She came out of nowhere, gently took me by the arm and said, “Dirty”.
My initial thought was, “You know it sister!”, But then I remembered where I was, and was certain I was to be led out of the market by this wonderfully weathered Burmese woman as I had no place there. This Yangon market was not for postcards and trinkets, and I doubt they saw many foreigners, let alone towering ones in bright red dresses. She must have read my thoughts, as she pointed to my legs before she started steering me through the market. Under low-hanging makeshift tarpaulins we went, stepping over stray dogs and chickens gone rogue, whilst dodging piles of long forgotten rubbish. I almost tripped over a merchant sitting cross legged on the ground whilst I contemplated why the ravenous dogs chose to let those chooks roam.
She was right, I was dirty. Not only were my legs were flecked with mud, but my shirt was sticking to my dress, which in turn was sticking to my back (the two layers were not for warmth but for modesty) and even more perspiration was trickling into my eyes, as my sunglasses had been abandoned out of respect.
She guided me to an oil barrel filled with water in the confines of a shack. Whilst my eyes adjusted she took a small tin bowl and started bathing the back of my legs in a motherly manner. From the cool darkness I could see my American companion looking for me, but I didn’t know what to say, nor did I want to yell out, for fear of fracturing the moment. I only knew that she was finished when she gave me a gentle double tap, like you would to congratulate a mare whose hooves you have just cleaned, and then she stood up, coming up not much further that my ribs. She gave me a warm look, and sent me on my way. I just wish I had known how to say thank you at that stage.
I had only been in Yangon for a day, maybe two, but I was already learning that this magical place was more about interactions and quirks than the Pagodas and the streets featured heavily in The Lonely Planet. I would love to say this was by my own volition, but did I not have someone immersed in the culture to show me the beauty, it is most likely I would have spent two days on 19th street sitting around in well documented “off the beaten track” restaurants with other travellers having a pissing contest about who was more intrepid.
Instead I stayed six. And then six more at the end of my trip. Not on 19th street, but on the 9th floor of a hotel on the periphery of downtown looking down onto a chaotic intersection. Long beautiful neglected streets, an abundance of street food and a birds eye view on a hive of chastity. Yes. That’s right I was a solo female traveller overlooking a monastery. So much spirituality. So many questions answered. Monks wear boxer shorts.
But a woman’s got to eat, and each time I left the room (at first reluctantly) I had an adventure which was an unmitigated attack on one, some, and all of my senses. As soon as I stepped outside I would be blasted with humid air and chaos, which got me to stand back, have a cigarette, readjust and observe. Oddly the chaos brought me comfort. I don’t know if it was because I had just spent five months in the overly pristine and manicured Oslo, or simply that there was so much going on that I had no time to indulge my inner voices, but I felt calm, brave, and compelled to extend the perimeters of my comfort zone.
I cannot say that pigs innards in broth (pork doto) were the most succulent morsels, but for me prior, adventurous eating in Thailand had consisted of switching (on rare occasion) from chicken Pad Thai to chicken fried rice for fear of food poisoning. The fact that the broth was washed down with a bottle of $1.50 whisky whilst sitting on tiny chairs, in the gutter of a bar (where I was the only woman) with all eyes on me made me feel like a princess. Screw the tiara, this was living. It did not take me long to get up the gumption to not only get the waitresses attention, but to ask to pay, and to hand over the cash which was a three tier ritual (assisted by the whiskey and my companion). First you have to make kissing noises, and not of the half assed Soccer mum variety. Nope, two full smooches into the air is the only way to get the waitress (or waiters) attention. Then when she came over, I requested the bill (shin-mey). I didn’t understand the amount, but handed over the equivalent of five dollars for the whole meal and drinks (which may as well have been a $100 or €100 note). As I delivered it, I placed my left hand gently on my inner elbow, and handed her the money palm up. The waitress did the same manoeuvre to both receive the money and hand me my sufficient change as it is a sign of respect (on both parts). The bemusement and smiles made me hanker for more: it was a novelty for both sides.
The first time I went out for dinner myself, I chose an innocent looking Shan noodle stand that I had seen from my hotel room at night (again with the child’s tea party set up in the gutter) run by children no older than 14. As I approached they gathered together, and started giggling. I pointed to a dish that a local customer was eating, and then gestured nervously to a table where I was going to attempt to sit. They delivered my hot tea and noodles and watched me from a safe distance with much curiosity. Here I was, inches from the kamikaze traffic, sipping hot tea and eating spicy noodles with an audience. Yes, I feel the need to repeat the hot and spicy factor as clearly it was noticeable. A young girl cautiously approached and from a safe distance whilst her brothers and sisters looked on, and politely asked if she could sit. She could actually fit on the tiny seats, and she daintily held out a box of tissues (again with the left arm on the inner elbow) for me to wipe my brow. Over the next five minutes (whilst she handed me tissue after tissue) I managed to express that it was delicious, but I was not used to the food as where I come from it is very cold, and I showed her a photo on my phone of the Austrian Alps. Again I left wishing I could communicate more.
Like my companion could.
Learning the language and about the people had given him a strut. As I followed behind him each afternoon in his longyi (which is the traditional dress of the Burmese men) I got to see the reactions of these wonderful people when he spoke to them in Burmese. Women and men would comment on his attire, unaware that he could understand, and he would reply, “La-dey no?” translated as, “Pretty, isn’t it”? and then engage in conversation. Invariably the reaction was undiluted delight, and I wanted in on it.
It started with me asking if I could have a turn. As he strutted I saw some men admiring, so I looked at them, smiled, and said, “La-dey no”? And nailed it. They laughed, and shook their heads as though they could not believe it. They probably couldn’t. Their smiles were huge, red stained toothy smiles. At first I had thought that the red stains were blood, and that there was a serious shortage of dentists in Yangon, but these smiles were too prevalent and unabashed for that. Instead they are the result of chewing –or more accurately sucking and spitting– betel leaves with tobacco and other ingredients inside such as lime paste, tobacco, betel nut and other spices depending on personal taste. It is not just a nicotine fix, but as a taxi driver said to me, “Eat but no sleep. My teeth are walking, my brain is walking, no sleeping”. I did eventually try it, with an elderly nun in a home stay on day two of a three day trek in the Shan State, but I don’t think it was the strong stuff.
The women held a different kind of admiration for the Westerner in the longyi. It was not so much, “Check out the white guy rocking the longyi” but more tilted towards, “Oh my!”. As they appreciated, I found myself in turn appreciating their dress. The women also wear longyis made of beautiful silks and cottons which reach the ankles, but on top they wear matching tailored shirts covering the shoulders, often with intricate patterns. Accentuated sophistication without a muffin top, camel toe or VPL in sight. Their make-up is also understated, if they wear any at all, aside from thanaka, which is a fragrant whitish yellow paste doubling as sunscreen. Burmese women are the pinnacle of class, yet they still responded in the same way to a little, “Ladey-no?”.
The next phrase I learnt was sa-bi-bi-la? which doubles as a colloquial, “hello” as well as asking somebody if they have eaten. It is a little but cute, and to be used when greeting groups of children or people younger than you. They will giggle, and tell you not whether or not they have eaten, which is also the equivalent of saying hello back. Apparently, it is not appropriate to say it in a bar to a rather intoxicated man as he leers at you. Oops.
It was the perfect training ground for what followed. Armed with some phrases that I now said with confidence, I went travelling for two weeks, and whether I was on a slow boat down the Irrawaddy, trekking to Lake Inlay or at a home-stay in the Shan State the reaction was always the same, and by the time I returned to Yangon I had my own prance. This time I did go to the markets, so I too could start donning a longyi, and I did explore the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda, but three months later it is still my senses that have been most impacted.
The touch of the woman, the taste of the wildly exotic street food, the sight of the beautiful yet neglected buildings, the sound of laughter and the smell of the streets all together create a beautiful symphony in my mind.
The second movement of this symphony will begin next month when I use the crumpled Kyats still tucked neatly in my passport to pay for my taxi from the airport.