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It was loud here. Loud and warm.
No, hot was more like it. Loud and hot.
The roads were scuffed by countless feet, clouds of dirt kicked up every so often. Clumps of grass were scattered on either side of the paths, as if they refused to grow together. Voices drifted in and out, riding on the air, mingling and colliding in equal measure. In the middle of it all stood David, sixteen years old and suitcase in hand. His hair was black, his eyes small and almond shaped, and his height diminished.
It was a summer day in Myanmar, one of the hottest he had experienced and one of the hottest he would ever remember. The sun beat down relentlessly, its golden fingers leaving no stone unturned.
A bus rolled up, bumping unevenly on the dirt road, and rolled to a stop in front of them. David boarded along with the rest of the group and slid into a seat near the front. Outside, a man sat among the weeds, pleading with passersby. An empty cup sat next to him. He went ignored, and the folk walked by him as if he were a stain on the carpet. A few young children sat next to him, passing another cup back and forth. The boy tilted his head back, put the cup to his lips. Leaned on his father's shoulder.
David rested his forehead against the glass window and closed his eyes.
You see, reader, David was raised in a suburban area in Southern California, considerably populated and thoroughly middle-class. On a few occasions, he may have seen a homeless man holding a cardboard sign written on with marker, standing outside a supermarket or on the corner of a shopping center. He had never encountered firsthand the experiences of a third-world country.
It was really quite traumatizing for him, seeing dead animals on the sides of the road and, incidentally, dying people. He felt pity, but not so much that he would reach out a hand to one of these people. He hated himself for it, but could not change how he felt. The people scared him, reader. They were starving and helpless, but they scared him.
Now he sat in a small, rickety chair at a small, rickety desk in a small, rickety classroom.
In front of him was a piece of paper and a pen, next to him a small girl.
She had large eyes, startlingly large eyes, and a round face. Could not have been more than six.
David traced the letters of the alphabet, sounded them out, and handed the pen to her. She copied him, giggling when he took her hand and helped her, forming the letter 'A.'
“Ay,” he said slowly.
“Ay,” she repeated obediently after him.
That feeling filled him from head to toe, the feeling you'd get if, say, you were watching a beautiful sunset, or helping an old lady across the street – that feeling that you are connecting to everything good in the world.
He smiled down at her and she smiled up at him and together they felt it, this overwhelming sensation. David took the pen and traced another letter on the paper.
He spent a week teaching children to read and building homes. On one occasion, he turned from nailing a board to a wall to see two men arguing in the middle of the dirt road. The argument turned into a fight, and then one man whipped a pistol out of his belt, shoved the barrel down the mouth of the other, and pressed the trigger.
David didn't eat that day, gave his sandwich to a beseeching child instead. And the image of the blood, gathering in a pool around the awkwardly bent legs of the dead man, was one that he would not forget for a long time.
Everywhere he looked, he saw poverty. People were dying of hunger, of thirst, of sickness – things so easily taken care of at home. It pained him, reader, to see these things, pained him as though he were the one suffering. If a woman cried from hunger, he felt the starvation gnawing at his own stomach. If a child cupped his hands under a dripping faucet and eagerly licked the pipe for more, his own mouth became dry. If a man lay on the side of the road, coughing up blood, David's own throat felt raw.
You may have experienced this before, reader. For those who are a bit sensitive to their surroundings, you may have winced, clutched at your own arm if someone's arm was stabbed in a film. It is the same sensation, the very same.
Now David was walking down a dirt road, lined on either side by small huts, stands, and tables. It seemed to be a sort of small neighborhood. Walking with a friend, side by side, David looked up and locked eyes with a man.
The man was dressed in simple, ragged clothing. His eyes were sunken, his back hunched, and reader, David could not remember ever seeing a more defeated-looking person. The man beckoned, and after hesitating a long while, David seized his friend's hand and walked over.
Once they were standing in front of him, the man stumped away, into a small hut, and motioned for them to follow. Babbling away in broken English, he hobbled over to a large shelf. David ducked through a worn linen curtain and joined him in the small room.
“I sell you, I sell you, not very much money, see!” The man excitedly pointed to the shelf. Lined on it, neatly organized, were hundreds of thin, rectangular cases. DVD cases. David understood, then – the man sold pirated DVDs.
“David, we'll lose the others,” said his friend anxiously, looking over his shoulder.
“Hold on a minute.”
He walked closer to the shelf, selected a case, and held it out to the man, who, with glinting, desperate eyes, glanced at David's pockets. He charged the equivalent of seventy dollars.
David's friend roared in outrage. There was a cry of fright in the corner, and David turned to see a young woman cradling a bundle of blankets. She let out a hacking cough.
Without a word, he handed over the money. Charging seventy dollars to buy a new wardrobe was one thing, reader, but doing it to feed your family was another.
After tucking the case into his backpack, David and his friend backed out of the hut. The man bowed them out, and as he repeated his thanks, he seemed to stand just a little taller.
The very next morning, a bus rolled down the shabby dirt road, coming to a stop in front of the group. David, dragging his suitcase, boarded and slid into a seat near the front. And when he spotted a man, begging for money from passersby, he did not close his eyes, reader. David stared right at the man, willing him to persevere, to find the strength to cope with the hardships.
Hang on, he thought. Please hang on.
A day later, resting comfortably on a couch, back in Southern California, David turned the DVD case over and over in his fingers. The film was one of his favorites. He fingered the spine, fed the disc to the DVD player, and remembered the little girl and how eagerly she had written the letters of the alphabet. He remembered the dead man, his life ebbing from him as he lay motionless in the sand. He remembered the racks of DVD cases and the woman clutching at the bundle of rags in her arms.
David leaned forward and hit play.