Pattaya Daily News

08 August 2007 :: 15:08:22 pm 21134

I’d rather be number one in a slum than number two in a suburb

Before I stood here, day in and day out, selling charcoal-grilled chicken pieces, rice and papaya salad, I stood knee-deep in water and mud planting rice in Ubol, northeast Thailand, 560 kilometres from here. At sixteen, I was married to a man I did not even know.
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His people came to my house one night and asked my parents for me and I did not say a word, neither ‘yes‘ nor ‘no‘. After the wedding ceremony, he moved in with us and began to work on our land, and later gave me a child. Then he left me. There were a few letters at the beginning, then nothing came. People said that he had become a soldier in Bangkok, moving up in rank.

Silently, I endured for the sake of the child and my parents, who were getting on in years. Time heaped layers of silence on me, while I toiled along with our water buffaloes in good years, and some- times in meagre years. The child grew into a young man and it seemed that he learned to respect my silence. He took the plough from my hand and since then he has carried a great deal of the burden. But I could not stand it any longer. I could not stand the stigma of being the deserted woman.

In our village, people have a way of identifying the unfortunate by their misfortune. So, there we have the mute, the lame, the blind, the kratoey, the deserted. And the word: DESERTED was grafted on me like a nasty cake of mud which I could not wash off, while tradition, our village way of life, and my own sense of duty became a heavy steel lid on my life.

I could endure it no longer. The silence of the vast field, the plain of Ubol, bore down on me. In that heavy silence, what had been echoing in my mind found a vent, and I said to the boy: “Child, I must go and seek your father. You must stay behind and look after your grandparents.”

Then I picked up a paper bag large enough to contain a sarong and a blouse. I arrived in Bangkok alone and was lost in its maze. I was hungry and desperate, but fortunately I could see a sign saying “labourers wanted”. I got a job as a labourer at a construction site with a roof over my head. You make friends easily when you have very little to lose. Through a friend at the site, I got a new job as a cleaner-dishwasher in a nearby eating house after nearly a year of slavery on the construction of a sky-high building which you can see from here. Yes, that’s the tall building which I had a part in raising. When you’ve worked in rice fields, planting or reaping rice all day, or carried heavy bags of rice, or firewood, or pails of water for a long time, you don’t wince at carrying concrete blocks and bricks from morning till night. And working in that side-street noodle-shop was like a picnic.
Meanwhile, I sent some money to my boy and said everything was well. He has not written to me. Not a word from him. My father and mother cannot write, but I think of them often.

I could squat on the tile floor, washing dishes hours on end, and help serve lunch-time customers. Then I swept the floor, wiped the tables and washed the dishes when the shop closed. In Ubol one is accustomed to working under the sun in the open land. Here it is a narrow shophouse among small plywood tables and little chairs. People come in for a quick bowl of noodles which the Chinese quickly dish out, adding a tea-spoon of that harmful monosodium glutamate to cheat the palate.

I hardly took any notice of customers till some of them talked to me, asking for more prik- nampla sauce or some soft drinks. At all times, I tried to avoid saying anything to them for I could not yet speak the Thai language, and a word from me would betray my origin because of my Lao tongue.

When finally the noodle-shopkeeper closed his door at midnight, I pushed some of the tables and chairs to one side to make enough room for me to curl up on the floor to sleep. They worked hard, the noodle-shopkeeper and his wife. Already at five in the morning they were off to the market, and at eight the shop was ready for customers. One thing they did that I haven’t done: sending their children to school. Of course, they made money, and rightly so for they worked from dawn till midnight without any spare time to spend money earned; while some of us would spend the money we made, and most of the time, more than we earned.

They seemed happy in their own way, counting cash at the end of the day, while I watched from a dark comer of the shop, pretending that I was asleep. I was not in any way envious. I don’t envy those who make money from their hard work. They deserve it, and for this reason I enjoyed watching them and I secretly watched them for I was fascinated by the gleaming in their narrow, slanted eyes. It was as if they were eating a delicious meal with a great appetite. Have you ever seen it? Have you ever watched a terribly hungry man eating a meal?

They hardly talked to me, except when they wanted me to do things. No, I didn’t mind that at all, even if you could sense a barrier there, that they despised you and considered they were your masters. You knew that they were very poor once, but diligence and thrift helped them to be where they are today. Perhaps they would end up as powerful business people or bankers one day.

I liked them. What am I, but dirt from the swamp of a remote little village in Ubol. I should be thankful for every morsel I get. For a year, I worked in that noodle-shop till I got to know a taxi driver who often came to the shop for meals. Well, I fell for his kindness. He tried to befriend me, asking whether I came from Esarn. He said he could see “Lao” in my features. And I laughed then, or giggled just like a young girl. Still I had not said one word to him for shame of being a Lao from Ubol. I cannot remember how it happened. One night he drove by in his taxi. Seeing me sitting on the pavement for a breath of fresh midnight air, he stopped and came over for a chat. I was glad that the noodle-shopkeeper and his wife were busy counting money behind their closed iron rollerdoor.

It seemed that the moment was right to disclose the fact that I was a Lao from Ubol. So he told me that he was a Lao too, from Yaso, and that he came to Bangkok as a monk. He stayed in the monkhood for several years till he disrobed to marry a Bangkok woman who has given him a horde of children in a span of eight years. I laughed when I told him that I was not married.

Why tell people your life story? And it seemed that it was only yesterday that I was a young girl giggling merrily in my village. But the man who came briefly into my life and gave me a child and then left me seemed a nightmare which could be washed off from memory by being awake. I think drudgery and being knocked against the sharp edges of life wake one up, and being for a long time with Chinese people who are quite practical in their day-to-day life, you learn to be practical along with them. I don’t know where the man who deserted me could be now. Perhaps, he could be high up in the military, driving along this street in his army car, and would not stop though he might have seen me and recognised me, selling charcoal-grilled chicken pieces and som tam on this pavement.

It does not hurt me much now to think that he has gone quite completely out of my life. It would be embarrassing if he stopped his car and came over to reconcile. I wouldn’t know what to say to him. But then I met a more decent man than him. It must be fate, I believe. The taxi driver came often after that; sometimes he had passengers with him, but he would stop all the same, for a moment, to say that he would hurry back. I would wait for him, standing in front of the closed shop late at night pretending that I was taking the fresh midnight air while the noodle-shopkeeper and his wife were counting their money.

“Do you want to go to your home village in Ubol?” he asked one night.
“Yes, of course,” I said quite readily without thinking. “I haven’t been back for years, it seems.”
“I can take you,”
he said, pointing at his old Toyota.
“That old and battered thing?” I laughed. “It wouldn’t make it to Korat.”
“You bet?”
he sounded terribly serious. “I bet.”
I realized then that both of us were serious.

He told me that he had not been back to his village for so long. Though his parents had already passed away, there were some relatives left to visit. And it would be good for him to take me to Ubol first then on to Yaso before returning to Bangkok. I had no idea where His village could be in Yaso, yet the thought of going back home in a taxi was irresistible.

“But I won’t have enough money to pay you,” I worded carefully.
“How much money have you got?”
“About 800 baht,”
I said expectantly.
“I’ll charge you only 500 baht.”

I could not sleep at all that night, tossing and turning. The anticipation would not leave my mind. Before dawn, while the noodle vendor and his wife were at the market, I left the shop without a word of goodbye to anyone there. They would easily find another woman in my place, for there are so many folk from up country pouring into the city each day, looking for something to do to survive. And I didn’t steal anything from them. Besides, I worked hard for them for so little.

Around a comer, the old and battered Toyota was waiting for me. The driver must have known that I wouldn’t leave the shop till the coast was clear. We sped excitedly away from the scene. My head swirled and my heart beat fast. The streets were quite empty at that hour.

For hours we talked in Lao which sounded more from the heart than when we had spoken together in Bangkok. I felt free and happy too, with the wind blowing in my face and through my hair. I was grateful to him for rescuing me from the maze of the city. Looking back, I saw a picture of myself sweeping the floor of the noodle-shop, carrying bowls of noodles to customers, washing dishes late into the night, and later I curled up on the floor trying to sleep while cockroaches crawled over me and rats scuttled about among tables and chairs. Sometimes when sleep did not come easily, my thoughts revolved around my parents, my son, and the herd of buffaloes in wide open fields. “I should go back… I would go back to my home to ask my people to forgive me” was a thought which came to mind thousands of times.

We were crossing the central plain then, just below Saraburi, when the rain began to pour. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles, coming towards us, turned on their head-lights. In a heavy downpour the whole plain turned blind and terrifying. The taxi driver had to stop, veering from the road. “No use going against the rains,” said he, and began to close his eyes. “I need some sleep too,” he added.

Somewhere lightning struck and the darkening land rose in storm. It was just like home during the height of the monsoon. My heart danced with the rains, wishing that the driver did not have to stop to sleep. Taking a good long look at him, I saw how old he was. His age had never entered my mind till then. His wrinkled face revealed that he must be well over forty-five years of age. This old man from somewhere in Yasothom with eyes shut to the rains and storm looked old but peaceful.

After a moment of trying to find out how to open the taxi door, I managed it. “Why the hell are you getting out?” he shouted at me. But by then the rain had already overpowered me. I could see myself as a young girl in our rice fields, chasing after our herd of water buffaloes because they ran wildly under the influence of the monsoon. There, on the plateau of Ubol.

The old man came out of the taxi too, but he only got out to push rile back into the car. “You’ll die with a cold, woman!” he swore at me. He started the TYPE as soon as he could, and we slowly made our way home against the power of the skies.

Home is beyond the ranges, the great dividers of our lands. Beyond the mountains, lies the great plateau of Esarn. The flat arid land spread endlessly before us, making the cloudburst of the central plain we experienced an hour ago seem unreal.

The lee remained dry and hungry. My heart sank, knowing then what it would be like in Ubol. We stopped for gas in Korat, hardly exchanging a word. But then, at the gas station, I heard for the first time our Lao language. It was spoken by a tiny little boy who was trying to convince me with words and pleading eyes to buy grilled chicken on skewers. “Our bor kai yang kong koy saeb eelee day!” said he, thrusting a well-loaded tray of kai yang in front of me. I paid for two sticks and avidly ate one, not so much because I was hungry but more so because I was homesick. The taxi-man told me to eat the lot as he drove on. Outside Korat, we stopped again for him to eat at a rice-and-curry shack. He took his meal silently as I sipped my tea. I don’t like tea, but I guess it’s a habit from being with the noodle-shopkeepers.

Somehow I began to like him, watching him eat. He treated me as if I were a young girl needing protection. I didn’t know exactly how he would react to me upon reaching a forlorn hut which is my home in a little village in Ubol Province. Our shack and the village itself have nothing to boast of.

We passed through a small village of potters whose shops displayed a variety of earthen jars, pots, ornametal objects and tiles. After that it was desolation for miles till we saw several little make- shift stalls in which villagers sell honey in bottles and in the combs. Then again, there were some new settlements. Jute, maize, and tapioca were abundant. Miles further, in Burirum Province, he took a right turn. “Let’s visit Khao Pranom Rung. Have you been there?” he asked.

I had heard of the min of a Khmer shrine upon the Rainbow Mountain in my childhood, but then it sounded as if it were an ancient shrine on a fairy tale mountain on top of which a lotus pond held crystal clear water and where the Kinnarees took their bath and picked lotus flowers.

We drove through a few scattered neat little villages interspersed with rice fields before we be- gan to climb the steep Rainbow Mountain. On top of Khao Pranom Rung, a military guard stopped us and took the taxi-man identity card for keeping till our exit. Further, down a gentle slope, we came into full view of the Prasart built from stone. It is an awe-inspiring sight. A majestic monument to the splendour of our past. I wondered how the ancient Khmer people could build such a Prasart, and why they built it. They must have carted the stones for miles and it’s a wonder how they managed to get those mighty loads up the steep slope of the hill.

The shrine itself is on the very top of the peak. You climb stone steps towards it, with heads of Naga carved out of stone that watch over you.

We entered the shrine, and in my heart I prayed to any spirits residing there and to the spirits of those Khmers who gave us this wonderful monument. We wandered around the inner court- yard of the shrine where, for the first time, the old taxi driver made a move to take my hand. I felt all at once so much of his own loneliness and under- standing and affection coming through that hand. We walked, holding hands, for a while as if the ancient sacred ruin and the spirits of our forefathers bound us together as the children of Esarn returning to their true homeland after being lost in another country.

Why I decided to kneel, I didn’t know. But I did, praying in front of the ancient shrine, making a pledge that one day I would return home for good.

A moment later, we made our way out of the Prasart and began to climb down the hill to the car. The sun was westering when we left to resume our journey on the main road, on the way to Ubol.

I dozed off while he drove through the Province of Surin, and it was getting very late in the afternoon when we reached the town of Ubol. We girls from our village used to come to town to buy clothes and just to be a part of city folk for a few hoUI”S, and that somehow gave us a good feeling of catching up with the world. There were quite a lot of farang military men in Ubol at the time, as Ubol was their base during the Vietnam War. We curiously watched them driving by or eating in restaurants with some of our local girls. Some of the farangs were so tall, big and fat, compared to the small and short girls they had with them. Those days, I was afraid offarangs particularly when they wore their military uniforms, but now you could hardly see any of them in Ubol.

The City of Ubol itself had not changed much, and I could still easily give directions. Soon we were on a country road again, heading for my village some twenty kilometres away. Ours is a huddled community of about 80 people whose huts are well hidden by bamboo groves, coconut trees, mango trees and shrubs. We approached the village by a dirt road which I remembered so well -every bump, every pot-hole, every tree on either side had been imprinted on my mind.

Dusk had fallen and the buffaloes were at rest in the pen when we got into the village. Excited by the noise of the taxi, children ran out into the village street to see us. Adults slowly appeared and when they recognised me, they shouted welcome. Dogs barked and howled. I waied my old parents and our elders there. It seemed all of us were tearful and I was forgiven.

It did not take long for me to realize that the house was no longer my home. It had become the house of my son and his wife who had been taking care of it, looking after the grandparents all the years I slaved away in Bangkok. I was so pleased to see my son who had grown into a fine young man with a good wife who showed me so much respect, which made me ashamed of my escape. But to live with them would bring some unhappiness later on, I knew. So before my dear old taxi man would de- part from the village for Bangkok the next day I asked him to take me back.

What!” he did not believe his ears. To prevent an argument in front of my people. I pretended to take the taxi driver for a tour of the village. At the edge of the rice fields, far from earshot. I begged him to take me with him back to Bangkok.“Why, why, why?’ I wanted you to get out of Bangkok, back to your roots, not because I wanted your 500 baht which wasn’t even enough to buy petrol to get here!” he began to shout at me.

I said that our family had only limited land to grow rice, and there was hardly any room for me in the hut or in the field. I would become only an extra mouth to feed, a burden on my son and his wife. “And besides, no man in the village or any nearby villages would marry this poor, ageing hag. I don’t want to be an old maid here all my life.” I sobbed.

“So you want to go back to the streets of Bangkok and sell yourself, hoping to find a husband?” he laughed.

“Go on. Laugh. I know no man would look at me twice. I can’t sell anything in the streets except food.”

It was then that the idea of selling food on a push-cart in Bangkok entered my head. I began to tell the idea to the taxi driver.

“Besides, I made everyone in the village think that I was well-off in Bangkok, coming home in a taxi only for a short visit,” said I.

Women,” he mumbled, and that was all he said. We stayed an extra day in the village, and when we were to drive away, practically everyone came to see us off, wishing us a good and safe journey. “Come back to see us again, and don’t forget us when you become richer and richer,” some of of them said.

I wonder whether they would spit at me, should they see me selling charcoal-grilled chicken pieces on a street in Bangkok, looking old and weary, ‘being no better off than any of them.
Since we were near Yasothom, or Yaso for short, the taxi driver, whom I learned then to call Thiang, wanted to show me where he was born. Therefore, we went to the City of Ubol again to take the Ubol-Yasothorn road.

His village looked quite poor and deserted and no one shouted welcome at us when we finally stopped at an empty plot of land where mulberry trees grow wild. “I lived here for years”, he said and paused for a long while. A group of half-naked children began to crowd around us, looking curious and suspicious. He asked them what had happened to the house which used to stand there. They said they did not know. While I was waiting inside the taxi, he walked to the next house some minutes away to enquire.

“My people have moved away to a new settlement,” he told me on his return.

On the Yasothom-Payak-Korat Road, he told me his life story:

”I wasn’t exactly born on that spot, he said. To tell the truth, I don’t know where I was born, for I was taken away from my real parents when I was a baby. A childless couple adopted me. During my childhood years, they moved several times from one village to another. The one we dropped by was one of them. There, at the age of twenty-one I took to the robe and during my monk hood one of my foster parents died. Throughout the years I hardly felt I belonged to the people and to the land there, so I became a wandering monk, and eventually ended up in a temple in Bangkok. There I stayed for a long time till I got to know the woman to whom I am married”.

”I welcomed the life of a layman and took a job as the family grew from one to two children and now, as you know, there are too many of them for me to feed, clothe, and send to school. At one point in life, I became a taxi driver, renting a taxi on a daily basis at first till I could manage to save and buy this old Toyota so that most of my daily income would not go towards rent”.

”As a taxi driver, you come across people from all walks of life. When I saw you in that noodle- shop, I could see in your features, your gait, that you are a daughter of Esarn, though you tried not to let a word of Lao escape from your mouth for fear of it being known that you come from the poorest part of the country. I knew that, for I used to be ashamed of it myself. The difference between you and me is that you have a village, and your people to go back to when you want to, but I haven’t. Yet I can feel that my heart is still in the Northeast”.

“My wife and our children share nothing of my past and they are well-rooted in Bangkok. They haven’t set foot on Esarn soil, and they don’t speak a word of Lao. I have been homesick for a home that I don’t have, and I envy those who, like yourself, when the time comes, can go back, to escape from the muck, the poisonous fumes, the traffic chaos and the struggle of city life.”

”And I thought you wanted to escape, to go back to your home and to your people. That’s why I agreed to drive you over I200 kilometres here and back for a mere 500 baht note. Even then you might have thought it was expensive, since you, I could guess, might earn next to nothing from the shop. And’ now you have cheated me by not staying with your people, though you have good reasons”.

At the end of his story, I wanted to console him, assuring him that I did not try to fool him or cheat him like that girl. But I did not know how to say it. And when we approached Korat, he pointed out to me the roadside motel on the right in which he took it out of the girl in kind worth 500 baht. Then he laughed. It was good clean laughter, with- out any malice…it was more of a self-effacing kind of laughter. I didn’t want to make it up to him by paying him back in kind in a roadside motel for I am not that sort of woman. Besides, I am not young and pretty.

I wanted to give him back more than he gave to me and to the other girl who disappointed him. So on arriving in Bangkok, I crawled back to the noodle-shopkeeper and his wife, asking them to take me back. After a loud scolding in the usual manner of the Chinese, they took me back. I slaved away in the shop for a year till I could save enough to buy a push-cart, a stone mortar, dishes, plates, a charcoal stove and a pair of buckets, so I can go into business as a roadside food hawker. I buy chicken pieces, green papayas, tomatoes and limes every morning in the Klongtoey market, and I pitch my umbrella, set a table and four chairs on this street.

Thiang has helped me a lot. He found me a little shack in Klongtoey slum for rent and he paid the rent for the f”trst three months. At the end of my day, he helps load things in his taxi to take me back home, and he stays for dinner with me. We have been living like husband and wife for many years now. And his wife knows of our affair, but I guess, she does not mind as long as he continues to provide for her and the children.

   

Meanwhile, I keep on selling charcoal-grilled chicken and sam tam and sticky rice, and the in- come of about 80 or 100 baht a day keeps me happy. At times there are passers-by whose features bearing the peculiarity of the Esarn people remind me of home. Starving peasants who left their rice fields for Bangkok shuffle listlessly along the street. Some stop to beg me for something to eat, and I give them grilled chicken wings and some sam tam with sticky rice. You can tell how bad the drought and hardship and poverty in Esarn are by the number of these people who are quite ready to tell their tales for sympathy. I don’t like hearing them, for their voices pierce my heart. “Stay home in your villages,” I told some of them, “you’re better off there despite your poverty and the drought.” Only I feel later that it’s useless to tell them so.
 
All of us are victims of our own karma, our fate. Yet I want them to stay in their villages because I know that there, among their own people, in their natural surroundings, they still have a certain dignity despite their misery. Here they become beggars, coolies, or at best, servants. On the other hand, they’re luckier than I be- cause they can go back to their homes when they want to or when there is rain enough to work on the land. For me, I don’t know whether I could go back to my village now. At times I can see that I have arrived at a dead end, lost in the maze of this chaotic city for life. Why does Bangkok attract so many Esarn people to its slums? There’s hardly a breath of fresh air. Factory chimneys, cars, trucks, and scooters belch out clouds of poisonous fumes all day long. The noise in the streets is deafening. It is surprising though how I can still stand here all day selling sticky rice and kai yang sam tam after all these years, breathing in the fumes and dust.

But all in all I am quite happy with the way things have turned out for me. As a food hawker on this street, it’s seldom that I have been harassed by the police. It’s my boy who has been caught time and again while trying to sell flowers at a busy intersection.

Thiang wants to keep on being a taxi driver though he is getting rather too old now to bear the tension from the traffic. Years have helped smooth the sharp edges of the relationship between his wife and me. Sometimes he takes me and the boys to spend a few hours with his other family. The children seem to take to one another quite readily.

Now he talks of getting us out of Klongtoey Slum to live together in one big family, in his house, quite a long way from here, in a ‘moobaan’ of a suburb. Yet I resist the idea. I’d rather be number one in a slum than number two in a suburb. But then when I think of the children, it’d be better for them to get out of the slum where they could get into a gang of drug pushers and drug addicts, thieves and what not. There’s a school in the ‘moobaan’ and it’s about time the first boy should go to school.

Yes, for the sake of our children, I should swallow my pride and move all of us out of the slum.

Yesterday he said to me “You were born in Esarn. You’re Esarn. My Esarn. In living with me, the only thing I’ll ask from you is that you remain so.”

Story by:  Pira Sudham 105 Moo 13 Napo Village,
Burirum 31230 THAllLAND

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : Stories

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