Drop of Utopia
It is now dusk. Several small fishing boats are arriving back at the dock. Tall silhouettes of solar photovoltaic towers can be seen next to the dense background of petrochemical plants. Here lies a traditional fishing village right in the heart of the Eastern Seaboard; the much prized industrial region in Thailand.
A hundred years ago, this entire Cape Town was a pristine marine environment. It was the site of a large Vietnamese cemetery. Men and women came from afar to worship their buried relatives. Fifty years later, the Cape Town had changed. It was no longer a cemetery – or rather, the buried bones and skulls were no longer being worshiped as such. The cape was then called “The Falkland” island by the newly arrived fishermen. It was the dawn of the fishery community.
Today there are 250 families of fishermen living in this village; and there are a total of 66 houses. Most of the wooden stilt houses here have large open front porches designed to capture that salty sea breeze for their occupants. Pawn is chewing wild Betel leafs on her beach chair; enjoying the evening sea. Another worn out beach chair is resting next to her; it has an unlit pipe and a fresh bag of tobacco on it.
Pawn is interrupted by the noisy diesel engine of a small pick-up truck that happens to come to a stop right in front of her porch; conveniently blocking her view of the sea.
“Who the hell are you,” shouts Pawn; spitting out the Betel juice in rage.
“It’s me Billy, remember? Billy the village architect.”
Oh! You son of a bitch! Where have you been all these years,” shouts Pawn as she smiles so that her teeth – soaked in black Betel juice – are being displayed.
“I just got back from Chantaburi, can I spend the night here at the Home Stay lodge?” asks Billy.
“Sure, no one comes here this month anyway. How have you been?”
“Bad. I’m very behind on my schedule. And tomorrow, a huge group of international delegates is coming to visit us from all the developing countries, I still need to prepare our presentation to them,” says Billy.
“You know, I always wonder why they call them ‘developing countries’; what if the people in these countries just don’t want to ‘develop’; what if they just want to live a different lifestyle than those prescribed by their governments?” asks Pawn rhetorically.
“Only you would ask that kind of a question. Not everyone wants to live like you; it’s too much work doing everything yourself, you know. The era of creating a model utopia is over.”
“Yeah, and today the water company didn’t come again. So don’t take long shower OK?” suggests Pawn.
“You guys still don’t have water?” says Billy.
“We have water alright, but it’s their delivery problem. We already pay them you know.”
“How much do you guys pay for your water delivery these days?”
“150 Baht per 2000 liters.”
“A private water company?”
“Didn’t the municipality promise to do the delivery for you guys twice a week?”
“Yes, but it’s not enough. We need drinking water too.”
“That’s a drag. You should go buy some from the Petrochemical plant next door; I’m sure they have running water,” says Billy.
“They’ll never give it to you.”
“Why not? They seem like nice people; they even built you a large recreational park with a soccer field in it. What is it called?”
“HILLSIDE HEALTH PARK.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be for the public?”
“Yeah, yeah….” Pawn gets up slowly from her beach chair; she walks and disappeared into her small room. It is situated within a large open wooden bungalow with the living room and kitchen laid out on the entire front porch; the bedroom is the only fully enclosed space. In front of her bedroom hangs an old black and white photo of her husband and her young daughter. She comes back with both of her hands holding a large battery box.
“It’s getting dark. Let’s hook up the lights,” she advises.
“So, there’s still no electricity here eh?” says Billy.
“Not from the wires. We got our own solar (Photovoltaic) towers to charge our batteries”
“You guys are charging batteries with solar panels?”
“Yes, our co-op charges 10 baht per battery,” says Pawn as she hooks up the battery to some electrical wires which lights up the room.
“But that’s not a very efficient way to use solar PV panels though.”
“To hell with efficiency! That’s what the engineers from the power company always say. But it works for us and the solar energy is free and it doesn’t drench the sea with chemicals,” says Pawn as she glances over the sea. She sighs and a long silence follows.
“What is it?” says Billy
“He’s late again tonight,” says Pawn
“Your man is probably going come back with loads of squids tonight,” says Billy, laughing.
“Probably not. There’s less and less squids these days around the cape. We have to go further and further into the ocean to find our catch. There hardly seem to be anything alive around this area now.”
“Don’t worry too much. Your man is an experience sea man, he’ll be back soon.”
“I hope so. But he’s getting old, and strange things can happen at the sea.”
“He’ll be fine.”
Billy packs up his bags and says good night to Pawn as she fine-tunes the position of the unlit-pipe and the tobacco bag on the old beach chair. Billy heads towards the Home Stay guest lodges next to a small shop. He enters the lodge in the dark because he did not book it in advance, so there is no light or electricity available.
Despite all the dams and power plants built over the years to feed this regional industrial metropolis, there is no electricity for the residents here in this fishing village. Yet, the villagers feel that they can do without it; they take pride in their self-sufficient way of living; they take pride in their solar energy co-op. Years ago the Department of Energy had provided them with free solar photovoltaic towers which served as decentralized battery charging stations in addition to the 3 kW centralize PV station. It was a pilot project in promotion of a self-sufficient lifestyle.
There is even a garbage incinerator which could burn garbage at high efficiency while producing distilled water as one of it’s by product. The water is placed in a heat exchanger tank to keep the temperature of the incinerator under control, and steam is produced as a result. A small oven is seen next to the incinerator, but as Pawn used to say, “We’d only use it when high ranking government officials come to visit.” Teachers from science institutes brought their students to see how the solar panels and the garbage incinerator work; they brought them to see how an entire village could thrive on renewable energy. Every NGO, every professor, and every government bureaucrat had hoped to create this self-sufficient village; they had high hope for the villagers in spite of the fact that this drop of utopia is surrounded by a sea of industrial petrochemical plants.
The night air is as heavy as Billy’s sleep. It would only be a few hours before the morning comes. And morning comes early in this fishing village.
Billy is in deep sleep when the sound of Long Tail boat engines roars simultaneously like a pack of predators about to go on a raid. The fishermen are awake and ready for yet another long day at the sea. They already have their breakfast and coffee at 2:30AM; feed their boat engines at 2:45 AM. And now they will kiss their wives and kids who are usually asleep at this hour of their departure; and who are usually asleep at the hour of their arrival. An old fisherman with three kids once said that his life resembled a bachelor’s life plus the sea. All the bustling activities and noises generated by the male population in this village will last for about half an hour before 3:30 AM; after that time, everything goes back to silence. The night continues as black as the sea. One can only hear screeches of the mechanical clutches and gears from the nearby chemical plant; like a large struggling animal that never goes to sleep.
The roosters start to crow in unison. Thin ray of morning sun shines on the sea-lined bungalows; some of their designs were actually mapped out by Billy and the architects at the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). At that time – about 5 years ago – the villagers receive 20,000 baht grant per household to do improvement to their houses. In addition, CODI also gave them 30,000 baht grant per household for upgrades such walkways and toilet facilities. The villagers built these bungalows by themselves too; cutting down the labor cost. These houses cost about 200,000 baht on the average. Billy and the other architects from CODI were so impressed by their economical design that the housing plans were later copied and used as examples for other communities.
After Billy wakes up, he takes a communal shower with the kids who are readying themselves for school. They usually have breakfast at a small shop next to his lodge; and several of them are already hanging out in their school uniform. Pawn arrives with an empty steel bucket to fetch fresh water.
Billy notices that Pawn’s teenage daughter is not around. “Where is Kaew, the naughty one?” asks Billy.
Pawn remains silent for a few second. “Young people here now go to the city to work,” says Pawn with a trembling voice.
“Which city?” asks Billy in a carefree manner.
She turns her head slightly towards the sea and keeps her silence. Nobody knows for sure which city these younger generation is lurching towards; Pawn is very uneasy about it. But a few Kilometers away is Pattaya, the world famous city of topless bars and five star brothels; its streets are patrolled by Russian Mafiosi in silk suits, whores in black g-strings, and policemen in black pleated pants. Billy let the question rests and moves on to the more immediate subject of breakfast.
He orders two fried eggs from a fat lady who promptly tells him to sit down. Pawn, after seeing the fat lady, excuses herself politely and walks away in a strange manner.
“She seems to be upset with something isn’t she…” observes Billy.
The fat lady makes a slight nod; looking towards the sea and the heaps of garbage that are now piling up along the beach. There is a construction going on near the beach. Large cranes and a construction crew can be seen in their bright orange work suits against the background of white sand. The much praised garbage incinerator and its tall shiny chimney look on helplessly. The garbage belongs to the construction crew and the village’s incinerator is, unfortunately, off-limit to those crew members.
“Where’s Kaew, Pawn’s daughter?” asks Billy again; still curious.
“I don’t know; Pawn never tells nobody nothin’” says the fat lady as she hands Billy his fried eggs.
“Well, maybe her husband might tell us something,” says Billy.
“Pawn’s husband, Nay. You know him right?”
“Yes, but he’s dead long ago. Cancer,” says the fat lady in amazement. “Don’t tell me you saw him last night!”
“No, I didn’t…. No… But I almost did,” says Billy as he shields his eyes from the morning sun and slowly lights his cigarette.