Published: January 22nd 2006January 3rd 2006
Before leaving for our next village, we stopped by the village school, gave gifts of pencils and notebooks to the teacher and learned a little about why kids there go to school and their chances of going to university. Most families are farmers and wish their children to stay and help, so education beyond primary school is not valued as we do. But, if children wish to go on to high school, they must live during the week in the city and be brought by truck back and forth on the weekends. Most families do not have money for this, so many kids do not go to school beyond the age of 10/12.
Other than the teacher and one woman who was asked by our guide to let us see the inside of her home, we were still not greeted by the adults. We felt a lot like outsiders, actually we are, but it would have been nice to feel welcome in the village other than a touristy onlooker. But maybe these treks are not as caring about the local life as they claim. It really didn't seem like these people cared if we were interested in learning about them
I have a much different story for the next village though. This made me very relieved because I was worried they were thinking we viewed them as circus acts, especially the kids, since they are the only ones who had any contact with us and that was only when they were performing for us. After a fairly easy and short hike, we arrived in the next Akha village where the children practically mobbed us and the adults were sorting coffee beans in I guess what you could call the town square. We were shown where we would sleep and the "bathrooms". Sleeping arrangements were one huge room, on the floor, with mosquito nets draped over each individual place. Another night on a very hard surface, so much for a good night's sleep!
Next, we took turns taking "showers". I put that in quotes, because the facilities were much more basic than we have had yet. The toilets were the usual squat hole, and the showers were just a room with a bunch of barrels of water. So, in order to bathe, we had to take a "bucket shower". This means that all we could do was
dump cold water from the buckets on ourselves and it would run outside into a trench. Let's just say I rinsed the sweat off, but didn't really feel that clean :)
After cleaning up, we got a tour of the village. We learned that the missionaries convinced this village to convert only a few years ago. The original monuments they built when the village first started are now useless and no longer respected. For example, when an Akha village is first created, an elder must ask the spirits if this is a good place to settle. The men construct a very modest spirit shrine and drop an egg from it. If the egg breaks, they stay. Once they know they can stay, they build a large bamboo arch at the entrance of the village. This is supposed to be for prosperity and good luck and no one is allowed to touch it as they walk through it. We saw these monuments on our tour, but were told that they are no longer of significance because the missionaries came in to the village and converted them to Christianity.
We also learned that even though the villagers have access to
more modern tools and materials, they still choose to build and farm by hand. The seem to buy only things that are necessary, such as trucks to haul things to the cities, but they still make their own concrete bricks, farm with hand tools (and these are big farms for coffee beans, choco, oranges, etc.)
When we got back to the village, a little market of handycrafts was set up for us yet again and this time, most of the villagers were there to greet us and interact in a very welcoming manner. We really enjoyed this village. People were trying to speak with us even though they don't speak English or Thai and they were constantly offering their children for photos. And believe it or not, one man handed me his 6 month old baby and I held her on my lap for quite a while! Yeah, me, holding a baby. I think that was the youngest kid I ever held. As for the crafts, the were pretty much the same as we have seen in other places, but you know these women made most of the things themselves, and they were all so sweet, you wanted to
buy something from each one of them. But then you would have to carry it all home, so I didn't get much, I have already bought almost all of what I want for myself and for gifts, so I only bought a few small things that wouldn't take up much space.
Another event that made us feel more welcome was dinner. We were invited into our hosts house for a family style dinner and conversation. The conversation with him was very interesting. He does not speak Thai nor English, so we had 2 interpreters. One from Akha to Thai, then Thai to English. Our host showed us photos and coins from all the different people who have visited his village. He seemed very proud of his guests and happy to have the chance to meet us. I now feel much better about our trekking tour. After the first village, I was very worried that we were seen as intruders and not really welcome in the hills, but tolerated because we were the "rich tourists". After visiting this village, I feel much better about everything. What a contrast of experiences between the two villages.
Another thing I have learned
on this trek, actually the entire trip, is that although the economy here is for the most part poor (especially in the hilltribes), the people here are very rich. Everyone seems satisfied with their lives and happy to keep their lives just the way they are. That whole westerm materialism mentality (i.e. keeping up with the Jones') does not seem nearly as prevalent here as back home. There is a very strong sense of community and even though I am sure they all know what else is out there that may make their lives easier, most of the older generations don't seem to care. I was told, though, that many of the younger generations are now going to South Korea and Taiwan to earn money which they will send home to their families. No matter what the younger generation is doing though, I am still reminded that wealth, standard of living, and the happiness it brings you is all relative.