Dazzled, I looked around the roughly 12-acre platform that encircled the main stupa and housed a labyrinth of smaller statues, temples, shrines and other elaborately decorated Buddhist artifacts. As night fell, thousands of Burmese began to gather to meditate, pray and make offerings at the hundreds of altars in the compound. I began to perceive the importance of this place in the daily lives of the people of Yangon. Not once did any local pay heed to me, a rare and obvious outsider. Here, finally, was the Myanmar I had hoped to see.
Tin exemplified the calm and warm Burmese demeanor. No question I asked of this man was too detailed, no request too unreasonable. After we finished our tour, I still needed to know more. I invited Tin to dinner.
As we rode in a taxi toward the capital's Indian neighborhood, we passed Burma's main university, the windows of which have been shuttered for more than a decade. In 1988, thousands of Buddhist monks and student protesters were killed during pro-democracy demonstrations. Immediately, the government drew worldwide condemnation and harsh sanctions against it. The government cemented the nation's isolation in 1991 by nullifying elections and confining the victorious party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Because she continues to organize campaigns of civil disobedience, Suu Kyi is continually shuffled between imprisonment and house arrest. Yet despite numerous invitations from the regime, she refuses to accept exile.
As I shared a curry dinner with Tin at the Nila Biryane Shop, he revealed that he had grown up in a small town in the country's interior. Having pursued an array of postgraduate studies, Tin discovered upon graduating that his skills served no purpose in a country lacking a developed job market. He left his family to pursue tourism in the capital and after two years of studying history and culture, Tin obtained a position as one of Shwedagon's many guides. In a country starved for tourism, he normally waits in vain for business.
Suddenly, Tin became the questioner and I the story teller. I told Tin about my upbringing and my life in New York City. He asked me about Sept. 11. He had heard about the tragedy but had not seen even one image shown on the heavily censored, state-controlled television channels.
Learning that I was not leaving for Mandalay until the following afternoon, Tin suggested visiting an unknown temple outside the city. He offered to arrange for a car, which would cost him $10. If I committed to paying this, he said, I could give him what I pleased after both days' efforts. I eventually paid him $25 for his services.
At 7 a.m., Tin and a driver picked me up in a clunker of a car and we set off on a two-hour journey southeast from Yangon. Once we left the capital, the level of poverty increased immediately and dramatically. We drove through a lush, unpopulated countryside sprinkled with small, gold-leaf-covered Buddhist temples encircled by huts and houses in varying states of decay. When we arrived at the small town of Kyauktan, an expansive river scene opened before us and I caught sight of a temple in the middle of the water. This was the Yele Paya, the Mid-River Pagoda.
Here was another spectacular site where the absence of tourists was stunning. As we floated toward the temple, the sole customers on the "tourist" boat (a clever way to extract a $1 fare, locals pay 2 cents), Tin shared with me its history.