The Shoemaker and the Rooster: Rhonda Douglas in Thailand. Canadian Writers Abroad Mini-Interview with Rhonda Douglas
Rhonda Douglas is a poet and writer based (most of the time) in Ottawa, Canada. She published Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems in 2008 with Signature Editions. She is currently completing a new poetry manuscript, For, and writing a set of essays about the work she does in her “other life” as Global Projects Director for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
1. Why did you leave your desk?
I travel for work quite frequently, usually overseas to Asia or Africa. To get some writing done, I will sometimes add on a few days to a trip. In this case, I had meetings in Chiang Rai (northern Thailand) and then went down to Bangkok for a few days to do some research for a non-fiction project.
2. When and where did you go?
I was in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in early February 2013, and then spent a few days in the neighbourhood of Rom Klao, which is about five kilometres from Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport. It’s quite a mixed neighbourhood – new condos going up across from home renovation centres and Honda dealerships, a lovely park with a man-made lake in its centre, juxtaposed with some very poor areas home to people relocated from slums in downtown Bangkok by the municipality several years ago. I was there to visit a sub-contracted shoemaker who glues together shoes for a local factory.
3. What colour or odour did you notice or remember?
The woman I was staying with (Sayan) was completing an order for 700 pairs of sandals. Before they are sewn, the sandal uppers are secured to the sole using industrial-strength glue. I was warned about the pungent scent by my host but since the lower floor of their house was open to the outside, I thought it would be fine. Within seconds of her opening the glue-pot, my eyes were stinging and watering, and within ten minutes I had a throbbing headache. I could manage to keep working for about another thirty minutes before I had to leave to get some fresh air and take some Tylenol. Yet Sayan works with this day in and day out, and has done so for thirty years. I asked her why she doesn’t wear a mask but she said she’s used to it, though she did tease her husband about him being addicted to the glue, claiming that’s why he works such long days. (Lek will often work until 2 or 3 in the morning. He starts work just after 8 a.m.)
4. Did you meet anyone?
I met Sayan and her husband, Lek, who were my hosts in Rom Klao. I was also there with my colleagues from HomeNet Thailand – Poonsap and Da, who shared translation duties and accompanied me in Rom Klao overnight. We met several other home-based workers primarily involved in shoemaking.
5. What was the best and worst part of your sojourn?
I enjoyed meeting Sayan very much. They have a lovely family and were very welcoming. The worst part would have to be the roosters kept outside in bamboo cages, which did not confine their loud crowing to dawn but instead seemed like they were screaming in my ear at regular intervals throughout the night as I tried to sleep. I have never hated an animal so much. Da took me to get fried chicken from a street vendor and I kept wishing we could just fry up that damn rooster and ensure the neighbourhood a good night’s sleep. Of course, everyone else is probably used to it.
6. Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
This visit was part of a non-fiction project highlighting the working lives of informal workers. If people are interested in reading more on that topic, they could visit www.wiego.org or www.inclusivecities.org for more information.