We arrived in the hilltown of Kalaw after a long drive — six hours on dusty, winding roads — from the plains of Bagan. The air was cooler, and the flat dusty landscape gave way to rolling hills of green and brown. If I squinted my eyes a little bit, we could have been at home in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. As soon as I unsquinted, though, the golden spires of pagodas and the bustling outdoor market served as a reminder that we were indeed still in Myanmar.We came to Kalaw with the plan to join a guided trek to our next destination, Inle Lake, staying overnight in one of the Pa-O hill tribe villages along the way. This is a popular activity for visitors to Myanmar, but we weren’t really sure what to expect. The great majority of tourists we’ve met are in their twenties, with little luggage and tons of energy. We have, relatively speaking, lots of luggage (“Yes. It’s a violin. And that one is something called a mandolin”). And though we have reasonable amounts of energy, one of us is, after all, eight. We didn’t know if Jonah would be able to hike 18 kilometers a day for two days straight. Or if anyone would sleep in a hill tribe villager’s house. Or, honestly, what such a house would look like. But it all sounded interesting. We signed up.
At first, all of our calculating, anxious skepticism was on high alert: we chose one of the many trekking companies based in Kalaw, all of which do pretty much the same trip, based on some reviews and the fact that the owner had a cute puppy. She suggested that our group would be about 8 people, including our family of four, that they would transfer our luggage to Inle Lake for free (we would carry only what we needed for the overnight), and that it could not possibly rain at this time of year. We arrived the following day at her office to learn that in fact our group would have 11 people, we needed to pay a surcharge for the luggage because (and who can blame her) she hadn’t figured on the three instruments (“Yes. A violin.”), and the sky looked distinctly ominous. “Sometimes the greatest adventures begin inauspiciously,” I whispered to Miles as we piled into the back of an overloaded van to drive to the trailhead.
And indeed, as we set out into the unknown, with our pack of eleven tourists, our cheery guide Aung-Aung, and Aung-Aung’s wife, who spoke no English but smiled shyly as she walked the first day’s 18 km with us — five months pregnant and wearing flip flops — we saw almost immediately that we needn’t have worried. The walk took us through rolling hills, green with different crops, plowed by oxen, families swinging scythes to clear the fields. People waved and smiled as we passed, “Mingalaba! Hello!” Children playing in the fields stopped to give us high fives, and old women nodded and smiled at us all, and especially at the boys. There was no rain, but the clouds provided a break from the heat until we reached a higher, cooler elevation. Aung-Aung produced a seemingly bottomless supply of lollipops and other treats. One of our group, a professional photographer from Sweden (henceforth known in our family as “Swedish John”), would frequently break off in conversation to dash across a field in search of another photo opportunity, and the boys would follow dutifully with their own cameras to capture the scenes: piles of red chilis drying in the sun. Pa-O women with brightly colored headscarves and baskets of greens balanced on their heads. A woven bamboo fence.
In the evening, we arrived in the village where we would sleep. While Miles and the rest of the group went off to look at a sunset, Seth, Jonah and I wandered through the houses. High in the hills, the air was cold. Although many tourists pass through every day, people still approached us with questions and greetings — did I have two boys? How old? A gaggle of children approached Jonah shyly, then ran away giggling, repeating the game again and again. A little boy held a bit of scrap metal to his eye, framing it as if it were a camera, as if he were taking our photo. Others clamored to have their photos taken, then ran away giggling as soon as the camera was pointed at them. We watched a group of men framing a house, walking precariously along bamboo poles to lay the next beam. And after the sun went down, we curled up on floor mats to sleep — our group of eleven, not a crowd at all, but a cheerful, international crew — in a shelter of woven bamboo.
I awoke early to the squealing of pigs outside, and the creak of an ox cart down the dirt path by our door, sounds of a village morning that appear unchanged by the passing of time.The second day’s walk was just as beautiful as the first, through a hill pass and down a winding trail to the edge of Inle Lake, where long tailed boats would take us to our respective guesthouses. We were covered with mud, exhausted and more than a little sorry to say goodbye to Aung Aung and our group, recognizing once again the strangeness of this traveling experience: connections made, paths shared for a brief time, and then the diverging, the letting go, the goodbyes, the moving on to new adventures.