National Geographic : 1974 Jan
Infrequently, chicken, game, or pork may enrich the menu. Salt is scarce; food is oc casionally spiced with chopped hot chilis. Dairy products are virtually nonexistent. Our expedition cut a swath through the local chicken population. Because villages received us as honored guests, a chicken ac companied most meals. On every occasion the head-a delicacy-was awarded to me. Protocol requires sucking out the brain. I am certain that Father B, not partial to this treat, used his fluency in the language to en hance my importance. Thus did he assure that I, not he, received this singular honor. The villagers we met were refugees, but their flight followed the centuries-old pattern of Hmong migration. First, scouts select a village site by tasting the soil. If it is sweet on the tongue (because of its lime content), they know that they will be able to grow ex cellent opium poppies, as well as rice and corn. Hmong are said to plow with fire and plant with the spear. After completing their houses, the villagers will slash down much of the jungle we had traversed. Then they will "burn the mountain" by setting fire to the slashed jungle. Smoke from thousands of fires will blanket northern Laos, as it has each spring for centuries. Through the pall the sun will glow like a dull orange ball until monsoon rains flush the air. On the sloping fields men will punch holes with a dibble stick. Women and children will follow, sowing seed. So steep are the slopes that occasionally the farmers must tie them selves to stumps to keep from falling. Fertilized by the ashes of the burned for ests, two or three crops will be harvested before warm monsoon torrents leach the min erals from the thin topsoil. Then the Hmong must abandon the field and burn a new one. As our party continued to wind toward Air Strip 258, the sky cleared. A rainbow arched to the Mekong River, 3,000 feet below-the spirit of the sky bending down to drink, according to Hmong legend. A string of jagged ridges and fingerlike out crops of limestone jutted a thousand feet above the valley floor, like the landscapes in Chinese paintings. As we dropped lower, the sun glared on the blackened fields. You didn't have to be a Hmong to feel nostalgia for the cool mountain summits. We kept our rendezvous at the airstrip. Aloft, the airplane retraced the route of our four-day march in a few minutes. Another The Hmong of Laos: No Place to Run Masked rider of the nether ranges, a village shaman rounds up benevolent spirits to ensure that an imminent birth will be successful. Jangling his ring of disks to a galloping beat, he spurs him self into a trance. Once he has found the spirits, he strikes a bargain for their cooperation, usually the sacrifice of a pig. The ceremony continues as the pig cooks. Finally the spirit doctor and his fellow villagers sit down to apork dinner.