“Give money for blood for baby,” the woman carrying the child says to me at the Schwezigon Pagoda. Bare feet hurting from small pebbles on the ground as I walk, I turn away from her. If I hide my face, maybe she’ll turn away, too.
She follows me. “Give money for blood for baby.” The stone path around the main pagoda stings my feet with heat. I walk around pretending to be completely engaged in taking cliched shots of the golden spires of the pagoda in bad noontime lighting, ignoring the woman and the baby she holds in her arms.
“Blood for baby.” She blocks my path now, and has put down the child. The child is in a bright lime green outfit, complete with hat, and her face has been beautifully brushed with tanaka in butterfly swirls. The child looks up at me, smiles. She’s not sick.
Then I realize the mother is saying food, not blood. I sigh relief but the soles of my feet are baking, and by now she has thrust aside the personal space I assume is always around me. I could rub noses with her with just a slight inclination. The mother puts down the child and says something to her, and the child says, “Hello, hello,” following me. I smile at her but try to engross myself in the architecture. The mother coaching her, the child comes closer to me, in her lime green sandals, tugs at my jeans,”Hello, hello.”
Money, her mother chants. Money, money.
I feel like a pimp, and the camera hanging on my neck has made a whore of them.
She has nothing to sell, so she sells the probability of a photo I might take of her and the baby or both, for money.
Once upon a time, I would have taken the shot and given the dollar. But today, I am resolute: I will not spoil the trip by buying my images, in effect creating beggars around these tourist spots like the photographers who have come before me.
Maybe it’s too late.
I walk fast out of the pagoda grounds, out onto the unpaved parking lot, pebbles biting into my feet. Flanking the parking lot is a row of shops. Myanmar Lager Beer, a large sign announces. Outside the compound, under a tamarind tree, a dead dog lay; split open from whatever cruelty it met last night. An unkindness of ravens pecks at the carcass, making sharp sounds as they feast.
I walk back to the temple compound, still barefoot. Again I steel my shoulders for the swarm of postcard sellers. In the parking lot’s dust, there is one of me and three Spanish tourists, bright in their blondeness. Thankfully, they stand out. The assault of postcard sellers chooses them. I am left alone, to walk to the car I’ve hired, to get away.
I cannot get away. In Bagan, I stop beside one of the city’s ubiquitous peanut fields, to watch a man climb the toddy palm trees lining the field, to gather toddy nuts. The purple nuts the size of half a head yield sugar, which the locals boil into syrup and when hardened, form jaggery, a kind of after-meal candy. The jaggery is also fermented with the nut’s juice to make jaggery juice, a thick, sweet drink in the morning, and in the afternoon, fermented in the heat, becomes jaggery beer, a local favorite.
The man climbs the palm tree using a rope truss, a net hanging from his belt. He cuts the nuts and holds them in his net, so he looks like a strange spider with bulbous legs from where I observe below. He smiles at me while climbing another tree, and I receive this as a sign to take his photo. He plays to the camera, stopping on his descent to give me his smile, and flex his strong and limber leg muscles.
Ten minutes later, the matriarch of the family shows me her torn shirt. Her breast shows through a gash in her shirt. She is saying something to me, and although I do not own any language here, I understand she is telling me how poor they are.
I have a few kyats in my pocket. I hand them to her, then I walk away, telling myself I am not creating beggars. I am merely helping someone buy some better clothes.
Maybe it’s too late, now, to change from the change that has already happened. In Minggun, the boat I am on approaches the shore where broken lies the giant lion built to guard the pagoda that was never finished, a giant square block of red brick on a hill. The shore looks deserted until the boat is about a hundred meters away, then I see them.
Women with postcards dangling from their hands. Bead necklaces. Fabric. There are six of them, waiting by one of the jetties. “We are not landing there,” Kyaw Myint says to me. As if they heard, the women clamber, run, away from the jetty toward another, near a broken wall shaded by a large rain tree.
When I get off the boat, six voices chant, “Buy from me, buy from me, not expensive, later OK?” I am trotting now, away from their voices, toward the broken pagoda. At the base of the hill, a couple of shops scream color. Cold Drink, one of them implores in crooked letters hand-painted on cardboard.
A young teen approaches me, three dollar bills clutched like an open poker hand. “Help me change to kyat”, he says. “In Mingun is very difficult.” I know this trick already. The little girl across from the Buddhist University, with tanaka on her face and flowers in her hair, asked me to change 700 kyats to a dollar a few days ago. I shook my head then, I shake my head now at the young man.
One US dollar can get approximately 950 kyats, but the locals use the common currency exchange rate of 1000 kyats to the dollar. Instant profit. It’s almost advisable not to change
to kyats for food expenses; a 16-dollar meal at a restaurant, instead of the equivalent 15,200 kyats, will cost you 16,000 kyats on the exchange. Multiply that by two meals a day, and you automatically under-budget. But paying with US dollars can also get you into trouble. Legalnomads, traveling in Burma for six weeks, once had to lick a 10-dollar bill to show a man it was spotless, after he had refused to take it as payment because it “had a spot.” Spotless and crisp greenbacks are the only way to go in Burma.
“Please help me change,” the boy says again more insistently, thrusting the three dollar bills to me. I must note that by Minggun my soul is frayed. I have spent five days listening to the mantra of “Money, buy from me, hello, buy from me” and walking through assaults of postcards sellers. This is not conducive to photography, or vacationing; I am tired of it. So when the boy continues his chant, I snap back. “I am not a bank,” I say. My face turns to stone. I put the lens cap on my camera, shutting its sensor in darkness.
In 2007 the impoverished government of Burma increased prices. Gas went up 66%, diesel 100%, and natural gas 500%. Manufacturing costs followed, and price increase was passed on, of course, to the consumers–the common men and women who toil day in and day out to earn the average annual income of $1900. Most people, according to Lonely Planet, “make $1 a day if that.”
But just outside Mandalay, along the Irrawady River, there are people who help each other for nothing. Kyaw Myint has taken me to see a village along the way to Amarapura, but the concrete path leading from the highway to the village broke. Just that morning, the water sliced through, flooding the path. The pedestrians and motorcyclists wade slowly through the mild currents, on another path.
Kyaw Myint wants to know if I will cross, roll up my jeans and wade to the village. But I don’t answer, because the village is here, specifically the men. They have taken off their
longyi and sandals, and they are chest deep in the water hammering wooden poles into the riverbed to build a temporary bridge. I stand there watching them work, young and old alike. There will be no insurance company who will sweep in and compensate everyone for their loss, for their work. The government, which since 1962 has never been for the people, will take its time to repair the concrete path, if it does. But the villagers, resourceful and cooperative, have already come up with their own solution.
In Amarupura, deep into country very few tourists visit, we find a bamboo factory in the middle of the jungle. A whole family harvest the bamboo and work all day to make mats and walls. “He says,” Kyaw Myint translates,”they can make some 600 kyats per wall. He can make ten walls per day, but he sells maybe three or five.” We hang around the family, laughing with the women, playing with the sleepy baby. I feel my face relax, smile more easily. Under the mango tree I spy another group of ravens, chattering, and remembering a book I read in third grade, the metaphor startles me.
The raven has a bad rep. Known to attack both humans and animals, it eats almost anything, dead or alive. But it is intelligent and resourceful, known to survive in the cruelest, most difficult terrain. It mimics other animals in behavior that gets it food. It is, despite being an annoyance, a magnificent survivor.
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