The early morning chill that had settled under our skin had dissipated, hastened away by two cups of delicious chai at a Nepalese restaurant during our early lunch. We now walked the glowing tan streets of Nyaungshwe, just peering around, wandering. By the canal I heard Russian, two men taking photos. In accented Russian I inquired: do you want me to take a photo of both of you? Fluently they responded: where are you from? They became enthusiastic when they learned I was from the United States and knew Russian through my studies. They were Oleh and Dima, from Ukraine. Oleh was working in Myanmar, but taking a little vacation. Dima was with him.
Their excitement bounded over: what are you doing tomorrow, here? Do you want to take a boat tour of the Lake with us? I awkwardly translated back and forth so Ben could have input. A teenaged boy approached us as we decided, sure, we’d tour with them tomorrow. This boy asked if we wanted to tour with him. Alright, we decided. We’ll meet here tomorrow morning. Bring warm clothes, said the boy. I repeated our meeting time in Russian to our new tourist buddies to be sure nothing was lost in the swirl of languages.
It was New Year’s Eve and we went to bed before midnight to be ready for our early start.
Apprehension floated in us as we strolled to our meeting place on New Year’s Day. But there they were, our Ukrainian friends, greeting us eagerly. Especially Oleh. He quickly regaled us with his New Year’s antics: apparently he had played guitar at a bar until just a few hours before. He clutched his head and stomach comically for our benefit: “visky!”
Our guide, who I learned that, despite being a teen had already lead tours for four years, led us into his long boat. The Ukrainians began recording the goings-on immediately: apparently Dima was making a film. The boat’s motor roared to life, water sprayed, and we set off, perched on little chairs and swaddled in coats.
The sky and the water were dark grey blue and the edges appeared smudged, unclear, wandering. The canal joined Lake Inle and we passed by fisherman with their giant nets. Streaks of light attempted to break into the haze. Mist settled over the water, clutching the banks, refracting the light. Oleh babbled behind me, alternatively telling me about the wonderful time he had working in Iraq and complaining about visky and the fact that he didn’t have some now. I laughed, my bangs flipping back in the wind from our movement.
After a time on the water, we pulled up to a village situated on stilts. Our guide brought us into a silk weaving workshop, where we were given tea (“visky!” says Oleh) and led around by a 16 year old girl who explained the entire process, from spinning the threads to weaving to washing. I clumsily translated her practiced words for the Ukrainians and then asked her about herself as we wandered the dim space. Obligation clung, and I bought a few pieces from their shop, a signal of thanks for opening up to us, for the guide girl’s obvious effort, for the fact that they probably rely on monies from boats of tourists like us.
We were brought to two more workshops: one where silver was made into trinkets and jewelry, and one where cheroots were made. The silverwork was impressive and the cheroots with honey and spices, I admit, had a lovely taste. And we were brought to lunch, where I had a nice tea leaf salad. Oleh declared his dish too spicy and had his much awaited viski instead. As we ate, and he drank, he taught us some Burmese, testing his phrases out on the amused server.
Below, back on the dock as we readied to depart, a cat lounged about. Lured by my obvious interest in it, some men picked it up and demonstrated, to my delight, how the cat had been trained to jump through their arms when held in a circle. The animals in Myanmar really are remarkable – all that I met, even the apparent strays, were friendly.
Then to a temple. Buddhas has been covered in so much gold leaf they had been rendered into blobs. A sign declared, “Ladies are prohibited.” I, of course, scowled. Ben and I made our way outside where we drank lychee juice, played with another friendly cat, and chatted with our young guide. The sun had long since made its appearance and glared off the gold of the temple. My feet were warm and dirty on the tile.
Once the Ukrainians had been rounded up, we set off for Inthein. It was an add-on to the typical route, but why ever not? It took time to get out there, winding through water paths flanked by tall grass banks. But the time spent speeding over the water was deeply satisfying. Simply moving can produce happiness, magnified when movement is through new sights. Boats passed coming the other direction and tourists and locals alike waved. Oleh sang from his seat behind me.
Again we docked and Ben and I set off on a path that we hoped would take us to ruined temples. We found a friendly kitten instead. A child came up toward us and motioned for us to follow, bounding up a hill. We, suddenly feeling lacking in coordination relative to their agility, followed. And there we were: crumbled stupas overlooking the town below. We gave the kid some change and off they bounded again.
After surveying the scene from above, we made our way to more ruins. We observed from the perimeter, and I befriended a dog. This exploration had taken some time, so we set off back for the dock. Oleh had found some visky at a restaurant stall.
Happily, I sat back as we wound back through the channels. Our last stop was a monastery with ere-jumping cats. They no longer performed, but I wasn’t too disappointed, having had our own private performance by the cat on the dock. We pet some cats in the dark halls and then reentered the sunshine for our boat ride home.
Gulls flocked above us as Oleh pretended he had food in his hands, encouraging me to get good photographs. Join us for dinner tonight, they said, we’ll show you a great spot with local food. Alright, we said. We disembarked from our boat, Oleh and I continuing on with our standing joke in Russian: “Careful!” “The doors are closing!” The last line, taken from public transportation announcements, was sung.
We bid our guide goodbye. We arranged where to meet the Ukrainians for dinner. We walked back through the streets to our hotel. The day shone around us. My mind buzzed with it all.
That night, dark settled like a dim coat. We sat under the buzzing business lights with the Ukrainians. Oleh in particular regaled us about his country, about his home in the east of Ukraine. It is so beautiful, he said; I could see it tugging at him, far off in Myanmar. The war is very sad, he said, because my place is a peaceful one. There is a forest, and a river full of fishes, and in the morning when the sun peaks out there is a mist settled over the land. He ordered more visky and threw it back. Then, the Ukrainians walked us back to our hotel before hitting the bars. We went to bed, looking forward toward the morning, when the sun would peak out over the mist settled over Lake Inle.