Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The New Apartment

I went back to the conference in the morning hoping to hear something more insightful about migrants in Thailand. It was more of the same: NGOs complaining about the poor health and employment situations of migrant workers and advocating for more tolerance and openness, and government officials patiently explaining why migrants aren’t welcome in Thailand (they’re poor, uneducated and disease-ridden), despite the fact that the economy depends on them.

I was really proud of our executive director yesterday. He was one of the two people in the room, out of several hundred, who went up to the microphone to ask a question at the end of the program. He began by saying, “This whole discourse makes me very uneasy,” and complained about how the government ministries were being intolerant and closed-minded, and that they needed to do more to help migrants.

I skipped out on the lunch that was provided at the conference because I had told Maem, the HR assistant, that I’d be back at the office by 1. I was starving by the time I got back to the office.

“Didn’t they serve lunch at the conference?” Khun P asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But I told Maem I would be back here at 1, and I was already running late.”

“Oh dear,” Khun P said. “What kind of intern are you? You should always eat a free lunch.”

A lot of places in Thailand have two names – one used by local people and one found on maps, street signs, and any official publication about the place. Even Bangkok is known as Krung Thep to Thais.

Mahachai is the local name of my town, which is officially called Samut Sakorn, or Samut Sakhon depending on who’s spelling it. The next province over, known for its winding canals and floating markets, is called Mae Khlong by locals, or Samut Songkhram by no one.

Mahachai has one of the highest concentrations of migrant workers in Thailand. Most people who know about migration to Thailand have never heard of it in that context, though. People know about Mae Sot and other border areas, but this musty fishing port, situated an hour southwest of Bangkok on the mouth of the Tha Chin river as it spills its creamy brown silt into the Gulf of Thailand, remains unrecognized for its dubious honor of attracting and hosting legions of migrants, mostly from Burma, in search of better wages and less oppression than in their homeland. These laborers usually end up working in the seafood factories or on the docks.

We packed up the car with my luggage and a lot of food and supplies for the Mahachai office. The Mahachai staff had reserved an apartment for me based on a budget and some simple requests I had given them over email, but I hadn’t seen pictures or even received a description. My biggest fear was not having a kitchen. It conjured up memories of the stunt that my worthless lying bum of a supervisor pulled on me in Kenya, where I was shown a palatial two-bedroom house on a hospital compound and told I would be living there, and when I arrived in the village they said I’d be living in a tiny room that was big enough for me to put up a bookshelf to demarcate my bed from my stove.

On the way out of Bangkok we passed several colossal, ornate temples. Each time I asked Maem if they were famous for anything.

“No, just temples,” she said each time.

“But they’re so big and fancy,” I said.

“There are many temples in Thailand,” she said. I learned later that nearly all temples are built using funds donated by the community. The government doesn’t fund the construction of temples.

So, it turns out that my apartment is much to my liking. It’s simple but has all the amenities I need – AC, hot water, a flush toilet, spartan 70s-style furniture, two balconies, and most importantly, wireless internet. There’s also a massage spa in the building, and washing machines.

A few days later I would learn that there are no dryers, however, when the woman who provides the premium laundry service (which I don’t have) handed me a pile of my clothes fresh out of the washer.

“Dryer?” I kept saying in English.

“Wash already,” she kept saying in Thai.

After a few minutes of this, I finally understood that her nodding and smiling meant that I should take my wet clothes upstairs and hang them on my balcony.


DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF you don't like hearing about other people's poo. Peace Corps friends, karibu.

So I tried out my toilet for the first time, armed with the knowledge that toilets in developing countries can have rather anemic flushing capabilities. The lesson is: put the toilet paper in the garbage can.

Sometimes it’s not toilet paper that’s the problem. Sometimes people forget to eat a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables when they’re traveling in a new place. Sometimes there appears a turd that becomes a formidable challenge to the average flush toilet in the host country.

Flush again. Flush again. Flush again.

Flush again. Flush again. Flush again.

Sometimes, after digging through their garbage can for a suitable tool, people find a way to poke the turd down, but only after wishing that David Sedaris were there to commiserate.

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