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Everybody gathered just before the crash car derby for a group photo.

My neighbor Richard Gaboury has an annual track day at his place, co-hosted by his buddy Tim Oyler. Track Day is the most redneck fun I have all year.

It might help to explain that I’m from redneck stock. The people who raised me (family+community) are good, country folk. I spent my childhood in tiny communities with people who worked hard all day long and came home filthy. I spent my weekends fishing in the crick, catching crawdads, or racing snowmobiles, and usually drinking beer. In the mornings before school in the Fall I went hunting. We built potato guns and used hairspray as an explosive. We said “Howdy!” and “Pert neer” and “Dang!” and we wrastled each other and lit bonfires for fun. Ever since I grew up and left home, I’ve tried to learn how to fit in with the city folk, the educated parts of society, the more genteel people with the power and money to make things happen in the world. My people back home would probably call me “high falutin'” now, but I can’t deny my redneck roots.

An example of one kind of perspective held by country folk. We are “Oregonians” so the sticker makes a play on words suggesting that people who live in Oregon use AR-15s? The other one suggests that if you are American, you do not support kneeling before the flag as a form of racial tolerance activism. I, for one, do not agree with either.

Richard is retired and has turned his great country property into a playground with a paved Go-kart track, a dirt race track, and a zip line. He and Tim spend the year acquiring cars that can race on his track, or hold together in the derby, and on race day they get a spray-painted number on the side and they’re up for grabs. Anyone who shows up can drive a car. Richard begs me to try it every year, but I have no interest in racing cars. I’m content to watch others goof around. The go-karts are a hit with the kids, but adults love them too.

I parked and headed up the hill to the party. Richard’s place is big enough that people just park on the grass.

I passed my other neighbors helping their kids gear up to drive go-karts.

Past the parked vehicles and through the trees, I could see a bunch of people gathered around the dirt track that Richard built in the forest.

As I get closer to the track, I see people waiting for their turn and watching the racing cars.

Kids have almost as much fun as the grown ups.

This is the car I helped paint for Richard when he participated in a derby in a nearby town. It didn’t win, but did well, despite the appearance here.

As I approached the dirt track, I could see where I wanted to go. Those bleachers are the best place from which to see all the action.

A couple of cars race around the corner.

Tim is on top of the safety measures, and guides this car off the track.

Another example of a redneck property: you can find a handy deer stand if you need a good vantage point for the race track.

Richard loves to make his friends happy. The more people that show up and have a good time, the more fun Richard has. I often tease him that he’s a 13-year-old boy in a man’s body, and he agrees. Below, Richard in the blue shirt with sleeves cut off is driving a giant green beast that has no purpose other than to drive over things for fun. The crowd loves it and gives a big cheer!

Richard delights the crowd by driving the big green machine over some parked cars.

Everyone brings food, so there is feasting all day long. Then people take turns racing the go-karts and junk cars and riding the zip line. Then at the end of the day, all activity ceases and people put their name into the bucket for the lottery to win a seat in a car in the crash car derby. This year there was also some raffling of gifts.

People with names in the bucket hold their helmets and wait to see if they win the lottery for a chance to be in the derby.

Tim in the yellow reflector vest and his girlfriend manage the raffle and lottery.

While Tim gathers all the drivers and officials together to go over safety rules….

…Richard has a chat with all the people who have filled the bleachers and stand on the sideline ready for the show.

And if you’re really into all this and want to see the MAIN EVENT, watch the 12 minute video below. The crash car derby is loads of fun and what everyone sticks around all day to see, even if they don’t get a chance to participate.

 

Valleys of agricultural activity spread out beside us as we walked.

Today was day three of our trek through the countryside from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We woke at 6 am to a beautiful sunrise in the home of a local village family along the way. Our cook prepared another fabulous breakfast and by 8 am we were walking again. Anna, Lukas, Fumi, and Hein and we are all friends by now, having spent so much time together. We have slept in the same room and eaten every meal together. We’ve learned each others’ personalities and can joke together with insider knowledge. It’s fun and comfortable.

Morning sky across the rooftops from our homestay.

Looking the other direction at the pink clouds of morning.

Today was the shortest hike, but with the highest elevation gain. We saw more stunning vistas and interacted with more generous, loving, local people. We laughed and talked and asked a hundred questions of each other.

When we first met our guide at A1 Trekking in Kalaw, we had the option of choosing a private tour. This would be me and Margaret traveling with our own guide. We chose to hike with others and I am so glad. The price drops for more people, but that was not our reason. We thought with two weeks of being together, day in day out, that it would be nice to interact with some new personalities. It was the perfect decision and we were lucky to join a group of good people.

Our guide, Hein, has been a resource for every question we have. He is constantly in good spirits and helps us avoid embarrassing circumstances. He said his smile solves all difficulty, based on his four years’ experience trekking.  I began referring to that as his super power. Hein smiles and we are all immediately ready to comply with any request.

A man carries a single bamboo pole. I wish I had been better positioned to show the entire pole. It was enormous and must have been difficult to carry.

Small boy entertaining himself while his mother worked in the field.

A bike loaded down with goods.

Our view near the highest point of our trek.

These women were selling crafts near the fee station. We all had to pay a $10 fee to enter the Inle Lake region.

Entering a bamboo forest.

Some of our cook’s incredible creations in fruit, for our last lunch together.

The whole gang! Left to right: Cook (can’t remember his name, gah!), Lukas, Anna, Hein, me, Margaret, Fumi.

At long last, but also too soon, our trek was over and we had to say goodbye to Hein and our cook, who traveled with us the entire way. They handed us over to a boat man on the shores of Inle Lake. We had left our heaviest luggage with A1 the day we left, and only carried what we would need for three days. Our luggage was on the boat when we arrived. We climbed into a long, narrow boat and I spoke up and asked that Fumi sit in front. He is an artist with his photography; making more of the sights with his camera than any of us could. I wanted him to have an unmarred view because he had promised to share photos later.

The five of us had three different destinations. We traveled north to drop Anna and Lukas off at their homestay first. A homestay is like Air BnB. The boatman took us through the shore communities to their homestay. They were staying with a local family.

The journey was through a community entirely on the water. Crops of beans, squash, lotus, and many other things we couldn’t identify were grown on the shores of the lake. Houses and workshops were on stilts, and everyone travels by boat. There were restaurants, pagodas, cultural sites, and homes, all on stilts above the water. I think this is the first time I have ever seen such a community. It is fascinating to me. Rather than try to describe it, I’ll include a bunch of photos and let you see it.

Making our way through the channels between crops in Inle Lake.

This is what the view looked like from where I sat in the back of the boat.

Heading under a bridge.

Our boatman.

Woman working the crops. Here I am guessing they mostly harvested lotus root.

Convenience store on the water – so funny!

Other boats blasted past us on a water highway.

I like the yellow windows.

I also love buildings that are falling down.

I still can’t believe all these places are built on stilts.

What seemed like neighborhoods cluster along the shores of the lake.

After our goodbyes to Anna and Lukas, we took a long, long ride south to our stop, Inle Resort and Spa, where we had to say goodbye to Fumi. It was unexpectedly sad, to leave the boat and leave our connection with our new friend. When Margaret and I stepped out of the boat, it brought home the realization that our friends were all gone and we were on our own again.

Our boat pulled up to Inle Resort and it was a whole new world. Our luggage was carried for us, and we were greeted with hot towels and juice. Our room is exquisite. The toilet is indoors AND you can sit on it instead of squatting. Yay!!! There is a shower with our first hot water in three days. Hell, our first non-ice water in three days.

The dock up to our resort hotel.

The dock from the other direction.

Me, sunburned, bathed, and really happy not to have to hike anymore. Oh, look: I’m blogging. Always thinking of you guys.

Sunset across Inle Lake.

Sunrise reflects off the home of the village Chief.

We woke at 6am in the Chief’s home after a good night’s sleep to a lovely dawn sky. As anticipated, it was cold cold cold that morning. After the ice-baths in the cistern the evening before, I assumed the nights must get very cold to keep the water at that temperature despite the consistent hot days.

Outside at the table in front of the house, we sat and mixed up our coffees. In two weeks in the country, I didn’t see brewed coffee offered anywhere in Myanmar. Nestle instant coffee packets were proffered everywhere we went. At the outdoor table in the frosty air were bowls with packets of coffee, packets of instant creamer, and packets of sweetener. *sigh* But it was around 30 degrees and all those packets came with a thermos of hot water, so we considered ourselves fortunate.

By 8am we said goodbye to the family and walked out into the red dirt streets of Ywar Pu. Today we walked 26 km, continuing through the lands of the Dannu people and then into Yaung Yoe country.

A group of young women heading for the fields. The silver cans are their lunchboxes.

A man and his beast.

Terraced rice paddies

We walked through low mountains and valleys. It’s agricultural country, and the activities we witnessed were in support of the economy there. Field stubble was being burned, as well as slash and burn activities to clear more land. It made the skies hazy but we rarely smelled the smoke because we didn’t come close to the active burning. Most of the cattle and oxen were tied to trees singly or in pairs, and were clearly used to pull carts or to plow. Occasionally there were more cattle in a field, so I could see there were at least a few ranches.

Though we had seen it the day before, I am still impressed with the terraced hillsides of rice paddies. We were in-between seasons and did not see any rice still growing. Everything had been harvested, the dirt was dry and hard, and often cattle were out grazing on what was left of the rice plants before it was burned. We also saw chilies and ginger harvested. The chilies would be in great heaps in the shade beneath a house (houses and storage buildings were often two story, with the living quarters above and storage beneath). Ginger was spread out on tarps beside the fields, drying in the sun. Crops are harvested by hand, and though it is late in the season, we saw people all day long in the fields, still bringing in the last of the crops.

Workers harvesting ginger, most likely.

The baby had been sleeping in the shade while its mother worked, but we must have disturbed it. The baby cried and cried until Momma laughed and went to soothe it.

I didn’t see any parents around, just these kids watching us walk by.

A huge, beautiful heap of chilies.

Remember the blisters I developed on my first day in Yangon? No problem! I had protected my feet in every way I could in the few days before this trip, and now on day two of my hike, they still felt fine. I definitely could still feel the blisters, since they were there between my toes (from the flip flops) and on my heels, but in my hiking shoes it was manageable and I didn’t give them a thought. I had, however, begun to sport a sunburn on my face and after the fact remembered to start using the sunscreen I had in my pack. Ha ha. I’ll never ever learn about the sun. I just love heat and sun so much, I can never remember that it’s supposed to be dangerous.

At our morning break we stopped for tea in a big open hut with an older woman on one side weaving cloth. She had a stack of completed scarves and bags beside her. Much of it was garish lime green and orange and cobalt blue, but I found a subtler and tasteful weave of white, black, gold, and purple. The scarf cost me 4000 Kyats – exactly $3. If I had more cash on me I would have paid her more for the lovely scarf woven by hand by a lovely country woman.

This woman weaved stacks of lovely scarves.

She graciously posed for a photo.

Our lunch stop couldn’t have come soon enough. It was hot and there was no getting around it. By noon it was 96 degrees and we were hiking in a lot of direct sunlight. We literally dropped to the floor in the large village home, half of us going prone right away after gulping warm water from our packs. People at the house sold us liter bottles of water all around, and we gulped at those too. Hein came in at one point to check on us, and immediately asked Fumi to change his position. Not knowing the customs, he had accidentally laid down with his feet pointed at the shrine to Buddha – very disrespectful.

Hein allowed us a very long stop. I wondered why we had to get up so blasted early if we had a 2 ½ hour lunch stop. After our brilliant cook prepared another delicious multi-course meal, we were offered the opportunity to go explore the town as we had yesterday. Every one of us stayed put and either rested or fell clean asleep. But I had to trust the Company. A1 Trekking had been around for years and was likely well-beyond a learning curve. The long rest did me so much good.

Our wonderful cook, hard at work in the kitchen.

Two courses from our amazing lunch.

The incorrigible Hein.

A boy in the village where we stopped for lunch.

Cattle pulling carts were a common sight.

Boys rolling tires with sticks.

Kids twirling and giggling and falling down

Off we went again, into the sun, over the hills, past the water buffalo. At our afternoon snack stop we finally came close to one of the fires. I heard a rushing, snapping sound in the distance and asked Hein what it was. He didn’t hear it. We sat down on the grass to rest in the shade of a tree, and everyone’s ears adjusted to the sound of our chosen spot. Chatter died down. And Margaret popped up to her feet! “Hein, what is that sound?” she pressed. He listened and finally heard it, “oh, that’s fire.” Typical, easy-going Hein. Margaret’s ears tuned in while I slowly got used to it and tuned it out. She periodically walked out away from our tree to watch the fire burn.

Margaret was still triggered by recent memories of having to run for her life from wildfire, and I didn’t grudge her a moment of that worry. While house-sitting for a friend in northern California last fall she was awake by coincidence in the night and glanced out a window to see flames on the hills, moving toward the homes! She only had time to grab her keys and her purse and run. From the car she called another friend nearby and woke him up. He did not have a car so she drove through the thickening smoke to pick him up. She called another neighbor who was already awake and told them to call everyone they knew. In an unknown neighborhood, in the smoke, in the middle of the night, chased by fire, she and her friend got away to her house, which for that night was safe. The home she was house-sitting burned to the ground. Whoah. In fact, the whole reason she is on vacation at the moment is because the owners of the ruined home are staying in her home (Margaret rents her house frequently on Air BnB).

Mud steps

Bamboo forest

We walked into a more forested section that provided some shade and saw our first bamboo forests of the trip. Hein took us past a courtyard of extremely derelict pagodas. There was a single shiny gold pagoda among them, but most were ancient and crumbling. I was eager to wander through them, as I am always drawn to the ancient stuff and less excited about the sparkly gold paint. Call it the anthropologist in me. Hein explained that this site was going to be demolished and brand new pagodas built. He said that upset him because people would come and steal the relics. I asked what the relics were, and he said they are often gold and jewels. I asked a few questions but wasn’t exactly clear on the cause and effect of the future crimes. He discussed the pagodas in the moment as though he assumed the relics were inside, but he talked as though the dismantling of them would result in theft. I didn’t understand whether he thought the workers would be the thieves. Hein took me to a particularly decrepit pagoda and showed me the section of bricks that showed where the relic had been placed – I could easily see the area outlined. Have you seen an old brick building where a hole that was previously a window has been subsequently bricked in? It looked like that. Only, this was a hundred years old and falling apart. I could have pulled the bricks out with my fingers. I wondered why the thieves wouldn’t have done their work now, before the workers showed up. But I am sure additional information was lost due to my inability to understand fluent Burmese.

Crumbing pagodas… and one shiny one!

I loved the tree growing from the umbrella on this one.

Up close they are so beautiful. It pains me to think this thing of beauty will be torn down and replaced with a shiny gold one.

We entered the town of Pattu Pauk and came across a monastery. We had passed several monasteries on our trip and I asked Hein if they were abandoned. They never had a soul about. Hein explained that the monks go out into the communities and do good works and collect donations during the day, but sleep there every night. I had overheard him talking the day before with Anna and Lukas about being both Buddhist and Muslim. His father was Muslim, and his mother was Buddhist, and each of the children in the family had chosen which religion they preferred and had the family’s support. Hein said that he had chosen to be Muslim, but had not given up the Buddhist practices taught to him by his mother. So he laughed and said he was both, since he observed both whenever he could. Anyway, Hein expressed his disgust with monks that he called “fake monks.” In explanation, he used percentages, saying that 85% of monks were fake monks and of those left only 5% of those were truly following the religion devoutly. I asked him to explain more. He said that most people joined the monastic life “because it’s easier. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to have a skill. You can do nothing and still have a place to sleep and food to eat.” He said those people did the bare minimum to escape scrutiny, and lived off donations.

Hein brought up the Rohingya. NONE of us tourists were about to be the first one to speak the word. I swear, before this trip, Myanmar was in my BBC podcast Every. Single. Day. For the heinous crimes of genocide – whole villages burned and the Muslim Rohingya people slaughtered by the Christian military – and leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s adamant denial that anything unpleasant is happening in her country. An outsider listening to the news gets the picture real quick that Myanmar’s military is NOT a group you want to interact with. Since we had been here, we had seen nothing but peaceful, happy people and not so much as a glimpse of military personnel. And here is Hein, laughing and saying out loud that he is Muslim! Hein just shrugged and said he didn’t really know what was going on with the oppressed people of Rakine State. It’s never on the news and no one talks about it. He said he had heard much more about it from his tour groups.

Not an abandoned monastery.

Hein talks to Fumi, Lukas, and Anna beside the monastery’s bell.

Pattu Pauk was our destination for the evening, so we only had a few steps to go beyond the monastery to find our home for the night. But before we got there, we got distracted by a group of women sitting together on blankets in the street doing some kind of work. We asked Hein if it would be ok with the women if we got close and watched them, and he said it would be fine. They were so beautiful, and seemed to be having so much fun, we had a hard time leaving them. In fact, the owner of the home we would be sleeping in came trotting down the street, asking Hein where we were going – concerned that his houseful of renters might change plans at the last minute. Hein assured him that we would be coming, but we wanted to watch the sight in the street. They were separating the white fluffy parts of popped corn from the hard shells and seeds. It was wedding preparations, which must have explained the buoyant atmosphere among them. I didn’t ask, but the popcorn could be for throwing at the newlyweds.

Women working with popcorn in the village.

An irresistible smile.

They were so fun to watch, chattering and laughing while they worked.

One woman empties her popcorn into the bag.

Margaret recorded them, then showed them the video.

The owner of the home was happy to have us stay.

Tonight I had had enough of the sun, sweat, and red dirt. The set-up at both our homestays is this: cistern in the back yard full of ice water, empty pan floating in ice water, platform of boards beside cistern. You pull up the curtain, so everything from your shoulders down is covered (ok, I’m just hoping that everything from my shoulders down was hidden from the passersby…), then reach over and fill the pan with water and dump it over yourself, trying to keep your whoops of frozen astonishment to a minimum. Grab a bar of soap, lather up to the best of your ability, then pour several more pans of ice water onto your body to try and wash off the soap. Then if you are me, grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dump another pan of water onto your head. I did it! I washed my hair. The others cheered and clapped when I arrived at the outdoor table with wet hair. And well they should have.

The sun sets at the end of a long and wonderful day.

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