I pass a group of pedicabs clustered at a corner.
The drivers are gambling at go, moving black and white pebbles onto a wooden
board. At the next crossroad a palm is painted on a large placard in a shop
front. Dotted lines divide the hand into segments, each marked with a Chinese
character. Inside hangs a poster displaying a diagram of a man's head,
In the next block are shops whose placards depict
a man with a goiter, women with black moles on their cheeks. There is what
appears to be a pet hospital, with dogs tied in the yard. Wall tigers,
diminutive green-brown lizards, scamper along the walls surrounding the
Nationalist army barracks.
Two Americans in brown uniforms roll by in a
jeep. I stop at the corner, pulling my map from my pocket. The sun is
slowly becoming hotter. The map shows a circular area a few streets up to the
right from where I stand. Three small boys stare up at me, jabbering "hello,
hello". I say "hi" and they laugh and recite their GI English.
The circle on the map is a park. I push through
the wire gate and start down the perimeter path. The sun is higher, but the
foliage provides some shelter. The trees are thick, with overgrown roots,
creased and gnarled as an elephant's trunk. What sort of tree did the Buddha
sit under? Banyan, bodhi . . .But that was in India. A bum in old trousers
is sleeping by a low bush.
A pond lies in the middle of the park, with an
arched bridge where the water narrows. On the other side an octagonal
bandstand or cupola is built out over the water. Hanging on the walls inside
are framed black and white photographs: three dignitaries at a microphone, a
runner at a sports event, two elephants. I stand at the rail and watch the
water. The pool is thick with algae, green with a surface scum. Across the
pond an old woman is sitting on a green wooden bench, her hands in her lap,
keeping her back straight. Water beetles ski out over the surface.
I return to the path and pass a Buddhist priest
sitting on a log. He is wearing a dirty grey robe and a brown leather begging
bag hangs over his shoulder. The stubble is growing back on his shaven head;
he stares at the ground between his sandaled feet.
A noise like a Salvation Army band -- up to the
left in a clearing is a schoolyard. I stroll up to the fence and look over at
the young children drawn up in six straight lines. Four boys in clean short
sleeved shirts are banging the drums they carry hung around their necks.
Three others join them with tin cymbals. The teacher, a thin young woman,
accompanys them on a battered portable organ, producing thick reedy skirlings.
The children place their hands over their hearts; a boy and girl approach the
flagpole with a banner. The flag is attached and hoisted while the children
sing the national anthem, accompanied by cymbals and organ. As the pennant
reaches the top of the pole, the drummers join.
The priest appears suddenly beside me, scratching
his head, walking carefully, concentrating on the path. There is sweat on my
face and I feel the sun. The noises of shouting and the rumbling of an oxcart
from the street fade in over the children's racket. I follow the priest
through the gate, back into the road. A half-naked, dirt-streaked youngster
is urinating in the ditch.