Postcards from Bagan

She had on a clean, lavender blouse. A pink handbag hung carelessly over her shoulder. The delicate colors stood out in the harsh environment – a welcome break from the dry ochre that paints the landscape this time of the year. Thanaka paste was delicately applied on her round, tawny face.

I saw postcards in her hand. They were caked with dirt, their edges worn, and the colors faded from countless days spent under the unforgiving sun.

She took a seat in the plastic chair next to mine and wasted no time with her sales pitch. But, before she could finish I politely applauded her effort and got up from my seat to leave. I had made it to the rented single-speed bicycle that I parked under the shade of a nearby tree when I heard the sound of a scamper behind me. It was the girl. I was surprised to find the postcards this time stuffed inside her purse.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Dhammayangyi Paya.”

It was a lie. I wasn’t heading towards Dhammayangyi. But, it was the temple furthest from where we were standing. I was hoping the distance would scare her off from following me.

“Dhamma-yan-gyi,” she said, emphasizing the yan. She was correcting my poor pronunciation. “Let’s go together. It’s near the road to my home.”

I was a little wary of her goodwill. After all, the postcards. I made it clear that I wasn’t interesting in paying her for a tour. She smiled and motioned with her small hands that it was ok. She was giving up on her business for the day. It was the beginning of the hot season and no amount of money was worth standing around in the suffocating heat.

We took off, riding side by side, our tires kicking up the dry earth behind us, to not only Dhammayangyi, but to Ananda and the rest of the major payas in the Bagan Archaeological Zone. We spent the day in the dark corridors of the pagodas playing games of hide and seek. She tried her best, with her elementary understanding of Buddhism and the local history, explaining the significance of the paintings that decorated the walls. As a practicing Buddhist and someone very familiar with the religion’s history in this part of the world, I didn’t have the heart to correct her mistakes.

Before long, a procession of oranges, reds and purples danced across the sky. It was time to go home. We rode into New Bagan and stopped in front of a shabby home, supported by a scrap wood frame with a thatched roof and bamboo walls. A woman stepped out from the side door. She had the same round cheeks as the girl. She examined me up and down with that suspicious look mothers tend to give strangers.

The girl said something in Burmese that wiped the suspicion off her mother’s face. The mother turned to me and in broken English asked if I wanted to come in for supper. Though I was touched by her generous offer, I had to decline. It was now dark and the journey back to my hotel would be an arduous one. There were howls coming from the distance. The packs of stray dogs had awaken from their daytime slumber and were now patrolling the dark, deserted streets of Bagan.

I went back to the archaeological zone again the following day. I wanted to spend my last day in the region exploring the smaller shrines that were scattered across the dry plains of the Irawaddy. I rode past the makeshift refreshments stall from the day before where I had first encountered the girl, a part of me hoping to catch a glimpse of her one last time.

The girl was there, the same faded postcards with the tired edges in her hand.

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