Outside my door in Bangkok rests this ash-stained broom. It has a smiley face burned into the part of the wooden brush that looks up at you while you scrub. I will keep it, because this brush is my own little reminder of what can happen when things fall apart. I bought it yesterday, a few blocks away from the smoking husk that was Central World, which was Bangkok's biggest mall.
To get there, myself, my wife and our friend Patrick Winn walked up Ratchadamri, past Lumphini Park and Chulalongkorn Hospital - places where much of the fighting between the Red Shirts and the Army had erupted only days before. Some trees were burnt the color of toast, shrubbery was torched, and bullet-ridden vehicles were being towed away from the protest area. But the streets were full of lively, smiling people. People with garbage bags and gloves. And amidst all this destruction was suddenly the happiest scene I'd witnessed in weeks. But things started to get worse as we passed the Ratchadamri BTS stop, whose eastern entrance was destroyed.
The smells of this rotten area of Bangkok were pretty intense, and lazy flies - the sort one sees hanging about garbage dumps and grim slums in South Asia - were hovering everywhere. But that didn't dampen the spirit of the thousands of people who headed out to clean up. Soap suds washed down the Ratchadamri, and garbage disappeared into the bags of crowds of cleaners.
When we did reach the intersection where the UDD had built their stage, volunteers were handing out free water and food. Some people wandered about, staring at the gaping hole in Bangkok's biggest retail outlet. Others posed for pictures in front of it. The smell from the twisted pile was, to me, very much like scotch whisky. The air was filled with smells of peat and petrol and wet. But despite all that, people simply needed to smile.
And then we set to work on a truly horrible pile of trash beside a klong (canal), scooping rubbish that had rotted in the weeks since it had started piling there. Insects wriggled out, and maggots shimmied in the sunlight. The women who lived beside the mountain of garbage, on the canal, were too old to move it. Young Thais helped us scoop and carry big bags of the stuff up to the curb. Then we scrubbed streets in the afternoon sun, as the last wisps of smoke rose from the nearby wreckage.
After we finished cleaning that afternoon, we stopped for a beer, exhausted and also grateful to be living in Bangkok again. The spirit of the people on the streets - Thais and foreigners working together for the good of this city - was infectious. And as night fell and Candice and I returned home I thought about all that has happened, and how we will remember this disaster some day. I don't know how I'll feel so many years down the road, but I'll keep my mop to remind me.
I do know how I'll feel about the day that Bangkok came out to clean -- that was the day that I remembered what makes this city great, once again.