Seeing the Story of Rice—From Farm to Philippines

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Today was a satisfying day on the Delta.

Rice is the principal form of food for half the world. And we saw its entire life cycle in just a half day.

We started by taking a boat to a small village. We gingerly walked the edges of a rice field, admiring the beautiful green plants, row after row, as far as we could see. We also saw the vegetables grown to the paddy’s side, with three women on their haunches pulling weeks. The two young women were the niece and daughter-in-law of the older women. I was dripping with sweat (it was, after all, nearly 10am!), but the women, covered from head to toe (including the face masks that almost everyone in Vietnam wears out of doors) didn’t betray signs of discomfort.

Having seen the rice growing, it was time to sail to a different part of the village. Here we saw the “broken rice”—rice grains that were less than top grade—made into noodles. Young men and women mixed the rice with water, let it sit for hours, then fed it to simple machines that mashed, squeezed, and mashed it again. Eventually the mush was dried, reconstituted, then ladled onto red hot griddles for just a few moments. The sheets, about 2 feet in diameter, were set out to dry in the sun. when ready, they were fed into another machine which cut them into rice noodles. In a local version of Chicago slaughterhouses’ boast that “we use everything but the oink,” the fuel for the stove is discarded rice husks.

For convenience of travel, we had looked at the process slightly out of order. So it was back into the boat, to a more industrialized part of the river. Scrambling ashore, we went into a factory where large, noisy machines took the rice from the field and separated the rice from the husks. In another factory, we saw the rice sorted by size and quality, using virtually the same rudimentary technology we’d seen in a tea plantation two years ago in India.

The “broken rice” was headed for the noodle factory, the better-but-not-best rice was headed for working class markets, and the best rice was headed for high-end restaurants, people, and export. We saw it all bagged, sealed, and stacked. The noonday sun made it easy to say goodbye to it all, so we headed back to the boat, visions of cold mango juice and air conditioning dancing in our heads.

But then I saw something that changed this absolutely perfect plan: 20 yards away, a cargo ship loading bags of rice. I couldn’t pass it up.

I walked over to the conveyor belt, and watched strapping, shirtless young men (if you can call anyone 5’6” “strapping”) load bag after bag onto the belt. I followed the moving bags to the ship, where a chute was disgorging the 100-pound sacks, which were taken away and casually dumped in rows by a dozen guys who were smoking and talking while they worked.

With my guide’s help I found the supervisor (twice everyone else’s age, the only guy wearing a shirt). He was a part-owner of the rice shipment. Some 2,000 tons—40,000 bags—were headed to Saigon, where they’d be transferred to a much larger ship and sent to the Philippines. He actually let us scramble onto the ship for a better look—mostly at the sweaty young men loading sacks, stealing glances at us.

“Do you own the ship?” I called out to the rice owner through my guide/interpreter. “No,” he laughed, “it’s owned by a company.” “A private company?” “No, the government owns the company.” Aha, actual Communism at work.

“Are all the ships owned by companies owned by the government?” I followed. “No, there are private companies, too.” “So how do you decide which shipping company to use?” “Well, the government companies are more expensive,” he said, “but they make the paperwork and permits easier.” Aha, actual corruption at work.

It may seem simple and straightforward to the people I met today—you grow it, you process it, you bag it, you ship it—but I don’t think I’ll ever look at my rice bowl the same.

And that, I think, is one reason I travel to places so far from home—to make the familiar amazing.

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