Sunday, November 1, 2009

Our homestay in a Hmong village

When we got to the Hmong village where we would be spending the night, Kia explained that we would be spending the night in the village chief's house. The village chief also ended up being the village Shaman, school master, and former medicine man too. Score! All the children were staring at us for prolonged periods, open mouthed, as if we couldn't see them back. This was to be a theme during our stay, but more on that later.

Kia explained that since it was a Saturday, there was no school so most kids were either working or in their homes, and most of the adult villagers were harvesting crops (as they do every day during the harvest seasons) and wouldn't be back until dinner time. It was about 2 pm and Kat, Isaac and I hadn't expected to be at the village quite so early as we had thought the other village stops would take longer. Since this was a custom trip G.D. set up just for us, I guess all bets were off. It was very quiet and Kia didn't really put his heart into trying to facilitate conversation - the three of us sat with Kia and the chief in his house in the near dark (there were no windows and the village didn't have electricity for lights) for a while and it was a little bit awkward. Eventually we all got to asking each other questions - the chief wanted to know our jobs, if Isaac and I have kids, and of course had to ask Kat "what are you?". As saying "American" was, of course not accepted, she has learned to quickly add "Korean" which then lead to more questions about why she moved to America (she told him she was 5, so it wasn't really her choice), and if her parents left because of the war (how old do they think Kat is???).

Then we got to ask him some questions - he has 11 kids, aged 35 to 2, his wife was working in the fields and would be spending the night near the fields rather than trek back to the village (unfortunately that meant we never got to meet her), he became chief by being elected. Elections are every 4 years and the stipend is very small so he still needs to make money from farming.

After some more interesting conversation, Kia went to take a mid day nap and Kat, Isaac and I went to go take photos of the village and walk around. The Chief's 2 youngest daughters were following us around from a distance(age 4 and 7, I would estimate), and were truly adorable. The picture at the top of the post is the older daughter and grandson, the man with no shirt is the chief, and the younger daughter is the picture below the chief. I would also like to add that even the 4 year old was working. She had a large baby, maybe 1 or 1.5 years old and literally half her size, strapped to her back and was doing an admirable job of attempting to rock and shush him since he was screaming his head off for about 3 hours straight. I later learned that the baby's dad is her older brother and the baby's mom was working in the fields all day, which is why the baby was so upset. When the mother did get home around 5pm, she also had a small infant strapped to her back. She had been doing the same work as the men in the fields all day, just with a baby strapped to her back. These women are no joke. Working their butts off from age 4, apparently! We passed out some books, which were well received, and Kat gave out pencils to all the local kids we saw. The kids didn't beg but were very happy to get the pencils. At one point we didn't know if we had enough to give to a new group of kids so we put the pencils away. One little girl who had seen other kids get pencils from afar kept looking at the other kids' pencils with a really sad longing in her face, but didn't say a word. No begging here either. Kat and I did a quick head count and decided we did have enough to give her and the other kids pencils and they were so happy!

When dinner time arrived Kia cooked us a simple meal of choko (local veggie) and chicken soup, sticky rice, and one other dish made of local greens. It was delicious, although my belly was still wonky from the bumpy ride. I forced myself to eat something so they wouldn't loose face, and took a cipro in case my upset stomach was the start of getting sick. Kia apologized for the simple food and accommodations and we explained that we were very happy with them - we wanted the authentic experience! We defiantly got one. Bathing was in public from a spigot in the middle of town (They bathe together but with sarongs on to cover up). Seeing as how everyone was still stopping what they were doing to stare at us, we all decided to just wash our hands and faces and brush our teeth. The toilet was a squat toilet outhouse behind the main house, and they had Isaac, Kat, and me all sleep on the same raised platform together. This was fine with us although very different from the Lowland Lao house, where Isaac and I were asked to sleep separately even though they probably thought we were married. The roof was tin, walls were wood plank, and floor was packed dirt. While we had dinner chickens, dogs, and cats all came and went and were either allowed to stay or forcefully kicked out seemingly at the whim of the house's inhabitants.

Picture above: Cooking dinner

Before bed we all sat by candlelight/flashlight and talked some more. It was really great to get to know the chief and ask him questions about the Hmong, about his life, and his family. He gave us all a drink of Lao Lao from a bottle that had been packed with Lao Lao and large 1 to 1.25 inch bees (a tonic that "makes you strong!" we were promised). I only had a tiny sip because of my belly. The chief invited us to sit with his family and eat a bit more, which we all did even though we weren't hungry, because he was being so polite and generous. Soon after we went to bed and my arms stomach and thighs broke out in small hives which made sleep really hard. Luckily I had brought the cortisone cream from our first aid kit (we only had our little day packs, the big packs were in the Green Discovery office in Luang Prabang). So now the mystery is, am I allergic to Cipro (never have been before), the bee juice or something else? My dad is deathly allergic to honey bee stings, and I can't remember if I have ever been stung by one. I guess I need to see an allergist when we get back to the states. I feel fortunate it was just hives and not something more severe, since the nearest emergency-ready hospital was in Bangkok!

The roosters started crowing at 4am and everyone in the house started getting up, and the 3 of us tried to sleep a bit longer since it was still pitch black. One funny thing was the kids, and not just the 4 year old, kept stopping by our bed and pointing the flashlight at us and continuing to stare. It was so funny - I knew from earlier that they didn't seem to have a sense we can see them staring at us, but with a flashlight 6 inches from your face in the middle of the night, come on! Opening my eyes and moving didn't seem to get the message across that they were blinding me, so I finally would very sweetly say "good morning" and that would send the kid and their flashlight running. It's amazing that they didn't seem to know I could see them back until I talked to them!

The next morning we had bread, leftover sticky rice, and more leftover choko from the soup for breakfast. Then we went for a walk with Kia and the Chief to see their herb garden, where they grow their herbal medicines. The Chief explained that sometimes foreigners come to stay with them for a week or two to study their knowledge of medicinal plants. They even had a German stay with them for a year and a half in 1996. Still, judging by the kids' reactions I think maybe it's been a little while since falang have spent the night. We gave the Chief the rest of the books from Big Brother Mouse, to give out to kids or to the school. He looked at several of them with the youngest daughter and she seemed really curious about them. I think we may have a future reader on our hands! Before we left the Chief showed us some dried animal's feet (looked kind of like a large rodent, sort of), and said they were something Shamans give Hmong people for protection. He wanted to know if we could take them home with us. We asked Kia what animal they were from, but he said he didn't know of the English name since we don't have them in the west. Then we asked if they were rare, and Kia didn't understand the word "rare" or "endangered". So we had him ask the chief - "Are there many of these animals in the forest? Or not so many?" He asked the chief and the answer was "Oh no, not many at all". Ah. So we had to regrettably tell him thank you, we are very honored at his generous gift, but no, customs would not let us keep them if there are not many left. I can only imagine the hot water we might have landed in if we had tried to bring some exotic semi extinct animal's paws home. Yikes.

Picture above: The central room of the house. The bed with the mosquito net is where the three of us slept.

The stay was really great for all of us, and I think especially moving for Kat. She really wanted to stay longer and wants to go back with Kiru (her husband) in the future. I loved it too, and I'm not sure how much of it was my belly problems, but I felt one night was probably good for me. It was a tiny bit like camping and I was so hot and sweaty by the next day I couldn't wait to shower. Isaac and I both agreed we liked the first homestay a bit better (partially because Udon was such a great guide), and Kat liked the Hmong homestay best, because the Chief and his family had been so wonderful. We all agreed that we felt very happy and lucky for the opportunity to get to spend the night in the village.

Next up: Back to Luang Prabang!


Lisa said...

still loving the recaps and the pictures! I am fascinated by the bee drink. Certainly glad that your allergic reaction was relatively mild.
Again, I am always amazed by the hospitality in some places. They wouldn't likely get the same warm reception at some random stranger's house here.

Isaac said...

@Lisa: Thanks, I'm really glad you are diggin' it! [wrt bee drink] Maybe that's where your ladies can go when they die?! ;)

The sincere warmness you feel in places like Laos is something to be cherished. With the inevitable influx of more people, and that small percent looking to get ahead through exploitation, I think it is a necessity for the group to become more jaded and also, for some, more opportunistic. I can just hope that by treating people so openly warm with equal respect and doing our best to encourage them to retain their own culture, we postpone that callous evolution as long as possible.

I think most people still have that warm, soft, vulnerable underbelly of kindness there, but it is usually housed 'neath such a heavy armor that a stranger visiting would never see it... which is sad because that is more who we are than the armor we wear...

A post that we will put up soon, talks about this to some extent in how the double edged sword of tourism has killed some beautiful traditions.