I assured Andrew I would be ok and I didn’t need to spend another afternoon in bed, “I mean, the worst that can happen is I have to poop in a rice paddy. or my pants. I guess pooping my pants would be worse.” Andrew seemed to think I would make it to a rice paddy. And off we went. First, to ask our adorable guide, May, if I could stop at a pharmacy at the beginning of our 15K trek. And then, down the mountain.
With about thirty other tourists, and what felt like an equivalent of Black Hmong women, we began our trek down into the valleys, walking between rice paddies, and through the villages. The scenery was beautiful, my stomach was (for the most part) staying in check, and the women gamely answered my questions about life in a Black Hmong Tribe, even when I asked bluntly “So, do you like being married?” They gaped at me, as if I were the first one to ever ask. Maybe I was, but from what they answered “liking” or “disliking” being married isn’t really an option. They just are. married.
Andrew accuses me of having a certain, shall we say opinionated tone when I discuss women’s roles in different cultures. He’s right. I do. But, I’m working on it. I’m going for that “Oh, what’s that like? Women not being equal in your culture?” curious tone instead of my “Oh no you didn’t just tell me women are lower than men!” sassy tone that usually comes across. It’s hard for me not to get a little feministy when I’m speaking to a Muslim tour guide in South East Asia’s largest mosque and he tells me “Women don’t ask such questions!” or in this case, when I’m chatting with a 17 year old girl who is married, 5 months pregnant with her first child, and leading a 15 K trek.
In my head I thought back to when I was 17 and what I was doing. Graduating high-school and moving away to go to college. How fortunate I was, right? But then I gently remind myself that her life is different than mine, her culture is different than mine, and I should not judge. And when I do judge anyway, I try to re-channel the judging into gratefulness. It makes me really glad I’m an American girl (although we do have a long way to go) and really glad I’m no longer an employee of a South Korean company (school).
So, I chatted with May, our tour guide, about life. She said she enjoyed answering questions much more than leading a tour with people who didn’t talk. It gives her a chance to practice her English, learn new words, and likewise learn about different cultures. She was (is) awesome, and it was super interesting to chat with her. I learned that girls typically marry between ages 15-20. While their parents sometimes arrange their marriages, they are also allowed (in some instances) to say “no” and she readily acknowledged that women do much more work than men. Men’s duties revolve around the farming and only the farming. Women’s duties sometimes include farming, childcare, cooking, cleaning, and even selling goods to tourists or leading tours around Sapa. May also divulged that she doesn’t like “happy water” as it hurts her head the next day. “Happy Water” is what everyone in or around Sapa called rice wine. Think of it as bootlegged soju, if you will. Made in the homes, a Kiwi living in Sapa told us there’s no way to know the exact proof of the liquor.
Throughout our chat, as we descended the mountain, Black Hmong women walked with and around us, helping us cross streams, making straw animals for us, and generally asking us the same three questions over and over and over again.
1. What’s your name? or Where you from?
2. How old are you?
Obviously I fell into the old maid category. Almost 30 and unmarried. (Oh the shame!) “But you are from a different culture!” The sweet 17 year old pregnant one responded. I was struck by her open-mindedness after five years of being asked “When are you getting married?” in Korea.
As we sat down to eat lunch, we were surrounded. The same sweet Black Hmong women turned into aggressive vendors pulling miscellaneous handmade wares out of their bags. It was frustrating, yet heartbreaking at the same time, especially when their children would come out of the woodwork trying to sell what their mothers undoubtedly shoved in their hands, pushing them towards us. It also became quite the bonding experience for everyone on the tour. We traded stories with the South African/Portugese couple, the French couple, and the Brit who was chopstick challenged.
After lunch, we walked first to a school in the village, and then just a few kilometers more to the village where our home-stay was located.
With a few hours of free time, we entertained ourselves by chasing down missing shoes the home-stay dog would steal, and giving some curious children some of our trail mix. They weren’t exactly expecting the “soy wasabi” flavored almonds, but then greedily stole and practically licked the inside of the bag. Later, these same ruffians surrounded us on a rice paddy wall and flung dirt on us until we fled for the safety of our cameras and clothing that we had to wear the next day.
Now, sorry to compare, yet again, but four years ago the home-stay was with a family of three generations. The grandmother sorted seeds, while the mother made dinner, while the two Aussies and myself played with the children. Today’s home-stay experience felt more like a hostel conveniently located in the loft of a barn. We weren’t entirely sure who lived in the home, who was visiting, who was leading tours, but the food was good, even if Michael (the Brit) had an entertainingly difficult time eating with chopsticks. And we all fell into fits of laughter when he made the comment about eating “with sticks” as we took note of the rice scattered around his bowl on the table. The “happy water” a bit too strong for the majority of us, we took turns slinking off to the loft to sleep on dirty (mine was quite smelly) mattresses.
Lesson #3 learned from traveling around the world: Maybe it’s not such a good idea to buy and wear barefoot shoes for the first time when going on a 15K trek. Oh for the love of calf muscles!
Lesson #4 learned from traveling around the world: Don’t pick the mattress closest to the stairs after a 15K trek. The one in the back, the furthest one away is bound to be less used, therefore, less smelly.