Day 6- Ekla Cholo Re: Dining with a Black H’mong family
The day began relatively ‘late’ with a 8 am breakfast and 9 am meet up with Ca, my lovely 19 years old guide. She, I discovered, is a mother of two (!) as the child marriage practice is hugely prevalent in the Sapa tribes and in spite of other signs of modernization- television, electricity, modern clothes, this is one practice that refuses to die. The day’s program was supposed to start with a walk to the wet market to buy some fresh produce, then walk back to Ca’s village where they would cook a meal for me and then a trek back to the hotel.
Ethos, the travel company, I’d booked the trek with, had explained that most Black H’mong families practice subsistence farming and that having 4-5 items on the lunch table was a rarity. Meat was extremely expensive and hence reserved for very special occasions (weddings and funerals, mostly!) It was one time when my being vegetarian was actually not a hindrance in dining with the locals.
The wet market was buzzing with fruits, meat and vegetable vendors, stall owners and early morning shoppers. There were also groups of Black H’mong women getting ready to venture into the town with the day’s wares. Most of them were strictly against being photographed and later Ca told me that given how cash-strapped the families are, they have come to treat even photographs as a source of revenue. Also, the reason they are so persistent when they see tourists is because the income they earn from selling handicrafts, is what will help them survive the winter. All irritation that I had felt the previous day upon being accosted by seller after seller, evaporated- couldn’t really begrudge someone their survival techniques. Though, the question of why the men were curiously absent in all these proceedings remained to be answered.
The shopping expedition was quick and we made our way to Ca’s village after having bought tofu, tomatoes, cayote, bamboo shoots, garlic, ginger and morning glory. On the way, Ca gave me a quick glimpse into her life history- she had actually been adopted by a German couple and had spent a few years living in Germany but the couple had financial difficulties and sent her back a few years ago. Ca adapted pretty well back into the traditional ways of her family- got married and promptly had 2 children- a 2.5 years old daughter and an 8 months old son. In fact, for what made for a shocking anecdote while trekking, she described to me how her water broke while she was on the way to the doctor (the nearest hospital was several kilometers away) and that she gave birth to her son on a rock. I almost lost my balance as I realized she was pointing to the rock where I was standing and taking pictures! Couldn’t really imagine how the chirpy and cheeky 19 year old was describing such tough times with no sense of despair or complaint. And back home, not getting a taxi on a rainy Friday becomes such a pain point! Sometimes, all you need to appreciate your own life is a gentle dose of perspective.
The trek was full of stops as I couldn’t get enough of the lush green landscape but soon had to acknowledge that we were inching closer to lunch time, so it might be better for us to opt for a faster stride.
Ca’s home was rustic and charming from the outside, what with hens and goats flopping about, village elders loitering around (there was a funeral two houses away and the prospect of meat had attracted the crowds) and cherubic toddlers playing in the yard. The rustic picture lost a bit of the charm when I stepped inside- I didn’t mind the mud floor or thatched roof but the house was fairly dingy as the number of windows was equal to the number of TVs- 1! Inside, more relatives were huddled around the TV, watching some Korean drama dubbed in Vietnamese. Ca’s husband started the wooden fire and thanks to the combination of smoke and my dust allergy, I had a huge sneezing bout and decided to duck out in the open for some photo ops and fresh air. Ca’s relatives proved to be willing subjects, esp. those influenced by the rice wine they’d had at the neighbour’s funeral. I did offer to help but realized how inadequate I would be in a rural kitchen where notions of hygiene and order were going up in wooden smoke, for it is not everyday that hens come rushing into the kitchen, followed by the dogs. I gulped some water (carried my own bottle, thank you!) and took on the shooing duties and wondered if I was just being a silly snob and whether this is what most foreigners go through when they visit some parts of India. It was a strange mix of feelings and thoughts as I saw Ca tie her son to her back and carry on cooking (was I imposing on their family time or was I enabling a good meal for that day?), one common source of water for kitchen and bathroom (maybe the water was right from the source and clean and perhaps what won’t kill me would make me stronger?), Ca’s mother in law giving her grandkid Fanta in a lid and the little girl trying to give some to her baby brother as well (it’s wrong to feed sugary, aerated drinks to kids vs. let them have a treat once in a while). Before the lack of wi-fi and the general sense of boredom caught up with me, lunch was on the table and by that time, I was super hungry and abandoned all my misgivings to dig into an admittedly yummy meal. After the meal I noticed Ca merrily enjoying rice wine while nursing her son and I couldn’t help but intervene. She told me she had rice wine even when she was pregnant! I was a bit horrified and quickly launched into a speech about how alcohol was not recommended and could potentially harm the baby. She took another sip and sagely offered “Yeah. That’s probably the reason why all of us are so short”. I decided to say no further and waited for her to finish, so we could trek back to the town.
The trek back was even better – the weather was nice and toasty and with the crisp mountain air and beautiful landscape, I decided to not worry too much about the ways of the H’mong people- live and let live. Que Sera Sera! Thanks to the rice wine, dear Ca was chattier and funnier on the trek and kept pranking me about the distance left to be covered. Truth be told, after 2 hours, the lovely toasty sun was beating down on us and making us long for clouds and shade. Finally the muddy roads gave way to concrete and the destination was well within sight.
The day was exhausting and well spent and I was pleasantly surprised to see the Ethos team ready to receive us at the hotel to get my feedback as also to decide the plan for the next day. The next day was to be spent with a Red Dao guide and (gulp), to be spent biking. I wanted to ensure it was safe (the sound of biking on mountains certainly wasn’t!) and could only imagine the shock that my family would experience if I told them of this plans. The day’s forecast (as per Google) was also supposed to be rather horrid with rains and thunderstorm but Hoa assured me that the inaccuracy of the forecast could be totally relied upon and that she would ensure the weather was all right in the morning and only then give us the go signal.
With a prayer to the weather gods and with another meal at dear Hill Station (where the staff had come to recognize me and pretty much predict my order), I ended the day’s adventure- glad that Sapa had lived upto its reputation. For all those planning to go, don’t make the same mistake as me and judge it based on the town- go to the villages and the hills and discover its true beauty. A lesson in humility will also be yours for the taking.