The old farmer stuffs his hands into the pockets of his blue track suit bottoms and nods.
“Yes, it’s best to pick the tobacco after a few days of sun because the plant is then more full of oil.”
Smiling, the old farmer hands me a small sickle.
“Right then… Enough talking, let’s get to it.”
So we do, cutting the six month old tobacco plants two inches from the root.
“Like people say, ‘Plucking a crop won’t help it grow’.”
Ten minutes later, our hands; thickly coated with oil, the tobacco patch is cleared. Sitting down upon the grassy ledge above the now bare square of red clay soil, the old farmer rolls then lights a big fat cigar. Exhaling, he looks at me and smiles.
“Go on then… Don’t just stand there.”
Laughing, I shake my head with mock disgust and get to picking up the plants and putting them into the two empty bamboo baskets which I carried up here.
The baskets filled, I slide a wooden stick through their rope handles. Crouching down, I then make sure that the stick is lying evenly across the dip between my shoulder blades and lift the baskets up.
The old man chuckles at the grimace that spreads across my face.
“Not so light now, are they? Eh?”
I shake my head.
No, they’re not, especially in this heat…
My t-shirt is soaked right through and the afternoon sun glares back at me from the brown waters of the paddy fields below.
Lowering my eyes, I concentrate on the narrow and uneven muddy path that leads down and through the fields, as we make our way back to the old man’s house. Passing locals giving me the thumbs up for my stumbling endeavours, as I do my best not to plunge headfirst in to the stepped fields on either side of us.
“You can’t buy that, you know?” says the old farmer walking leisurely behind me, still puffing on his hand-rolled cigar, “No, we only share our tobacco with like-minded friends.”
“Yes,” I nod.
I’ve seen that in the nearby village where I have been staying – the older generation swapping bags of dried tobacco leaves with one another then sampling and commenting on the various qualities of each other’s crop.
But right now, with sweat streaming out of every pore, I’m far more pleased to see the muddy path beneath my feet giving way to concrete slabs.
“Not far now,” the old farmer chuckles.
Sixty metres, up a gravel path, which leads past the fake Greco columns of his neigbours’s half-built three floor house, and on to a chicken coop surrounded courtyard that contains the old farmer’s home, which he built with his own hands.
“Set the baskets down over there.”
The old farmer motions to the concrete steps in front of the south-facing door. I put them down gladly and pull up a small, hand-made bamboo chair and sit down next to him.
“Smoke that,” the old farmer smiles, handing me a freshly rolled cigar, “You’ve earned it.”
“Thanks,” I nod and look at the long thick dark brown thing with golden specks along it.
Yes, it’s been a long time since I smoked one of these, and the last time I did, I’d stolen it…
Sticking the cigar in my mouth, I light it up, and, sure enough, the smoke goes flying straight down my cigarette trained throat, making me cough and hiccup incessantly.
Cracking up with laughter, the old man drops the knife that he’s been sharpening.
“Ha ha ha. That’s just what I did the first time my father gave me a cigar. Not the same at all is it?”
The old farmer shakes his head, while I cough away.
“No. You know, people are always trying to give me cigarettes, but once you start smoking these then nothing else will do, so I just politely hand them back to them and say, ‘Thank you my friend, but no.’”
“You taste that?”
“Yes,” I do. It’s rich and sweet and makes my lips tingle.
It’s a lovely bit of puff. No doubt about it.
“That’s pure tobacco for you my friend. No chemicals, no filters, just leaves rolled up inside another leaf, the way that it’s supposed to be. ”
Nodding, the old farmer gets up from his chair, picks up his long knife then walks over to the bamboo baskets and starts to strip the leaves from the stalks of the freshly cut plants, while I sit and puff on my cigar, admiring the dexterity and speed with which the old farmer works.
The leaves are stripped in next to no time.
Stringing up a line beneath the wooden eaves of the house, he then ties the stripped leaves to it and leaves them hanging there to dry. In a few weeks or so, they will turn from their present dark green colour to the golden brown of the dried and tied up bundles of tobacco leaves that are stored in the wicker baskets to the left of the front door.
Finished, the old farmer grabs one of the dried bundles and comes back over and sits down next to me.
“Now,” he winks, “I suppose you’d like to know how to roll one of these, right?”
“OK,” he smiles, “Now…”
Untying the bundle of dried tobacco leaves, the old farmer takes four out from the centre. Stripping them from the top of the leaf down, he puts them together for the core of the cigar. Then he takes out another leaf, but rather than stripping it, the old farmer puts it into his hands and breathes all over it.
“You see?” he nods, “You see how it sucks up the moisture? Yes, it’s important that the outside leaf you roll it in is moist. If it is too dry though, don’t worry, you can always spray it with tea or water.”
Happy now with the leaf’s dampness, the old farmer places the four stripped parts of leave inside the moist leaf and rolls it up at a slight angle, twisting it up from the bottom of the leaf as he does.
“There you go,” he says, twirling both ends of the finished cigar tight, “Now, you have a go.”
It took him about a minute.
It takes me about thirty, much to his amusement. I think the problem is that I keep looking for the gum.
“Finally,” the old farmer smiles, getting up off his chair, “Now, all we need is something to go with these. Do you fancy a drink before you set off my friend?”
“Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?”
“Indeed it would,” laughs the old farmer, patting me on the shoulder, “Indeed it would…”
From inside, the old farmer fetches a yellow petrol can full of home-made rice wine, then points to the far side of the house.
“Let’s go round the back, the view is much better there.”
Indeed, it is.
Shaded by the tall bamboo that surrounds it, the small concrete terrace looks out over a green sway of paddy fields, ripening corn and bamboo groves, our only company – white cranes, ducks and the odd passing dog.
There is no need for words.
Basking in the view, we sit in silence and drink and smoke, until darkness begins to fall and the cooling air around us comes alive to the sound of croaks, cicadas and the chirrup of birds.
What I’m going to do when I head back to the bustle of the city, I neither know nor care.
Right now, it really doesn’t matter.
Sitting here, sated by nature’s tranquility and puffing on this country cigar, I am fatter and richer than any king or emperor.