21 January, 2012

Unexpected Kindness In Bagan

** double click on photos to enlarge

I flew to Nyaung U, to start my journey in Bagan still sick and tired on the full moon day. Arrived with ease and went straight to the guest house, and curled up in fetal position waiting for the antibiotic to kill the bacteria. I was without food for two days and pretty weak…but in remarkably good spirits… knowing I had five days to explore instead of rushing. I had made up my mind to not rush everywhere and just feel it out. I slept from 9 am to 4pm, and rushed out on a bike to Ananda Temple where the full-moon celebration was in full swing….all I had to is follow the Pali chants to its location. Buddha’s in the four directions in its interior and with monks and lay people in the courtyard chanting and meditating. It was my original plan to join them, but there was too much to see.

Around one side was a carnival and vendors selling everything from food to housewares, and bamboo mats. It was here that the ‘photo vultures’ were out in full force. I would watch tourists with their long digital lens stick them right up to a Burmese monk and shoot him without asking, and it was so invasive it almost made me abandon my cheap Samsung pocket camera all together. I had bought some mandarin oranges to eat, and shooting this lonely merry-go-round I began to feel sorry for the husband

and wife owners. No one was interested in having their kid ride, I think it was more about the cost as people in surrounding area are not able to afford. It was like 300kyat to ride the Ferris Wheel that had no engine. They just used the weight of the boys to awing it. Going up to them after shooting and giving them each two oranges, they were appreciative. Nearby was a tattoo stall with chairs in front working on a boys back who was obviously in pain. Then after watching the Myanmar singing and dancing show, I walked along the road out that lead to the temple, past the coat vendors to my bike that was parked in a motorcycle lot for a fee.

A young man sitting in a bamboo chair started talking, anxious about using his English, shoke my hand and said, “Your hands are cold!”, I returned with, “but a warm heart.” It was a cold night and all I had on was a light coat. This was enough to start our conversation and out of curiosity he asked about the length of time I had there and what was I doing next. I said, “it’s the full moon and I am torn between sitting at temple or seeing more.” He offered to take me, by bicycle to a near-by temple and go up to the roof. “My cousin’s family are keyholder’s of this temple.” I said, “cool, of course I’ll go.’ Bicycling in the dark we went down the paved road and turned off on a dirt road, with him pointing a flashlight behind him on the ground. We got to a bamboo hut behind the temples and we parked our bikes while he went inside to get the key. This was exciting, and I was charmed with his hospitality, there was no feeling that he was out for anything more. Climbing a darked, locked, tiny stairwell to the top of this pagoda. He said we can sit in between the low wall and relax, “I am in no rush and it is up to you when we go down. If you are happy, we are happy!” Ananda’s lights were on, with the monk chanting in the distance under the full moon brightness… it was enchanting. I was in heaven, and it was hard not to say, “WOW!” Thinking I could die now. I shot a few more timed photographs, and on the way down shot the Buddha inside capturing the bat as you can see. The young man and I were talking about my plans for the following days and he offered to bicycle with me to show me temples. I think it was solely based on his opportunity to hear and speak English, and I apologized for my odd speech. He did not care and so we planned the following morning to meet me at my guest house at 8am, and I did not know his village was 7 or 8 km away. In the morning I asked the staff at the guest house, “How much does one pay a guide per day?” and they replied, 16,000kyat(about $20). So, I kept it in my mind, and got two waters for me and the young man and we took off seeing temples (both on and off the map) in a relaxed bike ride, and when the sun was hot. I treated him for lunch. In the late afternoon, we went to one large temple to shoot, arriving before everyone else and it was here that I notice the photo vultures were out in full force again, shooting the young man while I was taking his photo, it was so rude. It just made me put my camera away more and be a lot more sensitive to others.That evening we had dinner, and he so appreciative that it was very obvious he accompanied me with no other demands underlying, so when he left me at my guest house, I gave him the 16,000 kyat, saying, "That is for your work"….and he was shocked.

I said the next day off while I have a horse cart appointment, that I had booked before coming, and I’m sorry. It was interesting on the horse cart, but you can’t really cover as much area as a bike, and the guide was only marginally more knowledgeable than the young man with a lot less charm…it was business, and it lacked any passion. I did it solely to keep my word, looking forward to the following day to continue with the young man. In biking around I asked him about Mt. Popa, I had put my name out there if any tourists would like to share a ride there. I had a gut feeling it would not be as great as the time with the young man and I discussed my reservations, and he said some don’t like Mt. Popa, others do. He then told me he planned on having me over his family’s house for a full Burmese dinner in thanks for the money I gave him. I had mentioned my first day with him that I would like to pound down my Dad’s wedding and put the gold leaf on a Buddha in Bagan. I had worn it since his death in 1990, and I have resolved his death in the 22 years that past since. We talked about being able to find someone there to melt down and do it. But over dinner on our second day of bicycling I gave him photos I took of him on a disc, and my heart just told me to give the ring to him. I felt he was more important than a “dead Buddha” and he could sell it if he needs to. In my eyes he was a Buddha, and his calm, mindful presence could never be expressed enough by me. He was of course shocked, but gracious in his acceptance, saying you have given me two firsts in my life, the money and the ring. I told him, "I think reincarnation takes places in the hearts of other living people you touch, and you touched me."

My guest house told me they had two other people wanting to go to Mt Popa and I just went with this news in my efforts to let things naturally unfold. We took off at 8am with and older Israeli man, a English woman and a German couple who I bonded with. On the way up, I noticed vendors selling plants and spying a few roses, told the driver to stop on the way, down so I can buy one for his mother. Mt. Popa had some nice views, but for some strange reason did not feel as sacred, I guess because it was home to 37 Nats(spirits) and full of monkeys. I brought some nuts for them, throwing over the edge from the top to where they could eat them without disturbing people climbing the long stairs up.

I was back at the guest house at 4pm, with the rose plant for his mother, and he came with his brother on a borrowed motorcycle to take me to his house. Foreigners are not allowed to ride motorcycles in Bagan unless they have a license to drive. To keep them from injuries so, he put his arm up to cover my head as we drove past the police on the road. We drove to a dirt road by the temples and he had a buffalo cart waiting for me for the final ride to his village as a surprise. Riding in the back as the sun was setting among temples was magical. When we got to his village we stopped at his house, and his Mom had fixed a huge dinner, and they had decided to set it up in their nearby vegetable garden hut among pumpkins, greens and okra with candles in a bamboo shelter. They were going to have me eat first as a guest, but I asked my new friend to join me. His Mother and Father and an Aunt came by to make sure everything was Ok for me…laughing.

He spoke of his appendicitis caused by eating to many nuts and hard things that he had done last year when 18, in the course of talking to him over dinner. And they rarely eat more than two meals per day. We talked about my next visit perhaps in a year and it seemed so very far away. The money he had earned with me was given to his family, as they share in everything. He told me that they had a hard time 2 years ago, and their house is on a uncles land, but the garden plot was theirs. He had hopes of continuing college in electrical engineering, with tuition promised by a French tourist. By the discussion he seemed like he was headed in a good direction to help his family get out of making bamboo walls(father) and chopping trees for income(mother). There was a certain confidence he had in his situation that never seemed desperate. His family was curious and very relaxed with me, with a whole lot less of the formalities of the Thai’s. He asked about a $2 bill having only seen one once, I have none and that they are kind of rare in US, since they are not used. I said, "But, If I had one I would give it to you". He said he would pray for me on my birthday and asked for the date to write down. His mother had papaya and oranges to eat with tea for desert. It was time to say our good-byes and his mother took the remaining food for their family to eat, so that when we walked to his house they were eating my left-overs. I got a motorcycle ride back to the guest house and said thanks for everything. Saying, “I will send my family or friends to see you if they come, but I should be back in a year.” There was no sadness and we both felt that we will meet soon, and it was a nice ending to my time in Bagan.

Any kindness I have learned was most certainly learned. Dedicated to Sue who went out of her way to help me on this path, Sue died early this month. She lives on in my heart.

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