The other day a friend of mine wrote to me:
“You start walking where you feel most at home… and if I know you a little… I think you make yourself comfortable easily… and for the reason you can immerse yourself in the discomfort, you have perhaps the only need for this discomfort to be real, pure..”
At that point, my thoughts retrace my steps and, like any boomer serene in his role, I try to line up those places, those smells, those sensations, that over time have contributed to making up what I chase: the discomfort. But so are the encounters, the faces, the names, the small/big personal stories, all the same in their purpose and all tremendously different in how they come out of the ‘uncomfortable’ so dear to me. And my Western hypocrisy is significant in this thought… I can get out of discomfort as quickly as I get in.
So many smiles of simple humanity with nothing to ask in return except that that smile be reciprocated. Many more fakes out of an atavistic need for survival. Thieves, thugs, drug addicts and alcoholics. Whores who don’t know they are, with eyes as deep as an abyss. And I – I have learnt – have always been more attracted by the desire to fly than by the fear of falling (quoted).
I had my first encounter with the slum of Khlong Toei – the largest and most central slum in Bangkok – watching some YouTube videos of healthy guys with their caps on backwards and selfie sticks in hand who, without any respect, were composing their Vlogs for the benefit of a generation bulimic to the surface of things. ‘The real Thailand…’ they said, and at the same time, I wondered what the fuck the concept of ‘real’ could mean within a country seen through the eyes of a tourist.
In the heart of Bangkok, Khlong Toei – meaning Pandan Tree Canal – is also known by other names. Over time, locals renamed this place Nakhon Khlong Toey – ‘town of Khlong Toei’ – but also Thawip Khlong Toei – ‘continent of Khlong Toei’. Growing up in a community, it is curious how a human being feels the need to create a form of a nation from a name in which an immense concept is contained, even before seeking a way to survive or grow.
How can I forget the barrio of the nameless, La Boca in Buenos Aires, where during General Videla’s dictatorship, the local community distanced itself from the military junta by self-proclaiming itself Republica Popolar de La Boca? And even today, that area of the metropolis, a refuge for the irregular, the invisible, and the product of a market society, is, in fact, self-managed and distant from the city government.
The city of Khlong Toei took shape in 1950 and today has a population of about 100,000. An average family consists of 10 to 12 people. In the innermost part, the shacks of sheet metal positioned along the old railway house bodies that were once men and women. Now, they are consumed by drugs and alcohol, by the emptiness to hold on to because the monster inside them has already taken everything.
I arrived in Khlong Toei early in the morning to have all the time and light I needed. After an hour and a half on a bus, I got off near the capital’s largest Fresh Market. It is close to the slum, or at least its most modern part, that sure destination for Vloggers with selfie sticks.
There is nothing here I have not already seen elsewhere: same busy ants, same confusion, same filthiness. The language changes, the type of smell changes, the people change – they can’t help it: here people always smile. And what have they got to smile about, I wonder. And this feeling puts a lot of pressure on you. You have to avoid being caught up in the stereotype of the tourist of the ugly. You have to mould your ability to narrate to the willingness of people. Here it is the dimension that arouses awe: everything is so large and so loud. And the tremendously penetrating smell.
There is one thing I always do when I arrive in an ‘uncomfortable’ place: I take a break.
I stop at the corner of a busy crossroads and observe. Letting people see me so I’m no longer a bother to them. At a battered shack, I have a coffee. Even here I have my own rule. The more disgusting the coffee, the more sincere that meeting will be.
I ordered a coffee but didn’t want to see its preparation – what you can’t see can’t hurt you – and it was hard to drink. But it fit its purpose… the lady got me a ‘safe’ ride on a motorbike to the slum, almost three kilometres from the market.
Khlong Toei is too big, and for the respect of the 100,000 stories it contains, it does not deserve a little room given by this note – but there will be time and a way to talk about it.
Instead, what I allow myself to express, due to the time spent here – which was only the first moment of many more to come and which is in addition to the many other ‘uncomfortable’ ones – is that idea of lightness that should hover around in many of the things we do and we are. Loaded with performance anxiety for acceptance, sometimes even just social consent, we tend to lose our sense of depth. This depth allows us to put the pieces together, not to build the road ahead, but to understand the one we have just travelled.
And, for me, it is worth constantly to photography, which is an extremely serious thing that must be taken extremely lightly. That uncomfortable lightness that I love so much.