Monday, 11 March 2013

The Ricicle Works

As a couple of friends of mine (or "people I sit near, at work" as they would probably prefer to be called) will testify, I don't like the idea of getting muddy. Their constant attempts to get me to participate in the dubious activity of cyclocross racing have proved fruitless. For those unfamiliar with this so-called leisure pursuit, it essentially consists of running up, down and around a hilly park whilst carrying a bicycle, occasionally attempting to jump onto said bicycle, only to pedal into a muddy puddle, get stuck and fall off into the aforementioned puddle... for an hour... in the winter! Even though I own the necessary equipment for this (a cyclocross bike) and even though I will occasionally be willing to join them in riding 100 mile road events, I am not prepared to join the cyclocross gang and end up looking like a refugee from a lycra festival at Glastonbury. So this morning's activity in Laos is a little out of character for this mudophobe - we are going to a farm where we will learn how to plant, pick, and process rice - and we are likely to get very muddy.

The Living Land Farm is about 10 minutes drive from the centre of Luang Prabang and is a working farm which provides employment for people from the surrounding area. They grow rice in the paddy fields surrounded by spectacular mountainous scenery and have recently come up with the idea of obtaining free labour from workaholic holidaymakers like ourselves. We are welcomed warmly, given a brief introduction to the homemade tools used by the farmers and then we are straight into our rice experience.

Stage 1 - germinating the rice seeds. Some of the rice from the previous harvest is retained, still in its husk, and is planted and watered and begins to sprout. Once the sprouts have become little roots and long thin green leaves have appeared these little plants which now resemble tiny spring onions can be transferred to the paddy fields.

However, before we can do that, the waiting paddy (each of which is about the size of a tennis court, and separated by raised dams of clay soil) must be ploughed. This is where trousers get rolled up as far as possible, shoes and socks are removed and we prepare to step into the grey muddy water of our chosen paddy. After a quick introduction to Susan, a massive mud-encrusted water buffalo, Justine goes in,  knee deep in mud and assisted by one of the farmers, without whom she might easily fall headlong into the squelching clay. She is shown how to take hold of the plough, and told how to shout instructions at Susan who will be providing the tractor services for this particular job. Susan lurches forward, the plough carves a channel through the paddy and Jus attempts slurping footsteps along this channel, keeping the plough, and herself, mainly upright.

Then Susan stops. Why? The Lao word for "hey big cow-thing, please wait a moment" was never issued (at least not knowingly). It seems that Susan, having dragged Justine and the plough just a few paces through the mud bath has decided that a "comfort break" is required and we all have to wait as she (Susan, not Justine) answers nature's call. This is organic farming on the front-line, and I can tell by the expression on Justine's face that she's excited to be experiencing it at such close quarters. Meanwhile I make a mental note to always rinse rice before cooking it in future. Toilet stop complete, the ploughing resumes, Jus finishes her shift and  is helped out of the paddy looking as if she's wearing mud socks.

As there are only two of us on the trip we both get the opportunity to participate in each step, which I have to say I'm delighted about as I nervously step into the sloppy mud and assist Susan with some more ploughing. Thankfully I'm able to stay on my feet and complete my short but productive contribution to this paddy - another 2 hours and it would have been done but I don't want to deprive anyone of a job, especially as I'm not a member of the Laos Farmers Union.

So onto Stage 3, we climb knee deep into the next paddy (here's one they prepared earlier) and are shown how to plant the little rice shoots in the mud under the water. It seems amazing that these tiny plants will survive having their roots pushed into wet clay with just little green leaves poking out above the surface of the water. A process of regular draining, drying and refilling of the paddys by simply opening and re-sealing the surrounding clay dams encourages the rice plants to grow until eventually they are ready to harvest.

Before we can harvest, we need scythes, so it's a quick blacksmithery course as we operate the clever bamboo bellows, learn the bamboo bellow dance, learn the bamboo bellow song which accompanies the bamboo bellow dance and finally, when the red hot coals have softened our steel, we whack it as hard as possible with a hammer until it's flat and vaguely scythe-shaped. I say "vaguely"... this is the first time either of us has tried forging garden implements from scratch and though I like to think that with a little more work our efforts would make perfectly passable harvesting tools, we are handed "ones they've prepared earlier" for Stage 4. This involves a kind of Generation Game challenge in which we are shown the correct way to cut a bunch of rice plant stems (point the scythe down and pull it away from you for safety reasons) and then a method of wrapping the stems into a little sheaf - then we have to try doing it, and are surprisingly successful considering our novice status.Then we use nunchucks to take a load of rice sheafs and smash them onto a bamboo mat so that the rice grains are blasted off.

Having threshed the rice we waft the grains with big fans to blow away the useless empty husks. We take the good grains and toss them in a big bamboo pan to separate the husks and blow away even more unwanted bits. Then we pedal a machine which looks like a giant pestle and mortar attached to a cross-trainer to smash some of the grains up. Having "cross-trained" it's on to a kind of rowing machine which turns a big millstone, grinding the crushed grains to make rice flour. Now sweating profusely we push a massive sideways mangle to squeeze juice from sugar cane (something that's usually Susan's job but our presence meant she had the morning off). We feel like we've just spent an hour down at the gym so it's nice to hear that we're finally able to try eating some of our hard work and after an aperitif of sweet sugar cane juice, we're treated to a meal of steamed sticky rice, rice waffles, rice cakes, rice biscuits, rice wine (and probably a few other rice-based items that now slip my mind) along with salad and herbs from the allotment.

The whole experience was fascinating and enjoyable from start to end. And so impressed were they by my cross trainer exploits (must be down to my elite cycling physique) that I was even offered a job... 3 dollars a day and all the rice I can eat. If I didn't get so muddy, I'd consider it!

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