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.