Su Mon in the City
A Closeup of Life in Yangon
Her hair has gotten so dry. She ties it in a ponytail most days with a plain rubber band, out of the way, for the times when she is at work taking tourists to Schwedagon Pagoda. The sunset at Schwedagon Pagoda, called a paya in Burmese, never fails to awe her. Around 6.35 pm the golden spires of the paya catch the light and hold it, and the gold blinks and blinks.
Today she takes a girl and her father to Sule Paya, then the Yangon Harbor, before they go to the Strand Hotel, the old posh place from British days. Getting off at the Sule Paya from the hired car, they cross the street. “Yangon used to be the cleanest city in Southeast Asia,” she pronounces. She has said this line hundreds of times. She clutches the plastic folder to herself and watches for the buses that careen around the corner past the mosque.
In the cool entrance to Sule Paya she pays the entrance fees and waits while the tourists take off their shoes and socks. In a couple of days, when they go to Bagan, she knows they will forego wearing shoes and will begin to wear sandals, anticipating another pagoda, another temple, another barefoot experience.
The cool floor of the paya is gritty with dust. She watches the tourists walk gingerly on the tiles, pausing to take photographs. She explains the nats, spirits that have been incorporated into the Theravada Buddhism of Myanmar in the 12th Century, to convert the animist citizens who believed in these spirits.
In her hometown of Samkar every one placed nat shrines where there were large trees. The locals offered flowers and candles to the spirits who lived in those trees. For a good harvest. For a marriage. For favorable weather. Always supplicating for something desired.
This constant craving translated well into Buddhism. After she moved to Yangon and began her job at the travel agency, she saw the same behavior at the payas of the city: coconuts and bananas offered to the nats, offerings to the Buddha. For exam scores. For a marriage. For a son. She thinks of the thousands of wishes floating through the air in Yangon, like dust motes unseen until light hits.
The day heats up; her hair sticks to her neck. Absent-mindedly she fans herself with the plastic folder she carries with the vouchers, the itinerary, documents. Soon the heat of the paya floor will be prohibitive, the tourists now hurry between awnings, walking on the sides of their feet in a strange lopsided tiptoe.
She walked in Samkar, as a young girl, on riverbed stones. Jumping from the long-tail boats onto the riverbank to attend the Mwabe Market on Tuesdays with her mother. They only ever bought fish or meat, shampoo, salt. The rest of what they needed, they grew at home.
She misses the cool water swirling around her ankles, the breeze cooling her face underneath the bright orange scarf of her Pa O tribe. Days at the market by the riverside were cool, passing swiftly before the long trek back to their home by the fields of Samkar dust.
The dust in Yangon is always sticky, clouds of it now swirling in the Taw Mye Township where she sits in a teashop waiting for the tourists to finish photographing the market. Also swirling are the yells of bus conductors as they announce their destinations. She tries to smile through the dust and the noise, touches her hair. Her hair has gotten so dry.
She has tried all the shampoos–the local brands when she was first starting out with her job, then later when she could afford it, the Thai imports from across the border.
Still her hair is dry, and she has finally given up from letting it hang loose down her back but has resorted to tying it with the rubber band to hold it in place. But at night when she combs away the tangles in the dim light of the room she shares with another girl, she longs for the softness and strength her hair used to have when she was younger in Samkar.
It’s the water, she thinks. The water in the city is harsh, rough like city life. Back home the water was silky. She remembers the late afternoon baths by the river. With her mother, in her longyi, the tubular cloth both men and women wear, she and her mother would take turns pouring water over each other’s hair. The day was cooling when they bathed, but the water was still warm.
The floor at Schwedagon Paya is already warm when she takes the tourists there. She points out the people pouring water over the nats. “They pour water to purify their minds and gain peace,” she explains. She is not sure they are listening; they are busy looking through their cameras. Sometimes, she thinks, the people in the city are like these tourists, only seeing the world through a narrow opening, oblivious to the stories of other lives around them. She has become like this somewhat. Sometimes she panics a little, wondering if she should have stayed home in Samkar and let the cycles of planting and rainfall, heat and harvest, rule her life. But for a girl who excelled at her studies and languages, she had a choiceâ€”go to the city and work for some kind of future. Not for her the cracked feet of her mother and sisters but the glitter of a life spent speaking English and washing her hair with imported shampoo from Thailand.
Although now her hair had gotten so dry.
She turns to her tourists as they cross the path to the Western side of Schwedagon Paya. “Excuse me,” she says to her tourists, “I would like to pour water on the statues.”