Chapter 3: Chang Rai
The truck that drove us to Chiang Rai came thirty minutes after I was introduced to the other girls. It had a rusty grey color and its engine sounded like it had worked far better, decades ago. There was only a man in it – the driver – and he seemed to be very familiar with Tuya and her group. Immediately he parked the car close to the cart and switched off the engine, he stepped down, waved curtly at Tuya and pointed to the barrels in the cart.
“How many?” He asked.
“Twelve.” Tuya replied him.
The driver didn’t seem pleased. He stared at the cart as if he was counting the barrels in his head and frowned. “Not exactly what he expects.” He hissed.
“Well, you can tell Chuluun that as usual, sometimes, he gets more and sometimes, less.” Tuya hissed back.
The driver opened his mouth to say something but seemed to think twice about it. After hissing again, his eyes left the cart and turned to us.
“You picked up strays again?” He asked. “How many this time? Same number as the barrels? By the end of the year, how many would still be….”
“You watch your mouth.” Tuya groaned, giving him a freezing glare.
The driver let his eyes linger for long at all ten of us before he hissed for the umpteenth time and pointed to his truck.
“Get them all in then; the barrel first. It’s going to be a long journey after all and the earlier we start, the earlier we leave this shit hole of a dessert.”
Their odd discussion seemed to end abruptly at that moment. Tuya nodded at Xanadu and Hulagu who quickly rushed to the cart and began to move the barrels.
“Chop chop!” The driver urged.
It took less than five minutes for the barrel to be fully loaded. Eventually, Tuya turned to us and asked us to climb atop the truck and squeeze ourselves in with the barrels.
“It is the only means of transportation we have got.” She muttered kindly. “We will soon get home where you all will get to have a normal life back. You can find your way back home too.”
The fact that Tuya spoke nicely and mentioned the possibility of living a happy life (or returning home) made lots of us eager to jump into the truck. We naturally trusted her and despite the weird business going on with the barrels, I also got into the truck with the girls and settled beside the girl that had smiled at me earlier.
“Hi.” She whispered, smiling at me once again.
“Hi.” I whispered back, a genuine smile plastered on my face.
We said nothing else, our gazes settling on Xanadu and Hulagu who checked to see that the iron fastening of the truck doors were in place.
“All done.” Hulagu told Tuya.
“Oh good. Now we go.” The driver said beside her.
“Not so fast.” Tuya said.
She made a facial gesture that got Xanadu and Hulagu to step away with her immediately. They spoke in hushed tones and a few seconds later, it seemed as if an argument had broken out. Hulagu kept pointing to the truck. He shook his head too and seldom pointed to his brother, Xanadu. Eventually, Tuya groaned at each man and silenced them. We all could only watch from the truck as Hulagu eventually nodded and began to walk towards the cart.
“Now, we go.” Tuya said, walking back towards the truck with only Xanadu.
“What about the other man? Isn’t he coming with us?” I expected someone to ask, but no one did. The driver simply hurried into the truck, Tuya and Xanadu settling beside him, and roared the engine alive.
“Get this thing on the road fast.” I heard Tuya said as the truck began a slow dive down the dessert road. “I want nothing more than a hot bath as soon as I get to Chiang Rai.”
We all do, I thought to myself.
Chiang Rai was a capital city in the Chiang Rai Province in Thailand. It was a large city that had caves, lots of Buddhist temple, streets with free cultural performances and display of crafts, and countless restaurants.
At least, these were the few things that I noticed about the city as we drove in. We had been on the road nonstop for two days. The only time we ever stopped was for gas refill for the truck and for us to ease ourselves. Tuya passed food for us to share amidst ourselves during each time that the truck stopped. She also got us water from the gas station and told us to manage whatever we have got since the journey was still long.
While we kept moving, passing along various hills, more dessert land and grasslands, I finally got to know the names of a few of the girls. The girl that had smiled at me earlier told me her name was Cyril. Her Mongolian father had married a European woman who had died at childbirth. In his wife’s memory, he had given her name to their daughter. Cyril spoke little English and stuttered a little. She was slim and beautiful too. I couldn’t help but notice her good set of teeth, hazel eyes, long eyelashes and wavy black hair.
There was also Taban, Qara and Sarnai. They were the three girls I had noticed earlier with worn out dresses. Cyril had told me about them in hushed tones, expressing how weird she felt with the way they stared at the floor all the time. According to her, it meant that they had something to hide and I had a hard time convincing her that it meant that they were afraid or shy instead.
“Those you should be more concerned about are those four.” I told her, referring to the rest of the girls who seemed older than the rest of us. Two of them stared briefly at us and nudged their noses rudely.
“Them?” Cyril had asked, seeming surprised.
“Yes.” I insisted. “They stare all the time and seem not to like me.”
I had to refrain from mentioning that they didn’t look like they liked Tuya too. I appreciated that I held that back though, especially when Cyril sighed and explained that the older girls had been with Tuya more than the rest of us had.
“Tuya found me close to where you were found.” Cyril told me. “She had been traveling almost six days with them before then. She promised that she was going to take them somewhere safe and take care of them. I think they adore her instead.”
I wanted to argue but Cyril quickly added, “What they don’t like would be us- the rest of us that were found after they were. We reduce the chance of them ever getting everything they were promised.”
I thought about the truth in Cyril’s words the rest of the journey. What I also thought about was how odd that we were all girls. Didn’t Tuya come across any male child to rescue? What was the real possibility that everyone was found coincidentally? Could Tuya really offer everything she promised each one of us?
Each time I thought about discussing this with Cyril, I get discouraged, especially since I suspect that Cyril adored Tuya too. I was also uncertain that I wasn’t just afraid because of everything I had been through. I still couldn’t sleep without having nightmares. I always fell deep into a dark hole in them. Sometimes, I had flashes of images – of Mother and Father becoming old, fragile and sad because I was gone forever.
Whenever I woke up, Cyril would be beside me, her fingers clutching mine. She had nightmares too. I had heard her groan in the middle of the night too and had to snuggle close to her, so we could cuddle and lay still. Eventually, we learnt to hold hands whenever we were concerned about anything and didn’t want to talk about it.
After two days of riding through harsh sunny weather during the day and freezing cold during the night, we eventually arrived at Chiang Rai. The city was bordered by ranges in the north and another one in the south. We drove over a large river before heading into the town – the scene before us already exciting a few of us.
We noticed the busy lifestyle, the trade on the streets and the way children played at the entrances of various temples. Instead of stopping within the city though, the truck kept moving until we were at another part of the city with less houses, a few hills and vast plain lands.
“We are stopping.” Cyril whispered, having been anxious since the moment we arrived in the city.
The truck did stop. Glancing around, I noticed that we were on a land like the steep my parents and I lived in Mongolia. It was quiet, compared to the buzzing city center we had left behind. There weren’t many houses around too and the house in front of the truck was an old-looking shed with tinted window glasses, wooden pillars and a small porch.
Xanadu stepped out of the truck to help us with the iron doors. While we hurry down, Tuya spoke with the driver quietly and didn’t attend to us until she was done. The driver nodded curtly, stepped into the truck and drove off, faster than we arrived. He left with the barrels too.
“Here.” Tuya persuaded us towards the house as the truck raced into the city center. “The house is a small one but there are five rooms, enough to house you all.” She explained as we stepped onto the porch. “Xanadu will show you all to the rooms while I get some things sorted out somewhere else.”
“What about my parents, Tuya?” One of the older girls suddenly asked as Tuya made a move to step away from us.
“Oh, but you have only been here a few minutes.” Tuya grinned. “We will find them as soon as possible. They should be in the city as I have told you earlier.”
The older girl nodded and managed to smile briefly. Whatever agreement she had had with Tuya, she had expected that it would be carried out immediately she got to Chiang Rai. It didn’t seem like it would happen anytime soon either. The part about her parents being in the city also confused me.
Tuya left us alone eventually, Xanadu leading us into the house. The house was empty except for a few chairs and table which seemed dusty as if they hadn’t been used in weeks. We were led towards the small hall with the four rooms.
“Four in a room.” Xanadu instructed. “Tuya stays in the first room while the rest are for customers.”
Immediately, the girls began to divide themselves into groups while I singly wondered about the word, customers. Perhaps, people came around for the oil barrels, I told myself. I didn’t have time to think much thought. A few seconds later, I noticed everyone else was staring at me.
“You would have to make it five in a room then. Tuya wasn’t planning for a ninth girl I think.” Xanadu said when I stared back at him questioningly.
It took me a second to realize that the girls were now in a set of two. The four older girls had chosen to stay together while Cyril, Taban, Qara and Sarnai had also hurdled together as a group.
“Well?” Xanadu asked as if he had asked a question earlier.
“She will join us.” I heard Cyril say.
Short of words and still finding everything disorienting, I nodded and stepped towards the group of girls I had come to know a little throughout the journey. Cyril smiled at me and held my hand.
“Into the rooms.” Xanadu told us all, both hands pointing to doors at opposite sides of the hall. “Water would be prepared soon for your refreshment. There are new clothes in the rooms too. You all need to be all washed up and dressed before nightfall. Tuya would be back then with friends.”
Something was off, I kept telling myself. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but I could sense danger in my gut. In the past week that I had been taken from home, I had escaped from my own captors. I had grown. I could sense danger now, but all were the same with how I could prevent them.
It was worse now anyway. I was an eight-year-old child; an expatriate without a single idea about the city I had found myself and the path that led back to the home I left behind.
All five of us stepped into our room for the first time, welcoming the arid smell of decay and slaving future.
We totally didn’t expect that our lives were about to take a new drastic turn.