Meeting Niti opened a door into experiencing Thailand in a way I never could have as an ordinary tourist, typically confined to looking in from the outside. I experienced Niti as highly energetic and slightly mischievous from the beginning, so it came as only a mild surprise when she spontaneously announced a road trip to her home village and invited Jonathan and me to tag along. Jonathan had visited the village when they first met, but for me this was a unique and special opportunity to get an inside look at life in rural Thailand.
We spent the night at Niti and Svevo’s so that we could get an early start the next morning. The four of us, plus their Spanish work-trade-volunteer Ari, cooking instructor Nikorn, and another staff, Kin, loaded up the pick-up truck with bedding, food and bags. Seven grown-ups and a large husky then piled into the vehicle – Nikorn, Kin and Puffy somehow squeezing into the tiny back seat while Ari, Jonathan and I lay on mattresses in the back of the truck, catching the wind and dust but also getting to stretch out and enjoy an exhilarating open-air ride.
We broke up the drive into the hills with stops to buy groceries (picking up chips and durian-coconut biscuits at an air-conditioned supermarket, then scoring watermelons, oranges and strawberries at a rural open-air market where none of the vendors spoke English). We stopped for lunch at the orphanage run by Faa, Niti’s friend who was one of the women who gave Jonathan a ride the night they met. Faa, too, comes from a hill tribe community and has been pouring all her energy and love into growing this home for abused and abandoned children, motivated by compassion that also stems from her own experience of abuse. Faa’s organization, GROW, is supported by international donors, many of which she has won on her annual trips to the US through her church network. This support enabled GROW to expand significantly in the last years, adding indoor and outdoor common spaces and their own small rice and pineapple production to the property. We get a tour of the girls’ and boys’ dorm that the children themselves have painted with colorful murals, and Nikorn gives some of the teenagers an impromptu guitar and piano lesson during their band practice. Faa treats us to a generous lunch, introducing us to more Akha cuisine: carrot, cucumber and cabbage leaves are dipped into a flavorful chilli paste, a soup of bony free-range chicken accompanies crunchy, dark, lean roasted pork chunks, and the vegetarian entrees made of lightly stirfried mushrooms and smoked baby eggplant have us scooping up seconds and thirds.
We roll into Niti’s home village in the late afternoon. The mostly paved road (a recent improvement) gives way to dusty, winding paths. Puffy is released from the driver’s cabin and bounds down the road ahead of our truck, clearly delighted to be running free and wild in the fragrant countryside again, his white fur turning dustier by the minute.
More significant modernization has taken place here since Jonathan last visited: there is running water, electricity and 4G internet in the village now. Solar panels that some families formerly used now lie discarded in backyards. The local government has installed street lights, homes are on the meter now. The flipside, Niti tells us, are increased raids by soldiers and their dogs on locals’ modest opium production. Villagers still manage to skirt other regulations, too: the village shop, a wood and tin hut located in the small central square, sells moonshine disguised in plastic water bottles while men gamble and smoke under a tree outside at dusk.
The local houses speak of unevenly paced change as well: while some villagers still live in bamboo huts with grass-thatched roofs, chickens, pigs and drying coffee beans in their front yards, others now drive trucks and have built homes with carved wood doors and stained-glass windows. The local school complex is newly painted purple, green and red and young people play badminton under a jackfruit tree outside.
We are staying at Niti’s brother’s house while he is away. Niti and Svevo are slowly in the process of fixing up the place, adding a second story room and patio. Their long-term vision is to offer cooking, yoga and cultural emersion tours to the village, bringing in income and raising awareness about Akha life in Thailand. For the now, the upstairs room is still a construction site, but the large wooden veranda has space us to roll out all our mattresses, creating an impromptu open-air bedroom. Downstairs is a simple shower and toilet, open-air kitchen, fire place, and low wooden dining table. The place is filthy and littered with empty beer bottles and all manner of other garbage. Who the hell could be so disrespectful to trash their neighbor’s home in his absence, I wonder, shy to ask out loud for fear of offending. As we collectively get to work hosing down the floor, scrubbing the kitchen counters, and baggin up the trash, I finally do ask Svevo when no one else is listening: What happened here? He informs me in a whisper that Niti’s brother is overwhelmed by the hard work in the fields. Sometimes pulling 20-hour shifts during harvest season, he can do no more than collapse when he comes home.
The next two days we move in village time. When the first rooster’s call wakes us at 4 a.m. we see a blood-red moon across the valley. The second alarm sounds just before sunrise, when that one rooster wakes all others and our neighbors rise to work. When we four farangs finally get up in the late morning, Niti, Nikorn and Kim have already spent hours cooking up a storm.
Eating is the greatest joy and almost constant activity of our stay. How on earth can these slender people be eating, snacking, drinking smoothies all day long, while hardly even moving?! I am bloated, stuffed and desperately in need of exercise to regain my appetite. Nevertheless, every meal feels like an absolute treat. We are introduced to Akha “pestos” made of tree bark, cilantro, garlic, chilli. Soups of pork and potatoes, or fish and greens, cooked over the open fire.
Rice is the center of each meal of course, and our hosts are delighted to see Ari and Jonathan downing three large portions at every meal. We eat omelettes and sweet stewed squash and carrots, with “salsas” made of jackfruit and banana blossoms. In between meals, the smoothie blender is always filled with fruit. My favorite is made of mulberries freshly picked behind the house.
I get my walk in, too. Niti shows us the coffee processing station that she runs, on a hillside outside the village. From there, I walk uphill, past farmers’ low shade huts made of bamboo mats and thatch, rounding bend after bend, beyond each a new vista of steep and narrow valleys growing rice, papaya and other crops.
Niti takes our group through a coffee plantation down into a steep ravine where she harvests jungle plants for an impromptu lunch. Some locals sit beside us with their own mid-day meals as we scoop ours onto banana leaves that we just picked. “You can eat everything in the jungle, except two things”, Niti declares. “But no one knows what those two are”, she winks.
The only harsh reminder of the outside world right now is news of the Corona virus spreading. The epidemic is a frequent topic of our conversations and as Svevo recounts the alarming spread of COVID-19 in his home country, spurred by many Italians’ reckless attempts to circumvent the government’s call for social distancing, Jonathan and my plans for onward travel to Europe is called into question more and more.