Nodding, the old farmer stuffs his hands into the pockets of his dark blue tracksuit bottoms.
“Yes,” he says, in his usual quiet and measured tone, “It is 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 and well-used sickle.
“Right then,” he says, “That’s enough of all the talking. Let’s get on with it.”
So we do, cutting down the six-month-old tobacco plants two inches from the root.
Ten minutes later, our hands are thickly coated with the oil from the tobacco plants and the small patch of land is cleared. Sitting down upon the grassy ledge above the now bare square of red clay soil, the old farmer rolls a cigar for himself and then lights it up. Exhaling, he looks at me and smiles.
“Go on then,” he says, nodding at the freshly stacked pile of plants, “Don’t just stand there looking at ‘em. They’re not going to walk their way back down to the house, are they?”
Laughing, I shake my head with mock disgust and get on with picking up the plants and putting them into the two empty bamboo baskets which I’d carried up the hill. The baskets filled, I put a wooden stick between the pair of them. Crouching down, I make sure the stick lies evenly across the dip between my shoulder blades before then lifting the bamboo baskets up.
“Not so light now, are they? Eh?” the old man chuckles, as a grimace spreads across my face.
I shake my head. No, they’re not, especially in this heat…
With the bright mid-afternoon sun glaring back at me from the brown waters of the paddy fields down below, I lower my eyes and concentrate on the narrow and uneven muddy path that winds its way back down through them and on to the farmer’s house.
“You can’t buy that, you know?” the old man says, walking leisurely behind me, still puffing on his hand-rolled cigar, “No, we only share our tobacco crops with our like-minded friends.”
“Right,” I nod, even though I already know that.
I’ve seen what he is talking about numerous times in the nearby village where I have been living for the last six months. 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 the sweat streaming out of every pore and my breathing becoming heavier, the thing I’m far more pleased to see is the muddy path beneath my feet giving way to concrete slabs.
“Not far now,” the old farmer laughs, patting me on my sweat-soaked back.
Sixty metres, to be precise, up a gravel laden path, which leads past his neigbour’s half-built home, and on to a courtyard, surrounded by chicken coops and the old farmer’s *paojiu stills.
“Set the baskets down over there,” the old man says pointing to the concrete steps in front of his south-facing and self-built home. Nodding, I set the baskets down, while the old farmer pulls up two small, handmade bamboo chairs and motions for me to sit down next to him.
“Here,” the old man says, handing me a freshly rolled cigar, “Take that, my friend. You’ve earned it.”
“Thanks,” I nod, admiring its rough yet natural shape, and the brightness of the golden specks that run along its dark brown length. I must admit, it’s been a fair old while since I smoked any kind of cigar and the last time I did, I stole it from the hotel I was working in,
So, sure enough, when I light it up, the smoke goes flying straight down my cigarette-trained-throat and I cough and cough and cough, much to the old man’s amusement, who, cracking up with laughter, drops the knife that he is sharpening.
“Yes,” the old farmer laughs, “That’s exactly what I did the first time my father gave me a cigar. Not the same at all is it?”
Shaking his head at his own question, the old man carries on laughing while I carry on coughing.
“No,” the old man says, explaining his own answer, “You know, young people around here are always trying to give me cigarettes, but, honestly, once you start smoking these then nothing else will really do. So, I always hand the cigarettes back to them and say, “Thanks a lot my friend, but, no. I think I’ll stick with these.””
Nodding, the old farmer looks at me, as I remember not to take it down.
“You taste that?” he asks.
“Yes.” I do. The taste is rich and sweet and makes my dry lips tingle. This **yiezi yen, as the locals call it, really is a lovely bit of puff. No doubt about it.
“Yes,” the old man nods proudly, “You see, that’s pure tobacco for you right there. No chemicals, no filters, just leaves rolled up inside another leaf, the way that it’s supposed to be. As we say around these parts, ‘Life is really very simple, there’s no need to complicate things.’”
Nodding, the old farmer gets up from his chair, picks up his long knife and walks over to the bamboo baskets and starts to strip the leaves from the stalks of the freshly cut-down plants. I sit and puff on my cigar, admiring both the dexterity and the speed with which the eighty-year-old farmer works. Within five minutes, he has stripped every last one of them.
Stringing up a line of rope beneath the wooden eaves, the old farmer ties the stripped leaves to it and leaves them there to dry. In a few weeks or so, they will turn from their present green to the golden-brown of the dried and tied up bundles that he keeps stored in the wicker baskets to the left of his front door. His work finished, the old farmer picks up one of the bundles and sits down next to me.
“Now,” he winks, “I suppose you’d like to know how to roll one of these, right?”
“Yeah,” I nod, “Sure.”
“OK,” he smiles, “Now…”
Untying the bundle of tobacco leaves, the old farmer takes four leaves out from the oil-rich centre of the bundle. Stripping them from the centre of the leaf downwards, he puts them together for the core of the cigar. After that, he takes out another leaf from the bundle, but, this time, rather than stripping it, the old farmer breathes all over it.
“You see that?” he says, “You see how it sucks up the moisture?”
“Yes,” I reply, as I watch the brown leaf darken.
“Good,” he says, “You see, it’s really important that the outside leaf you roll it in is damp. However, if you do find that it’s still a bit too dry, don’t worry about it too much, you can always spray the leaf with green tea or water.”
Happy with the dampness of the outside leaf, the old farmer places the four stripped parts of the other leaves inside it, and then rolls it all up at a slight angle, twisting it upwards from the bottom.
“There you go,” he says, twirling the two ends of the finished cigar, “That’s all there is to it.”
“Now,” he smiles, passing me the bundle, “It’s your turn, my young city friend.”
“Thanks,” I laugh. But he’s right. Being from the city, I can’t stop myself from complicating the whole process. So, whereas it took him about a minute to roll his cigar, it takes me about thirty, much to his amusement.
“Finally,” the old farmer smiles, patting me on the back as he gets up from his bamboo chair, “Now, all we need is something to go with these cigars. Do you fancy a drink before you head back to the village?”
“Well,” I shrug, “It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?”
“Indeed it would,” the old farmer laughs, “Indeed it would…”
From inside the house, the old man fetches a yellow petrol can full of homemade paojiu.
“Come on,” he says, “Let’s go round to the back of the house, the view is much better there.”
Indeed, it is. The small concrete terrace that he leads me to, looks out across a vast green swathe of bamboo groves and paddy fields, all edged by ripening field corn. Our only company for as far as the eye can see – ducks, geese, white cranes, and the odd wild dog.
“Here, you go,” the farmer smiles, passing me a china bowl filled to the brim with the homemade paojiu, “Enjoy my friend, enjoy.”
“Yes,” I nod, taking the bowl and tapping it against the side of his, “I will, my friend. Thank you.”
Basking in the richness of the natural view, I roll and light a fresh cigar.
It’s a pity that my time in the Sichuan countryside will be coming to an end soon. Really, I should be thinking about what I’m going to do when I head back to the city. But right now, in all honesty, I neither know nor care. Like they say around here, life is really very simple, there is no need to complicate things.
* Paojiu: A 40-60% Chinese spirit made from corn or sticky rice which is then infused with green plums that have been allowed to steep for at least two years.
** Yiezi yen: Wild/Natural tobacco.