Gideon woke late, rolled out of bed and got coffee and a sandwich, and rented a bicycle to ride toward the hills that were strung along the horizon like sunlit emeralds in the hazy distance.
It was his fourth day in Myanmar. He inhaled lungfuls of muggy air as the light around him paled from successively lighter shades of gray, shifting to the lightest blue he had seen since the east coast of the U.S. in early morning. Starting out before sunrise gave him a better chance of getting good photos. His camera equipment had caused him to be detained at the airport, and for a few hours, Gideon had thought he would either be jailed or sent back on the next flight out. After repeating assurances that he traveled for pleasure, wasn’t a journalist, and the photos were for his own personal use, they let him go with a warning.
The touch of danger had heightened his senses, and he pedaled out of the lodge with a feeling of exhilaration and anxiety that sharpened each day. Gideon kept his camera tucked out of sight when not in use—especially because a monk had tailed him on foot for the first day and a half as he’d walked through the nearby area to familiarize himself with the landscape that was like nothing he’d ever known.
As he rode, muscles warming in the cool morning air, Gideon angled his bike toward the pyramid shape of a stupa—a temple spire—in the near distance. The loss of surveillance meant he could take out his camera discreetly. He wanted to photograph the stupa and nearby surroundings as well as anything that caught his eye. It would be even better if he could make it to the far-off mountains, but though he was fit enough to make the trip, it might be pushing his luck. Better to rent a local guide and motorcycle for journeys further out.
The air was clear and sweet despite the signs of industry off to one side. The ribs of a giant building were arching up into the air on his far left. Closer to his lodge, new storefronts were being cobbled together. Since opening the borders, the junta, local criminal organizations like cartels, had been engaged in transforming Myanmar into a tourist destination. There were many places Gideon wouldn’t be able to visit, but he wanted to stay off the beaten path anyhow.
The spires of the stupa lured him on from the near horizon, and Gideon pedaled faster. Eagerness quickened his heart. He’d given up his job, quit the high-stakes world of politics for exactly this moment: riding a bike into the dark green of the distant jungle, half-elated and half-scared. He stood up on the bike pedals and cycled harder. The strap of his camera bag cut into his shoulder, the weight of the device bouncing against his back.
He cycled past ruins and smiled at the dark heads that popped up here and there, wide eyes peering inquisitively through the gloom. Some of the locals were friendly, returning Gideon’s smiles with a wave or infectious grins of their own. Others merely stared, keeping watchful eyes on him until he passed.
Myanmar had been nothing more than a place on the map to Gideon mere months before. Everything had changed in such a small span of time. All the people in his life thought that he was having a midlife crisis at thirty-two, turning his back on everything because of what had happened. It ran deeper than that. For the first time in his life, Gideon was putting aside all of the things that didn’t matter. For the first time, he was trying to live rather than going through the motions.
A flock of birds exploded from bushes that lined the road as Gideon cycled past. He rolled to a gradual stop at a bend as he reached it, engaging the kickstand and leaving the bike propped behind him. He walked to the edge of a large pond. Beyond it, the shape of the stupa rose with a pleasing geometric elegance that made Gideon want to pull out his camera. Light bounced off the water, rendering it metallic as molten steel.
He looked around for another witness to the moment. There was no sign of any locals or the monk who had dogged Gideon’s steps during the first days after his arrival. He unslung his camera bag and stood for a moment, taking in the sight before him.
Photography had captured his attention since his earliest memories. That had grown as he had matured into a wider appreciation of art, composition, and beauty that ran the gamut from everyday to decrepit. Gideon’s interest in photography flourished when he’d taken a course in high school and a more in-depth study during college that spanned film and digital. He’d put it aside after enrollment in law school. After that, there had never been enough time.
No one knew the conversation that had taken place between Gideon and his grandfather on the afternoon he’d died. His entire family had known what came after, though. The tumultous will reading had come with surprises for everyone.
Overnight, Gideon had gone from having a sense of place, an expectation of inheritance, to being cut loose and left adrift with only what he’d earned and built for himself. His grandparents had taken him in, raised him, pushed him to succeed and put him on the path to constant achievements, but in the end, Grandfather Stahl had given him nothing. Dying and delirious, he’d called Gideon by his father’s name while questioning whether he was happy. The question had taken Gideon aback. Grandfather Stahl had never been the type to care for anything beyond what Gideon had accomplished and how much further he’d set the bar.
After that tumultuous week, taking up his camera and quitting his job had been easier than anyone would probably have believed. There had been no tectonic shift, no great revelation. In the background of his life, it had been there all along, but Grandfather’s death had shifted it into sharper, immediate perspective. At first, Gideon had thought he’d been cut out of the will because his grandparents had somehow known he was bisexual and deemed him ‘too queer’ for the Stahl inheritance. It was his first shamed assumption while the family stared at him and his face turned slowly red at the reading. He still wasn’t sure why Grandfather Stahl had done it, but it had been the push he needed to do what he’d always wanted.
Even his career history of impulsive, ‘leap first, think later’ decisions had left his co-workers unprepared for Gideon’s abrupt exit from the political consulting and campaign firm where he’d put in eighty to ninety hour weeks. Gideon spent two days in an empty condo devoid of any interesting pastimes he could have developed over eight years. For too long his life had revolved around work, more work, keeping up his fitness regime, off-hours research for work, and occasional hook-ups. After two days alone, he decided a complete and total break from everything was in order. As to what would make him happy: that was marked in his mental file as ‘work in progress’.
There were a lot of questions that remained, especially after Grandfather’s will had torn rifts in the family that would never close. Gideon wanted to find the answers himself, especially to the final question that had provoked his abrupt life change.
He unzipped his camera bag, freeing the heavy DSLR with care and raising it to frame a shot. Film was better, but film would have complicated his trip to Myanmar to the point of impossibility. Digital pics would be easier to store, keep, and get out safely without fear of destruction or censorship.
The sun reflecting from the water spoiled the first shot. He waited until the angle of light changed. Gideon wasn’t Zen, he wasn’t a Buddhist, but mastering the basics of photography had taught him patience. He was in charge of his schedule; he wasn’t in charge of the sun.
Several shots and almost an hour later, Gideon was satisfied. He returned to the bike and considered the nearby paths. The one that curved around the pond looked like it went toward the stupa, and was likely the most direct path. What gave Gideon pause was the way it disappeared into a copse of thickly clustered trees.
There were factions in Myanmar, and while the locals were neutral and the junta wary of tangling with an American tourist, Gideon had read up on the tensions in play. With the potential to stumble onto some horrific human rights violation, Gideon could be at risk for abuse as much as the locals. He was confident he could defend himself, but knew he could end up eating a bullet. He wasn’t a crusader, but he needed to avoid that kind of situation if he was going to keep himself from ending up in front of the U.S. consulate being asked to explain himself, or worse, end up in a mass grave. He’d never gotten involved in altercations outside controlled circumstances like training and tournaments, but he wouldn’t stand by and watch someone get hurt. He supposed he wouldn’t know how he’d react until it happened.
Gideon wheeled his bike to the edge of the copse and remained there, head cocked, for long enough to be sure there was no one within. At least, not as far as his field of hearing reached. He rode through and remembered the white-toothed smile of the boy who had passed him a cup of water from the well when he’d stopped the day before. There were so many people crowded into the ruins it made his own life a glutton’s paradise.
He wasn’t a saint. He wanted to cycle through the countryside and take pictures. At the same time, there was a quietly growing tension urging him to do something. Gideon wasn’t in Myanmar to find solutions to social issues, but he hoped already that his barely started project would provoke others to ask questions.