We crest a hill, round a bend and instantly become famous.
The family of about 20, huddled around a fire in front of their house, wave to us and greet us with big hellos. We smile and wave back. They start pulling out their smartphones. We start pulling out our smartphones. We are, hands down, the strangest thing that passed in front of them today on this back country road. We find them strange, too…strange in the way that makes every single one of us fascinating.
Genetically, none of are so different. We all have a head, arms, legs, eyes, ears and a heart. But, universally, we can’t stop gaping at the different customs we collectively embrace, the variety of languages we speak, the diverse clothes we wear, and the new and old traditions we keep to hold our families and communities together. We relish the things that makes us strange to each other.
We’re asked to pose with several members of the clan. Then come the requests for individual portraits with the oddball visitors; they queue up to take photos with the weirdos who showed up on their doorstep this morning.
We have *sort of* gotten used doing random photo shoots in our many years of travel. We stop and take photos of people and things that catch our eyes, so it’s only fair that we let people in the countries we’re in to take photos of us, even when we are as dirty, smelly and unkempt as we are after several hours of hauling backpacks in the hot sun. I laugh out loud when they wake up one of their babies and toss him, wet t-shirt-style diaper and all, into my arms. I put on my best “be a good sport” face. What’s a little urine added to the grime that has turned my gray vest 50 shades of rust?
I suppose this is what Hollywood stars feel like. Honestly, I’m uncomfortable posing like this, and I always find myself wondering how quickly we can bow out and politely move on. We prefer not to be famous. We prefer to be the complete opposite of famous, in fact. We like being discrete and would prefer that no one noticed us walking by. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on the day, that’s not the case.
It’s a story that repeats itself, and goes both ways from them to us and us to them.
University students studying geography, chemistry and physics snap as many photos as they can of all of us crammed together in a local jitney bus (which, regrettably, we had to take to the next big town because my stomach staged a revolt and I was too sick to walk the 40 kilometers). I lean over to look at one of pictures. In a moment of vanity, I chuckle and say, “No, take another one. My eyes are closed, and you’re not smiling!” The young ladies are happy to oblige.
At a tiny roadside restaurant, the ladies cooking up chicken soup and stir-fried noodles pull out a tablet and take shots of us eating. We’re sure it will give the chef some clout in the neighborhood to say she served two backpackers this afternoon. We don’t burst her bubble. It was our only option for a few kilometers, and I needed whatever food they were cooking. I make Lluís take a shot of me with them, too. Tit for tat.
We certainly won’t win any Oscars for our red-carpet walking stardom (gosh, we hope not!), but we’ll take the applause as it comes. If our collective strangeness–that spark of something different that makes someone else smile–unites us and bridges these parallel worlds we live in, then let’s celebrate strangeness in all its glory!
The kindness continues. It usually comes as offers for rides to town (a truck even backed up on the road, causing a bit of a traffic jam, and asked us if we needed a lift), or folks handing us bottles of ice cold water. We’ve also received several slices of watermelon, energy drinks, wet wash cloths to clean our faces, and delicious “pancakes” made from rice flour, freshly shredded coconut, black sesame seeds and peanuts.
For those of you mapping our route, we estimate we walked about 235 kilometers (about 140 miles) since arriving in Myanmar/Burma on Feb. 19. We took the original/old road from Myawaddy to Kawkareik; popped into a full moon festival in Kyondoe; recuperated for a couple days in Hpa-An; passed small villages on the road to Thaton, went by Bilin and landed in Kyaikhto.
If we add right, that puts us at an estimated total of 815 kilometers (about 506 miles) for our designated walking days, walking the route, since we left Bangkok. This doesn’t include the mileage we tack on visiting the cities we stop in, looking for a place to sleep or what we log on rest days (rest days being days when we don’t carry our big backpacks). That’s just normal travel life stuff we don’t really track.
Lluís is posting more details. His blog will come right after this one.