San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

At Play in the Ricefields of the Lord

     You don't have to sit very long in front of Rosita's restaurant before a vendor throws his shadow across you.  Within an hour a whole pageant of vendors will have stopped to spread their wares in front of you, whether you want them to or not. 

Silver salesmen and basket hawkers will pitch to you as little children dodge between them and try to sell you a few Chicklets for a coin. Deeply polished ironwood carvings will float on raised arms across your table. Sun masks will dawn and set around the planet of your head. Hammocks draped like bandoleers from young boys' shoulders will promise to rescue you from the tyranny of your feet.

And there are the girls and mothers who silently try to sell colorful woven name bracelets.

I have seen them all.  And I was beginning to think there was no new thing under the Mexican sun.  Until this morning. 

The young man carried a cardboard box covered with electric green craft paper. "Escribire su nombre en un grano de arroz", it announced on one side.  And on the other, "I will write your name on a grain of rice". 

This is interesting, I thought. 

I watched the vendor pitch his craft to a few American women sitting under the ramada of the restaurant.  They looked at a couple of samples and said something I couldn't hear.  A deal was struck and the young man took his box over to a nearby wall.  He removed a few things from his jacket pocket and pushed them into ready-made holes in the top of the box.  He sat on the low wall and began to work. 

I watched with fascination as a small plastic bag of rice was dumped onto the box and he began sorting them.  Then he hunched over and all I could see was a thatch of black hair and an occasional shaking motion of his left arm.

After a few minutes the nose-ring of my curiosity pulled me off my chair and led me across the patio.

"Puedo mirar que tu haces?"  I asked, standing next to him. He didn't even look up and responded in Spanish saying sure, I could watch if I wanted.  So I pulled over a chair and sat in front of him.

While he worked I talked to him and learned he was pretty new to the game of writing names on grains of rice.  He'd only been doing it for a month.  But I could see a month was plenty of time for him to become an expert at it.  His moves were quick and accurate.  The first one was finished before I realized what he was doing.  I watched closely as he began the second one.

He poked the spilled rice with the end of his finger until he found one that suited him.  Then he scraped one side of it with the blade of a pocket knife.  He took a pen from a hole in the box and gave it a shake.  The thing had a thick barrel with a pin-like nib.  He said he bought it in Algadones.

Hunching over, he began lettering the rice grain, forcing the ink into the nib between each letter with a few quick downward shakes of his hand.  He told me he used a black ink from China.

After the name was finished, he blew down on his fingers to dry the ink then replaced the cap of the pen and forced it back into its hole.  Removing a small empty glass ampoule from a row, he unscrewed its metal lid and dropped the grain of rice inside. 

"I buy them in Tijuana,"  he told me, tilting the ampoule.

A syringe appeared from its place and the vendor injected a clear oil into the vial.  I saw the little grain of rice float up above two tiny brightly coloured beads.  The lid was replaced and the end of a tube of Super Glue was dabbed around the seam.  Then the young man produced a roll of thin black braided nylon cord and cut off a length.  He passed one end through a hole in the lid of the ampoule and quickly tied a knock.  The job was done.

I thanked him for the display and went back to my table. 

After the young man was paid, he picked up his glaring, green box and continued walking down the Malecón.  I began to wonder why this thing he did was such a success among the tourists.  Although the source had always been a mystery to me, I had seen these vials before hanging from the necks of sightseers and even in the homes of local residents. 

After the fourth cup of coffee an answer came.

We are attracted to the individuality hidden in things that share a sameness.  We love to peer beneath uniformity to find something unique.  That is why telescopes are turned toward the stars.  Why atoms are probed.  Why mountains and rivers are explored.  Why people line up on beaches to watch grunion.  And why a young man can sell a grain of rice by simply printing a name on it.

We seek through all these metaphors for some element of truth.  The sameness of a field of rice is no different than the swarming uniformity of humanity.  We try to rest in the momentary certainty of our own personal identity.  But the thing that projects this uniqueness, this sense of selfhood, may be as meaningless as a jot of black Chinese ink shaken from a pen onto a grain of rice.  Only a name, a quick flourish of graffiti. 

We are afloat in an amniotic trance, trapped with a few colourful beads, thinking we are the ink and not the rice.  And throughout our lives we forever try to extend this identity into metaphor.  We pen the walls of sameness with the ink of Mind and call the result an individual, a separate existence.  We never see the foundation of grain-ness that holds the universe between two mirrors and sends its echoes cascading into consciousness.

That vendor sold security, hawked reassurance.  In a few minutes he made a grain of rice announce its uniqueness.  In a few minutes a grain of rice lost its kinship with all the others spilled across the lid of the box.  Just as after a few years, a baby loses its kinship with all other newborn infants and begins to cry its uniqueness.  The day it first learns to print its name is the day it loses the heritage of what can be shared and accepts the pitch of the latest advertising gimmick. 

Our individuality floats in a vial on a string.  And no one cares to see what's under the printed word.

The written name can only be removed by polishing the grain.  If we don't make mirrors of ourselves, we'll be doomed to remain illusions in the ricefields of the Lord.