Mr Book suddenly let out a hoot and, leaning closer, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger. Glancing around to see what had caused the hoot, I discovered—somewhat disconcertingly—that it was my left hand, which I was writing with. “Ooh! With your left hand! I’ve never seen anyone write like that…” Mr Book giggled, his eyes blinking and wide behind his spectacles.
In the north of Myanmar’s Shan State, the town of Hsipaw is home to several self-explanatory Messrs and Mesdames: Mr Shake sells fruit shakes, Mr Food runs a restaurant, and Mr Book sells books. Only a Mrs Popcorn bucks the trend, selling coffee and tea in a popcorn-free orchard north of town, her nickname the legacy of an earlier business venture.
Mr Book’s books—new, secondhand, and photocopied—fill a small wooden house beside Hsipaw’s main street. Everything is coated with a layer of dust thrown up by passing trucks, and festooned with ragged cobwebs. Mr Book’s initial irritation at my arrival (I had interrupted him reading) had transformed into geniality, and he invited me in for ginger tea, “to make you strong to go everywhere”: the perfect drink for travellers.
Mr Book’s Ginger Tea
½ a thumb-length of ginger, unpeeled
a pinch of loose green tea
a spoon of brown sugar
a glug of forest honey
Smash the ginger energetically with the back edge of a knife. Put all the ingredients into a glass, add boiling water and stir. Best enjoyed with a dusty book and an amusing conversation…
Mr Book was certainly an interesting conversation partner. His stories ranged from the sweetly comic (coaching a newly literate trishaw driver to read War and Peace), to the spiritual (a discussion of his favourite novel, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha). Eventually I came to leave, full of energy from his ginger tea and ideas from our discussion. Mr Book presented me with a small gift to remind me to visit him and Hsipaw again, “to write a book about it”.
On my way to the railway station the following afternoon, I stopped again at his shop to give him one of my dog-eared books. Mr Book was sleeping, swinging gently in a hammock in the chaos of his back room. I left the book with one of his daughters and walked away, feeling inexplicably buoyant at having met him…
P.S. Apologies for the lack of relevant pretty pictures on this post – technical difficulties!
Written on flight MH002, with sympathy to those on MH17 whose flight didn’t land safely last week