terrific idea - we'd love to! This one was by far the most pathetic experience but they offered us tiny glasses of tea, our driver got a commission and Max bought cigars. "You want to see boat making?" Hell no, we've got to eat lunch. Come on now, boat making? I know the salesgirls sitting outside hawking their crude miniature boat toys must've been upset but my stomach was growling and we were all starving. Anyway what difference did it make? He was also getting a commission for taking us to lunch, which wasn't terrible and they were charging 50 kyats more than most places for a Lemon Sparkling so Soe-Soe was doing all right by us.

"Now we go to special temple." I asked him what kind of commission the Buddha was slipping him for that and he playfully whacked me upside the head. The temple was hideous and by the far the tackiest thing I've seen in during my entire trip. In the center were five pots of shiny golden blobs. From the paintings surrounding them we gathered that they were five gold Buddhas that appeared to someone in Inle Lake centuries ago and have been obscured buy thousands of layers of gold leaf over the years. They looked like golden turds.

"Umbrella making shop?" Oh for Christ's sake, yes I thought you'd never ask! It was just a regular shop that had some people pretending to make paper umbrellas but they weren't fooling me one bit. Nevertheless we smiled and looked around and Soe-soe got his commission.

Finally the piece de resistance! "Now, Jumping Cat Monastery?" We almost lost our minds. Yes, for crying out loud get us to the Jumping Cat Monastery toute de suite! We weaved through stilt villages as manic children literally jumped up and down on their balconies and piers screaming "YAAAAAY!!!! HELLO!" It was as though we were royalty or pop superstars. I've been greeted by hundreds of people since I've arrived here in Myanmar but nothing like this. It seemed as though they were about to jump out of their skins as they competed for attention with the children across the canals. It's a wonder they didn't throw up they were so excited and I'm pretty certain that many of them crapped their pants.

Sure enough there they were about twenty cats lulling about in a state of sheer exhaustion from performing all day. We plopped ourselves down and petted them while waiting for the next show but these poor pets were clearly worn out. Apparently about twenty years ago the bored monks at this monastery ripped the fabric out of their hand fans and taught the cats how to jump through. It became a tourist attraction and is now one of the main draws for the Inle Lake boat tours. The monks seemed exhausted as well and even had a layman conduct the show. One monk sat by a window lazily throwing pieces of Mo-Mow cat food at them and bobbing his head. They jumped through hoops all right and it was indeed mildly entertaining though I must confess the idea of a cat jumping through a hoop in a monastery on a lake in Burma sounds a lot more fascinating that it actually is.

It'd been a long day on the lake from dawn to dusk and now we were slicing our way back through choppy water. In the west the sun was setting ablaze a Maxfield Parrish sky in brilliant hues of magenta and violet. In the east a full moon was hanging high against a bright robin's egg blue sky and white mackerel clouds. We were all equally astounded at the dramatic contrasts of the day shifting into night.

We waved good-bye to Magali, Max and Soe-Soe and stood on the pier watching the sky fade slowly to shades of darkest indigo. Night it seemed was the best part of our day. Walking back we were rehashing what a great day we'd had when just as we entered the grounds of the guesthouse a voice shouted, "Sistah, I have plane ticket for you! You need taxi to airport tomorrow, Sistah?!"

Onward to Rangoon!
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