Spots of Time

October 21, 2003

The Akha Way

I probably ate dog. If so, I’m certain to have said it was delicious. Delicious was one of only about three Akha words that I had memorized and at my disposal. The other two were Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Evening ("Udutoma") and Thank you ("Gruhuma"). So, in an effort to keep the "conversation" going, I complimented all food served to me with a big smile and the same word – "Yoku!"

In order to better understand the "Akha Way," all short-term volunteers at the work camp I was participating in were sent to live with different Akha families in our little village – for two days and two nights. We were paired off with another volunteer and armed with little more than a photocopied Akha phrasebook - created by a previous long-term volunteer. We had a general understanding that we were going to help the families in the fields.

The work camp had not been at all what we had expected to that point, and there was much dissent in the ranks of volunteers. Some of the volunteers weren't even sure that they would go to the homestay. However, knowing that the families would be paid for hosting us made us feel a little better, and in an effort to really give it a chance, the six of us decided to go. None of us would regret it.

Upon arrival at our new home, Maria (the volunteer I was paired with) and i were taken out to the family's fields by the grandmother and seven-year old granddaughter. The journey took a full hour - a distance the family put in nearly every day. The mother was already there, and had been working for several hours. Instead of putting us to work, however, she indicated we were to sit down and rest under a bamboo and banana leaf covered shelter. The little girl kept us company, offering us sunflower seeds and making faces, until lunchtime. When the mother got back, we ate the lunch she prepared over an open fire and then, following the woman's gestures, started back toward the village.

We were just beginning to wonder if we were going to work at all, when we stopped. The mother began pulling huge clumps of peanut plants out of the ground and tossing them into a pile. Our job was to separate the peanuts from the roots and dirt and place them on a plastic sheet she had spread on the ground. The work was not hard, but it was hot and the sun kept creeping into the shaded spot where we were sitting.

After a couple of hours, we started back toward the village. The woman carried all the peanuts (a considerable amount), some corn, a machetee, and god knows what else in a basket on her back. We offered to help but were shooed away. She was not a tall or especially large woman, but built strong. I later found out she was only 27 years old.

Back home we showered (scooping water our of a large metal drum and pouring it over ourselves) and then sat down to eat our first family meal – grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, and two daughters (the 9 year old had returned from school). We were sitting on a woven mat on the wooden floor of the family’s house, around a small round bamboo "table" filled with small bowls of food. The only furniture in the house were two beds - one for the grandfather and one for the grandmother. There were no chairs, no dressers, no tables, nothing. Maria and I had been handed individual bowls filled with rice, along with a spoon and chopsticks. Looking around we saw the family take their chopsticks or spoon, pick up mouthfuls of food from the center bowls, and transfer it to their own bowl or directly to their mouth.

Meals were always rice based, with a lot of vegetables and usually only one or two small bowls that contained some kind of meat. Peanuts were a frequent addition. Our family, like most of the others in the village, were farmers and corn, peanuts and rice were the main crops. The Akha are frequently accused of growing opium, and while this may still be in the case in some villages, it was not in ours. The drug of choice seemed to be whiskey, and only the men participated.

After dinner the family asked us if we were ready for bed. Both of us were exhausted and agreed. We crawled under our mosquito nets and onto our mats. Once "tucked in" we realized it was only 8:30 p.m.! We both laughed - neither of us had been to bed that early since we were children. While we slept, the family stayed up, watching television and talking quietly. Our bedroom was also the living room, dining room, television room, as well as the family's sleeping quarters.

The light was turned on at 5 a.m., but the cocks crowing woke me up hours earlier - whoever said they crow with the sun was mistaken! While Maria turned over and tried to get back to sleep, I sat up and was immediately sighted by the two kids. The mom and the kids motioned for me to come with them, so grabbing my glasses and my shoes, I followed them out of the house and into the darkness outside. The littlest girl held my hand while the older one held a flashlight.

We walked a short distance to a neighbor’s house, where the women stood chatting in front of this huge tree stump. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was hollowed out inside and filled with a sticky white substance. One of the women was using a huge log to repeatedly pound the mixture in the tree stump – picture a giant mortar and pestle made of wood and you’ll get the idea.

I wanted to watch and to help but was ushered inside the home where the children and most of the men sat watching a color television with DVD player. On the television was what can only be described as hill tribe music/karaoke videos. A man dressed in various ethnic costumes would sing different songs while the words flashed at the bottom of the screen. At one point the father of my family said that the particular song we were listening to was Akha - though the man himself was not Akha. Apparently, this was a compilation of different hill tribes and the man was singing in a variety of languages.

After about 30 minutes, I wandered back outside, as the light was breaking and I was more curious about what the women were doing. The mother in our family had just finished her pounding and was using a thin bamboo "string" to scrape the sticky goo from the mortar. She piled it high on a bamboo tray lined with some kind of seeds or grain, and we walked back to the house. Looking back I saw another woman empty the contents of a pot into the tree trunk – hot rice – and start pounding.

Maria had just gotten up and sat with us as the grandmother took the sticky goo and made balls of it wrapped in grain. We were each given one and the kids started eating right away. Dipped in sugar it was delicious. The rest of the morning Maria and I followed the mother around the village, visiting sisters (she had several) and friends. We returned to the house for lunch, and were joined by several friends and family members – all women. After lunch, eaten on the front porch, we stayed, some women talking, some sleeping, some nursing their babies and some working on handicrafts.

At this point Maria asked if she could take a picture of the mother working on her handicrafts. She said yes. Up until now, I had not taken out my camera, for fear of further "westernizing" this village. However, after seeing the DVD player that morning, and noticing the satellite dish in another yard, I decided my little digital camera was not going to corrupt them more than they had already been "corrupted."

The fun began when I showed them the picture I had taken – immediately the little kids were enthralled and I could see that even the mother and grandmother were having fun looking at their pictures. I had not seen any pictures in the house, and wasn’t sure if the family even had photographs of themselves. At this point the grandmother offered to let us try on her traditional Akha clothing. Most of the villagers don’t wear the traditional clothes except on special occasions (we'd only see a few of the older women wearing them) so we were thrilled.

Ten minutes later Maria was dressed from head to waist in traditional Akha fashion and was posing for a picture. Then came my turn. Then the little kids wanted to try on their grandmother’s headdress. Then the mother asked if I would take her picture. Then the grandmother. The entire afternoon was spent playing dress up – but instead of dolls we were dressing up each other - even the neighbors took part. After each picture everyone would crowd around the camera to see what the pictures looked like – laughing and joking. I promised to send copies of the pictures back to them.

The next morning, after breakfast, we packed out bags to leave. The mother gave us each a bracelet and a necklace, and as we walked out the door, a hard boiled egg. We were perplexed by the egg but thanked her profusely for it.

Upon arrival back at the volunteer clubhouse, we excitedly exchanged stories with the other volunteers. All of us had wonderful homestay experiences – and all were completely varied - one couple had even gone to a village meeting. The homestay was a breath of fresh air for the group and we were all renewed with energy to try and turn the program around - actually DO something for our last week. Though we asked around, no one else received eggs, so Maria and I are still unsure if the gift was symbol or just "food for the road."

That weekend the volunteers took a trip to the city of Chiang Rai, and so I was able to get the pictures printed right away. We wanted to give them to the family in person, instead of mailing them later. The night before we left the village, Maria and I dropped by the house and gave them the pictures. For a good 10 minutes, we were invisible as the whole family crowded around the pictures, laughing and pointing. We said our goodbyes and as best as we could expressed that we were leaving. They asked if we were coming back and I told them as honestly as I could that I didn't know - but that I hoped so. Even though the volunteer experience was a bit of a disaster (more on that later) the homestay was easily the best part of the two weeks - and I truely hope that one day I would be able to come back and visit again.