Trip Start Oct 04, 2005
62Trip End Ongoing
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I put out my hand as another branch snapped back, aimed for my head, trying to step over the prickly vines that had already left scratches and welts all over my shins, and slapped at the insect buzzing near my ear. Sweat dripped off my brow and streamed down my back, soaking my t-shirt underneath my pack. It took me only a couple of kilometers of walking to realize that trekking through the jungle is not nearly as romantic and exotic as it sounds. It's actually quite difficult and a lot of the time I couldn't even enjoy the surrounding woods because I was so afraid that I would trip or get whacked by something that my focus was on the ground or the area immediately in front of me. But this is what I wanted, and it was thrilling in a way. We were led by two local guides who carried our provisions on bags at the end of poles. They showed us how to get water from a certain vine, how eating the leaves of a plant cures headaches, eating the root is good for stomach aches, and the stem tastes good in soups. They caught cicadas and lizards to take home for food, and shared some berries with us for a snack. At one break, they tried to teach me how to play a game where I was supposed to flick a rock over a line using different techniques. We all had a great laugh over how terrible I was! Our two guides from Savannakhet translated everything to us in English and arranged everything. We were basically at their mercy. Boonyang was the head guide, quiet and reserved, he seemed caught in between the two worlds he was bringing together. He had grown up in a village himself, but had been well-educated and now considered himself a man of the city. It seemed to me that even while he was helping us to understand the rich culture and customs of the villages we visited, he also put them down in little ways so as to distance himself from them. He was a strange man, but with a sigh he got the job done. Nik, on the other hand, was a bubbly 22 year old who was taking a year off from teaching English to do tours. She was always smiling and making sure that everyone was alright, giving out extra water or waiting while a shoe was being tied. Delighted when she found out we were the same age, we talked a lot about our lives so different from the other's. She was the one who was our link to the women in the villages, helping to prepare the food and organize sleeping arrangements. Nik was, in a word, a delight! And then there were my two fellow trekkers, Anna and Cheecho, two Spaniards who had been travelling together for two months. Anna was beautiful, a waitress who was now living with her boyfriend in Ireland, she had a thirst for adventure. She was contemplating moving back to Spain to see if she liked it. Though twelve years older than me, we quickly realized that we are both at a point in our lives where change is inevitable. We both want to keep traveling, and neither of us know what to do with our lives. She said that though she loves waitressing, she couldn't keep doing it her entire life. I feel like I found a kindred spirit in Anna. Cheecho also ended up being a wonderful, kind man, but at first glance he did exactly look like someone you'd want to meet in a dark alley. Cheecho looked like a pirate. He was a huge man, tall with muscular arms and a gut that hung over his shorts. Tattoos covered his body, but he told me that he wasn't done yet and wanted to get more. His long black hair was always tied back in a ponytail and his ears had huge silver spacers in them. When he laughed his lips pulled back to reveal his gums and big yellowish teeth, while a loud scratchy chuckle burst forth. He was always smoking or rolling a cigarette to smoke, and constantly talked about his craving for a nice cold BeerLao. When we walked into the villages, people stared at him in awe, pointing to his ears and admiring his size. We were a motley crew, that's for sure, and our presence in the villages brought out everybody...
As we approached the first village, walking along an old dirt road dotted with buffalo poop, we began to pass villagers doing chores or just talking in small groups. Once they saw our little group, everyone stopped what they were doing and excitedly fell in behind us. Pretty soon there was a whole crowd of people, mostly children, all whispering and giggling. After dumping our stuff in the house we would be staying the night in, we grabbed cameras and went out to explore. Boonyang started to lead us around, explaining things in the village, but my attention was diverted by this kid who must have been about eight years old. He had a HUGE smile on his face and an eye on the camera in my hand. I gestured to ask if it'd be alright if I took his pictures and he nodded excitedly. As I showed him the picture on my viewing screen, his friends also ran up to take a peak. They were thrilled! My little diva kid then grabbed his friends for another pose. More children started to gather, all wanting to see the pictures and then be in them as well. Pretty soon I had a huge crowd of kids around me - some clad in t-shirts and jeans, some in sarongs, and some just letting it all hang free, but they were all smiling ear to ear and shouting with excitment. I began to move around the village, taking pictures of the ancient grandmas, the cool teenage guys that were too proud to ask for their picture to be taken but just as excited as the little ones, the shy young girls giggling behind their hands, and the men relaxing with "the guys". It was surreal. Everyone was so natural, so kind and proud, that I immediately began to relax into the village vibe. In our western society, as soon as the camera's out, we put on our smile and suck in our stomachs. These people just laughed or just looked. For some of the youngest children, it looked as if they weren't quite sure of what the camera was. That little walk through the stilt houses surrounded by goats and chickens, with kids running around everywhere and the adults lounging about chatting, I felt totally relaxed and in awe of this wonderful lifestyle so different from my own. And yet, despite the differences, it felt totally natural. As the light began to disappear and my camera batteries faded, I waved goodbye to my little following and headed back "home". That night we feasted on chicken larb, soup, and greens picked from the forrest. Afterwards we participated in a welcoming ceremony where yellow cotton was tied around our wrists and we each took shots of Lao Lao. Once the proceedings were finished we sat in a circle and took turns singing. It was magical.... Millions of stars were out, the night was cool, my head was spinning slightly from the whiskey, and the music from the local instruments and the men's voices filled the air.
The next day we hiked 18 km through the jungle. By the time we arrived at the second village we were all hot, sweaty, and stinky so we headed directly to the river Nik had been comforting us with all day. Guided by a group of children, we walked through the dried up rice fields, giggling and waving at each other. And then I saw it, one of the most beautiful river scenes I have ever seen. The late afternoon sun glistened on the water's surface, broken only by the children's heads bobbing up and down as they played and washed in the water. Women sat with the youngest children on the solid rock shore and across the bank the forest reached all the way to the water. I ran down the hill to the water's edge with the children, feeling like I was ten again, just as excited as they were by the prospect of jumping into the cool water. And I did. Fully clothed. It was the best time I ever had doing my "laundry". We took pictures, did handstands and flips underwater, and just floated, drunk on happiness and the lovely coolness. Walking back dressed in my sarong, a tank top, and barefoot, I took turns singing songs with three little girls who had attached themselves to me earlier. Later Anna and I played with them, teaching all the kids the hokie pokie, hopscotch, and a Spanish game of Anna's. I think they all thought we were a little crazy, but we all had a great time. Again we feasted on specialties of the village that night, starving from the big day. And afterwards, sitting in our chosen stilt house, surrounded by the men of the village and not exactly sure of what to say, the chief told Boonyang that he wished he could speak to me. And I told him, that through an interpreter, we could. I told him about my family and that I wasn't married, and he told me about his wife, four boys, and four girls. He told me that he had been elected chief for 10 years, a huge achievement! I tried to tell him a little about the US political system. I showed him some of the pictures I had taken that day. He was an amazing man, and I will never forget our little conversation. It was big in so many ways.
Even though I only spent two days with the Katong villagers, the time I spent with the children, the chiefs, the men, and the women meant so much. Their way of life was so different from anything I had experienced previously, and yet I relaxed into it so quickly and so easily. These people had no electricity, no running water, and their houses only had three walls. They were very poor and lived almost completely off the land. And yet they were so happy, and so beautiful - both inside and out. Everything they were and everything that they did was natural and free. As I tell about my experiences with them, it sounds so foreign and exotic even to me, and yet while I was with them, it was anything but. It now makes me think what exactly is progress? Who are the "advanced" and "modern" ones here? But while I was sitting by the light of a candle, sipping coffee and chatting quietly in a stilt hut while the breeze ruffled the leaves in the surrounding trees, my mind was at peace...