The Generosity of Bislam

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I keep a 100 Indian Rupee banknote in my wallet. It's been there for years. As of yesterday, I'll be keeping a 100 Burmese Kyat note beside it too.

The notes are reminders of the generosity of strangers. Actually, they're more like mementos because generous strangers cross my path almost daily so token reminders really aren't necessary.

The 100 Rupee note is one I offered as payment to an Indian motor mechanic. Miles from the town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, my rented motorbike had seized-up, leaving me contemplating a hot, dusty and wearisome walk back to town, pushing an unwieldy and recalcitrant motorbike. However, in India, you're never alone for long. A helpful and apparently psychic group of people appeared over the sand dunes within minutes. Many hands helped wheel the bike towards a jumble of dwellings. I was offered hot, sweet chai and after taking portraits for an hour whilst the local mechanic repaired the broken bike chain, he dusted it down and proudly offered it back, fixed and ready to ride.

I asked, "How much?" He shook his head. I offered a handful of 1,000 rupee notes, happy for him to take whatever he wanted. His adjustable spanner and expertise had saved me an enormous amount of trouble. He beamed a toothless smile, wobbled his head in that indecipherable Indian way and declined. No amount of cajoling would persuade him that payment should change hands.

At the very least, I would pay for the chai that we and his neighbours had drunk whilst he worked on my bike. But no. He wouldn't dream of it. So my final offer, a 100 rupee note, proffered more in hope than in expectation, has remained in my wallet ever since.

There are so many stories of tourists being scammed, online forums filled with complaints and warnings of touts and dangers, annoyances and pitfalls. All of which may well be accurate. But my experience over the last thirty or so years travelling to over sixty countries doesn't really meet with that picture of the world as a dangerous place. There are dangers, of course, and one shouldn't ignore or minimise those but they are relatively few and far between. I'm more likely to be invited into somebody's home and offered tea than I am to be the victim of an artful scam. I find that people are as interested in me as I am in them and that an exchange of information about where we are from, who is in our family, whether we are married and what the weather is like at home is sufficient payment if it's offered genuinely and accompanied by a smile.

People who travel widely, regularly and unassumingly will usually report similar experiences. From South America to South-East Asia and at all points North, East, South and West, I've been welcomed and treated with generous hospitality by people who have much less to offer than I.

This happens regularly. It happened to me yesterday. Documenting the railway that circles Yangon, I was greeted with friendly smiles, as is always the case. Even in Myanmar, with its curious political history, there's little evidence of suspicion or a reluctance to engage.

After an early-morning departure and an hour on the train (which, if I'm honest, saw me dozing more than photographing), I hopped off the train on to a platform at a small village north of Yangon, where I photographed a market set up along the tracks.

A young man selling fish introduced himself as Bislam. We chatted as best we could with a combined shared vocabulary of about nine words. I took some photos. I gestured towards the sun, indicating that it was very hot, knowing that my mime for "I'm melting" usually prompts a laugh, which it did.

I went back to photographing. Two minutes later, Bislam approached me again and held out a one-litre bottle of mineral water, which he'd purchased from a nearby vendor and for which I was especially grateful. I don't always remember to stay hydrated.

"Thank you. How much?", I asked. 

He smiled. "No problem."

Knowing the usual price, I fished a note from my wallet and held it out, "100 Kyat?"

He smiled more broadly. "No problem." He walked back to the railway line and squatted beside the fish he was selling.

He didn't try to profit. He didn't ask for 500 or 1,000 Kyat although I would have happily paid that. He didn't ask for anything at all. He didn't follow me. He didn't try to scam me, steal from me, take advantage of me or do anything beyond buying me a bottle of water. That may not seem like a lot but to put it in the context of Myanmar's often bewildering economics, a three-hour train journey costs 500 Kyat and one of the fish he was selling costs a lot less. A 100 Kyat bottle of water is not insignificant. I've learned that the joy of giving is often worth more than the financial cost to people who have little material wealth. I've also learned to accept it with good grace and not to try and force the issue of payment. 

And so the 100 Kyat note will remain in my wallet as a memento of that simple exchange. In a world which might seem to increasingly reward cynicism and suspicion, I find these simple acts of generosity to be quite moving.

No doubt there are bigger and better brains than mine at work in the political boardrooms where the UK Independence Party plan their anti-immigration manifesto. Perhaps the Australian plan to deny immigrants entry to that vast, sprawling country and send them instead to under-developed, poorly-resourced Cambodia is a plan with a genius too advanced for me to comprehend. Yet I can't help wondering if the politicians who dream up these parochial schemes might benefit from an hour wandering along the railway tracks of Yangon or the dusty back roads of Rajasthan. Perhaps Bislam, taking a break from selling fish to offer them a bottle of precious water, might prompt them to consider whether a willingness to share might not make all of us wealthier in the long run.

Who knows? To steal and alter a quote by Steve McCurry, If I was going to be something, I'd probably be a politician. I'm just a photographer. So here are some photos of Bislam instead.