Myanmar’s Floating Gardens and Golden Buddhas: Winter Farmer Travel (Part II)
This article is a follow up to Becky’s January article, Trading in Ski Boots for Sandals: Winter Adventures for Farmers (Part 1) in which she wrote about the role that travel plays in her career as a farmer. She just returned from Myanmar, and reflects on her experience.
“Watermelon,” our trekking guide, Win, said as he pointed at the fields of bumpy white plastic. “All going to China.” I paused, lifted my camera and zoomed in on a woman moving down the field with a bucket of water and a cup, ladling water into each hole in the endless rows of plastic. My travel partner, Amy, leaned towards my ear, “You should show that photo to your staff next time they have to irrigate – no one will ever complain again.”
I nodded, watching as one scoop followed the next, thousands of feet and hundreds of beds still needing water in the midst of the dry season in Northern Myanmar. The field was dotted with people, mostly women, wrapped in longis (traditional skirts) and pointed bamboo hats. One man moved down the field, also in a longi, but with a backpack sprayer, the wand hovering over each tiny transplant. I gazed, partially transfixed by the mere sight of the first production farm we’d seen on our travels through Myanmar. But what truly amazed me was the human labor that went into a farm of such scale in this isolated country. No tractors, no irrigation, no mechanized spraying or transplanting or weeding – just acres and acres of crops, dozens and dozens of people, and one huge country to the north willing to import truckloads of cheap watermelon.
Reflections on Farm Culture in Myanmar
Farming – and life in Myanmar – is a tangled web of tradition, politics, climate, religion, clashing ethnicities, and economic incongruities that I can only vaguely unravel. It’s impossible to dip into an entirely different world (or really, the other side of the world) for three weeks and imagine that anything will make much sense; nothing is really clear when the language is indecipherable curvy symbols, the men wear skirts, there are gold plated temples all over the landscape, it’s dusty and 90 degrees in January, fresh avocados cost 15 cents, and just because you are fair-skinned people treat you like an eccentric celebrity.
My time in Myanmar left me with two overarching and contradictory feelings: first, how utterly chaotic and wild everything feels. Crossing streets in the cities is a harrowing sprint; bus rides aren’t complete without someone vomiting; monks in maroon robes are everywhere, parading barefoot down streets with wooden bowls; you must remember to walk clockwise around the temples and not to point your feet at the Buddha; food is some stewy combination of MSG and fish paste (“it all tastes like low-tide” a weary foreigner told me); and every single function of daily life for locals involves an enormous amount of physical work.
But I had another distinct feeling as I traveled in this far away place, and that is of utter familiarity and comfort. People are humans wherever you go; there is something in a smile or a wave, in watching a parent smooth a child’s hair, or in having a construction worker say stereotypical things as you walk by – all of which feels utterly rooted in our humanness. But what was even more grounding to me is that nearly everyone in Myanmar is a farmer. Contrary to the excitement generated by telling a person in the US what I do for a living, telling a person in Myanmar that I am a farmer held no cache; in fact, it was far more exciting to tell them I was from the USA. (“O-BA-MA!!,” they’d all exclaim.) And although I don’t know what it’s like to live in a bamboo hut where I have to haul water each day and own nothing more mechanized than a water buffalo, I do know what it’s like to work in a field with a group of people and to end that day with a shared meal and laughter sitting by a fire. The thing that is vastly different about my farming life in Vermont and the farming life in Myanmar is that I’ve made a fairly unique choice to learn rural traditions, whereas in Myanmar, there is no conscious radicalism in continuing the work of raising food, the same work that their families have done for generations.
On a four-day walk we took from the town of Kalaw to Inle Lake, our guide was a 24-year-old woman named Nom-Kin, whose family was Pa-O, an ethnic tribe that lives in the hills of eastern Myanmar. When we excitedly learned that her family’s village was near the route of our walk, we convinced Nom-Kin to bring us to her parents’ home for the night. The miles leading up to the village passed through rolling fields of chilies that had recently been harvested. The few stranded peppers were small and desiccated on the plants (indeed, everything, including my skin, was desiccated in the middle of the dry season). Some of the fields were recently plowed (a one-bottom plow attached to a water buffalo), and we walked by fields in various stages of preparation for the next crop. Nom-Kin told me that each year, farmers planted two crops; the chilies would be followed by rice (planted at the beginning of the rainy season), and the following year that would be followed by sesame, and then potatoes. In some fields, tidy piles of composted manure waited to be incorporated; in other fields, dozens of people were hacking at the land with hoes, preparing the land for planting.
Everywhere you go in Myanmar, you stumble into a market, banging shoulders with women carrying baskets of oranges and dodging the red-hued betel spit of men carrying bamboo poles; in fact, there’s no other place to buy food or goods of any sort. We saw a handful of western-looking grocery stores, which were mostly empty of customers and stocked with strangely, shrink-wrapped and artificially colored imported Chinese foods. Piles of dried fish, mountains of dozens of varieties of various hued rice, stacked bamboo baskets, squares of black sticky rice, piles of fermented dried bean patties, baskets of tea leaves, stall after stall selling the addictive betel nuts, and rolls of raw gooey palm sugar. Some things were a taste explosion in my mouth – sweet salty tamarind candy, tiny dense bananas, small green fruit that are like a cross between an apple and a kiwi, tempura cauliflower and mustard greens, pressed yellow tofu, and crisp, salty rice cakes. Every meal in Myanmar is a vegetable lovers dream: simple, brothy rice noodle soup accompanied by a mass of mustard greens, eggplant, chilies, tomatoes, and seaweed salad.
Like most families in the area, Nom-Kin’s family makes their living selling vegetables at the market. They bring ginger, chilies, potatoes, garlic, and rice to market on a wheeled cart pulled by a cow. The markets are full of people selling the same products, and the prices are inconceivably low to a foreigner. At the end of the day, they make the long trek home, a few treats for the family loaded into the cart. It is a farm economy based on no refrigeration and a dramatic climate – hot, sunny and dry for six months, and very hot, steamy, rainy, and humid for the other six months.
A farm business as we know it is impossible in a country without electricity and without reliable transport. As a result, a market in one town is full of vendors selling the same mix of crops (mustard greens, cauliflower, avocados, and oranges), whereas a market merely 50 miles away has an utterly different mix of crops (tamarind, pineapple, sesame, and coconut). It quickly became apparent to us that eating was a very regional adventure in Myanmar – just as we’d fall in love with some food (for example, the best pineapples I’ve ever had in my life were in Hspiaw – for 70 cents each!), the next day we’d discover that it was impossible to find that food again.
Inle Lake: Floating Gardens
Perhaps the most agriculturally fascinating part of the whole journey came in our last four days of the trip, when we ended our trek at Inle Lake. Although I’d been told about the famous “floating gardens” there, I hadn’t understood that this is in fact a massive production area for the country’s tomatoes, onions, and flowers. Hundreds of acres of the shallow lake have been reworked into a form of hydroponic growing. To create the “gardens”, people anchor lake-bottom weeds with bamboo poles, forming beds that rise and fall with changes in water level and are resistant to flooding. Men maneuver canoes through the gardens by wrapping one leg around a paddle so that they can stand up and see over the plants and lake reeds. Ultimately, this water-based agriculture is devastating the lake’s ecosystem, especially as farmers increase their use of chemicals and continue to build more and more floating gardens, thereby decreasing the actual area of open lake. But as a farmer, it is utterly innovative, and perhaps I can glean something from those techniques to help our farm own flood-plain farm become more flood resilient in the future.
Home Sweet Home
My first stop after 30 hours of air travel back to home was to our farm in the Intervale, where I gathered a bag full of winter squash, sweet potatoes, onions, parsnips, beets, cabbage, spinach, and carrots. That evening, I ate a big bowl of food that I knew intimately, feeling immense gratitude for a safe return to a place where I understood the language, where I didn’t stand out as foreign, where I could safely drink the tap water and eat raw vegetables, where the lights turned on and off when I wanted them to, where most vehicles don’t spew out suffocating fumes, and where I knew that despite all of my concerns about our government, I am fortunate to live in a mostly functioning democracy. And although I wish that I could grow pineapples and avocados, I’m very content to be home munching on our farm’s popcorn and winter squash, counting down the days until the first seedlings push their way out of the cool spring soil.