I was challenged at work the other day about a pair of Havaianas I bought in Thailand. As a family we vacationed in Phuket earlier this year, reliving some of our Asian holiday experiences from when we were based nearby and loved annual beach escapes. We arrived at the resort and were greeted with the usual bright mango cocktails, Star Sports TV channel blaring in the humid, wicker chaired lobby as our rooms and key cards were organized.
Early the next morning, making my way through the hotel past the tree-lined pool, I notice and greet hotel staff standing by trolleys of white towels and starched sheets. There was an odd paste over their cheeks and I wondered if it was some sort of festival paint on their faces? Instead of returning my friendly “Sawasdee Kaa” I was met with cold indifference.
Having lived in Asia for well over a decade—often deep within ethnic communities—my usual go-to is connection with locals, and in the past some hotel staff have become great friends and teachers of language and culture. I am not sure quite what I had struck this time.
I hit the local market, looking for a conversation and a bargain or two, and I’m not disappointed. The transaction time lengthens over conversation, a pile of t-shirts and a rack of Havaianas. Where are these stall vendors from? Are these their children? How is life here in Phuket? The usual icebreakers prelude to a sale. I found the stall vendors are not Thai, but rather from Myanmar, a country that shares its southern borders with Thailand.
The corrugated roof shades us from direct sunlight but has an oven effect below. As sweat trickles down my back, stories start to flow. Some kids mill around, littler ones sitting in colorful plastic walkers, sleeping in suspended slings, fanned by patient mothers or aunties. Life back in Myanmar is not easy, 26% live below the poverty line, but at least it’s not as unbearably hot as it is here. We talk in broken Thai of winter in the mountains of Myanmar. A country crippled by economic policies and political mayhem, and until recently, was blacklisted among backpackers because tourism was built on the backs of forced labor. In 2007, Myanmar was listed alongside Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world, with unemployment at 37%. Life for the Burmese in Phuket abounds with opportunities, squalor and inescapable heat—a welcome relief from the poverty of home. Tourists visiting the market like me are a significant part of their personal economy.
So back to those Havaianas, should I get some? I love all things turquoise and green but this vendor only had rose red with gold. Having conversed with these people I don’t care about the color anymore, but I momentarily wondered where these jandals came from, the only cost $4.50. I shelved my conscience becoming the first sale of the day. I also choose a bunch of colorful bracelets, and the vendor insists that I take a couple extra for free, and sifts through to find the light blue ones among the huge pile. Surely, this is no longer just an economic exchange but a sharing of hearts. I have become a link in her chain, yet not knowing where the chain actually leads, knowing only what I can see and smell and feel right then and there. What a bargain—conversation, relationship and Havaianas.
What I didn’t bargain on was the challenge from my colleagues, and now this question bugs me. Were these flip-flops produced at the expense of someone’s freedom? I still have those Havaianas and they are a good reminder to me of how complex the issue of where cheap products come from; the survival of those selling them; and the part that I need to play.