There’s been a new face hanging around the restaurant for a few days. She is a tiny young girl of about twelve, who looks like a puff of wind would sweep her away. She has a beautiful face and smiles huge crinkly-eyed smiles whenever I pass her.
Being used to the ebb and flow of people around here I don’t think to question who she is for several days. Until it becomes clear she’s sleeping here, at which point Crab explains she is Ooh and Bo’s daughter and she swam here from Burma.
“She what?” I ask, complete incredulity written across my face. Crab re-iterates, “yes she swam here”. Ooh and Bo couldn’t afford to pay the people traffickers who smuggle people over the border from Burma, so she went illegally in a boat with 14 other people.
Crossing the foul straits between Ranong and Thailand, they were chased by the Burmese police, the boat overturned and she had to swim for it. Five people died. This little slip of a girl swam to Thailand, and then presumably with no money, certainly with no Thai language, managed to make her way across the country to the island.
A few weeks later, I am actually in Ranong, Burma, doing the annoying three-monthly visa crossing required on most long term visas. I arrive at the port having mini-bussed across the country, spent hours on the ferry and finally arrived at the hell hole of a port.
The place stinks. The smells of rotten fish, rancid sewage and gasoline hang in the air and choke everyone, along with the sweltering heat. On the dock, hundreds of boats are crammed along the edges of the water, packed in like starving kittens, bobbing at their mother’s teat.
When we clamber into the boat, the clean highway from Thailand cushions us on one side of the river, and on the other side the smoggy jungle hills of Burma, with all their secrets and their deathly struggles, rise into the distance. I look down at the water, which is black, putrid, oily foulness. The stench is almost unbearable, and I have literally never seen water that looks like straight oil. It’s disgusting.
In our wooden longtail boat we chug our way out into the wide water stream that divides the two countries. Belching gasoline, as we pick up speed the air clears a little bit. I cannot believe that this little girl was in this water. Cannot imagine her cheerful eyes and sweet smile racing under cover of darkness across this waterway with the Burmese police on her tail. I cannot begin to contemplate the fear as she lands in the filthy water, or the strength she must have had to swim across the miles of water, and haul herself oil coverd and exhausted from the obnoxious river.
I dread to imagine the life she has come from. Something in her demeanour, something in her eyes speaks to me that she is a victim. Unfortunately in a place like Burma, with no protection, no women’s rights, a war torn, bloody land, just a beautiful little slip of a girl making her way is unlikely not to have encountered hardships. I wonder what she has seen, what those intelligent gentle eyes have borne witness to. What she thinks behind that luminous smile. Of course she just gets on with it: is happy, smiles, enjoys being with her family, is glad to be alive, is glad of the moment she is living and the opportunity to enjoy it.
A few weeks later the girl gathers her things in a plastic bag and swinging it against her leg waves goodbye. She is off to another beach to work in a resort. I hope she is well treated, I hope they are good to her, that someone there will be protecting her, that she wont be abused, violated, exploited or hurt in anyway. She is perfectly happy as she gets on the bike to go, this is her chance, a shot at Thailand, a shot at a good life, work, food, some comfort. She is glad to take it and I pray with all my heart it works out for her as the bike speeds out of the village and up the dusty dirt road.