26 August 2002

19. - 26 AUG: Muang Sing market, trek in the jungle

Muang Sing market

Six o’clock in the morning and the market is already in full swing. Ladies from around the province are deployed to their negotiating positions behind tightly packed stands: fruits, vegetables, spices, sweets, the usual suspects as far as country markets go. But some not so usual foodstuffs did make me wonder what kind of recipes would be prepared that evening in some of Muang Sing’s homes: roasted and live beetles, whole raw pig heads, buckets of chicken paws…

Women from the minority Akha tribe, which inhabit most of the surrounding mountain areas, stood out for the brighter colors and adornments of their clothes as well as for their more aggressive attitude toward potential clients. They did not have fixed stands on the market floor, I was told the local Lao would not let them. In fact, the scorn, even contempt the Akha were held is was at times quite palpable around the market. Given the circumstances, they had to make do by constantly walking around the aisles and approaching potential buyers. They looked like they were patrolling the area on a search and destroy mission! The search was the easy part as they patrol the ailes: we foreigners – the obvious sources of higher revenues for them – were obviously conspicuous and slow-moving prey. Once a target showed up on their radar screen, they quickly locked on to it and began the approach; then, in real time, the passed on the relevant target coordinates to the rest of the wolf-pack and all moved in for the kill, surrounding us and shoving their bracelets, belts, hats et similia on to our hands. It would have been virtually impossible to make an escape, or even to break eye contact, without buying at least a trinket or two. Which I actually did with pleasure: their embroideries, for instance, are exquisite, and their asking prices quite reasonable. One dollar bought three or four cowry shell studded bracelets, or one belt, or a hat. Their combined use of colorful cloth, beads, mother of pearl and small shells makes for delicate apparel. I wondered how in the world they got cowry shells, which are harvested in the ocean, to be raw material for tribal artifacts here in the mountains. But then again cowry shells from the Indian Ocean have been used as money all over Africa since time immemorial.

This market was a photographer’s gold mine. Many South East Asian markets are, but never did I see the rich assortment of different ethnic groups, each with its distinctive bodily features and tribal dresses as here in Muang Sing. The ladies obviously knew that their image was worth something to me. Most of them were quite happy to be photographed, and a few are even clerly proud to show off their elaborate dresses. They did not mind to pose but clearly expected payment. Now, as a general rule I do not like to pay my subjects to pose, though in this case it was possible to factor the permission to shoot into the price of some of their handicraft or produce, and that felt fine. So I came away with a few more bracelets and belts than I had anticipated or had use for, but they made nice gifts and I was happy both for my photos and for having supported some local traditional artisan workshops. I do think it is important to try to support local skills, especially if the final product is genuine traditional hand-made handicraft. Maybe this would even delay the day when this market will sell plastic bracelets made in Hong Kong or Thailand.

On one occasion, I had to improvise a curious variation on the theme of my purchase-for-photo policy. My potential subject was a pretty lady selling some raw vegetables, amongst which was a pile of green beens; without thnking much about it, I bought some and took my photos of the smiling vendor. I was then left with more than a handful of beans for which I had little foreseeable use. I almost returned them to the lady who had sold them to me, but I thought that might be seen as disrespectful, maybe she could think I did not like her excellent beans, and so I walked away, camera in one hand and green beans in the other. Then another friendly and colorful lady approached, she probably saw my awkward handling of my veggies and tried both Akha and sign language to explain something related to the beans, perhaps how to cook and eat them. She was quite an attractive subject herself, so I offered the beans to her and used sign language to try to explain that she would make a much better meal of them than I ever could, and I would let her have them in exchange for permission to take her photo. She was (understandably) a bit puzzled at first, but quickly accepted. In the end, a few cents’ worth of green beans got me not one but two distinct permissions to photograph, I was satisfied and left behind two cheerful ladies! I could only imagine the face of the husband of the second lady when he asked aat dinner how much she paid for the beans and she told him of this funny Westerner to whom she was trying to explain how to eat beans but was so hopeless that he gave them away in exchange for a photograph!

The only ones who resolutely turned their heads away and, at first, did not want to be photographed were some older ladies, who looked perhaps sixty to sixty-five years old – and therefore were probably in their fifties... I am told they usually refuse to pose because they think they are ugly. That was a pity, as their majestic wrinkled features were in a way the most beautiful, certainly the most interesting of all, they clearly had a story to tell and in my view were quite photogenic. In a few cases I tried sign language to explain that they were not ugly, they were beautiful, and one or two were clearly flattered, had a good laugh with one hand on their mouth (which sometimes covered teethless gums) and agreed to pose. I interpreted their sign language expressions to mean something like “why do you want a picture of me? I am not pretty, I am old, you should photograph some of the young girls over there” but in the end they loved the unxpected attention.

As for all the others who doggedly refused to be immortalized on my film, I respected their shyness, or desire for privacy, though I confess that I did surrepetitiously take a few shots of one or two irresistible senior ladies who were not looking. OK normally one should ask, and I almost never shoot subjects who do not want to be photographed, it is one of the basic rules of courtesy for travel photographers all over the world, or at least it should be. However, candid photos are often the best, and by definition one can not ask permission to take one. Since these ladies they did not even notice I was there, I tried to persuade myself that no harm was done. I would try to push my luck a bit further in this respect at a later stage, in the hills, and will be punished for it… more on this in the pages which follow.

Around the outer limits of the market square, one Akha lady quietly approached and discreetely showed me a pretty folded hat made of cotton and beads, then carefully opened to reveal an opium ball hidden inside. She repeatedly mumbled something which I did not understand but could easily guess; she would not give up easily when I hand signed that I was not interested, and finally left me alone after a good fifteen minutes, only to approach my travel companions a few meters behind.

It took some time to shake off the last persistent Akha ladies who chased me out of the market to sell their wares. They came all the way back to the hotel but they were not allowed on the premises. Undeterred, they sat down by the door of the verandah where food was being served and displayed all their remaining bracelets, necklaces and belts and hats on the floor.. They watched assiduously while I worked away at my daily ration of banana pancakes. When I was done and set out to leave, they all got up as one and encircled me, shoving stuff in my hands and under my nose. I felt an urge to help them and buy some more of their adornments but I held back; I had already filled several of my pockets and it was clear that there would be no end to their sale pitch as long as I was within reach. So I waved them good bye, smiled, and left.

Trekking

After the recent torrential rains, it is August after all and the monsoon season is in full swing, the way to out intended destination was blocked by high waters. We took off our shoes and socks and waded through the murky water, getting our trousers wet in spite of futile attempts to roll them up above our kees. Once safely acress on the opposite bank, Somlit taught us how to insert wet tobacco in out socks so as to keep away the new threat we have to face today, as if having braved malaria-carrying mosquitoes were not enough: leeches! It is the wet season the these lovely creatures thrive in the wet mud and in rice fields.

A woman holding an infant is standing by the water. She was watching with curiosity while we waded, and we surely must have looked ridiculous for going through all that effort just to avoid getting our shoes wet and walk a few miles in the mud – of course, that is easy for her to do, since she does that all the time and does not have any shoes! She is pretty and very photogenic standing with her child in her arms. As I raise my telephoto lens her amused air turns into puzzlement. “Have we never seen nude breasts before or what? Or is there something wrong with me?” she seems to be thinking. In fact there is very little that is wrong with her, and much that is very right: she is healthy and beautiful, so is her child, and her pose by the riverbank makes for a great picture.


We visit several villages in turn:

1st Sop-ee-mai (Akha), and then

2nd Phouko (Akha). At the next village we are in luck. In addition to the usual swarms of muddied children and skinny chicken we ran into a wedding ceremony. The feast was taking place on the upper floor of a large stilt house. We were cordially invited to join in. The extent to which we could communicate was limited, to put it mildly, and even Somlit was at a loss to move beyond very basic concepts with the Akha. However, it was unmistakably clear that we were welcome. Several fires were lit inside, which initially made me a bit uneasy as the wood, eicker and straw house, as well as everything else inside, was supremely inflammable and could have been ignited by the smallest of stray sparks. But our hosts, while under the influence of lau-lao, looked as if they knew what they were doing. All the elderly women were sitting around one of the fires, in one corner. Most wore elaborate ornaments, were merrily chatting away among themselves and hardly paid any attention to us, or to the men for that matter. Some younger women stodd on one side with the bride, and were a bit shy to approach. After a few vain attempts I persuaded them to pose for me, and they were clearly pleased to do so. I had the definite impression that they really wanted to be photographed but conventional Akha decency dictated that they hide and play timid at first.

The senior men were drinking tea and lau-lao around their own fire. They directed all of us guests (men and women) toward the men’s fire and using sign language explained that custom had it that each of us was expected to drink one shot of lau-lao in one gulp, followed by a cup of tea, in order to be formally admitted to partake of the wedding. At around eleven o’clock in the morning, and with an empty stomach, a glassful of lau-lao – their “shot” glass was not like those small ones used in the West for vodka shot, but rather closer to the size of a cup of tea – does not go down unnoticed, especially not with temperatures close to 40° centigrade in the sun. After the first shot I bagen to sweat even more profusely than I already was, but what the heck, my shirt could not get any more soaked than it already was. In fact at that point it was also the photo-vest which I wore over my shirt that was darkening as salty perspiration worked its way outward to evaporate and leave a white salty patina all over. I admit that for my second shot I cheated, and took advantage of the confusion all around to sip it in stages and sneak some tea in between…

It was a highly emotional experience to be part of this wedding ceremony. It was one occasion in which it seemed that the language barrier collapsed, perhaps under the repeated assaults of lau-lao megashots, or perhaps because the spiritual meaning of wedding ceremonies have much in common the world over. Yet, I was thinking as I watched the scened of joy all around, what would be the reaction at your average wedding in the West (and not just in the rich West, but anywhere else I could think of) if a dozen perfect strangers from an unknown country all dressed in funny exotic clothes would suddenly pop up uninvited, cameras in hand, strobe lights flashing and no gifts for either bride or groom! Well, they actually did take care of the latter. After we were done drinking, we were accompanied down the stilts to the adjacent yard, where newlyweds displayed themselves to the whole village. Then somewone approached Somlit and asked for a few thousand kips’ offering to the couple. Fair enough…

The 3rd village is Pakha (Akha). The trek in the jungle continued for several hours, before we reached this village. We were slowed down by leeches which got into a friend’s shoes...

4th Sin-oudom (Yao) and then 5th Namdat (Akha). Here I learned a lesson. I took a photo of a very good looking bare breasted lady nursing an infant by a water fountain. She made it abundantly clear that she did not want to be photographed, but I shot one frame anyway. B. reprimanded me severely, “Do you think they have no rights to privacy just because they are tribal peoples?”: She was right, no question about it, but it was such a perfect shot, the light was right, the lady was pretty and so was the fountain, so I had to take that photograph. I knew I had done something wrong, but I also trie to persuade myself that it was not really a mortal sin, just a photo which will never appear on any commercial publication, what harm could this possibly do to the pretty lady, or to her son for that matter, etc but I could not really come up with a good excuse. Anyway, the photo was taken and it was too late now to do anything about it, …or so I thought.

At that point I noticed we were leaving the Namdat village and I was walking past the “Gate of the Spirits”, the sacred wooden frame which one often finds at the outskirts of many Akha villages in Northern Laos. The gate protects the vllage from the spirits and if it is violated they must be appeased with expensive animal sacrifices. I remembered the poster at the guesthouse in Nun-Khiaw which expressely warned not to touch or walk through these gates, and kept well clear of it, though, of course, I do not believe in the spirits. Somlit had also told us stories of some Norther European tourists who had made fun of the Gate, touching it and nonchalantly walking through. They had been seen by some villager who called for the chief, who was not amused. The tourists were taken to a home and detained and were not released until the agreed to pay for several farm animals to be slaughtered and offered to the spirits.

As it happens, at that point I noticed that frame of the lady at the fountain was the last one in my roll. I pushed the rewind button and the camera began rewinding the film while I was getting ready to load a fresh roll. I looked up to the gate one more time and at that very moment my camera’s rewinding motor screeched to a halt and jammed. It had never, ever happened to me before, nor has it ever happened since. I shook the camera, pushed different buttons, tried to reset it, yelled at it, but it just refused to cooperate. The only thing left to do was to open the camera’s back and undo the jam by hand. That, of course, meant that the picture of the lady at the fountain would surely be lost, and with it probably also those of the Yao ladies from the previous village. I unjammed the camera by hand, put in a fresh roll and took a couple of shots of the gate of the Spirits, keeping a careful distance just in case…I could not help but thinking that the spirits had punished me for my overbearing attitude toward the lady at the fountain. But, of course, I do not believe in the spirits…


Minorities in Laos according to national Census of 1995
Minority Villages Population Houses Temples
Akha 68 11.000 2300 0
Lua 26 6.000 1200 18
Kmu 1 81 19 0
Hmong 3 2000 300 0
Toi Nema 5 2000 300 0

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