Monday, March 19, 2007

Story Jar - Ox Cart and Rice Noodles

The Story Jar - a biweekly column in the Patriot and Free Press, Cuba, New York

- Copyright Elaine Hardman 2006

Ox Cart and Rice Noodles

On our last day in Cambodia in 2006 we took a van to two outlying temples. Our group included Ari and Kate (law grads who were volunteering at the war crimes commission while waiting to hear if they’d passed the bar in New York), Dave (our Guest House manager), Elaine and Rick, and Melania (a Bulgarian from Belgium).

Mr. Chhang was our guide but Dave generally took over saying where the light was prime for photos and which was the best path through the ruins. Dave has lived in Siem Reap for two years and they both reckoned he’d been at the ruins more times than Chhang. It was hard to tell who to follow during the tour but on the way back, Chhang said that we might stop anywhere for photos. I felt a little shy about asking everyone to stop for me but I really wanted a photo of one of the ox carts used in that area so I asked.

Chhang passed the request to the driver who insisted that the animals wouldn’t be at work in the late afternoon so we would find none. No problem to me. I would be happy to photograph an empty ox cart parked along the road. Chhang seemed to think that silly but he spotted one and directed the driver to stop.

My intention was to leap out, snap a photo, jump back in and allow the trip to resume with barely a flutter but Chhang followed me and while I stood at the cart he started talking to the family across the ditch. Then Ari, Dave and Melania came for a photo of the cart so that pretty well emptied the van. When Chhang called everyone to walk across the bridge to join him, the driver climbed out of the van to look at all of us with displeasure.

At first Mr. Chhang thought that the family was making rice wine and he was excited to show us the process. He saw the rice wine still, or whatever one might call it, in a shed at the side but he learned that it was too soon to make rice wine. Instead, it was time for making rice noodles, a process that Chhang had never seen himself and his excitement was infectious. He shouted for us to join him to see the people work the ancient way.

Ari beat me over the bridge but not by much. On the other side, a woman squatted gracefully in the dusty grass near a basket of brown rice and a small wok balanced on three bricks over a fire. A tiny girl sometimes watched the rice toast in the wok where small kernels would jump and fly open like miniature pop corn. The woman in her red hat constantly stirred the bouncing kernels with a long twig.

When the rice cooled a bit it went into a pestle, a nearly-hollow chunk of tree about 2 feet tall and 14 inches across.

One woman beat the rice with a pole taller than she wasy and about as big around as one hand could reach. The business end of a pole was rounded and as she thumped the rice - to flake it- Chhang said, she sometimes used her other hand to scrape the sides of the log with a long, flat, wooden stick.

A second woman stood on the other side pounding with the same sort of pole but holding it in two hands and keeping time with her colleague. Sometimes the pounding poles sent flakes or grains of rice leaping over the side of the log and I wished they would collect them. After all, much work had gone into possessing the rice. But there were ducks and chickens all about so the rice was not wasted.

Off to the left was a hut – pigs on one side and cooking projects on the other separated by a half wall and a work table that doubled as bench.

Inside, a huge metal pot full of milky water boiled, nested in a clay dome with a fire underneath and two long poles above. The pot held 40-50 gallons of water and poured steam into the already humid air.

Since we had interrupted their work, the fire died back a bit so they pushed long sticks of firewood further under the pot and stirred both fire and water back to life.

The water, already used for boiling noodles, had lumpy foam on the top and this was skimmed away with a long handled, plastic cooking pot.

The rice flakes were mixed with water to make a thick white paste. This was packed tightly into a cylinder a bout 8 inches tall and 4 inches wide with an open top and a pierced bottom.

Two polls on the top of the cooking pot were part of a noodle press and this cylinder fitted into it. Chhang took the cylinder of paste to the press and got it positioned under the plunger and said he’d like to press the lever to push the paste into strands of noodles. The ladies laughed and pushed him aside. They were right. Chhang would never have done it.

One woman climbed up to sit on the poll, her skirt hiked up to keep it from the water and her bottom exposed to ferocious steam. Then another woman climbed on the pole beside her. Noodles began to come out slowly when a third woman put her weight on the end of the poll and pulled it down.

It seemed difficult and dangerous work. As the women perched on that narrow pole the strands grew and entered the water. One of the two oldest women reached across to stir the noodles to keep them separated as they cooked. When the plunger reached the bottom of the cylinder, she used that long stick to scrape the bottom of the cylinder cutting the noodles free.

After ten minutes, she scooped them from the pot with a garden basket and took them to a plastic bucket and then a wooden bucket to wash them. The noodles were dumped into a metal pot on the table top next to the oldest of all the women where she pulled out clumps of them, wound them around her fingers and laid the rings in neat rows in a shallow basket where they would dry.

I took short videos and photos of all the processes and showed them to the women who would look, turn away laughing and look again and again. It had to seem strange, this chasm between our tools. Mine the digital camera; theirs the wooden implements and fire. I’m sure they’d seen videos on TV. Most villages have a communal TV sets that are plugged into car batteries but these videos were of them so maybe that was too much.

Before we left I wanted to give the people money for their time but Dave thought that would be insulting to them - a sort of begging. He said he’d rather give them photos of themselves. Photos are important to Dave - more valuable to him than money is but Dave can buy and eat whatever he wants without working for hours in the sun to set stores for future meals.

Here were 8 women slaving to make a few pots of noodles. They didn’t ask us to interrupt them or draw us into their area. We asked them. I tried to make their case to Dave though it was clear he didn’t like the idea of giving people money. I pushed a little but intended to leave some of my dollars behind whether he approved or not. He reluctantly contributed a few pieces of local currency and Chhang passed it on with our appreciation. The men took the money and the women bowed as we took our photos back to the van and its impatient driver.

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