We got off the train in a small station. About 20 people sit in the little chairs in front of the station as the train leave. We greet the others and walk out. A small red dirt road goes into the country side.
It is raining outside, an omen of luck and an indispensable factor for the economy of Isaan. We will discover later that it has not rain for a while, making this event even more mythical. Outside the station 4 tuk-tuk are parked, nobody driving them. We sit there waiting for the husband of the old woman to come pick us up.
The man who speaks Japanese almost cannot stand, worn out by a whole night of drinking. He is nervous and he keeps speaking rudely to everyone in the group. People try to ignore it, squatting on the ground and smelling the scent of rain. The young man walks to me and bring me on a side. “I don’t like people who drink. They always treat people badly”. We stand there in the light rain, smoking a cigarette. I feel very fortunate of having met this man. In his face, signed by the stress and difficulties of his life, from losing his parents when he was young to being now alone in the world in his small farm, I see the signs of a new Thailand to be: thoughtful, compassionate, yet firm in its ideals.
The drunken man pushes one man, as the other try to calm him down. “We are among us” they say. One of the women sit on the ground, singing a sad song in her beautiful voice. Around occasional cars drive pass us.
A grey pick up pulls into the dirt road and stops in front of us. The husband gets off. An old man with grey hairs and a black sleeveless shirt. He stares at his wife from underneath the car door. She stares back, with a smile. We get on the pickup, four people in the front and eight on the back and we drive away.
The youth with a fascination with Bangkok, sits close to me, in a black shirt with the face of Nattawut pasted onto the body of a muay thai fighter, hitting with a kick a man with the face of Aphisit. He says he is worried that he may have troubles if we run into a military road block wearing that shirt. The man who told me he would protect me in this strip takes off his white shirt and proposes to exchange. He puts on the black shirt and stand up, shouting in the small village “Red shirts are back”, with his fists in the air. Some people from the street applaud.
We drive carefully as the people fight with the wind to light their cigarettes. The guy picks up one of the bottles of water in front of us and dials a number on the imaginary key pad. “Hello Aphisit” he says “how are you my friend?” people around laugh “I haven’t see you in a while. How are you?” he turns to me “We studied together in England” he whispers covering the bottle with his hand. Another laughter. “Hmm…Hmmm…where are you now?” “Really? Why aren’t you home? Ohhh… you can’t go back there… the population doesn’t accept that you kill them… hmmm… what buffalos” Everybody cracks up as the people inside open the small window to hear what is going on. “Yeah…Yeah…that is very bad. I see…” He stops for a second listening to what Aphisit is saying. “I just wanted to ask you a favor. Could you please send a helicopter to pick me up? Hmmm…Hmmm….Why can’t you? Ohh…they are all busy flying over Ratchaprasong.” Again people crack up as he also burst into laughter. People around clap. “You should do this on TV, maybe for People Channel.” I tell him. People around are clearing their tears with their thumbs and index fingers.
The guy is an endless well of comic relief. As we drive he carries two bottles on his hands, calling Aphisit, Suthep, Anupong, and Prem. It is hilarious and my self-appointed personal guard delights the small crowd that starts laughing as soon as he picks up another bottle, before he even says a word. He stands up and shouts “People don’t be afraid, the red shirt are back”, imitating the rhetoric of the red shirts leaders on stage. We stop in a sleepy petrol station and he gets down of the truck, dancing to the tunes of a small radio. Again everybody laugh.
We drive off again and stop in a small market. As we park the car a policeman comes around and asks them some news from the red camp in Bangkok. Two of the people in the truck stand in front of a small temple in the parking lot, praying. We enter the market and buy grilled chicken, papaya salad, and two leaves envelops full of bugs and fat ants. “They are delicious” the woman says “Try some”. Their taste is quite blunt but I nod smiling. We get back on the pickup and drive home. The woman without shoes carries a small plastic bag. “What did you buy?” I ask. “A phone charger” she answers “but it cost 120 Bath so I cannot buy shoes now”. Strange priorities, I think. “She hasn’t been able to call her mom” the young man says as if he is reading my mind. “She must be very worried.”
We finally get home, tired by the long trip. It is a big brick house with a nice fence surrounding it, not very far from the main street. Again, these are definitely not the poor Isaan farmers that the media describes. We get off the car and carry our stuff inside the house.
The woman’s daughter comes out, with a big smile, to greet her mom as her dogs jump on her, unable to constrain happiness in the presence of strangers. We walk inside the fence and sit on a wooden sala in front of the house. As the women go inside the house we freshen up with some water collected in a big jar outside the house. “It’s rain water” the young man keeps repeating to me.
We go back to the sala and sit there waiting for food as a dense silence descends upon the group. A silence that only the country-side can offer. Everybody looks down. An older man starts talking, without raising his eyes in a hoarse monotonous voice. “They killed so many of us. We will never know how many. They just shoot at everybody they could.” His eyes are glued to the mat, his voice very low. “But we will not stop, we will keep fighting. We cannot lose.” I have no idea if the others are listening. “I am not from here, I am from Surin but there is nothing going on there so I came here, to see what is going on and what will happen next. I am not sure how or when but we will keep fighting. We cannot lose.”
The silence is broken by a voice from inside the house. “Chicken. Who can help cutting it?” I stand up to help as the man does not seem to notice I left. Soon everything is on the small mat and we start eating as the guy who speaks Japanese, back into a decent state, puts on a VCD of April 10th. Not the best choice for this lunch. Right after lunch the young guy tells me we should go.
I pick up some stuff and greet everyone, thanking them for their help in the last day. We exchange phone number and they ask me to let them know if something happens in Bangkok. We hoop on a motorcycle that the woman offered us, driven by the youth now in the other guy t-shirt. He drives us to the big street nearby and leaves the two of us there, waiting for the bus. We stand on the side of the street talking about our lives, our passions, our fears. I know this guy only since yesterday but I feel very comfortable with him, and he seems to share the sensation. Once in a while he pulls out a binocular from his pocket and looks at the street, hoping to see the bus coming. “It is arriving” he says “pick your bag”.
A slow old blue bus trot in our direction stopping few meters away. As we get up from the back door the woman who makes the ticket runs out of the front door and jumps on him, hugging him tightly. “I thought you were dead” she says with a broken voice. “I thought I will never see you again”. She squeezes his shoulders, passing her fingers in his long hairs. “I went to the station three times asking for you. They told me to wait for the names of the dead to come in”. He turns around to me, as her face sinks into his chest. “She is my sister” he tell me trying to avoid tears. “He is a journalist friend.” “Hey” she says. “I thought I will never see you again.” They stand there, embraced, looking away from each other to hide the tears that fill their eyes. I walk a bit and sit down, leaving them this moment, as indifferent people sit in the crowded bus. “I am here” he tells me pointing at a small two-storey concrete house at the side of the road. “Thank you so much for everything” I respond as he gets off the bus. I wave to him from the car window as he puts foot on his land, finally.