Pinned to the wall of a homestay I’d been at last year in N.W.Thailand, was a moth-eaten handwritten map on a scrap of paper marking out where some of the local settlements were. It was a bit like Christopher Robin’s map of Hundred Acre Wood, and on it were little black dots on wiggly lines indicating where the various ethnic minority people lived.
I had taken of a photo of it thinking it might come in handy one day, and returning to the same area this year, and keen to meet some of the local Hmong people, I set out in search of the dot labelled ‘Shan, Mong, Thai’.
Admittedly there was some guess work involved, but we found what we thought might be the right place and called in.
It turned out to be little more than a cluster of houses and a man-made pond, and nobody seemed to be at home. We stopped by the water to admire the view, and my guide and driver found a quiet spot to sit and enjoy a smoke and contemplate life.
Leaving him to it, I wandered off by myself. Something black down by the water caught my eye. Going closer I realised it was a tiny elderly lady dressed in traditional black Hmong clothing, bent over, dipping a plastic bag into the water.
I watched her for a while then as she came towards me over a little wooden bridge I smiled and greeted her.
I must have seemed an unlikely apparition, Viking white, with blue eyes and nearly twice her height, propped up by a walking stick, and attempting to chat to her in Hmong thanks to my Hmong guide in Vietnam, and my visits to Hmong villages in Laos.
I could see that her bag was empty.
I helped her to stand the cobs in a large pan and then she took the fishless, freshly washed plastic bag and placed it over the top of the corn enjoying my smile as I realised my error.
Stronger than me, she carried the pan of corn into the house and with the help of her sister, settled it over a pan of boiling water on the stove and placed an upturned bowl on top of the bag to hold it down.
She proudly showed me round the one room where she and her sister lived and we sat on the wooden platform where they slept, and chatted whilst the corn was steaming away. When it was ready she picked one out and gave it to me. Laughing that it was too hot for me to hold, she held it in her work- hardened leathery hands and peeled it for me. We sat eating the succulent corn and it tasted sweet and fresh and utterly delicious.
As she bent forwards to put some corn cobs in a bag, I admired her colourfully hand embroidered ‘sailor collar’ at the back of her black shirt,a typical feature of the traditional clothing worn by this particular group of Hmong women .
She insisted on sending me off with a bagful of sweetcorn and I went on my way, warmed by their generosity and hospitality and happy that I’d decided to seek out the little black dot on Christopher Robin’s map.