Betel, Tobacco, and Pickled Tea, or: How I learned to Speak Burmese without Saying Very Much (Part II of III)

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The first thing I noticed, when my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, was that there was just about as much activity on board the boat as ashore. A varied collection of goods were being shuffled back and forth along two narrow passages running from prow to stern while families busily laid out bamboo mats inside three rows of square cubicles, each no wider than the length of a man.

I felt lost. For most, this was just another trip down the delta; they had done it dozens of times if not hundreds or even thousands. But for me, I didn’t even know where to begin.

I realized that I had no ticket. (Shouldn’t I have purchased one before embarking?) I looked around for something familiar, maybe a western backpacker who knew the ropes and could help me out. But there were no foreigners here.

Inside the ferry

 I walked down the passageway wondering just where I was going to sit. All the cubicles had been taken. It would have been a simple thing to ask, but I had only learned a few words of Burmese, more out of courtesy than anything else.

As I passed by a nearly empty cubicle, a man with a round face and glasses looked up from his newspaper and, noticing my state of confusion, motioned with his hand for me to sit down. He was wearing a short-sleeved button shirt opened halfway down and a dark blue longhi (Burma’s take on business casual).

With my backpack still strapped to my shoulders, I took a seat next to the man, who studied me with his stern emotionless face, like a store clerk scrutinizing an invoice. After a while, he rolled up his newspaper and tucked his glasses into his shirt pocket. “Thet,” he said, pointing his finger at his chest before thrusting it out towards me.

“Chris,” I replied.

The man let out a guttural huff of approval at the successful attempt in communication. Now it seemed it was my turn. “Ticket?” I asked.

The indomitable Thet

Thet looked at me blankly; the word was meaningless. I took out a five Kyat note and pretended to give it to an invisible man before making a waving motion with my hand to symbolize a boat. Despite the fact that I lack even a modicum of talent when it comes to charades, Thet caught on instantly. He motioned for me to remain seated and simulated a man walking on the palm of his hand and then repeated my imaginary exchange of money.

Content that I wasn’t about to be tossed overboard as a stowaway, I took off my backpack and set it down beside me in the cubicle. Thet nodded and returned to his newspaper. Finally, I was on my way to Pathein!

I leaned back against the bulkhead and smiled at the family of six seated in the cubicle next to us. The four women, their faces painted lightly with streaks and circles of yellow thanaka, a Burmese cosmetic made from bark, smiled back. The oldest, a grandmother smoking a cheroot, held up the hand of her grandchild and waved it gently in the air. I waved back, and the boy giggled.

A man, who appeared to be the child’s father, pulled two betel quid out of a plastic bag and plopped one into his mouth while offering me the second. This leafy package of areca nut and lime is ubiquitous in Myanmar, but, being a narcotic, I hadn’t quite gotten up the courage to try one. However, this friendly gesture was enough to remove my remaining inhibitions, and I picked the quid up from his hand.

I watched as he chewed and then spat a long red stream out the window of the ferry. It seemed simple enough, so I plopped the morsel in my mouth and bit down. A bitter taste infused with cardamom and cloves swept over my tongue, the juices of the nut numbing my throat and gums. I leaned over the window and let loose my best loogie, but instead of a crisp red stream, the crimson saliva dribbled over my face and onto my shirt. I turned back around to the good-natured laughter of the family, and the man handed me a piece of paper to wipe my face.

I continued to practice my spittle technique, never quite mastering the art but providing a bit of light-hearted amusement for the little boy, who laughed and pointed at my red-stained teeth and chin.

The family next door

 When the quid had finally been consumed, a woman’s voice brought my attention back to Thet. The woman, who was around the same age as Thet, looked at me and then rattled off a barrage of Burmese before setting several bags down and walking off.

Thet huffed, “Maya.” He coupled his hands. “Maya,” he repeated.

 “Ah, your wife.”

Thet gestured dismissively, “Maya, humpf.”

A few minutes later Thet’s wife returned. She was holding a bottle of Fanta and set it down in front of me. Thet pointed at the bottle and then at me, motioning to drink.

“Oh, kyeizu tin ba de.” I took a sip from the bottle, and the woman smiled and sat down beside her husband.

Thet pointed to himself, “Thet,” then at me, “Chris,” and finally at his wife, “Khin Myat.”

Khin Myat pinched her fingers together with her thumb and motioned to her mouth.

Ma ho bu,” I said. “Not hungry.”

Thet rubbed his stomach, pointed at me, and then feigned eating from a bowl.

“Ok, I will let you know when I’m hungry.”

I was beginning to suspect that Khin Myat had not been pleased with what she probably considered to be her husband’s lack of hospitality. In a country where temples, houses, and even stores often leave a barrel of cool water for travelers to quench their thirst free of charge, not offering me a beverage probably struck her as impolite.

The motor of the boat rumbled to life, and the hull of the ferry began to vibrate like a cheap motel bed. A few minutes later, just as Thet had indicated, a vendor walked by, and I purchased my ticket.

With the boat finally moving, I motioned to Thet that I wanted to go above and take in the view. I left my backpack with Khin Myat, and we walked up past the second deck and onto the very roof of the vessel.

Life on the river

Thet and I stood leaning over the railing, watching the skyline of Yangon slowly disappear behind the curtain of smog that enveloped the city. The sun burned red through the haze and cast the delta in a soft orange glow. Thet pulled out two cheroots, offering one to me.

I looked at the slender cigar. I didn’t smoke, but then I thought it would be rude not to accept. On the other hand, I didn’t want to abuse Thet and Khin Myat’s hospitality (after all, they had already invited me to dinner). I motioned for Thet to stay put and walked over to a man carrying an ice chest. After purchasing two Myanmar Beers, I returned to the railing and handed Thet a can.

For several hours we stood watching the delta pass by, smoking our cheroots, and washing down the aroma with rice lager. Thet would occasionally point out a person or place of interest: the stupa of a pagoda, a fisherman casting his net, a worker returning home from his rice paddy along the banks of the river. Although you wouldn’t have noticed from his near complete lack of facial expressions, Thet seemed to relish his role as Myanmar’s newest cultural ambassador.

As darkness descended on the delta and our view was reduced only to a myriad of bobbing lights floating on a river of black, we returned below deck where Khin Myat had laid out dinner on a bamboo matt. She had apparently spent the day in Yangon precooking fish and chicken for the trip, along with the customary rice, assorted curries, and ngapi, a fermented fish paste. Burmese cuisine suffers from a bit of an identity crisis; it’s not quite Indian, not quite Tai, not entirely Chinese, but rather all of these and none of them. Even at our humble table, the variety of influences on display was astounding.

Darkness falls on the delta

Khin Myat scooped some rice and fish onto my tin plate and then pointed to several tiny containers holding the condiments. I indicated that I would like to try them all, and she poured me a little bit of each. Pinching the rice and fish in a ball with my fingertips, I went about sampling the ngapi and different curries.

Frankly, I was surprised at the complexity of flavors in what probably was a meal cooked with whatever Khin Myat had on hand at the moment. It was utilitarian food, but incredibly rich in flavor, a schizophrenic assault on one’s taste buds that was as pleasing as it was intriguing. Unlike a restaurant, with home cooking, there are no guidelines to follow, no set dishes. In Yangon, I had sampled the various local delicacies, but this seemed the most authentic, the most true; maybe because it wasn’t made to be a Burmese dish at all but to please Khin Myat (and possibly to some extent her husband).

We finished off the meal with a plate of lahpet, a sort of fermented tea leaf salad, and Thet, Khin Myat, and I commenced a lively conversation. We hardly spoke a word, but with our hands and the aid of an occasional prop, we talked about our homes, our work, and the little things that make us happy. Even the unmovable Thet began to smile before we bedded down on the bamboo matt.

As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered if language barriers really exist at all, or if language could sometimes be the barrier to communication. So much can be said with small gestures: the flinch of a wrist, the nod of a head. Is it not that we spend more time searching for the right words than really attempting to communicate?

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