The last week I was in Sapa school was cancelled so the girls could go back to their villages to help plant rice with their families. I decided it was a perfect opportunity to visit some of the girls and offer my help with the planting. After trying my hand as an English teacher, it seemed like a natural next step to move on to volunteer farmer. Kendra, another volunteer from the US, had the same idea, and we hired motorbike taxis to make the long trek to Lee's home outside the village of Ta Van. The taxis dropped us off at the bridge into town, and I was quickly regretting having bought a large watermelon, in addition to a heavy pile of bananas, mangoes and berries, as we followed patchy cell phone directions up through the town, up some hills, and further up a rocky stream bed serving as the entryway to Lee's hillside house, all under the hot mid-day sun. I was feeling like I'd done my part by the time we arrived, the fruit delivery alone left me sweaty and worn out.
Luckily, we got there just in time for lunch. It would have been rude not to join them, so Kendra and I had home-grown rice with some of the best-tasting green vegetables I've had so far in Vietnam. We ate with Lee, her younger brother, brother-in-law, her older brother and his wife and son. Lee's older brother is 20, and his wife is around 16, though she looks younger, still nursing her nine-month old baby. Lee is the most advanced English speaker in the class and seems pretty sophisticated for her age. She had told me she didn't want to get married young and raise her babies poor – so it was a surprise to see her brother doing just that.
The younger boys stayed to watch the water buffalo and the baby while we all went down to the fields to work. Lee went into the sticky muck and water in her jeans and I rolled up my shorts, which I realised later might not have been the best idea. We were in a long muddy paddy with a thick lawn of rice covering one half. What we had to do was pick the rice – the step that happens before it is evenly planted in rows. It seemed counter-intuitive – why plant, then pick, then re-plant, before you can re-pick…? Lee couldn't answer why it was done this way, which left Kendra and I trying to strategise on improvements to the centuries-old practice, as we pulled the rice up from the roots, practiced swishing it around in the water and banging bunches together to get rid of the mud. “I'm sure there must be a good reason for it, there has to be.” These questions were soon followed by “Do you really think we're helping? They're fixing all of my bundles” (Kendra) – “are we not doing it right?” Lee and her sister-in-law had switched from picking rice to tidying up the bundles of plants for eventual re-planting.
Every time I looked up, the picture looked the same – the patch of thick dense rice in front of us didn't seem to get any smaller. After about 2hrs Lee suggested we might want to call it a day soon, so we could get taxis in time to get back to Sapa before evening. “But we're not done the paddy! We need to finish it!” Kendra and I were both focused on getting our assignment completion checkmark – how could we feel like we really helped? Lee called some friends to get us taxis for later on, and we plowed forward in the mud, determined to finish.
About a half hour later I realised I was hitting my rice picking wall. I was tired, my back was sore, my arms and legs were itchy (too late I realised the value of long pants and sleeves), and it wasn't looking close to done. When Lee diplomatically suggested again that it might be a good idea to think about leaving, there was no argument. Kendra and I accepted defeat – we had not picked the paddy clean, but we were still done. It had looked like a relatively quick job when we started, but the thickness of the rice and the simpleness of the task were deceptive. Hours of hard work for only part of one paddy! And they still had 3.5 more to pick and re-plant – 4.5 thick paddies of rice plants were just enough to feed the family (about 5 people) for the year – with nothing leftover to sell. I was amazed and at how much labour was involved in growing and harvesting the rice – it seems unbelievable that we can buy it so cheaply at home.
The weather was rainy the next morning and I didn't hear back from the other girls about my offer to come rice planting. Word had spread, but I wasn't too sorry to miss another opportunity. By mid-afternoon that day my aching quads were making walking difficult. I thought it would have been my back, but it turns out I was squatting in the mud more than I realised. And I seemed to have damaged my rice picking muscle – I can't stretch out my right arm without getting a shooting pain.
Now I'm trying to finish all the rice in my bowl, every meal.
**Photo credits for these two images to Kendra (www.simplyunassuming.com)