We awoke early and quickly packed up our backpacks, for rather than us simply being on a jungle trek, from today we would be staying with a family in the jungle for an entire week – living pretty much as they would and helping them out with their work, whatever that was supposed to be. For a fleeting moment I started to imagine us both held captive and working in a Laos drugs den, covered in a fine dusting of a white ‘powder’, doing whatever it is they do back there. Of course this would be in between being ransomed for money of course – oh really, this wild imagination of mine does not help me at all … lol.
We slothed off back down the main road to the trekking place that had sorted the week’s jungle voluntary work out for us but, once again, we had a good half hour to wait for our lift to turn up – why do they insist on you coming so much earlier than you actually need? So, whilst waiting I amused myself by playing soldiers with the owner’s little son who was armed with a toy plastic gun. He seemed to find my ‘death throes’ acting quite funny even though I thought I was really quite good. In truth he was a funny enough little lad himself and his Dad seemed to find the two of us playing quite hilarious. The time passed quickly enough so it did not seem too long before our transport rocked up to whisk us away.
It appeared that we had to make a couple of stops on the way to our Jungle retreat, firstly to go and pick up a large sack of animal meal before our second stop at the Laos’ version of a shopping mall – some prefab huts situated in the middle of nowhere. After this it was foot down and off to our Jungle ‘workaway’. Funnily enough the place we were headed for was the small restaurant that we stopped at just before we undertook the two day trek previously. Once we had disembarked it was a bit surprising when we were introduced to the family we were to be staying with and they spoke hardly any English at all. This was not a case of them speaking a smattering of English rather poorly, no they seemed to know only half a dozen words or so! Our Lao language knowledge, being confined to a couple of words, meant that this was going to be quite tricky to say the least!
We were really unsure about what was to happen next so we just hung about and the lady fed us – greens and sticky rice, ominous signs thought I. The lady of the house who told us her name was Kunten then showed us to our little chalet bungalow, a little hut on stilts by the river, which although nice it needed a bit of a spring clean, an airing of the bedding and that kind of thing. This done, the lady then mixed some water with the meal we had brought and this was the feed for the pigs.
It was quite an elaborate set up that they had, there were another five bungalows like the one we were staying in, then an entire menagerie of animals – pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and a concrete cow and dog to look after as well! Pigs fed, we waited and watched her quite unusual technique to send the goats off forth to pasture – she threw rocks at them, go goats, go!
Then it was our turn to get mucking in and through gestures and the like Kunten asked us to accompany her for a walk! She gave us a bag each to carry and off we went following the river along a rough ‘road’ to the nearby village of Sisone a couple of km away. Whilst walking along in the sunshine we taught Kunten some basic English words – body parts and things we could see on our journey, things like grass, trees, goats with broken noses – that kind of thing.
Well with the teaching to keep us entertained it was not that long before we reached the our destination, however we carried on through till we reached a series of small ponds. Then we did some serious harvesting of things … in the pond – first up to be collected was some ferns, then Kunten went further on and picked some of the herbs that we had often seen used in Laos cooking. Then it was into a larger deeper pond to go and get some what looked like water lily plants – we had no idea what any of this would be for, I had never heard of these being eaten at all! So there we were me and Kunten up to our knees and thighs deep in this grotty pond water hacking away at lillies whilst Liz was bagging our harvest up! During all this activity, a couple of leeches tried having a go at yours truly in the hope that they could sup on some fine English blood but like a ninja – or possibly a very nervy leech-hater – I flicked them away with a speed I hitherto thought impossible for a man still holding both lilies and a huge machete, lucky I did not chop my bloody leg off! We picked and picked and Liz bagged and bagged until we had collected four very large sacks to take away with us.
Now the journey to here had seemed easy enough but it was to be a good couple of miles or so back and first we had to negotiate the tricky bank that we had come down to get to the ponds. I first off managed to get two of these huge bags onto my shoulders and had walked all of twenty feet or so before both me and the bags nearly fell into the pond so I abandoned this idea and just took one of them. At the slippery slope though Kunten took two bags up on her own! A long way behind, me and Liz were struggling with a bag each, the slope was just so very wet and slippery, every step forward we just slipped backwards! By the side of the slippery slope was a small fence and at one point I grabbed at this to try and get some leverage up the incline, unfortunately the fence had not been built to take the weight of chunky white fellows, so it broke … badly. Liz decided at this point that the best way that she could help was to burst our laughing her socks off at me!
Well eventually, and looking somewhat like the classic ‘we have just Conquered Everest’ pose, we mounted the summit – what a pair of wimps eh! From here it was back through the village with our heavy load and I for one was not looking forward to the hike but then from nowhere Kunten managed to get hold of a neighbour’s mobile phone (!!!) and summoned the cavalry. Whilst we sat by the road Kunten haggled a deal for a basket of live eels! Anyhow about twenty minutes later Kunten’s daughter rolled up on a moped and we managed to get the first two of the four huge sacks strapped on and off she went looking like a mobile green haystack! About twenty minutes later she came back and loaded up the remainder and off we strolled along in her wake.
The journey back was also quite cool and Kunten seemed eager to learn more English although she did keep challenging Liz to a few impromptu foot races in a strange kind of Laos female bonding ritual. I think it was because we had not moaned at the harvesting but simply took it in our stride that it seemed to make her think more of us! On the way back ‘home’ we cooled our feet in one of the little streams that flowed into the river and from there is was only a short stroll to the Kunten’s home.
Once back we had a bit of a shower in the communal facilities for the six or so huts and as it was coming up to teatime we thought that our day was done. However, there was still more chores to do, we were both on fire duty – Liz was on the steamed rice whilst I was was cooking the greens we had harvested earlier in the day. In order to start the fires Kunten’s husband used what look like a hair dryer which gave enough air out to keep the fires going before he then handed fire duty over to each of us, it was a great responsibility. I was outside in a little out-house and because of this was both blackened and blinded by the smoke but it was great fun! (Cough, cough!)
When the cooking was done Kunten gave us some food another meal, which was another vegetarian affair but tasty enough if a little watery. When we had eaten though, nicely full and in the pitch black night we stumbled off to our little love-hut to sleep and even though we were quite exhausted, between the noisy rains and the even noisier river and the rough uncomfortable floor, it all combined to making sleep a lot harder to come across than we had originally expected.