Monday, October 10, 2005

Da Sha Ba: Citronella Distilleries Taking a Break

It's been a long long time since I last updated the blog and so, as you can imagine, a LOT has happened since then. I am now in Hong Kong, waiting for my Indian visa. This means that my adventure in China has come to an end. I can't believe it!! time is really flying by!

More than a month ago, after spending a few days in Kunming, I left for DaShaBa, accompanied by Wu Kai, an entomology Masters student at the Yunnan Agricultural University who had accepted to be my interpretor. We reached DaShaBa after a 4 hours bumpy bus ride from the city of Mojiang, known as the capital of tea in Yunnan. DaShaBa is a small village (not more than 1,000 families) perched on the hillside next to the Black river which flows down to Vietnam. My main interest in visiting DaShaBa was to observe and participate in the production of citronella essential oil. I was expecting to arrive in a village surrounded by rice paddies and occasional distillation units placed in the middle of citronella fields as in Binchuan where the geranium essential oil was produced. So I was surprised when the bus dropped us off somewhere along the dirt road on a hillside covered with trees. On each side of the road, there were small concrete houses with tin roofs, but absolutely nothing around the houses resembled a rice paddy or a citronella field. On the contrary, it seemed that the houses had been crammed on the hillside, in an area that I could guess had earlier been covered by jungle. Later, as I was strolling around the village, I realized that trees that were now covering the hillside were no longer strangler fig trees or giant oaks but they were all rubber trees.

What I thought would be an active stay in DaShaBa, helping the farmers with the citronella harvest turned into a two-day observation of the villagers' seemingly laid back life. Around DaShaBa, the citronella gives an extremely good oil, but it is in direct competition with the rubber harvest, which is far more lucrative. When the international market price of citronella oil is below 60 Yuan/ kg, the farmers prefer to concentrate all their efforts on the collection of rubber. And so, when I visited DaShaBa, the few distillation units in the mountain were inactive.

Yinshi Qi, the head of the family that hosted me, holds a small convenience store in DaShaBa. He also buys citronella and anise seed essential oil from the farmers of DaShaBa and of the neighbouring villages. Hence, when he is not travelling back to Kunming to sell the oils to a larger company that refine them and then trade them with international customers, he spends his day in his shop (a room in his house, just in front of the kitchen) waiting for the occasional customer to buy a pack of cigarette or a pound of noodles. So he ends up playing Chinese chess all day in front of his shop. His wife, apart from doing house chores, spends time on the front porch chatting with the other women of the village, nibbling on sunflower seeds or watching the latest Chinese soap opera featuring love and of course martial arts. The store and the oil trade brings the family enough revenue to have plenty of food and to send the children to school. It seems that Yinshi Qi and his wife's only ambition is that their children do well in school. The children are under a lot of pressure because competition to attend university in China is fierce, and Yinshi Qi realized that the only way to secure a future is by attending university.

Eventhough my stay in Da Sha Ba was completely different than what I had imagined, it was extremely enriching. It gave me a better idea of the different layers in the Chinese society. I was also able to "talk" about Chinese politics with a veteran of the Vietnam war who is now a member of the Chinese Communist Party. To "answer" my questions, he kept on telling me how great France is, because for him, France is synonymous with "beginning of Communism". I guess he is referring to the events of the Commune in Paris in 1871.

The day before I left Da Sha Ba, I was excited to go to the rubber tree plantation to see more closely how fresh and unprocessed natural rubber looks. At that time, I didn't realize that these neatly arranged rows of rubber trees that seemed to blend in so well with the landscape, are actually one of South-East Asia's most important environmental threat.

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