PORTRAITS OF MYANMAR Part Two: The Best 30 USD Never Spent

The second seller I remember was also a seller of paintings.

He had stationed himself inside one of the temples that a few tourists would pass through each hour and was accompanied by his two young boys.

We didn’t express any interest in his artwork – not because it was of inferior quality, but because we had already purchased three paintings the previous day (including the two that had helped buy the feast for four), and we were beginning to realize that our wall space back home would be running scarce.

Despite our polite dismissal of his attempt, however, we noticed that he continued to trail us at a close distance as we examined the temple’s interior reliefs and relics.

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He remained silent.

Although he didn’t seem to still be viewing us as potential customers, his attention was fixed closely on our movements.

Finally, he cautiously approached my husband, Ferry, to ask him where he was from.

At Ferry’s reply of “Indonesia,” a frantic light entered the gentleman’s eyes. He launched into a story in the best English he could manage, revealing to us why he had been interested in us  – my husband in particular.

“Two years ago,” he began urgently, “I sell painting to man from Malaysia for 30 dollar. But he no have dollar.  He pay this.”

With that, he brandished three, pinkish-red notes from his pocket: three 100,000 Rupiah bills, the currency of Indonesia, worth roughly 30 USD at the time of our visit.

He went on in a pressing tone.

“You no buy from me. You change money? I give this -- you give dollar. No can change money here.”

We realized he was telling us that the Indonesian Rupiah was not a currency accepted by banks in Myanmar.

This man had been carrying these bills with him every day, waiting to find someone from or headed to Indonesia who could finally help him reap the benefits of a sale made two years ago.

Our eyes turned to his dusty, tattered clothing and his wide-eyed sons, and we realized just how much a sum of 30 USD would mean to his family.

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We asked to take a look at the bills he was carrying, and after a quick inspection, seeing that they were authentic, we pulled three ten-dollar bills from our wallet. We exchanged these for his three one-hundred-thousand-Rupiah bills, worthless in Myanmar, but ones we would be able to use as soon as we were back in Jakarta.

The decision required next to no thought.

After we made the trade, the man shakily clutched the new bills, looking first down at them and then up at us, his eyes wet with emotion.

“For two year, I no see tourist again from Indonesia,” he nearly whispered.  “I wait two year. Thank you so much.”

He offered us his hand. “Thank you so much…thank you so much.”

We had neither gained nor lost anything of monetary value in this trade, but this man was finally empowered with the intangible force society grants to three pieces of paper.

These newly-minted pieces of paper meant that he could feed his family better, at least for a while.

They meant he could go home with dignity that evening, able to look his wife in the eyes.

They meant hope after endless days of waiting.

I’ll never forget the gleam in his children’s eyes as he wept in relief.

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Perhaps we had gained far more than it seemed in the exchange.

And while I wish I could say that all of my memories were this powerfully positive, we now come full circle to the story that haunts me to this day:

The tale of the Burmese seller with the bleeding toe.


This is part two in a three-part series, followed by the third and final installment: “Portraits of Myanmar: The Man with the Bleeding Toe.”

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