Into the Meo Country 2

This custom, widespread in mountain tribes which are split up into scattered, isolated hamlets, is practised by the Meos as well as the Thais. Once a year eligible bachelors and maidens gather at some convenient central point, and each one in turn, the boys alternating with the girls, describes in verse, to the accompaniment of Kenes, their possessions, their accomplishments, or their virtues. Formal offers of marriage then follow, and according to eye-witnesses of the custom, the metrical form in no way inhibits the most banal cataloguing of articles to be included in the marriage contract.
We were still eating when the chief s messenger came back with the only dog on offer. It was a poor forlorn animal, suffering probably from some wasting disease, and an enormous price was demanded.
As there was no dog to be had from these intermediaries, there was nothing for it but to go to the source itself, even if it meant another stiff climb on foot. Instead of turning left, therefore, at the junction of the main road to Luang Prabang, we took the right-hand fork towards Xien Khouang, which, although it led us out of our way, went right through the heart of Meo country in Laos. Shortly after, we came up with a Meo family, who were struggling up a hill loaded down like beasts of burden with their possessions. The Meos threw down their bundles and looked us over with puzzled amusement. One of them, who wore pigtails to show that he was the head of the family, came over, cut the choice centre out of a sugar cane he was carrying and presented it to us, roaring with laughter. This was typical Meo conduct. The Meo is grateful to strangers for amusing him with their clownish faces and ridiculous clothes, and his first impulse is to look round for something to give them. Shouting with joy, the children leaped into the car and were cuffed out again by their father. The woman who, if a Thai or a Laotian, would have stood apart with downcast eyes, bent down to examine Dupont’s sandals. She wore several pounds in weight of solid silver jewellery round her neck and had had her head recently shaved.
Meo finery at its best is the most extravagantly colourful in Indo- China. The women are stiff with embroidery and heavy silver necklaces and chains, and are half-extinguished by enormous turbans that look like Chinese lanterns. But this family was in its workaday clothes, as its head was very anxious to explain to Dupont. They had been away a week, working in their opium-poppy fields, and now they were on their way home for a flying visit. Dupont asked about a dog, and the head of the family invited us to come up and see for ourselves, as he had no idea who was home and who wasn’t.
It was a long, slow climb up to the village, although the Meos, as they skipped along by our side, seemed in no way to notice the slope, nor their huge burdens. The coarse grass – usual legacy of Meo occupation – was replaced here by a noxious thorny scrub. For miles, in all directions from the village, nothing would grow but this ultimate of austere vegetations. This village was at the last stage before it would have to be moved. The fields under cultivation were now so far away that the villagers lived dispersed in temporary shelters where they worked. Very soon they would be too far from the village to return at all and it would be moved, ten or fifteen miles, always south; leaving behind the prairie grass and scrub. It only wanted the Mans to arrive here from Tonkin – the Mans cultivate on Meo lines between 1000 and 3000 feet – to reproduce eventually in Laos the denuded wilderness of southern China.
The Meo village consisted of nothing but a few most decrepit hovels. They were the lowest and the most barbarous examples of human dwellings that it would be possible to find. Why should the Meos be the most elegantly dressed and the worst housed people in the country? They are superb at the few handicrafts they undertake, but they just can’t be bothered about how they are sheltered or how they sleep. There is no compulsion; no household genie – like those of the Mois – demanding high standards of order and cleanliness in the house; no canons of taste and refinement spreading slowly downwards from an idly exquisite aristocracy, since all Meos are kept hard at work; no spirit of bourgeois emulation, since this is total democracy, with no betters to imitate. The Meos have only themselves to please, and the result is anarchy.
In the hovel we were taken to, the contents of a thousand schoolboys’ pockets lay strewn about; the lengths of string, the broken penknives, the buttons, the mirror glass, the tins, the bottles and the burned-out lamp bulbs. Here was accumulated the jackdaw harvesting, the valuable glittering rubbish which was all a Meo wanted of civilisation, and which he was free to take, while leaving the civilisation itself severely alone. What foolish, generous people, these town-dwellers were!
Our host’s wife, a child of fifteen, was lying with her baby on a heap of rags in the corner. The baby was sick, he said, but the only thing necessary was to keep it away from the light – and air – as much as possible. Most Meo babies die in their first two years, and one wonders what would have happened by now to the fertile land of Indo-China, if they didn’t.

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