A bit of work, a lot of fun
Starting in early November farmers around Esan (our province) begin harvesting their rice fields. It is a gorgeous time of year and also extremely important as Esan farmers only get one crop a year. In central Thailand they get three! The reason? We get so little rain. Hence, this is one major reason why Esan is considered the poorest region in Thailand. As a PCV who lives on a dirt road, we appreciate the infrequent downpours, but as a friend of many farmers we do our best to pray for the rain. Unfortunately, this year was unusually dry.
Farmers who plant near water sources or have enough money to do proper irrigation are usually the first ones to harvest. Thus, our first experience harvesting was at the home of a retired four star general. As you can imagine there was a bit of a ‘to do.’ In Thailand, there is already a ton of pomp and circumstance (Thais love costumes, parades, fireworks, pageants, trophies, and black leather VIP couches). However, I was surprised at home much pomp there was on a day dedicated to harvesting rice.
Here is Jeff and I our “chaao naa” (farmer) outfits. Key elements include: hat (Thais are ‘glua dom’ or scared of turning black/dark from the sun), long pants (sun protection and anti- scratch, protect from snakes, etc), long sleeves (same as above), gloves (protect hands from scratches or cuts), scythe, and close toed shoes.
The Event: We arrived at the general’s farm at about 9:30 am on a Saturday behind some hundred plus other people. It is unclear to me how everyone got invited/knew about the event. Thai parties/weddings seem to function almost seem like house parties in American high schools. One only needs to invite a few people to ensure the whole school shows up. At the house, men were playing music, ladies were dancing, and representatives from local organizations and groups had already begun to prepare the food.
Thais love BLARING sounds. Whether it’s the village headman giving the news at 5am, the movies at the mall, or an advertisement truck, the Thais love their sound systems! The thing I most regret not bringing is ear plugs. I even once put toilet paper in my ears at the movies because of how loud it was. Check out this portable amp at the general’s house!
After about an hour of merriment and music, the governor arrived and Jeff and I were invited to eat cake and drink coffee with a select group of people on the general’s patio. This was a bit awkward as not all of the people we came with were invited. To be fair, we had met the general and his wife before, however I suspect it was more likely because we are still considered guests in Thailand. Thais’ hospitality towards guests is unparalleled and long enduring. After 9 months at our site, we are still treated specially by many people. This is both a perk and a barrier to true assimilation.
After the cake, everyone took seats to listen to a series of speeches by VIPs that lasted about an hour. All the while I was thinking “when are we going to harvest some rice?” I was already soaked with sweat in all my layers and wishing it were socially acceptable to wear shorts and a dry fit tank top. Sadly, I don’t own one tank top in Thailand as it’s not socially acceptable to wear in the village (too ‘brio’ or flirty). Shoulders are sexy here!
Finally, we were handed a scythe and headed to the fields! Before I could do much of anything though I had to pose for dozens of pictures. Everyone was getting a kick out of the foreigners harvesting rice. Truly being a PC volunteer is like becoming an unwilling celebrity. And yet, I’ve become a seasoned vet! I know there will always be two pictures, I give the peace sign like a good Thai, smile, and even say ‘pepsi’ after the 1,2… (thais rarely count all the way to three before snapping). Though it is one of the most draining aspects of being a volunteer, it is part of the bargain so I always try and make the most of it (the asian peace is always fun). And it is funny to get asked for autographs after doing English camps.
It was super fun, but a bit distracting as we were instructed on at least five different techniques for harvesting the rice. Just as I mastered a technique taught to me by a local farmer, a friend would tell me how to do it differently. “Do it this way. This is the best way!” And then a third person would come. And repeat! Finally, I looked at Jeff and we smiled conspiratorially. It was happening to us both. These are the moments where it is especially nice to be a married PC volunteer.
As we’ve learned you just smile and do as they say and then finally adopt whatever technique works best for you — and for this, doesn’t risk you losing your pinky! This is a common injury of those who harvest rice often.
Just as I was getting into the swing of things, I was told it was time to “gin kao,” which literally means ‘eat rice’ but generally refers to eating of any kind. I didn’t need to check my watch to know that we’d been harvesting rice for all of five minutes. Looking at the unfinished fields around, I noticed that the majority of people had already started toward the food tables.
And then there were girls delivering ice cream to those of us in the field on TRAYS! Jeff and I being ‘work hard, play hard’ types did not exactly feel like we deserved a break just yet. However, our amazing counterpart and good friend kept urging us to stop and eat ice cream. Something told me that it would be weird and contrary to insist on staying in the field, so I prompted the compromise. I would go eat ice cream with our friend, while Jeff continued to harvest in the field with the mayor. The things I do for Jeff, right? In all honesty I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to ‘earn my rice’ a bit more. However a week later we would have our second opportunity.
By 2 pm it was all over. Jeff and I were stuffed on our Esan favorites and got a ride home. Though the whole affair was obviously more for show, it being the general’s house, I was still blown away by how little actual harvesting was done. I couldn’t help but think that Americans would have at least put in 20 solid minutes before sitting in the shade with some beer and BBQ. Luckily, we had another, more authentic opportunity a week later at definitely required some hard work.
Rice harvesting at Pee Miek’s house
All throughout the year, Thai friends provide Jeff and I with free bags of uncooked white rice and sticky rice. We literally only buy rice when we want the special organic rice, “kao hom nim,” that is purple. This is sort of like having a lifetime supply of pasta if you are an Italian-American!!! So, when it’s rice harvesting time we naturally want to help. It is a good example of the collectivism that is so deeply entrenched in the traditional culture. Everyone helps and everyone shares. It is for this reason you can see me riding around on my bike handing out green beans like a weirdo after our garden blooms.
Friday night at 8pm Jeff and I get the call. “Can you come to help harvest rice tomorrow?” Despite it being our first weekend home in a long while, we make one call and it is all set. The mayor has a meeting in the city and can bring us in the morning (note this is 1.5 hours away). As you might remember from the “thainapping” post, the mayor has a penchant for coming earlier than expected. Thus, when the mayor said he would pick us up at 8am, we were ready at 7:30. Even so, he called at 7 to say he was on his way. Despite how frequently the Thais feed us, I always worry about not having food on long journeys. As usual I just need to trust that the Thais; they like to eat as much as I do.
Jeff suggested we wear nice clothes for the trip and change into our farmer’s outfits later, in case we were introduced to anyone along the way. Smart, indeed! No sooner do we get in the mayor’s truck then he tells us that we are going to a tamboon where we will eat breakfast. What he doesn’t tell us is that it is a Buddhist christening for his grandson! For the next two hours, we kneel and wai, sii baat (putting food in the monks bowls), listen to the five Buddhist monks chant, and eat a ton of food. There was sticky rice, bamboo soup, laap, chicken soup, vegetables, fish, fruit, and a sweet gelatin dessert.
At around 10:30 we finally pull into the university, get coffee, and then head to the farm. We get dressed and admire the newly hatched eggs in the coop, the frogs newly bred, and the golden expanse of rice to be harvested.
For 40 minutes we work before it’s time for lunch. The mayor has come back to visit after his meeting with some clementines, grapefruit, and whiskey and club soda. He has come back for lunch and has specially requested frogs to be killed and fried with garlic. I watch fascinated as the frogs are caught in a net (about 7) and then bopped over the head with a large pestle. An hour later Jeff eats them; I merely soak up the garlic with my sticky rice. Frogs are okay, but bony and I felt bad having seen them die. The Thai men drink the whisky to ‘help with the harvesting.’ I do not get offered nor do I desire to loose my pinky, so abstain. After about two hours of lunch we start again. One of the men who has come to help passes out in the hammock for a bit (whiskey?) while we continue to work until its dark.
This family is our adopted family here. This is probably the tenth time we have been guests at their house and we love them. We feel at ease and are treated as normal. When it gets too hot in the field we sit or lie on mats in the shade, drinking water or coke. Jeff lies down on a mat and our two rice ‘assistants,’ ages 9 and 4, come to fan us with big hats. One sees Jeff’s bit of belly and starts calling him ling or monkey. He tosses her in the air. They laugh. All is well. We are tired, happy, and with true friends.
We end when the sun goes down. Jeff is bold and swims in their acre big “pond” even after we spot a water snake. Miek and I urge Jeff to try and catch us a fish for supper, but it turns out Jeff, rather, is supper. He gets nibbled by dozens of fish and gets out ten minutes later.
That night we have a great meal and go to bed at 8pm. It feels good to give back. But of course the Thais always get the last word on hospitality. In the morning we had a big bag of “new rice” freshly harvested:)