A typical Klong Toey tale of four-legged friends and broken heads
by Father Joe Maier
She's a gentle mum, an Auntie Mum who is now of an auntie age. For 64 years she has lived in our Klong Toey slum. Her name is Pu Glin, a common name from days gone by. It means the fragrant aroma of sweet flowers.
Alongside her is a motley cast of characters: older sister Slum Mean; daughter Sweet Sixteen; son loopy from drugs; Man with Broken Head from a couple of broken beer bottle incidents.
And so it begins, a story pretty typical of the Klong Toey slumAuntie Mum's ex-husband -- the broken-head guy with scars from two smashed beer bottle incidents -- is still around here somewhere, even though he was chased off not long ago. Sweet Sixteen daughter sees him now and then.
Stumbling around as he does, he's easy to spot. He stumbles about on a gimp leg, like he's going to fall over any time he walks. Apparently there was a motorcycle accident way back when and the leg never healed, but that has never hindered his drinking.
Broken Head isn't real bright; he was stupid enough to lose Sweet Sixteen's Auntie Mum and, long before that, her elder sister Slum Mean. Really "double dog stupid" as the old expression goes. But then again, you could say Auntie Mum was "double dog lucky" to finally get rid of him.
For a week this guy hadn't stumbled home hammered late at night. No doubt he was hammered; he just hadn't returned home. So Auntie Mum asked Slum Mean to come and stay with herself, Sweet Sixteen and her son, who's always a bit loopy on drugs. Living with them were eight cats and 10 dogs. But the shack is large enough and the cats and dogs stay mostly outside -- unless one of them is sick. And that's often a problem, you see. Auntie Mum's pack of dogs is always growing and one or a few are usually sick or abandoned or kicked around with nowhere to hide.
So Auntie Mum keeps adopting more strays. Oddly enough, these strays hang around but don't fight or bark much. It's as if they recognise and appreciate any help they are given. In that way, you might say, they fit right in with the Klong Toey slum.
Then you have the cats. They, too, come around when they are sick. But cats being cats, they get healthy and move on. Eventually they might get sick or beat up again, and they will return briefly. But, in short, there isn't much fighting or noise at the shack. At least not from the cats and dogs. Auntie Mum's shack remains more of a home than a hospital to them. It's a relatively quiet and respectful place.
That is, until Broken Head finally stumbled back. With Slum Mean older sis in the shack, there was no longer room for him. Besides, the dogs never liked him. Snarled and growled at him. But they were nothing compared to Slum Mean, who had it in for him. She remains deeply insulted from long ago when they had briefly lived together. Story goes that one night he invited a working girl into their shack and, well, that marked the first time Slum Mean cracked him on the head with a beer bottle.
The second beer bottle incident occurred just a couple weeks ago when Auntie Mum didn't have the heart to throw him out. Why she ever took him in at all is one of those slum mysteries you can never solve. But I do know that he sweet-talked her and lied to her about liking cats and dogs.
That living arrangement was doomed from the start. He was mean to Auntie Mum's strays, he drank daily and refused work. Worse, Sweet Sixteen was afraid of him. Then, final straw, he kicked Auntie Mum's favourite dog and proceeded to slap Auntie Mum because she refused to give him beer money.
With what little money she had, Auntie Mum had planned to buy leftovers from the fresh market for a couple of very sick dogs. That was the money Broken Head wanted for beer. Auntie Mum, who is usually gentle and accommodating, threw an absolute fit. The dogs began howling. Slum Mean heard the howls and came running from a nearby noodle shop. She grabbed a beer bottle and cracked him on the head, breaking the bottle and sending him flying. Blood and shards of broken glass were everywhere.
"I dare you to call the police," Slum Mean shouted at him. Broken Head cowered and ran for cover. And that was the end of that.
You need to know that Auntie Mum is one of the most gentle and finest ladies you could ever meet. High class really. Just don't insult her or fritter away her money when she needs it to feed her family of cats, dogs and people.
Auntie Mum doesn't ask for anything. She says that she has all she needs. We did buy her a charcoal burner, but she doesn't want propane gas for it. Too complicated, she says, and, besides, who would carry the gas canisters when they need changing?
More importantly, the eight cats love to curl up on top of the gas canister. She's afraid that one cat or the other would hit something and turn on the gas tank. Also, her son, who remains a bit loopy from drugs, might light his cigarettes with a gas burner. He could forget to turn it off and it only takes one spark to torch a shack. And the shack next to it and one next to that.
This son of hers has been on drugs for a long time, so we won't say much about him. As long as the police and the neighbours don't see him as a problem and don't bother him, then we don't bother him either. As loopy and tilted as he may be, he makes sure none of the drugs fall into the hands of kids. Strange but true.
Auntie Mum's eight cats and 10 dogs are not of the cuddly and sweet variety you see in newspapers and on the telly. When they come to her, they are usually sick and often hungry. They have no pedigree papers. They were never showcased in a fancy store. But so what? Papers are just paper, Auntie Mum says, and paper doesn't make a cat or dog any better or worse.
But all of her cats and dogs have names -- real Thai dog and cat names. Like Ghern (silver money), Goldie or the verb "Me" (to bring), so that when you call them by their names they will bring gold and silver and good luck. That's the idea, at least.
Auntie Mum's shack is in the Nong Mai neighbourhood of the Klong Toey slum, right under the expressway. She's lived there for more than 40 years.
Originally from Nong Khai, she was born in a nondescript village on the banks of the Mekong, bordering Laos. But she is literate. Went to school, finishing Grade 4, as was the requirement back then.
She stopped in at Mercy today, just before it rained. She needed her monthly dole of 370 baht. It helps buy the charcoal she uses instead of propane gas. Also, the Klong Toey elderly women's group charges her an "offering" of one baht per day. Everyone in the group pays it, she says. It's a daily contribution to a Klong Toey senior citizens "after-you-die" fund. This way even the poorest of the poor die with sufficient to receive cremation prayers at the temple.
As for food, a neighbour who became a temple lady and frequently fasts (according to the lunar calendar) receives donated food each morning leftover by the monks from the temple. She shares this with Auntie Mum.
But Auntie Mum doesn't own a fridge, so the food she saved from yesterday has often rotted by the next morning. Not even the cats will eat it. However, the dogs made quick work of it. "Dogs will eat anything," Auntie Mum says.
With big refrigerators and everything, Auntie Mum says that only the rich can choose what kind of food they would like to eat and when they would like to eat it. But if you are poor, and you care for eight cats and 10 dogs, temple food is just about the finest cuisine you can find in Klong Toey. Better even than the noodle shops and cart vendors, she says.
Today, after 71 years of hard living, she has two teeth left. But they are nice-looking teeth, she says, opening her mouth and wanting you to see.
She goes to the doctor regularly, once a month or so. He gives her medicine for blood pressure, but she doesn't know if the pressure is high or low. Also, her knees ache when it's cold outside. No prescribed medicines needed for that, she says. A shot of local whisky numbs the pain.
So, whether you are from uptown or downtown, if you are passing Klong Toey on the expressway, drop in. We'll introduce you. With Auntie Mum's permission, you could maybe feed her cats and dogs and even meet her older sister and daughter of Sweet Sixteen.
However, you'll probably not see the broken-head guy. He wised up. Today he finally knows his place -- and it's not in Auntie Mum's crowded shack.
“My Health, My Right”
Around 450,000 people of Thailand’s population were living with HIV in 2016, with 6,400 people dying of AIDS related illnesses. After sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific is the region with the largest number of people living with HIV, with Thailand accounting for approximately 9%.
Today we join with our network of friends, organisations, communities and staff to acknowledge the tremendous progress made over the years to help end HIV/AIDS, with the goal to achieve the UNAIDS 90/90/90 target by 2020. Today in Thailand 91% of adults aged 15-59 are aware of their HIV status, of those 75% are on HIV treatment, of which 79% have attained viral suppression.
The theme for Worlds Aids Day 2017 is “My Health, My Right” promoting access to high-quality, safe, effective and affordable health care and wider set of rights, such as healthy working and living conditions, adequate sanitation and housing, access to nutritious food and justice.
“HIV means you’re more likely to live in poverty, more likely to have poor mental health, less likely to have access to adequate nutritional food, less likely to access medical care, and less likely to understand and assert your rights. We here at the Mercy Centre continue to fight but our fight is not just about the virus. Ignorance, discrimination and isolation limits opportunities to fully participate, preventing them from living full and happy lives. AIDS will only be overcome by our brothers and sisters who have it, they must lead the way, and we must listen and act. We all need to unite to help end the stigma, end discrimination, end HIV transmission and end the isolation felt by people living with HIV, for good. Each one of us can make a difference, so we must open our hearts and ears, as they say - a thousand candles can be lit from one single candle.” Father Joe, Director, HDF Mercy Centre
The Mercy Centre will continue to raise awareness of the role each individual and our communities play in preventing the spread of HIV. We will continue to distribute free condoms, promote free HIV testing and encourage people and their partners to know their status. We will continue to strive to educate, support and care for those infected with the support of their families and community. We will continue to advocate on the behalf of the people living with HIV/AIDS for improved health, social and economic outcomes. We will strive to end the stigma, discrimination and isolation encountered by people living with HIV/AIDS. We all benefit from a healthier and safer community.
"The heroes and heroines, the little old lady from the village who fetched soup for the sick…there were no nurses, no doctors and no hospital treatment in years past…as Elton John’s song goes:
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to know you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did
On this day, we here at Mercy Centre remember all those whom have lost their lives to AIDS and honour those working together to stop the disease. We honour the caregivers, families, communities, staff and volunteers for their dedication, compassion and tireless effort over the years. We are all the better for it.” Usanee, HIV/AIDS Outreach, HDF Mercy Centre
Street-born Baby Tack has a grandmother who adores him and a junkie mother who loves him even more than she loves drugs
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
He's 10 months old now, Master Tack. Happy, good-natured, smiles a lot, not afraid of stray cats and scavenger dogs. They like him; he likes them. It all works out. At night he doesn't cry. You'd love him. A great baby. Well, not totally "great" just yet, but give him time. He will grow up to be one of Klong Toey's finest. Just watch.
Already he has come a long way from his asphalt roots. Born right on the side of our main Klong Toey street. The old beggar guy, a familiar Klong Toey face with a dodgy leg, caught Tack's mum before she hit the ground -- snagged her just as she was collapsing and moved her to safety.
The beggar guy rents a junk-collecting cart for 10 baht per day and was perfectly positioned for the catch. Khun Gal-long, Klong Toey's oldest Down's syndrome guy at 50 years of age, happened to be helping the beggar guy push his three-wheeled cart. He got the assist. He blew his whistle non-stop.
The collapsing pregnant woman's name is Miss Bua Lueng, which means "Temple Lotus". The name is significant because her own mum, an orphan and slum urchin, had abandoned her at birth. Ran from the hospital. Asked a girlfriend to bring her street clothes, and then waited for the new night shift nurse to come on duty. She told the nurse she was going to the bathroom. She changed into her street clothes, combed her hair and slipped out a side door.
According to custom, hospitals automatically name unregistered newborns. So, 17 years before giving birth in the middle of a street, the pregnant mum had been blessed with the beautiful name Miss Bua Lueng.
The only prayer her mum could halfway recite was the Catholic "Hail Mary" learned from a girlfriend. She liked the words -- at least the ones she could remember. So she whispered them and proceeded to ask the Virgin Mary to please understand her difficulties and "please, please, please find someone to care for my baby. I'll be back. I promise."
She kept her word. After a long and lonely year, she found herself. Time and maturity can do that when firing on all cylinders. Mum deeply regretted running away from her child, and during that long year she had teamed up with two old girlfriends, got a job and moved into a rented flat in Klong Toey. That's when word got back to her that her one-year-old baby was in the children's ward with Public Welfare.
Although she had been an orphan mum, she had the required documents and agreed to a DNA test that together proved her maternity. Several visits later she had fallen head over heels in love again with her daughter. Public Welfare agreed to give her back her daughter but with these stern warnings: Raise her with love and care. Do not abandon her again. Ever.
And so it was. Mum never remarried and was afraid to do so. The thought that a man might be cruel to her child was an unthinkable compromise. So she raised her solo, as best as she could. The two of them survived on her cleaning lady's salary and occasional money from washing dishes at a local noodle shop. Although Mum was Klong Toey poor, she was a decent parent with a wealth of love to give.
Daughter Miss Bua Lueng attended a local government school, and she did well enough in her grades. Well enough, that is, until drugs nearly destroyed her. She had met this scum of a boy who beguiled her with promises and flattery. Fell head over heels in love with him -- maybe puppy love but love nevertheless. She would leave home each morning in her school uniform, but then skip all her classes to hang out with this scum and his friends.
She was nearly 18 but not yet streetwise enough to see the lies of the scum boy. He convinced her that her mum was dumb. "Dok Train" as we say in Thai, meaning she had "fallen off the train". So she became embarrassed of her lowly cleaning lady mum and eventually refused her authority. No "Dok Train" mum should treat her like a child.
The scum boy sweet-talked Miss Bua Lueng into trying drugs. And he told her that if they had a baby together, she could sell the baby without ever having to care for it. As if that was the easy and best thing for her. He even bought her the expensive mobile phone that "Dok Train" mum could never afford. But he made her promise to pay him back. Easy payments, he said.
No cash. Just some black market employment. Illegal and dangerous, but cash free. Told her she was pretty and could be "for sale -- a gun for hire". She liked the sound of that. Thought it was a funny joke.
She left her mum's rented shack and moved in with this scum and a couple of his cronies. They all promised her that none of them had HIV-Aids. After she got pregnant, they said she was stupid for getting pregnant and scum boy gave her money to buy abortion pills. Called her water buffalo. He wanted little to do with her.
She never took those abortion pills. Instead she tried to eat food that she thought her baby in her tummy would like. The scum told her to get out, she had no more value to him.
Miss Bua Lueng knew she could go back to her mum, but she never did. Too embarrassed. And she suspected her mum would be ashamed of her. She couldn't sleep at the bus stops because the authorities would see that she was pregnant and take her to a government home. She didn't want that. Was too proud. And so she was homeless with nowhere safe to lay her head for a long while.
At least until that afternoon on Klong Toey's main street.
She was begging from the old beggar guy with the three-wheeled push cart, asking him to buy her a 12-baht bowl of instant noodles. She told him that the baby in her tummy liked instant noodles. That's when the world began to look fuzzy. She moaned and cried loudly in birth pain. Her water broke.
She grabbed the side of his rickety cart and collapsed like a cheap folding chair. Beggar guy caught her, carried her a couple of steps from the traffic, and lowered her gently to the ground.
Not in a million years should she have been there. She should have been in a nice clean hospital bed. Or at least in her rented flat with Mum. But those days were all but gone now.
The only person on the planet she had was her mum, but they weren't on speaking terms. Although they saw each other occasionally, they hadn't talked in months. Mum silently cried to herself each time she saw her daughter. But she thought saying anything would only make matters worse.
You see, early in her pregnancy, Miss Bua Lueng had gone to prison for three months. She'd taken the rap for scum boy's drugs. Confessed that she was the owner of the drugs. Even though the police knew she was innocent, what could they do? She had the drugs and offered up a confession.
Pregnant Miss Bua Lueng had not seen her mum during the month that she had been free from prison.
Mum didn't know for sure that her daughter was pregnant, but she suspected. That afternoon, coming home from her cleaning job and stepping off the baht bus in front of the ice factory, she heard the cries of a familiar voice. She rushed towards a gathering crowd. And there she saw her. Miss Bua Lueng, her daughter. Giving birth right there in the street.
Instinct took over. She joined the other women. In no time Master Tack was born, healthy and strong. Mum rode with the ambulance and her daughter and new grandson to the hospital. Meanwhile, some of the ladies lit joss sticks for the spirits, and then cleaned the area, shooing away the stray dogs.
They took what was left over and all that was revered as sacred, and they buried it piously under a nearby large tree.
At the hospital the ambulance guy (who was well known there in the emergency room) vouched for everyone: baby, mother and grandmother. The ambulance guy said the grandma was a cleaning lady who lived in Klong Toey and this was her family.
There is so much more of this story to tell you, but in short ...
The police caught the lying boyfriend and the cronies who had used, abused, dumped and, in effect, convinced Miss Bua Lueng to take the rap for them. The police caught them with a sack full of drugs.
They will be in prison for many years. Our Klong Toey police do not like these lowlifes who use women. They say it gives the slum a bad name.
The beggar man still pushes his three-wheeled cart. The Down's Syndrome man still blows his whistle, directing traffic all ways. Or whenever he feels his whistle is needed.
Some say it wasn't fair to Master Tack, being born that way. No dignity.
But sometimes you need to look twice. Reconsider everything you've witnessed. Maybe there was great dignity in all of it. Women there knew what to do. They did not let anyone near the birthing mum. They protected the area and delivered new life unto Klong Toey. They were fierce loyal, the closest thing to "snarling" you could imagine. Stay away, don't interfere.
No one dared to cross them.
Someone brought clothing. Someone else brought bottles of drinking water. They made a birthing room right there on the street. Used Miss Bua Lueng's flip-flops for a pillow and delivered the baby outside of harm's way. They cleaned Master Tack with bottled water and swaddling him in borrowed clothes.
That's what you do in the slums. You make do with what you have. Sometimes it works.
Today the grandma is still a cleaning lady, but she has been promoted.
Daughter Bua Lueng was doing well. Then she slipped. Drugs. Not every day, but whenever she could hustle some cash. She dumped this new guy. Drugs also. No regular job. Nobody wants to hire someone covered with prison tattoos and a known drug history.
So it's her mum who takes her for her prenatal check-ups as Bua Lueng is pregnant again.
Street-born Baby Tack is great. He's got a granny who loves him, and a mum, who has moved back in with her mum and helping with her cleaning job, and is trying to stop drugs. She loves her son, more even than drugs.
Tack will grow up to be one of Klong Toey's finest. I know it. Give him time. Just watch.