Monday, March 26, 2007

Myanmar: Pakokku: 1 February 2007 (Written 20 March 2007)

As soon as I got off the bus at Pakokku, a very enthusiastic trishaw driver grabbed my bag from the busboy, and declared that I was headed to the only place to stay in town. We passed through blocks of dilapidated colonial buildings, the blue, green, and yellow-painted bricks crumbling with a sigh of age-old decadence. As I arrived, 76 year old Htin San, wearing a grey Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, greeted me with some hot tea. He explained to me that I would be sharing a room with a Japanese man, if both he and I agreed, because there were only 4 rooms at this hotel, and they were full. I agreed and quickly left to explore the town, since I would have just a few hours before dark and I would leave the next morning while it was still dark.

Just around the corner was a betel quid stand, where the parents were playing with a young girl, about 1.5 years old. The girl was playing with photos of herself, in fancy clothes that had been taken by a photographer, and when I came over to say hello, she started to hand me one photo. As I reached out to take it from her, she pulled it away playfully, voicelessly laughing at me. Everyone else, including myself, laughed, and she did it again. I took out a sheet of origami and did the same trick to her. The adults loved it, and we played for several minutes before I left her holding the crane, which her parents were struggling to retrieve from her so as not to crush it.

I visited a few pagodas; a monk who thought for a moment, counting in his head, before he said he was 40 years old, showed me around until some novice monks and children practicing chinlon invited me to play with them. I have horrible hand-eye coordination and my chinlon skills or lack thereof are appalling, but we all enjoyed the laugh. I then struggled to climb over the wall to get a better look at the pagoda we were in front of, while kids hopped over the wall, and we took some photos. The novice monks are often times the sons of extremely poor farmers who have suffered the most from the regime’s laws and taxation; due to their families’ impoverishment they are sent at disturbingly young ages, commonly from age 4 or 5, to go live in monasteries because that way at least they will be able to eat from collecting alms. These children lack human love and affection and I don't know if I’ve ever seen kids that excited to have their photo taken; they had never seen a camera before.

As I was attempting to capture these giggling children, a woman who was very beautiful despite wrinkles and hardened skin, and tough hands, came over to ask me to take her picture. I explained that I wouldn't be able to give her a copy since it was digital, and she understood, but she wanted me to take it so that I would remember my visit to Pakokku and remember her. I conceded. She gave me a bag of fresh popcorn that she was selling on the side of the road just outside the pagoda, and insisted that it was a present, so I would remember Pakokku. By this time, I was admittedly quite lost and 2 kids, a brother and sister aged 10 and 12, walked me back to the hotel, smiling and laughing the whole way.

As soon as I arrived back at the hotel, Htin announced that we would be eating together as soon as the Japanese man returned. The Japanese man told me humorously that he thought the reason we had waited for him was because in Myanmar if you eat with a local person, they expect that you will pay for the meal; in effect, Htin wanted a free meal but felt better taking it from the man. I laughed, since I hadn’t experienced anything like that thus far, and thought it was quite clever. When we arrived at the Chinese restaurant on the other side of town, indeed Htin instructed us to each order a dish and he simply asked for an empty plate. I had no problem with this as the portions were huge but it was amusing. I wasn't drinking beer but Htin asked the Japanese man if he could just have half a glass, which was greedily drunk until he ended up having at least a liter. The thing is, he did it so innocently and casually that you just had to laugh at this sweet old man who probably ate every day with tourists.

After dinner, I went to a teashop to sit and write a bit, then went early to bed since I would be taking a 6am boat to Nyaung U, and my trishaw would be waiting at 5.15am. I was woken up at 4am by the sound of lots of male voices in the street. I remembered passing the monastery earlier and there was what appeared to be a market in front of it. What was going on? I grabbed my torch and camera and headed downstairs. As I walked into the moonlit street, I could see shadows of men; hundreds of them. I went to the monastery and saw monks all around, in orderly rows carrying their black alms bowls, waiting to received food from the enormous steel pot placed on a table next to what I had thought to be a market. I found a man who spoke English, rather, he found me, and explained that it was the full moon so the monks got to take part in a lottery where everyone would receive something; new slippers, books, robes, alms bowls, towels, and various other such things. They were chattering away in the middle of the night, excitedly discussing what they wanted most from the items available.

I stayed until it was time to meet my trishaw driver, and as we winded through dark streets, we passed many monks as they headed to their respective monasteries to take part in whatever festivities were taking place. I arrived at the ferry landing and walked down the hill in the dark to board the ferry. The boat to Nyaung U was very very cold, and I wrapped myself in practically every article of clothing I had brought to Myanmar and managed to get some sleep.

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