They were all watching to see my reaction. They were certain I would do it – by this point I had tried everything they had put in front of me – but this was a local special, and one that they were particularly proud of.
I wrapped my lips around the dirty shotglass of Toddy (tan ye) and swallowed it in one gulp without hesitation or reaction. “It’s good!” I managed with an awkward smile, at the same time feeling the Toddy cling to the back of my throat. It tasted like coconut milk that had been forgotten in someone’s beach bag (why someone was drinking coconut milk at the beach is another question). And the beach bag had been left in the sun. And it was from last week. That’s what clung to the back of my throat. It was one of those things that you drank and then hoped never to have to drink again. Like Listerine or Scope – you knew that swallowing it wasn’t going to kill you, but you were definitely more careful the next time you were swishing that stuff around your mouth. Hopefully my feigned enjoyment had everyone fooled.
Toddies were a traditional drink of the Burmese countryside and of Burmese palm farmers, in particular. Essentially, it’s fermented palm juice. Within hours of being drained from a palm tree, the milky liquid ferments into a potent brew. If the drink is not consumed by the end of the day, it spoils. Essentially, it is a brilliant justification for starting happy hour on the palm farm a few hours early each day. No one wants to be the farmer who wastes a perfectly good bucket of fermented palm juice, do they?
Small farms and palm trees lined the single-lane road to Mt. Popa. Many of these palm trees had bamboo ladders strapped to their trunks – the kind of ladders that seem like a good idea until you get about halfway up them. I was intrigued and, as I always do, was asking a lot of questions of our driver. Finally, either out of exasperation or a sincere desire to show me one of the farms I had been asking about, Zu Zu, our driver, pulled off of the road and into the entryway of a small farm. The old man and woman who worked the farm came out to greet us and after some conversation with Zu Zu (who likely said, “Listen, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve been in the car with this gringo for the last 30 minutes and he won’t stop asking me questions about palm farming and sesame seeds. I’m hoping that we can send him up one of those small bamboo ladders and, you know, take care of business. I’ll take his wife to Mt. Popo.”) The old man pulled out a very large knife, smiled, and gestured for us to follow him toward one of the ladders. A few feet short of the ladder, the old man stopped to clean up a pile of manure. He used his knife as a shovel and chucked the steaming pile into the field. He returned his attention to the ladder. After shoving the knife into the back of his pants, blade-side down, he shimmied with the expertise and confidence of a man who had done this a thousand times before. It’s like riding a bike, I guess, except with a machete stuffed down your pants. Minutes later he was back on the ground with the goods retrieved from the tree top: a couple of palm fruits and a bucket quarter-filled with juice, straight from the palm tap.
The old man led us into the three-sided thatch house where he and his wife worked, slept, and lived. At a small table in the corner, he carefully chopped and peeled the shell from the first of the two palm fruits. The white fruit, once exposed, was then sliced into bite-sized pieces. Fruit in hand, the old man then turned to us and gestured for us to try it.
This is a perfect moment to review five minutes in the life of the old man’s knife:
-Used to clean up cow manure;
-Shoved into pants, blade-side down to ensure a hands-free climb;
-Hacked palm fruit from its cozy home atop the tree;
-Peeled and sliced aforementioned palm fruit.
Somewhere in the distance, a travel nurse screamed. Jess, always the smarter of the two of us, quickly bowed out with a smile. The attention then turned to the guy who could never say “no,” a weakness born of curiosity and fear of offending the host. The Cultural Ambassador walked over to the table, eyed the knife one more time, and popped a slice of palm fruit into his mouth.
“Umm… it’s good!” I said with forced excitement. It was a nasty, slimy piece of fruit, and I couldn’t get the thought that it had been prepared for me by a knife that had been digging in both a steaming pile of manure and an old man’s butt crack out of my mind.
He offered me more. I took it. This continued until all of the fruit was gone.
Sensing my excitement and an opportunity to show off some wares, they brought me green tea.
Down the hatch it went.
Over here, this is palm sugar.
I tried three lumps.
This continued until the Cultural Ambassador had done everything short of licking the palm tree. They were ecstatic. I was queasy. And that brings us to the Toddy.
I had actually been curious about Toddies since reading about them prior to our trip. But, seeing that they come straight from the tree, had limited shelf life, and were not typical tourist fare, I figured that they would remain a legend. Luckily for me, the opportunity had now presented itself – three times. After sampling some palm wine – read 100 proof palm alcohol – we decided it was probably best to get back on the road to Mt. Popa. With three Toddy shots, some palm wine, and an unknown number of tropical parasites now in my system, the 770 steps of the Mount Popa temple were looking ever more daunting. I could see the headline now: “Tipsy on toddies, tourist stumbles to death while attempting to touch a baby monkey on step 387. When interviewed, wife said ‘it was a very cute monkey.’”
And there were monkeys. Hundreds and hundreds of monkeys, all climbing, playing, and guarding the steps that led to the top of Mt. Popa. I had been surprised not to have seen monkeys anywhere in Myanmar. And now I could see why: they were all at Mount Popa. Bare feet, a long and narrow staircase, and hundreds of aggressive monkeys. I thought back to my travel nurse – “You have 24 hours” she had said again and again. 24 hours from contact, even a scratch, before rabies became incurable. I could see my students mocking me (more than they already do) in my rabid state and complaining that I kept dripping mouth foam on their papers. So, doing what any well-educated, parents of small children would do in this situation: we ascended the staircase.
The monkey gauntlet was intense. It was high-season for baby monkeys, and I’m pretty certain they were part of a larger Mount Popa matrix of maliciousness. Like street peddlers who send their children to distract you while they snatch your wallet, the six-inch toddler monkeys were sent in all their fearlessness to the front. Afraid to step on them or fall prey to their cuteness and pull out my camera (easy target), progress was slow. Hanging close to Buddhist monks was an effective strategy at times, as the monkeys seemed drawn, like bulls in the ring, to the billowing red robes the monks wore. Buddhist monks, pledged to bring harm to no living thing, thus became repeat targets of curious monkeys. I possessed no qualms about harming animals, especially if it was driven by blind self-preservation. I pressed on, always on the lookout.
But monkeys were just one of the obstacles visitors find on the stairs to Mt. Popa. The temple atop Mt. Popa was undergoing repair, and these repairs demanded concrete. That meant that workers had to carry one hundred pound bags of concrete mix up the 770 stairs to the top. That’s no small feat. And these workers undertaking this backbreaking task made it through the first 200 or so steps pretty well. But around step 201, their legs tiring and the hundred degree temperatures bearing down on them, they began to waver and weave back-and-forth across the staircase. Was he going to make it? If this guy goes down, he’s going to take all us (and probably 10-15 monkeys) with him. And then there were the stair cleaners. Self-appointed and armed with a rag and a spray bottle, the stair cleaners of Mt. Popa were there in hopes of earning some kyat. An army of them wiped the stairs – back and forth, back and forth, as monks, monkeys, and concrete haulers maneuvered around them. I’m not sure which is worse – laminated stairs covered in monkey urine and poop or recently cleaned stairs, slick with soapy water – but all were added to the challenge of the climb. In many areas, souvenir sellers lined the sides of the stairs, thereby narrowing access while providing an additional aggressive distraction. Monks, monkeys, monkey children, floorwashers, 100-pound concrete sack carriers, trinket peddlers, and 770 steps – the Mt. Popa gauntlet. And don’t forget to take off your shoes.
It was about two-thirds of the way up that we ran into trouble. I had been holding my water bottle tight against my body. Tucked like a football, my water would not fall prey to rabid beasts of the mountain. In a moment of weakness, I loosened my grip. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him leap. Big, fuzzy, and possible rabid, he made a bold move for my bottle and succeeded in dislodging it from my grip. It fell with a thud and started to roll right towards the feet of a concrete hauler, who now, by step 512, was increasingly unsteady. The monkey made a second move to grab the bottle but failed – it was too heavy for his dirty little monkey hands. The bottle continued to roll. Dear God, I could see it now: down he would go, taking his 100 pound bag and the nearby floorwasher with him. Monks would fall like bowling pins, and followers of a once peaceful religion would be marshaled against me. Buddhist radicals from across the nine states would rally against me, and off a remote cliff I would go. The monkeys would laugh and sip cool water from the bottle it took three of them to carry to the site of my demise. Thankfully, as things sometimes do, it worked out. The loud thud of the water bottle brought pause to the concrete hauler and attracted the attention of a nearby souvenir hawker who, possessing cat-like reflexes and a piercing voice, saved the bottle and terrified monkeys down at least 150 steps.
Jess’s water was not so lucky. Emboldened by the failed assault on my water bottle, another monkey made a leap for Jess’s. Direct hit! The bottle broke lose and fell to the ground. He struggled with it. We pursued. And then, as if claiming the spoils of war, he sank his little jungle teeth into the bottle. We heard them break the plastic. Water dripped from his monkey smile. Game over.
From the top of Mt. Popa, you can see for miles in every direction. The meditating monks, prayer readings, and intense isolation all make it a truly magical experience. After catching our breath and appreciating the peace atop the mountain, we headed for the stairs and round two with the Mount Popa gauntlet.