BY ARTHUR DYMOND
The other day I left work at 5 p.m. to do some exploring in downtown Rangoon before sunset with my wife, Stefanie. We gave instructions to our nanny, who had agreed to stay late, then departed.
By the time we arrived at Sule Pagoda, in the heart of downtown opposite the former U.S. chancery, dark clouds had collected in the near distance. Their steel gray color made a beautiful backdrop to the golden pagoda, but seemed less than inviting for an early evening walk.
Nevertheless, we jumped out of the taxi in the direction of the beautifully manicured, bright green lawn called Maha Bandula Garden. It’s named for General Maha Bandula, who commanded the Burmese army against the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826).
Then, as if in an attempt to wash the city of a day’s worth of sweat, muck and filth, the heavens opened up suddenly. With a throng of pedestrians, we squeezed ourselves under what was left of an awning that had once been a grand entrance to the colonial high court. After about 15 minutes, the torrential rain gave way to something more “normal,” and we ventured out—with one small umbrella between us.
Across from the courthouse was a narrow alley lined with tall, colonial-era apartment buildings. Their walls were green with moss, grass and even a few small shrubs growing horizontally from between bricks. The colors of the walls, already faded by decades of tropical weather and vehicle pollution, took on an even gentler hue as the sun began its descent.
Fluorescent lights had begun to paint light semicircles around the entrances to a few of the ground-floor shops. A couple of street dogs followed us with their eyes, apparently not interested enough to expend the energy to turn their heads. Ahead was a small neighborhood street market that was preparing to close down for the evening.
From behind us, I heard a man’s voice calling out, “Hello... Hey, you... You... Hello.” I did not want to buy anything, and had already lost valuable daylight that was helpful in exploring this quarter of the city. But he continued shouting, and I finally organized my thoughts into the limited Burmese phrases I had learned, to say politely that I had no time and no money. My Burmese lessons left me unprepared, however, for what happened next.
The torrential rain gave way to something more “normal,” and we ventured out—one small umbrella between us.
Turning to find the source of the voice, I looked up to the third floor to see a warm smile on an old man leaning over a balcony. In his outstretched arms was a red umbrella ... for me. He motioned that I should catch it. I declined repeatedly, but in the end relented. He gently let go of the umbrella, and it fell perfectly into my hands.
I thanked him, and we continued on our way down the narrow alley. But the attractions hidden along the street and around the next corner faded. I glanced with only passing interest at the dirty tables with their perfect rows of fish waiting to be sold; at the whole chickens, naked and headless; at the neat stacks of fruits and vegetables; at the tired women and children who had been selling their goods all day while trying to fight off the tropical heat. I hardly even noticed the rats gathering scraps of discarded food from beneath the tables.
I felt completely overwhelmed by the genuine kindness and hospitality this stranger had shown me. At the same time, I felt shame for having cynically misread the situation.
As we retraced our steps back to the narrow market alley, I carried the umbrella with a certain pride. It made me feel welcome and familiar, as if I somehow belonged in this place that was so different from my posh diplomatic neighborhood.
We wondered if the generous man would still be there. As it turned out, he was. And he welcomed us into his foyer, and we chatted for about 10 minutes before heading back home to get the children ready for bed.
Though our excursion was cut short by the weather, I feel fortunate to have discovered so much about Burma during that brief evening walk in the rain.