U Chit Ko Ko and I had had a busy morning. We had explored Myeik’s main market, U Chit Ko Ko walking ahead and pointing at things (“Burmese shampoo!”, “Big barracuda!”) while I lagged behind taking photographs. We had visited his friend’s house to inspect what U Chit Ko Ko described as a “brown shoe” – the brass sole of a late nineteenth-century diving boot that had found its way from Bermondsey in south London to the end of his friend’s fish hook in the Andaman Sea. We had walked through the fish processing quarter, where shark fins and strips of manta ray dried in the hot March sun and a dog padded behind us, its legs stained black from walking through a deep puddle of diesel. We had searched the length of Phayar Coe Su Street in vain for an open cashew nut factory (March is too early for cashews), and we had climbed barefoot up Maha Theidizaya Pagoda to snigger at solemn murals depicting senior military officials performing meritorious acts.
U Chit Ko Ko’s son ferried us from one stop to the next, the three of us squeezing onto their family’s long-suffering 125cc motorbike. By dint of some minor sartorial miracle, U Chit Ko Ko – a spry septugenarian – had managed to keep his white jeans and natty striped poloshirt spotless throughout, while I sweated on the back of the bike in my black t-shirt and grimy travelling trousers.
By late morning it was time for a break, and we pulled off the road not far from Maha Theidizaya Pagoda at another of U Chit Ko Ko’s friends’ houses. The two-story house was constructed around a splintery teak frame, with woven rattan and bamboo mats forming the walls, and a bamboo ladder leading to the sleeping area upstairs. Air-conditioning has yet to reach village Burma, and life here has an open-air quality – most houses have gaps in their walls and roofs through which breezes can flow, sunlight can leak and rain can drip.
The house backed onto a stream, its banks lined with water-loving nipa palm (“Like napalm”, explained U Chit Ko Ko). U Chit Ko Ko’s friend made his living cutting and drying the nipa fronds for thatch and brewing palm toddy. When the palms flowered he would lop off the spiky flower cluster and place a bamboo cylinder over the severed end to collect the sap, which would ferment into cloudy, lightly alcoholic palm toddy.
The friend, a bare-chested man with a careworn expression and a green checked paso (a Burmese longyi), had a son in his early twenties. The son poured some toddy into glasses for us, and we all sat cross-legged on the floor. “He can’t hear, can’t speak,” said U Chit Ko Ko of the son, “so he stays at home and draws.” I looked around and for the first time saw that there were handdrawn pictures and paintings pinned up alongside yellowing family photographs and pictures of smooth-faced Burmese popstars. A drawing of a man with a long-haired woman in his arms hung next to an advertisement from Thailand, and a biro-sketched Buddha with rosebud lips was nailed to a beam over a poster of significant religious sites.
Although son and father had developed a private sign language, the son’s isolation was difficult to imagine. With little social contact, unable to speak or hear, read or write (special needs education being essentially non-existant in Burma), his imagination and personality had a single outlet – through a pen and into his drawings.
U Chit Ko Ko and I stayed for half an hour before continuing our motorcycle tour of Myeik. We went to a hilltop monastery where a monk told me he liked my body and we ate lunch (U Chit Ko Ko smacking his lips together with relish and saying repeatedly how much he liked pork). We visited shipyards where huge teak logs were being sawn into planks and thanaka-daubed boys clambered up and down ship-side scaffolding. We visited a lobster farm where a lone hawksbill turtle – bycatch from the lobster fishing fleet – dined on mantis shrimp, and we stopped in a teahouse to eat sticky buns and watch a National Geographic documentary about cheetahs.
However, when I think about that day in Myeik, my mind skips over all the oddball details and side-trips, and goes straight back to the father and son in their home, the father making toddy and the son silently drawing out the pictures in his head.
That, and the enduring mystery of how U Chit Ko Ko managed to keep his trousers white.