I went to get a load of laundry done. I ended up acquiring some local art.
I dialed the number listed on a sign outside my hotel advertising “laundry service.”
The man on the phone seemed to be telling me his brother would come and meet me at the sign. Several minutes passed, but no laundry man.
Next to the laundry sign was a shed where a young boy – perhaps 13 – manned the bike rental station. His fleet of “e-bikes” (electric mopeds) served the hotel’s guests – a full day of lazy, emission-free cruising at 25 mph was less than eight dollars. No forms to sign, no name, no driver’s license. Fork over the cash and be on your way.
Ku Min, as I later learned the bike dealer was called, invited me to sit down in the shade while I waited for the laundry service. His sister worked in the security hut across the driveway and often came over to translate or give change for bike deals. She saw me sitting there, not renting a bike or doing anything else. She came over and asked “Everything OK?”
I said yes, it was, and I was just waiting for the laundry guy.
The siblings exchanged words. Then Ku Min said: “Laundry, come with me.”
Whether he was doing double duty as the laundry guy I was waiting for, or whether his sister had pointed out a business opportunity for their own family, I will never know. In any case, Ku Min led me down a dirt path leading away from the hotel’s driveway. I saw nothing but shrubs along two stone walls: one of the left marking the perimeter of the hotel, another on the right surrounding a pagoda.
We passed a makeshift volleyball net. Ku Min said it was used for ‘cane ball.’ We know it as footvolley, which is volleyball played with a soccer ball and without hands. Here, they played with a small ball made of rattan. It crunched like dry hay every time a player hit it with a foot or a head.
At the end of the hotel wall we took a left, and around the corner, there was a small fishing village. Several huts, mostly of thatched bamboo walls, lined either side of the dirt road. Adults and children were outside, sitting on the ground doing chores or playing, preparing food, or simply trying to stay out of the sun.
Ku Min gave a yell toward the closest hut. Two women emerged. He said the first was his mother, the other may have been a sister.
“Laundry,” the boy said to his mother, pointing to my bright orange drawstring running shoe bag that was doubling as my laundry hamper. She took a quick look inside to see what I had brought, and then named her price.
I left the bag with Ku Min’s mother, and he took me further into the village toward the Irrawaddy River a few hundred yards away. There, on the banks that gently sloped to the water, were several fishing boats tied to the shore and groups of women doing their own laundry in the water.
Turning upstream, we briefly trapesed through wet, packed soil and low shrubs to another part of the village. At the first hut we came to, at the bottom of a hill sloping back up toward the pagoda above, Ku Min gave another yell.
Another boy emerged, this one maybe eight.
I’d seen him before and had been calling him “Postcard.” He’d hang out at the bike rental station trying to sell his hand-drawn creations; “Postcard? Postcard?” he’d say, “500 kyat.” About 50 cents.
Ku Min explained that I was in the market. Nay Ta Lin, as Postcard was really called, ran back inside and emerged again with his portable gallery – each drawing in a plastic sleeve that had previously held commercial postcards of the same size.
The gallery was currently stocked with a selection of animal works. I selected the rooster. Excellent colors and detail on the rooster, and at 500 kyat, a real steal. I added a fish from the collection to make it an even 1000 (I only had 1000 kyat notes with me, and I had already been in situations where providing proper change was an issue).
By now, the boy’s parents, siblings, friends from the neighborhood, and likely a collection of stray dogs had gathered around to witness the transaction. As young as he was, selling two pieces in one day must have been a good haul (probably a good day for any artist).
Before I left, I knew I had to secure the value and authenticity of the works. I asked for his autograph, showing a writing motion with my hand and pointing to him and the postcard. When he caught my drift, he ran back inside and grabbed a pen. He scrawled his name on both sides of each postcard (better safe than sorry) and I carefully put them into my pocket.
I thanked him, his parents, his friends, and the stray dogs for letting me stop by and add to my art collection, and then Ku Min and I headed back toward the hotel. Passing the river, I looked down to the laundry area once more. My orange bag was unmistakable among the bamboo baskets of laundry being washed in the river.
Hours later, after my clothes had several hours to dry on the line in the sun, I came back to pick up my laundry. It was neatly stacked inside the bag.
Folded underwear, modern art from an emerging talent, and a personal e-bike valet. Livin’ large in Bagan, Myanmar.