I had come by motorcycle taxi to a local waterfall in the Northern Shan State town of Hsipaw, Myanmar. I had been in Hsipaw close to a week and felt ready to return to Mandalay but had two more days before I would leave. I ranked the motorcycle ride as the second scariest motorcycle trip of my life (just after one where I sat side-saddle on a slippery metal rack as we sped through nighttime traffic in Mandalay). We bumpety-bumped our way down a rocky dirt path that eventually became only slightly wider than the bike’s tires. I had my face scrunched tight from the fear while simultaneously trying to keep my body loose enough to take the jolts from the road. Three stream crossings later, my intrepid moto-taxi driver wisely pointed to the falls in the distance and let me walk the rest of the way. As I arrived, the water criss-crossed over the boulders from farmlands above, pouring into a small pool at the bottom. I had been lonely at times in Myanmar, where the language barriers could make it difficult to communicate much with locals, and I was not meeting many fellow travelers. Here, I was in the solitude of nature–alone but not lonely. I cooled off with my legs in the water until bees began to buzz around me. Then I followed the trail back on foot past rice fields, banana trees and men and women farming. I heard little other than the occasional rush and gurgle of a stream–no other tourists or guides, not even the usual laughing kids and crowing roosters. My only concern was whether I was following the right turns on the path, but the sight of billowing smoke in the distance soon took care of that.
We had passed by it on our way to the waterfall–a large burning pile of rubbish located just up the hill from the Chinese cemetery. In the other direction now I held my breath as I climbed the path past it, wary of inhaling the smoke and whatever noxious fumes it might have been emitting. I was just beginning to get mildly dizzy when I made it past the smoke cloud and released my breath. A man was sitting a short distance from the path and invited me to join him. I went over and sat down on an old motorcycle seat next to him. He had full, mostly white hair, wore glasses with a thick frame and had the stained burnt red teeth of a devoted chewer of betel nut. He told me he was in charge of the garbage pile and asked me where I had been. He said the word for waterfall in Burmese (“raytanhkwan”). I repeated it. “Yesssss!” he said. He pointed to his eyeglasses and said the word for it in Burmese (“myetmhaan”). I repeated it. “Yesssss!” he replied. He pulled out cigarettes and then betel nut, offering me each, which I refused. He stuffed a wad of betel nut wrapped in the betel leaf into his mouth and pointed to a calendar with the old Burmese money on it. In between, we sat watching the burning rubbish in an easy quiet.
Soon, a white pickup truck arrived, and a man got out and walked toward us. He sat with us and told me that he was a furniture maker. He also had a three-year-old child. Three boys were in the truck with him. I guessed them to range in age from 10 or 11 to 15 or 16. As we sat and talked, the boys unloaded sacks of wood shavings out of the back of the truck. One boy stood on the garbage pile. Another stood at the back of the truck. Another sat on the ground. The boy at the truck hurled each sack to the one on the pile, who emptied it and then flung the empty bag to the boy on the ground, who stacked the empties in a neat pile. They made a game of it, laughing as they hurled and flung the bags as hard as they could. I sat with a smile on my face as I took in the scene with the furniture maker and garbage overseer.
The kids finished their work and I said goodbye, passing the Chinese cemetery and then coming across adults and kids bathing in a nearby creek. This is a common scene around 4:30 p.m. each day in smaller towns and villages in Myanmar. Women and girls wore longyis. Men and boys went in their underwear; a few of the youngest boys went naked. The kids pounced on the water, giggling and splattering water on each other, eventually settling down to scrub off the day’s dirt. The adults washed their bodies and the family clothes. Kids smiled at me as I watched them play, and soon a woman gestured to me with her soap. I rolled up my pants and walked in, taking the bar of soap from the woman to wash my feet and hands. As I walked out, cows were walking in. Kids laughed and sploshed water in the direction of the cows. A man bathing in his underwear lathered himself in enough bubbles to clean an entire family. After some time, I put on my shoes and socks to walk back to the town center. It was one of my sweetest days in Hsipaw. And just like that, a place I had felt ready to leave felt like someplace I could stay.