I ’m in a shopping-mall restroom in California, where the roll of toilet paper is almost as big as a tire. Three more giant rolls are stacked on a sterile white shelf.
After two years abroad, I have forgotten about shopping malls and salad bars. I have forgotten about miles of toilet paper.
I traveled to Asia with my friend Jill, not because I was interested in that part of the world, but because I would follow Jill anywhere. We wore backpacks, stayed in dirty guest houses for pennies, learned Asian English, worked all the black markets, and considered ourselves expert travelers.
Toilet paper was a constant preoccupation. Most Asians don’t use it; it was a rare luxury, something to steal and hoard. We’d walk into Hiltons or Marriotts, slide past the legitimate guests, and sneak into the lavish lobby bathrooms. Jill would come out of the stall, pat her money pouch, and grin.
Jill stopped her bike in the sand. She pulled the shirttail of her green I mounted the Great Wall of China T-shirt out of her shorts and mopped her brow with its sweat-stained edge. “Let’s not see any more temples. I can’t take it.” We were alone between two red, crumbling ruins, the sun directly above us. There was no shade, no life that we could see.
I pulled the guidebook out of my basket. “We’ve got to see this next one, Jill. It’s very famous.”
“If I see another reclining Buddha, I’m going to roll over and die.”
“This one doesn’t have a reclining Buddha. He’s standing up and he’s fifty feet tall. Very famous, built in 1019.”
Jill peddled on. “I’d rather have a scotch.”
Pegan was a dirty, ancient, and deserted city with 2,217 temples jammed into a small section of dusty desert. Built thousands of years ago to placate angry gods, the temples were mysteriously abandoned a few hundred years later and left to crumble.
We were almost to the temple of the fifty-foot Buddha when I saw her. She was small, maybe five or six years old, with short, black hair and a navy-and-gold sarong tied around her waist. She was kneeling before a powder blue, plaster elephant god. Offerings of rice and dried marigold petals were scattered at his feet. He looked like a stuffed animal, and I had the urge to remove him from his case and hand him to the girl. Amid the red barrenness of the earth and the temples, we could not help but stare at this lone, delicate figure bowing to her pastel god. She felt our eyes on her and jumped up quickly.
“Oh, God,” Jill mumbled.
“Très jolie, mademoiselles,” she said, beaming up at us. The girl was lovely, with black eyes. Yellow sandalwood was smeared across her cheeks like war paint, a Burmese beauty ritual. “Parlez-vous français?”
“No,” I answered.
“You speak English.” She was thrilled. “Americans? Good country, strong country, rich country. This way, please. Follow me. I will guide you in this temple.”
“No, thank you,” Jill protested. “We’d rather see it on our own. Besides, we only have a short time.”
“It will only be a moment. This temple is full of wonder.” She held her hands out, beckoning.
An old woman squatted at the entrance to the temple. Our child guide spoke to her in Burmese, and the old woman looked up at us. Her teeth were dyed blood red from the betelnut she was chewing. The red juice sloshed around in her mouth when she spoke. “Off!” She pointed to our shoes.
“I’m not walking barefoot in all that,” Jill said. The floor was covered with shit: dog, bird, monkey, perhaps human.
The withered woman shouted in Burmese.
Jill shook her head. “No!”
“Off!” the woman spat. “Off!”
The girl was silent during this exchange. Her own feet were bare. We finally took off our shoes, Jill mumbling profanities as she clutched her sandals.
“Leave here one kyat.” The woman pointed to a tin box stuffed with dirty bills and coins. Jill ignored her and marched in.
“Leave here one kyat,” the woman repeated to me. I took my shoes and followed Jill.
“All this for a fifty-foot Buddha?” Jill asked over her shoulder, picking her way through the refuse.
The filthy tiles scorched our bare feet. Jill and I ran to the shade of the temple’s veranda, but the girl trailed slowly behind us. This was the first busy temple we’d seen in Pegan. It was full of hundreds of people praying and talking, who looked as though they had been living there for years. Babies lay on blankets, crying and feeding. Women sat in circles eating, sewing, and braiding one another’s hair. Vendors sold trinkets on ragged pieces of cloth. It felt more like a marketplace than a holy courtyard.
The girl took my hand, then Jill’s, and pulled us across the hot, dirty tiles to the giant Buddha. I apologized to Jill with a small smile. We were stuck now.
“This Buddha, very old. See his ears?”
“Yes, his ears touch his shoulders. That means he was built before the twelfth century,” I interrupted. We had heard this many times before from other children at other temples.
“You are very clever, mademoiselle, very clever. It is hot here, too hot for you.” She pulled two ragged fans made of palm leaves from a bag hanging at her waist. “Please make yourselves cool. Sit and enjoy this beauty.” She handed us the fans. We were getting in deeper.
“No, thank you. We would rather look around by ourselves.” Jill pulled money from her pouch. “Here’s two kyats.”
The girl looked down and shook her head sadly. “I do not want money, mademoiselle, only friendship. Please.” She held the fans out.
We sat with her and fanned ourselves.
“How old are you?” Jill asked.
“I am eleven.”
She was so small.
“See that shrine over there?” Her thin hand pointed north. A strand of red beads circled her wrist. “Underneath, in a cave, there are five hairs of Buddha.”
“Five hairs?” Jill asked.
“Yes, very holy.”
“How do you know?”
She laughed as if Jill’s question were ridiculous. “Would you like to go see?”
“Yes, I would.”
She laughed again, a hollow, birdlike laugh. “You would be dead, mademoiselle. In this cave are snakes. The air is poison.”
“Yes, because of the bats who have shitted for hundreds of years. Would you like to try? Maybe you are brave for Buddha.”
“No,” I said, a little too quickly, afraid Jill might be tempted.
“We don’t worship Buddha,” Jill added.
“Well, we’d better be going,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
We stood in unison. “Yes, thank you,” Jill said, returning the fans.
The girl cocked her head and smiled. She looked directly into my eyes. We knew what was coming.
“Present for me?”
Jill still had the kyat notes in her hand. She offered them again to the girl.
“No, no money, mademoiselle. I do not want your money. Present for me, a token to remember.”
“We have nothing,” I whispered.
The guidebook had said to bring lots of little things as gifts — lighters, pens, sample lipsticks. But we had ignored the advice, and now we had come to regret it.
Burma is a closed country. Goods from the outside are more valuable than money, for money can be made while things Western cannot. Because of this, the black market in Burma is booming. We financed part of our trip there on a bottle of whiskey Jill brought from Thailand and then sold to a cab driver in a Ford Falcon. We traded everything we could part with — the whiskey and some ballpoint pens — on the first day. That made the rest of our stay in Burma a battle. Everyone begged desperately for gifts.
“Present for me,” the girl said again. “Something small to remember the beautiful mademoiselles.”
“We don’t have anything to give you.” Jill was firm. “You can take this money.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I’m sorry then,” Jill said. We walked away. The girl raced ahead and walked backward, facing us.
“Mademoiselles, I show you very good things. I give you fans to cool yourselves. Present for me.”
“We don’t have a present for you. I’m sorry, we’ve given everything away.” If I’d been a heroine I would have bestowed gifts upon her, taken her home; I would have changed her life. Instead I only looked at her miserably, goaded by her persistence.
The girl continued to follow us, clutching our hands, grabbing at our arms. “Mademoiselles! Present for me. A pen?”
Jill stopped. “No. We do not have a pen. We do not have a lighter. We do not have lipstick. We have nothing to give as a present.”
“Your watch, mademoiselle?”
“I need my watch.”
“Your earrings?” She pointed to Jill’s hoops. “They are golden?”
“Yes, they are golden, but I’m keeping them.”
The girl looked up at us, smiling sweetly. “Present for me?”
It was unbearable. We had nothing at all to give. Our money belts contained only essentials.
Jill bent down. “Look,” she said, unzipping her pouch, “we have nothing, not one thing to give you.”
The girl looked in, searching. She smiled. “Yes! That! Some of that!”
Jill pulled out the coarse, pink wad of toilet paper. She unrolled some and gave it to her. We were all squatting now in a circle on the hot tiles. The girl rubbed the tissue against her yellow cheek and closed her eyes. She sighed, content.
A few other children had crowded around us, asking for presents too. Jill zipped the pouch quickly. We pushed our way through the children and walked on.
At the exit we put on our shoes. The old woman spat red onto the ground and cursed us. The girl skipped past, waving the toilet paper with an absurd grin. She paraded off toward the elephant god.
I have not thought of the girl since leaving Asia. There were dozens of others like her in Burma, in Indonesia, Nepal, and India — children who needed and wanted things and did the best they could to get them. But in this shopping-mall restroom, I cannot get her lone face out of my head. Would that I could roll one of these wheels to Burma, a present for her.