Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Village

"Why are you walking?" the local people would ask, as our car was parked at the edge of the village. They couldn't understand such a thing since we had transportation, and they couldn't understand why we would want to visit them. On the other hand, we could do something unheard of in our own country: walk up to any house and be invited in for tea -- even though our guide didn't necessarily know the inhabitants. This was true with all the tribes we visited.

One of my favorites was the Black La Chi, who not only wear black, but dye their teeth black as a beauty treatment. They were, like many, initially shy but also curious about us and within minutes we were being followed by a dozen small children. One girl who was barely eleven years old, from this tribe, had in tow three smaller siblings. Her mother had gone off to Malaysia to earn money for the family -- for four years! It is common also to see the smallest toddlers and babies being carried by their sisters who were only a few years older than themselves.

We were invited into dirt rooms that were quite dark and smoke-filled with few or no windows. A cooking fire was usually in the middle of the room. As pictured here in a Phu La house the bed is on the right, looking more like a table -- with no padding or mattress, and an alter to the ancestors. The floor is packed dirt, the chairs are quite low, there is a handmade basket cradle hanging in the room. There are also modern improvements like filtered water, and a television. The size of this room was larger than most.

Often the family has a large metal basin for making corn whiskey. There is also something to grind corn, and in the rafters are large baskets for rice and dried corn still on the cobs for future planting. This Red Dao woman is mixing corn to ferment. she primarily makes here living by brewing corn whiskey. While in the Ecolodge I was toasted by our hosts: by the third shot my mouth was numb! Fortunately, they didn't pressure me to drink more; although they had many more shots themselves.

We stayed three nights at the Cao San Ecolodge where the mattresses were more padded, but still encased in plastic because of the probability of mildew damage. In the morning we awoke to roosters crowing, barking dogs, squealing pigs, and the clatter of bells on water buffalo. The sounds of traffic was noticeably missing -- in Cao San, even the absence of motorbikes. It was usually very misty, with clouds shrouding the mountain tops.
One day we got a hard rain for several hours. This was the home of the Red Dao tribe, and they were out rain or shine plowing and planting rice fields, often wearing a sheet of plastic for rain gear.

The Red Dao are also known for their embroidery, and Judy bought one of their outfits -- which took two years to complete! They also demonstrated a
batik made with beeswax, and let us each try.
Again, we were surrounded by shy but curious children who would hide when a camera was pointed at them but were equally anxious to see their digital image and broke out into self-conscious giggles. Unfortunately, many of these kids did not dress traditionally, and what with cell phones, electricity, TV and the Internet, these tribal cultures are likely to be largely lost within another generation. Electricity is coming to Cao San, although right now it is only a few hours each day with generators, and the Ecolodge is the party telephone line. If someone calls in, they must call back after the desired party is fetched from the village.
Another favorite village was called Tha, a traditional Tay tribal village with thatched roofs, and stilts. Traditionally, the livestock was kept on the ground level, and in this village we saw some of that. However, many people also use it as a room to thresh rice, store their motorbike or bicycle and other miscellaneous things like we would use an unfinished basement or garage. This village was lush with palm trees, and rice paddies. As we walked through streets not large enough for cars, we were passed by water buffalo being taken to the fields.

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