Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where Do ______ Come From?


  • Sunday, Nov 28: Up early, breakfast at hotel, waited for bus which picked us up forty minutes late; bus took seven hours to Saigon; on arrival, found one of Madame Cuc’s restaurants recommended by LP, were taken to first one alternate and then another; decent room on 5th floor, no elevator but strong AC; rained really hard! Out for dinner, got a bit lost, good pizza at middle-range restaurant; then to a bar where a Vietnamese guy offered to show Francezka around the next day and then that night, both refused; up until midnight chatting and preparing for the next day; booked whirlwind Mekong tour through hotel.
  • Monday, Nov 29: Up at 6am, showered, packed, downstairs for breakfast and quick internet check; said good-bye to Francezka and hopped on bus for day tour ending in Chau Doc; saw puff rice making, coconut candy making, rice paper making; bicycled on island in Long Xuyen; ate elephant fish for lunch (not much flavor); learned about Mekong River and Delta from guide Zack; long bus rides and boat rides throughout the day, but interesting way to get to Chau Doc for border crossing the next day.

As the boat lists slightly to the port side, I am thinking about where things come from. We’re motoring up the Mekong River in a large boat with an open-air deck, but most of the group of thirty or so people are downstairs in the covered area. There are all sorts of nationalities: French, Spanish, American, British, Irish. The demographic is scattered too: a pair of older women traveling together; four Germans around my parent’s age, who occasionally ask me for the meaning of some English word or another; a couple from Britain traveling with their eight year old son; and several people my own age, none of whom have reached out to talk to the two single people, me and Oscar, the Spanish guy. It may be that I’m just a bit bummed about ending my travel with Francezka, who was a great travel companion, but the younger crowd here seem fairly self-centered and unfriendly.

Anyway. Where do things come from? I’ve been struck several times so far during my trip with the realization that the things I take for granted are actually made by someone, somewhere. And while perhaps much of the mass-market stuff I buy is factory made or assembled, still, at some point, people were involved.

IMG_0993Today I watched as three men and one woman worked away at making puff rice treats. First, one guy placed a huge cone-shaped metal dish over a hole in a cement oven. The    dish had black sand in it, which had been dredged from the bottom of the Mekong at some point long before. The sand heated up as he stuffed rice husks (devoid of the rice) and longang skins (local fruit much like a lychee, but sweeter) into the fire. When he deemed things ready, he tossed in a huge bucket of rice, which immediately began popping like popcorn! He grabbed the dish and shook it, mixing the sand and rice puffs and making sure none burned.

Next he poured the cone-shaped dish full of sand and rice IMG_0995puffs into a box with a mesh bottom, suspended from the ceiling by wire. He shook this box back and forth vigorously, the sand falling through the mesh. He does this several times to get the sand out. The sand is brushed up and put back into the cone-shaped dish.

Meanwhile, two other men have been stirring coconut milk, malt and sugar in a large bucket nearby. When the puffs have cooled a bit, they are put into another cone-shaped container and mixed with the sweet mixture in an intricate dance of the two men, each bearing two paddles and moving steadily around the container, mixing and tossing.

IMG_0998Finally, the sweetened puffs are poured into a huge cookie sheet and allowed to cool before being sectioned by a machete and carefully packaged, by hand, by a woman sitting nearby.

Have you ever bought puff rice treats at the store? Ever wonder where they come from, how they’re made? I don’t generally think of these things and, if I do, I figure it’s an automated factory. Maybe that’s even true in some cases. Here, though, I’m reminded every day that people’s livelihoods and lives center around creating so many things for mass consumption all over the world.

I’ve seen this sort of things many times so far this trip:

  1. Coffee, where the beans are grown, picked, scattered in front of homes on tarps to dry in the sun, bagged, and driven to the factory for grinding, usually on the back of motorbikes.
  2. Silk, where the silkworm larvae are farmed, gathered, cleaned, boiled and the silk extracted in a hot and sweaty factory where women stand in front of troughs, picking out silk strands and connecting them to a machine which spools the thread from individual cocoons.
  3. Bricks, in outdoor, open-air, ramshackle buildings where women shovel pits of mud into a machine which shapes and stamps the mud into bricks, then spits them out onto a small conveyor belt. A woman stands at the end of the conveyor belt and has the sole job of stacking the good bricks or tossing the bad ones back into the machine, which is about eight feet away. The bricks are then gathered, piled and eventually carried up rickety ladders to be dropped into huge furnaces thirty feet high to bake and harden.
  4. Rice, in the rice paddies romanticized in pictures and paintings. People go out and stand in mud up to their knees, harvesting the rice stalks by hand with short curved blades; toss the stalks into piles on higher ground; wrap the stalks in sacking and carry huge loads of them on their backs to a machine operated by foot pedals; toss handfuls of stalks into the machine to have the rice stripped from them; beat the discarded stalks and collect any missed rice; and the rice then gathered, sacked and carried off for selling.
  5. IMG_0989 Rice paper, where one woman mixes rice flour (previously made by men by crushing boiled and dried rice) with water and then pours it onto a griddle, puts a top over it, and then carefully scrapes it up and places it on a huge circular disk made of woven bamboo, half hanging off the side to dry. A man then comes over, turns the disk so that he can scoop up the round, wet rice circle with a long, flat wooden stick and place it to dry in another area.
  6. Woven cloth and scarves, in the complicated looms operated by women of all ages. Women sit on cement floors with one end of the looms resting in their laps as they weave, single threads at a time, beautiful scarves with a variety of patterns and colors. Or, they sit on low stools in front of six foot long setups, weaving – again, thread by thread – an impossible length of cloth in a day. This cloth is then used by others to hand sew clothing, tablecloths and other goods.
  7. Bamboo baskets, cone-shaped hats made of dried palm fronds and silk paintings.
  8. Coconut goods, including candy, milk, and carved things such as spoons, bowls and toys.


The list goes on and on and each time I am a bit surprised that I had never before realized the human sweat and work that goes into each product.

I hope I can remember this, although I’m not sure what to do with the realization. Maybe appreciate things a bit more instead of assuming that they just appear for everyone’s enjoyment. And maybe thing about the millions of people who live their whole lives creating these luxuries, while not having access to much of luxury themselves.

And maybe it’s a way of thinking of the bigger world instead of my own little sphere, which in turn can help me make better – or at least more educated – decisions on what to buy, organizations to support and people to appreciate rather than dismiss or feel superior to simply because of geography and opportunity.


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