For years and years I’ve had my tea as follows: turn off the flame when the water is just beginning to boil, throw in a pinch of Darjeeling leaves, let it steep for exactly three minutes, strain, add barely a teaspoon of milk and a modest spoon of sugar, and stir. I look upon herbal infusions with suspicion, don’t particularly like green tea although I occasionally drink it in the hope that it will magically cancel out all the bad things I do to my body, and positively detest milky tea.
So it amazed me that I became addicted to the thick, gritty red tea sweetened with condensed milk that is served in countless teashops in Burma. It was partly because there was no option, and partly because I developed such a soft spot for Burma that I was willing to overlook the vile teashop tea.
The soft spot was caused by things like the popcorn factory in a tiny town called Hsipaw, in the eastern Shan hills. The popcorn factory consisted of what looked like a rusty old cannon with a pressure gauge attached, aimed into the open mouth of a three-sided thatch hut. They’d throw corn kernels into the cannon, crank up the pressure, run away with their hands over their ears as it began to steam and wobble, and hit the deck when the cannon exploded with an ear-shattering boom, shooting a shower of fluffy white popcorn into the shed to be gathered up and stuffed into sacks.
It was caused by the delightfully chic Star Millennium Café in Yangon, where I went to have a drink with John, a 60-ish relic of a Brit from my hotel who’d checked in four years ago and forgotten to ever check out; and by the Jade Flute discotheque, where the kids danced in their longyis and rubber slippers.
It was caused by the sunset seen from Mandalay hill which illuminated misty gold clouds, the metallic Irrawaddy river, and a huge rectangle formed by small stupas each containing a page of scripture which must constitute the biggest book in the world. It was caused by the ruined capitals of Ava and Amarapura, and by pretty Inle Lake.
It was caused by the jewel-encrusted Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and by the ancient pagodas and palaces of Pagan, where I had the world’s most potent betel nut while hanging off the rear bumper of a jam-packed public jeep-taxi; and by the tiny shrines to the nat spirits in the hills; and by the ubiquitous sight of monks and nuns and abjectly poor citizens making donations of money and their best food to the monasteries.
It was caused by the fact that one man walked me twenty minutes out of his way to a shop that sold the right snacks and one that sold longyis to wear. It was caused by Kyow-kyow, the young man who had a BA in physics but was pedalling us about in a trishaw because that’s what happens when you shut down universities and stamp all over the economy. Kyow-kyow invited us to his home, where we ate a dinner of pork, vegetables, rice and fish while he and his mother and siblings and grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles stood by with solemn ceremony, smoking cheroots and predicting our futures (I was to survive life-threatening tummy trouble in January and live on to be a famous pharmacist; my friend would be a very good baker).
It was caused by a Burmese merchant sailor who, fuelled by Dutch courage, said, “No use discussing politics. Nothing is going to change. People smile a lot, but inside, the Burmese heart is broken.”
That soft spot aches these days, when I read the newspapers and wish that things could change.