Thursday, 14 August 2008
A Lifeline for Ben and Yut
Viewed from my upstairs verandah, the clouds and storms are spectacular as it’s the rainy season, Nan and Cat are busy in their vegetable garden and now we’ve got a shop just across the soi.
In fact Cat had it built by her brother, Mangorn on her sister’s land while I was away in England. The scale of it came as a bit of a surprise to me but apart from it being pretty ugly, a total non-issue around here, the idea is a good one.
Essentially it’s a shop for Cat’s sister Yut and her husband Ben. The story is that for years they’ve been working in Samut Prakan in shoe and plastics factories but when Yut became pregnant with Best, now aged two, the second wage went out of the window and life wasn’t worth living any more. They had to be apart for a bit, but if somehow they could eke a living in the village they could stay together and have a better life than in the teeming sweatshops of the city.
So Cat has set them up with the shop. As from when the monks come by early in the morning, it’s quite a sociable place and everyone on the soi stops for a chat and to buy snacks, toothpaste and alcohol. Yut also sometimes cooks grilled chicken and fried bananas and these seem to sell quite well.
As in all Third World countries the modest shelves of luxuries are much the same… soap, tinned fish and tiny packets of luxuries that make a simple life a little sweeter. This could be Africa, Central America, anywhere. Always the packets are as small as possible as the buyer has no cash and in consequence pays the maximum possible price for their purchase. A toothbrush and toothpaste, some washing powder and liquid is more than forty baht, a third of a rice farmer’s daily wage. It’s big money for them, but Ben makes only a tiny mark-up on each sale; a baht or two a time.
Yet big business stands tall behind all these brands and everything is highly advertised on TV and elsewhere. The tens of millions of poor farmers are a big market. Being a farang I can’t read the packets and while the brand of the soap powder seems to say ‘USA’, in fact in Thai it’s ‘Breeze’ and it’s a fast mover.
The shop is open from dawn to dusk and though better than the plastics factory, for Ben the day is mind-numbingly dull. He waits an hour or all afternoon and nobody comes by, but then that’s how half the population of South East Asia live… in an endless cycle of nil opportunity and low productivity that’s hard to break.
I ponder too that when his back is briefly turned and a bottle of beer walks away, then most of the day’s profits are gone. Cat tells me they try to keep track of stock and to tot up the cash they take but I really wonder if there's any profit at all. If they had to pay for the building or for rent, there would of course be nothing to be made.
But anyway, it’s good that they’re here and I hope they can get by. Mama now has another of her daughters back home and the family is a little more complete. If we go away, they are here to look after Mama and watch over our house. Ben is a delightful man and always keeps a sharp eye out for any intruders in daylight hours.
While I was away in England the gravel road of the soi was paved with concrete so it’s beginning to look quite prosperous, suburban even. The only two pickups owned by neighbours have inevitably been repossessed but there’s still a good few motorbikes and everyone keeps smiling.
As the Thais always do despite costs going sky high!