(sorry for technical difficulties, will fix)
On Thursday morning we left for our two night home-stay in the hill tribes, a weekend trip that all volunteers get to do at some point during their stay at Mirror. The 20 of us all piled into a couple of sawngtheaws and headed off. On our way up, we stopped in a town presumably for a snack, but soon found out that we were there for an elephant ride. Elephants are surprisingly big. Even more surprising are their poops, which are the size of small boulders (they thud on the ground accordingly). It was an unbelievable experience to be on top of an elephant, but we couldn't help but think at each jolt: "If we fall from this, there is no way we will make it out alive!" Nonetheless, Anna has decided that the elephant is her new favorite animal.
After the elephant ride we were dropped off at a nearby waterfall and enjoyed our Thai version of bag lunches; instead of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches there was sticky rice and fried chicken, instead of yogurt there was chili sauce and instead of a brown paper bag, it was all wrapped in banana leaves. From there we began our 3 km hike up the only road to the first village where we were to stay, which doesn't sound long but, because of the heat and the incredible incline, felt like a serious trek.
There are about 7 major hill tribes in Northern Thailand and surrounding countries (as they tend to have more of a sense of tribal allegiance than nationalism). Each tribe has its own language, completely different from Thai, and unique dress and culture. A major goal of Mirror is to preserve these self-sustaining cultures while helping them to survive globalization. One of the ways they do this is with hill tribe home-stays, which gives more income to the hill tribe families (who sell their hand-made goods to their guests) and gives them an incentive to preserve their way of life.
Our first night of home-stay was in a Lahu village and happened to coincide with Lahu New Year, a 10 day festival of dancing and sacrifices. The Lahu believe that every new year they must make sure to give the gods many good things in order to secure a good year - in the center of the village was a sacrifice of different meats and a pig's head! The festival didn't start until the night so we spent the day hanging out in the village, trying to communicate with our host, and admiring the houses. Completely made of bamboo, the houses we stayed in were elevated on stilts and we could see (and hear all night long!) the animals, which live below the house, through the floor slats. Each house is made up of one big kitchen/living room/dining room (which is just an empty room with a fire pit inside) and another sleeping room, and the entire thing is rebuilt every 7 years.
At night, the festival got started and we all danced around the sacrifice to the pounding of symbols and drums. We went to bed at 10pm with the hope that the party would die down soon but, the Lahu villagers continued partying, blasting karaoke and shooting off fire crackers until 6am!
The next morning (2 hours after finally falling asleep) we woke up, had breakfast with our host (a shy woman but a great cook) and hiked about 5km to an Akha village, which looked similar, but was slightly more developed than the Lahu village (a few houses were made of cement and some of the younger women wore jeans and t-shirts in place of sarongs or the customary Akha outfit). Before we were placed in different houses (men and women were completely separate), we were taken to a field where we helped (really observed) a few men from the village make a meal of rice, soup, chili and tea for all of us using nothing but nature and their machetes; they cooked all our food in large bamboo shoots over a fire, laid out banana leaves for all of us to sit on, and offered us tea in cups cut from bamboo.
That night, we all got the opportunity to dress up in the traditional Akha uniforms and follow along in their dances around the fire (of which they have many). In return, we taught them the closest thing we have in our culture: the Hokey Pokey.
Despite the stomach aches and unpleasant (and mysterious - is it a spider bite?) bug bites that came with the experience, it was really an amazing opportunity.
Jamie helps make dinner.
View from our hike to the Lahu village.
Handmade Lahu bags and scarves.
A Lahu sacrifice.
Dinner at the Lahu home-stay.
A precarious bridge.
The pink meat is pork (sitting in the sun...mmmm).
Elephant (this one is 30 years old)!
Stilts under the hill tribe houses.
The floors of the hill tribe houses.
Piggies (Anna saw a baby pig killed as a sacrifice at the Akha village).
Our Akha outfits.
All of us volunteers and the women of the Akha village.
Jamie and his host mother.