Life in Yangon, Myanmar : Touring With the Tea Couple

 

“How much do you pay?”

I looked up from the gigantic garbage receptacle I was in the midst of tossing my trash into. A man and woman, grey haired and smiling, were looking at me in anticipation of the upcoming answer. The man was dressed in a button up shirt and longyi; the woman in a simple dress and blouse, her hair swept back and her face decorated with pale yellow thanaka.

I was shocked at the fluency of his speech and was unable to hide the surprise from my face. Still, once my garbage landed at the bottom of its nearly empty bin, I managed a smile.

“Do you live here?” he asked, motioning to the five-story apartment building separated from us by a tall metal gate and wide concrete parking lot.

I told him I was staying for a month and was searching for a new home in which to spend the subsequent five months. I briefly shared with them the details of living in such a place, a set-up much more complex than that which, as a senior couple native to the city,  they were accustomed to. I told them how three of us were currently sharing the flat, but this upcoming weekend there would be four, and next week I would be leaving, replaced by other young professionals.

The rent for one bedroom of the unit’s three was more than I’d spent on my own two-bedroom apartment in Texas and slightly less than the room I rented at the base of the Rockies in Colorado’s most magnificent city. It was spendy for Myanmar standards, and included few luxuries. Each Friday, we payed for a kind woman to clean and wash our laundry. We payed 1000kyat for 5 gallon bottles of distilled water to be delivered from across the street, and a handyman frequented the home, trading his skills for a mild sum and cups of freshly brewed tea upon each visit.

I spared him some of the more fine details, knowing they were unnecessary and beyond what he had inquired.

“I’m looking for a home for my friend. She’s Japanese.”

He stopped there, expecting an answer or  golden opportunity. I didn’t quite know what to say, so just smiled.

 

Click on a photo to view images of our Yangon city tour up-close:

 

“Come with us. We’re going for tea,” the wife chimed in.

In my purse, I’d a camera and map. I intended to hunt down several of Yangon’s pagodas, temples, and museums during my first day free from work since I’d moved there. Since I’d decided to teach Year 4 during the week and English during the weekends, I aimed to take advantage of our one day Eid Holiday, an important calendar fixture for those few Muslim students at our school.

Time was on our side, and I had no excuse to say no. Since I’d moved there, I’d wanted to go to one of the city’s thousand tea shops but had yet to be acquainted with the tradition. I pushed away my typical, ’No thanks” response and instead followed the pair across the street.

We sat down on three plastic chairs placed around a plastic table, none higher than our knees. They offered me various versions of fried dough, each with its own name but tasting the same as the next. I declined each, and instead ordered a tea with a splash of cream, no sugar. Man and Wife ordered the same but showered their cups with minuscule white crystals screaming promises of giddy sweetness.

The man told me about his wife’s successes as an English teacher at one of the Government schools in town, and the wife, through broken English, did her best to name her husband’s 18 different college degrees, each from Yangon’s top college. At 86 years old, he’d yet to stop studying and considered himself a lifelong learner and lover of books. I’d say that was an accurate summation of his life.

After our tea was finished, the wife asked that I stop by their home to see all of her husband’s books. I obliged, telling them my plans for the day and noting that no set schedule had been determined. Of course I would come see their flat. This was to be my first visit to a traditional Burmese home!

We walked a block over and I ducked under a low-hanging door frame. We entered into a dark room with a couch, table, and poster of Christina Aguilera circa 1999 plastered above a dining table. The electricity had failed, and without a generator, the pair opened the street- level window to let in a bit of light. Unfortunately, though the light was allowed in, we were without any circulating air. Instead of air conditioning or an oscillating fan, the woman held a piece of paper in her hand, She folded it in half, and began to flip it up and down like a flaccid fan. With barely a breeze, she insisted I deserve the light wind rather than she. On the couch built for two, she stood up and scooted next to me, waving the paper directly under my chin while asking me questions about my time in Myanmar and occasionally getting up to offer a cup of tea or show me a book or trinket gifted by a former student of hers.

We discussed our plans for the day, and she told me how busy she was tutoring students around town during the afternoon. Every few minutes, there would be a lull in the conversation, to which she would again, insist it was time for her to heat up the kettle.

While we were talking, the husband disappeared into the house’s only other room – what I assume to be their bedroom. He chatted on his phone in Burmese during call after call, and finally returned to us with a smile.

 

Click on a photo to view images of our Yangon city tour up-close:

 

“Show me your map,” he insisted.
I did, and he took notice of the small stars I’d drawn at each spot I’d hoped to see throughout the city.
“This looks nice. Here we go!” he told me.
I paused, once more not sure how to react.
I had no time to think too hard.
“My friend is waiting for us. He will drive you where you’d like to go. We will take a bus to his home and go to each of these places this afternoon.”

I am an outgoing person in some aspects, and a very introverted being in others. At this point in time, I wanted nothing other than to say no. At the same time, I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and was a kind offering. He was an elder, a soft-hearted man, and had invited me to see his own home alongside his wife. He’d talked to me about life, about death, about religion, education and of course, about tea.

We waved goodbye to his wife, stopped to pick a few peppers from a plant outside his front door, and walked to the same bus stop which I pass each day on my way to and from work.

Twenty minutes later, we alighted and found ourselves at a small staircase underneath a sign for the country’s infamous NLD Party. The stairs led us to a landing decorated with certifications of an astrologer provided by various schools in India, Thailand, and neighboring countries.

Once inside the astrologer’s home, we were shown photographs of General Aung San and his leading daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. We introduced ourselves briefly as the two gentleman and myself were joined by another curious friend – a devout buddhist who I was told wore the traditional wine red longyi with crisp white button up shirt each day without fail. He said few words and though I had many questions about his lifestyle, decided not to press him for answers.

We four returned downstairs to the sparsely paved parking lot. Generously filled with new Toyotas and Nissans temporarily abandoned by their owners on this holiday, we found his own white sedan, pretended to throw rocks at a gang of stray dogs gathered in the shade of its back tires, hopped in, and began our journey around town.

They were as excited and mildly nervous as I. We all knew the moments were a bit peculiar but the men were fascinated to hear my impressions of Yangon, and I was overjoyed to be able to listen to the 70+ years of history each had experienced within the city. We traveled to Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple’s six story reclining statue, and went across the street to Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda’s five story seated buddha. We took a stroll at on the green grasses surrounding Inya Lake and another at Shwe-Taung-Gon Sasana Meditiation Centre, where each of the men have spent several weeks (and months!) throughout their lives.

At each stop, they asked first if I’d like tea, then after a cordial declination, would assign one man to be my tour guide while the other two waited outside in the shade. Morning turned into afternoon, and as the afternoon heat engulfed us past escape, we returned to the astrologer’s apartment for a final cup of tea. By then I’d begun to joke about their persistence and love of the drink. They didn’t find the same humor as I, so eventually I kept the comments to myself and sipped overly sweet lahpet by the cup-full.

 

Click on a photo to view images of our Yangon city tour up-close:

 

Saying goodbye, the Tea Man and I were back on the wooden floored bus screeching along Bahan Road toward home. There was one stop left on my mapped itinerary : the serene park surround Kandawgyi Lake. I insisted we’d seen enough and he needn’t worry about taking me there – I could go any time, as it was rather close to home. At the appropriate stop, he climbed off and I was forced to follow. He smiled and pointed to the entrance, showing me our final destination.

He then breathed a heavy sigh.

It had been a long day! A surprise of a day, a true gem of history, culture, and adventure, but a long day as well.

“Would you like some tea?” I asked, a joke in my own mind taken literally by the recipient, “I can walk around the park any day.”

“Yes. Let’s go home and have some tea,” he agreed.

And we did.

Just before dinnertime, we shook hands goodbye and I told him I’d be by for more tea. I stopped by a few times, once with tea and a box of Moon Pies to celebrate Thadingyut, Myanmar’s Festival of Lights. I left the bag of sweets hanging on their door handle next to the peppers, and soon after moved away. I didn’t see them again, and regrettably didn’t stop by before I left Myanmar for good. I did, however, begin to frequent tea shops and got used to the tiny plastic chairs and tables. I even tried the fried doughy snacks and each week tried the country’s special Lahpet Toke – a fermented tea leaf salad.

The Tea Man welcomed me to Myanmar in the most special of ways and was my first introduction to the incredible friendships built into the country’s people.

 

The Sweet Tea Couple of Yangon Myanmar - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
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