Rice, rice and more rice

So I’ve been living the life of a rice farmer for the past month, and it’s been a great time. I lived in a super rural Thai village called Donjiang that is surrounded by rice fields (and small vegetable gardens) with a temple and a giant Buddha statue in the center. My host parents were Mae Yaa and Poh Zue, and we lived in groups of 2-4 this time. My roommates Rachel, Julia and I shared a twin bed that took up most of our room, with just enough space to fit all of our backpacks in a line next to the bed. We slept sideways on the bed and rotated every night so no one would be in the middle too much. Our knees ended up hanging off the edge of the bed, but there was enough room that way for all of us to curl up/basically spoon (super cozy & lots of bonding). Oh we also shared our room with two friends: a foot long lizard/iguana who would climb up the wall while we were away but hid under the bed otherwise and squeaked during the night, and a spider the size of my hand that was spotted once and never seen again (we know he’s still there to keep us company though). The kitchen was right outside our room and was open to the outside so we would find some chickens in there sometimes (they ate the bugs though so it was okay). Our bathroom is a squat toilet and two big barrels of rainwater for our bucket shower (plus floating chunks for a nice all natural algae scrub!). Our living room was a open tiled room, without any furniture besides a tv on the floor (that I saw used once) and a glass cupboard full of giant teddybears (they were moved out of our room to make space for us). We ate all our meals sitting on a woven mat on the floor, outside on the porch for breakfast and lunch and in the living room for dinner. Unlike the constant variations of plantains and rice in Ecuador, we had a pot of sticky rice at every single meal with some kind of stir fried vegetables and fried meat or eggs. Well, our family started off making steamed rice for us and giving us spoons and plates to eat with, but we then we switched to eating little balls of sticky rice with our hands and dipping them into the bowls in the middle of the mat like they did. During breakfast especially we got a lot of friendly shouts from neighbors walking along the road, and the cows from the field across from our house came over to visit sometimes. We had a couple hens with baby chicks, one super loud rooster, four dogs, and a pig (but it left in a pick up truck…and never came back).

One of the things I was most worried about coming on this trip was the language barrier and the idea that I would be completely unable to communicate with my host families. Honestly, the first two days staying with either one of the families was very intimidating and consisted of a lot of nervous laughter and confusion, but once you got past that it wasn’t that bad: you just learn. I was terrified of not knowing the language, but you have to learn one word at a time. The basic words came first, like “eat rice”, “shower”, and “go to rice fields”, but gradually gaps were filled in more. Working together with my equally incompetent roommates, we figured out ways to say more complex things using simple words and lots of pointing and hand gestures (and sometimes just accepting the confusion and moving on). Mae Yaa and Poh Zue are also super curious and patient and understanding, and very happy to laugh along with us. Dinner conversations were mostly confirming that we were going to the rice fields again the next day (yes), followed by our host dad pointing at different dishes and teaching us the names in Thai (and the northern Chiang Mai dialect… not all of that was actually successful but the effort was nice). Since Thai words are mostly just single syllables and have a lot of sounds that just don’t exist in English, it was super hard for host parents to remember our “American” names, so on the first night everyone got new Thai names (some people were named after fruits or famous actors, or just other mostly random words that sounded nice) BUT my name (pronounced “su-su” in Thai) is a slang phrase to mean “keep fighting/don’t give up” and that kind of stuck (every time I introduce myself to someone new they laugh and put up two peace signs no matter who it is, but I’ll just take that as a compliment) and our host community thought it was so funny that “su-su” applied as a collective name to any group I happened to be standing with for the first two weeks we were here.

We’ve been working in the rice fields with our host families every morning, cutting and bundling and hitting rice for harvest. (I’ll post the media project that my group made this unit called “the Story of Rice”, since it is way too accurate of a representation of my life during the past month.) It was super interesting to see the whole community come together and work on one family’s field each day. Rotating through the community, our families were very talkative and joked around a lot, and were efficient enough to finish all the rice fields within the two week harvest season. After we had finished that harvest, we also helped to weed our families vegetable gardens (organic = 20% desired plant, 80% weeds), plant strawberry plants, and we spent one day harvesting soybeans for an organic soy milk food truck company (lol yes actually). One morning we also woke up at 4 am to go into Chiang Mai where we worked at an organic farmer’s market helping host moms from our community sell their vegetables (the numbers from our Thai crash course came in super helpful, plus I had a little phonetic cheat sheet describing what I was selling).

In the afternoons we’ve had more Thai classes, worked on media projects, had seminar, or sometimes bike to a village nearby that has a coffee shop. Our seminars this country have been focusing on sustainable agriculture and the different impacts of organic local farming and industrial chemical farming. We’ve addressed how the industrial farm system in place seems like the only easy way to produce huge amounts of food at low costs on relatively small amounts of land, but its environmentally and economically unsustainable. By watching Food Inc. and observing our families’ farms, we’ve become more aware of where food comes from and how it’s made in the context of the global market.

Our host community celebrated the lantern festival at the end of our first week in the village. Instead of working that day we made offerings of flowers and candles at the temple in the morning and decorated the gate in front of the temple with flowers, beads and leaves. In the afternoon we each made our own “ka-toy”, which was a floating lantern made out of banana trunk, flowers and candles that we sent down the river in that night after sunset (to apologize to the fiver spirit for pollution). We spent Thanksgiving in Chiang Mai City again, where we ate Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant with an American chef (aka stuffed ourselves with turkey and mashed potatoes) and saw rice paper lanterns sent up and rising along the river. That weekend was IST (independent student travel weekend), and I stayed in Chiang Mai with 5 others. We bought more elephant pants at the night market, took a Muay Thai boxing class, got Thai massages, and spent all day Sunday at an elephant sanctuary. There we fed elephants, got a tour of the sanctuary and learned about the stories of the 65 elephants that live there and the abuse they suffered in circuses, riding tourism, logging, and landmines near the Myanmar-Burma border. We also bathed an elephant in the river (and ended up getting in a giant water fight) and watched a baby elephant play with a tire (we weren’t allowed as close to the baby because “the babies like to play and they think humans are toys so they try to knock you over”).

Last night we had a farewell ceremony with our host families, where each group of students cooked a dish together with their host families, and then we all ate dinner together outside of the temple. After dinner, we all got a white string bracelet from each of the elders in the community (so basically 30 white bracelets), which are blessed to wish us good luck in our other travels.

Now we’re on our way to Cambodia and Angkor Wat for a week!

5 thoughts on “Rice, rice and more rice

  1. Judith Lochtefeld

    What a beautiful post, written with such great detail and humor. We miss you here but are so happy to learn vicariously about the rest of the world.


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