‘Will there be chicken for dinner?’, one person asked.
‘No’, our guide replied. ‘Chickens are very hard to catch.’
With those words of wisdom, I thought our village homestay was off to a great start.
Luang Prabang, Laos, serves as a great jumping off point for trekking to remote villages in the region – said our brochure. Because we were in fact in Luang Prabang, and because trekking (not hiking) to somewhere remote (not just far) sounded fairly badass we decided to give it a try.
Early the next morning, we met our guide to take a truck to the beginning of our 12-kilometre trek. Within minutes we were moving through villages and spectacular views that changed faster than I could take pictures. Yellow rice fields ended abruptly at steep mountain passes. Dense, steamy jungle prickled our skin with sweat before releasing us into an open valley surrounded by jagged karst formations.
After nine hours, we finally arrived at our home stay in the mountains. The town is set in a wonderful valley, surrounded by mountains and palm trees. They have one spigot with running water where they communally bathe, and have electricity for only two hours a day.
I felt a mixture of awe and awkward voyeurism. I didn’t know how to act given that we had no way to actually talk to them. So for awhile, we just stood around gawking in our tennis shoes and baseball hats.
We passed one family who was sitting at a table making bracelets. We shyly approached their door and smiled. One of the women nodded for us to come in. At that point we saw the old man chanting, a candle stuck into a large bowl of rice and money, and the bones of chicken. Hmm. Maybe not making friendship bracelets.
As we later found out, we had wandered into a shaman ceremony. It seemed to involve tying white strings onto the wrists of a baby and an older woman and then breaking the bones of the chicken. The shaman sang for awhile over a candle and then suddenly it was over. The chicken was served for dinner with the rice.
We quietly made our way out of the house, half excited and half embarrassed. Unable to find any other situations it would be totally inappropriate to intrude on, we retreated back to our hut for our own dinner.
By 8 pm we were thoroughly exhausted and fell asleep to the sounds of muffled voices coming from the only TV in a village of 600 people.
Eight hours and a half dozen false alarms from the rooster later, we emerged groggily from our rooms to a breakfast of eggs, coffee, and warm sticky rice. After visiting the two-room building where the kids go to school during the week, we reluctantly left the village.
I really would have loved to spend more time there in a way that didn’t make us feel like spectators and them like a spectacle. I can’t imagine what I would think of a group of camera-toting strangers popping into my neighborhood every evening to take pictures of me…