Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Isaan Rice Planting

Last weekend's big plans were set aside by the weather. There was too much water for planting rice or fishing. All was not lost however, our five month old grandson paid a visit on Sunday.

Yesterday the weekend's planned rice planting took place. Rice was being planted in plots just outside of Tahsang Village by family members hired by Duang's daughter. Ten people walked from Tahsang Village out to the fields and awaited our arrival.

They were not being either polite or considerate. They were waiting for us because we were bringing their breakfast out to them in the pickup truck. Apparently when you hire field workers, you also have to feed them, provide them with drink, as well as pay them wages. We arrived around 08:00 A. M. much to Duang's daughter's relief.

Old sahts (woven reed mats) were placed on the relatively dry level ground on the other side of the dirt road that bisected the fields of sugar cane, rice paddies, and grazing grounds for cattle as well as water buffalo. The breakfast area for the workers was also shared with some tethered water buffalo and some free ranch cattle.

After a substantial breakfast of Kao Lao (Lao food) that could very well have been served for lunch or dinner, some of the workers washed down the last of their food with some Lao Kao (white whiskey - a sort of Lao moonshine). Other workers drank water from a common metal cup out of a insulated bucket of cool water. People in Isaan do not follow any type of set menu or types of foods reserved for specific times of the day. Rice is eaten at all meals and often in between. Fish and meat dishes are served at the first meal of the day just as they are at other meals of the day.

Everyone wandered across the road and finished putting on their work clothes for the day's activities. There is no set dress code for working in the fields. Although they will be working in water as well as mud for the day, workers are just as likely to wear pants or skirts as to wear shorts. There does seem to be one common article of clothing. Most Isaan farm workers wear brightly colored soccer style jerseys. Often the jerseys bear advertising for companies and corporations. This is much like my past when some of my wardrobe was provided as project safety awards or project team building windbreakers and jackets.

Heads are covered in a variety of gear ranging from pakamas, straw hats, and cotton sun bonnets. Often the workers will also wear some type of device to cover their necks and faces from the sun and to absorb perspiration. Colorful cotton tee shirts are sometimes employed to cover the face and neck. Sometimes the workers wear specialized articles of clothing designed and constructed specifically to cover the face and neck.

Once everyone was properly dressed they set about their work. Two paddies had been previously prepared. The paddies were about 75 feet by 100 feet long surrounded by dikes of compacted clay overgrown with vegetation. The plots were completed flooded with a mixture of mud and water about 18 inches deep. Sheaves of rice sprouts had been previously distributed throughout the prepared paddies. The workers set out in a line and grabbed bundles of sprouts from the sheaves. Groups of three sprouts were set deeply by hand into the soupy mud. In little time but with a great deal of back breaking work the paddies were spotted with neat and proper rows of transplanted sprouts.

As most of the workers focused on setting out the sprouts, some of the workers broke off to perform specific specialized tasks. Duang's son-in-law owns a small tractor and earns money using it to prepare local rice paddies. He had trucked the tractor to these paddies the night before. On the back of the tractor was a rototiller type attachment that ground up the unprepared paddies. Due to the monsoon rains that we have been experiencing for the past month, the ground is saturated with water and many of the paddies have standing water in them. The tractor or sometimes using a small iron buffalo grinds up the soil, water, and vegetation to create a flat soupy mud for planting the rice. If there is not enough standing water in the prepared paddy, a small portable diesel driven pump is used to transfer water to the paddy. In areas of the impoundment where the tractor could not get completely into, a man with a hoe finished the paddy preparation.

Duang went to the area where the rice sheaves had been placed the day before. The sprouts had been harvested at a different location the day before and brought by pick up truck to the paddies. It appeared to me that there were at least three pick up truck loads of sheaves - however this is Isaan and knowing how much they load up their trucks, I suspect that they had made only one trip or maybe two. Duang used a large heavy machete type knife to cut the tops off of the rice sheaves. This was to promote growth in the transplanted sprouts. As she picked up each sheave to trim its top, she inspected the root base of the sheave. For proper transplantation of the sprouts and to ensure a good harvest, the sprouts must have about 4 inches of good hairy root structure. Any sheaves that did not have sufficient root development were cast to the side to be fed to the livestock or placed on top of the paddy dikes. As she completed trimming each sheave, Duang placed the bundle off to the side in a special area.

Duang's cousin placed the shorn sheaves on the ends of a long bamboo pole and carried the wet mud dripping bundles out to the prepared fields. He carried the sheaves much like we had observed other workers transporting harvested garlic in the Maehongson area during April. He carried the pole full of sprouts out into the prepared field and left them in a pile in the muddy water. Other workers distributed them throughout the field for transplanting.

Everyone worked diligently at their tasks with the monotony of the work interrupted by shouting out to passing relatives or friends tending to their free range cattle. One grandfather came out on a motorbike with his young grandson so that the child could watch his mother for a while. My antics in photographing the goings on was often the subject of conversation as well as amusement. I was also teased about taking too many pictures of Duang rather than of them.

The work went very smoothly and the only excitement occurred when one of the women planting rice pulled a mouse out of muddy goop. She proudly held it by its tail and displayed it so that I could photograph the event.

The people worked until all the paddies had been planted. The work was completed by 2:00 P.M. Everyone piled into the back of our pick up and we went back to Tahsang Village. After washing, the workers reunited at Duang's parent's house to eat and drink. The men ate in one room and the women ate in another room. Sahts were placed on the tile floor and the food and drink were laid out picnic style. There was plenty of food and beer. Everyone enjoyed their meal and the air was filled with animated conversation and laughing.

We returned to our home tired but satisfied with our day out in the rice paddies.

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