After trekking through the jungle, we arrived in the village where we were to stay for the night. I've sadly forgotten the name of it, but it was very small and rural. Hanna had been to villages like this before, in India and Ghana, but I had never been to a place so tiny and poor. I guess I could figure out a more politically correct word, but "poor" sums it up pretty well. Rural poverty feels very different from urban poverty.
It was still a while until dinner, so Hanna and I walked around and explored the village. Onh told us that the children used to be very afraid of foreigners, but by now, they're used to it. You could have fooled me - they quickly formed a tiny mob and stared at us, looking at turns petrified and suspicious.
We finally won them over, sort of, by playing some games. In my experience of teaching kindergarten, the Hokey Pokey is always a hit. Hanna and I demonstrated, but only one girl was brave enough to participate. (She's the one in the pink dress, in the middle). She was by far the smartest and most outgoing.
Then Hanna had the idea of playing Tic-Tac-Toe in the dirt, which was also successful. Most of the kids preferred to watch. I was a tiny bit dumbfounded by the amount of babies-carrying-babies. And bonus points if you find the kid with the machete in background.
The gender roles were also kind of interesting. Yes, for the most part, girls seemed to be responsible for the children, but at one point I noticed a young boy take a baby from his friend. He threw the baby on his back as gently as he could, and tied a cloth around himself. There didn't seem to be any gender-based stigma in terms of taking care of the little ones.
Then it was time for dinner. Onh had picked some green plants on the trek, which he cooked deliciously, alongside some sticky rice and spicy chicken soup and green beans. We ate by candlelight in the home of a man, his wife, and son. I never caught their names.
It was a great meal, and I ate voraciously. I also smiled a lot, which was commented on by the family members. And I drank quite a bit - this is where the lao lao comes into play. The father had some homemade rice whiskey and offered it to us. Onh told us about the Lao drinking traditions, which involve pouring a shot for oneself, and then "showing" it to the group. Then you drink it, and pass it onto the next person. Also, when you drink, each drink represents a part of your body that you are now developing. As in: now you have arms! Now you have a leg! Now you have a nose! I guess it was the combination of experiencing new things and feeling hardcore about drinking with the village dad, but in total, I grew two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, a mouth, and a nose. That's a lot of lao lao.
After dinner, the little boy's parents sat with him and helped him with his homework, since school was starting the next day. Some of the children in this village looked a bit sickly, but this little boy seemed really well-cared for. He read from a thin, worn textbook, featuring images of Lao people, farms, rice baskets, and houses on stilts. His father encouraged him in his reading, then rocked him in his arms as it grew later in the evening. Oh, nothing touches my cold, jaded heart like fathers and sons.
In the morning, we woke up and my stomach was very, very angry with me. "Why did you drink so much lao lao?" it said. "Also, why do you refuse to poop for days on end? That can't be healthy." "Be quiet," I said to my stomach. But it gurgled all day. Also, my appetite was totally shot. I couldn't eat anything all day, and if you know me, you know that's a rarity. Despite my nausea, soon it was time to bid goodbye to our host family (dad below) and continue on our hike.
We stopped by the school and said goodbye to the kids. They didn't seem heartbroken to see us go.
Ultimately, it was a really unique experience. I have some more analytical thoughts about my time in the village, involving class and poverty and development and travel and Southeast Asia, but I'm getting over my flu and I can't really put anything together coherently. Luckily, I kept a journal in Cambodia that sums up my thoughts in a better way. So, stay tuned. Goodbye, village.