A Rare Breed: My Fellow Rice Farm Volunteers

June 5, 2010

In February, before I headed off to rural Northern Thailand to cat-sit by myself for two months, I worried about being stuck out in the middle of nowhere all on my own. How would I survive in the jungle by myself with absolutely no ability to speak the Thai language and an absolutely uncanny ability to regularly cause myself harm? Heck, it had been difficult enough to survive in suburban Japan for three years on my own, given my propensity to set myself on fire while making breakfast (toaster ovens can be tricky to operate, you know — especially when all the instructions are in Japanese!).

I was worried that I might die out there in the middle of the Thai jungle and no one would know until the couple I was house-sitting for came home to discover the charred upper half of my body smoldering away in the toaster oven while my lower half was being gradually gnawed away by the cats.

If I managed to survive my time there, I was convinced I’d either end up really lonely or really crazy — at least a more visible form of crazy. I mean, plenty of my friends and family members would argue that I was already a bit off-kilter before I even left the States over three years ago, but I’ve never attempted to chew on my own ears or talk to leprechauns or wear a helmet fashioned from tinfoil and discarded cracker boxes.

Despite my fears, things in Thailand went surprisingly well. I didn’t die. I didn’t cause any house fires. Thanks to regular Internet which allowed me to easily connect with family and friends, I was, for the most part, hardly ever lonely. And as for any visible signs of crazy, well, I haven’t started stock-piling old cracker boxes (yet).

Since arriving at the rice farm in Southern Malaysia where I am currently volunteering, I have realized that being stuck in the middle of nowhere by myself wasn’t such a bad deal. After all, I like myself. I am easy to get along with (at least according to myself), an intriguing conversationalist (again, it’s possible I’m the only person who thinks this) and I bathe regularly. Who wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with me?! (Okay, don’t answer that).

There are a number of other people in the world who aren’t so easy-going or fascinating or fresh-smelling that would not be such fun company to find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere with. In fact, I’ve met a few of these people since arriving on the rice farm (which, in case you’re wondering, happens to be located right smack dab in the middle of nowhere).

I like most of the people on the farm; I really do — even if they do share the sounds of their bodily functions with me on an all too regular basis. I’m sure it’s not their fault that they all have a lot of pent up mucus that needs to be regularly expelled from their bodies in a particularly noisy fashion. Maybe there’s something about the nature of rice farming that makes one over-produce bodily fluids and, in no time, I’ll also be spitting and hacking and hawking up phlegm with the best of them!

My two most favorite people on the farm (and fast becoming my two most favorite people in the world) are my supervisors: Mr. Choi and Mr. Charles. Mr. Choi, a Chinese man with enough energy to power a small city, regularly invites me on trips to visit his family or shopping expeditions (or really any road trip that might involve heavy lifting) and lavishes me with gifts of new garden tools (This week I got a new sickle and two new garden trowels! Yippee!). My other supervisor, Mr. Charles has the looks of an aging Indian intellectual and the sweet-talking charm of a Bombay Lothario. His first words to me upon greeting me at the farm were, “Oh my, you look mature!” (Okay, maybe this wasn’t that charming). He quickly followed up that statement by declaring me an angel (It seems he likes his angels on the mature side). He regularly bursts into song when he sees me, declares his love for me with an alarming frequency and has asked me more than once to run away with him (a proposition I have refused — after all, he hasn’t given me a single garden tool, yet!).

The other workers on the farm have been friendly and welcoming to me, even though many of them don’t speak a lot of English and I don’t speak much of anything besides English. Even the crotchedy old fruit farmer who occupies the back apartment in the building where I currently live and acts as the self-appointed crotchedy dorm mother has his moments of warmth. After grumbling at me for the first week for not leaving the toilet seat up (his preferred position when it comes to toilet seats), he appeared happy to have me back after I spent the weekend away and handed me a passion fruit as a welcome back present… and then promptly went back to grumbling at me about the toilet seat.

Then there are the volunteer workers, and that, my friend, is a whole different breed of farm worker. Since signing up for this gig, I have discovered there are two reasons why people do this kind of thing: either they really want to work hard and stretch themselves and have a meaningful experience or they are complete and total weirdos. (Yeah, I realize I most likely fall into the latter group given my already stated off-kilter status and the fact that the only reason I signed up for this gig was because I thought it would make for a couple interesting blog entries — and, boy, was I dead on there, right? I’m sure you’re all thinking you can’t possibly read enough about my intriguing life on the rice farm!)

Think about it: who else would opt to spend their vacation time in a foreign country wading around in a muddy rice paddy? This is not a job most people would do in their home countries if they had a choice, let alone travel millions of miles to do in a foreign country. In fact, this isn’t even a job most Malaysians want to do in their home country. The majority of the workers on the farm are migrant workers from Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, who have come here for the chance to gain higher pay and a better life. And then there are the international volunteers primarily from Europe and the United States, who have come here for the chance to get malaria and mud parasites. Who other than really good people or really weird people would turn down a vacation at the beach to spend their holiday time as an unpaid migrant worker? Mind you, the volunteers are not expected to work nearly as many hours as the migrant workers are, but, then again, we get paid with rice and mosquito-infested dorm rooms. I’m pretty sure the migrant workers actually get paid with money (as well as rice and mosquito-infested dorm rooms).

The three volunteers I met when I first got here fell into the first group of people who sign up for this kind of thing: they were hard workers who wanted to make a difference with their time. One guy from Britain had arrived here with the intent of staying a couple months and ended up staying an entire year after being given a sizable project that he wanted to see through to the end. One of my roommates, a girl from the States, had a week free in Malaysia before heading to Indonesia and decided to get off the beaten path and spend her week working on the farm. Even my other roommate, a sulky twenty-year-old from Kuala Lumpur, who stayed on the farm for two weeks and stopped talking to me and everybody else by the middle of her second week, seemed to have come here with good intentions. When I asked her why she had volunteered to work on the farm (you know, back in the first part of the week, when she was still talking to me), she had told me she had never done any volunteering before and had wanted to test herself. I guess by midweek she had decided this was one of those silent tests that you’re not allowed to talk during and she promptly shut up. Despite her lack of chit-chat (or possibly because of it), she really did work hard (unlike me, who felt chatting about past boyfriends and future travel plans with my American roommate was a much better pursuit of my energy than, say, weeding the rice paddies).

Since then, all three of those volunteers have left, and two new volunteers have shown up. The first guy, a tall, lanky Austrian fellow arrived on the farm last week sporting a bald head and a tie-died tank top. He had just spent six months bumming through India and the last two months “sitting” in a hostel in Kuala Lumpur (at least that’s what he told me he was doing, although it does sound like an awful long time to “sit”!).

He seemed pleasant and agreeable, if more than a bit vague. When I asked him what he had been doing in India, he replied “something with bamboo” (he never specified what that “something” might have been… and I was too scared to ask). When I asked him why he had decided to volunteer on the rice farm, his answer was even more vague and made even less sense (I’d share it with you now if I had actually understood what he said… there was something about wanting to be close to nature and possibly his not having any more money… and that’s about all I understood). I’m not sure if his vagueness is the result of his shaky grasp of English or his shaky grasp on reality… either way, I haven’t found myself capable of having too many in-depth conversations with the man.

When I launched into a description of the various jobs that volunteers were expected to do on the farm, including weeding, pruning and washing the lunch dishes for the school groups that come here on field trips, he wrinkled his nose at me and replied that none of this sounded very “interesting.” At which point I wrinkled my nose at him and wondered exactly what kind of jobs he expected to be doing on a rice farm… maybe he thought this would be one of those exciting rice farms complete with an acrobatic mosquito circus and sickles that shoot laser beams. Sadly, this is not one of those kind of rice farms.

After two days of his wandering around the farm looking decidedly uninterested (usually without a shirt or shoes), the Austrian was sent off to the back fields to weed and prune banana trees. This was a task I had been given the previous week, and I was steadily working my way through one long row of banana trees that bordered the pond (a task I found much more “interesting” than, say, weeding rice paddies… if only because it didn’t require wading through mud!). When I found out that he had been assigned the same job as me, I couldn’t help feeling a bit territorial. “But that’s my job!” I whined. “He won’t be working on my row of trees, will he?!”

Luckily, he was assigned his own row of banana trees (phew!), and he promptly put on a shirt and some shoes and headed out to the fields. Since then, when he’s not pruning banana trees (his row of trees, mind you), he can be seen staring listlessly out at the pond or tooling away in the kitchen (again sans shirt and shoes) whipping up some concoction. The other day he produced a pan of blackened peanuts coated in vegetable oil and clumps of burnt brown sugar which he plopped down on the counter and declared were “ready” (“ready” for what I wasn’t sure… and was afraid to ask).

Earlier this week, another volunteer to the rice farm showed up, a beer-bellied Brit who has been living the last five years in Bulgaria and has both the British crooked smile and the Eastern European mullet to prove it. He had also spent the last six months traveling through India, but, unlike the Austrian, he seemed to actually have been doing something there besides, well, “something.” He informed me that he had traveled through the country on motor bike and that this had been “a lot of hard work.”

Like the Austrian, he seemed agreeable and made up for the Austrian’s vagueness with a blunt specificity which, at first, I found refreshing… until he kept on talking. At one point, he announced that he’d left the U.K. forever and had no intention of ever returning because it was “too full of Africans and Indians,” a fact he felt “just wasn’t right.” This anti-immigration stance seemed curious coming from a man who had spent five years of his life being an immigrant in Bulgaria, and his anti-Indian stance seemed odd seeing as he’d spent the last six months wandering through India (I guess Indians, in his opinion, are okay just as long as they stay in India!).

When I asked him why he had decided to volunteer on the farm, he replied that he wanted to “spend some time doing nothing and thinking nothing.” This also seemed a bit odd. I briefly wondered if he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe he’d intended to go to a beach resort or a nudist colony where you’re not allowed to lift heavy objects or even move very quickly for fear of chafing, but had accidently shown up at the rice farm. After all, one doesn’t usually equate “volunteering on an organic rice farm” with “doing nothing.” One thing I’ve learned from my three weeks here is that, unfortunately, farming isn’t one of those effortless tasks that just kind of happens (like, say, eating an entire pan of brownies by yourself or ordering that third pitcher of margaritas… trust me, those things seem to happen without your so much as lifting a drunken, chocolate-smudged finger!). Farming actually requires lots of work and lots of, you know, doing stuff.

If there’s another thing I’ve learned from my three weeks on the rice farm it’s that farming also requires a lot of thought… or, at least, it spurs thought. Sure, you don’t have to have a philosophical debate with yourself while you’re standing knee-deep in rice paddy muck attempting to discern a rice plant from a weed (Okay, this does take some debate. After all, rice plants and weeds both look surprisingly alike. Sheez, they could practically be twins!). But I’ve found that I do tend to ponder lots of things while I’m at work; for example, I think about all that mud surrounding my feet and wonder how many parasites are in that mud and how many of those parasites are quickly creeping into my feet via my toenails. I also think about life (as in, “Who would have ever thought my life would end up like this?”) and death (as in, “How much time do you suppose I have to get to the hospital before I die of mud parasites?”) and God (as in, “Oh God, oh God, OH GOD, what the heck was that that just crawled between my toes?!”).

After informing me of his reasons for volunteering on the farm, the Brit promptly took off his shirt. (This seems to be some kind of initiation ritual required of the volunteers on the farm that I didn’t know about. Seeing as I have more than enough bug bites covering my exposed body parts, I’ve decided to forgo removing any clothing and have actually considered applying more… like, say, some knee socks… and a burkha.) Sadly, unlike the Austrian, the Brit lacked the body for going topless, and he lacked the common sense to put his shirt back on before heading out to the fields to work the next day (I’m thinking this was part of his commitment towards his new “think nothing” life plan).

After a day of working on the banana trees (thankfully, not my row of banana trees), he showed up at dinner sporting scorched skin the color of canned tomatoes. During dinner he would frequently look down at his sunburnt limbs and chest in a befuddled way that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure how his skin had acquired such a brilliant hue and confessed to me that he feared he wouldn’t be able to sleep due to the extent of his sunburn.

Yet, the next day he was back in the fields, shirt-less and quickly turning an even more tomatoe-y shade of red (I guess I have to give him credit for really sticking to his “think nothing” plan.) By the end of the week, he started complaining of heat exhaustion, a condition that can be easily prevented by protecting yourself from direct sunlight with this thing I like to call a “shirt”. Even after complaining of dizziness and nausea, he kept working outside in the blazing heat with little more than his broiled epidermis to keep his insides from cooking. (Again, I really must applaud him for his commitment to his whole “think nothing” plan. Given the evidence, though, it seems his “think nothing” plan has seriously derailed his “do nothing” plan… unless by “do nothing” he means “die as a result of heat exhaustion.”)

Despite last week’s proclamation that I had, in fact, become a better person after two weeks on the rice farm, my attitude swiftly changed as of this week. On Thursday morning, I was back to my usual snarky self after spending a couple days with my fellow volunteers and racking up a record-breaking number of mosquito bites (despite my application of record-breaking amounts of DEET) and listening to the daily mucus ministrations of my male housemates and waking up to find an ant’s nest in my shoe.

After breakfast, I grabbed my new sickle, which I keep close watch of in my room (a girl never can be too careless with her gifts of garden tools!), and I headed out to find my hoe and make my way to my row of banana trees. I was hoping a couple hours of wrenching out weeds and hacking at overgrown leaves would work out some of the frustration I was starting to feel. When I showed up at the shed where I had stored my hoe the day before, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Someone had stolen my hoe!

Made even crankier by the sneaky hoe-stealer, I drudged my way out to the back field where I attempted to pull up weeds despite being hoe-less. I comforted myself with my new favorite mind game: making up mental tweets. You see, since I no longer have ready access to Internet, I can’t hang out on Twitter as much as I’d like and regale the Twitter-verse with every little thought or comment that enters my head (at least any thought or comment that enters my head in 140-character format… sometimes I do actually have thoughts and commentary that exceed that limit — but not very often!). Sometimes my mental tweets are wistful (“I miss the days when my major criteria for getting dressed each morning wasn’t: must be leech-proof”), sometimes playful (“Judging from the amount of insect bites on my body right now either I’m really tasty… or I have fleas”) and, on that day, they were mostly snarky (“Dear British volunteer, Bulgaria called. It wants its mullet back.”)

As I was composing malicious mental tweets in my head, the Austrian volunteer snuck up behind me and said, “Good morning.” As I was so deep in my pruning process (not to mention my mental Tweet process), I was taken by surprise and jumped about twelve feet into the air. Just moments before his arrival (in between mental Tweets), I had been thinking that it would be a real shame if a python was to sneak up on me while I was out in the field and squeeze the banana-tree-pruning life out of me. While I was pretty sure pythons don’t bother to bade you a good morning before they commence wrapping themselves around you and attempting to swallow you whole, you never can know about these kind of things. (I’m also pretty sure pythons in this part of the world wouldn’t speak with an Austrian accent, but, again, you never know!).

After calming down from my initial scare and chatting a bit with the Austrian about my progress on my row of trees and his progress on his row of trees, he sauntered off and I started to feel really bad. Here I had been composing all these evil mental tweets about him, and he’s really quite a pleasant guy… if terribly vague… and prone to questionable hygiene. (I mean, really, I know I’ve been prancing around barefoot in a rice paddy for three weeks, but you’d never catch me putting so much as a bare baby toe on the floor of the cafeteria’s kitchen — there’s no telling what kind of parasites are lurking on that floor waiting to slither their way under my toenails!). And as I was standing there thinking charitable thoughts about him (and composing a few apology tweets in my head), I saw he had a hoe slung over his shoulder — a hoe that looked quite a bit like my hoe. (I’m sure you’re wondering how I can tell these things… but you spend a week with a hoe and you start to get pretty attached!).

Suddenly my charitable thoughts and apology tweets were gone, replaced by snark and mental tweets of vengeance… and a deep, desperate wish for a sickle capable of shooting laser beams. But, sadly, this is not one of those kind of rice farms.


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

  1. On May 2, 2012 at 11:05 am Alex said:

    I don’t think I’m cut out for a rice farm. You see, I got enough fleas working at a public school in Guatemala—if even one kid had a chicken (or a dog) that had fleas, and came to school, I was sure to get them, too. In Guatemala, the students are expected to greet the teacher with a kiss on the cheek—just perfect for transferring fleas, lice, and every other bug imaginable.


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