For our part, we would wait until no one was looking, then scoop the contents of our bowls into the plastic bags in our shoulder bags. I gathered monks generally quit begging when their bowls were full, but we had to net enough calories in a morning’s scrounging to carry us for the rest of the day. We wouldn’t be sitting around meditating, either. We’d be walking east across Burma.
So we filled our bowls and stowed our take and kept going, holding our newly empty bowls in front of us and smiling benevolently on everyone in our path. We repeated the process, and the third time around the donations got a little more interesting. No one thought to toss in a Big Mac or a pint of Johnny Walker, but we were showered with nuts (almonds and cashews), dried fruit (raisins and apricots), and little fried dumplings, contents unknown.
Time to sit on our haunches somewhere and chow down, I thought. And up pops a pair of young soldiers, with holstered pistols on their hips and rifles slung across their backs. Where had they come from?
Well, we wouldn’t have to worry about malaria, I thought. Or dysentery, or whether Social Security would still be intact when we were old enough to collect it.
One of them said something in rapid-fire Burmese. I didn’t catch any of it, but replied with an all-purpose smile and a finger to my own lips, the latter accompanied by a shake of the head. I’d tried out that routine earlier, hoping it would convey the notion that we couldn’t speak, and most people had gotten the message.
It was hard to tell what the soldiers made of it. The one who’d spoken now turned to Katya and either repeated his first question or asked her something else. She did as I had done – a smile, a finger to her lips, a shake of her shaven head.
Jesus, could he stand this close to her and not notice she hadn’t needed to shave her face? But maybe not. He was wearing a uniform and carrying enough weaponry to wipe out a small village, and it didn’t look as though he had had to shave yet himself.
He barked out a command that was as incomprehensible to me as everything else he’d said, turned on his heel and trotted off. I smiled stupidly at the other soldier, inclined my head in a slight bow, and took a step away from him. He moved quickly, extending an arm to block my path, and said something. I didn’t need a Burmese-English dictionary to get the message. He wanted us to stay right where we were.
The rifle was slung across his back, I noticed, and the pistol’s holster was snapped shut. How hard would it be to jump him and knock him senseless? If I took him by surprise I could probably bring it off, and I’d have his automatic rifle in hand by the time his buddy came back with their commanding officer.
Good thing I didn’t try it. It probably would have worked – the kid’s guard was down, and the last thing he expected was a sudden attack by a red-robed monk. But I’d have felt like an awful fool when the other kid came back alone, carrying a couple of bananas and two cakes of sticky rice.
“We’re not going to starve,” I told Katya. “We may get hanged as spies or burned at the stake for sacrilege, and we may die of malaria or sunstroke, but we’re not going to starve.”
We were on the road, heading eastward from Bagan, and there was nobody near us to see us or hear us, a line that came readily to mind just then because we’d recently had tea for two.
We’d eaten, stuffing ourselves without depleting the hoard in our shoulder bags. There was plenty left to carry us through to nightfall. I was thirsty, and mentioned as much to Katya. I didn’t really want beer just yet, nor did I want to chance buying it in Bagan, where word of two odd-looking beer-drinking monks could all too easily filter back to Rangoon. The water might do a number on my stomach, but so would the food, and I couldn’t worry about that now. I’d take my chances.
But how did you go about getting water? The locals fetched jugs of it from the river, and the tourists bought the pure stuff in bottles at their hotels, but what was a poor but honest monk to do?
“Nobody poured water in our bowls,” I said. And she gave me a look and got her cup from her shoulder bag and marched into a teahouse, smiling warmly and holding out her cup with both hands.
The proprietor didn’t even get a chance. A customer leapt to his feet, snatched up his teapot, and filled her cup. I got out my own cup, and another man earned himself six ounces of merit. We hit three teahouses and drank three cups of tea apiece, and I have to say it hit the spot.
“We won’t starve,” I said again. “We might even get out of this alive.”
Day by day, we settled into a routine. Up at daybreak, beg for food, eat breakfast, beg for tea, and hit the street. Stop at a village around midday, get something to drink, wait in the shade until the sun had dropped a few degrees from its zenith, then walk to the next village, or as close to it as we could get. Then eat the final meal of the day where no one could see us, polishing off whatever was still stowed in our shoulder bags. (An evening meal might violate a monastic precept, but cross-country trekkers have precepts of their own, and “Don’t go to bed hungry” is one of them.)
By the time the sun went down, we would find a place for Katya to sleep. Within a few days, she had noticed that I never seemed to be sleeping myself, and I wound up telling her about the sleep center, and how I didn’t have one anymore. (I didn’t tell her I’d been like this since before she was born, or that I’d spent the past quarter-century in cold storage. That, I felt, was more information than she needed to contend with.)
We’d usually make our camp at the edge of a village, though one night we dossed down in the middle of nowhere rather than try to walk with only starshine to guide us. It would have been great to use those evening hours, when the sun was down and the air cooled off and the roads were empty, but not when the trade-off was an inability to see where we were going. I lamented my little flashlight, along with my Swiss Army knife and so many other indispensable articles I was now forced to dispense with, and I wished all kinds of ill fortune upon the head of the little SLORCist martinet who’d taken them away from me.
As far as that goes, I’d have liked my sneakers back. The Formerly Firestone sandals, staple footwear throughout the Third World, were not so bad once you got used to them, but Michael Jordan was never going to want to swap his Nikes for them.
Of course I couldn’t have worn my sneakers even if I had them. They would have looked out of place peeping out from under a red robe. The sandals slowed us down, and gave us sore calf muscles the first few days, and God knows they never provided much in the way of cushioning. But they were a better fit than those wing tips I had filched, and one did tend to get used to them.
“This isn’t so bad,” I told Katya one morning. “Plenty to eat, loads of fresh air, and not a lot of decisions to make about what clothes to put on in the morning. I can see why a good percentage of the men who try it decide to make it their life work.”
“Of course,” she said, “that means a lifetime of the ten precepts. Never to sleep in a high bed might not be so bad, but always to sleep alone?”
“There’s a downside to everything,” I admitted. “And it’s not just ten precepts when you’re a lifer. On that level you’ve got two hundred and twenty-seven precepts to contend with.”
“So many! How could a person even learn what they all are, let alone follow them?”
“That’s why the short-timers make do with ten.”
“Two hundred and twenty-seven of them! Evan, there are not that many things that I do to begin with. How could I give them all up?”
“Think of the poor nuns,” I said. “They’ve got three hundred and eleven precepts.”
“You mean Carmelites and Poor Clares? Catholic nuns?”
“There is such a thing?”
“I saw some in Rangoon,” I said. “Their robes are pink. You’ve lived here for years. Didn’t you ever see any?”
“I thought they were monks,” she said. “With robes of a different color, to signify that they were novices, perhaps. Or monks of a different order.”
“Well, they’re monks of a different gender,” I said. “In other words, nuns.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I could have been a nun!”
“This is an odd time to discover a vocation,” I said. “I thought you were hellbent on getting out of this country, but if you really want to spend your life in a convent in Rangoon-”
“I mean I could have pretended to be a nun,” she said, “the way I am pretending to be a monk. Ku Min could have brought me pink robes instead of red, and I would not have had to shave off all my hair-”
“Buddhist nuns shave their heads,” I reminded her. “That’s why you didn’t know they were women. Remember?”
“So I would have shaved my head. That is the least of it. It is every moment pretending to be what I am not that is such a strain on me.”
“You’d still be pretending,” I said. “You’d be pretending to be a nun instead of a monk, that’s all.”
She’d goofed earlier that day, automatically heading for the women’s lavatory at a village teahouse. A man had caught her arm in time and pointed her toward the men’s instead, and he and his companions had all had a good laugh at the unworldly monk who’d almost dishonored himself by squatting over the wrong hole in the ground.
“I don’t know why they laughed,” she said now. “What was so funny about it?”
“The irony of it,” I said. “As a monk, you’re not even supposed to look at women, and here you came that close to using a woman’s toilet.”
“And what would that do? Shrink my precious penis? Cause my balls to fall off?”
“It’s a violation of a precept, that’s all.”
“If I had a pink robe,” she said, “I would not have to concern myself with such nonsense.”
“If you had a pink robe,” I said, “I wouldn’t be able to have anything to do with you. Nuns are women, even if they don’t look like it. I’m not supposed to look at you, and I’m definitely not allowed to touch you or speak to you, so it would raise a few eyebrows if the two of us set out to walk across Burma together.”
“Of course,” she said. “I forgot.”
“But if you wanted to spend your life wearing a pink robe in Rangoon-”
“Or in some rural convent, where there are no men for miles around.”
“Evan, please.” She was silent for a few minutes, and then she said, “Why do they hate women so much? Didn’t Buddha have a mother?”
“Sure he did, and so did Jesus. A lot of people can simultaneously revere the Virgin Mary and insist that women can’t be priests. It may look contradictory to you, but it makes sense to the pope.”
“But to think it defiles a monk to be touched by a woman-”