|One of the Black H'mong grandmothers poses for me|
After breakfast and a hasty repacking session, we headed out front of the hotel to meet our group - and found not only travelers in NorthFace coats milling around, but also a flock of girls and old women all dressed in navy leggings and navy tunics, woven bamboo baskets on their backs, laughing and joking and watching us. One of them brought us a clipboard to add our names to: this was Em, our nineteen-year-old guide.
The girls and the old women - essentially, the village members not needed in the fields - of a nearby Black H'mong village make their way into Sapa every morning in order to meet and escort every new group of trekkers on the first part of their journey. The girls asked us questions in broken English, the grandmothers twisted long-stemmed grass to make toy horses as presents. They tromped through the mud in their rubber boots, holding our hands as we edged carefully along the ridge of a rice paddy so that we wouldn't fall in.
As we approached the village where the women live, the grandmother who'd held my hand along the paddy walls suddenly had a pile of embroidered pillowcases and woven bracelets in her arms, liberated from the depths of her bamboo basket.
|This is how you avoid the muddy soup of the rice paddies|
She was right. I didn't fall. And although I didn't really want either - I had too many woven bracelets already, and I'll have to carry the pillowcase in my already-stuffed backpack, but I felt obligated. Which is, of course the point.
"Well, I... well. How much for this?" I pointed at a navy pillowcase, embroidered with colourful thread. I look over at Dan, who is backing away from several old women, a juice harp in his hand.
At least they were cute souvenirs.
|Em cooks dinner for us - stir fried chicken and vegetables|
Em became a tour guide at 16, to help support her family, and now to help support her husband's family. Here, when a girl is married, she moves in with her husband's family and makes his household her priority. So having a boy has special significance... otherwise, no one will be working to support an aging mother. Em has eight siblings, only the youngest of which is a boy, her mother's goal.
Apparently in the last decade, it has become more acceptable for a daughter to support her parents if there are no sons - in the past, the solution was to buy a son from a woman with an 'extra.'
Although Em was married young, it's now socially acceptable to put off having children until she's ready to stay home with them. For now, she wants to keep guiding tours and bringing in money to support the family.