In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.
At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.
I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.
I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.
The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.
One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.
Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.
The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.
The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.
By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.
After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.
There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.
I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.
There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.
“Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.
He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.