Far from the spruce and hemlock forests of the Tongass, two Alaskan women found themselves with Pacagayo (Karen) mountain people in the jungles of Chiang Mai province. In the wake of the World Festival of Sacred Music, Dixie Belcher and myself were invited to participate in a two-week solidarity walk in support of indigenous people of northern Thailand.
The walk (which was an arduous trek) was led by forest monks, tribal leaders and activists. It was a "bearing witness" of tribal people experiencing their stories and lives with an open heart and mind. Participants could contemplate their own nature through experiencing the silence of the forest and simplicity of village life.
The following are exerpts from my journal giving a glimpse of life beyond pavement, plastic, petrol and electricity.
Dec. 28: Ban Kok Noi..."village of small trees"...women with large silver ear plugs, yellow and orange beads, copper leg bands...smoking ornate pipes...blackened teeth from chewing pitch...men tattooed from waist to knee, elbow to wrist...no concept of age..."how old are you?" "forty-up"...we sleep with the family on bamboo beside the cook fire under thatch.
Dec. 31: Someone mentions New Year's Eve...we know only that we eat rice three times a day with roasted chilis and a few greens from the river...here people wear what they make and eat what they grow...we wake at dawn to roosters, pigs, babies, the pounding and threshing or rice and the welcome warmth of the sun...days are 85 degrees and nights drop to the 40s.
Jan. 3: A solo in the jungle takes us deeper inward...water boils on the fire in bamboo stalks...voices of insects, birds, monkeys, leaves and waterfalls lull us to sleep beneath unfamiliar constellations and a waxing moon.
Jan. 7: Sharing stories and songs each night around a fire...sitting on pieces of firewood, earth, rock...four languages...Thai, Pacagayo, English, Burmese...cultural differences soften and dissolve as we share who we are.
Jan. 9: Our last day together...many villagers have gathered at a mountain temple...a grove of dharma protected by forest monks...we witness a tree ordination of possibly the oldest tree in Thailand...it is robed in saffron cloth...sacrifices and chanting and light offerings to forest, earth, and the tree itself...ancestor worship combined with Buddhism...respect for all living things.
Jan. 10: As we make our way out of the forest and back to civilization, a bamboo flute echoes and the Pacagayo sing "Tao takai lau a su....." suddenly you appeared out of nowhere..."ta kei ta ma, s'yu paga" suddenly you disappear, make us miss you...
We will miss you too.