Another long bus journey later we found ourselves passing the remnants of a recent plane crash before arriving in the main town of Inle. Were we homeless? Of course. It was at Inle that we were nearly led to believe that we would end up sleeping in a monastery or on the streets. Working the woeful bear-eyes really got us far sometimes which may translate to: Elaine is really just that charming.
I. I left my heart in the desa (village)
One morning we all decided to split up and explore the area. That day Erin and Elaine sunbathed on some random plot and got stared at (but didn’t care). David saw a young boy riding a water buffalo through a river–like they do. Daniel and I followed our Peace Corps instincts and headed as far away from tourists as we could and gravitated towards the rural villages where we were greeted by a pack of young, curious children. We smiled. They laughed. I gave them my camera. They got boogers on it. The only English they knew was “money”. Some high fives were had. Daniel played soccer with a baby monk. In all truth, I’d imagined my Peace Corps experience to look more like what I’d observed in the countrysides of Myanmar. Riding through those villages, the imbalanced distribution of wealth was incredibly clear whereas in Java, those lines can be quite blurry. Pictures will do the rest.
Thanaka is unique to Burmese culture. Most women and children wear it on their faces–sometimes in ornate patterns and sometimes in random splotches (see boy in the red shirt above)–for skin protection, for natural skin enrichment and beauty purposes. Thanaka is made from a special bark mostly unique to Myanmar. It’s made by hand grinding the bark on a stone slab into a fine powder and mixed with water until it becomes a smooth, applicable paste. I saw a couple of foreigners wearing it and was secretly envious of their bravery.
Between posing for shots, the girls played what seemed to be a traditional game that I never caught the name of. Two friends held a chain of rubber bands while their third friend attempted to jump as high as possible, trying to catch the chain with her foot. A reverse limbo if you ask me. A similar game exists here in Indonesia.
I quickly remembered how draining hanging out with hyper kids can be. Who would’ve known that adorable booger infested kids could ignite such an apetite as the one I felt that afternoon? We took a scenic way back, avoiding some not-so-classy French teens and headed back to town for a beary much needed lunch.
II. Hike now, drink later
We met up with our trek guide the following morning who it is crucial to add sported the most stylish denim bell-bottoms that I’ve ever seen. He led us on an eight hour adventure through some buddhist caves (where I first discovered my claustrophobic anxieties), hillside farms, and various villages. Our guide got us excited about that afternoon’s lunch which supposedly would have barbecued spiders among many other traditional delicacies. I may or may not have spent the following two hours convincing myself that they were probably going to be the most delicious thing besides Cookie Butter. By the afternoon, I felt duped and a little disappointed when we’d stopped for lunch at a local villagers home and found steaming bowls of ramen waiting for us instead. The ramen was satiating but damnit, I really wanted barbecued spiders. Post-ramen comas ensued…and yes, without sounding like a creep, David often smiles whilst sleeping.
Alhamdulillah! The trek through the Shan Hills was lovely but the French operated Red Mountain Estate on our way back into town, offering $2 wine tastings, quickly became the highlight, making the Virginian in me beary, I mean, very giddy.
Despite being pretty filthy from that day’s hike, what probably got us the most stares by the end of the day was how the taaaaaannins had brought out the true [read: loud, borderline obnoxious] Americans in us.
We had fun. And there may or may not have been a pre-dinner Gangnam Style dance off in our room before dining next to a group of Nat Geo photographers (whose photos I completely swooned over).
Part III. Jumping cats gang call it quits, scoff at “wonderman”
As you can imagine, the following morning I wasn’t feeling my best but you know what oddly motivated me to get out of the bed? Jumping cats….and the stimulating scent of Indonesian eucalyptus oil.
Maybe not just the jumping cats. Finally seeing and being on the famed Inle Lake was enchanting — how the fog mysteriously hovered over the entire lake as if mimicking levitating spirits, families of pelicans gracefully settled on the waters, completely undisturbed by our invasive chuggugling diesel engine, as floating sanctuaries quickly became mere mirages once entire floating communities, raised proudly upon bamboo stilts, became the norm.
One of the big monasteries on the lake claimed to have trained cats to jump through hoops. What that has to do with anything buddhist and why that seemed so exciting at the time, is beyond me. When we arrived, the cats were lazying around and napping. Supposedly the spike in tourism had forced the cats into early retirement. Us tourists sat around eating the free soybeans by the handfuls as if waiting for something to happen…when a lean old Burmese man in his late 60s, sporting a long pony tail in a snazzy gray suit caught our attention. He passed around a photocopy of an article that declared him to be a man of extraordinary talents, like breathing underwater without any aids for hours. He removed his blazer and soon started rotating his shoulder blades in the most unnatural motions I’ve ever seen. As if the Hulk was about to burst from his tiny frame, he let out an inhuman growl/bark. I took a video. He singled out one of the monastery’s pillars and started karate chopping at it with his forearms without flinching, barely catching the attention of the head monk, leisurely reading a newspaper nearby. He asked two skeptical-turned-worrisome tourists to attempt to strangle him, and because his neck had the strength of a 500 year old tree trunk, they couldn’t. While this was all happening, some cats napped as others slyly tip-toed around us, as if thinking “ha, this guy…psh, I jump through hoops.” He put his blazer back on as if he didn’t just do all of that crazy shit, and left. Didn’t even ask anyone for money. What?
After witnessing all of that, I felt jaded… until we stopped at a workshop and I saw a Kayan woman wearing the infamous neck rings in person.
IV. Last Call
The bear family chronicles had to come to an end at some point. Someone needed to go back to the grind and earn some money for that honey. I mean, it doesn’t pay for itself. We made sure to get back to Bangkok in time to ring in 2013. Bangkok celebrations were unlike anything I’d ever seen. An entire block filled with vintage VW vans were converted into flashy street side bars, blasting top 40 hits alongside others vans, selling any and all drinks in colorful plastic beach pails. Locals and foreigners of all ages danced in the streets.
I reunited Hannah (!!) who took us to eat what’s gotta be the best Mexican restaurant in Asia. Wet burritos, a hot sauce bar, and real mojitos nearly put us out four hours before 2013 kicked in, but we persevered. We continued our night at the VW bars and then to a fancy-chic rooftop bar where electronic beats played in synch with The Matrix, being shown on a massive screen near the bar. Drinks were served in mini fishbowls. And somehow we managed to miss the countdown. The roof was too packed to dance and the old bu in me was beginning to get a case of the yawns.
Sorry Daniel, your brother cut your head out. The Indonesian clock was beginning to tick…it was soon time to pulang.