It’s a country of coastlines, religious festivals and tea plantations. Formerly Ceylon, Sri Lanka is home to some 21 million people - Buddhists, Hindus, Tamils, Sinhalese alike - who rock a lion on their national flag, love spicy curry, and (despite the huge popularity of cricket) boast volleyball as their national sport.
Day two of our week-long journey filming Word Travels in Sri Lanka, finds me travelling from the urban sprawl of Colombo to the green rice paddies of the Sri Lankan countryside.
From the Freon comfort of an air-conditioned bus, I watch local life speed past.
Children skip to school in crisp white uniforms. Women work among vipers in sugar cane plantations. Men dig around in the muck, searching for unpolished gemstones. In the Ratnapura region, there are plenty of mining pits like this one, hand-dug by teams of workers on the hunt for precious stones.
Sri Lanka is otherwise known as “the island of gems.” It has a long history of gem-mining and trading, dating back some 2,000 years.
“This is of the best places in the world to buy sapphires,” our guide tells our film crew. Who knew? I’ve heard of Colombia for its emeralds; Philippines for its pearls, but I had no idea that this tiny South Asian country was big into the jewellery scene.
Curious, I ask if we can stop to actually check out the mines. I hop out of the bus and descend upon the crew of nine, cameras and questions blazing.
While this is a story that wasn’t prominently featured in the final Sri Lanka episode, I found it very interesting. Since we shoot so much footage, and the show is ultimately only 22 minutes, there’s a lot of great stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor. In this behind-the-scenes look at filming Word Travels, I’d like to share my experiences ‘gemming’ with you now.
Teeth-stained red from betelnut (a popular chewing-tobacco-like stimulant), the men kindly take me through the gem mining, or “gemming” process. With rudimentary machines that sputter and smoke, they dredge for deposits. Like panning for gold, they take a rattan basket, swirl it around, trying to extract the valuable gems from the clay, gravel and sand. This job sees them in waist high water, and knee deep mud that has the thickness of grey cement.
I make one false step, sinking into soil that swallows my flip flop whole. Clearly, this is a messy job and a dangerous one at that. As I survey the workers, many look injured – one has a cut over his eye, another, a bloody bandage covering his big toe. Despite these frequent on-the-job injuries, there is no disability or unemployment insurance. If they get hurt, they’re on their own.
Though they may work all day, they only get paid if they find something worth selling. The investor takes 50% of the sales, the workers split the rest amongst all themselves.
Worried that the workers might swallow the gem (to cash in for themselves), the investor is the only one allow to sort through the finds of the day. Huddled around the boss, the team watch eagerly as he picks at the gravel by hand. No sapphires this time around, only a few mature semi-precious stones that have little resale value.
I have a newfound appreciation for where sapphires come from, and for the individuals who toil to find them. I’m amazed by the blood, sweat and time it takes to get gem from the ground, to your finger.
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