Sunday, April 22, 2012

Making Cane Sugar

While rambling around the countryside on bikes, near Inle Lake, we saw many many sugar operations. There were people planting new cane in the fields that had been plowed by buffalo. A narrow trench is formed and a long stem of old cane is laid end to end in the trench and it roots from the old stock.
I was really surprised at how high the mature cane was. Standing next to it, it towered over the head at least a body length. There were women harvesting and bundling the leaves to be used as fuel to boil the sap, carrying giant bundles on their heads. I'm going to digress a bit. While walking along streets in cities and towns we would hear tinkling bells. We followed our ears to find carts with primitive machines bearing bells that juiced the cane which people were drinking. The other place that we'd seen cane was Vietnam. People , especially hill tribe people, chew on it for the sweet juice and I suppose the sugar rush.
One day we rode our bikes far down the lake and walked up a huge hill to a forest temple. It was very beautiful up there but a little disappointing because the visibility wasn't so good. We had to leave our bikes halfway doown the hill as it was too steep to peddle up. When we came back we were beckoned into a sugar operation.
At one end, under a long roof, there were men operating a press that juiced the cane. The sap flowed along pipes into what looked like huge woks that were within another pot so that they could overflow. They bubbled away overflowing with gusto with a man standing at one end feeding the fire with a constant supply of leaves. After reaching a certain consistency the liquid flowed into another huge wok where it boiled and was beaten at the same time, much like the molasses taffy my grandmother used to make when I was young. The wok probably held about 5 gallons and I'm sure it was very hard work to beat it. When the desired thickness was achieved the liquid was poured over a sheet and spread out to about an inch thick. Once hardened they broke off big pieces for us to try. It was a bit like a sugary brown fudge. Very, very sweet. The whole operation was really hot and the people were sweating and hot. It was demanding physical work and I suspect they were working long, long hours.
They sent us on our way and we had a wonderful coast down the rest of the long hill to the floating village. A man approached us and asked if we would like to hire his boat to cross the lake. It was a grand idea which meant that we didn't have to backtrack and the heat of the day was less on the lake. We parked our bikes which would be loaded onto the boat and went out along a huge wooden walkway. The village was beautiful with many floating gardens and it was our first glimpse of the Inthe men rowing with one leg while balancing gracefully on the other. Our boat picked us up and we made our way across the lake. Luckily the ride home was more or less downhill because by then we were tired.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Way of the Buddha

Of all the places we've traveled we've never experienced Buddhism like we have in Burma. Monks and nuns are everywhere and there are more monasteries and pakodas then anywhere on earth I'm sure. The absolute splendor of some of them surpassed anything we'd seen and the serene simplicity of others was breathtaking. While we were there the school holidays were coming and many people were preparing to send their children to the monasteries for a few months. The numbers really grow during this time. The nuns wear an orange underskirt with a pink overdress. Both monks and nuns have matching umbrellas to protect them from the sun. I don't know if it's just in the Inle Lake area or the whole country but I was told that the nuns can only be given alms twice a week so they must collect enough food to sustain them at those times. I think I saw novices both male and female around 5 years old. Many of the monks we met who were between 20 and 30 years old had already been in the monasteries for many years and wanted to maintain that life.
One day we rode by a monastery that was described as the most photographed monastery in Burma.It's a bit disturbing because tourists are distracting the monks. I even saw a woman taking pictures of the monks bathing behind the building. The boy monks who were at the windows seemed to be confused about the attention and you've never seen so many giant cameras in one place in your life.
In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia when you visit a temple you must take off your shoes before entering but in Burma you must take off your shoes before entering the grounds which made for a lot of walking in bare feet on concrete, marble or tile. It was hard on the feet and could be really dirty with pigeon poop and other unidentified stuff. We walked up and down hundreds of steps in our bare feet and sometimes had a hard time keeping track of our shoes!
Another thing that was different was the way monks behaved. In Burma it's possible for a woman to speak to a monk and you can look directly at them and they at you.
We went to one teak monastery that was the oldest in Burma and there were only two monks there in a giant space. One was elderly and one young. The elder greeted anyone who entered and offered a seat and fruit to eat. He was very very interested in where we were from and our lives at home. We visited him again another day and took out computer to show him. He examined every inch of it while asking endless questions about it. I would have loved to give him one. His is the first picture.We had the experience over and over of talking to people and when we asked if we could take their pictures they became really solomn. He was so warm and his face radiated kindness but he looked very serious in the pictures.
These are some of the images of that life we took around Inle Lake.

Handrolled Cheroots and Tea

While we were staying in the town at the end of Inle Lake we roamed the countryside on bicycles exploring every nook and cranny. One day we rolled through a little village and were beckoned up onto the verandah of a beautiful old teak house where two women were rolling cheroots at a low table.
I was happy to find them because I read a lot of books about Burma, both fiction and non fiction, and in nearly all of them cheroots were mentioned. I read Burmese Days by George Orwell, Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning, The Glass Palace and a few others.
They served us tea and wonderful rice crackers and even gave us a try at rolling. They had the most primitive and effective handmade tools that made it look much easier than it really was. The younger was the neice of the older and they lived together in the house. We visited for nearly and hour, talking amid the bustle of rolling. They were so friendly and eventually asked about my sunburned face offering to put some of the ground bark on me.
The bark was ground on whet and applied in quite a liquid state. When it dries it's really cooling and protects the skin from sun. I didn't look nearly as lovely and exotic as the women of Burma with their brown skin providing more contrast.
Philip bought some of the cheroots and for weeks afterwards we gave them as gifts to folks who considered them a real treat and normally couldn't afford them!