Hand-cutting

It’s a strange time to be an American abroad. And having few people to talk about the election with face to face definitely slowed down my own emotional processing of grief and fear. As my head was spinning with these ideas, I went on my second homestay. I wasn’t feeling emotionally equipped for the demands of a homestay, where you need to be “on” all the time. But off I went.

The new homestay

Nepal has a primarily subsistence agriculture economy and right now it’s the rice harvest. People grow what they needs for the year and live off the land and the small earnings from selling locally in a market. The trouble with this is that there is little insurance when disaster and instability strikes. Nepal didn’t have a constitution until September 2015 since their 10-year civil war between the Maoists and government. Then there was the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that caused a lot of death and destruction. Just the other morning I woke up, gently shaking in my bed, to what was the 475th aftershock from the quake. Most Nepalis see how vulnerable a subsistence farming lifestyle is and use male labor migration to build in some insulation. Often migrants return to farming, or they may open a small business if they’re more middle class and using migration to be upwardly mobile. I am here to study the impacts of out-migration on regular life, especially with regard to gender and household dynamics. So the homestay I went to a farming family with multiple sons abroad, earning the insurance to help insulate their family from instability.

The view from the front porch of a moon working its way into a super moon. The tall stack of dried grass are rice shoots (without rice) that the neighbor's water buffalo feed on

In my second homestay I lived with a Tharu family that had all four of their sons away. Tharus are indigenous to the Terai and lived here long before it was deforested and the government sponsored internal migrants from Hill regions. In this family of four sons and two daughters, two sons were in Nepal in the Army and two were abroad (Saudi Arabia and Malaysia). As is typical in Nepal, they were a joint household, meaning the sons and their wives and kids live with his parents. But when the sons are gone it means it is the grandparents, their unmarried daughter, and the daughters-in-law all sharing space. I was with this family during the rice harvest, so it was a very busy time for them. It seemed they had no intention of putting me to work (which would have meant sitting alone in the house all day). After asking to work, into the fields I went. I am a fit person and a strong person, but I am not someone who has ever found gardening very appealing (unlike my mom, who spends what seems like 70% of her waking hours in the summer outside gardening and weeding). I generally like hard work and being productive and I was struck by how hard this labor was and repetitive it was.

My back was not used to that strain and after working from 7 to 1 fairly non-stop, I had to stop because I could feel my old rowing injuries in my lower back starting to protest a spastic mutiny. I decided I would be less useful having a back spasm than just tagging out early. This disappointed me, even if it was the right move, because I wanted to earn their respect and am pretty sure I did not. Still, I was invited to dinner with everyone who had worked that day at another family’s house. While we worked the matriarch of that family brought out daal bhaat (lentils and rice) for us in large containers that she carried on her head and kept hot with a large banana leaf. This was great, except that it was served on plates very wet with water that was not safe for me to drink. My choices were to gamble with the water, use my DEET soaked and not-very-absorbent shirt to try and mop up the water, or not eat when it wasn’t clear if/when we would eat again. So down the hatch it went. Along with some antibiotics a few days later because this was a gamble with water that I lost. It took about 10 people (and some children that put in a full day at adult pace) over 10 hours to cut a field about the size of an NFL field. That night everyone shared a meal and home-distilled raksi (the local liquor, sort of like a rum meets sake). I think some of the kids who helped were drinking a little too. Generally women don’t drink, or at least publicly, so I was surprised when my host sisters excitedly asked if I drank whiskey and told me about the evenings planned activities.

When rice is newly planted (in the summer) it is a beautiful electric green. As it gets taller and greener and nears the harvest it begins to turn golden brown. An American used to imagery of people running their fingers through wheat fields might easily mistake it for wheat. Incidentally, millet looks similar to rice. The little rice grains in husks hanging like heavy dew drops on the end of the shoots. Each plant has 5-10 shoots in a cluster, and the shoot clusters were 4-6 inches apart (densely packed in, in other words). When cut by hand you just quickly cut the shoots with a sickle in the right hand and grabbing the shoots with the left and sort of munching your way through a swath about 4-8 feet wide, gathering the every growing bundle of shoots in your left hand until you can’t hold anymore. Then you lay the cut shoots behind you to dry in long lines. My host sisters moved fast. I kept up, but was definitely slower, choosing to be precise with my sickle after nicking the top of my foot (now a small scar) and having some close calls. But, the work is repetitive and I am a thinker by nature, so I kept getting lost in my thoughts. Aside from the danger of the sharp, serrated tool in my hand, I also almost grabbed a MASSIVE brightly backed spider. So I started looking for bugs, which slowed me down. There was so much life in these paddies and we just cut it all down, taking away the shelter of all the bugs, the snakes, and the frogs as they desperately jumped deeper into the shoots as we moved forward.  During the monsoons, the rice paddy is flooded with water so there were also empty snail shells around. Little fish live in the paddies too, and people fish for and eat them.

The next day, mercifully, was more upright as we bundled the rice from another paddy that had been drying in the sun and used already-threshed rice grass to twist ropes to tie them up into small bundles. The small bundles were gathered into a massive pile for the thresher. People who don’t have access to a thresher have them piled in their front yards and beat the rice over slatted tables, so the rice falls below. It looks like hard work. The automatic thresher was faster and the rice was collected into huge, heavy bags, many of which once held concrete or other grains. These bags easily weighed 100 pounds (one was marked 100 kg but I don’t know what it once held and if that is a more or less dense substance than husked rice). Before we threshed I saw women 15 years older than me carrying these bags on their heads the long walk from field to home. These were bags I could barely hoist up over my head to my host sisters on their grain storage bin with two others helping. But after the thresher and the hoisting and emptying of the bags into the grain bin, my family had their year’s supply of rice was processed and stored.

Below are photos of different stages of the process. Including one of me holding a scrap of a Red Sox towel. They were bringing out extra scarves and rags so I could wrap my head to protect from the heat. I caught a glimpse of the logo and excitedly wanted the Red Sox towel. I asked for a photo, and I'm not quite sure if the girl who took it took it at an angle on purpose for artistic reasons or by accident, but I assure you the horizon was level that day. And look closely for the type (and size) of sider I almost grabbed, open palm, a few times.

Now it wouldn’t be a story of Ande doing anything new and only slightly dangerous if there wasn’t also some gruesome injury. Alas, I will not disappoint my fans, as I did sustain injury (not counting the incredibly sore back and slightly pulled hamstring that hurt sharply for two full weeks). On my last morning of cutting in a smaller, out-of-the-way field, I finally cut myself. I was almost done with a messy patch (some wind and knocked the shoots every which way, so it was messy to disentangle and slow to get your hands around the shoots going every direction). I was distracted by thoughts of the tensions and social dynamics between the sisters-in-law. It was not exactly one big happy family and it was becoming increasingly clear that I was a pawn in their power struggle with each other.  On top of the election and the stress of that, I wasn’t feeling emotionally able to handle the way I was very subtly being manipulated and treated by one of the sisters-in-law who was using my presence and her knowledge of more English than them to create scenarios of revenge and control at my expense. In my distraction of thinking through this and how I could protect myself, I didn’t quite get my left ring finger around my last shoot-cluster when cutting swiftly with the sickle. I reacted quickly enough to save my fingertip, but I could see a deep cut and a lot of dirt in there. It needed to be cleaned and disinfected. I walked 10 minutes back to the house and washed it with their water (which was likely being contaminated with heavy metals from the pump, based on the strong metallic odor and rust stain on the concrete below the pump). I had decided against a first aid kit in my limited space for packing and their bathroom was a simple (and not especially clean) outhouse that would make it impossible to avoid infection. I knew that there was no point in staying if I wasn’t in the field and I wasn’t feeling especially eager to stay in a tense household so I decided to leave a day early. Again, I felt wimpy, especially since my host sister had the exact same injury from a few days before and was still out there. Although hers looked decidedly infected and like she was definitely going to lose a corner of her finger, something I was hoping to try and prevent. Once I got back to the internet I also realized I was not up to date on my tetanus booster and that between the rusty sickle and the massive amount of manure-laden soil in my wound, I needed some medical treatment too. I am pleased to report that after 2.5 weeks of vigilant self-care on my finger and some in-home medical care I gave myself (thanks to being a former Wilderness First Responder I managed to not faint for the worst of it), the wound has closed and the nerves are sorting themselves back out (it was a bit strangely off-center for a week or so).

My host sister using the sickled, pinned under her foot by handle with blade upright, to cut onions by hand. She cooks for the whole family over the fire with a 14 month old on her back or nearby. These long logs are pushed closer and closer into the fire as they burn. The toddler tried to grab one once and his auntie whacked him for it. Such cooking fires are linked to many negative health outcomes for people and are not good for the earth's atmosphere. It's very dark in the mud hut where they cook and store grains. The large family sleeps in one of two neighboring concrete houses that flank the mud hut on either side.

Apparently such injuries are common and a lot of the people at the research center were surprised (and not always pleased) that I was put to work. But it did shift my thinking. It’s not like I didn’t know the work was hard. I see people out in the fields all the time and I know its hard. But I appreciated it differently. As I was on the hour-long motorbike ride back to the research center, my finger wrapped in a bandana and being held upright, I could see a single woman alone and estimate that she had 6-7 hours of work ahead of her. Then I looked at the adjacent sections and realized the enormity of the task ahead. . I was trying to do the mental math of how many millions of grains of rice we collected. Of how many are in Chitwan, Nepal, the world. Of how getting a years supply of food in one, intense period of labor is so counter to the American model of food acquisition and storage. And as I worked, I was struck but how this kind of back-breaking agriculture labor is the history and present of so many people on the planet. Very few Americans descended directly from hunter-gatherers. I thought about how my ancestors also did this kind of grueling work, but how farming is so mechanized in the US.

Not even two weeks after this homestay ended my parents and I were staying in a hotel only a few kilometers away for our vacation to the Chitwan National Park. Our Tourist van passed the same fields I worked in. I could see my host dad out in his water buffalo drawn cart and thinking about how strange it is to be stepping into people’s lives and learning just a bit about them, and then to step back and see how invisible this hard labor is to outsiders. Agricultural labor blends into the landscape in Chitwan, it looks like it belongs there. And it does. But this “zoomed out” view can obscure the difficulty of the work. The livelihoods that hang in the balance of a good harvest are unseen, even when they’re out there, in plain site, laboring day after day.

Sun setting over a rice field, just before the harvest