We eat rice without thinking anything of it. Its easy to forget that to bring each grain of rice to your plate there are those who labor day-in-day-out in the East. With their backs to the sun, squatting in the dry scratchy stalks, hauling bales of rice on their backs and trudging home only to wake up the next morning and do the whole thing again. Let me introduce you to the people behind the rice…
We worked a full 12 hours on the field, but that only gave me a glimmer of what life is actually like in the rice fields. Because I lived for a while in Laos, I saw the change work its way gradually across the rice fields, fields that started out like sheets of reflective glass, with green shoots showing through the months of collected downpour.
It was during one of the most important stages of the rice that my help was needed – the harvest. So for two days only I joined the others to help out on the field.
Sengkeo’s head was stuck out the window of the truck in a floppy sunhat, yelling at Aaron who was chasing us out the yard, “Come on Aaron we got rice to pick!!”
The rice was not far. The field belonged to Dum, who lived in a house next to the field, a house she shared with her family.
We all stood looking out onto the field, shielding our eyes from the sun. There was already a Lao woman in the rice cutting.
Sengkeo was reminiscing because he’d got married to his wife in this field.
“This is how you cut.” Sengkeo demonstrated. We copied.
The blade had to come down at an exact angle to successfully cut the rice, had to cut through at a certain point, and the rice had to be laid down in neat piles, just the right amount, or you’ve messed up the whole system.
We cut using sickles for a while and fell into a rhythmic motion. Swoop-and-pull, cut-and-drop. Swoop-and-pull, cut and drop…
Sengkeo made it look easy, but it wasn’t. We were twenty times slower than the Lao woman working by herself way off in the field. “No no no no no no no no NO!” Sengkeo would say, coming over and correcting our poor technique. He was so far ahead of us I couldn’t see him through the rice. No it definitely wasn’t easy.
Later there was a roaring, and we saw a big machine coming along the road in a dust storm. It stopped in front of the field. The local boys we knew were standing jumped off it yelling stuff in Lao to Sengkeo. This was our cue to eat. My skin was raw red, itchy, stinging.
Inside Dum’s house we ate with everyone on the floor while some war movie played on tv. There was loads of food and we shared. We ate using our hands Lao-style, and I died silently inside with the spiciness of the soup.
Then we got on the machine and chugged down the road to the other rice field we’d worked on the day before. I guessed the woman would finish the cutting of Dum’s rice by herself. We were off to finish the harvest on a much bigger project, the Saelao rice field. And as Sengkeo kept saying, it had to be done TODAY.
When we reached the field, there was the pile of dried rice waiting for us. Sengkeo whipped the coat off and we climbed to the top. We wouldn’t be getting off that pile until all the rice was in the machine. The machine’s job was to separate the grain from the stalk.
Once you slipped into the working rhythm, it was hard to stop. The only thing you could think of was the empty pile at the end, but the pile never seemed to reduce.
For energy-food, old Lao guys went running off into the jungle mountains and speared papayas effortlessly from the trees.
We can feel the ache in our muscles, the uncomfortable salt-tickling sweat, the itchiness of rice stalks stuck between our skin and our clothes, and its raining rice stalks.
Suddenly Phoebe screams. Trouble. “SNAKE! A SNAKE!” Sengkeo’s brother-in-law swoops down to grab it and throws it smiling right across to the over side of the field, where it lands in a tree; its silver wriggling shape flying through the air.
Kids cycled past gazing at the falang in the field. We stood on the rice mountain throwing the stacked bales at the machine, not even looking any more, while Kham sat on a suspended seat working crazy speed, shoving the bundles into the machine, posting them through like millions of letters.
The machine would cut-cut-cut slice-slice-slice, and the rice came pouring out the back end, where there were three or four people ready with sacks to catch the non-stop pour of rice. (The rice stopped flowing 12 hrs later). Then there was someone to drag the sacks across to Big Boon who was tying them with elaborate bows.
Sengkeo would yell, “We don’t stop til we finish!!” and we worked faster than ever.
In the end, the sight of the empty pile was satisfying but it was not enough. There was more work to be done.
By this time it was dark. But the moon was so bright there was enough light to see what we were doing.
We had to lift each sack into the truck (it took 2 men to lift just one sack), then drive back to Dum’s house. Here the bags were heaved into a hut and slashed with knives so the rice came spilling out all over the floor. Only when the rice was in there, that’s when we felt truly satisfied.
Weirdly, it felt like we were smugglers or pirates and the rice was our stolen treasure. You think there’s enough to feed the whole village for a year, but really it’s nothing. All that work for a few week’s rice.
After we drove back and rewarded ourselves with bottles of Sengkeo’s homemade pineapple wine. But the guys carried on working for an extra hour to finish bringing back the sacks.
The rice dominates life here in Laos. After all, rice is their main source of food. It’s part of every meal, every ritual, every religious offering. Before going to Asia I wasn’t a big rice fan, but in Laos you can’t get away from it – sticky rice, boiled rice, fried rice, sweet rice, rice wine… Of course now I eat rice. Being part of the process, even just for 2 days, makes you appreciate it that little bit more.
Written by Eva Clifford