The first evening, as dusk fell, I had had enough of aimless wandering through the town and in the fields. My feet were tired, albeit happily rejuvenated from a soak in the chilly, crystal clear water of a small creek just off the fields.
I climbed the stairs and walked among wooden stilt houses, among farmers and their horses/donkeys/mules returning from work. I finally found a balcony overlooking the opposite side of the village. Below the balcony, a mother and a grandmother were coaxing a toddler while chilling in the cool evening breeze.
I took cue from them, and settled on the balcony, waiting for darkness to envelop and the lights from countless hotels on the opposite bank to spring to life. Instead, behind me, in the open space adjacent to the balcony, smells of food cooking sprang to life. A lady was preparing dinner. The sweet smell of freshly cooked rice wafted my way …
Minutes passed, three men took their seats at the dinner table. A younger man with a little pony tail joined the party. The “three musketeers” were workers who were renovating the inn owned by the younger man who was not a Miao, but a Dong (also a minority tribe in this area of Qiandongnan). The young inn owner called out to me to join them for dinner – “Since you’re here, be our guest.” How could I refuse such warm welcome.
Over a delicious dinner of fish and fresh homegrown farm vegetables, Gao, Huang and Qin queried me about my home country Malaysia. They offered opinion about China and this particular Miao Village. Gao was particularly adamant that the Xijiang houses were nothing like those in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Yes, noted for my future travels!
The following morning, I was determined to scale the mountains and get a top-down view of the multi-tiered paddy fields. I set off a little after 9 am (overslept again, yes), followed the nicely made stone walkway, which only took “tourists” to a part of the fields. When it came to a halt, I wasn’t sure how else to proceed.
Ah, a foot path came into view, and I followed it. Mid-way, I ran into a beaming lady with a child on her back, and a basket of leaves in her hands. She asked where I was headed, I said to the fields, and asked if there’s a way up the mountain. She said of course, go this way, and gestured for me to follow the foot path further. I followed her instructions, and came to a house where a child in a bright sweater smiled at me.
I continued on past the house but soon came to a halt again, where bushes were thick, slopes steep and stony. Obviously a mountain rookie, I found no way of proceeding and turned back to head down the mountain and find another way up again.
I ran into the lady, Dong Hui, again. She asked if I’d been up the fields because I was too quick. I told her I couldn’t find my way. She said probably because I wasn’t used to walking the mountains – there are roads up. She then invited me to her house, where I was greeted by her cheeky 2-year-old boy, Yinbao, who wore a dress and her mother who was piggy backing her brother’s 6-month-old daughter, Huahua.
Soon, I was happily playing with the kids and chatting with the old and young Miao ladies. When the older lady had to go fetch buckets of water balanced on a pole from a spring down the mountain, she handed Huahua over to me. Hence, I became the unofficial nanny for the morning.
Dong Hui’s father came in from the fields and we were ready for lunch. It was my second real meal in this village, the second time as a guest of gracious hosts. I counted my blessings as I savored grains of pearly white rice from the family’s own fields – my hosts had labored all summer planting and harvesting the bowl of rice I held in my hands. More than once, this thought flashed through my mind – all city kids should come visit the fields so they could see that every grain of rice was exchanged with drops of the farmer’s sweat, so they could appreciate what they had taken for granted, or even wasted.
On the table was also a bowl of soup – pickled vegetables that my hosts had planted and dried themselves, with little tomatoes grown in their small patch of farm. The final dish was small fish cooked with chili – the fish once lived in the water in the fields. I felt kinda sorry when I looked at my pile of discarded fish heads when my hosts had only bones; I wondered if they ate the head, gills and all. Nevertheless, it truly was the healthiest and sweetest meal for me.
After lunch, and a brief chat with the family, I had to excuse myself to continue scaling the tiered fields and walk amongst the Miao houses to peer into the lives and lifestyles of a tribe so foreign. We bade our farewells, but not before a picture or two. While I was leaving my contact information with Dong Hui, I held back tears as Jing reached out to prevent me from going. These kids had really grown on me, and I made a silent promise to be back in the evening with a bag of snacks. I did. Till we meet again, grow up strong, healthy and smart!