Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A short glimpse into a different life

This trek afforded us the opportunity to visit and interact with three different ethnic tribes: Hmong, Lantaen, and Khmu.

I'm having trouble thinking of an interesting or coherent way to write this as a continuous piece, so instead I will just leave you with some of our observations, experiences, and impressions. (We have far fewer pics of the people and their surrounding than we would have liked, as we were trying to be respectful and most of the time a photo seemed inappropriate. So you'll have to settle for descriptions)

HMONG Village

--Because the Hmong were in the middle of about 10 days of new year's festivities, we got to observe them wearing their ceremonial clothes (especially the women and girls) and participating in traditional new year's activities. One of these was a game where boys and girls use the excuse of tossing a ball back in forth in two single sex lines (which they only do for the month of January) while they talk and get to know a potential marriage prospect that they fancy. They let us join in on the fun, though Brian almost started an international incident when he unknowingly approached his partner too close.

-- One of the things we liked here was the fact that except for allowing us to participate in some of their games and smiling at us a lot, the people pretty much just went about their daily lives. You in no way got the feeling that they were on display for us or performing for us which is what we had been afraid of. (Our house was separated from town a bit too, which kept us out of the way while still providing us with good views on both halves of the town)

-- After dinner we had a Q&A session with two of the men from the village. It was really interesting and a nice and open give and take (especially after Brian had the brilliant insight to ask them what questions they had for us.). One of the parts that struck me the most was when the man said that until a year ago (which is when this organization started bringing treks through town), no one except for the elders in the village had ever seen a foreigner, they'd only heard stories from the grandparents, etc. Cool

-- We were also struck by how incredibly clean the village was (especially compared to the ones we saw later), especially considering how very many animals were running loose around the areas. We lost track of the numbers of pigs, chickens, dogs, horses, goats, and cows...but trust us. It was like Old MacDonald come to life.

-- On the morning before we left, we watched the villagers butcher and clean a pig for a wedding celebration that evening. One of the young men there asked Brian and me how many pigs we had killed for our wedding. Besides for the (unstated) obvious religious difficulties that might have created, we had to explain that we didn't own any pigs and so had to find other ways to feed our guests.


-- The Lantaen were also celebrating their new year's (Lantaen belong to the same tribe grouping as Hmong), but unlike up on the mountain where things were relatively sedate, here it was clear that there had a been a party going on for since morning. Pretty much all of the men (and some of the woman) had been enjoying their Lao Lao (Lao whiskey), which was mostly just interesting/amusing, but made us a little nervous when we saw 4 young men with submachine guns walk through town. (Turns out they were soldiers from Luang Nam Tha who had hiked in to celebrate with their families for the day and were returning to town the next morning).

-- Sophie and Cat even got waylaid into a hut and forced (in a nice way) to down many Lao Lao shots while listening to incomprehensible New Years speeches before our guides came in and 'rescued' them. (Though even the guides were unable to extract themselves without 2 or 3 shots)

-- The kids here, like in the Hmong village were all playing and having a great time. Their laughter was fantastic to see and hear as was the way they looked after each other (older kids minding younger kids, even if it was a 5 year old hanging on to a 2 year old) and the way they used such simple toys. (Like these girls jump roping with a thin strand of bamboo). The camera was a great draw too. The above photo happened when I was practically mugged as soon as I brought the camera out and started showing them the pictures I was taking of them.)

-- The woman were beautiful here too, and wore the traditional blue robes and leg wrappings (like you see on the pictures of the girls). It appeared that they shaved their eyebrows and they did their hair up with a very high hairline, which disconcerted a few of the group.

-- As I mentioned in the food entry, we were made very at home in this village and enjoyed our brief stay there (despite the momentary terror).

KHMU Village

-- This appeared to be the biggest village we visited, and had more infrastructure (fenced gardens, generators, 5 or 6 hydroelectric generators), etc.

-- We didn't get to see as much of this village as the others because we came in just as it was getting dark, thanks to our detour to the Lantaen village and our relatively early departure the next morning.

-- There was some interaction though, as after dinner the chief and a bunch of the folks came up to offer us a drink of their traditional rice Lao Lao, drunk out of a clay jug through long bamboo straws and then we joined them in a dance with bamboo sticks accompanied by their singing and music. This was the only time during the three days where I felt like people were having to "perform" for us (or with us, as the case happened to be) and it did make me kind of uncomfortable. Later though as some of the adults left (and Brian and I, the old farts, went to an early bed), the singing and music and drinking continued a little more genuinely.


We really treasured this opportunity to get a look into life of a totally different sort than ours that (mostly) was continuing on unaffected by our progress. It's really hard to talk about it without romaticizing things inappropriately. (Our guide today in Luang Prabang observed that all the tourists talk about how beautiful the undeveloped forests and mountains are when what that meant to him growing up was a hard long hike down to the river to fetch the cold water to clean and feed themselves with. It's easy to enjoy it when you are just visiting and you go back to your guest house with electricity and hot water...)

That being said, and with full appreciation (or at least as much as one can have without doing it) of how hard these villagers lives were, we were struck over and over by how happy and content people seemed, especially the children. Coming from a place where we bemoan the loss of childhood innocence due to sex and violence on TV or video games, where childhood inactivity has led to a huge obesity threat and where there is constant peer pressure for more more more, it was both refreshing and depressing (in reflection of our culture) to see children being children and running and playing with rocks and sticks and pieces of bamboo and being happy. It'll make me think a bit when Brian and I start our family...

Enough philosophizing. Enjoy the three entries from this trek and get ready for some hot elephant action to come!



Steven said...

What amazing experiences and stories ! Wow...

Anonymous said...

Nice to see the Shilling sock.

It could have been worse . . . think about the leech from Stand By Me.