THE WHITE MARBLE PLATFORM of the Shwedagon Pagoda is warm under my bare feet. Yangon, Myanmar, is already steamy, and it’s only 8am. Up here the hum of engines and sharp bursts of car horns below sound distant, but the humidity is as thick as it is on the root-tangled streets.
A smiling woman in uniform points at my ticket. It’s a kitsch photograph of the gold-plated cone of the Shwedagon. She checks the date stamped on it while I look at the creamy smudges of thanaka on her cheeks — tree-bark paste that’s dried like thick brush strokes. She nods and points down a quiet alley between rows of shrines.
I set off slowly. There are reverent groups of men in dark sarongs and smart shirts, women in bright oranges and pinks. I find myself looking at everyone’s toes. Their bare toes poke out bold and separated. They’re not jammed together, not like the toes of the old French women I’ve met, swollen and bulging with bunions in tight, low-heeled loafers. I look down at my own feet, my Zimbabwean feet that’ve seen the insides of too many winter boots. I find myself hoping no one notices how my big toes have started to point inwards, because in my heart I’m the kind of person who has hot-country feet, and since I can’t speak a word of Burmese, my toes are all that can speak for me. I want them to say we have something in common.
The spiritual citadel of the Shwedagon is bustling with activity, but all I can hear is the quiet mutter of voices and the tinkle of small bells. Each shrine holds a different version of the Buddha. In one he’s cloaked in gold, in another his untroubled face rests at the centre of a strobing, multi-coloured halo.
At the end of the alley of shrines I join the inner circle around the base of the towering golden cone, or stupa. Each part of the gilded stupa has a beautiful name: the inverted alms bowl, the lotus petals, the banana bud. The gleaming pagoda creates a horizon line that no part of my experience can relate to. The power it commands is literal. Even on this cloudy day it glows with weighty riches.
I want to stand and stare at the monks in their crimson robes. I want to watch their fingers flick through their prayer beads. I want to ask them about the tattoos on their feet, but I don’t. I keep walking slowly around the wide golden base.
Two monks sitting cross-legged on the raised terrace of a shrine catch my attention. The one on the left is wearing a pair of dark shades. The one on the right is wearing a pair of wire-framed spectacles, and our eyes meet. I panic and consider turning away when he mimes taking a picture and points to his friend. I point to my camera, eyebrows raised. He nods, and I walk towards them.
There’s a sudden burst of dialogue, and the one in shades gets up. He looks angry, with a face like his friend has played one too many tricks for this to be funny. I falter. I’m just an annoying tourist with a camera, but this is my only chance. I want his permission. I gesture again to check that it’s OK. The one in shades is standing next to a statue of the Buddha with his back to me, but the monk in spectacles obliges, caught out by his own joke.
He draws himself up, his spine straightening. A sudden, striking serenity washes over his face. I snap a few shots and show them to him, careful not to come too close.
* * *
I’m standing in front of my golden zodiac animal. In Myanmar, the day of the week you were born on is of great astrological importance. There’s a sign for each day of the week and two for Wednesdays. My sign is the lion. I’m watching visitors pour cups of water onto its golden head when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find a small man with a cowlick of grey hair and thick Coke-bottle glasses.
“Hello, my name is Alexander.”
I look at his crisp white shirt and long sarong. I see his bare, hot-country toes. He seems timeless, like he’d belong just as well if this were the 1940s. He seems like the kind of man that would own a typewriter. He smiles.
“You were born on a Tuesday? Let me show you what to do.”
He teaches me how many cups of water I must pour onto the lion’s head and how many I must pour onto the Buddha to chase away bad spirits.
“Now you must make a wish,” he says, and I silently wish that everything will be OK.
“Come, did you know there’s the footprint of the Buddha here?”
I let him lead me through the maze of shrines, happy to have a friend to decode this place. Inside a dark room there’s a large basin full of water, its edges draped with garlands of fragrant white flowers with long yellow anthers.
“This is his footprint.”
I look at the ornamental tub of placid water. I only feel slightly disappointed and try to remind myself that it’s the symbolism that counts. Alexander dips his hand into the water and runs it through my short hair. “There you go,” he says, “The danger is gone.”
He sounds so certain and his voice is so soothing that I believe him.
Out in the daylight there’s an awkward silence, and I realize he’s waiting for something.
“Would you mind giving me a little something for the tour?” he asks.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I say and fumble with my bag, only slightly disappointed.
“50 kyat would be fine. I’m saving to pay for an eye operation,” he says and points to his thick glasses. I hand him the note, and we continue to walk together a little.
“Are you married?” he asks.
“No, no I’m not,” I smile.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty,” I lie.
He stops and looks at me with paternal gravity.
“Ah, it’s too late…”