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Saturday 2 Feb 2013
Kalaw, Myanmar

Just another lemon tree

We spent today on a trek with a local guide, a student at university who was home visiting his family. He was a fascinating person to spend time with - a reflection of what our trip could have been like had he been our guide instead of Joseph. His English was excellent and he was unafraid to talk to us about the changes in the country and the political games still being played. One of his most passionate beliefs was the need to educate the people, especially those in rural and poorer areas. There is a lot of excitement at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the withdrawal of the military government, but he believed it would not go far enough towards a democracy when most of the country did not understand what this actually meant. Without a decent education, the people will not understand the policies or know how to use their votes, therefore they could still be manipulated.   

 

The first part of our trek took us out of Kalaw before climbing very steeply up through the forest along dirt tracks. By the time we reached the top of a particularly steep section about two hours into the trek, we were pulling ourselves up on tree roots and trying not to look down. The views were spectacular, but we were all challenging Joseph's original suggestion that the walk would not be too strenuous - he was puffing and panting himself at the top. After stopping to rest and drink lots of water, we followed the edge of the field down into a small village and a 100 year old teak monastery. Eileen had not been up to the trek, so had been driven around to meet us here. We dumped our unnecessary clothing layers - it had been quite cool when we set out - and recharged our water bottles and set off again, this time leaving Anna to join Eileen in the van.

The next part of the walk was a little more gentle, winding through the village as our guide explained all about their hill farming methods. The village was nestled in the side of a steep valley. The hills on each side showed evidence of their scorch and burn farming methods. Each section is cleared of trees, burned and allowed to rest before being planted with a new crop. After a couple of crop varieties have been grown over a couple of seasons, the area is allowed to regenerate into forest again. Most of the crops we saw were fruits, but a one point we walked across a whole hillside built into steppes that looked like rice paddies, although the young plants growing were not rice but something we couldn't identify and our guide could not quite translate.

 

We then followed the road out of the village and higher up into the mountains until we reached a much bigger village. This was about 7km in total, but much of it was along steep, exposed roads in full sunlight. Most of us ran out of water before we reached the village. For the last kilometre at least, the road followed the curve of the valley, so we could see the village but had to follow the road to reach it. On one side the bank dropped away very sharply and went a long way down. On the other, the road was cut into the hillside so there was a bank well over our head height before the trees started again. This meant those of us heeding the call of Mother Nature could see plenty of bushes but reach none of them!

There was a constant stream of mopeds and tuktuks in both directions full of villagers dressed in their finest and clutching piles of presents. The village we were heading to was hosting not one, but five weddings that day! As previously mentioned, the Burmese are a very spiritul people and place great store in Astrology too. Consequently, important events like weddings are scheduled according to the phases of the moon, position of the planets and the star charts of those involved. Consequently, people take advantage of auspicious days when they come around, hence the five weddings in one place in such a remote community.

 

When we arrived in the village, we were shown into a house where they had prepared lunch for us. Bowls of chick pea snacks and cold drinks were demolished in minutes, then we were served vegetable noodles. Joseph was happily tucking into his own lunch so I was left feeling quite embarrassed to have to ask him to see if I could have the veg without the noodles. The family quickly served me up some rice and a fried egg instead, but I felt a bit rude at having to refuse their initial hospitality, especially when I could not explain to them myself the reasons.

 

After lunch they gave us a weaving demonstration and showed us piles of woven shoulder bags or lengths of material we could buy. I was tempted by the bags, but knowing how long I have to carry everything is definitely a curb on my spending habit.

 

The walk back promised to be quite steep in places, so half the group opted to go back with Eileen in the van, leaving just me, Anita, Fred, Gail, Bryan and Steve walking. Even Joseph bailed out, making us suspect he had not actually done the walk himself before. The road was indeed very steep going down out of the village, but was by no means downhill all the way. We followed the sides of a couple of valleys and climbed up through some fruit orchards. I was introduced to a sweet lemon fruit - it looked just like a large lemon, but the flesh inside was just as sweet as an orange. Very odd. That left Anita and I singing Fool's Garden's 'Just another Lemon Tree' for the rest of the walk back. I am singing it again now, hence the title of the blog.

There were another few steep climbs up before we finally emerged at the edge of (yet another) monastery with an enormous banyan tree in the courtyard. Banyans are sacred to the Buddhists so they are allowed to grow anywhere and never cut down or trimmed. On the far side of the courtyard was a long flight of steps back down into Kalaw. After trekking for over 12km through steep and uneven paths, the worst thing possible was a long shallow staircase where the steps were uneven lengths and heights, so our knees were screaming at us by the bottom. Luckily it came out straight opposite our hotel. Anita, Bryan and I took ourselves two doors down to an open fronted bar and made short work of two large cold bottles of Myanmar Beer and several packets of tofu crisps (something in between prawn crackers and papadums).

For dinner we ended up back at the same Nepalese place as the night before. This was a very popular place, packed full both nights we were there. Negotiating passage through the restaurant was interesting. There was an elderly man whose job was sitting inside the front door and closing it again after each person had entered or left. Just past him was a free-standing brazier full of hot coals at about calf height. It was amusing watching people's reactions as they narrowly avoided tripping over it or setting fire to coats on the back of chairs, but it did an effective job of keeping the place warm.

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