by Paul Yee
A rural teahouse provides an unexpected window on Burma.
The spider was well camouflaged, silent and still as the flickering oil lamps cast dim shadows on the wall of the teashop. Gathered around an old wooden table, seated on benches and on the dirt floor, the Burmese villagers attempted conversation with Barbara and me. Only our accidental host, Nan Mai, spoke even a smattering of broken English and neither my wife nor I spoke more than rudimentary Burmese. The only common thread of verbal communication came as we took turns reading stories from a grade school English primer. Rather than inane tales of Dick and Jane, the children’s book talked of dragons and wizards. Princesses were put under spells as their heroes came to their rescue.
Burma was, and still is, a land of magic where soothsayers interpret the dreams of the generals, who in turn, rule the country with an overbearing cruelty reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We read from the primer and laughed. We laughed at the exotic stories in the book; we laughed at the crazy set of circumstances that led to our presence at the teashop. We also laughed the nervous laughter of fear. The village of the teashop was not a place where foreigners were allowed to spend the night. One disregarded the draconian, and usually arbitrary, rules of Burma only with great trepidation.
That night the ubiquitous military police were absent. Only the spider watched over our nocturnal gathering as a young villager brought a delaminated guitar to the teashop and began to strum traditional Shan melodies. In return, I borrowed the guitar and taught them the chords to “Uncle John’s Band” and other delights from the repertory of the Grateful Dead.
We were stranded in rural Shan state, located near the eastern border of the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma. We had rented a jeep and driver earlier that day in the marginally touristed town of Hsipaw in an attempt to reach Namhsan, the farthest point allowed to travelers by the generals in Rangoon. As with everything in Burma, careful track is kept on all foreigners. The owners of our guesthouse in Hsipaw filled out form after form describing who we were, what we were doing, and where we were going. After arriving in Namhsan, no doubt our new guesthouse would likewise be required to tend to demands of the Burmese bureaucracy. But due to a breakdown of our jeep we sat inside the teashop, outside the watching eyes of the generals. Namhsan had to wait.
That afternoon, just before reaching the village of our teashop, we had heard a loud bang as our dusty jeep lurched to a halt. Our driver removed the malcontent transmission from under the jeep and hauled it to the side. He sat on the dirt road with the transmission nestled in his lap repetitively hitting the misbehaving chunk of machinery with a rock. “No problem,” he assured us. “I’ll have this fixed in a few minutes.” Trying to look busy he would crawl under the jeep and make a few banging noises, only crawling out again after he thought we had walked down the road a bit and stopped paying attention to him. After a few hours of this charade he came over to us and suggested that Barbara and I walk to a teashop just beyond a bridge that was a mile or so down the road. His plan was to hitchhike to Hsipaw, pick up a working transmission, hitchhike back to the jeep, install the transmission, and pick us up for the rest of our guided trip. It was a noble plan that had no chance of ever succeeding. We slung our backpacks on our shoulders and meandered down the road to the teashop.
As is often the case when traveling, a mishap can present an opportunity. Serendipity had led us to this little teashop and the handful of villagers who lived near the shop. When we first arrived, Barbara and I greeted the owner, sat down on a bench by an old wood table, and tried to figure out what to do. We bought a few biscuits and attempted to explain our situation to the middle-aged woman, Nan Mai, who ran the place. Nan Mai had long black hair common to most women of Burma. Her eyes glinted in amusement as we tried to tell our story of the cantankerous jeep using a kind of pigeon English. She gestured for us to leave our packs in the corner and take part in the most practiced of all Burmese skills: waiting. We began to realize that we would be at the teashop for an indeterminate amount of time.
Without warning, Barbara yelped. She had spied a two-inch-wide spider on the wall a few feet from her head. It didn’t threaten, and after the initial surprise it didn’t appear dangerous or malicious. It merely watched as the two of us, Nan Mai, and this little teashop patronized by an occasional villager began the eternal process of forming a quiet relationship. The musty smells of the village floated on a gentle breeze. Dappled afternoon sunlight flowed through the wooden shutters. The quiet was interrupted only by an occasional rustle as a customer would enter the shop for a quick glass of tea. With little to do we examined every inch of the place, looking inside pantries and under shelves. We watched the lady of the shop boil tea and sell cookie-like pastries. Under the watchful eyes of the spider we ate reconstituted noodle soup for dinner. Every few hours, Nan Mai would chat to a customer and give us the latest status: “Only more hours few.”
Around sunset Barbara and I took a short walk to the bridge to watch the darkness settle into the valley. The light dimmed as we watched the river flow under the semi-suspension bridge. One of the bridge towers was canted at a dangerous angle. To resolve this, the industrious villagers had attached the suspension cables to a cliff on the near side of the bridge, affectively isolating the now useless suspension tower. That’s how things work in Burma. The government didn’t help, it only watched.
As night took hold, the teashop slowly filled up with locals. Our presence was a novel and slightly dangerous event for the villagers, chaperoned only by the spider. For us, it was a unique opportunity to see rural Burma from a perspective few outsiders ever get a chance to experience. We read from the primers and sang songs as we struggled to communicate with our friends. A little girl jumped on the table and danced to the Burmese music. “Very pretty,” Barbara said to her young mother, the words not understood, but the meaning clear.
As the evening morphed into the deep black of night some of the villagers went to their homes to fetch blankets. Nan Mai took us into a back room and laid the blankets on the floor, making a kind of bed for us. As we lay down to sleep, Barbara and I whispered to each other of the accident that led to this unique day. The teashop was quiet, the villagers having gone home for their own sleep. Before settling down for the night, I decided to walk around the now silent shop. The wooden floor of our ersatz bedroom floor creaked as I made my way to the main room of the teashop. The front door was shut and locked fast, as were the shutters on the windows. Nan Mai was also gone but she had left a small oil lamp softly burning in case we needed to go to the outdoor privy. The dim light illuminated the room I had gotten to know so well. But this time the room was devoid of people. No more stories of dragons, dancing girls on the table, or Grateful Dead songs. Without the people of the village it was just an empty room.
For a short while we were able to escape the prying eyes of the generals, the tourist professionals, and jaded locals. We had a privilege few travelers to Burma ever get a chance to experience. Despite an almost total inability to speak with each other, Barbara and I shared a remarkable evening with a small Shan village in eastern Burma. We came to know the villagers as people, caring and sensitive, afraid yet open, not as quaint tribal caricatures blurred by the speed of a passing taxi. Our view of the country had fundamentally changed, colored by the simple yet profound experience of the teashop. As I headed back to our ad hoc bedroom I glanced at the wall. The spider was gone.