Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rice Planting


I confess: I lied to you two posts ago. It was a lie of omission, but that doesn’t make it any more forgivable in this strictly factual web-log that will one day form a major part of the historical record on the subject of... whatever it is that we’re doing here.

I didn’t tell you about a very heavy part of my luggage in my luggage description. It was a gift to Linda’s brothers and sisters (who will hereafter be referred to as the Dusun People) and I wanted it to be a surprise. Well, it wasn’t just for them — Nate and I drank a fair bit of it, too. It was two 26ers of Alberta Springs good old-timey Canadian whisky.

It was an outrageously frivolous addition to my already overloaded and overweight backpack, even for just ten days of bumming around. The bottles weighed at least a kilogram apiece, and they were fragile and potentially messy to boot.

When we got to the Penang airport to fly to Kota Kinabalu, Air Asia let us know exactly overweight they considered our luggage to be, while simultaneously revealing how they make a profit selling tickets for as cheap as they do. Our two seats cost a total of 300 ringgit (C$100), and our excess baggage charge for going over their 15 kg per-person weight limit by 7 kg was 105 ringgit. That’s 300 ringgit for all the dozens of kilograms of our fat asses and our legitimate luggage, and 105 ringgit for the other 7 kg.

There’s only one thing to say about that: motherfuckers.

But this is a digression. I didn’t mean to spend my time bitching about airline policy. I meant to talk about the whisky.

Kibbas is a small Dusun village in Sabah, about 4 km down the road from Ranau. Linda did all of her growing up here, and at a farm 2 km down the road.

No joke: while I was midway through typing the last sentence, Linda’s dad came into the room with his grandfather’s grandfather’s headhunting sword. He reckons it’s a hundred years old. Linda’s dad says that headhunting stopped after his grandfather’s grandfather’s generation, but the sword was apparently well used in its day. The hilt of the sword used to be decorated with hair taken from its victims. Linda remembers seeing the hair, but they have been removed in recent years, I assume because Linda’s family converted to Christianity and moved to Kibbas.

Back to the story.

Kibbas is a beautiful village on the side of a large hill. Sabbah’s main highway cuts the town in half, and Linda’s family lives in lower Kibbas. Everything is green and well taken care of. The houses are built on stilts and chickens and dogs run around the yards. The chickens cluck, and the dogs bark and fuck, because this is their mating season.

The day we arrived, we found four-dozen beers in the fridge, and we had two bottles of whisky. Almost all the booze got drank, but it’s not because we’re alcoholics with super-powers. We had help: Linda has hundreds of brothers and sisters. Okay, not hundreds; she is seventh of twelve kids, whose lives have scattered them across Sabah, to peninsular Malaysia and in one case, to Canada. They weren’t all in Kibbas when we arrived, but the Dusun People are a thirsty people, and there were enough of them. We ate something delicious that Linda cooked, and we made a fire under the house and sat in hammocks and drank whisky. Some of Linda’s siblings speak excellent English, and others speak very little, but they all smiled enough for us to understand that we were welcome.

Erin and I stayed at the Jaini Lodge, a small hotel located about three minutes’ walk from Linda’s house. I have no idea why someone opened a hotel in Kibbas, but it was very convenient for us that they did. For the first two nights we were the only people staying there, and for the second two nights one other room was taken. The hotel isn’t exactly five-star, but it’s clean, quiet and has balconies on the downhill side that overlook the valley and offer amazing views of the black peaks of Mount Kinabalu, lurking in the clouds.

Mount Kinabalu is where Dusun people go when they die, according to their traditional beliefs. In Kibbas everyone is either Catholic or Protestant now and their souls now go somewhere much more abstract. The new afterlife has more haloes and harps, but the old one is much easier for the living to visit. I like the old version better.

The weather here is hot and sticky during the day, until mid-afternoon when the sun has scorched enough moisture out of the jungle to put together a convincing rainstorm, which then inundates the valley and cools everything down. By nighttime, it’s cool enough that Erin and I sleep under covers with the fan turned off. Then the sun rises and starts producing clouds again.

The only time Kinabalu is clearly visible is in the early morning. I haven’t been awake in the early morning yet, but Erin tells me it’s beautiful. For the rest of the day, you can only see glimpses of the mountain through the gathering clouds. Ominous spires of black rock peek through windows in the cloud, hinting at its overall form. It’s 4100 meters tall, which would tower over most of the Rockies, if only it could get close enough to them to tower over them.

And in a couple of weeks, we’re going to climb the motherfucker.

Update from the present moment: Linda is apparently surprised that her own family were headhunters. She knew the Dusun took heads, but she had no idea that her family had been involved.

My brother is living with the descendant of headhunters. Cool.

On our first full day in Kibbas, Linda took us to the house where she grew up. It is no more than 100 meters from the highway, but it took Linda at least twenty minutes to hack out a trail with a machete. Her family seldom visits to the house, but they still own the land and do occasionally come back to harvest fruit from their fruit trees.

Linda grew up in a three-room house. There was a kitchen, a bedroom partitioned off of the main room for her parents, and the everything-else room where she and her siblings slept. The house was abandoned when Linda was 14, when her family converted to Christianity and moved to Kibbas, so her ailing mother could be closer to the hospital.

Her mother is fine now. She’s 62, the veteran of 12 childbirths and 62 rice harvests. Linda has been trying (successfully, we think) to convince her to retire from rice farming after this season. Her husband has been out of commission with a bad knee this rice-planting season, and Linda’s mom has been working herself sick trying to get the rice planted, so her crop isn’t too far behind her neighbours’. Partly because we wanted to help her, and partly because we thought it would be awesome, we volunteered to go and plant rice for the last two days.

The farm is down in the valley bottom, about a 20-minute walk from Linda’s house. Rice farming, particularly terraced valley-bottom rice farming, is one of the most beautiful forms of agriculture in the world. The land is separated into fields by dykes, and water cascades from the upper fields to the lower ones. Young rice plants are a colour of green that you don’t see on our poor continent. Farmers squat in their fields and wave to us crazy whiteys who, for some reason, are walking through their rice farm in rubber boots and funny hats.

A month or so ago, Linda’s mother densely seeded a nursery field. Now the rice is sprouted and needs to be transplanted to the flooded fields, a few blades of grass at a time. Before this can be done, each of the fields must be cleared of weeds. Then the dykes are adjusted to flood the fields so the rice can be planted. It’s damn hard work, and Linda’s mom has been doing it six days a week, with the help of whichever of her kids happens to be available.

We planted for two days. Linda is twice as fast as I am, and Linda’s mom is probably twice as fast as she is, but I’d like to think that between the three of us whiteys, we did help a bit.

On the first day, we got started a little late and planted for about three hours before the rain started pissing down unusually early. We hid in the farm’s shade-hut and Linda cooked us something delicious, and then we lay down and napped on the floor while we waited for the rain to stop. It never did. We walked home and got wet.

On the second day, our luck was a little better and it stayed more-or-less dry all afternoon. We got in about six hours of work before our bodies gave out on us and we went home. I am very sore today, mostly my back and my legs.

Each day, Linda’s mom got to the farm before we did and stayed after we left. She is a tough old lady. She’s been doing this all her life. I think she’s now entitled to a rest.

My parents are flying into Kota Kinabalu in two days. I am excited to see them, and even more excited to see Borneo through their eyes. I can’t wait for them to meet Linda’s parents: Alberta oilman meets rice farmer. I know that in spite of their differences and in spite of the lack of a common language, my mom is going to love Linda’s mom, and probably vice-versa.

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