08 April 2006

The Hot & Dusty Trail

I awoke to a cold, grey, rainy morning. I had forgotten what it was like to get stripped and into a shower in such weather. Maybe today wouldn’t be as warm as yesterday, and I only hoped the rain would stop. Climbing down sides of mountains, in the rain, on an all day trek was not a challenge I needed.

At 7am, the rain had stopped and I walked over to the hotel for breakfast. I had hoped to start the walk at 8:00, but Diem had informed me that the guide would meet me at 9:30 and I didn’t think to question the late start. Eating breakfast, I glanced over to see Diem walk in with a young woman in jeans. I was to find out at 9:00 that her name was Mang and that she would be my personal guide on the day’s excursion, although when she met me she had changed into traditional Black Hmong clothing.

Mang, just 16 years old, had a great command of English and, like the girls I had met the day before, had learned it from tourists. In fact, she told me, her English was better than her Vietnamese. I was curious as to how her family felt about her spending days away in Sapa, guiding tourists to local villages. She said her mother worried a bit, but was ok with the situation.

The first part of our trip took us through town, then down into another area that had a guard gate at the top. This part of the walk was on a paved road. The weather was warming up, and so was I. As we walked I asked about life in among her people. Girls are married at between 14 and 16, although her mother did not want Mang to marry so young. Some marriages were arranged, others not. She mentioned a young woman from her village who was not married but had a baby. Again, sometimes this was a problem, sometimes not. Mang had been a tour guide for a year and loved her work. What she hated was going back to the village to work in the rice paddies which she did when there weren’t any tours to conduct.

We wound down the road looking out upon incredible vistas of mountains and farms. The paved road eventually turned into a dirt one, but the going was easy. Along the way we ran into a couple from Switzerland and their guide, a friend of Mang’s, who was 18 years old. The young ladies talked together and I talked to the Swiss woman, both of us starting to roast in the sun.

I asked Mang about her Hmong clothing and the fabric it was made of. Some of it was sewn from purchased cotton, but the main jacket was made from hand woven, hemp fabric. Whenever you see a Black Hmong woman, who is not otherwise engaged, she can be seen rolling and twisting long pieces of hemp, taken from a sort of skein that is wrapped around her waste. These threads are rolled until thin, then washed, and finally died with indigo. I found out that indigo is grown in these mountains and is very cheap. When I told Mang that indigo is one of the most expensive dies in the world, she was astounded.

Mang pointed out the indigo fields a little farther down the trail. We carried on, the trail now having been cut into the side of the mountain, with a ten foot bank on the right. I was walking close to the embankment, preferring not too get close to the other side with its sheer drop. All of a sudden I heard noise from above me. I stopped, looked up, and jumped about three feet back. The sound was that of a water buffalo munching on grass, directly over my head.

A short while later, we were passed by a Hmong gentlemen with a walking stick, moving much faster than us. He rounded another bend, then turned to his right and took off straight down the mountain, still at a fast clip. I kept checking on his progress, not believing he wouldn’t tumble and die. Mang said he would walk to the bottom and then head straight up the other side.

Along the route, we passed other small tour groups going down the hill. The guides all new each other. Some were Vietnamese; some were from the ethnic groups. All were pleasant and joyful. I kept thinking we would come across some sort of village or house or a rest stop. I had only brought one small bottle of water assuming, as with yesterdays hike, that there would be at least a few huts in which to purchase some more. I was getting a little concerned.

Lack of water was only a minor part compared to the trail which had now turned into a steep, ill-defined, treacherous path, with rocks and holes and nothing to grab onto should you stumble. I was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and finally had had enough. I was either going to get down to the immodest tank-top and look like all the other tourists, or I was going to get heat stroke. About this time I asked Mang when we would get to that illusive village and water. Another hour and a half, she said. Crap. I never go without gallons of water and the one time I slip up, it is on a forced march from hell, and there is no turning back, no rescue team in sight. We were still with the Swiss group and they offered me water, should I feel the need.

Finally, we reached the bottom of the valley and there was a definite drop in temperature. I was also glad because I felt like my toes were about to drop off. Although wearing sturdy running shoes, the trail had been so steep that my toes had been jammed to the front of my shoes and it felt like my toenails had been driven backwards about two inches.

My elation soon ebbed as I looked upon the stretch ahead of us. We were to walk along the rock borders of a terraced field. I fell inline behind bunches of other groups. These were rather small rocks, of varying height, half-submerged in water and mud. One slip and you are in mud and rice paddy up to your ankles. I had never been so grateful for my evening walks at the manmade stream in my neighborhood. Along the route there, I cross over several stone bridges, made up of vastly different sized rocks, and requiring a fair amount of skill and balance to navigate. It did help, but not when you step in mud and slide into the water with your left foot, as I did. Luckily, my quick reactions kept me from going all the way in. But now my muddy, wet foot did not allow for any traction. This torment continued for a good thirty minutes before we were finally through and at a small pond.

My Swiss friend had also just about had it. I held up my shirt so that she could change out of her hot jeans into cooler pants. But the end was in sight. We had only a short, uphill walk to the lunch break area. First, we had to cross another of those suspended, rocking bridges. Just as I was about to go across, I looked down to my right and saw a huge, suspicious looking green plant. Hey, I whispered to the Swiss woman, What does that look like to you? She came over, and before she had a chance to answer, Mang piped in with, “Yes, it’s hemp”. I had briefly forgotten that hemp and marijuana are one in the same. Intrigued by our conversation, the Swiss gal’s husband sauntered over. I pointed out the weed, then continued to cross the bridge. When I looked back, he was still at the plant’s side.

The lunching area consisted of a concrete platform covered with a thatched roof. There were at least forty people seated in low chairs around tables. They were either eating or being served lunch. I thought this odd, as when I met Mang that morning, she’d asked if I had packed a lunch. I’d gone back to my room to grab a bag of nuts and raisins. And now she was asking if I wanted lunch. I was only thirsty, not hungry, so got a 7-Up and a bottle of water. The Swiss couple, (the husband of which had a handful of hemp leaves clutched in his hand), were served lunch by their guide. I wouldn’t have eaten the food there anyway. No refrigeration and no running water other than the stream, equals instant stomach ailments. It was obvious that I was the only person there to feel this way. I was also the only person who, after three hours of walking in the blazing sun, with barely any water, still needed to pee.

The ‘toilet’ stood across the dirt road; four wooden poles, with blue plastic tarps wrapped around it. I opened the door to see five, thick poles balanced across the stream. I looked down and wondered how I was to do this. There were spaces between the poles, but it would still result in pissing all over them and most assuredly my shoes and ankles. I ended up balancing between the poles and a rock, and I must say it was a pleasant experience; rather freeing with all that water rushing beneath you and the breeze blowing through. Thinking about taking a leak in the main water supply only served to strengthen my beliefs about eating any food prepared there.

Back at the lunch room, I noticed that people were calling across tables to say hello to other people they had met in town at a restaurant, or the hotel. I looked over and saw the four Israeli, 23 year old, just-out-of-the army boys I’d met on the train. I said hello and then noticed their feet. They were shod in thread bare, broken down, Teva’s, Birkenstocks, and flip-flops. How did you manage that hike in those shoes? I asked. They all answered that it was an easy walk and their shoes were the best for trekking. I guess there is something to be said about being young and just out of the army. At that point, all I wanted to do was grab a taxi and get the hell back to the hotel.

Still sitting around and chatting with various people, Mang came over and said it was time to go, that the final point of our trip was only forty-five minutes away. The whole time we were there, we had been surrounded by women trying to sell us things. Most of us looked the other way. But when I got up, I saw that Lili, who had sold be a blanket the day before, was one of the ladies. She and Mang knew each other, of course, and the three of us set out.

Soon, the Israelis were walking with us, and this is where Mang turned into a sixteen year old, and the guys turned into adolescents. I was happy to just watch all the playful flirtations and concentrate on visualizing the end of the trail. We actually did pass through the village center, with its run down school buildings and a few simple, but lovely thatched roofed homes. It is just that I didn’t have any more concentration abilities left. The paddy-ridge walking had taken the last bit of higher cognitive function I had been allotted for the day.

At 2:00, we reached the end of the road, and our motorbike was waiting. There were supposed to be two of them, but somehow we only had one. Mang determined that I was to ride in the middle for balance purposes. I didn’t even think twice about the option of walking up the mountain. We climbed on, and drove off.

On the way up we were confronted by monster trucks barreling down the road, herded water buffalo, insane motorbike drivers, and road crews. Our driver never even slowed down even when we came within a foot of machine, man, or animal.
Finally at the hotel, it took me a second to get off the damn thing, what with the downhill walking muscles protesting, and the rest of my legs in grip-the-bike position for the past twenty minutes.

Mang and I went into the hotel where I bought cold drinks and relaxed. I looked at my watch. I needed to get a shower and back into town if I were to meet the girls before 4:00, as I had promised.

To be continued.