On an island near Myanmar, Moken children get not only an education but a sense of pride, and are taught it's not over until the fat lady apologises. Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, September 28, 2014: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/434772/the-sea-gypsies-new-flag
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Twenty young boys and girls from the Kao Lao Moken sea gypsy camp on an island near Ranong were swimming as fast as they could. A fat lady in a long-tail boat was bearing down on them, poking at them with a stick with spines on it.
It began innocently enough, when two of the best swimmers, Nid and Nung, both eight and becoming among the first in the community to learn how to read, write and count, asked the headmistress of our school if the class could take a break and go swimming. The teacher said OK, and when they returned they began to discuss a special event.
Teacher said yes, it's Saturday when we usually have classes to "catch up", but promised this Saturday would be a special day. Birthdays and names would be celebrated, followed by a swimming contest and ice-cream. Let's make today an exception.
The incoming high tide on the Andaman Sea was perfect for swimming and the water was so clear you could see three metres, right to the bottom. And there were no jellyfish. It was not yet their season, when they might sting you, upset that you invaded their space.
This was a very special place. When the tide was low, you could walk all the way to Queen Victoria Point in Myanmar, a distance of maybe 3km, with the water mostly no deeper than your waist.
Lovely Miss Sprite had the odds stacked against her before she was even born
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, March 9, Spectrum Section: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/398899/a-sprightly-angel-and-a-sacred-tree
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Lovely Miss Sprite. Angel of the week — second year of kindergarten — winner of the colouring contest — elegantly going on five years of age. She has a voice pitched between the song of an angel and a chirping baby bird sitting on the edge of the nest, not quite ready to fly. Likes to put a leaf behind her ear — picked from that Sacred Tree behind their slum shack. Her mum used to do that too. Lovely features, she has a smile that could stop any herd of wild elephants that might be visiting the neighbourhood. As for her innate beauty? You would immediately pick her out of a crowd. There was a problem: orphan girls fetch a pretty price. But we dealt with that.
Chocolate sandwiches are her favourite food on the whole planet. Chocolate paste smushed between slices of bread. Even better still, whole chunks of chocolate in the middle without much bread. Best of all, skip the bread entirely and just gobble plain chocolate. But her disabled Auntie Gung, her second mum, won’t allow the "no bread" recipe. Says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from Aids almost a month now, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.
Miss Sprite talks non-stop like only a bright five-year-old can. She shares loads of secrets whispered at the speed of a bullet in your ear. And even though you (as a silly, grown-up adult) are not expected to understand secrets of a top-of-her-class kindergarten orphan, you are required to nod emphatically. For this you sometimes get a hug.
by Fr. Joe Maier
Published in Bangkok Post, Sunday Dec. 23, Spectrum section:
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels travelled from high heaven to tell the news to a small group of shepherds guarding their sheep by night. And of course, the children woke up when they heard the angels speaking to their parents and then singing their heavenly song about the birth of the holy child, and the children were dazzled by the light of an unknown star in the sky.
The music was so beautiful that the children began to sing along with the angels. The shepherd mums said: ''Hush don't be so bold.''
The angels responded: ''That's fine, let the children sing along with us.''
They taught the children the words, so they would remember the song later.
Our children here at Mercy Centre like that story. To them, it's perfectly normal that angels would come to visit and children would sing along with them.
Of course, it also makes sense that the angels could speak Thai and even take a few minutes to show the children how to play the melody on our traditional Thai musical instruments, so that the children could sing and play the melody after the angels had gone back up to heaven.
As the story goes, that very night these shepherds hurried across the hills to see the holy child and to show respect, bringing their children with them because they also wanted to see the baby Jesus.
Visiting the stable and manger where Jesus was born, some of the children fell asleep in their mothers' arms and the blessed Virgin Mary said, ''Why don't you spend the rest of the night here and return in the morning, when it's light and safe. Let your men go home to guard the sheep for the rest of the night.''
Our Klong Toey slum kids like the idea of the shepherd kids going to visit baby Jesus, and maybe bringing along a couple packets of instant noodles – the staple food of homeless kids – just in case. Many of our kids remember being hungry on the street, and they couldn't be sure if baby Jesus and his mum and dad had food.
So our slum kids said that if they'd been there on that night so long ago they would have pooled their lunch money to buy some really spicy dishes from Auntie Owe's food cart down the street from here and share with the shepherd kids and Mary and Joseph. Auntie Owe makes the hottest food in all of the Klong Toey slum, and always gives a bit extra to kids. The way the Mercy kids figure it, shepherd kids wouldn't get to eat spicy Thai food very often. It would be a real treat.
And our slum kids said that if they really could have seen Mary, Jesus' mum, they knew for sure that she'd be prettier than any of the statues of her. Plus, her name was easy to remember – in Thai it would be ''Malee''.
When our children heard of Jesus' humble birth in a manger with the animals close by, one of our girls recalled proudly what her mum told her of how she was born. It was on a wooden foot bridge crossing a stream because her mum was on the run from some bad guys. Our Moken sea gypsy kids from South Thailand said maybe Jesus was born on a wooden boat that sailed the high seas like they were and they thought he would be happy in that life, as they were.
Then the bad guys come into the story. They somehow got word when Jesus was born that this was a child from Heaven. This was unacceptable. They figured this child might grow up and take away their power and money. So the nasty big boss – a guy named Herod – said: ''Find this child from Heaven and kill him. In fact, kill all the baby boys around there, just to make sure. We don't even want this child on planet Earth.''
Our kids understand about bad guys, and how they were coming to hurt Jesus and take his mum and dad away, and maybe even kill them all; at least put them in jail and baby Jesus would be given to strangers and would be all alone without his mum and dad.
Our twins, nicknamed Pizza and Peanut, can identify with that. The police came to take away their own mum because they said she liked drugs. They know that Jesus' mum would never take drugs. They said that they'd never hurt baby Jesus and that their mum and dad wouldn't either.
In our children's world in the Klong Toey slum, dads disappear and mums sometimes have to leave for a while. And so they understood that Mary and Joseph had to leave to escape from the bad guys.
Our five- and six-year-old sisters, Miss Pancake and Miss Off, couldn't remember because they were too small, but their mum told them they got car-sick when she took them on the bus to get away from some bad guys. They were on the run until their uncle, a nice policeman, had a chance to talk to the bad guys and tell them not to hurt mum.
Mary and Joseph journeyed for nine days south to a small hamlet called Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem.It was Joseph’s historical roots, as he was a long distant relative of King David of centuries before. They traveled, forced, by military edict, because the Roman Empire, which ruled the country at that time, had commanded every family head to return to their ancestral home, register, and pay a tax there to government of Rome.
The song the angels sang that night, the light of an unknown star that covers the whole heavens –wherever you are – and the trials and tribulations of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus all made perfect sense to the children.
So to quote an old song that is very popular at the Mercy Centre: ''May you and your children stop to listen, join in the angels' song, as their music sings along the strings and fills that lonely place between Earth and sky. And know they are singing for you and I.''
Merry Christmas from Father Joe and all the kids.
By Fr. Joe Maier
When 'ya ba' hit the Klong Toey slum she was caught up in the maelstrom with so many others. Now she's come out the other end battered and infected but the same gentle creature she's always been
Published Nov. 17, Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum Section
This is the harsh story of our own Miss Mott and the home-grown, inbred violence and drug savagery that seeped into Klong Toey's Slaughter House a few years back. Miss Mott was Slaughter House-born in the Year of the Rabbit – the most gentle of creatures – destined never to hurt anyone or anything but with predators all around.
Her family had a shack with a window facing the canal, right next to the Slaughter House smuggler's dock, and that's where she grew up. She was nine and baby sister seven, when their dad finally stopped his TB coughing. Died in his sleep.
The district health clinic people came, wearing masks for protection, together with the fire department. They torched the clothes, moldy bedding and the whole shack to destroy the TB germs. The Chinese Benevolent Foundation took his body to the temple. The shortest of prayers were chanted, then immediate cremation that very afternoon, as the temple also does not favor TB corpses. A kindly maiden auntie attended, plus Miss Mott and her younger sister.
Mum didn't bother to come. Angry at her dead husband and his TB, she had gotten herself tangled up with a local garbage truck driver. She climbed up into his big green smelly truck, waved goodbye to her daughters and rode off into the sunset.
We had the girls checked for TB and miraculously, they were OK. With mum gone and the house in ashes, their auntie took them in. A famously ferocious lady around the Slaughter House, she had long lived alone except for her cat (an experienced animal, accustomed to ''sizing up'' and then walking away from rats almost as big as he). She dwelt in a wooden shack, a box really, above an active pigpen. The walls consisted of throwaway packing crates tacked together. Leading down to the cement floor of the pigpen was a ladder with three steps that was pulled up at night by an old throwaway piece of plastic twine.
The furnishings consisted of a rickety wooden food cabinet, cups filled with water placed under the legs to keep the ants from crawling up; a fan, one light bulb, a sleeping mat and a mosquito net. Bathing and clothes washing was done in the pigpen during the day after fresh water was put into the vats. A pot served as a toilet that was emptied in the morning into a runoff trough leading back into the canal. When the girls came, auntie borrowed two more plates, bowls and drinking glasses from the temple plus sleeping mats and a second mosquito net from us. To get in and out of the 'house', Miss Mott and sister had to step around the sleeping pigs.
Working in the Slaughter House is not easy and there were always stimulants to fight the exhaustion from the nightly butchering of pigs, cattle and water buffalo, but this usually meant leaves from the kratom tree, at 10 leaves for 1 baht. Then suddenly, a new ''stay awake'' drug came to the Slaughter House like a death plague.
In a matter of weeks the new drug was on sale everywhere. Prices were higher, but the new powder dissolved in liquid and sold for 10 baht a shot was stronger, quicker and longer lasting. Next it appeared in pill form, lethal and addictive. The new business of supplying the pills needed errand girls and boys, but especially girls, as folks think they are more dependable.
The Slaughter House of Klong Toey quickly changed into a savage place. The neighborhood was no longer safe. Thievery skyrocketed. You couldn't even hang clothes on the line outside your shack. Money was borrowed at 20% interest per week. No way to pay it off really, except to join the drug trade. The lives of our girls here were shattered. They were proposing to the men driving the trucks that arrived early each early morning to bring in the pigs and getting jobs in bars and ''tea houses'' as their gangster pimps strutted around. Everyone was caught in the maelstrom.
Miss Mott, now 14 and five years now living above the butchering pens, was the ideal errand girl. Everyone knew her: smart, sassy and slaughter-house wise. She and baby sister, 12, were among the Slaughter House's most trusted drug runners. They knew where and when to buy, from whom and at what prices, and there were always tips for quick, safe-delivery.
The girls went to school only maybe, and for the first time in their lives, they had money to buy enough to eat, with some left over for auntie. And even fish heads for the cat.
That same year Miss Mott moved out from auntie's home and took up with a boy she really liked. But after a couple weeks she realised, broken hearted, that he just wanted to use her to get money for his drugs. She said: ''I have my dignity. I can buy and sell drugs myself – besides, I don't sell to kids.'' So she walked.
But she was so discouraged that she decided to try drugs – just once. Her baby sister panicked – begged her not to do it; but big sister was distraught, and so it began.
Although she was still under legal age, a Slaughter House girl friend got her a job as a cleaning lady in a downtown bar. That's when she decided to learn English. Somewhere along the line, she'd picked up the HIV virus and spent some time in prison. She met this foreign guy – moved in with him to improve her English (although he didn't know that was her main reason). She'd taught herself how to read and write Thai by the time she was six by reading comic books and watching cartoons and figured the same formula would work for English. She got this foreign guy to buy her English-language comics and subscribe to TV channels showing English cartoons. She stayed with him about 18 months, and learned a good bit of English.
About that time, she became a ''cover girl,” something she instantly regretted, and that's why she left him. He gave her some product, got her to pose and asked her to demonstrate the finer points of heroin injection. Then he sold the photos to a lurid underground magazine. I understand that the photos won an art award somewhere in Eastern Europe.
When she saw the magazine in the foreigner's apartment, she went back to Klong Toey to meet some people she knew, got some product and placed it on his kitchen table. Then she gathered up her clothes, left him sleeping in the apartment, went back home to Klong Toey and phoned the police.
She had some money he'd given her so she and baby sister re-built the old home next to the smugglers dock that was burned down years after dad passed away. She moved her maiden auntie and the experienced cat from the pig-pen shack and sold it for 1,000 baht.
Baby sister was going to school quite regularly now. She had stopped being an errand girl and she watched in horror at her sister's addiction.
Just before they re-built their old shack, she watched a delivery go bad. Someone had ''taken the shilling'' – been paid off. She watched the ''drop man'' go down in a hail of .44 caliber bullets fired by an army special team brought in for the hit. A long-time neighborhood cop who was a kindergarten classmate of her dad years before watched it all. He asked baby sister: ''Little daughter, do you have any product?'' She said, no, she'd delivered it all, and he said: ''Run and don't ever make another delivery again.''
Baby sister remembered what he told her.
With the shack re-built, they were together again as a family, at least for a while. Miss Mott was now the bread-winner. She would come and go. Do her own thing. Still into drugs. Don't ask questions.
The same neighborhood cop asked Miss Mott to come to the station one afternoon. He said he was sorry – he remembered how he had fought the communists beside her dad in Laos, but the law is the law, and she was certainly a suspect. The urine test proved there were drugs in her system. Plus, she was really dumb. She had missed three of her monthly parole dates at the police station. The judge gave her two years.
So now she's back in the federal women's prison. It's probably the safest place for her right now, and her English skills serve her well.
Non-Thai speaking prisoners need to communicate with non-English speaking guards. Miss Mott translates. And with this, favors come, like cookies and cake, instant coffee, when visitors bring presents. She particularly likes doughnuts. Plus, if you're a Klong Toey Girl in the women's prison ... Well, there's a bit of space, because no one fancies several of Klong Toey's finest lasses paying a midnight visit in the ward.
There's much more to tell, but to hit the highlights, both maiden auntie and the experienced cat died of natural causes last year. Baby sister has a good-paying secretarial job with a shipping company in Klong Toey Port.
Miss Mott remains a Slaughter House girl born in the Year of the Rabbit, and she'll be free again in less than a year. The prison supplies anti-virals for her HIV and she is healthy for now. She says she's got lots of energy – still young at 42.
''I'm off the drugs after 30 years, and the HIV is dormant. And before it's too late, I'd really like to be a mum,'' she says.
There's a girl she met in the prison dying of cancer, and she has a two year old and a three-year-old living with her frail, sickly grandmother. For sure, the children will be orphans, so Miss Mott told the girl: ''I'll take your kids for you and even bring them to the temple when you die, and I'll look after granny.''
She figures she has just enough years left to raise the kids proper – just like they were her own blood ... and she promises to be the best mum the Slaughter House has ever seen.
Today 31 Oct. is my birthday. I feel that birthdays & family go together - and that includes my brother and sister, and the slum families here, who, if have not adopted me, at least tolerate me(probably since I have been in Klong Toey so long) and our 181 Thaichildren who live with us here at Mercy Centre, who now more than ever, call me “Fr. Grandpa.”
Long before Thailand, the slums and the slaughter house. when we three children (my sister, brother and I) were growing up, with dad long gone, mother slept in the front bed room.Usually with the door open a bit.We could hear her softly saying the rosary night after night, together with an old tape recorder to keep her company.In our better moments we would join her.
Saying the Rosary lulled her to sleep – she totally believed if she dozed off first (and she mostly did) her guardian angels would finish “telling the beads” for her.Knew that with only the sound of the tape recording of the Hail Mary’s, she was safe and we her children were safe. We lived in a tiny house in a poor district of a small lumber mill town, never thinking it a slum.We and our neighbors kept up our yards and rosebushes, and the neighborhood was safe.
Mom in her later years suffered from dementia, and in her moments, she’d hold on to her Rosary Beads.Never once did she forget how to say her Hail Mary’s. We her children said:“that’s all that’s left, but it’s more than enough." She taught us the rules of life as her prayers flowed along the beads between earth and sky.
Miss Jaew Waew was born to a European father and a Thai mother with penchant for gambling and booze. Her dad has been there to help her in the past and she believes he will be there again in the future for her own daughter.
Published by Bangkok Post, Sunday, June 16, Spectrum Section
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
The first time, 12 years ago, it was an easy rescue. Her dad, a European man, kicked down the door, barged in and beat up the two bad guys with his fists, cracked their skulls with a beer bottle, and picked up his three-year-old daughter, Miss Jew Waew. He waved down a taxi and brought her to us at Mercy. He had heard that we took care of abandoned kids.
The taxi driver was a Klong Toey man who knew us, so no questions and no charge. Dad cradled his daughter, sleeping the sleep of innocence in his arms. A friend riding a big motorbike followed the taxi as an escort, to avoid any surprises - just in case the beat-up bad guys got stupid, maybe phoning acquaintances and asking them to follow the taxi.
When dad arrived at Mercy, he didn't close the taxi door, lest the sound wake his daughter. We got him a couple of Band-Aids for his cut knuckles. This giant, sobbing tattooed warrior handed us his daughter and a wrinkled birth certificate. All he could say was: ''Please love her. I'll come back when I can.'' He thanked the taxi driver, left some money on the seat, then jumped on the back of his friend's big bike and he was gone.