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Blood Sucking Leeches

LAOS | Saturday, 9 June 2007 | Views [3030]

It was 5:30 am, and we've woken up to the noise of roosters, cows, chickens and other animals... the sounds blending into a real rhythm, and I honestly thought I was hearing school children chanting and singing in the distance.  We stowed our big packs at the guesthouse reception and headed downtown to meet our guide.  By 8:00 a.m. it was scorching hot.  Our trek started out wrapping around hillsides and rice plantations.  It was like being in an oxygen sauna... you could feel the excess oxygen expelled from all the lush plant-life surrounding us, seeping it's way into our pores, and the humidity drenching our bodies into a permanent state of drippy sweat.  Four hours trekking upward, in the steam sultry sun was more brutal than other treks we've been on.  We finally made it to our first village, a Phu Noi village, a Tibeto-Burman hill-tribe where we sought refuge in their equally as hot, yet shaded long-house, for a meal of sticky rice and local cooked veggies.  We immediately met an audience of onlookers in front of us.  Over 25 village kids and random adult onlookers leaned over the balcony of the porch we sat on, staring in silence with big deep brown eyes.  "sa baai-dii" we said, and their little voices sand "sa baai-dii" back to us.  When any of us got up and took even one small step forward toward the crowd, it would send them scurrying away in fear of us "western folk!"    We felt just like we were the movie or TV show, and they were all sitting around, intensely watching us... every move we made.  I finally warmed them up enough for pictures by first taking a funny picture of Darrin and then one of myself, and holding the digital screen for them to look at.  It evoked shrieks and laughter, and they welcomed invitations to take ones of them.    These children were so poor, yet so happy & beautiful.  Their little bodies covered head to toe in dirt, from crawling around the slopes of dirt and animal excrement that comprised the entire lot of land that the village sat on.  Their clothes, when they actually wore them, were tattered and torn, and caked with dried mud.  Yet the sparkles in their big brown eyes, and huge smiles beamed exquisite beauty, and melted our heats.  Despite how dirty they may have been, having them reach out to touch my curly hair, so different from theirs, or run their hands along my skin, much lighter than theirs, or hold my hand, guiding me to show off their chickens and pigs, brought us instant warmth and welcome.  They'd grab our camera with their dirty little fingers in excitement to see their images played back to them on the digital screen... 

Dark clouds enveloped the village, and the skies opened up and dumped monsoon rained so hard, even the trusty roof over the long-house began to sprout leaks.  Our guide urged us out into the storm, telling us we were already running late and risked not making it to the village before dark.  While the path was dangerous in rains that we could barely see a foot in front of ourselves, it would be far worse in the dark.  As we headed out, we lost a member of our trekking group... the female Spaniard decided she wasn't up for the next three days and our guide negotiated with a  local villager to walk her back in exchange for 110,000 kip.  She thought she was getting a ride with the villager on his motorcycle and was dismayed to find out she'd have to walk another 4-6 hours in the storm. 

So our crew was now 4 plus our guide, and we were determined to get to the next village safely.  How bad could the rain be?  At least it had cooled down the temperature a bit.  Not more than 5 minutes after we left the village we all started finding leeches, on our shoes, socks, legs, feet, and yes, even on a shoulder!  We'd crossed several rivers over knee deep along the way, and what we didn't realize was that the leeches stuck to our feet when putting on our socks and shoes.  Coming out of the last deeper river, I went to put my sock back on, and noticed a huge blood stain.  I thought, hmmm, too early for blisters and looked down at my ankle to see a stream of blood and a leech attached to the inside of the sock I had just stripped off  Yuck!  For the next 4 hours I don't know what was more thought-consuming - it vacillated between spotting leeches sucking their way through my socks and shoes, and the steep slick slope with no room for errors in a step.  I finally gave up the concern for leeches and just concentrated on keeping myself on the slope, feet first.

We finally reached our overnight village destination where we would spend the night with a Phu Noi tribe.  The village was situated on a barren slope with 40 or more bamboo huts on stilts.  Some were like mini long-houses, and most have a fire pit for cooking in one room, and sleeping/living quarters in the next room between a thin bamboo barrier for a wall.  The houses are built upon tall stilts and bamboo ladders lead the way down to the animal farm living below the home.  Families raise pigs, cows, water buffalo and chickens, many which all coexist under the home, and freely roam the slope-side.  We climbed the rickety ladder up to our host family's long-house.  There were three generations of families living in this small long-house... grandma, her son and daughter-in-law, and their children.  We set our bags and muddy shoes on the outdoor bamboo deck that was barely held together by thin bamboo reeds, masking sink holes in the structure, and much more unstable under the weight of the 4 of us and our guide.  Looking up from the deck, we were instantly surrounded by a sea of local children, all perched squatting on the slope not more than 50 meters away from us, looking directly at us, pointing, giggling and some hiding behind the bigger kids.  Daiana (the Argentinean) and I borrowed a sarong from our gracious host, and headed across the village, through the piles of animal droppings, to the outdoor bamboo water pipe where the villagers bathe.  I'm still pretty novice at the "showering with a sarong" technique, and it's even more challenging when you have an audience of young kids surrounding you, watching every move you make.  As I struggled to keep the sarong on with one hand, and soap up with the other, I noticed a crew of young boys, each holding a live chicken in their laps, seated on the slope, in prime stadium seating, laughing and discussing my pitiful technique.  Soon there was a line of men in towels all queued up behind me, so I quickly leaned under the trickle of water in an effort to get the suds of, and traipsed back through the pigs and water buffalo to our long-house.  The cool, clean sensation of  fresh shower now long gone, my feet all muddy, and body again coated in sweat from the steamy smoky long-house fire that was now roaring flames for our dinner preparation.  I suit up in long pants and long sleeve shirt, despite the extreme heat, to keep from getting chowed alive by the mozzies.  This area of Laos has a strain of malaria that's resistant to the mefloquine that we're taking to potentially ward off the disease.  We cruise out to talk and interact with the villagers, and what a phenomenal experience this was.  Sliding down the muddy slope, I look up to the voices laughing above me; a house-full of women and young girls looking down at me, motion me up to visit them.  They proudly show off their little children, and in two cases, new born babies fully swaddled in blankets and knitted caps clinging to mom's body in a sarong papoose type wrap.  Tho women motion for me to take pictures of them, propping up their children in front of the camera.  A young girl decked out in jeans and "pop" clothing with eyeliner and lipstick poses for a glamour shot.  As I play back the digital images, they shrieked with delight at seeing their faces and poses.  Soon we have a larger crowd gathered around the home on the slopes of the hillside all waving and wanting pictures taken of them and their children.  The English words most villagers know is "hello" and "ok."  An old man decked out in US Army greens and a green barret was quite comical, giving the "thumbs up" and in his very "drunk on Lao Lao" slurred speech repeated "sa baai-dii, ok," getting his face really close to the camera.  The picture fun lasted until it was too dark to take pictures, so we retreated from the crowds of villagers into our long-house for dinner.  Our host had prepared a beautiful feast of sticky-rice, vegetable soup and buffalo bits with basil.  We capped off the meal with tea, which would now be our water replacement as there is no potable water for consumption from this part of our trip onward.

Our gracious host pulled out the straw mats and blankets for our sleeping comfort, and a small luxury, they even hung a mosquito net - something we never even expected.  Exhausted from the physically and mentally demanding trek, we all crashed out early- one big happy family in the long-house.

Tags: Adventures

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