Swirls of alabaster dust puffed through the crowd and settled like confectioner’s sugar onto Kyauk Sit Tan, Mandalay’s famous stone-cutting lane where Burmese workers have chiseled, sanded and polished stone into sculptures for more than 150 years.
Here among the whitewashed crowd of Buddha builders and tourists, a woman smeared with soot sat on her haunches and scooped handfuls of black hope into plastic bags that she needed sold by the end of the day.
I can’t explain why I sometimes feel the wisp of a story in unlikely places. I just know there are times when a story plasters my heart and head until I have no choice but to go back – whip a U-turn on a highway, walk back through clouds of marble dust – and find it again. I wandered past the charcoal seller’s stand the first time I saw her. Lured by the chaotic craftsmanship in about 80 workshop stalls lining the road, I got caught up in the flurry of watching generations of family members paint the lips, glitter the robes and polish the faces of statues until glossy, smooth and ready to be sold.
Mandalay’s future and past collide on Kyauk Sit Tan, commonly referred by tourists as “Marble Street.” In 2012, municipal administrators of a road-widening project began forcing the stone cutters to relocate, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper.
The stone cutters don’t want to move away from this tourist epicenter, yet increased tourism demands better infrastructure. Past and present constantly grind away at each other here in an attempt to shape Myanmar’s future. Life isn’t easy for the people of Myanmar, once known as Burma. Across the country, hotels, restaurants and tourist sites are also getting polished and painted in anticipation of more visitors and better times. Stories of government control and ethnic violence stain those golden dreams almost weekly.
For the people waiting to see what tomorrow looks like, the future lies shrouded in countless unanswered questions.
When I wound my way back through the street to the charcoal seller’s stand, she saw me return and maybe even smiled before she turned back to her work. Three men covered in statue powder stopped to buy several bags of cooking fuel. She wiped her palms across her skirt before she accepted their money. I found myself watching the gentle exchange of black dust for white dust as she took kyat specked with marble powder and glitter. When the customers walked away, I lifted my camera to ask permission to photograph her. She nodded and went back to scooping charcoal into smaller bags.
As I stepped into her stall to show the photographs, she blew soot from the ground and motioned for me to sit next to her as we looked at the digital photographs. Then she tucked away a strand of hair in a gesture of vanity so tender that I almost cried and motioned for me to take another photograph.
Earlier this month, more than 1,000 armed policemen were deployed to Mandalay after communal riots fueled by anti-Muslim tensions escalated. Curfews were enacted. People were arrested. Lives were lost.
I don’t know how I might fill in the blanks to the coal-seller’s story left untold because of our different languages and abbreviated time. Maybe, she sells all the bags of charcoal and stops to buy her children fruit on her way home. Maybe, she’s forced to move because of violence or government order. Maybe, she finds more happiness than she’s ever known.
All I have are a few photographs and an unfinished story swept up in just a few wordless moments.
What I have is a reason – a memory-embossed reason – to care about what happens to Myanmar.
“Love has a hem to her garment that reaches the very dusty. It sweeps the streets and lanes, and because it can, it must.”-Mother Teresa