Behind our guest house the rice paddies go for miles, flowing until they come to a ridge of mountains in the distance. Workers dot the landscape, stooping as they labor. They cut the rice by hand while piles of grass smolder here and there, wafting clouds of smoke that just hang in the air.
I’m filming a documentary while we’re here in Bali, trying to dig a little deeper into our mission, the people we’re trying to help and what their life is like. At our morning orientation session we learn that school fees run $400 per year, putting a good education beyond the reach of many families, especially the poorest of the poor who work in the fields.
I want to understand their story so I ask Yati, our local coordinator, to introduce me to some of the farmers to see if I can film them as they work. We walk the narrow dykes, crossing a make shift bridge that spans a small creek and come to a group of farmers feeding rice stalks into a threshing machine. It’s unbelievably hot. The five minute walk has left me drenched with sweat.
I thought they would be suspicious – perhaps even resentful – of the foreigner who arrives with camera gear worth more than what they might make in an entire year. But we are greeted with smiles and waves. They don’t mind me filming in the least. Yati tells me they are curious. Far as we are from Kuta beach, the main tourist destination, they rarely meet a foreigner, let alone one so keen to film them as they work. I let the camera roll as the threshing machine belches diesel and clouds of dust and straw. A couple of the men heave hundred pound sacks of rice onto their shoulders and carry them off, walking barefoot through the stubbly fields.
The day is winding down. A woman who looks to be 70 years old chats with us a while. She wears two layers of clothing, her face and head wrapped in ragged shirts to keep the sun and grit from her skin. She tells us about her life. She says that she is responsible for the field. While she doesn’t own the land, she hires the labor and oversees the work. They toil from sunrise until dusk. It’s back breaking work and I cannot imagine how one as old as she can keep up. But she does. At night they sleep right there in the fields in make shift tents, nothing more than a bit of tarpaulin stretched over bamboo poles.
For her efforts she is paid about six dollars a day. The other laborers probably make less. The arrangement can vary. Sometimes she is paid a percentage of the yield and often when the rice has been cut and threshed and carried away, they will make another pass to collect what they missed the first time around – a little something extra for their families.
They are good natured. Even though they laugh and joke with one another I can’t get over how hard this life must be. Imagine being 70 years old and still spending your days in the fields beneath that unrelenting sun. No retirement. And certainly no money to send your kids to school. Just working and hoping that when you no longer have the strength to do so, your family will be there to take care of you.
We’re only out there for 15 minutes or so. The workers have mostly packed up now, disassembling the threshing machine and carrying it away. But somehow, in this brief exchange, our mission to help the local orphanages has gained a deeper sense of meaning.