A single, rather large, brown-furred, black-winged fruit bat came swooping, screeching out of the sunset sky like it was making a bombing run over the Pai Singto slum on New Ratchadapisek Road. No one had ever seen anything like it.
The slum kindergarten children had seen bats before. They had been watching a group for over two weeks, ever since they migrated to eat the sweet blossoms of the thorn tree (ton ngiew). Frightened at first, now the children were fascinated. The Pai Singto school teacher, a wise woman, decided to make "the bats" a school project. Soon the children took to the bats as their friends, their pets, and could even identify a few of them and gave them names!
The kindertgarten at Pai Singto kindergarten is our smallest. Eighteen children with full attendance. Roughly the same number as the bats. The shack kindergarten is tucked in the far end of the slum, just past the end of the cement walls, open to the sidewalk. The children thus passed the thorn tree each day on their way to and from school.
This slum is one of those long ribbon type slums you see all over Bangkok, extreme poverty providing sad contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood. With the huge Convention Centre and the Stock Exchange of Thailand across the street, and a multi-storey office complex just down the street, perhaps nowhere else in the city is there greater disparity. The people are poor, most selling fruit daily from push carts and sidewalk noodle shops.
Slums are fragile and Pai Singto is more fragile than most, just 13 metres wide and over 400 metres long, its 125 scrap wood, metal-roofed shacks hidden by three-metre-high concrete walls on each side. So when the sunset fire began, soon after the male bat swept past, it was like an inferno in a wind tunnel, and in a flash 54 homes were gone. The fire stopped a few metres before our shack kindergarten facing the sidewalk, just beyond the walls.
Most slum fires are caused by negligence, and this one was, as well, but grannys told the children a bit of the "lore of old", that the fire was because of what happened to the bats. In their yearly migration, the bats came to dine on the sweet flowers of the two big thorn trees near the wall, then hung from the trees as bats do, resting up before feasting again. For two weeks they had eaten peacefully. People who know of such things say these bats only come to serene places and bring good fortune - when they are treated properly. By now, as a class project, each of the school children had all drawn pictures of their favourite bat, tree and flowers.
That was before Mr Sanop, a nasty old piece of work who lived in the slum, began taking potshots at the bats with a slingshot. Three kindergarten children saw him and told their grannys, but grannys and five-year-olds simply do not have the "fire power" to combat a nasty.
She caught the HIV-AIDS virus from her innocent mom at birth, who got it from her not very innocent dad, And now her eyes don't work well at all. They did for a while over a year ago when she first came here. A while ago, the virus turned nasty and beat up her optic nerve. Her eyes, recently, don’t work very well even on bright sun shinny days. She’s blind.
And beautiful she is. A gift. We’re absolutely convinced that she is some former grand noble lady, born out of time and place whom you read about in ancient books of lore. This fragile precocious “just catching up” seven-year-old little girl with the virus. Still got her baby teeth, and smiles when you ask her to, and sits up now by herself and can manage her arms and hands into a beautiful Wai of greeting. Not yet totally cool on feeding herself but we’re working on that, along with her walking.
Life did not start well for Miss Peh. Her dad met the virus in some unmade bed on a booze filled night. Mom never knew till almost two years later when pregnant with baby Peh, when her routine hospital pregnancy blood test showed her HIV positive. Dad died first, mom later, just a few weeks after she gave birth to her first and only daughter Miss Peh. That was seven years ago.
Granny cared for Baby Peh as long as she could, living in a rented shack room about the size of a mosquito net. Then baby Peh moved in with her Auntie, a street sweeper with three children and a motorcycle taxi driver husband. Peh was almost five and couldn’t/wouldn’t walk or talk. By that time, Auntie knew about the Virus, and her Auntie did not dare tell her husband.
During the day, there was no one to care for Peh. Auntie sweeping streets, Uncle, long hours as motorcycle taxi driver and their 3 children in school. Do what you can! They put her on the floor next to some freshly cooked rice, locked the door and came back in the evening.
Auntie was afraid her husband would find out, get angry, and leave her and her three children, plus she didn’t like keeping secrets from him. She never had. A neighbor told her about a day care centre - an eight to five p.m. affair.
Called her his daughter, you know, for the children he never had. A confirmed bachelor, always said no decent lady would look twice, even once, at the likes of him. Illiterate. Never went to school. No documents. Not handsome - a junk man. So he lived his life alone. In his shack there beside the Klong Toey slums, in the Grove of Sacred trees next to where Kaewalee and her family stayed. Totally surrounded by used materials - e.g. plastic bags by the kilo, tin cans, beer bottles, scrap wire, etc - that he had not yet got around to selling. Or waiting for the price to go up a baht or so per kilo...
No poor slum kid was ever more deserving of a break than Pim, and after another narrow escape it looks like she's going to make the best of it, writes FATHER JOE MAIER
Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was 16, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand.
Miss Pim's note and her story are important because she is a ''throw-away'' orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these ''throw-aways'', need to be walked through the bad patches not just once, but many times before they reach adulthood.
On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Miss Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you've seen it once, you never forget it.
The note she handed me was torn from a school notebook - a last will and testament really. It said that she was leaving us to work as a bar hostess in Pattaya. There was a pimp from the slum who could get her into a bar. Said she wouldn't have to pay him much, that she'd make good money the first few weeks because she was ''new''. Said he'd look after her, discreetly, so the authorities would look the other way. True, look the authorities would check her out, but not too closely. Business is business.
Panic and shock set in, like she had not only been kidnapped for ransom, but like she kidnapped herself for her own ransom. And her graciousness only made it worse. I knew she could just walk away, down a path from which she would never return.
This is one of those oh-yeah-I-kind-of-remember stories: now that you mention it, whatever happened to those kids?
The Bangkok Post ran the original story in Perspective four years ago. There were six boys. The oldest 14, the youngest 12 and a few days: all sexually abused by foreign paedophiles. Heavy-duty type abuse - for almost a whole year. The cops stumbled onto the story accidentally. There was an IT conference in London on criminal use of the Internet. Police from Thailand, attending the conference in the UK to update themselves, were shown some child porn downloaded from the Net. Folks there saying, ''Take a look at this stuff. Don't these boys look like they're Thai?''
The Thai officers smiled stiffly with their faces, not the tiniest twinkle in their eyes. Although no one noticed, they were saying quietly to each other through gritted teeth: ''We'll be back home in Bangkok in two days."
And, oh, they didn't forget. They caught the gents in a heartbeat or two. The faces on the porn pictures from the Net were clear enough to identify a couple of the boys. The police asked if we knew the boys. It took some of our social workers who know the streets and the slums about an hour to track them down in Klong Toey, a neighbourhood where everybody just about knows everybody else. The boys, by this time fed up with the abuse and broken promises, gladly led the cops to the bad guys and told them what they did.
Gee and Kao don't look tough or mean, they just are. It's something you become when you grow up on the street. No tattoos, no long hair, not much swagger. Tattoos are for prison, swagger is for cool. These two 15-year-olds are neither "prison" nor "cool". They're just pure essence of Bangkok street.
They met while foraging on the street. Though they never really "hung" together, they were street friends. That means loyalty. It also means they gave each other lots of space, never crowded each other, never pushed.
Gee is the first kid we ever met who was totally slapped around by 505, a newer combination of rubber cement and industrial paint thinner. It fits nicely in a pocket and can be discarded when a uniform shows up. Nobody ever notices it - except for the smell. Oh, it stinks! Not even garlic knocks out the smell.
Gee was living with his granny under a bridge near a brightly lit traffic intersection. When he got hungry enough or the 505 demanded his attention or granny hollered at him loud enough, he would go clean automobile windscreens for as long as it took to scrounge enough for food or 505.
Granny was weak and would walk around in slow motion, even on her spryest days. Eventually, we took granny in. Gee would prepare her food every morning. He got up at dawn and bought rice and cooked it up before he went to our special Mercy Centre school for teenagers who never got any education when they were young.
They knocked down the door, then searched her house, and put handcuffs on her second son. Now Auntie Jan would have two of three in prison. Plus six brothers and sisters. More common in our fair land than you would want to think.
She kicked that junkyard dog, who then began severely distracting the arresting officers. That's when she grabbed her son's cell phone. "Mom! Help!!" He whispered to her. Begged her to "trash" the phone because all his friends' and clients' numbers were in it. It could be used in evidence. Auntie Jan, no stranger to a slum card game, and slight of the hand, quickly stashed the phone under the blanket of her Aids-sick, useless brother-in-law. Shouted at the officers he was highly contagious. She prayed the phone didn't ring.
It wasn't the Aids that made Auntie Jan's brother-in-law useless. There was more to it. He was out of prison for the third time _ drugs, just like all the rest _ and was on his way back in. The court didn't know how sick he was when he was sentenced. When the cops found out, they decided they didn't want him to die in jail because there'd be a lot of paperwork.
So they turned their backs and he walked away and they put it in his file that he'd escaped. He had gone to Auntie Jan's for refuge because he was married to her youngest sister, who also was in jail. Father of their two daughters.
The police left with her son sandwiched between the two officers _ cuffed _ on the back of a motorbike, and Auntie Jan retrieved the phone. Trash it? No way. The handcuffs ended any support she'd ever get from that son. You never throw anything away in the slums that might of some use. If things got really bad, she could sell it to the authorities. Not that she would.
But you never know. In Klong Toey's game of rock/paper/scissors, hunger wins of honor and loyalty. Especially if the hungry ones were children, and she was currently caring for four.
It's funny what it takes sometimes to turn a life around. For Cookie Crumb James, all it took was a tasty meal, some cookies. And crumbs.
He came to us a total mess. Basket case material. Couldn't walk, couldn't crawl. Barely speak (or didn't want to), large industrial-sized migraines that fried his brains. Not a friend in this world: he was born with HIV and has AIDS. Perfect example of a "throwaway kid". He was eight years old. Size large for a HIV/Aids kid. That means normal size of an ordinary eight year old. Scarred face, bad left eye: shingles (herpes zoster) did that. But he ain't ugly! He's our Cookie Crumb James. You'd like him if you met him. Great lopsided grin.
When a child is brought to us out of nowhere - end of the line and "junked" on our doorstep - in hospice lingo we call that a "dump." A few days after the "taxi dump" at our Mercy Centre, we bestowed on Cookie Crumb James a special ribbon for bravery, valor, and determination. But by the second day, James slobbered rice gruel all over the ribbon. So much for valor.
We rarely do such ribbon ceremonies. In eleven years with AIDS children, we've only bestowed a ribbon of honor once before - to a very special girl (but that's a story for another day).
Cookie Crumb James of the Soiled Ribbon decided to get better. Not right away. Nothing is ever that easy. The effort and energy you need to get well and just wanting to live can be an unbelievably difficult decision. But eventually, make the decision he did. Probably for lots of heavy duty type awesome reasons. But heck, on the surface, like so many of the "calls" that flip our lives upside down, Cookie Crumb James' biggest reason seemed so simple.
Motorbike Kheng never used drugs in his 31 years on earth. He despised drugs. But suspected drug dealers repaired their bikes at his shop. Plus a few motorbike racers and lots of ordinary folk. They shot him anyway. Just for good measure. Just to be sure.
At the time of the killing, he was fine-tuning a carburetor on a souped-up 125cc bike. Squatting, chewing on a toffee, a cell phone to his ear, he had just finished talking with his wife and was saying good night to their nine-year-old son. Every evening at nine o'clock, Motorbike Kheng called from his repair shop to say good night and "three Hail Mary's" together with his family. His son had just said, "Daddy, I love you," and Kheng replied, "Daddy loves you, too." Those were his last words. Shots rang out. His son screamed, "Mommy, what are those noises in Daddy's shop? They hurt my ears! Why doesn't Daddy talk to me?"
The Night Riders work for some authority who seems beyond authority. By day, these cats are smug. Not smirking but hinting. Not threatening outright, which somehow makes the threats more ominous. They come and talk to the slum community leaders like they would to recalcitrant children, telling our poor neighbours things they already know: that there are still folks flogging drugs in our fair city and all over Thailand. That there are motorcycle shops that "soup up" bikes. All the while ignoring the fact that we all played street football together, listen to the same pop songs on the radio, grew up together. Like they've forgotten where they're from.
Motorbike Kheng was probably a witness to a crime or two. Certainly knew a lot of folks. That's all. Perhaps he knew some things; most likely he didn't. He wasn't that kind of person. Even as a kid, he didn't care about who was dealing, who rode such and such a chopper. It wasn't in his nature. But witness or not, he was on somebody's list, somebody who decided that he wasn't on the right side, and so the Night Riders came.
She'll never win the Bangkok Grandmother of the Year award, but she's definitely Granny of the Year in the Klong Toey slum. Yai Sing, or Granny Sing as she's known _ and I'll explain that in a minute _ rolls her own smokes and earns her own way from her motorcycle-propelled coffee cart. Sports a trademark ancient pair of second-hand 20-baht "shades'' her granddaughter Mot swapped from a "trader'' in a back part of the slum. Two plastic bags of Granny Sing's original blend of ice coffee for the shades.
Seventy-three years old plus some change and, wow, she's out there seven days a week, kick-starting her funky, three-wheeled red motorbike with a cart attached, bouncing through the potholes and rainy season puddles, stopping where she can find some shade to dispense hot and iced coffee, hot and cold sweet tea, Ovaltine, and assorted, sugary pick-me-ups.