Friday, February 5, 2010

Laos Day #2 - Long Journey Back to Luang Namtha

It had taken us 2 hours to go from Luang Namtha to the market at Muang Sing. We finished our market visit around 9:00 A.M.. Since we had hired the "Taxi" and driver for the day, we were free to explore the countryside during our return trip to Luang Namtha. As it turned out, our return trip took 5-1/2 hours!

The weather forecast for the day was a 80% probability of precipitation. Duang at sunrise was concerned that it would rain. I assured her that it would not rain until 3:00 P.M. I don't know why I gave that prediction, but I believed it without reservations.

After some early morning fog, mist and somewhat threatening sky, the day turned out rather good. There was some sun light, and cool temperatures - just right for travel.

Outside of Muang Sing, at the village of Baan So, we came upon farmers preparing the fields for a second planting of rice. Just as in Isaan, the primary rice crop is planted in July and harvested in late November. Some North West Laos farmers with reliable and abundant sources of water, like some in Isaan, plant a second rice crop in January. These farmers were using the same type of "iron buffalo", Kubota - after the Japanese company that builds and markets them, to smooth out the ground in the flooded paddy. Duang shouted out to the driver to pull over and stop so that I could take some photographs. She got out along with me to stretch her legs. Besides being able to photograph these types of activities, stopping and walking a ways gives you the opportunity to listen, smell, and closely observe aspects of daily life. Several workers passed by us either riding bicycles or walking along the road. They seemed as curious about us as we were about them - the main difference only being that I had cameras to take their pictures.

Our driver quickly understood that I enjoyed photographing people. He willing stopped whenever we came upon something or someone interesting - Monks on bicycles, men working in rice paddies, workers harvesting broom plant, Hmong villages, etc, etc. It ended up being a fantastic day with the rain holding off until 2:30 P.M. just as we entered the hotel reception area after our long day on the road but 30 minutes earlier than I predicted.

After photographing the men preparing the rice paddies for planting, we drove to Ban Singhyuan (sp?). In Ban Singhyuan we encountered a crew of workers working in a very large watermelon patch. The driver pulled over and stopped. I hopped out with Duang right behind me. We joined the workers out in the middle of the patch or more aptly "field". The workers, a mixture of men and women ranging in age from approximately 15 to 45 years old, were trimming the vines by pinching off "runners" with their fingers. This would increase the productivity of the vines. Some of the workers were delicately picking up the vines to dip the flower blossoms into a clear watery liquid contained in the inverted top half of a 1.25 liter recycled soda plastic bottle. The vines were cultivated much like cultivated strawberries - planted in plastic covered long furrows of soil. The vines grow up and out of small holes made in the top of the plastic. As a furrow was completed, the crew moved over to the next furrow to repeat their activities. Although it was still early in the morning, temperature around the plastic sheeting and dry compacted clay soil was rapidly rising. The workers were very friendly as well as sociable - the younger women joking about wanting to find a foreign husband. I have written about farm workers making between 100 baht ($3.00 USD a day) for garlic workers near Maehongson and 150 baht ($5.00 USD a day) for rice workers in Isaan (Tahsang Village)so I was interested in knowing how much Lao farm workers were paid. They told Duang that they make 120 baht a day.

Our next stop on our trip back to Luang Namtha was a Yao village called Ban Namai. The Yao people migrated from China and are typified by the large red fluffy trim on woman's jackets. The Yao, also known as Meo, people are well known for their cross stitching and embroidery. Duang and I had purchased some Yao textiles during our trip to Chiang Rai two years ago. Upon our arrival in the village we were besieged by women with textiles and handicrafts for sale. It is often difficult when there are so many people trying to earn some money. You want to help but there is only so much that you can do. We ended up buying a beautiful piece that had an embroidered butterfly and flower motif. The young man who had made the piece has gone to school in China, speaks Chinese, and speaks rather good English. The piece 31 inches by 50 inches cost us $42 USD. We bought some smaller items and having felt that we had done enough for that village's economy, we beat a hasty retreat.

We stopped in the Tai Dam (Black Tai) village of Ban Nong Bua. We found a woman who was weaving cotton underneath the shade of her home. I watched for awhile and took some photographs. Duang and she entered into negotiation over some of the woman's work so I left to tour the village on my own. In the end Duang had purchased two hand woven and sewn Tai Dam shirts for our one year old grandson for $1.00 each and a man sized traditional shirt for $6 USD. I went down one of the side streets of the village and encountered women wanting to sell me textiles. I turned and although I did not run, I walked fairly fast to another part of the village. In this part of the village an addition was being constructed to one of the homes. The men were using lumber levers to lift a part of the house onto stones for a better foundation. I lent my weight if not expertise to the operation and the house was easily lifted and placed. The construction effort was a family effort by husband, brothers, grandfather, and sons. Aunts, grandmother, daughters, and wife were occupied in cooking food on wood fires for the construction crew. I was there for quite awhile and Duang finally found me. She had been worried about my fearlessness to discover things in these villages.

In Ban Tin That, we found workers harvesting broom plant. Throughout the district broom plant has been cut and is laying out in the sun to dry in huge fields, alongside the roads, and inside the villages. Broom plant is a reed with a large soft head. The reed stems are bound together to form a handle and the fluffy heads are swept across surfaces to clean them. We use these types of brooms in our home as just about everyone else does. The harvested broom plant is exported to China, turned into consumer products for domestic consumption as well as export. I had walked out to the workers alone and after engaging them in conversation well beyond my verbal and pantomime skills I called out to Duang for assistance. Of all the workers we encountered on our return trip these workers were the most friendly as well as the youngest. They were gathering up the broom plants that had been cut three days ago. The cut plants had laid spread out in the sun to dry out. The Chinese companies pay 1,200 KIP ($0.14 USD) a kilogram for raw material but 2,000 Kip ($0.24 USD) a kilogram for dry product. These workers were gathering the dry plants and bundling them together with strips of bark to create sheaves that were then hauled over to a small spring scale to be weighed and loaded onto a large truck. I joked to the workers about all the plant going from Laos to China so that China could send it to America. I learned that these workers make less money, 80 Baht a day, than farm workers in Isaan. Duang is able to talk to most of the people so we learn a great deal about their life and work. She is not able to speak to some of the minorities such Akha who speak only their languages and not Lao.

We stopped at a Hmong Village several kilometers outside of Luang Namtha. It was rather new and did not have a name. Children were headed out into the forest with woven bamboo baskets on their back. The children gather firewood to bring back home and food for the family meal. It is a constant wonder to me to see small children making significant contribution to the family welfare. Children too young to go off in the forest, contribute by caring for their baby brothers and sisters. Spend some time in these back waters of SE Asia and you soon realize that childhood is a luxury that is affordable to very few people.

That night it rained most of the night. We slept very well to the gentle sound of rain on the wood shingles of our cottage and the lack of roosters proclaiming their presence. We slept 12 hours after our journey in the pickup bed taxi truck. A great way to end a great day.

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