Coffee and A Rural Market Scene – Myanmar
February 2016: I woke up, somewhat disoriented, to the gentle stirrings of the sleepy town of Moenyo deep in the floodplains of the Irrawaddy River in the Bago Region of Myanmar. It was my first trip out of Yangon and, except for meeting some interesting people, the previous day was mostly uneventful. But the night did present some challenges. The town is so small that it has no hotel and the only place where my hosts could place me was in a vacant house that looked, well, not necessarily haunted but typical of most houses in the area. It was not so bad but it’s been a long time since I last used a squat-type outhouse, taken a bath using cold water stored in large clay jars in an open backyard, then needing to hang a mosquito net before creeping into the bed under it. I felt giddy when I crawled out of the net, my senses instantly searching for the sweet aroma of a morning brew. Surprisingly, coffee was not in the air so I wandered into the street looking for even just a hint, turned at a corner and found a place already buzzing with activity — it’s the local public market. As if suddenly awakened by the busy scene before me; I ran back into the house, took my camera, then pulled my stunned driver-guide out of his bed so he could follow me to the market. My craving for coffee was strangely gone, instantly turned into the severer “shutter bug’s itch”.
I am required to work closely with rural communities in developing countries I visit, most of the time under conditions that necessitate rapidly understanding the dynamics of the local economy. Over the years I found that one of the best places in town that offer the information I needed is the area’s public market. Often just a set of modest structures where unsophisticated natives congregate and go about their normal routines as producers, traders and consumers; local public markets summarize in exciting and colorful terms the people’s livelihood and production patterns — the crops that they produce and rely on as their main income sources, crafts and trades that supplement household incomes, modes of transport they take to and from the market, food stuff that they consume and depend on for subsistence, etc. I always come out of the market feeling a bit wiser, more confident to engage in meaningful conversations with the locals.
The public market is also a perfect place to appreciate the local culture. People come in their normal attires and communicate in their native tongue. Residents of the town’s far-flung villages arrive in their traditional costumes to trade and sell their handicrafts and indigenous products. The most probable foodstuff on the town’s dining tables are insinuated by the most commonly sold meat and fish at the market’s stalls. Raw vegetables, herbs and spices being peddled at the roadsides provide hints to the source of tastes and aroma distinct to local dishes. Textile that comprise local clothing and even indigenous cosmetics used for personal grooming, such as the thanaka, are surely in abundance. Getting sensitized to these cultural flavors at the market could result to more delightful social interactions while one is in town.
Of course, local public markets can cause a serious “shutter bug itch”. At least, to me, that is the effect. The lively colors, random movements and overall organized chaos at the market are simply charming and irresistible. Capturing candid images requires skill and, at times, elaborate maneuvers. A stranger holding a camera is always distracting so making the shot discrete requires lots of practice and some degree of subterfuge. Organizing a cluttered market scene into a single frame, hitting the right timing for the click, avoiding photo bombers and unmindful passersby, and ensuring that subjects cooperate even without them knowing while, at the same time, being mindful not to step on somebody’s foot or fall into a ditch — all combine to make the market shoot a lot more thrilling. And when the resulting photos are viewed, the troubles that went into capturing them brings a smile, a special memory only the person behind the lens would know.
Later in the morning, we finally found coffee at a tea house on the other side of town. It was the type made from cheap “3-in-1” ready-mix packets that I found too sweet and creamy but lacking in the needed effect. Brewed coffee was simply not a part of Moenyo’s morning routine. Oh well, I had no need for it anymore anyway. The small adventure at the market had effectively awakened my senses — completely and without involving a heavy dose of caffeine.