Stickman Readers' Submissions February 21st, 2006

Choices, Choices

Lek’s on the phone again. ‘Are you going to be anywhere near Chonburi this Saturday or next?’

‘Possibly next. Why?’

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‘Well, I need to check on the progress of the rubber saplings on my land, for one thing. But as you know, I don’t have a car, and I need to bring my daughter to see some people. I was hoping you’d be able to help out.’

‘Tell you what, I’ll confirm later in the week, okay?’

‘Okay, I’ll tell you the story then.’

Now this is quite normal behaviour in the close-knit communities where not everyone is able to afford luxuries like cars, pickup trucks or motorcycles. Lek has a motorcycle, like many of the other families in her village. It is a necessity
as public transport is practically non-existent where she stays. It is also thought of as a shared community resource; someone may want to hitch a ride to the market if she’s on the way there, or possibly borrow the machine for a short
trip. They’ll usually compensate by filling up the tank with gas. Likewise, if Lek needed to carry more than what she could fit on her motorcycle, she’d go to her neighbour’s place a few doors down and find out when he’d
be able to help out with his pickup truck.

So why me? Well, when I worked out in the provinces I had rented a place a few doors down from where she and her family were staying. I became an accepted member of that community, watched her daughter grow up from a young teenager, and was
an honoured guest at her marriage. I’d drop by if my travels took me nearby; I can’t remember how many weddings and funerals I’ve attended in this village since I first stayed there.

I was one of the few people staying in this village to have a car (or pickup), so as part of being accepted by the community, I was sometimes asked to provide transport services, sometimes to bring one of the older people to hospital, but
more often as part of a convoy going to the temple for a tum boon (make merit) ceremony or funeral.

Lek had a fair idea of my schedules; I’d pass by often enough not to lose contact, and as part of belonging to the extended village ‘family’ I happened to be passing by at an opportune moment.

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I called Lek to confirm I’d meet up with them the following Saturday at her rubber plantation.

I get there bright and early; almost lost my way twice as I’d only been there a couple of times before, and by different routes. All those twists and turns, and not one of these roads on a map…

Lek is waiting at one of the neighbour’s places with her daughter. I greet them all, and then Lek tells me the story. Her daughter had gone to work in one of the factories around Ayudhaya, as did her husband. They rented a room, and
their three-year old son was left in the care of his parents. They were actually doing quite well as there was a lot of overtime work, and they had saved enough to by an old second-hand car. Her only complaint was that the work with a microscope
used to give her headaches. They eventually had to work different shifts, so did not see so much of each other. She didn’t really mind, as they had managed to buy a fridge, television and CD player. There was a CD rental place just opposite
the ‘condominium’ (actually just a room with an attached bathroom) so movie rental wasn’t a problem. Until she found out her husband was bringing a string of girlfriends to the room when she was at work…

She shifted to an all-girls dormitory with a couple of friends. Her husband did not deny the fact, but did not change his habits either. She continued working there, but as she later said, the thing that finally prompted her to tender her
resignation was the fact that overtime work had been reduced drastically, meaning less disposable income, and that when the other guys around had found out about them not staying together, a whole lot of them would hang around at the entrance
to the dorm trying to proposition her into going out. She likened them to a pack of drooling dogs.

So who were they going to see? ‘We’re going to Da’s place. It’s a bit further in.’ A bit further in turned out to be another ten kilometres into ‘degraded forest’ land. You can get a long-term
lease on this land, but can’t own it. Da, as it turned out, was a distant relative. She was staying with her sister, the sister’s husband and kids, and her parents. Her parents had forty Rai (a Thai measure of area – one rai is approximately
four hundred square meters) of mature rubber trees, while she and her sister had fifteen Rai each on the adjoining plots. They would tap rubber during the dry season, and when rainy weather arrived, would stop tapping and find alternative work.
It was this alternative work they had come to talk about.

Da had worked as a masseuse at a massage parlour in Pattaya. ‘Everything above board, it’s not one of the naughty places. It’s a decent living too.’ Da had also been overseas; Turkey, Pakistan and Taiwan to name
a few. ‘The money is much better there for traditional massage; the places I worked at were all above board and took good care of the workers. They even bring us out as a group for tours and shopping.’ Da has been doing this for
quite a few years; she’s in her late thirties and still single. She looks a little tomboyish and has a fairly happy-go-lucky attitude. Lek mentions that many guys have shown interest in Da, but she prefers her way of life. Da continues,
’Mostly the men will come for massage, sometimes the women. Language, no problem. When time to finish, I make him sit up, – chop, chop, chop on the shoulder, and tell him, You! Finit!’ I had to contain myself from not laughing.

I question Lek and her daughter on this rather strange choice of profession, and of all places, Pattaya! Lek gives me a look, and says, ‘Look. She’s already been married, she has a three year old son. It’s all above board,
and we’re going to take a look at the place anyway. She’s not some naïve teenager fresh out of school or off the farm, don’t look so worried!’

So off to Pattaya we go, just in time for lunch.

Lunch is at the noodle shop next to the massage parlour; it’s run by friends of Da. They’re quite pleased to see her. She declines lunch, preferring to go through the side entrance to meet her friends instead. She comes back
about twenty minutes later, and gets Lek’s daughter to follow her. Lek follows about five minutes later, so I take the initiative and pay for lunch. I walk over to where they seem to have gone inside, and spot a group of the girls sitting
outside having a communal meal. The youngest in the group appears to be in her late thirties. Plus, I can still smell the fermented fish paste… Then Da comes out and asks me if I would like to take a look inside. Yes, but what is this yellow
herb here drying in the sun. She called it a kind of ‘Kamin’, but it certainly didn’t look like any herb I know. She said it was used for the aroma massage.

I walk around to the front entrance, where Lek and her daughter are in conversation with the owner of the place. I’m introduced as a friend, and the owner explains how the place works.

‘For the new girls, it’s preferable that they go for the massage course at Wat Pho. They provide a certificate, and that helps. However, you can still learn with some of the older girls. But, initially, until you have some skill,
you won’t get paid. Many people can pick it up the basic skills within a week or so.

As the girls turn up for work, they are put in a queue in order of their arrival. So as the customers turn up, they are assigned according to this order. Sometimes the hotels will call us to send our people there; we have a transport to bring
the girls there and back, and people to keep an eye on them. If we sometimes get more customers than we have girls, we call some other massage places to send people over to help out. We do the same for them.’

She then brings us on a quick tour of the place; two long aisles, with communal rooms on either side. It could definitely cope with a busload or two…

I look at Lek on the way back. She shrugs and says, ‘It’s an option, we just wanted to have first-hand knowledge of the place. After all, Da has been there for some time, and if my daughter had some experience here, at least
she would have the option of going overseas with Da should that opportunity arise in the future.’ The daughter looks at me and says, ‘Well I did want to see what the place was like and what would be involved. Maybe, maybe not. I
just don’t know right now.’

Eventually, she didn’t. She got a job at another factory, also around Ayudhaya, that paid more and where she did not have to use a microscope. She rents a room with one of her female colleagues, and when she has free time, will pick up her son
and bring him to visit grandma.



Stickman's
thoughts:

Good on her for declining that work. Sometimes one thing can lead to another.


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