At four-thirty that afternoon I was sitting cross-legged in front of a sort of chapel immediately to the right of the western gate. I was pretty sure it was where I was supposed to be, but to my untrained eye one chapel looked rather like another.
Still, how hard should it be to find me? My fellow tourists were a busy lot, but the bulk of their activity consisted of either taking pictures or posing for them. When they weren’t behind or in front of a camera, they were gazing rapturously at something and trying to decide if they had enough film to record it for the folks back home.
The Burmese, on the other hand, did almost everything imaginable but take or pose for pictures. Families walked around, the children clutching their parents’ hands. Red-robed monks, ranging in age from small boys to old men, circled the central stupa in a solemn procession. And here a man howled and spat, and there a fellow puffed on a cheroot. Spitting and smoking were evidently okay, as long as you kept your shoes off.
I looked at my watch. 4:32. It was funny, I thought, how twenty-five years could pass in the wink of an eye, and two minutes could take forever. I wondered how long I should wait for my co-conspirator to make contact. I should wait a little while, I had been told, and then return at the same time the following day. But how long was a little while in this holy place? Five minutes? An hour and a half?
Mr. Sukhumvit in Bangkok was a contact the Chief had arranged for me, and he’d been helpful enough, though in one respect I’d have been better off with the Thai equivalent of Zagat’s or Egon Ronay’s Good Food Guide. The person who would meet me in Shwe Dagon was someone I’d located on my own, working what remained of my old network of activists and supplementing it with some contacts I’d made on the Internet. There were exiled Burmese dissidents all over the place, and especially in northern Thailand, and it was through them that this meeting had been arranged.
I had thought about skipping it, even as I’d considered passing up Sukhumvit even before I learned what was on the menu. But I felt so ill-equipped for the task at hand, so utterly unprepared, that I didn’t dare. I needed all the help I could get.
I guess my eyes closed as I sat there, because I didn’t notice the boy’s approach. He coughed gently, no more than a quiet clearing of the throat, and I looked up and saw him. He was standing as straight as a little soldier and I was sitting cross-legged, but our eyes were on a level. He was a tiny fellow, his face a perfect oval, his eyes large and dark. With his shaved head he could have been a monk-in-training – I’d seen some no older and taller – but instead of a red robe he wore a longyi, the close-fitting wraparound skirt all Burmese men wore instead of trousers. His shirt was an ordinary American T-shirt showing Bugs Bunny chewing on a carrot.
He was holding a twig cage, and it was holding a dove just like the one I’d seen released. The same one, for all I knew, although I’d say the odds were against it.
“No, thank you,” I said in English. “No birds today.”
He didn’t seem to get it. He smiled, and extended the cage.
“Bah boo,” I said, which means No. Unless I was giving it the wrong tonal quality, in which case it very likely meant something else. It certainly didn’t seem to discourage him. “Jay zu bah boo,” I said, which ought to mean Thanks but no thanks. This got me a smile, but it didn’t get rid of him. He wanted to sell me that bird.
People were looking at us, too. Maybe the easiest thing was to buy it. “How much?” I asked, and searched my memory for the Burmese phrase. I hadn’t had nearly enough time to study it, I’d just managed to cram in a few words and phrases, and-
“Beh lout lay?” I said. I’d either asked the price or directions to the post office, I wasn’t really sure which.
“Shit,” he said.
I stared at him. His expression was curiously matter-of-fact. I said, “Shit?”
He nodded, pleased that we were communicating. “Shit.” And he followed that with a string of words I didn’t get at all.
“Na malay bah boo,” I told him, which ought to mean The guy from Singapore made a mistake, but which actually means “I don’t understand.”
“Shit,” he said.
“You said it,” I agreed.
He put the cage on the marble floor between us and held up both hands, the thumbs tucked into the palms. When I didn’t react he tried again, counting on his fingers: “Tit, nit, thone, lay, ngar, chak, kunnit, shit. Shit!”
Oh, right. Shit was eight in Burmese. But eight what? Eight dollars seemed ridiculously high, while eight kyat worked out to around a dime, and seemed ridiculously low. And I didn’t have any kyat, I hadn’t changed any money yet, and-
“Shit,” he said. His face showed the beginnings of exasperation, and I wasn’t sure whether the latest utterance was in Burmese or English.
“No shit,” I said, and dug out my wallet. The smallest I had was a ten-dollar bill, and I handed it to him. His eyes widened and I gestured to indicate that he should keep it, which clearly delighted him. He tucked it into the waistband of his longyi and handed me the cage. I handed it back and indicated that he should keep it, and perhaps sell it to somebody else.
That didn’t please him at all. “Taik, taik,” he implored, and I was trying to guess what the word meant when I realized he was speaking English, insisting I take the thing.
“Oh,” I said, taking it, and thanked him politely: “Amyah ee jay zu tin ba day.”
He nodded and bowed and ran off.
Shit, I thought. I set the caged bird down beside me and looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to five, and I’d have given up on my contact, but suppose he’d waited while the kid gave me the bird? I ought to give him a few more minutes. And so I waited until five o’clock, not really expecting anything, and nobody came within five yards of me, or took any real notice of me at all.
I stood up, bent to work the cramps out of my legs, then straightened up again. I could come back same time tomorrow, I thought, or I could say the hell with it. The latter course seemed the most likely, but I had a whole day to make up my mind.
I started walking, then remembered the bird cage. I could leave it there and let someone else knock a few spokes out of the wheel of rebirth, but maybe it was time I earned a little merit myself. It seemed to me that it had been a while since I’d done anything the least bit meritorious. Since I’d just paid one hundred and twenty times the asking price for this poor benighted white dove, the least I could do was let him loose.
I unlocked the cage door, reached in, got hold of the bird. He did what birds do, although they generally do it on statues, or women who’ve just had their hair done. “Shit,” I said, and I wasn’t talking about the price, either.
I lifted him out and let him go, and my spirit might have soared along with him but for the souvenir he’d left behind. I didn’t have anything to wipe my hands on, and I was damned if I was going to part with another ten dollars. I wiped them on my pants.
Now what was I going to do with the cage? Just set it down, I thought, and let it be somebody else’s problem. And I was in the process of doing just that when I saw the envelope.
Well, actually, I’d seen it earlier, but I’d just assumed it was a piece of scrap paper of the sort you’d use to, well, line the bottom of a bird cage. The bird had evidently made the same assumption, and had acted accordingly, and in abundance. Perhaps he’d assumed the little boy was speaking English when he recited the price, perhaps he’d regarded the word as an exhortation, a command. Or perhaps he’d merely had the benefit of a high-fiber diet.
Whatever the cause, his output had been prodigious, and he’d pretty much covered the cage’s paper liner. But now I got a look at it and saw that it was in fact an envelope, and I took a closer look and saw that something was written on it.
“Eight,” I said, in Burmese.
I reached in, gripped the thing carefully between thumb and forefinger, and drew it out. TANNER EVAN someone had penciled on the front of it, in block capitals. The flap was unsealed, just tucked in, and I untucked it and removed a single sheet of paper, folded twice. I unfolded it and read the message, in the same awkward capital letters as my name:
GET OUT OF BURMA OR YOU DIE.
Just about everybody wore the longyis. They looked entirely unremarkable on the women, just long tight skirts that would have been appropriate anywhere. One was less accustomed to seeing men in skirts, but you got used to it, at least among the Burmese. Here and there, though, I saw a male tourist gamely sporting a souvenir longyi, and they all looked embarrassed, and rightly so. When they got home to Frankfurt and Antwerp and Keokuk, I had a feeling those longyis would go straight into the closet and stay there.
But not every Burmese wore a longyi. The cops and the soldiers, I saw, were dressed like cops and soldiers anywhere. They had short-sleeved khaki shirts with epaulets, and they had square-toed brown half-boots, and they had squared-off peaked caps. And they were wearing pants, either black or khaki.
I guess a longyi wasn’t sufficiently military. I guess they figured the blood wouldn’t go gelid at the sight of a horde of men in skirts charging down a hill at you. I guess nobody ever told them about the Scottish Highlanders.
Still, I’m not sure it would work without bagpipes, and I didn’t even want to think what Burmese pipers might sound like. What I did know was that the fellow standing in front of me looked very military indeed, and efficient, and quietly intimidating.
“I am so sorry,” he said, in excellent English. “You would not want to walk down this street.”
“It is no street for sightseeing,” he assured me. “There are many fine things to see in Yangon. Have you been to Shwe Dagon Pagoda?”
“I’ve just come from there.”
“Then you must go to Sule Pagoda,” he said. “Shwe Dagon is the soul of Yangon, and Sule is its heart. A hair from the Buddha is preserved there.”
“And Botatamy Pagoda. Also a hair of the Buddha!”
“He must have had a lot of hairs,” I said.
“And the Bogyoke Aung San Market. So much to see there! So many things to buy! Perhaps you will have a longyi made for you, so that anyone who sees you will think you are a native of Myanmar.”
He laughed, so I would know he was joking, and I laughed, so he would know I got it. He named other tourist attractions – he was a regular Insight Guide – and I just stood there and nodded and smiled.
“If you wish to go to any of these places,” he said, “I will be most happy to provide directions.”
“I have a map,” I said.
“I could trace the route for you,” he said.
I told him that was very kind of him, but actually I just wanted to walk down this one particular street.
“You would not like it,” he said. “There is nothing to see, nothing to do. No shops! No pagodas!”
“No restaurants! Perhaps you are hungry, you would enjoy a meal. There are many fine restaurants in Yangon. Most people like the Chinese restaurants the best, but there are also fine Myanmar restaurants. Do you like Myanmar food?”
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