The thudding of a large motor caught our attention as we carefully navigated our bicycles down the pothole-strewn road. A glance to the right showed the slanting sun reflecting off an expansive sea of dry, off-white husks coating the yard of a house. I cocked my head to the side perplexed…the day before, Ana and I had noticed these houses with husk-like debris where grass should grow, and now, as then, I was unable to explain their curious presence in yards all over this region of Burma.
We cycled past the compound, the motor’s grinding peaked at the edge of the fence, then faded quickly as our bicycles whisked forward. Like yesterday, we were about to simply let the confusion sit in complacency and continue on our merry way, our legs pumping hard on the creaky, dual-gear bicycle that was clearly not built for sand and gravel roads.
Another moment passed and I was mentally kicking myself. Two days in a row we just drove right by…we’re in Burma, what’s the worst that could happen if we stop and ask to look around? This country has only been friendly. I felt like a poor teacher to my niece at that point, after all, the whole point is to teach her curiosity for the world and how to seek answers. So, was it fear of walking into a stranger’s house, or laziness preventing me from stopping and asking questions?
Maybe it was both.
I called out to the group to stop for a pow-wow. Ana and I were bicycling back from the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, a mere 45 minute bike ride into the countryside around Inle Lake, with two other travelers we met that morning over breakfast at our guest house.
A quick look at the other adults, and I could see the men had been curious too. Without another word, Mike, a sweet British man traveling solo for the first time in his life, announced: “Alright then, let’s check it out!”
Moments later, the tentative smiles from two young children met us at the gates of their housing compound.
The kids hesitated before scattering toward the clanking contraption nearby, motioning for us to follow.
It looked like an open tractor engine sprawling across the packed dirt floor. Two men manned the front of the machine and with a flash of understanding I realized my feet were resting on a soft bed of dry sugar cane husks. The churning motor and huge metal gears spun the wheel and generated enough pressure to squeeze out every drop of sweet moisture from the sugarcane stalks.
We had chanced upon a candy factory!
And though it was a far cry different from stumbling into Willy Wonka’s world of wonders, the efficient teamwork and huge boiling vats of scented juice ignited our collective curiosity.
The men processing the stalks paid us no mind—and not out of unfriendliness, but rather out of affection for their limbs; the huge gurgling machine would not easily forgive a slip of the fingers.
Just as I noticed the children had disappeared, they burst out of the house nearby, with their mother walking at a clipped pace with a tray of tea and sweets toward our rag-tag group of five. She shyly motioned us over to the low, woven bamboo table and gently proffered cups of pale Chinese tea. As we stood and sipped, she took a moment to break up the thin, flat block of sugar candy. Spying Ana’s curious gaze on her every move, the mom (in an understanding all mom’s must have) handed over the first piece of sugarcane candy to Ana, carefully watching for Ana’s reaction as she bit into the hunk of pure sugar.
A grin split Ana’s face. Jaggery, or rather, sugar candies, are popular sweets all over Burma, and Ana relished the opportunity to once again have free reign over a bowl of pure sugar.
I nabbed a square myself (I’ll openly admit to my wicked sweet-tooth). With the hospitality now covered, the mother smiled and gestured to production line, letting us know it was okay to go investigate what they were doing.
With our gazes once again focused on the workers, the men spurred into action, and even though there wasn’t a lick of English spoken, each man patiently demonstrated the candy-making process at his station in the room.
Raw sugarcane stalks process through the pressing machine, and the once juicy stalks are left as dry husks while the liquid drains into a bucket.
A tube runs from the bucket, over the ground, and into nearby open vats where the murky green sugarcane juices collects for even more processing.
The greenish hued sugarcane juice is a popular snack all over Burma (and South Asia for that matter!) and the mom passed around a glass of warm, fresh juice for sampling. Traditionally, if you order sugarcane juice on Burma’s city streets, it’s served cold with lime and it’s a popular mid-morning snack. We sipped our juice warm and fresh from the press just to get a taste of the flavor just before it goes into processing (Ana’s verdict on the juice was not favorable, but hey, she’s just a kid, what does she know!).
After squeezing, the juice enters a long boiling process, where it is slowly transferred down the line, vat to vat, until it’s in the vat nearest to the hand-stoked fire and boiling rigorously. The entire process seems to take hours for one single batch, but we were lucky to catch the juice in its final stage, when it became a thick, brown syrup ready to be poured, spread, and dried.
The final candy is very hard and difficult to break into small chunks, so before it’s packaged for sale in town they slice it into manageable cubes. Sugar candies are one of the more humble and popular Burmese desserts; we found small candy jars on most restaurant tables. The type of sugar candy on offer though, varies from region to region. Most often we found jaggery, a treat much like maple syrup candies in North America, but they are instead made from Toddy Palm sap. The Toddy Palm plant shaped rural life in Burma throughout history, and the jaggery treats are just one use for Toddy Palm. The palm is still today used for shade, medicines, cooking, and utensils…and because of the plant’s multiple uses, it’s a wise use of land as Burma expands into more agriculture and farming.
Rural areas favor these grainy, sugar-based sweets because they are made locally and thus are often flavored with other nearby fruits and flavors. And though our fresh sugarcane candies were delicious, Ana and I both fell in love with the sour plum candies in the Bagan region of Burma–the tart plum is a needed counter to the jaw-clenching sweetness of pure sugar and toddy palm juice!
As we nibbled the last of our sugar candy, it was about time to leave the family to their work, but I felt guilty that I had no real way to communicate our sincere thanks for such open hospitality.
Just as I slurped my last sip of Chinese tea, a young teenager came barreling into the yard. He cheerfully yelled out an English “hello” and announced he was a cousin to the family who was called to the candy compound from across town so he could answer our questions.
I was both baffled and overwhelmed. Tea and sweets were not enough, seeing us English speakers so curious about their work, the family sent for a relative who could communicate with us.
As the cousin started his line of questioning, so familiar to me at this point, every single person in the workshop gathered around for the translation.
“Where are you from?”
Grins broke out on their faces when they learned our group was from France, England, and America.
“How long in Myanmar?”
Just three weeks, but it’s been beautiful.
Then it was our turn to ask questions and the cousin explained the family structure. Mother and father to the two children nodded as the cousin pointed. That’s the uncle. A brother. Another cousin.
It was a family affair in the candy workshop and as the cousin’s English petered out, and the men drifted back to stoking the fire and stirring the vats, we gave profuse and generous thanks for the more than an hour we had spent in their hospitality.
The children watched with curious owl-eyes as we hopped back onto our bicycles and sang out one last cheery thank you, “chezu tinbade!”
Then we disappeared down the dirt road, the thudding motor fading quickly as we pedaled into the late afternoon.
I rode back to town in wonder of the warm and open hospitality that functioned as a rule throughout Burma, rather than the exception. What started as the simplest of bike rides ended up showing me a spirit of kindness and inherent friendliness that is not put on for the sake of tourism, or a mask for show. The government’s forced isolation means that tourists are still a novelty, an occasional accent to a local’s life when a foreigner rides a bit off the path. In Burma, the reward for journeying down the harder road (and let me assure you an hour down a questionably paved road is tough!) was always met with smiles and stories.