After hundreds of cities around the world, each with their own version of the postcard-hawking child, one gets rather jaded. So it was as I was exploring the temples of Bagan. I surmised that families worked out some sort of arrangement with the local authorities so they could set up shop in front of the larger temples and hassle tourists to "you like you buy". Smaller operations, namely families that couldn't carry the inventory or the fees to set up shop would send their children down to the temples to hawk goods. I, for one, wasn't buying.
"Hello, where you go?" asked a small, monkey-like boy as I took off my shoes and entered a temple. Thinking the answer was apparent, I gave a slight nod towards the interior of the temple, and continued taking my shoes off.
"You buy me postcards?" There it was. The dreaded question.
"No, no thank you, I already have some."
"These different. You like."
Same same but different, eh? No thanks, I really don't need any more." I walked through the cool interior of the temple, peeking around corners, not knowing what was to be found in here.
"Go this way, up to the top" suggested the boy. Sure enough, there was a narrow stairway that made a steep ascent into cobwebbed darkness. On the one hand, the kid was just trying to make a living and help out, but on the other hand, it was frustrating because I liked the feeling of "discovering" these passageways on my own. Oh well, I was going to ascend either way. And my new friend was going to escort me.
"Watch yo head!" the boy admonished as I squeezed up the corridor. At the top of the stairway, a short arched doorway opened onto the flat, brick roof of the temple, about halfway from the peak of its tallest stupa. In the light I could get a better glimpse of my friend. He was a little guy, probably 8 years old, skinny, lanky, with big ears that protruded from the side of his head. He was wearing a pink girl's shirt covered in images of filmstrips and stars from Western romantic comedies such as Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Basinger. His name was Yela and he was an animated one; donning the motorcycle helmet of another boy that was already relaxing on top of the temple and flailing around the temple as if he were some sort of retarded monkey. I egged him on.
Soon enough, we were accompanied by another little guy about the same age named Hanso, and the motor cycle driver. The latter was in his teens and had cloth paintings he wanted to sell me. I patiently sat through the sales routine, and even bought one after some negotiation. The little boys got insistent: they knew I had money and was theoretically willing to spend it.
"Come on, you buy me postcards!" urged Hanso.
"Very good price! Very good quality! No copies!" chimed in Yela.
"Yes, we sell 10 for 50 kyat, good price. You like? You buy!"
After politely declining numerous times, I began playing with them.
"You like, you buy?" one boy said.
"No! I like, you buy!" I retorted.
"Well, very good price, of course! For you? Student price!" I said.
"OK, OK, only 40 kyat. For you bery good price."
"Yela, I told you, I already have postcards. If I sent all of them, everyone I know would get two! I just don't need anymore. I am sorry."
"We are poor! We need to sell postcards-- no business all week. No lucky," said Hanso in a dejected voice. Since I really wasn't buying, I tried to play the humorous side, repeating what they said, making noises with my hands and tongue, but eventually the boys tired of the game.
"Me ming a loo lah." Hanso eventually muttered in my direction. "Googly," he said to Yela.
"Me ming a loo lah. Googly!" I parroted. This sent the boys into a stupor. They were cracking up, and demanded I repeat it.
"Me ming a loo lah!" Copious laughter. I was dragged by my hand over to the edge of the temple, where Yela shouted to friends playing in the dirt below, before prodding me to say it to them.
"Me ming a loo lah!" they lost it too. Apparently I had struck upon a good phrase.
Suddenly, Hanso shouted something to Yela, followed by another "googly," and both boys ran across the roof of the temple towards a ledge along the side. There, they crouched and made urgent gestures that I should get away from them. Moments later, I saw a bicycle pull up driven by a Burmese man, and ridden by a tourist woman. They came into the temple, ascended the stairwell, and explored the roof for a few minutes, while I relaxed and enjoyed the vast expanse of temples in the distance, filling the nearly infinite green fields.
When the tourist and guide left, the boys emerged. They explained that they weren't allowed in the temple, and that a legitimate guide like that one could get them in trouble.
"And what does googly mean?"
"OK, that makes sense! And me ming a loo lah?"
The boys lost it again. "No tell! I cannot!"
Eventually, another boy that joined us on the rooftop was willing to tell me.
"Fuck off!" he said.
So when I had frustrated them by not buying their crap, Hanso had told me to fuck off, and told Yela that they should go. It was fun to be able to understand them! And through my willingness to pick up their curse word, they had overlooked the fact that I wasn't buying their postcards. We'd even become friends, you might say. We hung out on top of the temple, soaking in the afternoon heat for quite some time. Throwing rocks into the well below, telling stories, chatting about life. Eventually, Hanso offered that we should go down to the river. His house was near the river and he said he would take me there if I was interested. I was.
We grabbed our bikes; me on my large, rented bike, Hanso on his midsize bike, and poor Yela on a pink little girl's bike that was clearly too small for him. It also had a shoddy crank and would only turn the chain through half of a rotation, so he was perpetually holding up the rear. He split off to visit his family while Hanso and I continued to his home.
The dirt roads that connected the temples gathered a little shade from encroaching trees as we approached the river. Well-trodden paths twisted over knotty roots towards small grass shelters sometimes separated by bamboo fences. Pigs and scrawny chickens scurried about as we approached one straw shelter.
At the time, I lived under the illusion that kids like these would have no exposure to the Western lifestyle aside from bits picked up from observing tourists in the area. That notion was dashed the following day, when meandering through a nearby neighborhood, a pack of kids approached me for some mutual observation. One of the kids was holding a homemade toy, created out of tape and pieces of paper and cardboard. It was a house. A western style house, with a peaked roof, and an attached two-car garage. Even more astonishing was that there was a slightly conical piece of paper attached to the roof. I asked whether it was a television satellite and it was. How these kids had such an intimate knowledge of a western house in an area where I never saw a home with a TV was completely beyond me.
"This is my home!" said Hanso with 2/3 pride and 1/3 humility, probably having a similar hunch that this was not how I lived back home. The main portion of his home was about 10 feet wide, and about 6 feet deep. There were three walls and a thatched roof, and the elevated floor was primarily covered in a straw mat, which Hanso explained was the bed for him, his two brothers, and his parents. Close quarters.
Hanso's mother tended to a large water pot which served as their sink, cleaning some tin plates ostensibly for the evening meal. She too took pride in what she had, and smiled broadly as Hanso showed me around. We dodged a few loose pigs and chickens while I peeked in on similar homes, all tiny, some with small hanging baskets for infants, each with a large water pot out front that served as the water source. Not having a particularly long tour to provide, Hanso suggested we run down to the river. His father was a fisherman, and Hanso's life was almost completely indebted to the fish his father pulled from the Ayeyarwaddy.
We followed a jangly trail through some trees, crossed paths with a girl of about 8 who was carrying a large bucket of water, probably to fill her family's water pot. Along the shore, rows of tiny, bright green plants were poking their way out of the brown earth. Peanuts, Hanso explained.
Large hand-carved boats lined the shore, titted with wooden paddles, the same that Hanso's father was out fishing with at that very moment. Yela caught up with us at the river, and as the afternoon light turned a shade of orange, youths bathed and washed clothes in pools, while Hanso, Yela and I skipped dried pieces of mud across the placid river and asked in a slice of a shared existence.
Suddenly, Hanso snapped to attention: "If we want to see the sunset, we should go back to the stupa!" He was right, we had mere minutes before the sun would tuck behind the hills across the Ayeyarwaddy. We began a mad dash to our bicycles, and then to the temples. Yela holding up the rear, and we made it up to the top of the temple again, just in time to see the sun disappear. Music could be heard faintly in the distance, and as we rode home in darkness, dodging monstrous trucks and tractors, I sang my own version of Elvis, to keep the boys entertained.
"Me ming a loo lah, she's my baby. Me ming a loo lah, I don't mean maybe…"