National Geographic : 1974 Jan
enabled villagers to enjoy climates as varied as those of Maine and Florida. On lower slopes they grew oranges and papayas; at the top of the same mountain, peaches and apples. Although they came originally from China, they differed from the Chinese. They were shorter and their eyes showed less epicanthic fold, or Mongolian slant. Men of other tribes took coolie work in the towns, but never the Hmong. In a country almost submerged in tropical lethargy, the Hmong stood out for their drive and energy -qualities that did not endear them to other Laotians-as well as for their incurable optimism. Like most mountain people, they were fiercely independent.* Friendly Approach Pays Dividends If you came to a village in peace-as I had in 1961-they extended unaffected hospitality and a great deal of curiosity. Two boys inspecting a white person for the first time curiously stroked my arm hairs. Suddenly one grabbed a tuft and tugged. I never knew if he wanted a souvenir to show the other kids or just felt devilish. The women, also curious but shy, remained at a distance. Men, amused by my clumsiness with their finely crafted crossbows, persisted until they taught me to hit a leaf at fifteen paces. I scored better with their homemade flintlock muskets. In the evening they brought out corn whiskey as potent as moun tain dew anywhere-and no better. Then war engulfed their mountains like tongues of consuming lava. When I returned to Laos last summer, a cease-fire had finally ended the fighting, and a coalition government, drawn equally from the Pathet Lao and Royal Lao factions, would soon be formed. I took advantage of the truce to revisit the Hmong. Nothing so exemplified their essential opti mism as the words of Dr. Yang Dao. "We have *The diverse cultures and peoples of Southeast Asia were covered in a special map supplement distributed with the March 1971 GEOGRAPHIC. Finery confronts the author as Hmong women ask to be photographed. The un married ones may need all their wiles to snare husbands, for the ranks of Hmong youth have been decimated by the war. Polygamy, which had been declining, may revive because of the shortage of men.