|The Charcoal Maker's Niece|
Duang and I consider ourselves, at 49 and 63 years old, to be too old to commit to raising a young child. However, Duang's son and his wife are interested in having a young child. We shared the information with them over the phone and photographs over the Internet. They were very interested in pursuing the matter further.
In the week before Christmas, Duang and I drove out to Kumphawapi to visit the little girl and her grandmother at their home. Once again, as I had a few times in Bangkok, I visited a unique neighborhood, a neighborhood with streets so narrow that a full sized vehicle can not go down. You access the homes by bicycle, motorbike, soemlaw, or tuk-tuk. Duang and I chose to walk.
The neighborhood is one of those compact densely populated areas where there are no sidewalks and if the walls of the houses do not meet the edge of the street, there is no more than two or three meters of dirt separating them.
These are working class neighborhoods with many of the people working from their homes - small shops, small restaurants, stalls selling soft drinks or local cuisine.
These are working class neighborhoods where people live most of their day outside tending to their children and socializing with each other.
These are working class neighborhoods where there is no "Neighborhood Watch" programs because part of every one's day is to watch and participate in what is going on about them.
I enjoy these neighborhoods because there are so many great opportunities for photography and many children to talk to. These are relaxed neighborhoods where people all know each other and if you are a stranger, will quickly know your name.
We did not know exactly where the little girl lived but after asking at two different locations we quickly and easily found their home.
The little girl and her grandmother lived under another uncle's house. The older homes in Thailand are elevated approximately 2 meters (6 feet) above the ground on either wood or concrete columns. Elevating the homes makes a great deal of sense - it minimizes the risk of damage due to flooding, it makes the living area of the home cooler by allowing for air circulation beneath the floor, it helps to minimize access of the living area by creatures great and small ranging from ants, termites, dogs, and chickens.
There were no exterior walls for the little girl's living quarters beneath her uncle's house. In the center of the area there was a small area, approximately 3 meters by 3 meters (9 foot by 9 foot) where the grandmother and little girl slept on elevated platforms. Their meager clothing hung on a clothes line strung between two columns of the uncle's home.
The floor of the living space was compacted dirt. Furniture was limited to two raised wood platforms with woven reed mats, sahts, upon them. It was on top of these raised platforms that they ate, napped, socialized, played, and watched life out on the street.
Our visit went very well. Although I did not understand what was being said, I understood a few key words and could tell from body language what was going on and how it was going on. Another very interesting dynamic was also going on. People, both men and women, kept stopping by to meet us and listen in to what was being said - obviously checking us out. It turned out that a vast majority of the people were relatives who lived in the neighborhood. It was obvious that they cared for the little girl.
The little girl was even more charming than the first day that we had encountered her. She sat next to Duang and called her "Yai" (grandmother). She displayed a great deal of intelligence, and vibrancy. She played with just a small doll's head and told how she would like to have a doll. She told Duang that she recently had her fourth birthday but did not have any cake like the other children had.
When Duang and the grandmother walked off to buy some snacks, the little girl remained behind with me and entertained me with her natural modelling skills.
So far Duang's son and his wife have been unable to have a child. Duang's son had spent about two weeks of his earnings to help pay the costs associated with his cousin becoming a Monk. This offering besides helping his cousin was also an offering in the quest to have a child. If you read up on Buddhism you may find statements that Buddhists do not pray for divine intervention. That may very well be true in the theoretical sense but I have found the practical reality is different. I know many Buddhists who pray to Buddha for help, good luck, and myriad other earthly requests just as Christians pray to God, Jesus, or Saints for the same assistance.
We had told the little girl that the next day we were going to a big party in Tahsang Village. She said that she wanted to go with us and dance. I thought that that was a great opportunity for my stepson, his wife, and the little girl to get to know each other better in a more relaxed atmosphere.
On the way back to our home, I asked Duang if the grandmother had asked for any money. Duang said that the elderly woman had not asked for money but that Duang wanted to give her 19,000 Baht ($670 USD) for the three years that the woman had raised the child but no more money after that "gift". I remarked to Duang that I thought that the story the grandmother had told us about the little girl not eating one day was not true. After witnessing the concern of the neighbors and the quality of life in that neighborhood, I was convinced that if her grandmother was unable to feed her, family and neighbors would have.
The next morning, Duang and I did our weekly grocery shopping. This week we added a simple dress, three pairs of panties, two little dolls, and six slices of birthday cake to our cart. We went out to the little girl's home with my step son and his wife.
When we arrived at the home, there appeared to be no one around. Once again our presence was noticed by relatives who helped locate the grandmother. The grandmother and little girl were taking an afternoon nap.
The grandmother spoke to us for awhile and the woke the little girl up to meet with us. We gave her the gifts and she thanked us. There was a great deal of conversation but I sensed that things were different and I was sensing bad vibes. Whereas the day before the little girl was charming, she was now rather reserved if not sullen. It was obvious to me that things were not going well.
The grandmother said something to the little girl and the little girl had a meltdown. We left shortly after that. We stopped at a drink stall just around the corner from the little girl's home. We had ordered lemon ice tea - not the add water to some powder drink but the fresh brewed tea and real lemon typical Isaan drink - made to order. As we waited for our drinks, the five women at the stall and Duang struck up an animated conversation. I didn't know exactly what it was all about other than it was about Duang and I along with why we were in the neighborhood.
On the way home Duang told me that the grandmother had talked to the little girl about leaving and going to live with my stepson and daughter-in-law. I had not known what was going on at the time and sure would not have supported such a strategy. Imagine being 4 years old, being woken up, meet two total strangers, and then being asked to leave your world behind to go live with them. I suspect that it was not the best day the little girl has had in her brief life.
Duang told me that the Grandmother wanted money every year whereas Duang's son wanted to make a single payment? Gift? Offering? This was apparently a deal breaker right from the start. Duang then filled me in on the soft dring booth conversation. When Duang told the women about being interested in having her son take care of the little girl, the women told Duang that it was not a good idea. They said that the little girl was OK and had a good heart (nice), the grandmother just wants to make money. According to them this had happened before but after a month the grandmother was demanding more money so the little girl was returned.
We were disappointed. We were also sad for the little girl. We did not feel bad about the gifts we gave the little girl.
We can not unilaterally change the world. We are able to change the world one person at a time. Our hope was that this little girl's life could be changed. We were not able to change her life but perhaps for just a day we had made her life better.
Things are not as they always seem at first. Things are not always as you hope or would like them to be.
Life is ... life is what it is.
So to paraphrase the late Paul Harvey "You know the rest of the story" A story behind some of the photos for every photo tells more than one story.