In Mandalay, in 1985, I chanced to meet a trishaw-driver at the stadium as I fumbled off the overnight train from Rangoon. He was waiting to pick up tourists, and he'd put a small sign along the side of his trishaw that said, "BSc Mathematics"; his great dream, he told me, as we began to ride through the broad and largely empty boulevards, was to be a teacher of mathematics. He took me to his tiny, backstreet house, he showed me his creed (of being of service to tourists), chalked up in English on a blackboard and he made sure before I left that I read the life story he'd carefully copied out in a notebook. As we said goodbye, I felt something in me—a vestige of traveller's distrust—begin to crack.
Upon my return to California, my new friend and I often exchanged letters, letters that must have lost him several days' wages and many trips to the dictionary. He asked for nothing from me except that I write, "because from my point of view though we are far away," as he wrote, with impeccable curlicues, "our friendship is the bridge that closes the distance between us".
Sometimes I sent friends to see him in Mandalay, once I heard he was married; yet over and over, through the months, whatever was happening in my life or his, the letters arrived, the shadow of sentences copied over in every line. They always began, "My dearest Pico Iyer..."
Then, in the summer of 1988, just before the year of revolutions, Burma's government suddenly cracked down on anyone who had a mind of his own and my friend disappeared into silence. The visa I obtained to visit was retracted; the country was renamed "Myanmar"; and as even Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, I shuddered to think of what might happen to an educated man who wrote letters to foreigners.
Ten years passed and Burma remained closed to me. My home in California burned to the ground, members of my family died, people sometimes asked me what had happened to the trishaw-driver I had written of in an early book. I had nothing to report.
Then, a few months ago, suddenly I received a message from London: a traveller had met a trishaw-driver in Mandalay, who had reminded him of someone in a book and the man had wanted to pass on a letter for me (the postal service hardly works between Burma and the outside world): please could I send my address? I did so (of the house now rebuilt since the fire) but there, for some reason, the correspondence ended.
Then, not long ago, I got another letter, this time it was from a stranger in Montreal. Inside was a letter from my old friend with the trishaw.
Just after he had last written to me, he wrote—12 years before—he'd met a couple from Texas. These kind souls had been so moved by his plight that they'd given him $200 so he could realise his dream, of buying a trishaw of his own. He'd bought one, and marvelled that foreigners could act like angels. Then, shortly thereafter, he'd met another visitor, from Italy, who offered to give him a camera if he could get him some old Burmese coins. My friend had secretly dreamed of becoming a photographer all his life—something better than a trishaw-driver, more even than a teacher—and so he'd used up all his savings to procure the coins. The Italian collected the antiques and told him to meet him at a snack-stand in the capital to collect the camera.
My friend travelled, by third-class train, to the city and waited and waited at the snack-stand. At last, after many hours, he realised that the Italian would never show up.He went home to his wife and five children and told them that all their savings were gone. Tourists had made his dreams come true, tourists had reduced him to ruins again.
For 10 years, he wrote, he had worked again in his village. Now he had earned enough to try to be a trishaw-driver again, in Mandalay. He would write to me again, at the same address where he had written 12 years before. And I could write to him, care of the trishaw-stand in the street.
It was a strange thing to me, to think of all the revolutions the world had brought itself and us. I had criss-crossed the world for 12 years, living the life a trishaw-driver in Mandalay could hardly have dreamed of, if he dared; he had criss-crossed his world, too, returning to his village and finally making it back to Mandalay. Yet here we were, one full turn of the Chinese calendar later—it was the Year of the Tiger again—and he was back at the same address as before and I was, too. It might have seemed that nothing had changed in our lives at all, except that now, my friend wrote, he had an alternative life, in a book, and it was a life, he hoped, that no government could ever take away.
(Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home.)
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