The Harsh Season, the frugal months before the harvest, ended in late September. The season closed with troops of skinny men wearing hand-me-down Disney t-shirts wrapped around their faces like “Arabian ninjas” appearing in town. The men, from the surrounding barangays, poured into the fields on makeshift tractors and hired pick-up trucks like a helpful militia of honest days’ workers. They must reap, thresh, and dry the rice before selling it to millers. Once the rice is ready for sales there is a bit of power play and price speculation that the farmers have to navigate before the sales are final.
With the reaping and threshing nearly finished the rice is drying. The roads, basketball courts, and parking lots of the town are covered with rice; the only valuable gold the Spanish found in the Las Islas Filipinas. Although it is impossible to prevent cars from running over the ricey roads, local drivers are rather courteous. The momentum of the passing cars and tricycles spreads golden rice husks all along the roads. A keen eye can find rice around the rain gutters of roads some distance away from the ricey road patches.
The rice around the rain gutters is a somber reminder of how vigilantly a farmer must watch the sky, lest a sudden rain threaten to sweep his year’s crop literally down the drain. The farmers seem to panic a bit while scooping their rice off the street just before a sudden rain. Without the tools, space, or techniques of industrial farming, provincial farmers remain dependent on nature’s capricious temperament.
In the meantime, some of the rice is washed along the roads. If the Spanish came back now they would have found their El Dorado, a place with roads glittered with gold.
The ancient compact among the farmers and the rhinoceros-sized black Carabao, water buffalo, has come into its bi-annual action. In exchange for a year of free grazing, co-beneficial milking, and 1,500 free text messages the Carabaos agree to slavishly carry tons of rice across the town. The ninja-farmers hitch arcane chariots to the behemoths and ride them over the fields, through the town, and back to the middle ages. Caravans of five Carabaos, tied together through piercings in their noses, each trudging multiple tons of rice in precariously stacked fibrous bags march down the roads.Seeing caravans of load-bearing Carabao share the roads with pick-up trucks reminds me of how modernity seems to bounce. Some farms are picked by Japanese-brand industrial machinery, some by tractors, and some are dealt with by hand and Carabao. This disparity in technology makes it difficult to make any definite claims about the state of Philippine farming. It is at once ancient, mechanized, and industrial; with varying portions of these characteristics within a single farm.
Although the Carabao are ancient, they are ancient with a modern twist. The government has a program of interbreeding the native Philippine Carabao with foreign breeds. The seemly ancient Carabao have been bred into monsters of their original size. At first it was a bit surprising to think that the government’s Research and Development money goes into advances in beasts of burden. However, until four years ago the rice harvest was done completely by hand, carabao, and by simple machinery. The industrial equipment is relatively new to relatively old farmers.
Renting industrial equipment is actually cheaper than hiring farm hands, but the system is entrenched. Most virtuously, the farmers employ farm hands because they are not economic units but people from their community. I wonder if the gradual industrialization of Philippine farming will shrink the rural population as unneeded wage labors move to the city. A rapid push toward industrialized farming would wreck rural society.
That said, Shiva is both the Hindu God of destruction and of change. These two forces are merely different angles of the same being.
To my surprise rice is the currency of the deep economy. The farm hands are paid in percentages of rice handled; 12% for reaping and 12% for threshing and drying. Ultimately, the farmer will lose roughly 24% of his annual yield during the harvest. Renting an industrial machine would only cost a single 12% rice fee. However, there are motivations beyond profit that encourage farmers to continuing to support the wage labors and in turn their community.
Farming aside, Harvest Season is also Typhoon Season. On the brightside, lacking the focused monsoon’s of continental South and Southeast Asia, the typhoon season is important for flooding the fields and replenishing life. By the same hand, the floods and strong winds take life with them. Water-borne illness, flooding, landslides, and winds can be fatal. Most of the dwellings for the rural poor are made of bamboo, plywood, and cinderblocks. Without the economic means to build better shelters, the rural poor are in danger during typhoon floods. That is about the kindest way I could have said it.
The Typhoon is not much trouble for Guimba, because most of the town is on the higher lands. However, along the riverbanks the flooding rivers in these low lands reach such heights that the tops of the trees are glittered with multi-colored plastic bags fragments and other debris. Its as if Mother Nature was preparing the riverside for a colorful Christmas.
Mn. Junior took me on a walk through the “Guimba slum”. The “slum” was much more pleasant than those in India. The rural poor, as witnessed in Nepal, have a much better lot than the urban poor. The rural poor have access, not ownership, to land. They can have privacy and personal space. This is not to diminish the squalor in which they live, but to say that they don’t seem to suffer from the vicious living-space competitions of the urban poor. At the edge of the “slum” we stopped to watch some children catching frogs with a baited string and a pillowcase. The kids will eat the frogs for dinner and sell the rest. Lets remember that in France, frogs are high cuisine.
Whilst rereading the Picture of Dorian Gray and turning twenty-five, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about age and beauty. I’ve come to good terms with a vertical semi-permanent wrinkle bisecting my forehead. I’ve surrendered to it completely and like the Vichy French I’m just carrying on. My youthful face became a government in exile. Since I have been living in Asia and teaching in childrens’ schools for the past two years, I feel like the only one aging in Never-Never Land. I tell myself that men become more distinguished as they age. After turning twenty-five, I’m shifting my perspective from eagerly waiting to grow into a man to patiently watching that man distinguish himself.
In conclusion, I rattled off a bunch of half facts, stole photos from Google, and strung a few scraps of information together into sentences that are hopefully entertaining and informative. Traveling didn’t make me know anything more about the world, but rather dwarfed my certainty by showing me how gray, complex, and entwined things are.
It humbled me, like a pleasant cold shower.