Saturday 30 July 2016

A Visit to the Akha Tribe (Continued)

The hut where we are staying is right beside the water tank: the
hub of the village. Women gather there continually to fill gourds
and carry them back to their huts. There are some thirty or forty
homes on the mud-packed rolling peak. They are all in traditional
dress, which looks heavy and hot, and is predominantly black in
colour. Most of the men are still out hunting. Later we see some
of them returning, mostly without any game, carrying their barrel-loading
rifles over their shoulders. The weapons would fetch a
fortune in the London antique market.

Over the whole village is a haze of opium smoke. Virtually
everyone over the age of thirty has a pipe in his or her mouth. Many
of the pipes' bowls are fashioned from the necks of bottles. When
they find one with nice thick glass, like a Coke bottle, they dip some
string in white spirit, tie it around the base of the bottleneck, and then
set light to it. When they pour water on the glass, it cracks around
the line of the lighted string. Then they plug the bottom, bore a
hole for the stem and an opium pipe is born. Those who are
hard addicts in the village do virtually no work, which is the only
reason why young people are not encouraged to the habit until their
late twenties.

As the sun goes down, we go for a walk to the far end of the
village. There is a gate there, made of hardwood and bamboo and
decorated with carvings. The images are of men and women with
exaggerated sexual organs, some of them astride aeroplanes. The Akha
believe demons go in fear of human sexuality.
Just before the gate is an arch decorated with rotting skulls of
dogs. When we see Ping later he warns us not to touch the gate or
the arch, or the villagers will have to burn them and slaughter more

We move on to a more pleasant subject and Ping then explains, "When a couple wish to be married, the young man goes to the
bride's father and offers him a drink. If the father refuses the
drink three times, the young man is rejected. But this doesn't mean
he can't keep trying. What he must do is entice the girl more than
twenty paces from her father's hut and boil an egg in her presence.
If they can eat it together before her father catches them, they can
marry. "

How much of this was embellished by Ping's imagination, was hard
to tell, but the 'love hut' story was substantiated by another Thai we
met later.

"When an Akha man marries, his bride goes back to her family
while he builds a small love hut, because men and women do not sleep
together in the family home, where all the spirits of their ancestors
can see them. It normally takes two weeks to build a love hut, but
of course some take longer and some a shorter time, depending on how
pretty the bride is and how eager the young man is." Ping chuckles.
"It is surprising how quickly a youth can erect a hut with that kind
of incentive."

The village in the evening sun is quite surreal, being 4000 feet
up and yet surrounded by higher mountains. If we thought there were
chickens and pigs enough in the Karen village, their numbers were few
when compared to the Akha livestock. We walk through the 'courting
garden' just inside the village. This is where the young men meet
their girlfriends, fall in love, promise to marry. There is also
divorce amongst the Akha. A divorced woman gets the rough end of the
deal. If she cannot find a new husband within two weeks, she has to
leave the village. At the next village she visits, the same time
scale applies. I had visions of this sad-faced woman wandering
between villages in some kind of eternal quest.

That night there was a forest fire below the village as we tried
to sleep. The attempt at rest was a little futile. The men of the
village sat around in groups, smoked, and talked in loud voices until
dawn (4.30) when they fell asleep. There was about two minutes of
silence, before the women rose and began pounding the rice, filling
their water gourds and walking past the hut to fields. Pigs ran
under our hut, snorting and snuffling most of the night. Cocks
crowed, regardless of the hour. When at home in Hong Kong, I live
between two motorways, which I always regard as a noisy curse.
Believe me, Hong Kong with its concentrated six-million people and
dense traffic is a graveyard when compared with an Akha village. I
came away with two strong feelings after my night in the hills. One,
if there is such a thing as reincarnation I would rather be an Eskimo
than an Akha next time round, thank you very much, and two, if I had
to be an Akha, please let me be a man, because the women do all the
work while the men play around with guns and smoke pot.