I leaned against a wooden shack on a dusty road with two Dutch girls I’d only just met. The feeling of guilt was mutual. Most trekkers who take the Kalaw to Inle Lake route through Myanmar do a two-night journey. We’d opted for the one night journey, in which we were driven to a rest point where we would start our trek with others who had begun theirs the day before. We were being lazy because of the baking March sun, but we didn’t want anyone to know it. There’s nothing like sharing a shameful secret to bring strangers together.
“Let’s try our best to look tired,” I jokingly whispered to Nicoya and Meike, as we giggled and tried not to look too fresh. Weary trekkers passed by, sweaty and dirt streaked. One guy was wearing flip-flops.
“He’s crazy!” said Nicoya. “So, these are the people we will be trekking with . . .” but the group passed by and we were alone again. We’d been told a Burmese guide named Momo, who was guiding a group of six trekkers, would be picking us up, but so far no one had glanced our way.
“Who is this Momo anyways?” asked Meike. I started going down the rabbit hole of what-ifs. “I really don’t know how we are supposed to know who he is. Do we just yell “MOMO” at everyone who walks by? What if we are left here alone and we have to trek by ourselves?! Does he even know we’re here? Are there phones on treks? How would he know we’d signed up?” Nicoya pondered this with a frown.
“I don’t really know if they have service out here . . .”
Another group of trekkers came up the wide path. They seemed jovial, already chatting as if they were long-time friends. Leading them was a young Burmese guy, thin as a beanpole, and sporting a large, straw hat. I overhead him talking to a shorter, confident-looking girl holding a walking stick. “I’m supposed to be looking for some girls here and…”
“That’s us!!” I interrupted, jumping off the wooden wall.
“I’m Momo,” he said with a toothy smile and shook my hand. “Where are you from?”
“California,” I said.
“You’re from Germany?” asked Momo and laughed a long, loud laugh (almost a bray) that I would soon come to know very well. I wasn’t sure what the joke was, but I smiled to show goodwill.
“He’s very good at jokes, “ said the girl with the walking stick, who introduced herself as Melanie from France. She introduced the rest of the group. It consisted of a German couple, Caroline and Paul, an Irish couple, Roisin and Simon, and Melanie’s partner from France, Sebastian. Many of them immediately started talking up Momo to me.
“He told us jokes all last night. He’s hilarious!” said Ro. “C’mon, Momo, more jokes!” Momo was too busy chatting with Meinke to answer.
Momo didn’t see the need for more pleasantries and so, quickly, the trek began. We walked on wide, orange, dirt paths, over hills sparsely dotted with squat bushes, and under sacred Buddha Banyan trees. The thick, smooth trunk and roots were perfect for rests and while drinking water, we’d wonder aloud how much more time until the next rest stop. Momo informed us that it was bad luck to ever ask about time while passing one of these trees and he wouldn’t answer us until we were far away.
Along the way I chatted with Nicoya about her life in the Netherlands. She was a psychology major and I joked that we’d both chosen useless majors (me with a communications degree).
“Well, we just have to find rich husbands,” she declared.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty into poor dudes,” I said, woefully. “I like to date musicians, writers, and teachers. Something about those poor guys.”
Meinke spoke to me about getting her master’s in human and technology interaction, which I didn’t know was a thing. She told me that robots were being programmed to give medicine to the elderly in nursing homes and soon enough, the robots would even be able to have a conversation with their charges. To be speaking of such mind-boggling technological advances while walking through a primitive and natural countryside, where oxen grazed and farmers toiled over fields of rice, was disorientating.
We came to our first village and Momo laid out an orange tarp, covering it with Tupperware full of crunchy Burmese snacks, sugar cane cubes (a cheap Valentine’s day gift, Momo told us with a laugh) and a teapot of steaming green tea, which was brought to us by a silent, old woman from the village. She wore a gorgeous, bright pink and orange turban on her head.
As we drank our tea, Momo told us a winding story of a dragon and alchemist falling in love and this is why these women wear their fiery turbans and the men wear their clinical black ones. Most of the people in the village speak their own language and couldn’t speak Burmese to Momo, so we silently evaluated each other. Children whispered, seeming to dare each other to speak to us. It all felt a bit awkward. Villages are supposedly compensated for our visits and I hope this is the case because we felt a bit like trespassers.
We walked on. There was nothing our group liked better than to talk about Momo, as he was the common thread running through us. If there was nothing else to say, you could always mock Momo.
“Did you know Momo is a virgin and lives with his mother?” asked Ro. “He’s looking for a girlfriend. Maybe he’ll be going for you,” she smirked, wickedly. Single people always make coupled people uncomfortable, even if they don’t realize it. My singleness becomes a problem that must be fixed or, at least, discussed. The group had decided it was best to pretend Momo and I were going to start a relationship and I let them have their fun.
“Hannah, will you be sleeping by Momo tonight?”
“Is Momo going to be buying you sugar cane cubes?”
“Hey Momo, why don’t you have a girlfriend? We’ll find you one!”
After a stop in another village and being over-fed a lunch of egg and noodles, fruit, and Coca-Cola, the men decided to question Momo’s reasons for wanting to take us to a stream.
“Yer saying that we’ll have to go an hour out of our way to see this, Momo? Is it really that good of a stream?” asked Simon.
“I always wash my hair and shave there,” he said, as if this was a good enough reason to add time on to our travels.
“Oh, look at these guys,” said Sebastian. “None of us shave.”
“And we all have girlfriends,” said Paul.
“Ok, Momo. You grow a beard and then we can talk.” I laughed.
“My mama hates it so I shave it!” he said with a smile.
“But, Momo, why do you have these long hairs on your chin?” asked Caroline.
“Yeah, missed a spot,” Sebastian said. Momo guffawed.
“I am scared I will cut my throat with the razor, so I use scissors!”
Obviously, Momo had some bathing to do, so we took the side-trip to the stream. Momo told us very seriously that we must wait at least ten minutes before going into the water because going quickly from hot to cold would give us a stroke. He believe this is how his friend died.
Some of us changed into bathing suits (I went in my clothes because no one had informed me there would be swimming) and Momo went in shirtless, wearing his longyi, a long, skirt that Burmese men wear. Unfortunately for him, it kept ballooning out, making him float around while he tried to wash his hair. He laughed manically throughout this predicament.
“You know, he can’t actually swim,” said Sebastian, and I realized I’d been laughing at a half-drowning man.
We all laid on the bank, in the sunshine, letting it dry us before the ever-present orange dust would stick to our skin. A young boy led his buffalo into the water and methodically washed them. It was beautiful and it seemed like we had gone back in time. And then Momo started singing to himself.
“Buffffff-alo showeeeerrr!” This was his rendition of “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley and it was so random that we all burst into laughter. It also become permanently stuck in our heads and for the rest of the trek, you would hear, “Buffaahhhlllloooww showeerrrrr!”
The sun was starting to set and cast shadows over the rice terraces. We made it to “camp” as the last traces of sun disappeared. This village was weirdly like a summer camp. There were two other groups of trekkers sitting at tables, drinking Myanmar beer and eating chips that they’d bought at the makeshift canteen. Everyone stayed in their cliques and I hardly said a word to any other group. Our trekking groups had become our tribes. While our group chugged water and shared a can of Pringles, Momo played hacky-sack with a group of younger Burmese boys.
“He’s gone and left us,” said Simon, eating chips and hoping for dinner soon.
Momo finally returned and took us upstairs to our simple, but comfortable accommodation for the night. Thick mats on the floor, covered in blankets, were a welcome sight as our legs were aching and the night was getting cold.
“Hannah, where will Momo sleep?” asked Ro, giving me a wink.
“Not here!” I said exasperated and hoping Momo understood this was all a joke.
But, he was already back downstairs and helping to prepare our dinner for the night. We followed him to a smoky, bamboo hut. The eight of us took up the whole first room. The second room was where a fire blazed and cooked rice, vegetables, and FRENCH FRIES. Momo had outdone himself.
The smoke burned my eyes and I struggled to keep them open. I wondered if burning this fire with hardly any doors open would kill us all. No one else seemed worried, as they drank their beers, calling for Momo to play a song on the guitar. With all the feasting, drinking, and the general smell of trekking in the air, I felt like we could be Vikings.
“Does anyone else want to play guitar?” pleaded Momo and for a minute, I felt bad for him. He had to lead us all day, joke with us, cook for us, and now entertain us. I suppose it is his job, but maybe, for a second, he just wanted to take off that mask.
It turns out none of us could play guitar. Momo was forced to continue his job and started to strum. He was transformed, as many are, by the guitar. Gone was the goofy, big smile. It was replaced by a serious, self-assured look in his eyes as he played “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Travis, but in the Burmese language. Our gawky leader now looked handsome and I wondered if I should just live in Myanmar and be his housewife. Music does that to women.
“One more! One more! Ten more!” everyone yelled and swilled beer after each song. Momo played on. He played “Obladi-Obladah” and to my delight, a song by the Scorpions. We sang with him when he taught us Burmese phrases and it was a night of laughter and happiness with new friends.
I left early to go to bed and let my eyes cool. As I walked through the darkness, I could hear a shout.
“Play one more! One more!” And he did.
Words by Hannah Smith
Cover Photo by Scott Rotzoll