Don’t steal my soul!

Laos_post0 (Dana) A group of ladies from the Akha Ghepia hill tribe are gathered to make a headdress for their friend who will marry this week. One bends bamboo into the hat frame. Another stretches the hand-spun, hand-woven, indigo-dyed cotton fabric over the frame. Several other women sew coins onto ribbon pieces, thread colored beads and connect vibrant pompoms together… all decorations for the new headdress. Around the core group sits a 20-year old mother nursing her fourth(!) child while 7-year old children carry their own siblings on their backs. As I approach, the conversation stops. All eyes turn toward me. Those carrying babies drift away. But it’s not me… it’s my camera. The Ghepia still believe that photographs steal their soul. I squat down with my camera tucked away and the women return to the circle. I settle in to enjoy the experience.

Laos_post1Spending four days in the hills of Northern Laos, I met many people afraid of cameras. One older woman said in her native dialect, “don’t take my picture; I don’t want to get sick.” Children ran away, and babies were shielded, as apparently, the young and the old are most susceptible to having their souls taken. Fortunately, two bolder Ghephia ladies allow me to photograph them at another village.

In each of our ten village stops, our first task was the find the village chief, greeting him with a water bottle full of home made rice whiskey purchased from the market out on the main road. Escorted around the village by the chief, we were often able to talk with and take photos of the people in the village. The chief would translate the local dialect into Lao, which my guide Thongkhoon would then translate into English. The women wore most of the traditional costumes, with men and children in well-worn, well-loved, cheap Chinese clothing. Often, our stops ended in the chief’s house, preparing a meal of rice, vegetables and some smoked meat while toasting our new friendship with small shots of rice whiskey… again and again and again. Their hospitality was touching.

Laos_post2aOur stop at the Akha Loma village went exactly like that. Along with the chief, we wandered from wood-house to wood-house, meeting people like a beautiful 16-year old, attired head-to-toe in her native embroidery. The work was stunningly intricate and colorful. I was in awe of her jacket, her apron, her collar, her leg gaiters and her headpieces. She shyly posed for our photos, although she started laughing when I put my phone in selfie-mode so that she could see herself. Given her handiwork, it was likely that she was recently married or soon to be married.

After our time with this lovely girl, we ended up in the chief’s house for an impromptu lunch. Four or five whiskey shots later, somehow the group determined that it would be hilarious to dress me up in the Loma traditional attire. Laos_post3My hair was wrapped and covered in fine embroidery. The apron was affixed. But as expected, the jacket was a few sizes small for my large, Western frame. With the jacket draped over my shoulders and the wood basket slung over my back and held by a strap to my forehead, we posed for fun photos.

At the end of my time with the Loma, I was hoping to leave with a memento of some kind and asked about purchasing or trading for an item of their handiwork. They looked at me quizzically, as no one had ever asked that before. There was no market for their work. I quickly backed-off, wanting in no way to be the reason that these gentle, traditional people started selling their prized family possessions. As my guide shared, there are already merchants moving through the hills, buying up antique works for sales to collectors. I definitely did not want to be part of that; my photos would be enough.

Finally, we visited several Akha Oma tribal villages, replicating the meet, greet, eat, whiskey, repeat, repeat, repeat. The Oma women embroider and decorate yet another kind of headdress, adorned with old coins, beads, pom poms and cowrie shells, which represent ancient trade in this land-locked country. While the men sit around the fire, smoking home-grown tobacco through a bamboo water pipe on a cold, damp day, the women are cooking rice, feeding the pigs, managing the children and sweeping the dirt floor of the house shared with chickens, dogs and cats. Although I am truly out of place, they welcome me warmly, even allowing us to stay the night in their modest house.

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Exploring the Northern hills of Laos is about as far off the standard tourist track as I can get. Why do I yearn to do that?

* It is like looking back in time. These villagers are living the same way their families have lived for centuries. Subsistence farming, burning wood for warmth and cooking, making their own clothes, relieving themselves outside without even an outhouse. It is the way that my own ancestors lived as well.

* In our world of perpetual globalization, traditional customs, clothes and cultures are disappearing rapidly. As cell phones and Chinese satellite dishes proliferate this area, villagers will be increasingly exposed to other cultures, and their own will begin to fade away. This is an opportunity to see these tribes “while I still can.”

Laos_post8 Laos_post7* Spending time with these lovely people is connecting at a basic human level. We do not speak the same language, but communicate through hand gestures and smiles. At one point, the great-grandmother grabbed my hands to warm them up. It reminds me that at our core, all humans care about survival and our families – a great reminder in my comfortable, material, fast-paced life.

* Women are the engines of these villages. I find it empowering to be reminded of women’s value in bearing children, making clothes, gathering wood, farming, cooking and managing the family. Their strength is inspiring.

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* Unstructured touring allows the experience to unfold around me. I never knew what was going to happen. For example, it rained the entire first day as we were meeting villagers in their houses. It was dreary, muddy and wet. It was only the next day, after the rain stopped and adults returned to the fields and forests, when we realized how lucky we had been to find the villagers in their houses out of the rain. And I certainly was lucky to come across a group of ladies making a traditional headdress for their friend.

My four days in the remote hills of Laos were magical and memorable. Huge thanks to my indefatigable guide Thongkhoon as well as my travel partner Remote Lands for such a gift. Now that I’m back, maybe I should convince my teenagers that photography steals their souls…maybe that will make a dent in their social media.

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2 Responses to “Don’t steal my soul!”

  1. Catherine Walkey 16. Feb, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Dana-This is very cool and I love seeing the pictures. I especially like the part when the older woman warmed your hands. We all are not different from each other. Keep traveling and sharing! xo

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