Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fraternize With The Prisoners? Go Right Ahead.

Walking back to my room from a 7-Eleven a few months ago I heard what sounded like short bursts of rhythmic chanting on the streets of Bangkok.  Supposing at the time that it might have been another group of students or kids doing some form of fundraising I made a slight detour and went over to where I could see them better. There weren't any signs, balloons or anything like what the Pantip cheerleaders were using, so I was still a little puzzled until I could actually see them and saw that they were hard at work.

Now, we've covered the concept of sanuk before; the Thai philosophy that if there isn't some fun to be found in doing something it isn't worth doing, and how camaraderie can pull people together in even more trying times, but this was a Gold Star example of thamngan sanuk (finding enjoyment in your work), so I thought it worth sharing with you.

It felt a little too warm to me to be wearing the garb they had on, but I figured it was a case of a) being acclimatized and/or b) protecting themselves from the harsh rays of the noonday sun. I'd guess the group was about 20 in all.

They were doing an unpleasant and difficult job - cleaning the muck out of the storm drains below the sidewalk, and doing it essentially by hand; dragging a bucket on a rope along multiple long lengths of pipe.  The "chanting" I thought I'd heard was their call-and-response while they did the heave ho, led by one of their own, sounding a little like a coxswain on a rowing team's boat.

It looked to be pretty demanding work in the heat and traffic-fueled smoggy air, even though there were breaks of several minutes between each length of pipe cleared. Nevertheless, they smiled and joked before, during and after; cheering or jeering the others pulling along with them.

I finished off a bottle of water while I walked along the sidewalk beside the work party, pantomiming taking pictures with them and taking them with the camera when they gave me an "OK" sign of one form or another.

As they worked their way past a cart where the vendor squeezes oranges to fill small plastic bottles of juice to sell I bought about 12 of them and took them over to the group of guys when they next sat down to rest between sessions.  They were surprised, but pleased. The bottles began to go quickly.

It was then that I noticed a man in a nicely pressed uniform walking towards me, with a patch sewn on the chest of it.  Most of the wording was in Thai, but there was one word in English: PRISON. Concerned that I'd perhaps overstepped a boundary my mind scrambled hurriedly for an explanation as he approached, but he smiled and reached out for one of the bottles of juice, I gave him one, and my heartbeat returned to normal.

I nodded towards the workers and asked him a one word question - "Prisoners?" - and he nodded, popping the top off of the juice and taking a long pull off of the bottle, downing half of it. These were trustees, he said, allowed out on work detail because they were deemed to be inmates with a low flight risk, but I wondered what they got in exchange for what was essentially slave labor other than being out of the prison for a while.  I didn't think to ask him that, so I still don't have an answer.

While a few of them gathered up the ropes, buckets and tools to load into a cart one would pull off down the street I motioned for the guys who'd by now finished their juice to gather together for a group shot.  That's the photo below.  More tomorrow on the actual work they were doing - and some video clips.

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