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Scavengers

  • Written by IndyUK
  • November 23rd, 2005
  • 19 min read


This story is based upon observations of ordinary Thai people going about their daily lives in the Greater Banglamung area.

All of the characters are fictitious and none are modeled on any one specific individual. The intent of the story is to highlight the importance of the mundane work a day activities of good Thai people that are contributing to the Thai economy and the preservation of out environment.

Introduction

Scavenging is a vital activity in Thailand both environmentally and economically. From a business point of view it reaches down through its intricate financial structures to touch every man woman and child, whether they are Thai or Farang. Whether irritated or grateful for the apparent ‘drop-outs’ sifting through your dustbin time and time again through each day, you need to know that he is an intrinsic part of your life in ways that you may not have imagined. Further more he or she are self employed business people with the same hope and dreams that you have. Maybe you will be amazed to hear that scavenging is a billion dollar business in our lovely Thailand, a business that sustains ten of thousands of Thai people and saves you the householder a great deal of money.

Gaiert

Gaiert swum the Mekong River many years ago, abandoning his frugal life in Lao for that of an illegal immigrant with real prospects in Thailand. These days Gaiert is a scavenger. His days are spent peering into the dustbins of every household in every village within one hour of his home. That is to say within an hours ride on his motorbike and sidecar. Gaiert’s ageing Honda is the bane of his life, but he carries on regardless. He simply is not good enough at scavenging to buy a new motorbike. This is the extent of his value to the community. Scavenging! They say it’s a noble vocation. The likes of Gaiert segregate the community’s refuse to an extent that could not be achieved in the west, no matter how heavy the local authorities made the fines or threats, to try and get householders to do it!.

Like many of Thailand’s scavengers, Gaiert specializes. He specializes in anything made of metal. He never ‘picks’ plastic bottles because he can’t cope with the volume in his sidecar. Scavenging is a very competitive business. That is why recycling is so cheap in Thailand. If a scavenger specializes, as many of the successful ones do, he, or she (there are many women scavengers too), has to know the time of day to scavenge. Those that specialize in scavenging plastic bottles can do so just about anytime of day. That is because there’s no inherent schedule for throwing empty milk and water bottles into a dustbin. Those that specialize in glass, generally do better if they complete their rounds in the early morning to cop the beer, wine or spirit bottles thrown out after the previous nights boozing. Some specialize in scavenging broken gadgets, cameras, toys, vacuum cleaners and the like. These are the ‘specialist’s par excellent’. Back at their place they repair the gadgets that comprise their booty to sell as second hand items in working order. There is always the exception. “The ‘Locusts”, or at least that’s what the other scavenger’s call them. They’re Gao and Skid, a couple that work together and they are ‘non specialists’ with a twist that makes them ‘Non Specialists Superior’.

Gaiert’s metal scavenging does not require the skill of the gadget scavengers, or the entrepreneurial nature of the ‘Locusts’, which is just as well because he doesn’t have any real skill, or an entrepreneurial spirit; he simply trades his collected metal for scrap. It took him years of experience to know when the best time to scavenge is. He found that it’s early afternoon, because that is when householders are most likely to chuck out the stuff that they decided to discard; after a long argumentative morning with the family, during clear out time. Early evening is a good time too, after local builders have left for the day. Because that is when many builders’ rubbish heaps are left invitingly on the pavement.

Gaiert respects the other specialists and they respect him. None is ever always in the right place at the right time. That’s what competition does; it constantly refines the habits of the lowliest of professionals. Gaiert hates the scavengers that don’t specialize. They’re unpredictable. They scavenge at any time of the day or night. The sods will take anything, whether they understand its value or not.

Skid & Gao – Non Specialists Superior

For all on Gaiert’s patch, except for the ‘Locusts’, scavenging is a solitary business. Gao had met Skid when he was scavenging her mother’s dustbin. She was fourteen at the time. She had seen Skid so many times as he rode about the town; he’d always lift up his balaclava to reveal a huge grin on his face every time he saw her. Gao had found herself watching out for him every day as she walked to school. If she saw him with his huge grin it would lift her spirits; her school day would flash by as she day-dreamed of him. Today was special, she stood so close that she could reach out and touch him, if only she dared to. As Skid rummaged the bin he was acutely aware of her presence and the fragrance of her freshly washed uniform. To Skid her countenance conveyed innocence, sincerity and compassion. Gao is nubile, light skinned and simply exquisitely beautiful. The disturbance in Skid’s stomach made the virile young man wither. His butterflies would not wane. He mustered all of his courage and stood up. Skid is tall. Much taller than Gao, now trembling as he loomed over her. Skid took off his balaclava and looked down into her face, such a pretty face. Gao mouthed; ‘Hello’, but the word didn’t come out, it stuck in her dry throat as her thrill triggered a rise in her adrenaline and estrogen levels. Her lips filled with blood, red, full and inviting, her face flushed as her body exuded the pheromones that were engulfing Skid, so powerful was his presence in her space. Gao swooned, Skid caught her before she hit the ground, in moments she recovered and found herself in his strong arms. He was looking into her eyes, smile gone, now concerned, neither fully understanding what was happening to them. He is so handsome, so compassionate and so beautiful that Gao was quite overwhelmed. Skid had never held a girl in his arms before; he’d always been absorbed with his passion for football and his daily struggle to earn enough money from his scavenging to support his father, mother and baby brother. At nineteen Skid’s maturity was ready for other things and he was in the process of finding out what they were. Gao’s mum appeared at the door, saw her daughter in Skid’s arms and cried out; ‘Leave my daughter alone!’ Gao stood up, heart pounding and confused. Her mother could see the tenderness of Skid’s expression and sense the passion welling up in her daughter. She knew in that instant that she would loose her only daughter, to a scavenger. Now that Gao knew the approximate time that Skid sorts through her mother’s bin she would be outside, in her school uniform, waiting for him every day. One Saturday morning Skid invited Gao to join him on the rest of his round. Gao spent the rest of the day blissfully happy helping Skid rummage through dustbins and standing, watching patiently as he tinkered with the carburetor each time his 350 cc Matchless stalled.

Skid had found the Matchless abandoned when he was just sixteen. He pushed it home, and together with his father, stripped it down and got it running. Dad told him that it was an English motorcycle. He knew because he’d seen one before when conscripted in the labor force that was working on the Burma railway during the Second World War. One of the Japanese guards had one. The guard said that it was a dispatch rider’s motorbike and that he’d shot the young English soldier that had been riding it himself. The motorbike still bore a faded insignia of a black cat on red background with a silhouette of a sword running the length of the cat’s spine, (Or, as it was affectionately known by the signalers, ‘the black cat with a sword up its ass’). This regimental badge is the insignia of the famous ‘Fifty-sixth City of London Signals Regiment’ that specialized in ‘resistance signals’ during WWII, though the modern name for such activity is ‘covert communications’.

Over the next few weeks Skid and his dad fabricated a side car from angle iron and steel tube. Then they modified the Matchless to accommodate it. The side car was almost as big a single bed and decked with marine ply. He painted the motorbike and the side-car bright green. Skid equipped his side car with eight large bins and put himself to work scavenging. Now Skid could put his big idea to the test. He wouldn’t specialize. He’d not put himself at the mercy of a single buyer for his day’s scavenge. Bin number one for clear glass spirit bottles sort after by the motor-sai taxi stand dispatchers for the sales of petrol and two stroke mix. Bin two for miscellaneous glass bottles and jars, for the old lady in the village that will bottle anything for you from pickles to perfume. Bin three for five liter drinking water bottles, always in demand around the moobaans, Bin four for all other plastic bottles, bin five for discarded toys, bin six for discarded appliances, bin seven for plastic bags that he could sell to market traders, and bin eight for cloth and clothing. And so it was that Skid became the most successful scavenger in the area. He’d not sell exclusively to factors or the Ampoe (local Authority). Skid sells to middlemen and end users.

Gao was to continue scavenging with Skid every weekend until at last she was sixteen when at last her mother let her leave school. There after Gao was a scavenger too. She and Skid were so happy scavenging together through the long hot days. When Gao was seventeen she and Skid applied to the Ampoe for exceptional permission for her to marry before she was eighteen. They were almost rejected because Gao was not pregnant, which is what the legislation means by ‘permission to marry in exceptional circumstances’. Skid argued their case strenuously, pointing out that the couple had been celibate because of their upbringing and their love for each other and that they didn’t want to have a baby until they had saved enough to have their own house. At last they had permission and married right away. By now the couple were well known and liked by the householders on their scavenging round. Many ladies would come out a greet them, offering an item held back from their bin. They always new Skid was coming from the distinctive sound of the engine of his old Matchless motorbike. Sometimes it would just be a bottle, washed and shiny, such would be a rare find in a dustbin, other times a toy or an unwanted appliance. In this way Skid and Gao had access to pickings that other scavengers would never see. The fact was they this loving couple was liked by all who had warmed to their love story, and that is just about every Thai Lady that had witnessed the couples romance, loyalty and hard work together. And so it was that the specialist scavengers in the area came to respect the couple too. To this day Skid and Gao go out clean and dressed in freshly washed clothes. Skid’s one concession to his dirty work is the wearing of his new balaclava, made by Gao from odds and ends of wool, it has all the colors of the rainbow and more, adding to all of the other factors that make him stand out from the rest. By now other scavengers would buy from Skid, even Gaiert was happy to take scrap metal off Skid’s hands. Back home in the evening Skid takes his broken toys and appliances to the local gadget specialist. They have an agreement, gadget man will repair and sell what Skid acquires and split the proceeds fifty-fifty.

The Motor-sai taxi dispatcher

The contents of are bin number one to are sold to Tan the motor-sai taxi dispatcher. Tan can use all of the one liter clear glass bottles he can lay his hands on, he pays Skid five baht a piece for them. Tan decants petrol or two stroke mix into each bottle and sells it to the taxi boys in his charge for thirty baht a bottle and to passing farang on their motor-sai, oh my! Tan loves farang, he sells to them at forty baht per liter bottle, which are two only thirds full. At today’s pump prices that is sixteen baht worth of petrol, a five baht bottle and twenty baht for Tan’s profit and loss account! In the late evening he is selling two stoke mix to bar girls on their way home after a farang free night in a deserted bar, so back to thirty baht a bottle. By dawn he’s back selling at forty baht to the girls coming home smelling of money and farang. Tan also sells on any surplus empty bottles to other taxi stand dispatchers.

Porn – The Honey seller.

Occasionally Porn the honey seller will buy a few dozen of Skid’s bottles. Back home she fills them with corn syrup and a smidgeon of honey. On market days she arranges the bottles in her baskets with a couple of pieces of ageing honey comb and sells the ‘Honey’ to unsuspecting farang. She usually asks for two hundred baht for each bottle of ‘Honey’. Some farang pay her asking, others knock her down mercilessly to one hundred baht. Porn still walks away grinning, after all the bottle cost her five baht and its contents are barely worth thirty baht.That’s sixty-five percent profit. The stories that Porn has long cherished, tell of her traveling up country between market days, walking the bush for hours on end looking for wild bee’s nests, and harvesting the honey. Porn’s reality is a squat on a vacant lot. Each week she buys a five gallon drum of corn syrup and a dozen jars of honey. Oh and of course, forty-eight clear glass bottles. At the weekend Porn lights a fire beneath a ten gallon drum, adds two liters of water and waits for it to boil. While the water is boiling she slowly adds the contents of her precious shop bought honey, stirring frantically until the liquid returns to the boil whereat she adds the five gallons of corn syrup, again stirring frantically until it boils too. Next her fire is allowed to burn back to hot coals, with no additional fuel added. The ‘honey’, now six gallons in volume bubbles away for hours, effectively pasteurizing the brew, though this is not Porn’s understanding or intent. Her desire is to see that the corn syrup has thickened enough to pass for virgin honey. Sunday morning Porn is up early, she is carefully grinding up some nice black charcoal from her spent fire. The particles have to be just the right size, and mustn’t be too symmetrical. When Porn is satisfied she sprinkles some of the particles of charcoal on the surface of the now cool ‘honey’. The particles have a whole day and night to sink and find their own level in suspension in the sticky liquid. The charcoal had to be added after cooling otherwise it would all have sunk to the bottom. This process was the last step in giving the sham liquid the appearance of a roughly gathered wild honey. From Monday to Friday Porn is up early every day decanting her sham ‘honey into bottles. Each day she visits a different market in the Banglamung, selling the ‘precious’ liquid. Any day, at one market or another you might see Porn, her yoke bending under the strain of her backbreaking load of bottles of ‘honey’. She is bent from mid spine; her matted coat covers the many layers of her clothing. Porn’s chestnut brown face will beam out at you revealing her broken and beetle nut blackened teeth. You’ll real back as the vapor of Mekong Whisky travels toward you on her every breath. As she sits at your feet, as a pup missing its mother, not willing to leave, you may well buy a bottle of her honey. Fear not, it has been boiled for at least an hour so it’ll likely not infect you and the particles of charcoal in it are actually good for your digestion. If Porn succeeds in selling her whole weekend’s production at an average price of one hundred baht per bottle, she clears three thousand baht in the week. It’s no wonder that she loves farang.


Pel – Rag Trade entrepreneur

Pel buys all of the clothing that Skid, or any of his competitors can scavenge. She buys these rags by the kilogram and bargains furiously over the price. With luck she can get the price down to two or three baht per kilo. Sometimes a scavenger will hold up a prized item, like a pretty dress or a nice coat and argue the toss saying this one is worth twenty-five baht on its own. Pel never wavers, she just reminds them that if they want her to take everything off their hands every week then they must accept her valuations or go elsewhere. The scavengers always give in because they know that a sure sale of every rag they collect is good business sense. Most weeks Skid walks away with two hundred baht for his rags.

Pel takes her purchases back to her mothers shop house, where she sorts all the clothes and rags by material type. Next she sorts each material pile into salvageable clothes and those that have frankly had it. Pel bales up the spoilages and then she calls the rag merchant to come and value them. Long before the merchant arrives Pel has weighed and valued the bales herself, based on her experience. She has been doing this for years. Her European husband comes down, parted from his booze by his determination to argue with her yet one more time. Why on earth does he do it. He always looses the argument and walks away so angry that he consumes even more booze. At thirty-five Pel is still very comely. She knows that her farang has long since lost interest in her, or anything else for that matter. Pel is unusually tall for a Thai lady and as a result gets rude remarks from farang holiday makers too. Somehow one can’t help liking her. She is very shrewd and yet agreeable, or so it seems, until you realize that she can see right through you. She doesn’t like farang and they don’t seem to like her.

The rag merchant arrives, eyes the bale of cotton rags covetously only to receive Pel’s sharp rebuke, ‘You take the lot or nothing!’ He shrugs his shoulders and offers two baht a kilo “for the lot”. Pel laughs and says, ‘OK 10 baht a kilo for the cotton bale and two baht a kilo for the rest’. OK, OK. He does the deal. He knows Pel knows her stuff and that there is no pussy footing around with her. The merchant gets his driver to load up hands Pel two-hundred and fifty baht, which is exactly what Pel had calculated as the worth of the bales before he arrived, and leaves. And so it has been every week for the past twenty years, for Pel was just sixteen when she started the business.

Now Pel has to get down to the real work. She moves to the pile of Denim items first. She has already recovered all of her costs with the sale of the bales to the rag man, now she is looking for profits. There is always the possibility that their will be a pair of Levi jeans, or perhaps a jacket from Wrangler, either of which will sell within minutes when she opens up at Buakao market on Tuesday. Within the hour she has sorted each material type into garment type, tops, skirts, shirts, trousers and jackets. As she goes she throws all of the toddler’s clothes to one side. As she goes she pins a little note to everything that needs a repair. Saying run up seem, stitch pocket, or replace facings. The clothes are then passed to the sewing ladies that work along the soi and the whole lot is usually repaired by the next day and shipped back across the road to the laundry.

On Tuesday you can find Pell on Buakao Market, South side of the soi right in the middle. You can see her over there sitting with a huge pile of clothes to her left and clothes scattered all around her on the ground. Her customers are sitting on the ground with her too, they sit there sorting over the clothes chatting away to each other and to Pel, ten to the dozen all the time. They are all having a great time these mums and kids and their Pell. The kids are trying stuff on, mums are shaking their head and laughing and Pel is smiling all the way to the bank. For today at last she has enough to start again, the last couple of thousand baht that she needed for the final payment on her new shop house in Chang Mai. She will never have to see that booze sodden farang again. As she left Buakao market that night she said nothing to anyone. She will miss all of these lovely people and they will miss her too. They will understand, they’ve seen the black eyes, the bruises on her arm and the cuts on her lips over years. As for the farang, with luck he’ll walk out on Sukumvit Road full of booze one night, right in front of a forty ton truck.

One just has to love these Thai people

Stickman's thoughts:

Wow, IndyUK is getting more prolific – the next Dana, perhaps?!