Friday, March 11, 2011

Hunger in a Rice-Basket?

...Which brings me to another observation…  Labor costs are hugely different, depending on where you are. But food is food, and depending on the climate you live in and the efficiency or not of your transport system, your food might have to come a long expensive way to your bowl. I think my earlier impression about people living on low wages in poorer countries was that they had a special access to lower-cost living than I do. I paid triple at the Grand Bazaar what a Turk could bargain for, I paid double on the Russian railways for the foreigner-price ticket, I pay more every time I smile naively and pull out my wallet and say—‘How much does this thing cost?’
Well that’s mostly true. But food can only get so cheap, no matter how much haggling you do. And in Cambodia, the floor price of food has got to be firm, because most of the vegetables, milk, cheese, meat, are being imported from the outside. Cambodia has got so far to go in improving its transport system, its system of pricing and intermediating farming, its technologies for seeds, planting, irrigating, you-name-it, that delicious mangos go bad in carts miles away from urban markets, while Vietnamese fruits and vegetables are sold expensively in Phnom Penh stores.
Of course I didn’t have to come here to realize that Americans pay for and consume far more food than they actually need to get by. Riding the bus back from Siem Reap, I felt like the mother bird surrounded by my little chicks constantly poking, whining, prodding—‘Feed me! Feed me!’ Between my feet and on my lap were bags of crackers, muffins, sliced pineapple, bananas, jackfruit, beef jerky. We were a moving feast. A few hours into the trip, I noticed that the Khmer folks around us were napping, looking out the windows, and consumed almost nothing for the whole ride.
Leaving the tailor yesterday, who charged me $3 to alter 3 skirts, I wondered what his after-overhead profits were buying for him? Oranges are $3.50 per kilo and are imported from Florida (we learned with great shock after our one-and-only orange purchase). Apples—not sure where from—are $2.50 per kilo. Bananas are cheaper at about $0.50 per kilo. Milk is pricy at $1.65 per liter. Cheese and meat are very expensive, butter is impossible, at $4.50 per  100 grams, imported from Australia and New Zealand, I guess in freezer containers.
So we come back to rice. Rice, incidentally, is Cambodia’s primary agricultural export, but most of it is exported in raw form, because the technology and financing isn’t well-developed for refining. So most of the refined rice sold at food stores and restaurants is actually re-imported from Thailand and Vietnam.
But what is rice doing for people? It’s just starch! I remember looking at Tika’s very skinny Vietnamese friend Natlin (this was back in Virginia), and noticing that virtually every meal she eats is a bowl of rice (and many many lollipops). All her molars are silver, and she sparkles when she smiles. There is a gap between her two front teeth wearing into a circular hole. We weren’t here in Phnom Penh very long before noticing that I’m a full head taller than most adults, and that Puck is built like a grizzly bear compared to other kids that might be three-year-olds.
Prices for so many other things might depend on who and where you are, but food is like a hard currency, and our bodies grow (or don’t grow) with what currency we have. To be heavy-set in Cambodia is to be well-placed. Most people are living from meal to meal.