Our Homestay with a Shaman
After hitting the trekking shops, we were mostly dissappointed with the offerings: one-day trips to over touristed villages. We’d all but given up hope when a shop handed us a faded printout about a 2 day trek to a Hmong village with a guide who was a school teacher trying to improve his english. Sold.
Except it was way too expensive. Negotiations over price all but failed. As I was walking away, I remembered that the school teacher’s phone number was on the bottom of the paper. Thinking I was pretty clever, I asked to see the printout again planning to memorize the number. The storeowner pulled it out and somehow wise to my plan whited-out the phone number before she gave it back to me. Harumph.
As I was walking back to Sasha who was a block away, I concocted a scheme by which we could obtain the number that included both a diversion and a hidden camera. Fortunately for everyone, Sasha actually had the printout from our original visit to the shop.
We called and made arrangements ourselves and by eliminating the middle-man we cut the price in half.
Most of what we know about hill tribes originates from our visit to a hill tribe museum in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Essentially the hill tribes represent indigenous minorities within Thailand, Laos and Burma. In Thailand these minorities aren’t given citizenship for fear of attracting hill tribe members in Laos and Burma across the border. Sadly that means that over 1 million people in Thailand don’t have any rights, access to health care, education, etc. Fortunately the situation is a bit better in Laos where limited schooling and health care are provided.
Our guide was well known in town – Somsy – he is the headmaster at a school with 8 teachers and 250 kids. He said that about once a month he did what he was doing with us: a trek up to the Hmong village, a homestay, trek back, and exploration of his village. He is Lanten, which means he’s from the largest “hill tribe”. He lives in a village that’s home to about 30 families or 300 people.
From his house, we began our trek by walking through clear cut forests where rice had recently been planted. Sasha was licked by a cow and I saw a dung beetle rolling a giant ball of cow dung. It was a good hike.
Our expectations for the homestay were all over the place. We’d heard some of the hill tribe folks hadn’t heard of America and that they were animists with a variety of unique customs. We also knew that some were so over-touristed that they had essentially become a cross between a human zoo and a souvenir shop.
Our experience was none of the above. The Hmong villager we stayed with had a 20 inch color TV, DVD, satellite dish and stereo speakers — and of course electricity to power them. He was very well off compared to most of his neighbors. He had a partitioned one room home with a concrete floor and metal roof. At the same time, pigs and dirt surrounded his home, there was no running water and we were told to go to the bathroom anywhere we wanted outside. We were discerning nevertheless.
Our guide made us dinner and it was delicious. We had rice with spinach, chili, egg and salt. However, the one dish at the table Sasha and I didn’t know what to make of at first was like a milky broth. This “soup” as they called it was the water the rice had been boiled in – essentially starch water. They said it was very nutritious. We are skeptical.
After dinner our guide, our host, his wife and 8 children and us huddled around the television to watch a Thai soap opera and at some point we switched to some kind of action series. Sasha and I didn’t understand anything since it was in Thai, but neither did anyone else since they speak Lao. Oddly enough as we watched together uncomprehending, it felt like a communal activity.
We slept on mats inches from of the TV. It was quite comfortable. Eventually the TV was turned off and the sounds of the house faded away.
At 6:45 am, we learned how loud the tv speaker could be. Since we were asleep, it took us a few moments to process what was happening. Our host was putting on a home video of his visit to Thailand and the Chiang Mai zoo and apparently he liked to crank up the volume.
Our host’s 2 year old son was sick with what looked like a bad flu. The grand-father was pretty tenderly taking care of him trying to get him to drink. We learned in this exchange that he was the village shaman (spiritual leader) – we wouldn’t have known otherwise.
After a breakfast of coffee and bread, we stood outside to say our goodbyes. They carried the little boy outside to throw up and we watched the pigs clean up the mess.
We hiked back to the Lanten village, had some noodle soup for lunch, saw our guide’s mother make some string and visited the school he was the headmaster of.
We weren’t sure what to expect going in, but we were grateful to be able to look through a window into their lives even if it was just for a day.