This village, Sinle, is built low in a valley where the terraces flatten out and step lazily toward the small rivers that crisscross their way toward the delta. There are hills all around me and I can see the stars for the first time this week. They come and go as the clouds whisk low from one horizon to the other.
Here is a deep quiet, one that slowly slides down the hills and settles into this valley in eastern Myanmar. It’s not an awkward or strange quiet, it is the type of quiet that you can sink into and feel comfortable and safe. It’s the type of quiet that allows you to hear the crackle tobacco being smoked in the next room and the flutter of a bird’s wings as it settles onto a porch railing.
It’s in this quiet that I sat on the porch today and watched the butterflies that came in the afternoon to visit the cauliflower. They are ghost-white against the green leaves. I spent an afternoon here trying to photograph them because I wanted to capture the tiny flecks of brown and black that touch upon their wings. I wanted to photograph them against the darkening western sky that slowly fills with rain as the day wears on. Eventually I gave up on the idea because none of the photos were as beautiful as what I was seeing so I returned to the porch where I sat with U Chit Phay and watched the water buffalo return from the fields.
He built the first house in this village and lived here with his wife for 54 years. She died last year and he misses her. He misses cooking food for her and misses her presence. He is in his 80’s and simultaneously embodies both the fragility and strength of a life lived hard. He sits on the floor of the kitchen for hours with his legs crossed and his back against the bamboo wall. He smokes cheroots and pours himself tea from an old insulated plastic pitcher from time to time. I wonder if his wife used to the pour the tea for him? Often he quietly stands up and walks through the door and returns a few minutes later with a small load of firewood that is stored downstairs, behind the house.
We do not share a common language and so we mostly sit and watch the small wood fire as it burns on an old piece of metal that is inlaid into the bamboo floor that flexes and springs under my feet when I walk across it.
His basement is filled with thousands of cloves of garlic that are bundled and tied to the low rafters. The price is down by 75% this year because of cheap imported garlic from China. There will be much less chicken and fish in the curries this winter but there will be enough rice to make it through.
Life in Sinle is tenuous and complicated and beautiful. They prefer water buffalo to tractors because water buffalo know when to work and when to rest and because tractors are expensive to repair and expensive to feed. The land here is fertile and bountiful and when tended well can provide dozens of different types of vegetables and rice. In the evenings the women return from their gardens and fields with woven baskets filled with what will become dinner. The lighter baskets are carried in the hands but the heavier loads are supported by a tumpline strap that crosses over their foreheads and puts the weight on their backs.
The roads are small and mostly mud during the monsoons. The hills are green and dotted with trees. The highest ones boast golden pagodas and monasteries that strike boldly against the canopies and grasses that surround them.
On my last afternoon in Sinle, I hiked to the top of the highest hill, looking for cell phone reception. The signal was still too weak from the top so I climbed a nearby banyan tree and held my phone above the branches and waited. From the top of the tree I saw a group of young boys who had made a pile of homemade fireworks and were firing them into the valley below.
I walked home accompanied by one of the dogs that lives at the monastery. It had kind eyes and a tail that never stopped wagging. He walked me to the bottom of the hill and as I joined the road that headed back into Sinle he disappeared into a rice paddy. The sun sank toward the hills and the western sky was darkening. In the quiet I heard the rain as it began to drop onto the leaves that surrounded me.