There is no photo of him. There is only a memory of his nameless face set against the backdrop of Bagan’s templed plains.
There he stood, weakly waving, with a smile that stopped just short of his eyes. They remained blank, non-fixated. His hand fell flat, defeated, before we rounded the bend. My now-husband’s words, uttered as our horse-drawn cart pulled away from the gentleman, haunt me to this day:
“He looks so skinny and hungry. And did you see his toe? It’s bleeding… We should’ve bought something from him.”
Onward we went.
By this time, our third or fourth day in Bagan, we had already acquired as many souvenirs as would fit our luggage. We agreed to be resolute in our decision to ignore future sellers.
On previous days, we had explored Bagan’s temple-peppered landscape by bicycle. On this day, for a different perspective of the area, we employed the services of one of the local horse cart drivers.
Our driver accommodated our wish to visit a few of the named temples on our map, but he was also familiar with places we would have never found otherwise: a small fabric-weaving community nestled among the field of stupas, and tucked-away temples tended by key-keepers who would open their chambers on request.
It was at one of these lesser-known pagodas where we encountered a man whom I have never forgotten.
I didn’t notice his bleeding toe in the beginning.
In fact, I didn’t look at him at all while we explored the temple's crumbling walls.
I wouldn’t steal a glance at him until the final moments when we pulled away from the site.
As one of only two or three sellers stationed at this infrequently-trafficked spot, he began trailing us shortly after our arrival.
I could hear him begin the usual small talk with my husband. His voice sounded hoarse, aged.
I kept my distance, focusing on the stupa-speckled scene through the camera lens.
My husband’s voice answered the gentleman’s queries.
The man continued softly, giving what sounded like a historical account of the area. I didn’t listen for details, but continued to distance myself from the scene, using the camera as a distraction.
I moved further from the two of them. I wanted to avoid hearing the inevitable sales attempts which would need to be rejected.
Snap, snap. Snap.
After two or three dozen half-hearted photos, I escaped to the cart, avoiding the uncomfortable situation I knew my husband must be facing.
When Ferry rejoined me, he asked why I hadn’t acknowledged the man – why I’d instead fled the situation.
The excuses which surfaced tasted strongly of guilt.
As we began to pull away, Ferry looked back toward the temple.
“Look,” he tugged on my shoulder. “Now he’s just standing there waving.”
And so, when it was nearly too late to do so, I finally craned my head around to look directly at the gentleman whom I’d ignored.
There he was, waving with sincerity, attempting to smile, disappointment laid bare on his face.
As he worked to conceal his sadness, I could no longer hold back mine.
The guilt intensified when Ferry described the man’s weak, bedraggled state. He told me that after finally and forcefully rejecting the man’s handicraft offers, the man had quietly stood in surrender.
Ferry recounted how he had turned around to look towards the man fallen silent. “That's when I noticed that his toe was bleeding…we should’ve bought something from him.”
While I never did see the man’s bleeding toe, the image the words conjured was enough to push the guilt into the pit of my stomach.
When I turned back one last time, my heart sank.
There in the distance, as we pulled further and further away, the man still stood, waving goodbye to us, two of his only visitors for the day.
His hand lowered just before we turned the bend.
From time to time, we revisit that day. “Remember the man with the bleeding toe?” one of us will muse aloud.
Whenever we speak of him, there is a lingering remorse.
Why did he wave?
What selflessness in him had I been blind to?
What could we have done differently?
Muddled with the guilt is a desire to do better somehow. And not just for him.
I think of the people whose survival depends on how many trinkets they are able to sell any given day.
I think of the people who work long hours, only to reap next to no reward.
I think of the painter who shed tears of relief when he was finally able to exchange a worthless currency for one that could feed his children.
I think of all the faces I have seen and of the many more I haven’t.
I think of the man with the bleeding toe.
I think of them and then I think of what can be done.
Is journeying to remote regions helping? Is supporting local economies making a dent in the problem?
Or is there something larger at play?
Myanmar has a complicated history of external and internal struggles.
But it is not alone. There are reminders every day that the world teems with struggle – to such an extent that it can be difficult to know where to begin.
We help one individual, only to find a dozen more falling behind, hands outstretched in supplication.
When treating the symptoms of poverty seems insurmountable, the well of powerlessness threatens to drown out any viable course of action.
In these times, we are faced with two options: to give up and fall prey to apathy, or to strengthen anew our desire to discern the global systems that drive oppression and, together, to carve out a different path forward.
For the reminder that propels us, we can all be indebted to the man with the bleeding toe.
He stands there, waving at us, proclaiming “I am here!” – a living reminder that we can and must do better as a collective human spirit.
This is the third and final part of a three-part series comprising the preceding installments below:
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