inside thoughts on China and beyond

Cabbage and Condoms (TT.3)

Cabbage & CondomsStirred by what we learned in Cabbage and Condoms, we planned a 2-day trekking trip. “A traditional scorpion-tail boat will slowly bring you up the Kok river to an old Karen village where elephants would await you on which you will ride to the next village. From there, a long walk through the jungle will bring you to the first Lahu village, where you will set up camp with the local tribe, etc., etc., etc.” Adventure pur sang! -if you believe the promotion folder. As we did, for just a short while.

Reality, as always, was quite different. For one, the trip’s description must have been from 20 years ago, because, well, the jungle was gone. And this, in a nutshell, is how it started for us: after a slow but noisy boat trip, we became seasick on the back of an elephant on the way to the next village, which was, as we soon discovered, only 200 meters down the road, after which we were rushed of to some local snakes and encouraged to hold them, for, of course, an extra payment. But after the bewildering elephant ride, none of us were waiting to wrap ourselves with a stoned snake. It just didn’t appeal to us. We just weren’t ready for some intense snake hugging; any snake hugging, really. And so we immediately set of for a good hike up to a Lahu village, deeper into the hills. Up to 5 years ago, Jeho, our guide, was the elected village chief and we would sleep with his family.

The walk was beautiful and rewarding, even without much jungle, and at times gave us magnificent views. Every so often we would take a 10 minute rest and Jeho would be snoring within seconds. Clearly this was a man at peace in his own environment. We listened to the birds and to each other, we discovered flowers and just enjoyed the serenity that engulfed us. Then we would move on again. At some point, Jeho suddenly cried out in a way that scared the hell out of us -as it was meant to be. I’m not sure what he said but that really didn’t matter anymore: in between Jeho and us we saw an impressive size snake with his head lifted up, looking fit, disturbed and very deadly. We couldn’t agree on its size (afterwards of course; the opinions would vary from somewhere between 2-4 meter long) but it was heading our way with surprising speed, and believe me, size doesn’t matter then. It surely seemed ready for a hug. Jeho started a chase and tried to hit it with his bamboo stick, missing more than I preferred. We had no where to turn and stood fixed as the snake rushed towards us. Life flashes by in these fractions of a second and there was so much more I had wanted to do and, strangely, I suddenly remembered I forgot to brush my teeth this morning. The snake, though, had other thoughts and was far too busy getting Jeho and his bamboo stick off its tail to be interested in us and as it flew past, so did Jeho.

After the ordeal, we thanked Jeho for his heroic act, but he won’t hear of it. He hadn’t, so he explained, run after the snake for our sake; he just wanted a good meal.

Jeho is Lahu, a people group that long ago migrated from southern China and Laos and for as long as their stories recall have lived in these jungle hills. They lived from hunting and farming and occasionally some trade with the Thai in the valley. Jeho grew up in a family with 10 siblings, which was a common family size in those days, when child death was still a hard reality of life. Death, as it were, was still very much alive when he grew up. Less and less though. The heroine production and trade that had been a major source of income ever since a British engineer had developed and introduced a plan for mass production at the start of last century, was successfully fought back in these parts of the Golden Triangle, and death through addiction or crime became less. This was largely the result of what became locally known as the Cabbage Project: replacing poppy with vegetables. Good health service and a growing awareness of hygiene made survivors of each child. The elderly grew older, too, and a new problem was born: overpopulation. More jungle needed to be deforested to provide for sufficient farming grounds. In this, the Karen, the only Christian-animistic tribe originally from Burma, beat them all with their slash-and-burn methods. Without intervention, all jungle would be gone within this generation, erosion would set in and no tribe would be able to survive. And that’s where the condoms come in: family planning.

We arrived in the village before sunset and were shown to our hut. All huts were set between jungle trees and spread out over 2 dusty hill tops and, by-an-large, looked all the same: one large room on stilts with some pigs and chicks enjoying the shade underneath and a rook on the balcony. Floors and walls were all from split bamboo (though some now had wooden planks, since the village hadn’t move for the last 25 years and life had become more static). It all was covered by leaf-woven roofs. Nothing was airtight and everyone lived, ate and slept in the same room. That’s where life took place, where it was made and  where it ended. Quite a transparent society, you might say, and I marvelled at the idea of having to reproduce offspring under these circumstances. But somehow they did and plenty of young kids were, on this last day of their New Year celebration, running around and playing games, throwing up dust wherever they went, while the older ones threw firecrackers at them. Jeho’s 3 kids were among them, somewhere. And when I asked him, he said that 3 was enough for him. He needed time for himself, and for a beer. And so it seemed that also the Condom part of the project had been effective.

That night, we were the honored guests of the Chinese New Year celebration closure. The shaman played his instrument and danced with some other men around a group of 5 meter high bamboo poles that were decorated with colorful small flags and sprinkled with holy water. But it was clear that after 5 days of dancing and drinking and more dancing and drinking, the enthusiasm was gone. They moved like casket bearers at a funeral. With loudspeakers the villagers were summoned by the village head to appear and dance and celebrate for the visitors sake, but few showed up. The slaughtering of a pig the following morning got more attention and after we all happily ate this first meal in the new year, we were ready to move on.

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