It's a few minutes past 7 a.m., the roosters have been crowing way before the sunrise and the smell of the neighbors burning styrofoam is so pungent that it tickles my nose with every breath. As I open my bamboo-latched hut to see an abundance of tropical fruit trees and lush hills that are rare in this rugged land, the latter seem menial. For the past few days I've apprenticed at a pepper farm and eco-tourism destination in a community outside of Kep, a sleepily beach town near the Vietnamese border.
I arrived on a raggedy stick-shift bus (it broke down twice during the 3.5 hour journey) from Phnom Penh Cambodia's capital with the hope of seeing for myself what makes pepper one of the country's top agricultural products. Kampot pepper by which it's known has been dubbed as 'One of the finest peppers in the world' for its organic nature and location in which they’re grown, a region rich in minerals that make the soil ideal. Kampot and Kep are the providences in which the pepper is grown, although its origin stems from Southern India.
Each morning just after breakfast I accompany Dara, a slender mother of 2 whom lives on the farm's premises. We lay out vibrantly colored bamboo rugs and wicker baskets then sit crossed legged using tweezers to separate rare and prized white pepper corn from the over abundant black pepper corn. She reminds me of my own color by pointing to my skin indicating that she believes white is better, more unique. I pull out my Lonely Planet phrase book to attempt to explain that color doesn’t matter to me, although deep down I know the world is dominated by fair skinned leaders. I try ignoring this complicated concept, but I’m reminded each time French and German tourists come by to take photos of Dara; not me. As they use cameras that probably cost more than Dara's year's wage. They are amused to learn I'm sorting out tiny little peppercorns—something that appears tedious to the Westerner. To me it seems relaxing almost meditative as Dara teaches me to count in Khmer, a nice pace compared to my life back in the States.
Simultaneously, tourists from around the world drive down the red dirt road leading to the farm on motorbikes or private buses. Upon arriving visitors are greeted by Dara, or a tour guide who offer complementary tours in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, or Khmer. Guests are then escorted through the farm lined with hundreds of pepper plants all shaded by dried palm leaves. These plants have reached up to 10 feet high during 7 years of growth with a 20 year projected production life span.
Visitors will snap a few photos of the black, red, or white pepper drying in midday sun, are fascinated to learn that the peppercorn flower, which grows throughout the year, is the smallest in the world. Its buds make way for the peppercorn that's harvested during March, April, and May. The plants are completely organic; neem leaf, lemongrass, and turmeric are used as natural pesticides to fend away caterpillars and other insects from eating the leaves.
After they have been harvested the peppercorns are placed in a hot water bath then laid out to dry in the sun. Green or yellow peppercorns turn black after being dried in the sun. Black pepper is the most common and versatile pepper and can be used on just about everything. White pepper is essentially black peppers with the outer skin removed; this is done by placing them in a hot bath for several minutes. Red Pepper is made by leaving the peppercorn to ripen on the vine for an additional few months, creating a slightly sweeter tasting pepper. Red peppercorns are most sought after because of the unique flavor profile, rarity and additional farming required to harvest them.
Writing this almost feels second nature as I wake up on my fifth day on the farm. Tourists and motorbike drivers will filter through during the day, but I remain here. Observing and learning through experience. I came to this farm for so many more reasons than to simply learn about pepper. I ventured across the world to find where development can fit into my future, but now I feel caught between two worlds. One is my yearning to live a simple life away from the demands of the capitalistic society I come from. A rugged lifestyle of bucket showers and solar powered flashlights makes me feel comforted reminding me of a life I led in Ecuador, something I've craved to relive since leaving. The thought of the physical work of sorting pepper and hand washing cloths lures me causing me to wonder if I really need to attain a lifestyle of my family members and friends at home. In another world, I have the pressure to dazzle visitors with my acquired knowledge of Kampot pepper or the reasons I’m here. In each conversation I remind them my intention is to learn, not to necessarily help.
As I spend more time here, enjoying the physical demands I find it increasingly more difficult to achieve the balance of what my heart and head tell me. I’m trying to grasp the concept that my nationality, education, native tongue, and skin color have allowed me to show up at this farm, learn, eat excellent meals, and have a beautiful accommodation, but feel like I’m failing. As much as I wish the barrier of privilege did not exist it seems ever more impossible to escape. For now, focusing on searching for white peppercorns among the thousands of black ones is a parody I am slowing accepting.