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Down the drain – Mining Bangkok's alluvials

Boy looking for rubies in drainA Thai boy searches the drains of Bo Rai town in the quest for rubies. (Photo: Olivier Galibert)

For much of Asia's population, life is a constant battle for survival. But few have it tougher than those Bangkok residents whose job it is to climb down into sewers and drains and cleanse them of society's offal and castaways.

Work begins at dawn, with the removal of the first grating. Down someone goes, a blackened rope the only lifeline to the world above. Even at street level, the stench makes one wince. But he is beyond smell, beyond light. Slowly he moles into the dark, tugging the rope. Eventually, the charcoal form slowly emerges from another drain a few paces away. One hand still clutches the rope, but the other's fingers wrap even more tightly around a different buoy – a small bag of debris collected along the way. He has been mining the city's alluvials and, like those upcountry, the heavies are the most valuable.

So it goes, until the sun's last rays force their way into Bangkok's acetylene sunset. Then the day's production is laid out on a soiled blanket. A few swipes with a blackened toothbrush bring forth life, luster. Here a fragment of silver, there a bit of gold and, if it has been a particularly good day, a scrap of jewelry.

Passersby bend down to examine the finds. One pays particular attention to a silver coin. With the toothbrush, he slowly works away the years of grime and, as he does so, his mind's eye slowly smiles. It is a rare coin from the colonial days, much sought-after by local collectors. Quickly mixing it into a pile of common coins, the haggling begins. They finally settle on 900 baht – about $36.

No matter how low the drain cleaner's caste, in the end, he manages some dignity. That, and a few more baht, a bit of sweet relief, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, until the next day's descent. As the customer walks away, the drain cleaner also smiles inside. He thinks he'll get a few more of those coins from that Chinatown workshop where they are made. They seem to be popular.

Taken from Ruby & Sapphire by Richard W. Hughes

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