The cold season has arrived and although you would think that “cold” would be a misnomer for a season in a country such as Thailand, here way up in the mountains it is perfectly suited. The nights have become a bone chilling experience and once again after my Altiplano of Peru experience I am really appreciating the luxuries that we enjoy in the US. The other night it got down to the mid 50s, which although most of you who are reading this blog would say is a rather comfortable temperature, you have never lived in a Karen house. Let’s discuss insulation, in truth there is nothing to discuss! The walls of my house consist of rough cut boards that allow everything in except for the medium sized Thai insects (the size of your fist) and the stupid farang who locks his keys in. Waking up to the crowing of the roosters at 6:30 a.m. (really more like 4:00 a.m.) to a room filled with air heated to the comfortable temperature of 50 degrees tends to be a little bit uncomfortable. Enough of my complaining! Although the cold, which has not reached its coldest, can be a little nerve racking, I got to skip out of a hot season where in the rest of Thailand there is no respite for the concrete ovens that most Thais call home.
The arrival of the cold season also signals the beginning of the rice harvest which I was fortunate enough to participate in for the first time in my life. By now the rice fields have turned from an electric green to a glowing yellow that is contrasted by the dense green forest surrounding it. I made an appointment to meet Sukachai at Na Klet Hoi at 8:00 a.m. to partake in this time honored tradition. When I arrived I was invited in to sit around the indoor fire and drink Karen tea which is a prerequisite to any Karen gathering. By the time we were heading to the rice field the clock had long past struck 9:00 a.m. but in this “sabai” culture time is of little consequence. Now that I think of it, the only place in the world where being on time is respected and expected is our “go-go” American society (I say this without making any judegement....that is a whole blog entry in itself). As we were wandering down the path, in between houses, past pig sties, through thickets of Mexican sunflowers, and over streams Sukachai commented on the concept of time in Thailand as compared to America. With a bit of laughter in his voice he told me, “In America we probably wouldn’t be going to work 1.5 hours after the time we said we would meet, would we?” This man, with an education no higher than middle school and who had never traveled farther than the provincial capital four hours away, knew of the concept of “American time.” The pervasiveness of our culture in the far flung regions of the world never ceases to amaze me!
Each villager usually has several acres of rice to harvest and harvesting rice is a communal activity. Each person has a selected day in which all the other villagers arrive to help them harvest their field. When we arrived in the field and I was promptly given a small curved knife used to harvest the rice. Without hesitation everyone put themselves to their task, except me. Soon the swish of the blades and the quite Karen banter was all that I faced in front of me. Apparently they figured that since harvesting rice comes second nature to them that this farang shouldn’t have a very difficult time doing it. Alright, cutting some stalks of rice is not the most difficult task in the world, but after cutting a few patches I felt like such a novice. The villagers effortlessly moved through the field while I struggled to get every individual stalk cut before moving on. With only two quick motions the villagers would neatly sever the stalks and be grasping them in their left hand. I stood back and watched for a moment, saw the motion, and tried to replicate. Although it took a little time I was soon moving along, granted at about half the pace of my fellow workers.
It was a nice cool morning and the fog had not completely been burned off. As I worked a slight sweat covered my face, but it was hardly noticed in my awe of harvesting rice in a Karen rice patty in the mountains of Northern Thailand. I wish someone would have told me that I would be doing this 10 years ago so I could have seen my reaction. After a few hours we stopped to have some, try to guess, Karen tea. It was accompanied with some typical Thai snacks and some hardened sugarcane juice. As I sat there in silence not understanding a word of what everyone was saying I saw a boy playing with a small animal. It turned out to be a mouse/rat and he was pretty proud of himself for catching it. The villagers love hunting these little rodents and swear to me that they are very delicious. In fact, today I was told that there is a certain type that is medicinal because it eats primarily plants that are used as traditional herbal medicine. They didn’t tell me exactly what eating one would cure, but I’m sure just about anything! After break we went back to work. Soon I saw a few men surrounded by large stacks of newly cut rice. They would wedge the rice stalks between two sticks that were attached by a string and then proceed to beat the rice against small wooden structure in order to extract the rice kernels. I sat and watched for a while and then returned to work. Soon it was lunch time and everyone headed to Sukachai’s house. Most of the people disappeared for a moment and returned with banana leaves filled with rice. The main course was provided by Sukachai’s family and everyone sat down and ate. By the end of lunch I realized I was exhausted and everyone urged me to go home and rest for the afternoon. They wouldn’t want the honored guest to be overworked! I took their advice, but I’m sure that they continued to work until dusk! Needless to say, rice harvesting doesn’t exactly conform to the stature of a six foot white man. The next three days my quads were so sore from bending over for five hours that I thought twice before sitting down because I wasn’t sure if I could get back up! In all it was a great experience!