Myanmar Alchemy

by Marcia McGreevy Lewis

A traveler in Myanmar experiences the endless and warm-hearted hospitality of the locals via a friendly young guide.

May was a vision of grace in her longyi (traditional dress of wrapped sarong skirt) and fitted silk blouse. Her dress in shades of powder blue complemented the dark curls and radiant smile of this shapely older woman. May, her name as short as she is, manages the Lotus Collection Lacquerware factory, her family’s business in Bagan.

What sets May aside is her warmth. Her nickname, Aunty Wah, speaks volumes in her culture about the respect her staff has for her. They hugged her as she ushered me around the tidy shop. She explained with pride how the average product passes through twenty-six separate steps to completion.

May praised each design craftsman and asked them to take a bow. Then, we observed the people applying colors, and May asked them to raise their hands as we applauded. “They need to repeat the process twice for each color. Such patience. We make new engravings for the next color, and the process gets repeated. Then, a new crew applies the glue. Please claim your credit, gluing artisans.”

After the gluers waved, May led me to the polishers and said, “The fine luster you see is due to their dedicated work. And now it’s their opportunity to take a bow.”

As she led us to her office, she said, “You have just met the gifted Burmese whose work takes four to eight months to complete. I am humbled by their loyalty and beyond grateful for their skill.”

May had the teapot on, lunch ready, and all the time in the world to share stories and laughter. We spent most of the afternoon chatting as she told us about her other children, most of whom are in the business. She supported Ye Ye for declining to toil over the hot coals of his family’s factory in his determination to become educated. After drawing out my life’s story, she bid us farewell, well-fed and grateful for her cordiality.

I had the opportunity to meet May because her son, Ye Ye, introduced me. What endeared me to Ye Ye was his kindness. He has evolved into the person he is because of his mother. His mother is who she is because of her country. 

Ye Ye’s mission was clear: to conjure the alchemy for me to fall in love with Myanmar. Slender, 5’ 7” and wearing a longyi, he knew that his people had a gift for friendship. Ye Ye waited patiently for them to extend their open arms to me. It took my breath away when they invited me, time after time, into their lives. 

Buddhas would oversee a safe journey for me, according to Ye Ye, so I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, 350 feet tall and glittering with gold and diamonds. It’s the dream of Burmese to see Shwedagon once in their lifetimes, and I was fortunate to have Ye Ye lead me right to it. People we didn’t know were having lunch there and asked us to join them. Ye Ye suggested that we accept, and though I was reluctant to take their food, these lively, engaging people insisted. While he interpreted, I experienced the pleasure of one of the many open-armed gestures from the Burmese.

For several days it appeared that Ye Ye had unstructured goals as he toured me through villages along the Irrawaddy River, but he had an exacting plan. As we strolled through Baw Lone Kyun Village, perched on a dusty bank with vines dripping into the river, Ye Ye stopped to talk to a young girl. Their conversation resulted in her suggesting that we follow her to dance practice. She took us to her home, where four girls demonstrated their moves that simulated dancing Buddhas, arms extended and hands pointed. Wanting to entice us to stay longer, she led us to the pride of the village, its library with a smattering of books.

Ye Ye showed me another library across the river in the remote village of Na Jo Ai, where a woman stopped us to ask if we would like to have tea in her home. This delightful surprise led us to her tiny, weather-worn house. Her family poured out of the shack, and we shared tea around a battered table in the dusty yard. Ye Ye had anticipated the hospitality.

I observed women applying white paste made from tree bark to their faces in Thanakha Village. Most of the women in Myanmar, even in the cities, have white patches of this paste on their cheeks and foreheads as a sunscreen. A gracious villager offered to paint my face, so Ye Ye led me into her yard. With my painted face, I felt an even deeper connection to these cordial people.

Azure-blue Inle Lake was breathtakingly beautiful and a mystery. I’ll never know how the boat driver found my hotel. Bamboo stakes in the lake seemed to be the only indicators, but one learned to trust one’s betel, nut-chewing guide (Ye Ye) and marijuana-smoking driver as we maneuvered in the narrow, shallow boat.

The sweet smell of tomatoes surrounded us as we floated among the hydroponic floating gardens on the lake. A hydroponic farmer in his wooden boat handed me some of his ruby-red tomatoes. Of course he did. Every encounter in Myanmar seemed to come with a heartfelt offering.

We cruised along the lakefront, meeting rice cracker makers who offered crackers from their bounty drying on racks in the sun, people making paper from Mulberry trees who gave me paper, and a village woman with teeth dyed red from chewing betel nuts who offered rice. I tried to thank them, but I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for their genuine embrace.

At Indein, I wandered among thousands of crumbling pagoda ruins, and then we meandered through a small village where a group gathered to fell a tree by slinging a rope around it. Men lined up to pull the rope, like a one-sided tug of war. Ye Ye jumped in to help and suggested that I join. We felled the tree, and then the owners welcomed us into their hut to thank us.

This multi-generational shelter was one room with a fire pit “kitchen.” A rock was the food preparation table, and a black-sooted pot soon produced hot tea that smelled like lemons. As we shared stories, the homeowner opened up about his mother’s health. He showed us her medical charts, confiding that she had “fat in her blood.” 

Ye Ye hadn’t pre-planned any of the home visits, but his insight into his fellow countrymen allowed me to connect with the locals on a profound level. I mentioned to one of our generous hosts that seldom do we in the United States invite stragglers in for tea. This surprised the Burmese as much as their spontaneous hospitality surprised me. Though their country engages in endless warfare, the people consider openness their way of life.

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