Our tale opens with our arrival at a village of the Karen Hilltribe in Northern Thailand in the region between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. ( Photo )
We arrived with our guides (Bon and Chai) and several other backpackers (from the US and Germany). Evening was quickly approaching but we had enough time, however, to explore the beautiful village and learn a little bit about the culture. In many villages (such as this one) the huts are all raised up on stilts to help mitigate the damage of flooding due to the heavy rains that saturate northern Thailand. ( Photo )
This particular village was Animist, but there were other Karen villages that were Christian or Buddhist. Once we were made aware of this fact, it became hard to comprehend how we didn't know it instinctively. For example, over the doorways and around their homes were bird wings and various other items or apendages that held significance. While walking through the dirt paths that lead between the huts we noticed that there were pigs under many of the huts. ( Photo )
Some of the pigs were actually really fucking huge. So after a little while Patrick said to Bon "Hey Bon, what's with all the pigs tied up under the huts?" Bon explained that it signified that there was an eligible woman living in there. You raise the pig and then, on the wedding day, slaughter the pig and offer the majority of the pig to the spirits and eat a little bit of it. This is the only time they eat pork.
Suddenly the grey haired pigs started to make a little more sense. There was one UGLY woman in there. Heh. So it was with this same sardonic sense of humor that I decided to chime in and ask a question.
"So Bon, what do you pick? The pig or the woman? Do you just walk around the village and then go 'WHOAH! That's a niiiiiice pig!' and propose?" I said with a laugh. Bon, on the other hand, didn't laugh. Heh, oops.
I never got an answer (which leads me to suspect you pick the pig, hehe), and soon it was time to go get some tea with the Political Leader. Each village has two leaders, the Village Leader (like an Elder) and a Political Leader. The Village Leader deals with all things that happen internally, they're the leaders in the traditional sense. The Poltical Leader, on the other hand, functions as a liason between the Karen village and the Thai government. He is educated in Thai schools, can speak Thai, and is generally young (in his 20's.) So we spent the evening in his hut discussing the lives of the Karen. At one point tea was produced, that is to say "Hot water likely brewed with spiders" was produced. It was in a cast iron kettle on an open fire in the the hut, and looked like it had boiling there since the dawn of time. The Political Leader's wife grabbed the damn thing barehanded, said "Hot hot!" and then poured us all some tea. This tea was possibly the most hot stuff that has ever hit my tongue. Bon noticed the looks of shock on our faces and he said something that stuck with me.
"Karen hands.... very strong."
During all of this it came up that, like Patrick, the Political Leader's wife was a teacher. The way schools work in the Karen is that each village has a school. This village had the preschool, some other village had the primary school. Now these villages are NOT close together, and getting from one to the next involves marching through the jungle. It made me feel like a total pussy for complaining about a 40 minute bus ride to get to middle school.
Anyway, we all were eager to meet the kids and see a class, so we decided to get up ass early in the morning and meet the kids. We were invited to help with the class, something Patrick dove into with gusto. He taught them english for a little while and then we decided to teach them some songs and games. A brief discussion broke out as to whether to use english or german songs. English won. And then the real battle began.
Patrick and his girl wanted to sing "Row Row Row Your Boat." I had other plans, however... I wanted to teach them some Crunk.
That's right, I wanted to teach them "Aww Skeet Skeet" by Lil Jon. Think about it, a ton of little Karen kids singing "TILL THE SWEAT DRIPS OFF MY BALLS!" It isn't like anyone there knows what that means anyways. Hell, most Americans don't even know what Skeet is.
I was, unfortunately, overruled.
But listen to "Row Row Row Your Boat" without the connotation and imagery, because they were singing it by sound rather than by words, and you'll realize that it sounds like a goddamn funeral dirge. So that was a flop. So we started playing Duck Duck Goose. And here is where we nearly got in trouble, but before I start I should mention something...
Prior to the trip, I looked at a site that detailed the various popular ways of dying in Thailand. I did this for two reasons. The first was to scare the hell out of my Mother, which should be an Olympic sport. The second was because I had an eerie feeling that I wasn't going to come back from the trip. The number one way for farang (foriegners) to die, as you might have imagined from my Motorbike story
, was death by Motorbike/Car. The second, without explanation, was "burning."
"Burning? Wtf does that mean? Is that sunstroke, severe sunburns, or angry people with bonfires?" said I, with a laugh. On retrospect, I think I hit the nail on the head with the latter.
So there we are, thousands of miles from home and hundreds of miles from civilization with NO IDEA where we are. And we decide to play games with these kids under the watchful eyes of their parents and the Political Leader's wife. Innocent, right? I mean, they're just games! Nothing bad could happen, right? WRONG!
So we play a few rounds and teach them the rules. The kids love it. Then we wisely stepped back and let the kids and Patrick play. Indoors. In the huts with low ceilings, because the Karen people (like all Thai people) are rather short, especially compared to Goliath-like Americans. You can see where this is going, can't you? Patrick, a very tall American, was "it."
This cute little kid, who's pants were constantly falling off, was chasing him while holding his pants up by the seat with a free hand. It was adorable and Patrick, a soft touch, slowed down to let himself get caught.
It should also be noted that this wouldn't have happened with me or my family. I was raised on the theory that if you are going to win, you'd better earn it. So I would have ran like... hmmm, what would make me run fast?.... I would have run like an angry hilltribe was chasing me. But Patrick is more suited to being a teacher than I, so he let himself get caught and then did something that many father's would do with tiny little kids to congratulate them. He cheered and lifted him up in the air. *THUNK*
It was at this point that I realized that despite cultural differences, there are certain things that are universal. One of those things is the reaction to seeing a child get his head bashed in by a gargantuan American. Myself and the Germans all covered our faces, turned away from it, and went "OOOOH!" We also, in unison, started to edge towards the door. Why? Because we noticed that the adults in the room were looking less than happy with us. There was, what can only be described as, a growing menace that threatened to blow.
Thankfully, Patrick knew exactly what he was doing (perhaps because he has bashed in other kids heads... who knows?). He smiled at the kid and laughed. The kid, who was on the verge of tears, got confused and started to smile and laugh too. This caused the parents and the political leader's wife to crack up. We joined in, nervously, images of bonfires still dancing in our heads.
Minutes later Patrick rejoined us and we left in a hurry, walking so fast we were almost running. Patrick laughed and said to us "Jeez, I thought I just killed us. I was prepared to make a break for it." To which we replied "Karen heads... very strong."
****A couple villages, an angry and stoned elephant, and a ton of jungle... I'll tell you about those another time.*******
Words cannot express the vile stench that had absorbed into us. Especially me. Why me, you ask? Well, I fell into a rice field. I actually have a photo of me taken seconds before my fateful fall. If you look about 5 feet ahead of me you can see a muddy slope where the levy was breaking down. ( Photo )
I don't know what they fertilize with, but it was so bad that I had to throw away my shoes and my Che shirt. The stink would just NOT go away. Combine that with angry elephant sweat, tired welshman sweat, and the bizarre sweet/nasty smell of the jungle and you'll begin to discover what I smelled like. The only shower I was getting was the occasional rain shower.
... I should mention another side note. I was the group's weather spirit. It would PISS IT DOWN anytime I didn't have my poncho out. If I put my poncho on the sun would come out immediately and thus turning the poncho into a portable sauna in a matter of seconds, only heightening my stink. After a little while, I got bitter and refused to put my poncho on. This lead, of course, to accusations that I was a lazy weather spirit and should take a hit for the team. *laugh*
So it was with this stank that I approached the next village. It had been raining most of the day, on and off, apparently due to my refusal to wear the stupid poncho. We left the dense jungle and started walking along a red clay road. This might have made the journey easier if things were dry, or even if it just fully monsoooned. The occasional rain, however, had turned the clay into red glue. For reasons that escape me, my fake Berkinstocks (the shoes were destroyed by the rice field, remember?) attracted this clay like a magnet. Before long I was walking on clay platforms. Oddly, it gave me MORE traction rather than less, which was handy for walking down this muddy, slippery, and illegal grade road. Of course, that didn't last forever. Halfway down this long steep road the mud gave way and I fell.
"OH SHIT, MY CAMERA!" I thought, and started to roll and shift in an effort to stay off my backpack. Have you seen Predator
? You know that scene were he slides through the jungle and gets all muddy in the process? Yeah, it was sort of like that, except I didn't fall off a cliff at the end. I just came to a thudding stop and remained still for a minute.
Why was I laying there, you ask? Well, I hit the ground so hard that I couldn't be sure that I wasn't in shock and so I wasn't sure if I broke anything. So I was slowly moving all my joints checking to see if everything was moving the right way. Next I checked my camera. Everything was ok. There was a new change to my situation, however. In addition to smelling like a Yeti, I now looked vaguely like an Aborigini on a holy day. Mud all in my hair making it stand up, mud all over my body, mud everywhere.
It was at this point that I noticed that I had slid right to the front of the damn village. I had backpackers snickering at my fall and appearance, and hilltribesmen looking at me like I was an alien. Think about it, though. Some dude is laying down in the mud, looking like he should be hunting Predator with a homemade bow, slowly moving joints with a worried look on his face. Wouldn't you be weirded out? ( Photo )
Bon immediately directed me to the stream (which was muddy from all the rain) so that I could clean up a little. I went straight there and tried to clean up as best I could without showing any skin (because that's considered very rude). The Germans, who were a continual source of amusement, stripped off, grabbed some Chang Beer, and jumped into the stream without hesitation (much to the dismay to the Karen kids who were watching). I had a good laugh and took a photo. ( Photo )
Thankfully, they didn't hold it against us too much... However many of the villagers kept their distance from us and weren't as friendly. Not surprising, though, since their introduction to us was a crazed aborigini and a bunch of guys jumping in their stream and looking like they're in a gay German beer commercial. They did, however, sell us some of their EVIL EVIL MOONSHINE! Holy mother of god, I've never had anything so potent and nasty in all my life. So we did what any self respecting backpackers would do with stuff like that. We played German drinking games until we were all smashed. ( Photo )
Walking through the jungle the next day, with sore livers, was a bit rough. Heh.