I’m heading to Guangdong, China next week for book research. I’ll be spending a lot of time with a family in Taishan, learning their village customs. You can read the full story upon my return. In the meantime, here comes a 3-part story on my 3-day trek among rarely-visited hill tribes in northern Thailand…
DAY ONE – LISU
We sit in the bed of the pickup as it lurches over bumpy dirt roads to the forest, a half-hour outside Pai, Thailand, light years outside the rat race. Carly, Pete, Collin and I are visiting hill tribes who seldom receive foreigners: the Lisu, Karen and Lahu.
Although this Lisu woman looks at least 75, we discover she’s only about 50.
At the trailhead, we jump out and shoulder our packs. Tuk, our guide, and Pricha, our porter, pull out machetes and hack at tree branches to make walking sticks. They hand each of us a stick, and we step into the jungle.
Tuk points out a three-foot-tall anthill. He carefully pokes a small hole in it, to give us a peek at the tiny residents scurrying through their tunnels on thousands of urgent errands. Then he picks up a leaf and plants it in the anthill. “This is a local superstition. Doing this will give me more power (he pronounces it moh powah).” He holds up his slender arm to show us his bicep. “If the ants do not eat the whole leaf before I come back, that means moh powah for the trek.” Tuk pauses, then puts in a second leaf. “It will be a long trek. Moh leaf, moh powah.”
In the afternoon, rain begins to fall. We stop to eat and wait out the brief downpour, in a Lahu village: just two- or three-dozen families living in bamboo huts on stilts. When the rain lets up, we walk on.
Our steep path uphill takes us past a stream flowing downhill, which branches and re-branches into dozens of rivulets. We scramble up slippery rocks and muddy slopes, catching our balance by grabbing thick braided vines. I slip and fall a couple of times.
We stop at a waterfall to take a dip in the pool below, not bothering to remove our clothes. The water is freezing, but it feels good to rinse off the day’s grime and sweat.
After a two-hour push uphill, the trail opens into a field of small cabbages, signaling our approach to the village. In anticipation of our arrival, Tuk teaches us how to greet the Lisu villagers when we meet them: the words sound like “Aku bohk mok.”
The rain starts pouring again and we practically run the final 10 minutes into the village. The storm has apparently driven the villagers indoors, although, for all we can tell, the place might be deserted. To our surprise, when we arrive at the hut where we’re spending the night, we find it locked. This village is a humble collection of a dozen bamboo huts, and we wonder aloud what possible need this remote community might have for locks. Tuk runs off in search of a key.
While we wait on the porch, Pete begins chanting the Lisu greeting: “Aku-bohk-mok… aku-bohk-mok…” The rest of us join in, improvising an angular dance to our own tribal beat, elbows and knees akimbo, feet pounding the bamboo: “aku-bohk-mok… aku-bohk-mok…”
Tuk returns and opens the door. A small child appears out of nowhere and slips inside. He runs to the back door and opens it for a group of children waiting there. Within moments they fill the room. A couple of older girls wear traditional dresses and aprons, in blue, pink and black. But most of the children wear the mismatched, torn, third-hand clothing that are the mark of poor children everywhere. The older ones appear serious and cautious at first. But the little ones are all smiles and unabashed curiosity, openly approaching us, their eyes following our every move.
One tiny boy of about five is obnoxiously aggressive. Collin and Pete nickname him One Tuft, because of the single tuft of hair on his otherwise bald head. One Tuft tries to yank my camera straight off my neck, without bothering to slip the strap over my head. I try to wrest myself and the camera from his grip, but he puts up quite a struggle. When he starts kicking me, I don’t know what to do, so I pick him up by the arms and swing him in circles, hoping to exhaust him. It wasn’t the brightest idea; he won’t leave me alone after that, hanging on my arms, refusing to let go until I give him another spin.
A deeply wrinkled old woman has wandered in with the children. She looks at least 75, although we discover she’s only about 50. Like the older girls, she, too, wears a traditional dress, but, unlike them, her head is wrapped in a rag. Like the little ones, she, too, is all smiles, and it’s clear that she’s a child herself, mentally disabled in some way. She occasionally utters a guttural sound, “Uggghhhrrr.” She latches onto Collin, perhaps because he has the gentlest manner among us. Whenever he stands up she stands next to him, whenever he sits down she sits across from him. She smiles at him constantly and frequently directs her one conversational skill his way, “Ugghhrr,” sometimes combined with a chuckle, “Ugghhhrrr-rr-rr-rr.” Collin turns to me and deadpans, “I think she’s become quite attached to me.”
We give up on changing out of our wet clothes, and sit on the floor in a crowded circle: the four westerners forming one half, the youngsters and the woman the other.
I begin the first efforts to communicate. Smiling at the woman, I point at my chest and say, “Cara,” then point at her.
She nods and chuckles, “Ugghhrr-rr-rr.”
I try again, pointing at myself and my companions: “Cara… Collin… Pete… Carly…” then pointing at her.
“That settles it,” Collin says. “Her name must be Ugghhrr.”
“Nice to meet you, Ugghhrr,” Pete says.
Silence falls as the two groups sit considering each other. Racking my brain for a way to break the ice, I rummage in my backpack and pull out a photo of my baby sister. The children give an “oooh!” of delight. One child grabs the photo, then all the children start manhandling it in a tug-of-war. By the time I rescue it, the plastic-encased face of my two-year-old sister is dented and wrinkled. It’s the only photo I packed. There’s no way to explain that it’s a picture of my sister. “They probably think you’re a terrible mother who abandoned your child back home so you could travel to a foreign country,” Pete says.
My companions pull out more photos, and the children jump up and down in a frenzy. But Carly, who clearly has experience with children, takes them in hand. Although she speaks in English, her tone and gestures are clear, “If you don’t settle down, you won’t get to see the pictures.” They mind her as if they’ve known her all their lives. The children sit in rapt attention, straining forward while Carly holds up her pocket album and shows the photos one-by-one, like a teacher holding up a picture book for a class.
The children are most enthralled by one of Pete’s photos, which features a backdrop of snow, something they’ve never seen.
Their reaction to the sight of snow is nothing compared to Collin’s and Pete’s astonishment at the sight that next enters the hut. A young woman comes in from bathing, completely topless. Pete’s eyes fly wide.
After she leaves, he giggles and says, “I didn’t know we were going to see tittie.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I say, “but didn’t they tell us not to wear shorts in the village because it might offend the villagers?”
“Maybe to these people legs are a bigger deal than breasts,” Carly says.
“Not possible,” Pete says. “In terms of pure viewing pleasure, no body part is a bigger deal than breasts.”
Tuk cooks our dinner of vegetables and mountain rice over a hearth fire and we eat it by candlelight, because the village has no electricity. After dinner, we do what people without electricity often do: we talk.
“Have you noticed,” Pete says, “that there’s this sort of instantaneous bond you form with other travelers? Like making the decision to completely trust someone you’ve just met. Somehow your instincts just tell you who you can trust, and who you can make friends with. Sometimes it only takes 20 seconds and you just know.” He’s describing how we all met.
I say, “I think that might be partly because all our souls are connected. Maybe sometimes two souls just recognize each other.”
“Are you talking about reincarnation?” Carly asks.
“Not necessarily. My boyfriend wrote me an e-mail recently, and he called me a ‘soul traveler.’ I think that kind of illustrates what I’m saying. It’s like, when we’re traveling to foreign lands and letting go of our old lives, we’re more open to all these spiritual connections – whether we call them that, or simply call them ‘a strange instinctive feeling that I could trust this person even though we’ve just met.’”
The more I travel, the more open I become to everything, and the less sure I become of anything. I feel no need for certainty anymore, as I pass beyond the borders of modern life.
To be continued…