The old woman under an umbrella at the base of an important temple in Chiang Mai gestures to me as I walk by. She is selling sparrows in tiny bamboo cages, and I’m supposed to buy one. To set it free. This is my chance to do something of merit while at the temple. The guidebook reveals, however, that the birds, once released, never stray far from these cages, their home. The old woman scatters seeds to bring them back so that she can snatch them up in the bamboo again. So that they can be resold, tomorrow, in an unending cycle of desire and release.
I pass by the sparrows.
But another tourist comes up behind me and buys all of the birds (maybe ten) for the unexpected price of about $7.50. (She had been asking about 20 cents each.) The tourist gathers up the tiny cages in his big arms and releases the birds. But then he refuses to return the cages to the old woman, who tries to argue with him. She waves her hands, but he walks away with his clutch of bamboo, as if he has taught her a lesson: now, the birds are really free, you see. There are no cages to catch them in.
The sparrows fly around a bit, briefly enjoying the bright air, before settling back down into the shade, where they can expect to find their crumbs and seeds. Vendors all around the temple sell rice balls on sticks and stuffed steamed buns. There is always something.
The old woman watches her birds while eating a skewered sausage, then relaxes back into her low plastic lounge chair. There is nothing to be done.
About the author
Tara Deal is a writer and editor who recently returned to New York City after living in London, where one of the highlights was…Read the full bio
Issue 09 · May 2010
Table of contents
- From the editors
- Postcard Prose
- Travel Notes