A Lesson From A Stranger

  • The Gratitudist
  • Wednesday, 09 Oct 2013

I PICK up the hotel phone for the upteenth time and dial the room number. Again, it rings out. I'm getting antsy. My friend Eilwyn is in Yangon the same week I am and we had meant to have a lunch date. Perhaps he's stepped out for a while, or is still sleeping.

I succumb to my appetite and decide to hunt for food first. The hotel is situated near Bogyoke Market. I walk around the back of the building and spot a basic food stall.

Whilst letting my hearty lunch settle, I pull out my camera to shoot a mother playing with her baby sitting in a lorry parked nearby. “Where are you from?” a soothing voice behind me suddenly inquires. I turn to face a petite woman with the biggest doe eyes. She introduces herself as San San, and her family runs the phonecall service next to the food stall. (Automatic payphones in Yangon are replaced by a random conventional phone sitting on a manned table).

I barely answer her question and tell her my name when she abruptly invites me to have tea with her a couple of blocks away. Being aware of unpleasant tourist con jobs in Asia that start with a cup of tea, my guard is suddenly up.

“Don't worry, it won't take long. I just need to pick something up from my friend there, we can have a quick drink, then go back to the hotel for you to call him,” she says warmly.

As someone with a chronic can't-say-no condition, I followed her on her errand. Over steaming teacups, I explain to her this was my final week in Myanmar after working in Naypyidaw for the past four months. I had meant to have spent it in the archeological site of Bagan, but a major communication breakdown with my employer had rudely halted my plans, leaving my only legal resort as Yangon. She listens compassionately, picks up the item from her friend, finishes her tea then says she's ready to return to the hotel with me. I hide my alarm at how literal her intentions are. 

We return to the hotel lobby and again, the other end rings out. My expectations of meeting him are swiftly dimming. “Perhaps I can show you around instead,” San San suggests. “You said you wanted to look for a ruby for your mother? I can take you to the part of Bogyoke market where the locals go to for cheap stones. Then maybe I could even take you to where I live and introduce you to my parents! They would love to meet you. Then I'll need to go to the temple to pray at around 7pm. If that's not too late, I'd love to take you there. It is quite old and pretty.”

True to her word, she indeed helps me snag some great deals at the market, although I have no luck in finding the right ruby. She then takes me to her home. This is literally a hole in a cement wall, barely big enough for me to stand upright, where her mother spoils me with green soda. San San gives me a handmade basket from Bagan to make up for me not going there, and a tiny ruby stone for my mother, preserved in an old vitamin container. They are impossible to accept, but she insists that it would make her family happy. Then she treats me out to a simple dinner.

Before catching a bus to her temple, she asks if she could sit down by the roadside for a while. “I'm sorry, I get tired very easily. I have a blood disease, a type of leukaemia. But it's okay. My family is very supportive, and my brother-in-law helps in paying for the medication.”

At this point, I am speechless. San San's disposition is golden, without a crease of worry on her face.

San San's temple ends up being such a beautiful sight to behold that I have no problem waiting for her for forty minutes, ogling at the delicate architecture.

By the time we part ways that evening, I am a changed person. In just one day, I owe the purpose of my existence to a stranger and her family - people who give what they can, just because they can.

I find out the next day that Eilwyn had mixed up his hotel room number with his dad's, who had been out the whole day. Such a simple mistake leaves me in no doubt that some events in life are orchestrated, particularly the ones with life-transforming potential.

It has been three years since my fateful encounter with San San, but her selflessness, positive outlook and bountiful smile will resonate in my heart for many more years to come. These days it is easy, and sometimes tragically validated, to generate distrust even amongst those close to us. But should we surrender just a little bit of our hearts to social accidents, for who knows what treasures may unravel?

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own
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Davina Goh , The Gratitudist , Yangon , Myanmar


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