Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas with Khmu

We had an early morning border crossing to Huay Xai, Laos and touched the Mekong River for the first of hopefully many times. With one dollar equaling about 10,000 kip, we felt like millionaires when we were handed a rubberband wad of kip at the money exchange.

We were the last two to fill up the bus to Lam Nam Tha. This meant we got to sit with everybody elses' backpacks once we stepped across all of the rice sacks. The ride was long, bouncy, and winding making for an eventful trip. Having the early morning river crossing, we left Thailand with nothing in our stomachs except for doxycyclene, our malaria medication. That didn't go over well with Laura who began feeling nauseus after the first few 180 degree turns. It wasn't long before she had her head in a plastic bag and became the main attraction for the back of the bus. Guess the "Don't take on an empty stomach" and "May cause nausea" warnings apply to her. We survived the bus ride and arrived in Lam Nam Tha late afternoon.

We went to Lam Nam Tha to join a hill tribe trek through the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA). Along with an Israeli couple, we signed up with the UNESCO-sponsored Nam Ha Eco-tourism project for a two day trek to visit Ban Nam Talan, a Khmu and Lecten village. Khmu and Lecten are two of many hill tribes in the area.

As we took our songthaew to the trailhead, a bamboo roadblock with two adjacent Lao PDR soldiers stopped us. Our driver along with our two guides were discussing the situation when suddenly a gunshot was fired in the forest. The American and Spainiard (that's us) nearly hit the truck bed while the Israelis did nothing more than glance in the direction of the noise. Turned out the Lao military was training in the area so we would not be able to use the trailhead. As we left the training area, two Lao military men came out of the jungle with their back covered with tree limbs; they resembled the hollywood depiction of Viet Cong in many Vietnam movies.

We began our hike where it normally would have ended. The initial climb was steep and difficult due to our gelatin travel legs. We finally reached an overlook of steep mountains of thick green jungle.

Close to the overlook, our guides prepared christmas lunch.

The lunch was sticky rice with spicy tomato, smoked cabbage, and beef with stringbeans served in forest leaf bowls (made by our guide) on a banana leaf tablecloth. The sticky rice is rolled into a ball and dipped or scooped into one of the other dishes, then consumed, no silverware necessary!

As our hike continued, Laura stepped on an unstable stick and sprained her ankle; her luck on this trip is only getting worse.

Luckily, she was able to put some weight on her foot to continue without being carried, but we had to slow our pace. We arrived in Ban Nam Talan one hour before dusk.

Laura nursed her ankle while the rest of us enjoyed a bath in the village river.

Khmu women brought food, firewood, and water to a nearby hut to cook us dinner. It was difficult to see the christmas dinner chicken and duck go in alive. After our sticky rice with meat and vegetable dinner,

our Hmong guide, Duly, entertained us with Hmong stories and riddles (see the end of this post). The stories and riddles are still used by Hmong for entertainment at large gatherings. Often times, the riddles baffled us due to translation issues and a different manner of telling them. It was great fun! Surprisingly, that night Lao music boomed from on village home which has a hydroelectric device to produce electricity. To complete christmas evening, the village chief visited our hut for chief chat. We were able to question him about village life, elections, the justice system, etc. The funniest moment came when he was asked if village men could have more than one wife. He answered "It's too difficult to please one!" This has been my strangest christmas yet: gunshots, jungle hiking, sticky rice, sprained ankles, Hmong riddles, chief chat. What happened to christmas songs, Vermont snow, mom's dinner, and playing with nephews?

After a good night's sleep in the chilly mountain village, Laura's injury had improved and she was able to walk better. We started the morning by visiting the village school.

Children learn Lao language, songs, Lao history, and mathematics for five years. To continue their education, they must travel to the city; otherwise, they begin working in the village.

The Nam Ha Eco-tourism project is attempting to bring money to the region through tourism. They encourage villages to stop hunting the forest so sparse wildlife can recover. Nam Ha's dealing with the tiger farm attacks is similar to the Yellowstone region's dealing with wolf farm attacks; they offer payment to herders who lose buffalo to tigers. Throughout our hike, we didn't see any wildlife nor did we hear many birds. It's the first time I've walked through silent jungle. As we left the village, we saw these hides and questioned how successful the project could be.

We are moving South to Muang Ngoi Neua, a village only acessible by boat and where non-guided treks are possible. Post your response to the Hmong riddles below in the comments. Remember these riddles were used as entertainment prior to TV and radio. I'll give the answers in the comments in the future.

Hmong Riddle #1

I have leaves but no branches. I have fruit like a boner. What am I?

Hmong Story: Python Magic

One day, a girl with a dirty shirt goes to the jungle forest to collect firewood. She encounters a python and the python does magic on her. He tells her to change her shirt and then come back. The father notices his daughter bring firewood, change her shirt, and go back to the forest. He thinks this is strange and he follows her into the forest. He sees her go to the python. They python opens his mouth so she will enter. Just before she does, the father shoots the python which breaks the magic and saves the daughter.

Hmong Riddle #2

It goes out as small as a fog. It comes back as big as a pumpkin. What is it?

Hmong Story: Why men have white eyes

Once upon a time, man had all black eyes like dogs. Then, they could see the spirits. Spirits did not like that man could see them so they had a meeting with man and dog. They grabbed ash from a fire and threw it at the eyes of the dog. They spirit asked the dog, "Can you see me?" The dog replied "No." The spirit threw ash at man's eyes. It asked, "Can you see me?" Man replied "Yes." The spirit threw ash again and repeated the question. Man replied "Yes" again. The spirit threw lots of ash at man's eye and again repeated the question. Man answered "No." This explains why dogs have large pupils and can see at night while man has small pupils and can only see in daylight.

Hmong riddle #3

Two twin brothers always race. Noone ever wins. Who are the brothers?

Hmong belief: Reborn to Love

The Hmong believe that boy and girl twins have made a special request to the spirits. In a previous life, the boy and girl were lovers that were not allowed to marry, maybe because one was rich, the other was poor. So, they killed themselves and asked the spirits to be reborn together so they can marry. If twins love each other, the Hmong honor the spiritual request and expect the brother and sister to marry each other on earth.

Hmong riddle #4

I am a mountain with seven holes. What am I?

Akha belief: Birth defects

The Akha, another Lao hill tribe, believe that twins are a birth defect. If a woman has twins, the babies are killed. The mother is sent into the forest for one month to cleanse her body. The same occurs to any single child birth deformities like six fingers or toes.

Hmong riddle #5

When I ride the goat, it is happy to eat the grass. When I don't ride the goat, it is not happy to eat the grass. What is the goat?


Anonymous said...

as you said that had to be the strangest Christmas that I ever heard of anyone having. poor Laura tell her she is welcome to come home anytime she wants to and stop torchuring herself trying to keep up with you on this adventure(sickness, sprained ankles, no showers and no Big Macs) the scenery is great but is it worth those agonies!!!!
here are my simple tries at the Hmong riddles:
#1---a banana tree
#2---a squash seed
#3---siamese twins
#3---Moon and Sun (couldn't make up my mind on one answer)
#4---a head full of knowledge
#5---a bulldozer
only a"hick from the sticks" with no imagination could come up with those answers!!! Greg better not copy any of them!! DAD

Anonymous said...

WISH i COULD SEND YOU SOME PICS FROM HERE; the temp got up to "0" at noon today and will go down to a probable -12 to -20 tonight and your car is even more covered in snow as Pete did the snowblowing from the last storm while I was at work and used your car as a storage point for the snow where Mom parks her car!!!!cats are glad that the wishing well is back in the livingroom now that the Xmas tree has gone back to the attic--they were racing around yesterday and leaping up on it then pawing eachother and then down and off to the races again--rugs slipping under their speedy feet and all. this morning Charlie had quite a surprise when he jumped up on the diningroom table; he slid all the way accross and off into the chair on the coocookoo clock side and that chair fell over and dumped him unceremoniously to the floor---MEOOW WHAT JUST HAPPENED????? HE'S OK BUT BROWN AND I GOT QUITE A LAUGH AT HIS EXPENSE

Greg said...

Ok Ok here are the correct answers ..... maybe
#1 a banana tree
#2 a sponge [it is frog not fog correct? ]
#3 Siamese twins - joined to each other
#4 a human head
#5 why a riding mower

And now I am going to read response from others. Only your momma has made guesses. what spoil sports. seed - of course.

Your Dad's estatic Giants 24 Cowboys 20. Over just a couple of minutes ago.

From Lake Road
Greg ... sunday 1-13-08 2015

J.Pallotta said...

Answers to Hmong riddles are:

#1: Banana tree
#2: A baby (sperm to baby)
#3: A person's feet
#4: A person's head
#5: A knife

Thanks for the answers dad and greg. Looks like Greg did best with 2 out of 5. I got the same 2 Greg did. Laura got the person's feet.