By DENIS D. GRAY
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - When Father Joe heard that President Bush was to visit children in Bangkok's largest slum, the first thing the American priest did was ask them: "Do you want to meet him?"
Rev. Joseph H. Maier, a tough, no-nonsense man who mixes easily with drug pushers, thugs and prostitutes, is hardly known for being deferential - even when it comes to the president of the United States.
"We always ask our children when anyone and everyone is coming to visit, because it is their home - the only home they have - and they heartily agreed," he said before Bush's scheduled visit on Thursday.
"The children see him as a kind uncle coming to visit, not in his official position."
Bush, on a three-country tour of Asia, will spend some time at the Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation. Maier, a native of Longview, Wash., started the foundation nearly 40 years ago to aid often desperate residents of the vast Klong Toey slum.
Ministering first to a small Catholic community of slaughterhouse workers in the grimiest depths of the slum, the 69-year-old priest now looks after a shelter for street kids, four orphanages, a hospice, kindergartens for more than 4,100 slum toddlers and a home for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS. Most of those helped are Buddhists.
His work has earned him international awards and honors from Thailand's respected monarchy although he's challenged authorities, plied officials with whiskey to bend the rules and cut deals with the criminally inclined in defense of his turf and charges, especially the children.
"There are geniuses, poets, artists and physicians among the kids who call Mercy their home, and yet they are labeled as Klong Toey children and not the children who are worthy of proper education and jobs," he said.
"The visit of Mr. Uncle President is telling them they are of great value, and not to believe any of the bad stuff people might say," the priest said.
He said his children would be asking Bush to carry a message back to youngsters in America: "Yes, things are tough here in Thailand. The streets and slums are rough. We have been beaten up, used and abused, but today is fine and tomorrow is going to be even better and today we are going to have as much fun as we possibly can."
One of our children who goes by the nickname of Miss Nan told me she heard someone singing her a Christmas lullaby the other night when it was all quiet in the hospital. A lullaby so sweet, so beautiful, it would make the angels weep.
When she heard it, she awoke, looked around: only her crippled-up, Aid-struck, foster-Auntie Gung was there. And (Heavens to Betsy!) even Miss Nan's pet frog Albert can sing better than Auntie Gung. Everyone in the whole world knows Auntie Gung can't sing. But a lullaby it was that Miss Nan heard.
And who could doubt such a child? Miss Nan, who is only seven and was born with HIV, goes to the hospital a little longer each time now, so she has the learned the wisdom of such things. And Auntie Gung stays at her bedside for a week at a time - sometimes two weeks - sleeping at night on a mat on the floor next to Miss Nan's bed.
Here are just a few notes and updates to you, my friends, during Holy Week and the Thai Buddhist New Year:
Yesterday it felt like everyone in Klong Toey joined us at "Mercy Centre" as we celebrated the Thai New Year. Perhaps not totally everybody, but at least several hundred neighbors - mostly old folks and other slum "reputables" and, of course, our kids. There was great music played on third-hand instruments and dancing in the streets - old-time barn dancing led by the Motorbike Racing Granny, our favorite street vendor who is now 76. She has a bit of a bum knee, made stiff from kick-starting her stubborn "mini-chopper," a motorbike modified into her mobile coffee cart. Fortunately, she had a "wee swallie" or two or three from a not so well hidden flask of amber liquid that loosened her knees and had her stomping up a storm.
In the late morning, the Monks came for the annual New Year prayers and blessings for our Mercy Centre and to chant the Sutras. Our two hundred children were quiet (just for a while!), sitting beside the physically challenged and the old folks assembled; and after the prayers, everyone made merit and offered the monks a pre-noon meal.
A poor scavenger in the slums, Miss Na went through life and into death without a name, writes FATHER JOE MAIER
Her nickname was Miss Na. She had to think twice to remember her given name, written down in some official ledger/computer somewhere. Everyone called her Na.
Na was the oldest daughter in a street family. She and her family actually lived under a grove of Sacred Trees, here in Klong Toey, in the crudest of shelters. There's maybe (if you'd buy it new from the store) 200 baht total worth of material in the three shacks. No electricity of course. Water is hand carried and bought, for 5 baht a bucket, from a slum lady about 100 metres away. They make their living as scavengers, but nowadays, with our economic boom you see lots of folks scavenging. The competition is fierce.
And of course, their lives are at the mercy of the whims of the going-bald fat lady who buys their scavanged goods. She doesn't ask questions about anything they bring, and of course, there's a price attached to her silence, isn't there?
You get a better price down the street, but then, there's always questions. Take your choice.
Fon became our Christmas present, coming to stay with us for a while to share her wisdom and joy - her dance, her song, her innocence. And she led us as we followed the Magi and the Christmas star.
She's a special little girl who, at the age of six, is still learning to walk and talk, but she knows how to dance and sing. Something went terribly wrong when she was born. Baby Fon didn't get enough oxygen. So, later, in a rented room, with dad sick and mum working, she had no real social contact. She walks at her own pace and mostly without help, and her dancing is graceful but slow, as she's careful not to stumble and fall. She's still not too good at talking but she can sing quietly, crooning without words.
She usually tags around with Dao - glorious Miss Dao - who, at three-and-a-half years of age, decided to become Fon's "older" sister. It was Dao who took Fon's hand and led her everywhere. And it was Dao who taught her how to sing.
Our sacred stories and legends: Of wise men, astrologers - scientific intellectuals, really, who'd probably read the Hebrew scriptures - who, with prophetic wisdom, followed the star shining in the East which led them to Bethlehem.
Angels were in the high heavens singing, telling the shepherd families, who probably had also seen and been mystified by the star, about a special child born on this day. They were told to go to Bethlehem town, over the hills, not far, where they found the child lying in a manger near an inn.
A single, rather large, brown-furred, black-winged fruit bat came swooping, screeching out of the sunset sky like it was making a bombing run over the Pai Singto slum on New Ratchadapisek Road. No one had ever seen anything like it.
The slum kindergarten children had seen bats before. They had been watching a group for over two weeks, ever since they migrated to eat the sweet blossoms of the thorn tree (ton ngiew). Frightened at first, now the children were fascinated. The Pai Singto school teacher, a wise woman, decided to make "the bats" a school project. Soon the children took to the bats as their friends, their pets, and could even identify a few of them and gave them names!
The kindertgarten at Pai Singto kindergarten is our smallest. Eighteen children with full attendance. Roughly the same number as the bats. The shack kindergarten is tucked in the far end of the slum, just past the end of the cement walls, open to the sidewalk. The children thus passed the thorn tree each day on their way to and from school.
This slum is one of those long ribbon type slums you see all over Bangkok, extreme poverty providing sad contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood. With the huge Convention Centre and the Stock Exchange of Thailand across the street, and a multi-storey office complex just down the street, perhaps nowhere else in the city is there greater disparity. The people are poor, most selling fruit daily from push carts and sidewalk noodle shops.
Slums are fragile and Pai Singto is more fragile than most, just 13 metres wide and over 400 metres long, its 125 scrap wood, metal-roofed shacks hidden by three-metre-high concrete walls on each side. So when the sunset fire began, soon after the male bat swept past, it was like an inferno in a wind tunnel, and in a flash 54 homes were gone. The fire stopped a few metres before our shack kindergarten facing the sidewalk, just beyond the walls.
Most slum fires are caused by negligence, and this one was, as well, but grannys told the children a bit of the "lore of old", that the fire was because of what happened to the bats. In their yearly migration, the bats came to dine on the sweet flowers of the two big thorn trees near the wall, then hung from the trees as bats do, resting up before feasting again. For two weeks they had eaten peacefully. People who know of such things say these bats only come to serene places and bring good fortune - when they are treated properly. By now, as a class project, each of the school children had all drawn pictures of their favourite bat, tree and flowers.
That was before Mr Sanop, a nasty old piece of work who lived in the slum, began taking potshots at the bats with a slingshot. Three kindergarten children saw him and told their grannys, but grannys and five-year-olds simply do not have the "fire power" to combat a nasty.
She caught the HIV-AIDS virus from her innocent mom at birth, who got it from her not very innocent dad, And now her eyes don't work well at all. They did for a while over a year ago when she first came here. A while ago, the virus turned nasty and beat up her optic nerve. Her eyes, recently, don’t work very well even on bright sun shinny days. She’s blind.
And beautiful she is. A gift. We’re absolutely convinced that she is some former grand noble lady, born out of time and place whom you read about in ancient books of lore. This fragile precocious “just catching up” seven-year-old little girl with the virus. Still got her baby teeth, and smiles when you ask her to, and sits up now by herself and can manage her arms and hands into a beautiful Wai of greeting. Not yet totally cool on feeding herself but we’re working on that, along with her walking.
Life did not start well for Miss Peh. Her dad met the virus in some unmade bed on a booze filled night. Mom never knew till almost two years later when pregnant with baby Peh, when her routine hospital pregnancy blood test showed her HIV positive. Dad died first, mom later, just a few weeks after she gave birth to her first and only daughter Miss Peh. That was seven years ago.
Granny cared for Baby Peh as long as she could, living in a rented shack room about the size of a mosquito net. Then baby Peh moved in with her Auntie, a street sweeper with three children and a motorcycle taxi driver husband. Peh was almost five and couldn’t/wouldn’t walk or talk. By that time, Auntie knew about the Virus, and her Auntie did not dare tell her husband.
During the day, there was no one to care for Peh. Auntie sweeping streets, Uncle, long hours as motorcycle taxi driver and their 3 children in school. Do what you can! They put her on the floor next to some freshly cooked rice, locked the door and came back in the evening.
Auntie was afraid her husband would find out, get angry, and leave her and her three children, plus she didn’t like keeping secrets from him. She never had. A neighbor told her about a day care centre - an eight to five p.m. affair.
Called her his daughter, you know, for the children he never had. A confirmed bachelor, always said no decent lady would look twice, even once, at the likes of him. Illiterate. Never went to school. No documents. Not handsome - a junk man. So he lived his life alone. In his shack there beside the Klong Toey slums, in the Grove of Sacred trees next to where Kaewalee and her family stayed. Totally surrounded by used materials - e.g. plastic bags by the kilo, tin cans, beer bottles, scrap wire, etc - that he had not yet got around to selling. Or waiting for the price to go up a baht or so per kilo...