Where is the road calling you?
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Our building anticipation and excitement nearly prevented us from sleeping our first night in Kyaukme. It didn’t matter to us we had no idea where exactly we were headed, how long we were trekking each day, how far we were driving on the motorbike or which villages we were sleeping in. We couldn’t ignore the perfection of our timing to join him or the intensity of attraction we felt convincing us to make an atypical brash decision to venture into the unknown with little preparation. In our minds one factor mattered above all else. It just felt right. Even so, it was a blind leap of faith other than using what intuition told us. We were entrusting our safety to a man we’d never met, allowing him to lead us far from typical tourist trail. Of course the added element of possibly running into various rebel troops sporting machine guns in the middle of nowhere high in the mountains began triggering previous memories during other explorations, no matter how friendly and peaceful they had been in the past to tourists. Having already been robbed by gunpoint in Guatemala, it was more than possible such an encounter could lead to violently stained underwear and yellow streams of fear trickling down our legs.
Sitting on weathered wooden stools around a rickety table covered with peeling laminate paper at a nearby tea shop before beginning our newest adventure, we sipped our cups of muddy coffee with drifting stares to accompany our busy minds. Plates of various fried goodies slowly disappeared, ensuring we would consume enough for breakfast before setting out. A large three-wheeled mode of public transportation pulled into the driveway of our guesthouse not long after we returned. Each of us climbed into the back end of the thoun bein, the Burmese version of the Thai tuk-tuk on steroids. A quick jaunt through town and we were dropped in a small open dirt lot directly off the main road with only various locked wooden doors surrounding us leading to seemingly abandoned buildings, one of which provided adequate, discreet storage for a cluster of motorbikes.
One by one our guide pushed them out, one for every two passengers. Bulk packages of bottled water and bags of vegetables were strapped to the frame of the bikes with bungee cords between every driver’s legs, concealed slightly by backpacks carrying all of our necessities for the following three days. Though Jessie and I had endured many trips in similar fashion, it was clear some of the others in our group were not quite as comfortable on two wheels. It had been quite some time since we’d seen motorbikes wobbling like the unsure legs of a toddler walking for the first time. Pale white skin, heavily weighted down bikes and motors screaming down the road in the wrong gear proved to be quite a sight, inspiring numerous locals to snap their heads in our direction as if we had chosen to ride bare assed and spread eagle instead.
Before venturing too far from town, a quick stop at the gas station was in order. Of course no gas station or proper convenience store in Myanmar could be complete without a small stand selling betel nut, a local form of what I can only describe as chewing tobacco if comparing it to a similar habit in western society. It wasn’t the first time we’d traveled through a country while witnessing both men and women spitting dark red spit and smiling with teeth looking half rotten and stained a deep reddish orange, and I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant to try it. With the promise of the particular concoction our guide ordered having no possibility of long lasting effects, I knew my curiosity would win me over without much convincing. A mixture of spices wrapped up in a betel leaf and coated with lime proved to be surprisingly enjoyable, though neither of us felt as though we’d found a new addiction.
With full tanks of gas we began venturing down a locally driven path leading away from the main road riddled with rocks, loose dirt and large potholes, stopping briefly in the fields of the countryside. Slowly we slid off of our bikes, walking to the edge of a field where a small group of women were harvesting vegetables by hand. In a low squatted position they carefully sifted through the dirt, long sleeved shirts and large round hats protecting them from the intensity of the midday sun. Even in the midst of a laborious job most definitely draining them of all possibly energy by the end of the day, sincere smiles of happiness could be seen each time they lifted their heads. Behind them sat two young children, quite obviously forced to wait for their mothers as they continued to paw away at the earth.
I trotted back to our bike and reached into our small pack, removing two of the small stuffed animals we had brought from home for such an occasion and offering the simple gifts to each of them, thoroughly enjoying the expressions of surprise on their faces. With wide smiles we rode away from the women, Jessie waving until we were nearly out of sight as I continued avoiding the random natural hazards in the road, massive pot holes, washed out sections of the asphalt from rainy season flooding and random livestock, until reaching our first destination where our bikes were hidden up a hill off the road underneath a stilted wooden house.
With our lone small pack secured tight to my back we began hiking uphill to a small village. Our already filthy shoes created small clouds of red dust beneath our feet while walking through an opening of a simple bamboo fence and into a Nepali village. A frail man greeted us at the entrance of his home along with his two adorable children, giggling and eager to assist him with welcoming us. As is so often the case in this hospitable country, we were invited in immediately for a cup of hot tea. With tea plants dotting the mountain sides as far as we could see, it was obvious why this was their drink of choice. I ducked my head and stepped through the doorway onto the uneven concrete floor. Slightly raised sections along the outer wall of the only room to the home were covered with hand-woven mats doubling as the families beds. The man set down a stool no more than a few inches from the ground and rested near the floor as we sipped our freshly brewed tea in a small circle, surrounded not by an overabundance of decorations and home furnishing, but thatched bamboo walls serving the sole purpose of shelter.
Our day ended with a stop at our first homestay in a Palaung village appearing to lack nearly all communication with the outside world. Villagers utilized horses to help carry loads of firewood and crops from their land, the sounds of familiar cow bells from home jingled around the neck of each horse in unison with its powerful hooves digging into the earth. For a moment we felt as though we had stepped back in time a few hundred years. Nearly everyone we walked past greeted us in their native language, finding it entertaining we responded in the same way. A slow ascent along a worn dirt path offered up unparalleled views of rolling mountains off into the horizon. We sat on the ground in silence, allowing ourselves the opportunity to capture the moment. With the dry season in full effect, shades of brown consumed much of the vegetation, accented only by dark greens from sporadic trees, a scattering of tea trees and basic shrubbery. Other villages perched on peaks similar or smaller in size could be seen across sprawling valleys.
It was nearly impossible to comprehend where we were. There were no computers, Wi-Fi, children staring at the television playing video games or people too consumed with their phones to look up and make eye contact. Not a single proper car could be seen, only heavily worked farming trucks and jeeps lacking hood coverings so loud at times we had to pause our conversation to avoid repeating ourselves, along with a few motorbikes. Tin, rusted rooftops covered the hand built homes lifted on stilts driven into the mountain. Even refrigeration seemed to be only a luxury those more fortunate were privy to.
Kids played with worn out motorbike tires and sticks, rolling them downhill with intoxicating laughter. Five gallon jugs cut in half at a forty-five degree angle served as the perfect sled to glide down dusty slopes. A traditional stove was replaced with a small fire pit inside the home creating the one area to cook and boil water for tea. The open space on the main floor of the home could only be described best as multi-functional. Short, round wooden tables were pulled away from the wall and set near the fire for dinner, only to be removed shortly after when the accommodating family stretched out comforters on the floor accompanied by a thick blanket and pillow for each of us. Though we may not have slept through the night while lying on a wooden plank floor of the simple village home, the beginning to our trek couldn’t have been more authentic.
After thoroughly enjoying another well-prepared, flavorful meal to start the day, we set off on the second day of our excursion, fully aware we were about to tackle our most demanding amount of hiking, but, before leaving the heart-warming village behind, Jessie would find a new friend before visiting a school on the edge of town. A lone woman had spotted her from well down the main path through town, smiling from ear to ear as she eventually approached her. No communication was necessary. She pulled Jessie’s arm around her and mimicked the same gesture to Jessie, holding her tight and walking hip to hip. It was as if she had known her from another life and finally found her long lost best friend, ecstatic to simply be close to her, nearly bringing Jessie to tears after having to say goodbye and leave her behind.
A five minute walk led us to a building with a large open room full of students and their teachers. We were presented with the opportunity to deliver pens and boxes of pencils to the teachers to distribute as they determined. Our faces lit up with excitement in response to the children showing their enthusiasm around us and teachers quick to provide us with complimentary tea and plates full of local snacks. A small amount of pictures were taken by tourists and locals alike, though the teachers most definitely seized the opportunity to remember the moment. Outside we were lined up posing for anyone wishing for a photo. Cell phones were passed from teacher to teacher until fully satisfied; leaving us with an equal amount of appreciation for the time we spent together.
It wouldn’t be until leaving the second village we would come to understand the importance of having trekked during previous travels, convincing us to pack half as many clothes and supplies as the others in our small group. I have no doubt many of them were cursing at us mentally while watching me carry a single pack containing everything both of us had decided to bring. Nearly an entire day filled with conquering incredibly steep mountainside paths proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated, but the spectacular views and variety of heart-warming experiences we were rewarded with easily outweighed any amount of fatigue. Wild bushes brushed against our hiking pants, rattling slightly with our shaking legs as we neared the top of each climb. Never before had I felt so out of shape. The pace our guide could maintain even while trudging up slopes so steep we nearly had to use our hands to climb up was almost unfathomable. Far behind him, the majority of us struggled to catch our breath when allowing our burning legs and scorching ass muscles a brief reprieve.
Moments of scheduled rest became more blissful throughout the day, though some were more memorable than others. Emerging from a path winding through the remote wilderness, the sight of two women and a small girl outside of their home caught our attention. Yet again, we were invited to sit for a cup of hot tea. A small turtle stuffed animal seemed the perfect gift for a child possessing only a single toy gun even most second hand shops wouldn’t be able to sell. The expression on her face as I handed it to her was one of absolute happiness and surprise, quickly showing her mother and refusing to leave it out of her sight for the remainder of our brief visit.
Fortunately the rest of our second day entailed relatively easy hiking a few more hours to the village we would camp at for the evening. This time, however, we were both in desperate need of a shower. In the absence of available hot water and with rapidly falling temperatures accompanying the setting sun, I was already dreading the inevitable. A full day of cardio during the heat of the day following a day we had already neglected our personal hygiene finished adding the perfect mixture of a potent smell neither of us had achieved in years. Even so, we were well aware of what it would take to rid ourselves of the ripe odor emanating from our pore clogged skin.
In the heart of the small village sat a large square concrete water basin with two plastic spouts about waist level dropping water onto the ground when opened. A wooden bench outside of the opposite wall provided the only place to set our clothes and change before showering, a setting lacking any sort of personal privacy from the curious villagers. We had witnessed the art of public showering in the past. Men washed in either a loungy or their underwear while women wrapped themselves in a sarong. In all of our travels, we had never taken such a complicated shower.
We undressed strategically and rounded the corner to the sight of multiple curious kids standing in the dirt road mere feet from the spouts. Various villagers looked on from the open windows of neighboring homes at the sight of westerners seemingly showering for the first time in their lives. The combination of splashing frigid water into our most sensitive body parts hidden by thin pieces of fabric and awkward bending to attempt rinsing ourselves closer to the spouts must have been one of the more entertaining sights they had enjoyed in quite some time. For us we could only laugh at the experience of showering with an audience, hoping our spectators approved of our methods. I had once thought only the blustery winters of Wisconsin could make me feel like a little boy again as my penis all but sprinted inside my body at the first sensation of water so cold I wondered if it might transform to ice before connecting. If not for the presence of observant eyes raining down on me, it’s rather likely I would have shrieked louder than the little girls playing tag in the streets.
Nevertheless, we could settle in for another amazing homestay complete with the same in-home fire, incredible local cuisine and thin comforters on a wooden floor. An exhalation of relief escaped my lips when realizing our guide had once again purchased a local rice wine similar to vodka and fruit juice to mix cocktails before bed. Never in my life had I imagined such places truly still existed. The only modern amenities in sight most often were motorbikes, occasional cell phones and solar panels to provide a few hours of electricity after sunset.
Following a rewarding yet exhausting day, a small spot to crash on a wooden floor appeared almost as inviting as room at a Marriot Hotel. I could scarcely remove my contacts before falling asleep as soon as my head hit my pillow, though I wouldn’t stay sleeping for long. In the dark of the night with the fire nearly expired on the corner of the house, I jolted into a seated position to the sound of nails digging into the exterior wall of the house. My mind began racing with possibilities, though past experience told me there was only one likely culprit. I felt my heart begin to pound as the noise continued up the wall to where it met the ceiling, the moment of reveal at hand. Instead of a foraging rat, however, I would only see the furry face of the household cat returning from the outside. I smiled and allowed my heartbeat to return to its normal pace, closing my eyes once again and reflecting on the day’s events. But even as amazing as our trek had been through the first two days, our third would prove to be our favorite of all…