Unbrave Girl Works It: My New Job Skills

June 26, 2010

Before arriving on the organic rice farm six weeks ago, I had no idea what jobs my volunteer assignment would entail. Of course it being a rice farm, I had a vague notion that I would be involved in some form of, well, rice farming… but what rice farming was and how one actually went about farming rice I had no clue (Aside from the fact that I knew, at some point, I would have to wear a pointy, straw hat… a look, I wasn’t quite sure, I could pull off). Since arriving here, I’ve definitely acquired a lot of new job skills (Unfortunately, I haven’t acquired any new hats — it turns out those pointy, straw numbers are neither fetching nor very comfortable!). Oddly enough, many of the skills I’ve picked up have nothing to do with rice or even, say, farming.

While I’m definitely impressed with my fancy, newfound skill set, I have no idea where on Earth I’ll be able to put these skills to use again. In fact, I have no idea where on Earth I’ll end up next. With only about a week to go, I’m nearing the end of my stint on the rice farm, but I haven’t had the time or the Internet to line up a new job for the coming months. Other than a volunteer gig set up in Laos at the beginning of September, I don’t know what the future has in store for me.

But maybe you know! Maybe you have some time and Internet and would love to find a gig for me somewhere between Southern Malaysia and Laos that can utilize my fantastic new set of skills! Or, heck, maybe you would like to hire me yourself to do one of the great new jobs that I suddenly know how to do (just don’t ask me to wear a pointy, straw hat!). So in case you’re wondering what it is I can bring to the table (hint: it’s certainly not rice!) here are just a few of the jobs that I’ve held while on the farm.

Weed Maintenance

My arrival on the rice farm, unfortunately, did not coincide with the glamorous Rice Planting Season or the equally exciting Rice Harvesting Season. Instead, I arrived smack dab in the middle of the ugly stepsister of Rice Weeding Season. Hence all the time I’ve spent in the rice paddies (and trust me, I have spent some serious time in those paddies) has been spent weeding, a task you very rarely ever see in all those famous movies about rice farming. (Surely there are some, right?!).

I still have no clue how rice is planted or how rice is harvested… or even how rice comes to be on a rice plant. At the moment, all the rice plants I’ve seen look just like long, wide blades of grass. How these blades of grass produce rice I have no idea. Maybe magic rice fairies show up in the middle of the night, wave around their magic rice wands and bestow grains of rice on each of the rice plants (but only on the rice plants that have been very good this year!).

Whatever magic happens during Rice Planting Season and Rice Harvesting Season, I can tell you not a lot of magic is happening during Rice Weeding Season. Generally the only thing that happens during Rice Weeding Season is weeding (lots and lots of weeding). Every once in a while something exciting will happen like someone will fall into the rice paddy (mind you, this is never exciting if it happens to you) or you’ll manage to wade all the way to dry land (without falling in) and take a water break — and then it’s back to weeding (lots and lots of weeding).

I usually spend at least three hours each morning weeding the rice paddies. When I’m not weeding rice paddies, I’m usually weeding something else, like one of the many small gardens around the farm, or the organic fruit trees, or a miscellaneous shrub somewhere. Because I have to pull out most of the weeds by hand, I have developed what is referred to as Carpal Weeding Syndrome by us in the farm biz. (Okay, I’m the only person who calls it that… but I’m sure the hotshots of agriculture will pick up on that name in no time!). Every morning when I wake up, the fingers in my right hand (my Primary Weeding Hand, as we in the biz call it) are stiff and sore and refuse to move for a good half hour (and then are none too pleased when the first task I ask them to do is weeding).

Given the sheer amount of time I’ve spent weeding (and, again, we’re talking serious time), I’ve been able to ponder the practice of weeding and have even developed a few guiding principles for the task:

1. Know your enemy… and remember not everything green is your enemy. After about an hour or so of bending over in the hot, Malaysian sun, it’s very easy to slip into a near-catatonic state. During this time, you may start pulling up every hapless plant that comes into your path. This is what I like to call The Weeding Zone. While The Weeding Zone can be productive, it can also lead to your accidentally decimating an entire acre of rice crops before you reach consciousness again (which, apparently, is a bad thing… and, also, happens to be a really difficult thing to explain should your supervisor show up to find you standing in a puddle of muddy water and yanked-out rice plants).

2. Be prepared. Remember that at any moment while you’re yanking out weeds, whether you’re standing knee-deep in rice paddy muck or you’re tackling a banana tree in some back pasture somewhere, you could be attacked by a python. You’re going to want to make sure you have a hoe at the ready to combat any would-be python attacks. Or, in the case of the rice paddy where bringing a hoe is inappropriate (and would just throw off your precarious rice paddy balance), you’ll want to make sure you are standing by someone else — preferably someone who is smaller than you and, thus, easier to swallow.

3. Don’t rush! When faced with an entire rice paddy of weeds or a row full of weedy banana trees, you may be tempted to work as quickly and diligently as possible so that you can finish weeding faster… and maybe get assigned a more exciting task, like, say, anything but weeding. Let’s just get one thing straight right now: you will never stop weeding! As soon as you finish weeding that rice paddy or that row of banana trees, your supervisor will just point you in the direction of a new rice paddy or new row of banana trees that needs weeding. Or, should you be really quick and diligent (even though I’ve warned you not to be), you might be pointed back in the direction of the first rice paddy or row of banana trees you weeded… which now needs to be weeded again. Which brings us to my last principle…

4. Weeds never die… they’re just reincarnated. You see, every time you pull out a weed, it is replaced by two new weeds which spring up almost instantaneously in its place. Should you pull up two weeds, than you’ll be triggering the rebirth of four weeds (so, again, it’s best not to be too diligent with these things). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered a whole new batch of fresh weeds in a section of the rice paddy that I just weeded a day or two beforehand. The best thing to do in this case is to ignore the new weeds and just hope that one day you, too, will be reincarnated, too… preferably as a big huge container of Roundup.

Resort Staff

In addition to rice cultivation, the farm I’m working on also has something called an “eco-resort.” Keep in mind, the words “eco” and “resort” are not used in the way you and I might use them.

From what I understand, “eco” usually stands for “ecological” in an environmentally friendly sense. But since arriving here, I’ve done more than a few things I wouldn’t exactly consider very friendly to the environment. For example, I spent a whole week throwing tractor tires into the pond. In fact, I’ve been asked to complete a number of tasks that usually involve dumping something not very natural (tractor tires, broken aquariums, rubber shoes, etc) into something natural (a pond or empty pasture, for example). Therefore, I would venture to say that “eco” in this part of the world stands for “ecological” more in a “back to nature” way. Not only does the “eco-resort,” transport the guests back to nature, but it also transports a number of other things back to nature… many things you wouldn’t expect to find in nature… like, ummm, tractor tires and broken aquariums.

Meanwhile, most people equate the word “resort” with a luxurious, all-inclusive, five-star hotel complete with a pool, room service and cabana boys. Here, I can only guess that they mean “resort” more in a “last resort” kind of way. I’m not saying the “eco-resort” is a bad place to stay. In fact, I think it would be a very nice, relaxing place to stay if you’re not being forced to do lots of weeding (lots and lots of weeding!). The setting is beautiful, the staff are incredibly friendly and, from what I understand, the pythons, as a rule, never attack guests. I’m just saying it’s not exactly a resort place to stay. I mean, I’ve been here five weeks, and I haven’t seen a single cabana boy!

In fact, the “eco-resort” is more like camping — without the amenities. The rooms are basic, concrete affairs packed full of iron bunk beds, which aren’t particularly comfortable (unless you’re one of those people who likes having an iron bar pressing up against your back). Every once in a while, a room will have a plastic lawn chair or waste basket thrown in for a touch of ambiance. Many of the toilets and showers are located outside of the rooms in little thatched roof huts. There is no pool or room service. The cabana boys have been replaced by rice farmers. And you can forget about a mints or chocolate on your pillow! (Although you may be lucky enough to find a piece of gecko poop on your bed… again, this all lends to the whole “back to nature” feel).

My “eco-resort” duties usually include cleaning the rooms and changing the sheets to prepare for visiting guests. I also help in the kitchen doing various odd jobs — mostly tasks the kitchen staff is certain I won’t ruin. Most days I’m not even allowed access to a knife; instead I’m usually asked to arrange bananas or wash dishes. Last week, their trust in me being suitably gained after four weeks of careful banana arrangement, the staff asked me to peel potatoes. Halfway through a pile of spuds, my peels were deemed “too thick,” and I was promptly labeled the “thick peeler” (a reputation which was only reinforced later when I was asked to peel some fruit). I have since been banished from any utensil with a sharp edge and have been put back on permanent banana arrangement and dish duty.

My “eco-resort” duties also include providing the guests with photo opportunities they might not otherwise have in their home countries. A week or so ago, while I was standing knee-deep in a rice paddy, a large herd of Singaporean guests descended upon the banks of the paddy to stare, point and take pictures. I looked around to see what they were so entertained by (Maybe the magic rice fairies had finally shown up to help me weed? Or maybe a python was devouring one of my smaller fellow rice paddy workers?). And then I realized they were taking pictures of me: the crazy white girl who came halfway around the world to weed rice paddies. That, my friends, is definitely something you won’t see at your fancy, schmancy five-star resort!

Prawn Wrangler

My favorite job on the farm by far is catching the freshwater prawn which are raised in the ponds on the farm. Every week, one of the ponds is drained, and it’s my job to run around the muddy, pond bed chasing after the prawn and then throwing them into a basket. Usually this requires me sticking my hand down a muddy hole and hoping to God I come up with a prawn (or two) and not a python (or two). Once all the prawn in the pond are caught, we then have to wash them off, weigh them and pack them up in styrofoam boxes.

While this job is even muddier than weeding rice paddies, it is infinitely more enjoyable. Catching prawn is fast-paced and has a certain “Man versus Beast” feel to it (or in this case “Woman versus Crustacean” feel) that keeps you on your toes (Well, that and the fact that it’s very easy to step on the prawn… which keeps you on your toes as well). From my experience catching prawn, I’m convinced that if weeds had pinchers and the ability to move, they would be much more exciting to catch.

Another reason why I like this job the most is because it reminds me of my childhood pastime of catching crayfish with my brothers and sisters in the creek nearby our farm. While I haven’t caught a crayfish in over twenty years, it seems that catching crustaceans is just like riding a bike — it’s something that was a lot of fun as a kid but you never thought you’d have to do as an adult (until you end up on a rice farm in the middle of Southern Malaysia).

New Volunteer One-Woman Welcome Wagon

As the volunteer who has been on the farm the longest, I’m usually the one who has the task of welcoming new volunteers and filling them in on important information like their expected hours, expected duties and all the ways they can expect to die. Admittedly, this is one skill that I could use a little help with. (Maybe I should leave out the part about expecting to die… and, well, being expected to work…) Considering the recent retention rate of volunteers on the farm, I may need to adjust my approach.

I’ve been told that most volunteers on the farm stay from two weeks to one month. Lately, the volunteers have been staying from one day to, umm, two days. Last week, an American couple hightailed it off the farm in less than twenty-four hours of their arrival. This past week, a thirty-year-old interior decorator from Kuala Lumpur showed up on Sunday and was gone by Tuesday claiming she had a “work emergency” to attend to. (What this “work emergency” could be, I was dying to know, but she never filled me in. Maybe a case of exploding curtain rods? Or possibly an incident with a paint roller and some semi-gloss paint?!).

I was a little surprised she left so early seeing as I was making every attempt to watch my words after the quick disappearance of the American couple. I didn’t even mention the word “python” until her second day! And, as she had been placed in her own room (a management decision spurred, no doubt, by my uncanny ability to scare away new volunteers), I wouldn’t have even bothered to tell her about the bed bugs which had infested my room the weekend before her arrival. But then she showed up at my door on Monday night in the middle of a thunderstorm asking me if she could bunk with me because she was scared of the thunder and lightning and intermittent power outages (How, exactly, she thought I could protect her from these things I’m not sure. As far as I know, the sickle I keep in my room is only good for defending me against snake attacks). After she pulled her mattress into my room, I felt it only right that I tell her there was a strong possibility of bed bugs attacking her in the middle of the night. By seven in the morning the next day, she had left my room and her bags were packed.

At the moment, the only other volunteer on the farm is an odd Austrian, who is prone to doing yoga in the hall in his underwear each morning. While I have grown quite fond of him (in the same way I imagine inmates in a prisoner of war camp might grow fond of each other), I have to say it would be nice to have a few more volunteers around. After all, there are an awful lot of rice paddies to weed for only two people. Plus, it gets quite dull in the rice paddy without anyone to talk to (the Austrian isn’t really into chit-chat) or watch fall over (he isn’t really into falling over either). Besides, the Austrian is very tall and lanky and doesn’t seem to have an inch of meat on his body. When given the choice between him and meaty, little me, I’m quite certain any python would chose me.

So in order to keep the volunteers around a bit longer, I’m thinking of changing my welcome spiel a bit. I could replace the word “weeding” with “drinking” and the word “python” with “unicorn.” So, for example, I might tell the new volunteer: “Tomorrow, we’re going to spend the whole day drinking, but just be careful to watch out for unicorns!” Of course, they would find out the truth soon enough once we made our way out to the rice paddy. But at least they might stick around long enough to help me get through one rice paddy… and long enough to provide a hungry python (or two) with a little lunch.

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I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On November 24, 2010 at 9:37 pm Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World said:

    I laughed, and lauged and I have tears streaming down my face. What a hilarious post!

    • On November 25, 2010 at 9:10 am Unbravegirl said:

      Aww… thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

      One of the reasons why I think I stayed on the farm so long was because it was so fun to write about. Mind you, it wasn’t so fun to actually work there… but as for writing inspiration it really couldn’t be beat! I mean pythons and weeds — literary inspiration doesn’t get much better than that!

  2. On January 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm Bethany said:

    haahaa. This is hysterical! I can really related (replace the rice w/ grapes and the pythons with biting spiders, ok, doesn’t not sound as bad now!) Anyway, I wwoofed in Italy at a vineyard and it was awesome and hysterical all at the same time. Thankfully I didn’t have to dodge Pythons but I did almost sit on a scorpion – somehow that doesn’t carry the same weight as sticking your hand in muddy holes. 🙂

    Great post. Def. coming back to read more. BTW, are you wwoofing?
    Bethany recently posted..Beers and Beans – 3 years and 28 Life Changing Events Later – A Visit to the Beginning of a Travel Blog

    • On January 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm Sally said:

      You almost sat on a scorpion? Omigod. Remind me to never WWOOF in Italy.
      I was WWOOFing when I was in Malaysia, and have hopes to do it again in Asia next year. At the moment I’m volunteer teaching in Thailand — much less mud & pythons to deal with! But I kind of miss the adventure & the rice farmer. He rocked.

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