The Slums March to the Sea

It's now 7:34 AM in Songkla.

The sun is emerging from the horizon; hovering just above the old tenement houses.

Billy has just finished his breakfast and coffee at a small inn; getting ready for his “march to the sea” day. It’s the World Habitat Month. Many housing activists and NGOs in countries around the world are trying to raise awareness on the issue of informal settlements – slums – so that the world would know they really exist. There are now over 1 billion people in the slums world-wide; it’s becoming the norm rather than an exception.

In the past, most housing activists, passivists - even the evictionists - have opted for a more conventional approach to raising awareness. Having their various housing directors appeared – for 2 minutes – on the evening news hour was not uncommon. Originally, there were talks about partnering up with a TV comedian during the World Habitat Month, but the good comedian had decided that he could not find anything funny about the slums. So the idea was dropped.

There were also talks of doing a local radio show. But the station said that the show would have to be aired at the 2:30 AM slot because there would be a very important boxing match in the evening. As for afternoon hours, all the radio slots were already filled up with heart-breaking soap operas. So the idea was dropped.

Soon it became clear that the best way to spread this message is to have all the people from the slums of Songkla take to the streets on Saturday morning and do a picketing march from the city center to the sea. Billy doesn’t know who came up with this idea, but after working with CODI for over 5 years, he is not at all surprised.

The plan was to march through the main streets in the city of Songkla with all the picket signs demanding the right to housing. Billy stayed up late last night doing most of the signage graphics. He is not so sure whether he could walk the entire 3 miles up to the sea or not. But he will try to follow Gandiji's example. He grabs his backpack along with his laptop and takes a local bus to the city market near Gu Bor settlement. There, he sees a small crowd of people waiting; some holding the very signs he painted last night.

Billy recognizes several people; aunt Teaw from Bor Wa, the Boatman from Rim Klong canal, and the young doctor from Gu Bor Clinic who’d invited him for a cup of coffee last week. There is a large contingent of kids with drums, cymbals, and trumpets. There is also another contingent of adult marching band; they have their traditional long drums and accordions ready.

About 15 teenage boys and girls – some of which Billy recognized – dressed in colorful traditional Thai custom; they are preparing for the dance parade. A large bus load of people arrives on the scene. They are from the Gao Seng settlement Billy sees Taew's young nephew Fa; she dresses more conservatively this time. In her arms is a young man who he doesn't recognize.

“Hello my brother,” shouts the Boatman from across the street.
“I didn't know you'd wake up in time!”

“Fa jumps on me this morning; waking me up,” says the Boatman's brother.
“And now you’re in her arms! Good for you,” says the Boatman.

Khanita shows up from behind Billy. “Ready? Have you coordinated with Kaze this morning?”

“Yeah, over the breakfast. Everything is ready. We can start the march now,” nods Billy.

Billy walks over to the Boatman across the street and tells him that everything is ready. About 50 people are now loitering around at the market area; waiting to join the march. The organizers thought that more people would show up; but as of now, they will have to work with what they have.

“Pi nong Kraaaaab,” shouts the Boatman in the all too familiar P.A.D. protest style (the province of Songkla is a stronghold of the P.A.D.). We can now hear a loud cheer from the crowd of squatters and passerby alike. “It’s time! Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s now the time. We shall march to the sea and let it be known…..” His last few words are muted by loud cheers and applaud from the crowd. No one hears what he just said, but their spirits seem to. More people from across the street join in. They now have about a hundred people in total.

The marchers start moving slowly at first – like a locomotive. Some teenage girls immediately join the procession as 4 large men pounded their traditional long drums; resurrecting the wild tribal dance parade.

Fa discharges the Boatman’s brother from her arms and forces herself to the front of the parade; dancing seductively to the savage rhythm. The clothes, which a moment ago used to hang like a loose pajama on her body, now wraps tightly around her rear as she spins.

One cannot grasp the extent of the diversity here until the march starts moving; we see squatters in rags walking with their sandals next to government officials in silk suits next to young men and women and a slow moving grandpa with a cane. In is a rather surreal sight.

“Pi Nong Kraaaaaaaaaab,” shouts the Boatman as he passes a group of young teachers getting of a bus. “Come join us; let's come together!” A few more people – though not the teachers – joined in. They now have about 150 marchers on the street. Some newcomers seem to emerge out of nowhere.

Billy holds his breath as the process passes a group of police who seems astounded. Although they are used to seeing the P.A.D. protesters in their yellow shirts; brandishing their nationalist messages in long pickets lines, the police are not used to – and they never in their lives – see hundreds of slum dwellers take to the street with placards which read:

TO REALLY SOLVE THE SLUM PROBLEMS.
A REVOLUTION IS NEEDED!

This is something new to the police; most of whom were born after 1970s when the left-wing students took to the street and later, the jungle. Billy doesn't know who came up with this slogan in the first place; things tend to just happen spontaneously at CODI. But again, he is not surprised.

The procession glides pass the Rim Klong settlement – where the Boatman lives – and there are roughly 150 people waiting to join the march. Some are already wearing wide-brimmed hats; others carry army-style aluminum water canteens with them. They spontaneously merge with the marchers and start dancing and signing along with the rhythm. A few minutes later, they march pass the Gao Seng settlement where a hundred more people merge with them. Every five minutes, they come across one ‘settlement’ after another. And every now and then, a hundred more people join in; merging with the jubilant marchers.

After the first hour of marching and singing across the city, they have gathered over 500 people. By 7:30 AM, they have well over a thousand people in the march. Billy now realizes that the city is full of ‘informal settlements’; that dangerous crime-ridden places their politicians often talked about getting rid of. Only two hours ago, they have a mere 50 people, and now they have over a thousand souls on the march to the sea. Billy feels elated; he feels the sense of joy that every organizer feels when things seem to move with their own will. He feels that lightness one feels when a heavy burden is lifted out of one’s chest. He has just lost his backpack.

Billy is shocked. He turns around searching for it and all he can see are miles of people walking towards him. His heart drops. All his field notes and the $ 1000 laptop are gone – including his national ID card which resides in his wallet. Now without the ID card, he is an illegal; just like the rest of the squatters here around him. He tries to walk back against the crowd, but it is all in vain; they all rush in towards him like a tsunami. Billy face is now soaked with sweat; he feels like he has lost his identity; now without the ID card he might as well be a Cambodian, a Karen, or a Laotian migrant worker.

He starts to feel dizzy and soon finds himself at the edge of road where the procession moves. He doesn’t know why he landed there; it is as if he – after losing speed - has been moved by the crowd to the fringe of the road. Here at the fringe, things seem to move slower at his pace. He can almost go up against the flow of the crowd at the edge of the road. He suddenly thinks of the time when his father used to go fishing with him; and the old man had told him that to go up against the stream, one must move at the edge of the river; hugging the river bank as one goes.

Billy starts moving against the crowd at the edge of the road where the ‘current’ is not so strong – the ‘easy water’ as it has been called by the Boatman. As he moves, he thinks about the people who live at the edge of the society – the artists, writers, college drop-outs, the garage inventors, and the squatters – and how they managed to survive on the slow and ‘easy going’ conditions far from the mainstream current. It seems as if he has just discovered one of the great laws of nature. He feels the pain and freedom of being on the edge; watching the marchers flow against him like a river.

Billy now thinks that he would never ever find his laptop and wallet again. It’s lost forever. The parade starts to feel agonizingly fruitless. The sun is now unbearable. A $1000 laptop and all the information he has in it and his ID card in his wallets are gone. He has little hope of retrieving it. He used to go on a trip to Italy – a rich country – and there, too, he lost his backpack and his entire month saving.

He stands haggardly at the edge of the procession and watches the last marcher passes him by. Now alone, he discovers that the sea lies right in front of him; before his eyes is the entire ocean of water. It’s clear, so clear that he can see the rocks at the bottom of it. Billy takes a deep breath; inhaling the salty ocean air into his lungs. He notices that someone is calling him from behind.

“Hey, curly-hair boy! Is this yours?” ask an old man with a dark look in his eyes.

Billy turns around to see his backpack rests comfortably in the hug of an old man with a wooden cane and an oversized white shirt.

“Hell yeah!” jumps Billy in ecstasy. “Thank you! Thank you so much, grandpa,” says Billy as he hugs the old man in disbelief.

“No problem, young man,” says the old man. “Don’t drop it next time; you might not be so lucky to have us around then.”

Billy watches he old man walks away slowly with his cane; he finally catches up with the rest of the marchers who now gather around large tents waiting for the closing remarks by the organizers.