Elder Travel Gold Winner: Burmese Tea

By James Michael Dorsey

A drink he hates got him his best photo ever.

Whenever I look up, the trail mercifully fades into the clouds above, obscuring all distance.

The word trail is used loosely here as the term, in my mind at least, usually refers to a walkable surface associated with hiking. This churned quagmire of mud and loose rocks does not even vaguely meet that definition. The jungle of northern Burma is hostile enough, but I am pushing a titanium hip and deteriorating knee to their limits here. For two hours we have been steadily climbing through a cotton candy haze that has me asking myself why.

I stop to suck air, bent in half, and Pins’ smiling face pushes next to mine as he whispers, “Close now” a term I have come to associate with local guides that means “We are hell and gone from where we should be.”

Pin is a dead ringer for a young Jackie Chan but has never seen a movie and so he does not understand when I mime a scene from “Rush Hour.” He just looks at me and rolls his eyes but his irresistible smile is a fixture. “Not much further,” he says, and his words make me laugh. I tell myself the hill tribe I have come to see will be worth the effort.

Pin distracts my aching knees along the way by pointing out minute details of flora and fauna but he touches my soul when he bends to cup a large moth, stuck in the mud, into his hands. He gently carries it to the side of the trail and sets it on a rock to dry in the sun; for him, an act natural as breathing, but revealing to me the essence of this Buddhist country.

Four hours into our “Two hour hike” we have breached the clouds and the lush summits of ancient peaks surround us in all directions. It feels as though I am on the roof of the world. I get a first glimpse of the village on the neighboring mountainside across the valley; a collection of stilted shacks clinging to an impossibly vertical slope seemingly held in place only by the surrounding jungle. It is a speck of civilized progress gouged into a prehistoric landscape and it appears to still be several miles away.   In my exhaustion, I do not even ask its name. “Almost there,” Pin whispers through his smile.

Far below us green patches of rice paddies peak through gaps in the clouds and I see tiny brown specks of water buffalo grazing. If I weren’t so tired it would be quite beautiful. Suddenly a crimson robed monk comes bouncing down the trail with a spring in his step I recall from my youth. He is wearing only straw sandals and carrying a rice bowl.   He smiles broadly as he passes and Pan joins his hands in the prayer position touching them to his forehead to show respect. The monk can be no more than 15 but in Burma the red robes are revered. The boy is quickly swallowed by the clouds as if he were a dream.

An hour later barking dogs announce our arrival as I stumble into the village. I see curious shadows dart away from windows as we walk past the mud and brick houses. There is a feel of great age upon this place and the smell of cow dung fires and roasting corn floats on the air. I am sloshing through runoff from the previous evening rain and my splashing sends dozens of grasshoppers jumping a foot ahead, only to do so over and over again at my next step, reminding me of the endless karma of re-incarnation. My mind seems to be finding Buddhist metaphors in everything I see.

We reach a shack that leans up hill to keep from tumbling down the mountainside and Pin has declared it a “tea house.” The dirt in front of the entrance is stained a deep crimson from spit beetle juice. I bend over to clear the low ceiling as I step up and over the transom that keeps out snakes. Inside, the room is dark, holding a single long table and several benches. I drop my camera bag on the floor and slide onto a bench, anticipating food. The only light is through wall cracks and the door-less entranceway. The room carries hints of curry, and the stench of previous trekkers. Most of all it smells of tea.

I should say here and now that I hate tea! That includes the hundreds of exotic brands my friends have plied me with over the years intending to make me like it, convinced there is yet that elusive brand out there with my taste buds written on it. I think not.  So, I am not happy to find myself in a tea house after climbing a mountain for five hours. I had visions of seared goat and maybe some rice. I can’t smell any meat cooking but I do smell tea. My brief wallow in self-pity ends when the Amah walks through a pulled curtain like a Smithsonian photograph come to life. Amah is a term that approximates the word “Grandmother” in several languages and one I have come to apply often to just-met elderly ladies.

She is a vision, an elder of the Paulang people, a Burmese hill tribe that lives the old way on the sides of mountains not yet invaded by technology. Her native garb is colorful as a flower garden and her skin like old saddle leather. Betel nut stains her toothy smile and she immediately enchants my camera. She is the essence of the people I have come to see. The Paulang are known for their textiles and this lady is a walking museum piece. She is enough to make me forget about food until I notice she is carrying a tray of tea.

She pours me a cup and I hope she will not notice that I am ignoring it. My image of a dignified tribal elder is damaged when she begins chittering in a high pitched staccato voice. She is shrill as a chipmunk as she begins frantically hauling out large bags of clothing that she dumps on the table for me to buy. I am a giant here and wealthy beyond local comprehension so this is not unusual. One or two American dollars will feed a family for months. I try to photograph her as she flits about like a bumble bee collecting pollen but she moves too quickly. She is holding clothing up to my western girth and commenting in her native Riang about my size, realizing nothing she has will fit this huge visitor and loudly bemoaning her loss of potential sales. I physically stop her in the door way whose filtered light hides half her face in shadow and I take my first decent portrait before she darts away.

Myanmar has only been open to travelers for about four years and cameras are still an unknown quantity in many rural villages. She seems to have no concept of what I am doing and begins to wind a colorful swath of textile around my head while she chatters on. Her energy is manic and to calm her down I ask Pin to tell her I will buy this head wrap if she will just stop long enough for me to photograph her. He says “Yes’ but then he has said yes so many times I am not sure if his English extends much beyond that single word. He continues to smile but says nothing to the lady.

While the Amah dumps another bag of clothing on the table searching for super extra-large, I open a door to investigate a delicious aroma coming from the next room, a glorious smell that tickles my nose and overrides the stench of tea, and there I see my dream photo waiting to be taken.

A single shaft of afternoon sunlight drifts lazily through the open window, mingling with the smoke from a wood fire. It angles downward to showcase a water kettle on the burning embers and suspended above it are two large wicker flats, one on top of the other, each holding an assortment of corn, squash, nuts, and other delicacies slowly roasting over the open fire. The smoke and light shaft combine to dull all edges giving the room an impressionistic quality as if viewing the room through a silk veil. The background is dark and shadowy while the foreground is that mystical, medieval light that creates prize winning photos and all I have to do to take mine is endure some tea and buy some old clothes.

I smack my head on an overhead beam in my eagerness to drag the Amah into the room and am grateful it is wrapped with her textiles even though I must look ridiculous. I realize that to her I appear gigantic with one glass eye in the middle of my face, my head wrapped in a towel, bent almost in half to walk, and I am frantically pointing at the fire trying to move her into the fragile light before it is gone. She slowly side-steps into the filtered aura with a confused look but I know she has been photographed before when she assumes that ramrod straight posture many indigenous people think photographers want but actually hate. I am waiving my arms, trying to tell her how I want her posed in the light shaft. I ask Pin to tell her to just kneel and tend the fire naturally and he smiles and says “Yes.” I am getting no help whatsoever from Jackie Chan.

Finally the Amah gets it and squats down. She picks up a long bamboo tube and begins to blow on the embers. This is it! This is what I came for! It is a once in a lifetime shot that the Creator occasionally gifts to those of us who climb impossible mountains for hours only to end up in tea houses.

I am kneeling down low, about to click the shutter when I am elbowed from the side and tumble into a pile of rice bags. I look up and see several cameras flashing at my Amah! What the hell is going on?

Several trekkers have arrived minutes after me, looking for a bathroom, when they stumble onto my masterpiece in progress and butt right in. They are noisy Europeans, rudely shooting without asking permission. The old Amah looks at first like a deer in the headlights as half a dozen flashes obliterate the moody light of the room. In their rush to capture the image, they are destroying it.

I hold my temper and wait them out. Finding no bathroom they quickly lose interest and retreat to the next room to swig tea as noisily as they arrived. The Amah and I stare at each other for a second and we are both thinking, “What just happened here?”

My Amah starts to follow them realizing she now has smaller customers that her clothes will fit but I grab her hand and motion her towards the fire. We are alone now and I shut the door. The photo is waiting for us to take it. She has finally picked up on what I am after, sensing the possibility of the moment. She turns off the sales woman and segues into my ballet partner. She kneels with the grace of a mountain dove and tenderly stokes the flame like a mother caressing a child. Her actions are ethereal as she leans in to blow on the fire, a renaissance Madonna in the light, moving almost unperceptively as I shoot, over and over, each image an icon. We are both in the moment now, totally in sync, and for a few precious seconds photographer and model merge to create an intimate work of art.

I shoot dozens of takes and when I stand up to give my aching knees a break I bang my head on a sagging beam and she laughs. I help her to her feet and we return to the next room to find the trekkers trying on various bits of her clothing. The Amah is happy with this windfall of sales and resumes her manic chattering as she collects her money. I snap a photo of the trekkers in various states of dress, a curious blend of REI and local textiles. The Amah turns to look at me and I sense she knows something special has just taken place. I sip tea and we smile at each other. I still hate the tea. Jackie Chan is smiling and nodding his head, “Yes.”

I place money on the table and offer a slight bow to the Amah who returns it with a broad smile. I step outside into a brilliant sun and think that the trail down the mountain will be much shorter now.

Jackie Chan looks at me and I nod to him and say, “Yes.”


James Michael Dorsey is an author, explorer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines, The Christian Science Monitor, and Perceptive Travel. He has written for Colliers, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, Geo Ex Wanderlust, and Natural History. He is a foreign correspondent for CameraPix International and a travel consultant to Brown&Hudson of London. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His work has appeared in nine literary anthologies. He is an eight time Solas Award winner and a contributor to The Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Adventurers club.

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