Friday, October 19, 2007

Snapshot of a Life: Bangkok

I met Pon yesterday morning when I was wandering the maze of streets around my guest house, looking for food. I was hungry, and she was grilling chicken and mashing up green papaya with roasted garlic and chilies and lime. I stopped for a chat and some sticky rice and salad at her corner stall:

Pon is from Laos. She came to Bangkok two years ago because she could earn more money here. She likes to joke. She exaggerates figures when she speaks, then hastily backtracks when called out. Hers is not the most remarkable of lives. But it’s a life. One of Bangkok’s 10 million. And, as far as lives go, it’s a consistent one. You can find her on the same street corner in Bangkok’s grimy automotive repair district every morning of the week except Sunday, when she rests. She’s there at six and she’s gone by two.

This is Pon:

She’s in her twenties, has two children and a boyfriend. She comes from the countryside of southern Laos, where she planted rice with her family. She came to Bangkok looking for opportunity. She misses her family and country, but is able to go back to visit five times every year.

“It’s better in Laos,” she said, “it’s peaceful, and the living is comfortable. But it’s hard to find money.”

Her family of nine is still in Laos, keeping goats, cows and buffaloes, and planting just enough rice to eat.

“It’s not like Thailand,” she said, “where they harvest two to three times a year and sell what they don’t eat. In Laos you harvest once and you eat what you grow.”

Here in Bangkok, she says, she makes 1,000 baht (US$30) on a good day, selling food like this:

Some days she only makes 300 baht, about US$10. Those numbers went up and down as we talked. Whatever the case, it’s not a lot, and she sends much of it back to her mother in Laos, who is looking after her son.

Pon wants a house to live in, (she’s renting a room in Bangkok) and a stable income. She wants enough money to take care of her children well. And she wants some rest. She doesn’t have much time for that now. She’s up at three every morning, preparing food, on the street by six, and at two she’s off to the market to buy the next day’s supplies. After that she goes home, makes food for her boyfriend and daughter, and is asleep by eight.

“I have a lot of difficulties,” she said. “I want a life with less difficulty.”

As for now, she’ll be on the same nameless street corner eking out a living. Across the street from her, old axles and engines and suspension springs are coaxed back to life by a group of laconic young men sitting beneath two six-foot mountains of bolts. In other parts of the world, these auto parts would already be rusting in a scrap heap. Here they will be reincarnated.

The air between Pon’s stand and the auto shop smells alternately of tangy grease and grilled chicken, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

This is Pon’s view, from six to two, every day of the week except Sunday, when she rests.

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