Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Wa

Dscn2349_1I happen to have some time on my hands this morning, so I'm posting about something that I did a long time ago.
Last May, I travelled to Yunnan's far southwest corner on the border with Burma at Cangyuan County to act in a film project. Cangyuan is poor, remote, tropical and absolutely gorgeous. It is home to the Wa, or Ava people, who possibly migrated here from Southeast Asia several thousand years ago.
Linguistically, their closest relatives are the Mon-Khmer, the dominant ethnic group of Cambodia, though they are very different from each other. For one, the Wa practice animism and sorcery (though there are some Buddhists out there) while the Cambodians are mostly Buddhist. Secondly, and more importantly, the Wa used to be headhunters, right up until their 'liberation' by Communist China, and by some accounts, much later than that.

Dscn2575_1Traditionally, the Wa lived in bamboo and thatch huts, though most have moved on to brick and Dscn2323corrugated steel. Some villages, like Engding, pictured here, have kept their old ways. This one was given government funding to stay traditional and there isn't a scrap of corrugated steel in the whole village. It was almost 100 degrees when we got there, but the houses were amazingly cool inside. Chalk up another point for local knowledge.
Much of the surrounding area is covered in thick jungle, which, I found out only after a few romps, is infested with cobras. There are also bugs everywhere, and their incessant hum would become a cacophany of screams and wails as storms approached. That happened a lot because we were right on the cusp of the monsoon.
We did a lot of filming in the forests, and it is a huge biodiversity hotspot. I saw wild orchids, ginger, and even what looked like a wild ficus tree (ficus for congress!). We would sit around between takes picking wild raspberries until I thought I'd be sick. There are much worse ways to make a living.
Dscn2565 We did a lot of filming with the locals. Many of my Han Chinese counterparts looked down on them as poor and illiterate, which they were, but anyone who's seen a bit of the world knows that it rarely translates into stupid. These people know everything about the world around them and how to use it and take care of it. We got caught in a downpour during a take and I took shelter in a nearby cave with a few local village elders. In a half hour of rain they had pointed out five types of plants that could be used for food or medicine, and dug some bugs out of the ground that they mash up for a healing poultice. One of them was even quoting Jimmy Carter to me. I've got another friend among theDscn2567 Wa, an elder of another region, who can play 46 musical instruments. Sure these guys don't know how to use an escalator, but you try making a house with nothing but an axe.

The Party
While we were out there, the county threw a massive party for International Labor Day (May1). I know it wasn't a traditional Wa festival, but it was great stuff anyway. Every township in the county sent out their best and brightest all dolled up in their ethnic finery with at least a truckload of their own homemade barley moonshine. They set up right in the local bazaar, which is already a big trading zone for Burmese and Yunnanese swapping cross border goods. Each town had a booth showing off their local produce and tourism resources, and being one of the only foreingers in town, I had to drink at each one.
The highlight of the festivities was the "monihei" party, which translates from Chinese into "rub you black". This was held at the local soccer stadium with a hughe stage for music, dancing, rituals, and a buffalo sacrifice. They have a medicinal goo made of mud and honey and they made up a huge vat of it, passing it around to everyone, so that when the fun really started we could smear it all over each other.
But first, they had to bless the festivities. Several high priests from the local clans were brought out to bless the people. They led out the largest water buffalo I've ever seen in my life, and tied it to a stake in front of the stage. As the priests called out commands, young men danced around it in circles, stabbing it several times with a spear and finally lopping its head off with a machete. In deference to more sensitive readers, I'll leave the photos of that in the galllery.
Dscn2462 Once the bull had been slaughtered, the real fun began. We all whipped out our mud and began smearing each other head to toe. It was a real mud riot. Just as we thought it would die out, they brought out the wood drum. This is made of an ancient hollowed out tree. They had it on wheels and struck it with a jungle rhythm while others pulled it down the street with dried vines. We all followed, mud in hand, and turned the city into a mud riot. There were people rushing shops, dousing police officers and blocking cars to give them all a serious mudding. I gotta say, these guys know how to party.

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