The Unbrave Girl’s One-month Survival Guide to Life on a Malaysian Rice Farm

June 12, 2010

This Monday marks my one-month mark on the organic rice farm in Southern Malaysia where I’ve been volunteering. Time certainly flies when you’re having fun! Time also flies when you’re busy worrying about pythons and mud parasites and sneaky no-good hoe-stealers.

To be honest with you, I’m surprised I’m almost at the one-month mark. Heck, when I first arrived on the rice farm, I wasn’t even sure I’d last the week, let alone the month! After my first couple days of wading through mud to weed rice paddies and waking up to the sounds of my male housemates clearing out all the phlegm from their body cavities, I was ready to call it quits. But, here I am, almost finished with one month and looking forward to my second.

Sometimes I even think to myself that I might want to do a third month — but I’m pretty sure that’s just the mud parasites talking. By now they’ve surely moved their way from the rice paddy muck, into my toenails, up my blood stream and lodged themselves firmly in my brain, where they are making me think all kinds of crazy thoughts — like “Hey, I kind of like this rice farming thing. I could stay for another month!” and “Hmmm, why don’t I just go walk over on that side of the creek where the pythons hang out.”

I can’t say my month at the rice farm has been a walk in the park. It’s been more like a walk in the rice paddy, which, in case you’re wondering, is not as easy as it looks… and I wouldn’t even say it looks all that easy! I mean, there’s a lot of mud in a rice paddy… a lot. Plus, there’s all those mud parasites in your brain making you walk all funny. But I have come up with a few strategies to make life on the Malaysian rice farm a whole lot easier on myself; all of which I am happy to share with you now, should you, too, decide to take up residence on a rice farm (and should you decide to do that it’s possible your brain is already chock-full of mud parasites… because only crazy people with mud parasites for brains would think this is a good idea!).

Put It In Writing

Since the rice farm that I’m working on is organic, they don’t believe in modern conveniences like pesticides and weed killer and the Internet. Sure, these things can be bad: both pesticides and herbicides have been linked to cancer and the Internet has been linked to Justin Bieber. Despite always having been opposed to herbicides, I’m starting to understand the allure of weed-killer after four weeks of weeding rice paddies and banana trees and something called a “grass garden” (which I mistakenly thought was a flower bed; long story short: now it’s neither).

I’m also starting to really, really miss my wifi. Since I’m only able to access the Internet during the one or two trips I make into town each week, I can’t regularly regale the cybersphere with emails and Facebook status updates and Tweets about my new life on the rice farm. I also can’t update my blog as regularly as I’d like. (Maybe you’ve felt a certain, indescribable emptiness in your life over the past month and you weren’t exactly sure why? Well, it’s probably because you haven’t been seeing much of me on the old Information Superhighway. Fret not, though, as I vow the next time I volunteer on an organic farm, I’ll make sure it’s an organic farm with Internet access… and latte-access. You don’t know of any organic farms located within a Starbucks, do you?!).

Should you, too, end up on a Internet-less, organic rice farm (and, again, you really might want to get your brain checked if you have), you’ll need some place to write down all your thoughts and ideas and mud-parasite-induced musings. I’ve been using this thing called a “journal.” A journal is just a notebook full of this stuff called “paper” that you write on with this thing called a “pen” — weird, right?! This is what people used before blogs and Twitter and Facebook back in the olden days of the 1990s. You can’t embed any photos or video into your journal, you can’t use Google AdSense to make money off of your journal, and, weirdest of all, nobody is supposed to read your journal but you. It’s all very old-fashioned and quaintly non-self-promotional.

It may feel a bit weird writing in your journal at first; it certainly did for me. Usually, while writing blog entries, I feel the need to provide entertainment or information to my readers which usually requires a great deal of exaggeration, plagiarism or lying. Since a journal is only used to keep track of your experiences for yourself, there’s no need to embellish the truth or even make anything you write the least bit interesting. This explains why some of my journal entries sound like this:“I spent three hours weeding and pruning banana trees today” and “This morning’s breakfast consisted of rice, dried fish and hard-boiled eggs. I ate two eggs” (Yes, riveting stuff, I know).

By keeping a journal, you’ll never forget all the fantastic memories you’ll be making on the rice farm. (And who would want to forget the morning of the two hard-boiled eggs?! That, my friends, was quite the banner day!). And, should you be like me, you have a horrible memory thanks to a few too many margaritas in your early twenties and now a few too many mud parasites in your early thirties. (I’m just hoping I can make it to my forties and still remember how to tie my shoes. That is, if the mud parasites haven’t taken complete control of my brain and I’ve actually managed to make it off the rice farm by then… seeing as I have very little use for fancy things like shoes in the rice paddy).

Find Your Niche

There is definitely no end to the jobs to be done on the rice farm, but not all of these jobs are what I would consider “good jobs.” (Mind you, my definition of “good jobs” merely means “jobs that won’t put you in close contact with pythons.”) Your first month on the farm is your chance to try out a number of different jobs to find out which tasks suit your skills and experience (and by “skills and experience” I mean “general cowardice”).

For example, I’ve discovered that I’m good at washing dishes, peeling garlic, sweeping floors, pruning banana trees and, basically, any job that keeps me out of a rice paddy. I can’t even say that I’m all that bad at weeding rice paddies, but ever since I found out that they discovered a 70-pound python living in one of the rice paddies last year, I haven’t been so keen to wade out in the muck — especially not by myself. (And, even when I do wade out there with other people, I prefer to go there with people who are a bit more bite-sized than myself in the hopes that that any pythons we encounter will be in the mood for a light snack or appetizer rather than a heavy meal like big-boned, American me).

Once you discover the jobs that you are good at and (and, dare I say, even enjoy), you should make a point of announcing your preference to your supervisors. Granted this won’t get you out of any undesirable jobs, but given the choice between sending you out to a python-infested rice paddy or having you wash lunch dishes, your supervisors will most likely opt to have you wash the dishes knowing how enthusiastic you were about that task last time they gave it to you. (I must mention that it can be difficult to maintain an extreme enthusiasm for something like washing dishes, but, remember, your life is on the line here and pythons very rarely hang out in kitchen sinks).

Meanwhile, in order to ensure that you snag all the plum positions (again, I’m only talking about jobs that won’t get you swallowed alive), you might want to steer the other volunteers away from these jobs. I’m not saying you should lie, just maybe, ummm, mislead them a bit (and never ever mention the words “python” and “rice paddy” in the same sentence). Maybe you can whine about your dish-pan hands or get a t-shirt that says “I’d rather be weeding a rice paddy.” This way you won’t have to worry about them stealing away your sweet gigs. Although, you may still have to worry about them stealing your sweet gardening tools. Some people will do just about anything to get their hands on your hoe! (Just ask your average gangsta rapper; they’re always rapping about stuff like that.)

Home, Sweet Home

Even if you’re not a homebody, you’ll probably find yourself spending a lot of time in your dorm room on the rice farm. Sure, you could spend your off hours lounging out by the pond or watching the sunset over the rice paddy, but this is just asking for trouble (and by “trouble” I mean “work”). You see, as mentioned before, there are a lot of jobs on the rice farm and should someone see you wandering aimlessly around that rice farm they will assume you’re looking for something — like a few dishes to wash. Your dorm room is pretty much the only place on the farm that you are safe from being assigned a task or being asked to wash a dish.
While it may just be a grubby, mosquito-infested dorm room, this doesn’t mean you can’t add a few personal touches to make it feel like your grubby, mosquito-infested dorm room. First, I’d suggest adding a few wall hangings. Forgot to pack your favorite Van Gogh print or your “Hang in There” motivational poster with the picture of a kitten hanging from a tree?! No need to worry! Why not decorate the walls with some drying underwear or your now mildewy pack towel? Nothing says “welcome home” (and “hang in there” all at the same time) like your moisture-wicking undies hanging from a few well-placed nails in the walls.

For a whimsical touch (and in order to help alleviate just a little bit of the back pain caused by bending over a rice paddy for three hours), I’d suggest stacking at least four or five thin mattresses on to the metal cot in your room. This will make your bed look like it’s straight out of a storybook — specifically The Princess and the Pea (never mind that the pea is a metal bar that cuts across the middle of the cot and the princess looks like she’s had a close encounter with the Swamp Thing).

Finally, I’d also suggest you keep your collection of small gardening tools in your room (this may include your sickle, trowels, hedge clippers and the little rake-y thing you used to do such a good job on digging up that supposed “grass garden”). This adds a certain rustic charm to the room that even Martha Stewart would be proud of (she’d also be proud of your work on that grass garden, for sure!). Plus, it guarantees that everyone will keep their paws off your sickle. (As for your hoe, you might want to embed it with some kind of security device…)

Hang with the In Crowd

You’ll probably discover upon arriving on the rice farm that the nearest town is a good five miles away along a dirt road populated by pythons and wild boars. The only way you’ll be able to get into town to use the Internet, buy necessities and swig a beer or two is by hitching a ride with someone who has a motor vehicle. On our farm, farm workers outnumber motor vehicles by about forty to one. (Okay, so I’m not entirely sure there are even forty people on the farm… but still, you get the point: lots of people, not so many cars.) With limited car space, you’re going to want to make sure you cozy up to someone with a car to ensure that you’ll always be invited on trips into town.

The tactics used to make sure you can get a ride into town while living on a rice farm are very similar to the tactics you might have used as a high school student to get a ride into school, should you have been one of the unlucky few without a car. These tactics may include: lying, cheating, promising to weed someone’s rice paddy for him, and showing a little (mosquito-bitten) leg. Mind you, these are not the tactics I ever used to get a ride into high school as there weren’t many rice paddies in New York State and I was prone to making bad fashion choices like wearing stirrup pants (very hard to show a little knee when your pants are inexplicably attached to the bottom of your feet). Hence, I spent most of my mornings heading into high school on the bus with the other big-boned girls in stirrup pants (Oh, and a sorry sight we must have made!). But having had almost twenty years to work on my car-ride conniving ways (and dispose of any stirrup pants that might still be lingering in my closet), I have now become quite the expert at wheedling my way into any trips into town.

In addition to securing your seat in any car heading into civilization, you’ll want to make sure you don’t accidentally reveal the pending mission to town to anyone. You see, should you accidentally tell another volunteer that you’re going to town to check your email and down a few beers after a difficult day in the rice paddy, your fellow volunteer might decide that he also would like a ride into town (even though he has done no lying, cheating or leg-showing to deserve it!). Again, I’m not saying you should lie to your fellow volunteers, just mislead them a bit… or maybe stop talking to them altogether so that you don’t accidentally let out any of your top secret car trip plans.

It does get a bit tricky hiding the truth when your fellow volunteer spots you walking across the farm carrying a purse and wearing something fancy… like, say, shoes. You’ll probably have to do a bit more lying (and leg-showing) to convince him that you’re not, in fact, going into town, you’re just wandering around the farm with your purse in case you see anything nice you’d like to buy… like a new sickle or hoe.

Make a Break for It

The simple life is good and all, but, chances are, you will probably find yourself yearning for the Starbucks life at some point during your time on the farm. A weekend break in the city can help you rejuvenate after a long week of rice paddy weeding and ensure that you don’t spend your Saturday weeding any more rice paddies. You see, spending your weekends on the farm is only asking for trouble (and, again, by “trouble” I mean “work”). You can only hide in your room for so long. At some point during the weekend, you will actually need to leave your room to use the bathroom or stock up on your supply of hard-boiled eggs. This is when you will be spotted and sent packing to your nearest rice paddy.

Upon choosing a destination for your weekend break, you’ll want to make sure you pick a city with relatively little to offer in the way of attractions so you’ll never feel inclined to actually leave your hotel room. I have spent a few of my weekend breaks in nearby Johor Bahru, an industrial city located across the Causeway from Singapore, which is known for its grimy urban sprawl and burgeoning crime rate (kind of like the Detroit of Malaysia). The city is affectionately described by Wikitravel as of “little interest to the casual tourist” and a “remarkably pedestrian-hostile city.” Sights include a handful of mosques and temples, a “dismal” public zoo and the “relatively run-down” Orchard Valley. The first time I stayed in the city, I asked the staff at my hotel if they had a map to the area and they looked at me as if I had just asked them when the next free bus to the moon would be leaving. Needless to say, not many people go to Johor Bahru to check out the sights; in fact, I’m pretty sure the only people who go to Johor Bahru are volunteer rice farming refugees on break from the rice farms.

Should you be traveling on a strict budget (and this whole volunteering-on-a-rice-farm gig is just one of your many crazy schemes to keep yourself within that strict budget), you may be worried that you won’t be able to afford regular weekend breaks in the city. Worse yet, you might be tempted to book accommodation at a hostel or some other establishment which will offer you a room that looks unsettling like your room on the rice farm. Remember, you need this weekend break to refresh yourself (and realign your back after a month spent weeding rice paddies and sleeping on a metal cot), so it’s important to book a hotel room where the beds are comfy and clean and don’t come fully stocked with bed bugs!

Luckily what Johor Bahru lacks in tourist attractions and safety prevention, it makes up for in decently priced, decently clean hotel rooms. The first time I stayed in the city, I splurged on a fifty-dollar room at a boutique hotel that offered free wifi and hot noodles for breakfast. This past weekend, I decided to opt for something a bit cheaper. I went with a thirty-dollar hotel room at Tune Hotel, a budget hotel chain run by the budget airline chain, AirAsia. If you have ever taken an AirAsia flight, you’ll know that their airplane tickets are ridiculously inexpensive but they charge you for everything from your inflight meal to the duct tape being used to hold your seat together. Much like the airline, the hotel also charges you for any “extras” including wifi, air conditioning, television privileges and even towel privileges (not to worry: the room does actually come with a few “free” amenities like hot water, toilet paper and, ummm, a floor).

After shelling out for the wifi and the towel (my now mildewy pack towel having been left in my dorm room to air out and provide a little much-needed ambiance), I decided to forego the television and air conditioning. Unfortunately, the wifi that I paid four dollars for was incredibly slow and only accessible from one corner of my bed (this was not exactly what I had in mind when I pictured myself one day working from a corner office!). While waiting for the Internet to slowly churn to life, I would spend my time staring at the advertisements adorning the walls (these were also apparently among the “free” amenities); these advertisements included posters for shower gel, crackers, financial planning services and the air conditioner (that I wasn’t paying to use).

After one night of aggravating my rice-paddy-weeding back pain with crunched-up-in-the-corner-of-the-bed-trying-to-get-wifi pain, I checked out of the hotel and headed across town to my earlier fifty-dollar find. I may be on a strict budget, but sometimes a splurge is worth it to keep your sanity — especially when you have mud parasites slowly making their way to your brain…

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