Now what I remember most about him is what he said about the Rohingya: that they were troublemakers, not really citizens of his country, undeserving of sympathy, that he hated them. He had said it standing under a banyan tree, and I had noticed, again, his dress: he was wearing a longyi, a Burmese sarong, and with it, new-looking, Western hiking boots. His longyi’s knot was tied impeccably. His boots appeared to me to not quite fit him.
But I spent three days and walked 50 kilometers with him before he said this. Through a trekking agency I’d arranged to meet him in Kalaw, in hill-country in central Myanmar, and took an overnight bus there from Yangon. The bus was ultra-modern, air-conditioned, and near-empty. Arriving at dawn, I disembarked into cold air and a fog that obscured the tops of pine trees. I found the café where we were to meet, ordered a tea. Every few minutes a man sidled up to me and asked if I needed a guide. When I said I had one already they looked not merely disappointed but resentful; slinking away, I saw them lingering on the café’s margins.
This was a year ago, so Myanmar was still in-vogue: after decades of oppressive military government and isolation internationally, it had begun to ‘open’ and appeared to be moving toward democratization. A perception of the country as a dramatic ‘good-news story’ — a newly-liberated populace, pursuing long-denied opportunities — was drawing increasing international interest. I badly wanted to see Myanmar and Kalaw through this lens; but those sullen, hands-in-pockets-would-be-guides kept straying into my field of vision.
He arrived fifteen minutes late. He looked extremely young: early twenties, I guessed. He introduced himself as Thomas — I blinked, asked him to repeat it. Thomas was at once exuberantly friendly and palpably nervous: as he met me he profusely apologized. “I’m sorry, sir” — I never got him to stop calling me sir — “I am running late. I still have to get some things from the supermarket. I am running late, I am sorry. I think maybe you will write this on TripAdvisor.” I told him it was no problem, and we walked two streets over, not to a supermarket but to a small, dowdy grocery store. Thomas disappeared; I waited outside. Next-door was an internet café. Young men played computer games, their faces near-expressionless. The fog was clearing to a powder-blue sky, yet I felt a sense of anti-climax: this, apparently, was Myanmar’s transformation in actuality. Thomas reappeared; walking quickly, he continued to apologize. “I am sorry about this,” he said, into the chilly blue morning. “I am sorry about this.”
We walked toward the hills. Rapidly the streets became less busy. Small houses sat amid ferns. Then, the trekkers’ worst nightmare: I felt something awry in my bowels.
The crisis was immediate. I told Thomas, who spoke Burmese to an elderly couple sitting on their porch. I was led to a wooden shed behind their house: there, the apocalypse duly took place. Back outside, I found a bowl of water and bottle of soap. I soaped my hands, washed them in the bowl; then, gazing at the soapsuds unmoving in the water, I knew I’d done the wrong thing. There was no drainage mechanism: clearly you were supposed to wash your hands some other way. I had defiled the water. Thomas had accepted a tea, and the three of them were sitting without speaking, the couple calm in this disruption to what looked like a familiar, well-honed daily routine. I said nothing about the suds. We walked on.
My mood had changed. That gleaming, empty bus, those furtive loitering would-be guides, the expressionless cybercafé teens, my guide’s inexplicable anxiety, my own failing bowels, the floating soapsuds — everything seemed to go together, somehow; there was something not quite right about the entire morning, something fundamentally off-kilter. Thomas and I resumed walking. “I’m sorry,” Thomas said, again. “I’m sorry.”
* * *
Thomas turned onto a dirt track. We walked through a glade of pine trees, then into a more open country of tawny-yellow grass. Soon we were climbing, following a ridgeline; green valleys appeared below us.
Thomas talked compulsively. He probably had instructions — making conversation was a way of making happy guests. Yet I had a sense he also genuinely wanted to make a connection with me. There was something in his tone when he questioned me that suggested he acutely wanted to hear the answers, and something in the way he told me things that suggested he wanted me to hear what he had to say. I wanted to chat, too, but my bowels had made me less talkative than normal.
“This is your first trip to Myanmar?”
“Oh: great.” That turned out to be a recurring expression of his, at permanent odds with his nervousness.
Thomas had a smartphone, a Samsung, and he often flicked and swiped on it as he spoke. I looked again at his longyi-and-hiking-boot combination. I noticed that, young as Thomas appeared, he had several white hairs.
“I’ve been a guide for one year.”
“It must be exciting living in Myanmar now,” I said, trying to return to my preferred way of thinking about the country. “Democracy, reform — many new opportunities for people, right?” Thomas nodded, but I saw him frowning just slightly. I asked, “What did you do before you were a guide?”
“I worked in Mandalay, in a factory that mixed cement bricks.”
“And you want to be a guide for a while, or move onto something else?”
“Actually, I am studying law. But I haven’t been able to pass yet.” He didn’t elaborate. I knew entire universities had been shut down for long periods under military rule. I told him to keep studying, then wondered if that was helpful or even applicable advice.
“I want to get married,” Thomas said — he had a girlfriend — “but, she told me, “not enough money.” So he was trying to get as much guiding work, as many treks, as possible. I wondered if this explained his anxiety: a fretful determination to ace every trip, the success of which he was measuring constantly. I asked how he and his girlfriend met. “In our village,” he replied, with a tone that suggested this was rather a dumb question, that it was self-evident people would meet in their own village. Below in the valley, an old man slowly walked across a rice-field. “Not enough money,” Thomas repeated, “not enough money.” I said everything would work out, then pondered again whether that was a useful thing to say.
“Yes,” Thomas said. “But so much time will have passed. We will be old. We will not be young. I think it’s better to be married when you’re young.” Tall clumps of bamboo lined our path; on one leaf, a butterfly opened and closed its yellow and red wings. I told him that in the West, people typically got married when they were much older than he was. But he only nodded, as if that fact, while interesting, had no relevance to him.
For perhaps 40 seconds, we didn’t speak. “It’s so quiet,” Thomas said, and laughed nervously. I saw him searching for a topic. “Do you have brothers and sisters?” Before answering I looked at him, tried to read his expression. “Three?” he said. “Oh: great” — and he did look like he thought it was great. “I have two. But, I never see them. They are still in my village. I have not been back.” Now he was the one who let the silence resume. I wondered if this meant he hadn’t seen his girlfriend in that time.
The silence extended; again, he looked mortified. Then he said, in what appeared to be an analysis of causation, “I think my English is not good.” I assured him it was. He looked at the ground: unthinkingly following his gaze, I saw the precision of his footwork on the rock-strewn path. He said, “My father died when I was small. He spoke very good English. So after that, for many years, I couldn’t practice my English.” Sadness suddenly emanated from him like a heat.
All morning we walked along the ridge. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that advertised itself as Nepalese. I said I would eat only a little because of my bowels and Thomas looked startled, as if I had discarded some carefully-prepared script, and he feared for the consequences. He reached for his phone. I glanced at his screen, saw him playing a Tetris-like game: by stabbing at the screen he was smashing colored blocks, attempting to clear a straight path for himself. He collapsed that game, then I saw squiggles of Burmese text on the familiar blue-and-white of Facebook.com. “Are all these messages from friends of yours?” I asked. He pursed his lips, as if thinking about the question. He scrolled and scrolled, as if searching for some piece of information that was eluding him. He talked of TripAdvisor and Booking.com, about travelers posting critical comments; he mentioned, with an embarrassed grin, the benefits of me leaving a five-star review. His expression, staring into the phone, was tight-lipped, pensive.
As the Nepalese staff served curries and breads, I noticed that Thomas’s features looked more than slightly Indian. Certainly he was physically distinct from the typical Bamar, Myanmar’s dominant ethnic group. Interested in the presence of South Asians in the country, I asked about his ethnic background. Thomas looked at me with surprise. “I am Burmese,” he said. So much else was fluid, undergoing transformation: but this assertion landed in our conversation solid as a rock.
Now we walked downhill, into the valley. We began following a train-line. Thick, dry undergrowth was on one side of the tracks, rice-fields on the other. Inevitably I thought about the laying of the rail-lines by the British Empire, about that well-worn trope of trains as symbols of modernity. “What if a train comes?” I asked. But Thomas knew the times: he said the next one was not due for five hours. The track gauge was strikingly-narrow. The wooden planks were beginning to rot. A small train-station, with a village wrapped around it, appeared on our left. A man sat on a bench on the platform. I wondered if he could be waiting for the distant evening train. Perhaps he was waiting for something else. Perhaps he was not waiting for anything.
Fog was now back around the treetops. I saw two bulbuls in a tree. We arrived at the outskirts of the village where we would spend the night. The houses, basic two-story constructions, all had electric paint-jobs. One had purple doors and green walls, another green doors and blue walls. The colors stood out in the foggy dusk. Thomas turned left, into our homestay. A Burmese family greeted me with the wordless wide grins by which people with no common language communicate. I sat exhausted on the front step.
There, abruptly, I remembered other news and analysis I’d read about Myanmar, things I had chosen to ignore since my arrival, preferring airbrushed accounts. That still-unmet expectations were causing rising frustration. That people’s predominant feelings were not merely or even mostly of dramatically-opened possibilities, but of a scramble for resources and opportunities which they saw as palpably finite. That change, displacing traditions and disrupting communities, was causing anxiety and disorientation — and prompting searches for reassuringly simple racial-religious-nationalist ideas of identity.
I found myself watching Thomas as he unlaced his hiking-boots and put on flip-flops. I saw his feet. They were wrinkled, calloused feet, the feet of someone who’d grown up walking without shoes. He’d been tied into village life enough to want to marry from there. But the old rural patterns had been disrupted — not only had Thomas himself moved, to Mandalay for factory-work, then Kalaw, but back in his village, his prospective wife was demanding more money. Thomas was attempting, through the tourist industry, to plug into a nascent Myanmar of greater economic opportunity. Yet his constant talking to me, tending me like an over-watered plant, suggested an entrenched notion that foreign travelers were a scarce and precious resource. On his phone Thomas always had anxiety on his face, as if he believed Mark Zuckerberg’s “connected world” could bring as many disasters as windfalls, as if one bad TripAdvisor review could sink all his dreams, as if all that he’d built for himself remained fundamentally insecure. His hiking boots now sat on the balcony, socks scrunched into them, juxtaposed against the rural dusk. I remembered his words inside the Nepalese restaurant: I am Burmese. The only truly confident declaration he’d made.
Night came. In the house three low-wattage light bulbs flickered on. Each illuminated perhaps four feet. In the kitchen, Thomas and the homestay family chopped vegetables I didn’t recognize. He spoke to the family familiarly in Burmese. I offered to help; he switched back to English to tell me it wasn’t necessary, resumed talking Burmese. His face looked washed of the concern I’d seen earlier. I heard water trickling in an irrigation channel of a neighboring rice-paddy: I wondered how many generations had tended it. A puttering sound: a motorbike came up the driveway. Its sole headlight glowed, far stronger than any light in the house. The driver parked; chatted briefly in the kitchen; left again. I watched the headlight’s glow become smaller, then disappear.
* * *
Through the small porthole of a window beyond my bed’s mosquito netting, I could see only fog. I stepped outside. Although fog enveloped the multi-colored houses, in the rice-field I could make out the long green stalks, heavy rice-grains at their tops. Next door a young girl was on a swing made from rope and a hessian bag. I felt better this morning, in this house, amid this countryside. The girl swung with an unchanging, entirely predictable rhythm. Thomas put away his flip-flops, wrenched on and laced up his hiking-boots. We started walking.
Bright yellow squares appeared on the hillsides. Thomas said they were sesame fields. Old women were spreading chilies on blankets on the road, to dry in the sun. Thomas told me about that, and other crops, and harvesting methods. In his pocket his phone beeped. “Over there they are growing potatoes.” His phone beeped again. “And that is corn.” His phone beeped again.
Then, a pivot: after speaking about Myanmar’s countryside, he wanted, amid the sesame-checkered hillsides, to know about my country.
“Is there rice in Australia?”
“Only a little.”
“Is the weather warm in Australia?”
“It depends. In the south it gets cold in winter.”
“I like winter-time the best,” said Thomas. In Kalaw, he told me, it became quite chilly in December. I told him that in the Australian city where I used to live there was often frost on the ground in the early mornings, and it looked almost like snow.
“Oh: great,” Thomas said. Then he said, “I like this about my job. I meet people from everywhere. France, the Netherlands, America. And they tell me things.” He paused. “I have not seen snow.” A plane was flying overhead, and he said,: “Actually, I have not been on a plane.” He laughed, put his hands in his pockets, took them out again. Another rice-field. Thomas told me that in this area, farmers got two harvests per year. Then he said he had a cousin working in Malaysia, in construction, and maybe one day he would visit him. I watched his hiking boots scuff the ground, left, right, left, right, as our conversation shifted between inwardness and outwardness, between old and new worlds.
We began climbing again, into another set of hills. Blue-black clouds appeared on the horizon.
“Are there earthquakes in Australia?” Thomas asked.
“Oh: great.” Thomas said. “Here in Myanmar we just had an earthquake in Bagan” — the ancient city, comparable to Angkor, filled with archaeological monuments. “Two hundred buildings were damaged,” he said. “It is terrible. It is terrible, because it is like our heritage is disappearing. We are in mourning.” He said the word “mourning” very carefully.
I said, “We’re certainly getting more extreme weather in Australia. Fires, floods, rain at strange times of the year, things like that.”
“Same in Myanmar!” said Thomas, and I noticed his excitement at finding a point of commonality. “Like now. There shouldn’t be rain like this, in November. This is not normal.”
As if on cue, we saw, below us, a rice-field that had been flattened, the rice-stalks horizontal against the ground — it was like a movie-scene of a UFO landing. “This is from heavy rain last week,” Thomas said. “It is damaging because it is coming at a different time in the rice-cycle. It has destroyed a lot of crops.” He paused. “I think the world is changing very fast.”
I said, “In Australia farmers can buy insurance against poor crops or bad weather. Sometimes they get help from the government, as well. Is there any talk of that, yet, in Myanmar?”
Thomas asked me for clarification. Then, he said, “No.”
“It started in Australia in the Great Depression,” I said. “After the economy collapsed, a lot of farms had big difficulties, a lot of people had it very tough.” Then, listening to myself, I stopped speaking.
The clouds were closer to us. We put on raincoats. It began to bucket. Brown water poured down our path; the earth turned to sludge. Thomas calmly found footfalls in the muck; I stepped where he stepped. A large monastery appeared. Thomas gestured for us to enter. We walked into the courtyard, then stood under a sloping red roof at the main entrance. Rain poured off the roof. Monks in yellow robes walked slowly up the steps.
Thomas said, “Are you religious?”
“I’m not, no.”
“You have no religion at all,” he said, declaratively. “A lot of my clients from the West are like that.” I had a feeling he’d been about to instinctively say “oh: great,” but had pulled back just in time. I noticed his use of “client.” He looked at the rain, adjusted his jacket. Then he said, “But you know, in Myanmar, that would be very difficult — to have no religion at all.
“Villages around here are all losing the old religion,” Thomas continued. “Here people practice a Buddhism, but an old-fashioned Buddhism, with animism and other traditions mixed in. Now the old still believe that, but the young don’t.”
“Why do you think the young don’t follow the old style?”
“It takes a lot of time,” Thomas said. “Young people now, they don’t have time.” Back on the path, two locals were attempting to walk in the rain. They squinted, held up their hands to shield their faces, disoriented.
“So you’re more of a conventional Buddhist, Thomas?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I am a Buddhist.” A second confident assertion from him, and it seemed to me again, given all his other freely-expressed doubts, jarringly-so.
The rain lightened; we left the monastery. Our boots squelched in the earth. Visibility was still poor, so it took awhile for me to see a large poster stuck on a house. I opened my jacket, wiped my glasses on my shirt, then saw pictures of a man I didn’t recognize, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Who’s the guy on the left?”
“That’s the new President.”
“What do you think of the new government, then?”
“For a long time things were terrible. Now everything is better. We are very happy.” From his tone, he made it sound like the well-worn verse of a school song — he sang it dully, as if by rote. Whether he did so for my benefit or his own, I didn’t know.
The rain stopped, and the valley and next range of hills became visible again. Now I could see a startlingly conical-shaped hill among the range, and Thomas said, “A hermit lives there.”
“He went there and became a monk. He lives up there and works on his religion.”
I looked. On the hill’s summit was a small hut, surrounded by maybe a half-dozen pine trees. For a second I thought I could make out a figure, but of course I couldn’t.
“He gave up everything,” Thomas repeated, “and became a monk.”
On some impulse I said, “You ever feel like doing that?”
He said, “Do you?”
“Sure, some days.” But I said it with a dumb grin on my face. When he replied, “yes, sometimes,” he looked contemplative, and grave.
We arrived in the village where we would stay the night. One shop on its outskirts had several outside tables and was selling beer to tourists. At one of the tables was a group of newly-bronzed northern Europeans, and one of them said, “Hey, Thomas!”
He had escorted them to Inle Lake several days ago. They had stayed there, and were now heading back to Kalaw by another route. There was a shouted recollection of some mid-trail embarrassment which left ambiguous who was being mocked; they invited Thomas to have a beer with them. We walked quickly to the homestay so he could drop off his things before heading back. He asked if I wanted to come; I declined.
At the homestay I went to the outside shower, poured cold water from a bucket over myself, put on my last clean clothes, went to the house’s second-floor, and opened my book. Night came. I had a sudden appreciation for simplicity. Old routines in an old house, I thought to myself. Thomas still wasn’t back. On my arrival the old man at this homestay had nodded to me only slightly. As I read he sat on the floor on the opposite side of the room, underneath framed pictures of presumably-deceased relatives. But my presence in this house likely complicated any practice of household routines for him. At around 9 o’clock, a confused rooster began to crow.
* * *
When I woke up and went outside, I found Thomas already on the verandah packing his bag. We walked on, in more fog. He hadn’t shaved: it made him look older. On the village’s outskirts was a field of corn, dead. After two hours of walking Thomas realized he had left behind his rain-jacket.
Now we were passing through different country again, an open grassy valley with scattered banyan trees and rocky limestone cliffs to our left and right. Inle Lake, grey, calm, was visible ahead. A thin trail of Western tourists was moving through this valley from various tributary paths in the hills. I saw once again the country’s potential — this could indeed be a major tourist attraction.
Then, I felt again the dreaded sensation in my bowels. Why now? I told Thomas through a self-deprecating joke, then went broodingly quiet. Yet Thomas still insisted on speaking, asking one question after another. Preoccupied with Richter scale rumblings in my intestines, my responses became terser until I was answering in monosyllables. I looked at him, saw his now-familiar anxiety. Eventually he said, simply, “We are silent.” I looked at him. He was desperately unhappy.
In an attempt to reset the situation, I said, ‘But people can be silent, sometimes, Thomas. There’s such a thing as a comfortable silence.”
It had no effect at all: his face was the same. I thought: but he isn’t “comfortable.” He is in no position to be comfortable. And I found myself asking again — what was it, precisely, about silence which Thomas couldn’t tolerate? Was it the importance he ascribed to each trekking trip, elevated by an idea of the scarcity of trekkers in Kalaw? For the tourists around us in this valley were still few in number, given this was peak tourist season. I thought again of those would-be guides loitering by the café, desperate for business. Or was he genuinely searching for a human connection? He had moved only recently to Kalaw, I reasoned; he would be spending a lot of his life on trekking trips with strangers. Amid his disrupted, dislocated life, far from family and other anchors, did he, quite simply, want to talk?
I asked to sit. We entered a banyan tree’s shade, rested our backs against its roots. I shut my eyes. Thomas sat pensively. I could feel his concern that I’d stopped speaking, knew he was interpreting it, again, as a setback. A cool breeze came from the lake. I could see he was thinking of a new topic. But it seemed to me that all his anxieties conditioned the one he now chose.
“Today in Myanmar,” he said, “we have a problem with the Rohingya.”
I looked around: at grey rock, yellow grass, the banyan tree’s fat trunk and leaves, the distant lake. I felt another quake in my bowels.
“Burmese people don’t like them because they are so violent,” Thomas said. “They carry out many terrorist attacks. They live inside Myanmar but they are not fromMyanmar. They are from Bangladesh.”
The banyan tree’s enormous roots, knee-high, curled in all directions; to me, now, they resembled a tentacled monster rising from the earth. He asked — and I recognized the same sentence structure from our conversation yesterday — “Is it like that with Muslims in Australia?” Searching for a new point of connection between us, he’d settled on this. So many differences separated us. But he knew — from previous trekkers? — that our societies had this tension in common. He was looking at me expectantly, hopeful this would solve the problem of the silence between us.
I did no calibrating, no soft-pedaling; I did the opposite of what people do who want to make a connection with someone else: lobbed my own differing perspectives and values straight at him, unvarnished. “In my country,” I said, “it’s similar in that too many people believe ugly things about Muslims.” A butterfly floated past. “It’s unfair, because of course, all but a handful are as peaceful as you or me. But people like to have somebody to blame.” As I said it, I watched hurt spread across his face. He had suggested a commonality between us; I had pointedly denied it.
He clenched his lip. He said, “They have too many children. They will take everything. This country should be for real Myanmar people.”
I looked again at his Western-style hiking boots; I looked at his face, his South Asian-looking face. Three foreign backpackers, small in the distance, walked through the valley. Like the rest of Myanmar, he had been waiting a long time, with increasing impatience, and had sacrificed much — moving to Mandalay to mix bricks, leaving family and girlfriend behind. Now, guiding tourists to Inle Lake, he presumably felt himself achingly close to his goals. But could he already see, I wondered, that his goals were not quite being realized — and likely would not be? All this dislocation — and for what? I remembered his comment yesterday: I think the world is changing very fast. Alone in the hills with a tourist who’d gone mysteriously quiet, an event boding ill for his professional success, he had reached for another assertion that, like I am Burmese, like I am Buddhist, had a solidity to it. We have a problem with the Rohingya. In his pocket, his phone bipped. Perhaps a TripAdvisor notification. An ancient-looking farmer walked past us, carrying a full basket on her back. His phone bipped again. “It’s about defending the Myanmar culture,” he said. At this, I was entirely silent. One more uncomfortable silence. I could almost hear him say it: we are silent. But he didn’t say anything. His face was stony.
We walked towards a rocky hillside — the last ridge. Now Thomas did something drastic. He took out his phone and put on music. It was, of all things, the pop song “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. Thomas clearly knew the lyrics, the ridiculously Californian lyrics. They rang out in central Myanmar. I fell right through the cracks/ And now I’m trying to get back. In this moment of stress, it was American pop he had turned towards.
We were approaching an enormous construction site. A luxury resort was being built. I saw my chance to use a bathroom. We entered a world of wooden scaffolding, pouring concrete, gaping muddy holes in earth. The scaffolding looked precarious. I found a beautiful modern toilet — which was not yet working. A sign warned against use. Another wooden shed it was. Sitting there, I had an impulse to take my own advice: I attempted a silence. I found myself listening to small birds, tiny rustlings, a wind. Then, those sounds were extinguished by a cement-mixer’s guttural chug. Then, I heard, faintly, Jason Mraz: Nothing’s gonna’ stop me but divine intervention/ I reckon it’s again my turn.
The final ridge. Another blue-black cloud. Another rainstorm approaching. I zipped up my jacket, but Thomas’s was still hanging at the silent old man’s homestay: he had nothing to protect himself. I looked at him. His face was now without anxiety, it was the face of a stoic, settling in for protracted discomfort, protracted disappointment. He got out a plastic bag, carefully wrapped his phone up in it. The last thing we heard before he turned off his pop song was: well open up your mind and see like me.
Originally published by Longreads.