And, I supposed, people like me. I added to Maung-Maung’s collection of addresses and photographs and after I returned to California, I often heard from him, just as I heard from other Maung-Maungs I had recently met in China, the Philippines, Nepal. Every few weeks, so it seemed, a worn blue envelope would arrive, with his looping script–”Maung-Maung, Trishaw Stand, Mandalay, Burma”–on the back, and stamps that must have cost a day’s wages or more to buy, even when the letters were smuggled out through foreigners traveling to Thailand.
He was still at his trishaw-stand, my friend wrote, in carefully inscribed English (I thought of the dictionary, the almost lightless room from which they came); he still hoped to become a teacher of mathematics. “Sometimes I don’t even get one kyat for a day,” Maung-Maung wrote. “Anyhow, I will try to improve for my living and I will support to my old parents. I have to try for success, then happiness. But I don’t want to wish for what is impossible.”
He never asked me for money or presents or support for a visa; he asked only that I never mention politics in my letters, and that I remember how often letters get intercepted and devoured by the wrong eyes. I followed every precaution but still, at some point, I realized that the letters had stopped. I shuddered to think what might happen to a curious and intellectually engaged man in Burma, where the government was fearful of everything and ruled on astrological whimsy, at one point outlawing all currency notes in denominations of 10 and 5–because 9 was a more auspicious number–and thus effectively robbing the people of all their savings.
I scheduled a trip to go back to the country, partly to see my friend again. But one day after they issued my visa, the consular officials at the Burmese embassy in Tokyo happened to see my photo in Time magazine, a journalist, and called me up to ask if I would mind if they canceled the visa (since the alternative was going to Burma and being arrested on the spot, I accepted). That same month, demonstrations broke out in the capital and three thousand people or more were killed.
This is a story that every traveler will recognize; I would come to know it by heart as I traveled to North Korea and Ethiopia and Laos and Haiti. Words cannot easily do justice to the lives that crowd in on one in most countries in the world, and ask why they shouldn’t receive an answer. Burma, after the demonstrations, became Myanmar, even farther from the notice of the world; occasionally it would slip into the news, as a factor in some geopolitical equation, but for most of us it disappeared entirely behind a curtain, just as its government hoped it would. Of the government, indeed, we heard now and then; of the people, cloudless, good-natured and as sweet and kind as any I had met on my travels, we never heard at all.
“How can you go to a country where your very presence there counts as a vote of confidence in its oppressors?” friends sometimes asked me. “Every penny you spend goes towards the oppression.” It was never an easy question to answer, but when I thought of Maung-Maung, and all his neighbors, I imagined that if they were asked, they would nearly always vote for our presence. Without us, they were essentially condemned to solitary confinement for life.
The years passed, and I thought constantly of Maung-Maung, and his unmet neighbors in Yemen and Cuba and Bolivia. Occasionally, friends would head off to Mandalay, but after 1988 none of them reported meeting my friend. Then, fourteen years after our meeting, I received a letter, from an unknown address in London, saying that the sender had met someone I knew in Myanmar–he recognized him because he’d read about him in a book I’d written–and had a letter he wanted to pass on.
I waited anxiously, and nothing came.
Then, a few months later, another envelope arrived, from Montreal, and when I opened it up, the familiar handwriting tumbled out. “Dear Pico Iyer,” Maung-Maung wrote, and told me of how, not long after we met, he had met some other visistors, from Texas. This elderly couple had been so moved by my friend–his essay on “My Life,” the presents he bestowed on them–that they had decided, then and there, to give him two hundred dollars, to realize his lifelong dream of buying his own trishaw. He could not believe his good karma, and he had gone home to his wife and five children and told them that now their lives would be transformed. Even his parents, he thought, might hold him in higher regard now.
Then, Maung-Maung wrote, he met another visitor, from Italy, who was so moved by his story that he had promised to give him the money to realize his secret wish, the one he had confided to almost nobody, of buying a camera and becoming a photographer. “Just get me some old coins,” the visitor had said, “and I’ll give you a camera in return.”
Maung-Maung raced around Mandalay, using his savings to acquire old Burmese coins, and sent them to the Italian. But when he traveled across Burma to the capital, and waited at the appointed place to receive his camera, nobody showed up. He waited and waited, and then traveled home and told his wife that they were broken. They would have to return to their village in shame and start the whole process again.
It was twelve years since that moment, Maung-Maung wrote, and at last, through hard work and determination, he had got back to where he started. He was a trishaw driver again, sleeping in his vehicle outside the station in Mandalay, and he looked forward to my return. He was too old now to expect further certificates or graduation ceremonies, but at least we might meet again one day. I’d written about him in a book, he knew, so there were others now who knew of the details of “My Life.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was on a blacklist in Burma, perhaps partly because of writing about people like himself, suitably disguised. A colleague had seen my picture up at the airport, as a criminal to be arrested if ever he showed his face. The important thing was that we had contact at last, and a window had opened again, a tiny window, where before there seemed no hope.
It’s almost a quarter of a century now since our paths crossed, but I think of Maung-Maung often, especially when I meet the other Maung-Maungs who become the protagonists of a traveler’s life. Sometimes it seems that my mailbox is mostly full of their letters (people like Maung-Maung have incentive to write, and the Internet is all but banned in such countries). I walk down the street in my little rural home and send a letter back, or buy a book about their countries, or even write a piece like this. Every one of those simple acts is impossible for them. The things I take for granted are the stuff of science-fiction fantasy for most.
For all the derelictions and brutalities of his government, though, Maung-Maung is still waiting at the station, and we are the only freedom he knows. Without us, there wouldn’t be anything, except years and years of further struggle, and then nothing at all.