On my short cycle ride into work, on a rickety fixed gear banana-bike built for schoolkids, each morning I pass by a fisherman.
Most days he’s here, fishing the same small bend in the river. It’s not a big river – 10 metres wide at most. Below the bend it has a little dam, so there’s a deeper bit – but mostly you could probably wade across in a few seconds.
On the far side of the river lies the international school, private estate and cultural centre, in which I’m ‘in residence’. On the near side is the relaxed little family-run guesthouse and café where I’m actually staying.
In between them, in sight of both, the fisherman arrives on an ancient motorbike, with a flat-bed sidecar attached for his rowing boat and his nets. He’s using nets, not a rod and line, so I guess he’s setting and then checking them in rotation, through most of the day. He looks fierce, in his 60s, longer haired than most men here, with shorts on, flip flops and a very battered old khaki American flag hat that make him look a bit like an aged Vietnam veteran in a film.
We’re on nodding terms now but I can’t ever imagine stopping to ask him about his life. He’s the real deal and I’m a coward. So I have no idea.
I have no idea how his fishing life works. Here, he may be living in absolute poverty; relying entirely on this catch and other foraged food to survive. Or he may be several steps away from that; catching his fish to sell or swap in the village; for all I know his catch is valuable and like a truffle hunter he sells it at a big premium to the snotty spa resorts. Or, I suppose, despite appearances, he could just be doing what he enjoys; a retired man with a hobby. I kind of wish that last one were the case: quite apart from being a nicer life for him, it’d be a neat counter-intuitive snub to my – urgh! – western presumption.
At a bend in the road roughly parallel to his spot on the river, a tiny beautiful thing occurs every time I pass by: there’s a long sweet moment when I cycle through the aroma of wild Thai basil, naturally present in the air. Light but rich. Aniseed-ish. There must be a decent-sized patch nearby. And I keep thinking to myself, in that appalling fantastical way only wealthy white people have space for: “Aha, a good piece of fish and some of that Thai basil and I reckon you’re absolutely sorted.”
In this exact same corner of the world, here are some of the very most – and very least – privileged people I’ve met in my life, rubbing along adjacent. They make my cosy European notions of achievable equality, or improving ‘social mobility’ (and notions of ‘revolution’ for that matter) feel ludicrous.
Less than 200 metres away from the fisherman, a small child plays PS4 for hours, alone in a boarding house. The child of absent millionaires. Both child and fisherman nod and smile to me. Both child and fisherman stand in sincere reverent silence if they hear this country’s national anthem played over a PA system.
When I think about how embedded our hierarchies are, how unbalanced our human civilisation is, with opportunity and outcome having zero connection to merit or labour, I need to remember this means actual lives, either way: set in stone, or cast adrift.