In Yangon bookstores it’s easy to find a handful of English-language translations of local writers who wax poetic about the charms of rural life. I bought a couple for about $1.50 each and thumb through them during the trip. It’s easy enough to see during a trip here, out the bus window, or beginning on the shortest bike ride out of a town or village.
On my last night in Mrauk U, I wandered atop an overgrown pagoda so thick with brush and cobwebs you can’t see anything but the top of a pagoda-top Buddha from below. Above there are four entrances, each with a Buddha looking out. From the top, you can catch a panoramic scene of Rakhaing farming and farmers’ lives, which bustle with energy in the cool hours right before dusk. Monks in saffron robes, women balancing baskets of vegetables on their heads or sacks of rice to be husked, walked along a skinny dirt road that cut a diagonal to the green rounded hillocks in the distance.
In fields, boys walked across the road to a creek and filled two rusted cans with water and carry them with a pole on their shoulder back to water, row by row, their plot of cauliflower. Below, a frightening tree with a veiny trunk and branches dwarfed a bamboo hut elevated on poles; outside it, a grandpa in a magenta sweatshirt, swept his clean dirt yard.
I got back to the bike, with a great Belgian scientist I met a couple days before, and we headed out – away from town – a couple kilometers, deeper into the farmlands and past some of the hills. Then stopped on the raised dirt road between a gold field of rice and a green field of cabbage and radishes. We returned ‘bye byes’ local kids offered us, and waved to a parade of passerby, mostly women carrying baskets on their head filled with vegetables, rice, sugarcane, sticks. Some looked stern or shy. Others giggled, even dared removing a hand holding their basket to wave briefly, and move on.
Soon a plumpish woman carrying a basket overflowing with neatly arranged radishes – white roots about 10 inches long – paused before us. Signalling to the basket in near panic, we rushed to help her take it down. My Belgian pal said, ‘My goodness, it’s at least 50 kilos – that weighs more than her.’ The two of us very nearly dropped it. Her group – including a serious looking grandmother – stopped and we helped them unload to. And they sat with us for about 10 minutes. I showed the old woman a photo she let me take of her – frowning – and her eyes lit up like a teenager when she saw her digital likeness.
We helped them reload. They keep a small towel rolled in a circle on their head and balance the basket, just so, on top. It was getting dark, so we bid farewell and started to drive off. Teenage boys jumped up and down in the ricefield just then – signaling to each other ‘ho! ho! ho!,’ which we joined in as we left. Laughter came from all parts of the field from people we hadn’t even seen.