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Home » Asia, ICFJ Reporting Fellowship

In search of a shaman

15 April 2011 No Comment

The trip into the highlands north of Luang Prabang consumed more than a day by motorbike. The sticky heat was stifling at times, made worse by the rain jacket I wore to protect against the dust and scorching sun. It had rained ferociously during the night, but the puddles had quickly evaporated.

My motorbike strained uphill beyond countless peaks until we reached a small village inhabited by Hmong.  Here, my guide told me, we would surely find a shaman.

What we found was a handful of New Zealanders who had planned to spend the night as part of a project to teach villagers different ways to farm.

I swept through the village. Most of the men, including the town’s shaman, would be in the fields until sundown. This tiny village would not provide what I needed, I concluded. And we rode out back into the dust.

It was nearly sundown when we reached the Ponsai District, where we settled for the night at the town’s only guesthouse. I shook off the dust from the bed’s comforter and cleared the rust from the water flowing out of the bathroom faucet. The toilet had no running water and could only flush by pouring water from a pail. I washed off dust and sweat and used my camping chamois to dry myself.

My guide and I dined on a plate of stir-fried oyster mushrooms. I asked the proprietor of the roadside eatery if I could prepare the mushrooms myself. Bemused, she gave me access to her wok. I crushed garlic and tossed the mushrooms into a pan of sizzling oil, chili paste and soy sauce.

At the crack of dawn my guide and I continued our journey to the top of the mountains, crossing creeks and traversing rutted roads. Clouds brushed nearby peaks. It was early afternoon, and the road had nowhere left to go. We had reached our destination, the village of Chom Chieng.

We made our way pass thatched huts the color of dust. We unloaded our gear at the home of the village chief, where we would bunk down for our visit.

I snapped pictures as I wandered through town. Children swarmed my camera, and they giggled at their own images. One boy, perhaps about four years old, laughed hysterically at his picture and pushed away older children to get another glimpse at himself.

The adults were, at first, more bashful. Suspicious, even. They asked my guide, who was Hmong himself, from where I came. America, he replied. The villagers’ faces brightened, and they began to shoot more questions. I looked Hmong, but why couldn’t I speak their language? Why was I so interested about shamans? How long would I be visiting?

While resting and sipping bottled water, I spotted a young man in his twenties washing at a public faucet. When he was done, I approached, hoping that maybe he spoke English. He did not.

Through my guide, I introduced myself and told him why I was in his village. I was in search of a shaman, I said.

As it turned out, one would be at his home later in the day. His newborn nephew was not feeding as frequently as he should, and one of the village shamans had been summoned to remedy the situation.

The medicine man arrived at about 4 o’clock, as clouds darkened. He wore a blue T-shirt and black slacks. There was a dignified air about him. He seemed hesitant to answer a stranger’s questions. But soon his demeanor softened.

At times, though, my guide was reluctant to ask my questions. I asked him to seek permission to enter the home as the shaman worked, but my guide insisted it was forbidden, based on his own experience.

But I pressed him to ask. He relented, and to my guide’s surprise the shaman approved as long as I entered with only my camera.

None of the houses in the village had electricity. A candle flickered on a makeshift altar. Incense perfumed the room.  A pot hung above a small fire blazing from the earthen floor. One of the young men who lived in the house used a flashlight to illuminate the hut for the shaman. Another wore a headlamp. My video camera was virtually useless in the dim light.

Outside, lightning lit up the sky. Thunder boomed. And the clouds unleashed a deluge that created a muddy stream just beyond the door.

Inside, the shaman attempted to summon his own forces to bring health and prosperity to the ailing child.


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