Rice Work If You Can Get ItJanuary 18, 2014
Pedro joins village Khmer women in the fields harvesting rice.
Rice – the bane of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok and fills an empty stomach, but to be honest it lacks a certain culinary flair, especially when it’s heaped out into my bowl every day.
Breakfast is a plate of rice, with fatty pork strips, pickled cucumber and an egg for a treat. Rice and soup for lunch, completed with rice and dried fish for supper. I’ve managed to slip in a few potatoes into the family diet, mostly in the form of chips/French fries, with varying degrees of success – some wolf them down and other take the view of a 17th century Russian, refusing to touch ‘The Devil’s food from ‘neath the ground’.
The Khmer word for rice and food are the same for Christ’s sake (not technically true- for the purists, but they are interchangeable), ‘Have you eaten rice?’ is standard small talk- that’s how much they dig the stuff. So when in the provinces, do as the provincials and eat what’s on one’s plate.
Whilst lacking any nutritional value whatsoever (the healthy stuff is fed to the pigs), there is a lot going for rice around these here parts. The plant loves the swamps, requires relatively little tending and most of it can be used – the grain for eating, stalks to livestock, even the husks burn hot enough to fire brick kilns. If stored well it can last forever- just add water.
Most families in the provinces own a few acres, unless they have been sold to pay for obnoxious weddings/funerals/medical expenses/gambling debts. For a poor country these fields are vital for survival, and if a Cambodian doesn’t eat rice once every 3 hours or so, there is trouble, so no rice crop for the year would bring out open rebellion. It’s probably a clause in the constitution somewhere.There’s no major industrial farming around here- just subsistence level, enough to feed the family and maybe sell a small percentage on to the market.
Once the rainy season is over and the sun comes out, the lush green grass begins to yellow, meaning it’s time to sharpen the kondeav sickles, pack a picnic (of rice), wear as many layers of clothing as possible and tramp off into the mud to bring in the harvest.
Each plot (or sreis) is divided by raised dyke walls of mud (pleusre), which, over the years are compacted down into hardened clay. These not only define ownership, but also keep in the waterand form access tracks for motorbikes and cows – essential shortcuts between villages in both wet and dry seasons. These walls are breached in places, about a foot wide, to allow water to drain. It’s the higher ground which dries first, so this is the first to be cut.
I did a bit of agricultural labour myself way back in my youth. Growing up next to a bean farm, I spent a few school holidays making very little cash-in-hand piece work. I tried picking strawberries (ate more than I picked), apples ( and was bollocked for bruising them), was kicked off a Cornish daffodil farm for being rubbish and was given the nickname l’escargot at a French vineyard on account of my speed at snipping grapes – so can therefore conclude, after giving a fair crack of the whip, that it just aint my thing.
Nevertheless, with a bit of feminine persuasion I was coerced into joining the ladies of the family for a weekend out on the farm. Most of the fields had already been cut by an octogenarian grandmother and the not so-spring-chickeny mother-in-law, working solid shifts for the past month,from dawn till dusk, in parental pensioner harmony.
I arrived late for the party, around 3pm. The sky was a beautiful shade of blue, and the sky was speckled with white kok crane birds. Kids were flying brightly colored kites in the breeze. The temperature had plummeted to an almost Baltic 15 degrees which had removed the usual humidity from the air; everyone felt chilly.
It seemed such a shame that the cutting tools to people ratio was low, and after about 3 minutes of learning the technique (which was to bend over, grab a handful of the grass, slice it off, grab another handful, slice, throw down the clump onto a pile), I was relegated to the sidelines.
This was hard graft, but there were no complaints from the 4 generations of family hunching over: grab, slice, bundle, throw – the angle of the bend, the repetitive strain on the wrists and sheer tedium would have lesser mortals reaching for the codeine pills and applying for disability benefits. Countryside women are as hard as nails. Every stalk brings in a couple of dozen or so grains of rice for the pot – slow going.
Left to my own devices, I had a wander about. Other families were dotted about, getting on with their own plots.In the receding dirty pools anescargotoire (I looked that up) of giant snails were sliming about, another edible crop for little effort.
In the distance, thunder clapped around the mountains- not from the sky, but dynamite detonating from one of the stone quarries blasting a peak, bit by bit, to smithereens.
Bored, I had a quick razz around on the old dirt-bike, got stuck in a quagmire and picked up some boys from the family who were tramping back towards the village with weighted fishing nets over their shoulders. Inside a metal trap pot were countless slithering small fish, crabs and frogs.
It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s, world sang the late, great Godfather of soul and all-round pervert James Brown. The chap had a point. Whilst the ladies were out doing the physical shizzle, where were all the men? In the name of scholarly research it seemed fitting to find out. It quickly transpired that they were enjoying the leisure pursuits of bone-idlers and long term unemployed world wide- fishing and all day binge drinking.
Inside the simple hut, men knelt on a mat, adjacent to a bucket of ice and a box of the stronger than standard, countryside beer of choice Klang, sat in the centre.
I know the drill, so squatted down, had my glass filled with cracked ice, poured in the amber nectar and cholmoied away. A lone female, obviously babysitting the real nippers, made sure that the catch of the day was fried up and dutifully served for the drunkards to snack upon.
After several rounds of the elephant brand booze a car battery was produced and hooked up to the only source of light – a single fluorescent tube. Only 10km away from the provincial town, the village has neither electricity nor running water. With the light fading fast, in came the inevitable, dreaded, yet strangely welcoming call.
And so draining the last of my glass, I bade farewell to the pissheads, politely yet firmly declining the offer of moi tiet, and parting with a 10,000 Riel note so that the next round could be on me.
A disapproving Mrs is usually enough to scare me sober, so I returned to the rice fields as the sky darkened and back to my village the other side of town, which, while far from urban, at least has lighting, a bum gun and poor 3G signal.
My ‘work’ done, the threshing of husk from grain left to the pros,the paddies given chance to rest a while until after Khmer new year, when the first rains will make the women bend over even lower as they plant the new shoots.
Two seasons, two months’ work- and all the rice a hungry Cambodian can eat as the reward.