Grasshoppers, or chapulines in Spanish, are more of a texture than a taste. Crispy like a corn nut balanced by a bit of chewiness with pieces that stick between teeth like Milk Duds. For the rest of the day, I’m picking out imaginary or not so imaginary grasshopper legs from between my teeth. The taste of this insect is up to the chef’s discretion. We try one cooked with salt and citrus, and another with garlic and spice.
Along with my parents, we try these little treats in Mexico City at the Mercado de San Juan as part of a historical/food tour. I’m not sure I’ll be buying a bag of these creatures anytime soon, but maybe I’ll try the salt made from their remains.
It is a beautiful weekend celebrating cousin Ben & Emily in Puerto Vallarta. Aside from all the activities – snorkeling, boating, dancing, singing, pool lounging, zip lining, and a bit of clubbing – the best part of the weekend is simply being together. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be surrounded by such a loving family with so many role models starting with the oldest generations. Within eyeshot of my seat during the wedding reception is a black and white photograph of Grandma Trudy and Poppy Gerry when they were younger. Their legacy rings loudly at this wedding. Their four children, so many of their grandchildren, and even a handful of their great grandchildren dance around the hora. And although they aren’t physically at this wedding, their presence is as strong as ever.
The beautiful color of the ocean, the salty smell of the beach, the overflowing guacamole and totopos, and the oversized margaritas make this occasion both a true wedding celebration and a tropical vacation. Then, listening to the bride and groom share their vows next to a setting sun with the soft interruption of waves feels like something out of a movie. How lucky I am to be transported to another world while still surrounded by the people I love.
Mazel tov, Ben and Emily #vivabemily!
The New Year is the only holiday of the year for the Hmong. It is, as you can imagine, a big to-do. It’s a chance to feast with family. It’s a chance to show off their new clothing for the year. And it’s time for young Hmong to meet a partner at the market. (Thankfully the practice of kidnap and rape as it once was has largely been abandoned, but there is confusion on the idea of consent.)
Sam, our Black Hmong guide in Sapa, had spent the entire trek talking about and preparing for New Years. We never imagined we’d be invited to celebrate with the White Hmong we’d met in the class in Luang Prabang.
There were four Hmong boys in total, each eager to share their village. They picked us up on motorbikes – sans helmets –and drove us the thirty minutes to the first village of the night.
We went in thinking we knew what to expect, but these houses were smaller and families bigger. There was no loft, and there was no indoor plumbing. The views were of the house next hour, a stones throw away. The kitchens were mostly outside, since there wasn’t room for a fire pit indoors. The homes were made of a mix of materials, some concrete, some brick, some with tin sides, all with dirt floors. There were usually at least three people to a bed, with sheets hung for some separation. Each house had an altar in it, made new every year. The altar gave you a hint into the financial stability of the family. Some were just a piece of white paper with a design drawn in chicken blood and cut shapes representing the number of people in the household. There were no bathrooms. People bathed in the river and boiled buckets of water for cooking. Kids ran with old bike tires down the road for fun and helped tend to the fire. They played with chickens as if they were puppies. Here, there were no pigs. Pigs are too expensive to buy and to keep. There were no tables and chairs as we’d seen before, but instead short blocks, one with a tray balanced on top to serve as a table. The cutting boards were big, beautiful blocks of wood and the dishes looked like china. It was New Years, and the children were buzzing with excitement.
The chicken activities were just beginning at the first house when we arrived. A large group huddled in a bunch as the head of household held a chicken by its legs. When he began the blessings, we moved together in a circle making three full laps to ward off bad spirits. As we moved, he swung the chicken above us. The chicken hit its head on each swing, but didn’t make a peep. We then moved in the opposite direction, three laps, inviting good spirits into the household. When it was over, the children placed leaves threaded together into a bracelet into the center of the ring and we dispersed. The chicken was killed and later that night, we came back to enjoy.
At the second house we saw a shaman at work. He was praying, hitting the doorway with two pieces of a water buffalo’s horns while shaking a circle with symbols. He’d throw it down, and where the symbols landed determined his next chant. Next to him was a basket of eggs with incense. Each egg represented a family member who had passed. Shamans were different here than what we learned about in the Black Hmong community. Shamans were men who’d once suffered and overcome an illness, learning the craft in his sickness. There were many shamans – almost one in every extended family – and the meaning of the chants had already been lost. In Hmong the shaman we spoke with replied, “It’s just what you’re supposed to say.”
At the third house we had our first of four dinners. Here, we crouched around a table set up for us inside and ate chicken killed earlier that night with white rice from the latest harvest. The chicken had been cooked with purple cabbage and cut with a knife into pieces leaving unavoidable shards of bone. The broth sat on the table as well, and everyone was given a large spoon for dipping and re-dipping into the bowl. The chicken was gamey and over boiled, and to them it was a treasure. Chicken is something they eat maybe once every three or four months.
We were always the first to be served. The family watched us as we ate, and when we were done would eat whatever remained. At one home, Lindsey tried the chili sauce. It was HOT and even the family laughed from where they sat on the bed watching us eat, understanding the universal face of heat. At each house the boys would joke that we were missing out as they ate the head, the heart, and other assorted chicken parts that frankly, I didn’t know were edible.
This was one of the most remarkable nights of our lives and certainly the highlight of the trip. We’re so grateful to have been invited into the homes of the White Hmong for New Year’s and for the chance to see what truly felt like the other side of the world. The boys told us that their greatest wish in life is to find love and to make a family, and in that, we felt completely at home.
On our first afternoon in Luang Prabang, we meet an ex-San Franciscan who has stationed himself in Laos teaching English. He runs a non-profit school, inviting any and all who wish to learn in what little free time they have. After only a brief conversation, we are invited to his evening class to be interviewed by his students and then join the group for dinner. We immediately accept.
We’re picked up by students on motorbikes and then make our way to the classroom (and home for some of the students). The class starts with the students asking Lindsey and me about our jobs and soon morphs into us also asking them questions about the Hmong and their lives. The students, all boys, are from large families in poor villages. In most instances, they are the only English speakers in their communities. In Laos, an education is not free. Their families have worked hard and sacrificed greatly to enable them to attend school. But the school system in Laos is insufficient. Teachers are paid sporadically and won’t show up if they have a better offer for their time. It’s not uncommon that teachers don’t know about the subjects they’re teaching, so classes are often spent copying pages from a textbook. We learn that the non-profit English class we are attending strives to supplement the education from Laos schools. The boys learn about the countries that surround Laos. They learn how to maintain a budget. They learn that anything is possible if they can imagine it. The experience is both humbling and inspiring.
Class wraps up with the some of the students playing guitar and all singing along. Then some have to leave, but we stick around for more conversation over dinner. The students prepare the dinner and while we eat, we learn the aspirations of everyone around the table and the challenges that they will need to be overcome to achieve them. The goals we hear vary from becoming a journalist and a teacher to finding love and starting a family.
Lastly, before parting ways for the night, we get the chance to help one of the students with an essay for an application he is working on, which is inspiring both because of the deeply intense subject matter and because of how much he had to get through to get to this point in his life. Through this essay, we learn the student’s path of many trying and difficult jobs and experiences that led him to today. We wonder how he ever came up with the idea that things could be different when he had never been presented with an alternative way of life. We’re not sure we would have had the motivation, energy, and general street smarts to even come close to what he has been able to do.
We make plans to meet up again tomorrow for the Hmong New Year’s kickoff before being motorbike back to our Guesthouse.
An overnight train combined with hours of carefully teetering over rice fields in the mountains of Sapa left us exhausted. Sam led the way up one last hill in the village of Ta Van to our home for the night. We’d opted to stay in a local house, but didn’t fully understand what that meant until we arrived.
“Hello” was one of the few English words our host spoke. Sam motioned to us to remove our boots and put on slippers as to not get the house dirty. It was dark except for the fire pit in the kitchen. Our host squatted back down over the fire, stirring the vegetables we’d soon eat. The house was large, but empty. The kitchen had only a few low stoops for sitting, a trash can filled with rice, a wooden table for meal prep, and a cabinet with small bowls and chopsticks. A waterspout in the corner was used for washing dishes. There were five red plastic chairs and a folding table that moved from room to room depending on the need. The living room and two beds were not separated by a wall. Behind the TV there was a ladder to the loft where we found two hard mats and a thick blanket: our bedroom. The bathroom was outside and the porch had the most magical view overlooking the village.
Sam joined our host by the fire. A little boy wandered in watching videos on a cellphone, the only other light in the room. We drank Coca-Colas outside and listened as the oldest of her three sons motioned to us to come and eat. On the folding table was now a spread of chicken with onions, pork with carrots, tofu with chilis, greens, and a mound of white rice. We scooped rice into small bowls and picked at the rest with chopsticks, watching as her sons ate quietly and quickly, eager to get back to their friends in the living room still watching TV. Our host’s husband came home just as we were finishing and insisted on sharing shot after shot of homemade rice wine served out of an Aquafina water bottle. Not long after the power went out, the boys scattered, and everyone grabbed their headlamps. One single candle was lit in the center of the table.
We slept so well that night, waking early to the sounds of roosters spread across Ta Van. Ducks wandered quietly into the kitchen as we sat outside drinking coffee. They were shooed away, then fed dried corn off the cob. Our host went back to cooking the pig breakfast. We felt so well cared for in her home. We were struck by the obvious: This is very different, but how different was it really? Little boys still watched TV, played with cars, and made swords out of bamboo. The family ate dinner together, talked late into the night, and took care of one another. Even in seemingly tougher areas, home is still home.
The Sapa Sisters tour that we took while in Sapa is run by local Hmong women. Sam was our wonderful guide!
1.) As recently as 20 years ago, the Hmong women got married at just 14 or 15 years old. A man would decide which woman he wanted to marry, then find 10 friends to help him kidnap her at the market. (We’d hoped kidnap was a more playful term here, but it isn’t.) He’d take her to his house for three days and rape her, then bring the child back to her parent’s home. Her parents, fearing she’d be pregnant, would force her to marry the man, meaning she’d move to his village and spend the rest of her life caring for him and their children. The practice was officially banned when women started committing suicide as a result. However, this still happens some today, but less and less.
2.) The Hmong continue to put a wonderful energy into making their local clothing when western style clothes have become cheaper and more plentiful. To begin to describe this process, the Hmong women start with hemp, patiently turning that into string during a 3 to 4 month process. They dye it a deep blue from a plant, leaving the skin on their fingers permanently a greenish-blue. They weave the string into fabric with a loom and then very carefully hand-stitch together many delicate patterns and designs into the fabric. The Hmong women are supposed to make one outfit for every member of their family every new year. Making these clothes is so clearly a labor of love, pride, and appreciation for their own culture and tradition.
3.) Most of the Hmong people practice a religion described as shaman. When you get sick, it means your spirit has left you. You go to the shaman, a very old woman, and she tells you how to get better. If you have a headache, she prescribed boiling water applied to your forehead for 20 minutes. If this doesn’t work, you go back and the shaman gives you a silver bracelet. If, after a few days, this still doesn’t work, you go to a new shaman.
4.) Hmong parents want sons. Though daughters may help them with housework, a son will care for them when they’re old. Often, women will have 3 or 4 girls, hoping the next will be a boy. Sometimes, they’ll buy a boy from another family who has a few or whose parents are addicted to opium. If a woman produces no sons, she stands the risk of her husband divorcing her. Women, on the other hand, would have a very hard time divorcing their husbands, even in situations of abuse or alcoholism.
5.) Dozens of little girls ran to us along our hike, selling bracelets for 10,000 dong (equivalent to 50 cents). We had to decline though, in the hopes that their parents would begin sending them to school instead of off to work. It wasn’t until recently that the Vietnamese government helped to build schools, dotting every village in yellow buildings. Sam, our guide, never saw the inside of a classroom as a child.
6.) Our Hmong guide seemed so satisfied and fulfilled. It is so easy for us coming from our western ways to pass judgment on what success should look like, or on what everyone should be striving for in their life. Sam, our guide, however, seems to have life more figured out than most of us. She loves being a guide, and she hopes her daughters also get to be guides when they grow up. When asked where she would want to visit or travel, she said to a beach. Not somewhere too far or too foreign, just something a little new. Sam is in the process of building a wonderful and simple new home, which she was so proud to share with us. She sends her daughters to school every day, takes care of the home, spends days at a time with tourists sharing her countryside with them, and just has a zeal for life that was contagious. Thank you Sam for sharing a piece of your world with us.
I spend two nights at this countryside home, and my bedroom window overlooks a beautiful lake, Lago di Vico, with the many walnut trees that surround it. When I arrive, the whole family (including the three sizeable dogs) welcomes me. Soon after, we turn on the soccer match on the television and enjoy a family meal together. Giuseppe, who is just about to start college, is a great translator and we bond over several cups of coffee, a digestive or two, and many games of pool and backgammon.
The next day, I explore the nearby town of Ronciglione, where I run into a few driving challenges based on the tight and steep roads of the area. I also make my way around the small lake, stop a couple times for snacks and coffee, and enjoy watching people pick the walnuts. At first glance, I cannot figure out what everyone is doing, but it soon becomes obvious that people are picking the walnuts off the trees that extend over the fence onto the road.
The second night, I again enjoy a family meal, this time with a couple of their friends. The energy in the room is high and the mood is very jovial. The family guests only speak Italian and so I pick up pieces of the conversation here and there, and occasionally Giuseppe brings me back in. The food is very traditional Italian cuisine, and as I wrap up my second and last night at this wonderful host, I thank Airbnb for providing the opportunity for me to find such an experience about an hour north of Rome.
Harya and her parents have been so welcoming to me here in Ethiopia. From greeting me early in the morning at Bole International Airport to introducing me to numerous Ethiopian dishes to teaching me about the local culture and customs, they have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and at home. On one night, they take me to a restaurant that also provides entertainment of local music and local dance. The food is good, and the dancing is even better. At one point, one of the dancers approaches our table and approaches us one by one to dance a couple 8-counts with her.
Thank you so much to Harya and her family for making me feel so comfortable!
Our layover in Tel Aviv is about seven hours, so we decide to enter into the city for a walk and some dinner before continuing on to Los Angeles. We find a great spot called the Social Club where we split several appetizers and enjoy a couple cocktails. Upon returning to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport, we again get asked the usual questions including the purpose of our visit to Israel, if we have family living in Israel, what synagogue we belong to, if we speak Hebrew, and all the questions about our bags being in our possession since we packed them.
The quick fifteen-hour flight home involves a little more stretching than I had hoped. I sit on the aisle next to two very friendly Jewish grandparents. Before we even took off, I see pictures of all their grandchildren and learned what everyone was up to and where they were all living. The one trait many grandparents share that concerns me is their relatively small bladders, and this fear was realized as I get up over at least a dozen times to let them reach the bathroom. But alas, I am able to get some sleep on the plane and the fifteen hours don’t last as long as they could have.
I am now sad that the trip has come to an end, but I am also happy that I had this chance to spend time with my dad while exploring a new part of the world.