Enduring Burmese Tea
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

After a long hike in the mountains of Myanmar, a game of charades and commerce results in a sublime scene recorded forever.

Myanmar hike

Whenever I look up, the trail mercifully fades into the clouds above.

The word "trail" is used loosely here as the term usually refers to a walkable surface associated with hiking. This churned up quagmire of mud and loose rocks does not even vaguely meet that definition. The jungle of northern Burma is hostile enough, and I am taking a titanium hip and deteriorating knee to their limits here.

Whenever I stop to suck air, Pins' smiling face pushes next to mine and he whispers, "Close now" a term I have come to associate with local guides that means "We are hell and gone from where we should be."

Pin is a dead ringer for a young Jackie Chan but has never seen a movie and so he does not understand when I mime a scene from "Rush Hour." He just looks at me and rolls his eyes.

Myanmar rice paddies

Four hours into our "Two hour hike" I get a first glimpse of the village on the neighboring mountainside across the valley; a collection of stilted shacks clinging to an impossibly vertical slope seemingly held in place only by the surrounding jungle. It appears to still be several miles away. In my exhaustion, I do not even ask its name.

Barking dogs announce our eventual arrival as I stumble into one of the shacks Pin has declared a "tea house." I must bend over to clear the low ceiling in a darkened room sporting a single table and benches. The only light is through wall cracks and a door-less entranceway. It smells of wood smoke, hints of curry, and the stench of previous trekkers. Most of all it smells of tea.

No Taste for Tea

I should say here and now that I hate tea! That includes the hundreds of exotic brands my friends have plied me with over the years intending to make me like it. So, I am not happy to find myself in a tea house after climbing a mountain for six hours. I was hoping for a cold beer like they serve everywhere else in Myanmar.

My brief wallow in self-pity ends when the Amah walks through a pulled curtain like a living Smithsonian photograph. Amah is a term that approximates the word "Grandmother" in several languages and one I have come to apply often to just-met elderly ladies.

She is a vision, an elder of the Paulang people, a Burmese hill tribe who live the old way on the sides of mountains not yet invaded by technology. Her native garb is colorful as a flower garden and her skin like old saddle leather. Betel nut stains her toothy smile and she immediately enchants my camera. She is the essence of the people I have come to see. The Paulang are known for their textiles and this lady is a walking museum piece. The only problem is that she is carrying a tray of tea.

Myanmar woman

My image of a dignified tribal elder is damaged when she begins chattering in a high-pitched staccato while frantically hauling out large bags of local clothing to sell me. I am a giant here and wealthy beyond local comprehension so this is not unusual. One or two American dollars will feed a family here for quite a while. I try to photograph her as she flits about like a bumble bee collecting pollen but she moves too quickly. She is holding clothing up to my western girth and commenting in her native Riang about my size, realizing nothing she has will fit this huge visitor and loudly bemoans her loss of potential sales. I physically stop her in the doorway, whose filtered light hides half her face in shadow and I take my first decent portrait before she flits away.

Myanmar has only been widely open to travelers for about four years when I arrive and cameras are still an unknown quantity in many rural villages. She seems to have no concept of what I am doing and begins to wind a colorful swath of textile around my head while she chatters on. To calm her down I ask Pin to tell her I will buy this head wrap if she will just stop long enough for me to photograph her. He smiles and says, "Yes' but then again he says yes a lot and now I am not sure if his English extends much beyond that single word.

While Amah dumps another bag of clothing on the table I open a door to investigate a delicious aroma coming from the next room and there it is, my dream photo waiting to be taken.

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0215/burma.html

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2015. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

Buy Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Tears, Fear and Adventure

Buy Tears, Fear and Adventure at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Amazon UK

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