Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tobacco Road - Isaan Style

Tobacco Growing On the Banks of the Mekong River

Life often presents unexpected opportunities and situations that offer insights into the world around us.  Often we limit our world to that which is within our arm's length grasp or well within our comfort zone - unfortunately that limits our ability to better understand the greater reality of our larger world.

Last week, I went with my wife and two members of her family to visit a Ruesi, a wizard, north of our home near the border town of Nong Khai along the banks of the Mekong River.  I naturally brought along my camera gear with me.

We took some back roads and ended up west of Nong Khai in an area called Tha Bo District, in the Phon Sa Subdistrict.  On our way to the Wat where the Ruesi was located, we drove along a paved two lane road along the banks of the Mekong River.  Under the bright blue sky with high wispy white clouds, we could clearly see across the river into LPDR, Lao People's Democratic Republic.

We are still in the dry season here so the Mekong River, although still a good sized river, is way down - perhaps 40 feet  lower than when it will be in full flood later this year.  Today vast sand bars are exposed.  Heavy equipment on both sides of the river, as well as in the river, are extracting and processing large quantities of sand.

Tobacco Plants

Between the road and the river, were plots of dark green large leaved plants.  Duang did not know what they were but her aunt told us that they were tobacco plants.  I was very interested and pleased that I had brought my camera along for this trip.

As we got closer to our destination, more and more aspects of tobacco cultivation revealed themselves - areas of elevated bamboo racks, workmen repairing irrigation systems, more fields of tobacco in various stages of harvest, somlaws stuffed with bundles of tobacco leaves in transit to processing areas and just outside of our Wat destination - a husband and wife harvesting tobacco!

When we arrived at the destination, I left my wife and family members to go off on my own to photograph the man and woman harvesting tobacco close by.  After a short walk down a narrow road and a short distance on a dirt path, I encountered them as they were finishing up their work and preparing to return to their home with their harvest.

Loading Up Tobacco Into A Somlaw

Somlaws are three wheeled motorcycles used for many purposes.  Somlaws, which many are manufactured here in Isaan, are used as taxis in the villages and cities.  They pick up passengers and take them to their destination for a pre-negotiated fee between the driver/owner and the passenger.  The fees are low and the somlaws are very effective ... for short distances ... in good weather.  Go to any local market, and you will sure to find a plethora of somlaws.  Some bring goods to the market.  Some bring goods from the market out to the outlying neighborhoods and villages.  Still other somlaws hustle about bringing people to and from the market.  Somlaws are like the poor man's pick-up truck - but much cheaper.  Duang and I have ridden in somlaws many times.

Somlaws are also used in the various agricultural enterprises in Northeast Thailand.  The man and woman that I encountered near the Wat used their somlaw to transport their crop of tobacco and no doubt for the crop of chili that was distributed amongst the tobacco plants.  I suspect that the family grew chili amongst the tobacco for several reasons.  Since Duang was not with me, I was unable to ask the people directly about their practice.  However in researching tobacco cultivation, I learned that tobacco plants have natural insecticide properties.  I also learned that tobacco production depletes many micro- minerals from the soil and crop rotation is necessary.  Perhaps the people grow the chilies to supplement the soil nutrients and to take advantage of the shade provided by the tobacco plants.

The tobacco is harvested by hand using curved  knives to cut the leaves from the thick ridged stalk of the plant.  The harvest commences with the lower leaves of the plant when they start to turn yellow. After 1-2 weeks the lower leaves of the plant are harvested once again. There are 4 to 5 harvests spaced 1-2 weeks apart for each tobacco plant.  The leaves are cut from the stalk and placed upon recycled fertilizer or sugar bags. When a sufficient amount of leaves have been placed on the flattened bags, the bags are rolled up to form a roughly three foot diameter bundle of leaves.  The bundles are then placed in a cart or somlaw for transportation to the processing area.

After taking some photos of the man and woman, I returned to the Wat and reunited with my wife and her family members.  They had just finished with their visit with the Ruesi so we headed back to our home about an hour to the south

Tobacco Drying In the Sun On Bamboo Mats

On our way to the Wat, I had noticed some interesting sights to photograph.  As we traveled along the local road that runs parallel to Highway 211, we made stops for me to photograph the cultivation of tobacco.

One stop was at an area where tobacco was drying out in the sun.  The area was comprised of several rows of racks constructed of bamboo.  Woven bamboo mats, many of them covered with a loose fibrous layer of shredded tobacco. were placed upon the bamboo racks.  The bare woven bamboo mats were stained from the nicotine of countless layers of tobacco that had been placed upon them.

In addition to the tobacco drying racks, there were several roughly constructed three sided huts distributed along the perimeter of the area.  The huts were work stations for the processing of tobacco.  Within the huts were stalls where bundles of tobacco were stored beneath thick blankets resembling comforters.  There was also a piece of equipment stored under a tarp inside of each hut.  The equipment is used to chop the leaves for drying.

Tobacco Aging In Processing Hut

The processing huts also contained one or two rough lumber constructed tables, edges and flat surfaces worn smooth from many years of use. Use and age had given the lumber a rich patina - a common sight in Isaan.  On our trip out to this area, we passed an area where there were several businesses selling lumber and lumber products.  The fascinating aspect, for me, of these businesses was that the lumber was recycled homes and structures.  In the past homes and structures such as rice storage buildings and work areas were constructed from teak.  Teak is very durable and does not need painting to be preserved.  Today many of the new homes and structures are constructed out of concrete, cinder block, and brick.  Old homes are often carefully dismantled and relocated - making use of the old teak. For old teak houses that are no longer wanted, businesses will purchase the homes, dismantle them, and recycle the wood - cutting it into sections and sizes to be used in modern construction.  Some business will use their recycled wood to produce doors and garden gazebos.

Isaan Tobacco Worker
Soon after arriving at the processing area, we were joined by a local man and his wife.  They were tobacco processors.  As is so typical here, they were very friendly and hospitable.  They graciously and patiently answered all of my questions as translated by Duang.  They brought us to their nearby hut and showed us and explained how the tobacco is processed.

Tobacco Bundles Aging
From the workers we learned that the processing actually takes place at night.  It was confusing to totally comprehend exactly what time and what was done.  Part of the confusion was the information had to be translated twice.  I also strongly suspect that a great deal of the confusion was caused by the Thai way of telling time - the Thai way is not always used which makes it more confusing to understand exactly what time is being referenced.

From the discussions I left the area believing that the workers start at 8:00 PM bringing tobacco to the work area.  The tobacco is offloaded and stored vertically in bundles inside of the processing shed.  The bundles of the tobacco are covered to control the humidity.  After three days, the tobacco is chopped by machines.  According what I was told, the chopping of the tobacco starts at midnight and is completed by 8:00 AM.  Twice, I verified that the man and his wife would be working that night.

Duang and I discussed and agreed to return later that night to observe the tobacco processing.  We returned home to have dinner and for Duang to change into "winter" clothing for the long night to come.  Our nights have been "cold" lately - roughly 50F.

Once we arrived home, Duang convinced me to wait a while longer before returning to Phon Sa.  I woke her up at 11:00 PM to start our trip north.  After stopping at a 7-11 to get some snacks for the night, we headed north up Highway 2 towards the border.  One nice thing about traveling at night is you essentially own the roads.  There is very little traffic and almost no motorbikes after midnight.  This is great, especially here in Isaan, because many roads do not have lights and many also lack adequate reflective markings.  In many places, especially where there is lights, the combination of on coming traffic, street lights, and flashing lights along the road or from vehicles ahead of yu create some confusing situations.  The lack of traffic enables you to slow down as you feel necessary to sort out the confusion.

We arrived at the tobacco processing area at 1:00 AM - the perfectly dark and unoccupied work area!  I was convinced that all the work had been completed.  Duang assured me that everything was "OK, you not think.  I think people come later"  She then opened the back door of the truck cab and laid down to rest.  I remained in the driver's seat, eating snacks, and periodically checking my watch for the time.  The monotony of the night was only periodically interrupted by the occasional passing of a vehicle on the road running parallel to the Mekong River.

At the sight of each approaching vehicle, my hopes rose that it would be bringing the workers to start processing the tobacco.  Every time, those hopes were dashed as the vehicles continued on their way past the small road that lead down to our location.

As the night wore on, small wispy patches of ground fog materialized and floated around and about our truck and the processing area.  After a while, a long while, some lights came on in the distance - across an irrigation canal.  In the distance, I could just barely make out that it was a tobacco processing shed and people were starting to move about.  This gave me encouragement that perhaps Duang was correct that people would be coming to work.

I exited the pickup truck and took a little walk to determine how to get from where we were to where the lights were without getting wet.  I checked it out and went back to get my camera gear along with Duang to go over to the work area.

As we commenced to leave the truck, two people on a motorbike materialized out of the fog - they made no noise because they had shut off the engine and rolled down the hill to where we were parked.  It was two women coming to start work at 2:30 AM.  They were going to work at the area where we were located.  I followed them the very short distance to their shed.  Now the area was quickly coming to life!  The man and woman that we had visited in the afternoon arrived.  Some other men arrived out of the fog.

Lights, single bare florescent tubes, mounted on small diameter bamboo poles or attached to the sheds, provided some illumination.  At the far end of the drying area, the heavy silence of the night was destroyed by the blaring recording of Morlam (morlum) ethnic music answered by the staccato barking of near by village dogs.  It was the start of the work night ... a long work night for sure.

Tobacco Being Shredded by "Turbo" Shredder

Even with the illumination from the florescent lights, it was a surrealistic scene.  People came in and out of the shadows.  The rich color of the aged tobacco being chopped and handled added a color cast to the scene - bundles of tobacco leaves, whirling pieces of shredded tobacco, shredded tobacco piling up on recycled bags placed on the straw covered ground, masses of tobacco being transported in hand carts, and masses of shredded tobacco being made into mats on woven bamboo trays .  The sound of electrically powered machines chopping tobacco provided a baseline to offset the blaring music from afar.  On top of it all, I could hear the distinctive voice of my wife doing one of the things that Lao Loum people (ethnic Lao) do best and most - talk!  It is typical here in Isaan to encounter people and within 10 minutes observers would be led to believe that you were with family members.  The people enjoy talking about themselves and learning about you - it is all very open and candid.

The processing of the tobacco started with setting up the machine to shred the tobacco leaves.  There appeared to me to be two types of machines.  The first machine, one that I had been shown in the afternoon, I refer to as the "Turbo".  The turbo machine is a self feeding electrical machine that uses spinning wheel cutters to chop the leaves.  The chopped tobacco is axially ejected from the machine through a front fairing.  This machine casts quite a bit of chopped tobacco into the area surrounding it.  Fine netting, like the type used in threshing rice, is placed underneath and in front of the turbo cutter on the straw covered ground.  Recycled fertilizer and sugar bags are placed flat on the netting to capture the shredded tobacco.  Sometimes cardboard is set up to more efficiently deflect the stream of shredded tobacco to fall on the recycled flattened bags.

Shredding Tobacco With the "Guillotine"

The other type of equipment used to chop and shred tobacco, I refer to as the "Guillotine".  The guillotine, or perhaps it could be referred to as the "Chop-o-matic", is my favorite.  It is an electrical powered self feeding slicing knife.  Through a complicated mechanism of moving parts and lubricators, a single EXPOSED knife runs moves through cyclic motion cutting the tobacco.  Unlike the turbo slicer, the guillotine requires some maintenance as it operates. Periodically as the  machine was running, the operator would squirt some water out of a recycled dish washing detergent bottle on to the knife then used some sort of pad to rub the outside of the oscillating knife blade.  Duang told me that it was to keep the knife blade cool.  I also believe that it was to help keep the cutting mechanism clean and prevent it from clogging/plugging up.  The guillotine does not put shredded tobacco into the air like the turbo however it is slower. It makes a neat pile of shredded tobacco beneath the cutter.  Periodically the operator would scoop up the pile in his hands and place the shredded tobacco into a hand cart that when filled would be rolled over to the drying racks.

Be it the "Turbo" or the "Guillotine", the shredders are very dangerous machines - exposed belts, moving metal parts that cut, lacerate and pinch.  Machines that as they are configured now would not be allowed to operate in many countries.  The workers are aware of the dangers and I did not observe any with missing hands or fingers.  On top of the mechanical dangers of the machines there were the dangers of the electrical system.  Although it was in a moist outdoor location, there were no GFI (Ground Fault Interrupters), or weatherproof connectors or boxes associated with the 220 volt system. As Duang says "Thailand not like America"

Forming Shredded Tobacco Mat For Drying

Whether shredded by the turbo or guillotine machines the next step in processing the tobacco was to place it on the woven bamboo trays supported on bamboo racks.  Large handfuls of the freshly shredded tobacco are placed upon empty woven bamboo trays about 30 inches wide by 5 foot long.  Under the harsh and dim light of a single florescent light tube some distance away, a woman distributes and pats the shredded tobacco by hand to form a single mat of tobacco fibers about 1/2 inch thick.  When several trays are covered with tobacco mats, they are carried into the shadows and placed upon empty racks to await the rising of the sun.  The worker returns to her work area with empty trays to replace the trays that have been previously filled and so it goes for the entire night.

The tobacco is processed at night to ensure that it can be dried by the sun for a full day.  This minimizes the possibility of  mold growing.  The tobacco is sun dried for one day with the mat turned over once during the drying cycle.  If there is not sufficient sunlight, the tobacco is dried for two days.  The women handling the shredded tobacco as well as the men shredding the leaves wear latex gloves. not to prevent contaminating the product but to protect themselves from getting sick - GTS (Green Tobacco Sickness).  Handling wet tobacco can cause GTS.  I have read that tobacco harvesters should wear rain suits when harvesting tobacco wet from dew.  However the people that I observed harvesting tobacco wear not wearing any type of personal protection.  Although the tobacco processors were wearing latex gloves, the remainder of their clothing was typical of what you find Isaan workers of all types wearing - typically an athletic outfit or jeans and cotton shirt with a tee shirt wrapped around their head to form a sort of balaclava - balaclava Isaan style!

After the tobacco has been dried, it is formed into thick 1 Kg rings - roughly 24 inches diameter and 4 inches thick.  Ten of the rings are placed in a long plastic bag and sold to a representative of the TTM - Thai Tobacco Monopoly.

So what do people do with all that tobacco?  TTM uses it to make cigarettes.  Of the amount of tobacco that makes it to the private market, my wife believes that 80% of it is used in betelnut chewing with 20% going to roll your own cigarettes.  We bought 4 Kg and gave it to Duang's mother.  When Duang gave it to her mother she remarked that there was so much that she would die before it was all gone - a pinch of tobacco is used when chewing betel nuts.  Duang's mom is a good sport and just laughed.

We enjoyed the company of the workers and observing their work until approximately 4:00 AM when we set off for home, arriving at 5:00 AM and straight to bed for a well deserved as well as needed "night's" (morning?) sleep.

I had been presented with a great opportunity to observe and experience a different part of my world.  As always Duang was completely supportive of my desire to show ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It is all out there at all times, day or night, if we just allow ourselves to stretch the boundaries of our comfort zone and zone of experience.  I am fortunate to have a wife, a partner, who is fully willing to travel there with me.  We are also fortunate to live in a region where these encounters and experiences are so easy and available to experience.

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