Village Hopping, a term I think I am coining, is where someone travels primarily from village to village living with the locals and learning their culture to the best of their abilities. It is completely free as the locals will never accept money; they only want your stories, friendship, and the novelty of having you around. They’ll feed you endlessly, give you a great place to sleep and teach you so much. Village Hopping is how I traveled a good part of my trip across the world.
When I was working for Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (www.bb2c.org), a lot of my work was in the field. Spending so much time in rural Cambodia, without an office, meant that the only place that me and the staff had to rest was in the houses of locals. So we made friends with village elders, NGO workers, shops that served ice (it’s really hot out there) and random families that were strategically located. They hosted us, fed us, and befriended us. Sometimes we gave them little gifts of foods, plenty of stories about how our project was working and once I gave a map of the world to one family who had never seen a map, they were surprised to know that Cambodia was so small, and the world so big. I really enjoyed my time in the villages, where I learned to open coconuts with a machete, to harvest rice with a knife, and to endure the heat of tropical Cambodia.
So when I went to Thailand and decided to hitchhike around, it was only natural that I would accept invitations to be hosted by the drivers who picked me up. When my drivers happened to live in a tiny rural village it didn’t bother me. Of course sometimes the driver’s didn’t invite me, and my only option was to walk to the nearest nights, introduce myself and ask for a place to sleep. I did this time after time in village after village. It always worked. I was able to explore Thailand staying not in big cities, not in tourist resorts, not in hotels or hostels, but with families living in places that I often couldn’t find on a map. I stayed in small brick and concrete houses with tin roofs that howled into the night when it rained, I stayed in small bamboo and leaf shacks where mosquito netting became mandatory, I stayed on the floor of a cell phone shop and once I was invited to share a bed with a farmer’s daughter (Ok it wasn’t as much of a bed as a shared sleeping surface, but I did sleep there). I love Village Hopping in Thailand, they treated me like family, they taught me about Buddha, they taught me about their food, how to make it, eat it, enjoy it. They taught me the Thai and Laotian languages, both of which I am somewhat conversational in. They loved that I was vegetarian “That’s great, when you die you will be reincarnated into something very good”. And about 20 times or so, grandfathers, usually from other families, would visit the family I was staying with and talk to me.
“How old are you” was the first question.
“27” I answered.
“Are you married?”
“Wow, so old and not married, are you planning on marrying a Thai /Lao girl”.
“I don’t really have any plans” I answered honestly.
Often the grandfather would nod and stare into the sky for a while. Then he would walk away. Later that night he always came back, with him was his very nicely dressed granddaughter(s). Pretty cloths, lipstick, eyeliner, and enough blush to make the girl look sunburnt. Village girls don’t get the experience of dressing up that much, that or they just don’t own mirrors. Possibly both.
These lovely ladies would come up to me with a nervous smile, their grandfather pushing them along. My host family would shy away, or sometimes give me advice “she’s a good girl, rich family” or “bad girl, lots of sex”. Their advice always left me confused. With helpful questions and prodding from the grandfather the girl would go into small talk with me. I answered them as best I could, especially the questions about my future plan. I answered my plan was to go exploring more of Thailand. “Will you return?” some of the girls asked, the last rays of hope still strong in their eyes. Well I might return, someday, but my plan for now is to travel the world. Some girls were relieved, others saddened, but all of them rejected by me. I wasn’t Village Hopping for the love of sex, but the love of culture, people, family, and adventure.
I stayed away from Village Hopping in India, I was with my brother and wasn’t ready to handle twice as many marriage proposals as before. My next major foray into Village Hopping was in Armenia. Luckily here I had a secret weapon. A girl! I was traveling with Echo, an awesome world traveler in her own respects. We joined up in the capital and without a plan we headed south. When Night fell, we went to the first village and just started asking around until we found a host family. We stayed with a Doctor and his family as they celebrated his oldest son’s 18th birthday, and congratulated him on his future foray in to the army. All Armenians must join the armed forces for a few years, after all, there is still a war (a very inactive one) going on over Karabakh.
They taught us about their culture, about their people, their religion, their language, their once great empire (about two thousand years ago), and how the Taj Mahal in India was built by Armenians for the king for one of his Armenian wives (there is some truth in this, but very little). We had a blast and the next day we headed out. Fate took us to a hot springs then to a very poor family in a super small town called Varta Shat. This town is on no maps, it has less than 100 people in it, only one super small store that is often unmanned and roads which might require climbing gear.
We were taken in by Aram and his family, we didn’t plan to stay long, but they loved having us and kept showing us around. They believe that Jesus had done much of everything written in the bible in Armenia. A lot of Armenians believed this. They showed us boulders Jesus had touched (as a result they were split in half), or hill tops Jesus had stood on, and the cave he was buried in and resurrected from. They taught us how they make goat and sheep cheese, and shared it with us. WOW that was the best cheese I have ever had in my life, and now I miss it.
It wasn’t difficult being a vegetarian in Armenia, most villagers we stayed with simply didn’t have meat. I think this is because they couldn’t afford it. In the Doctor’s house he understood when I explained, but one morning in Varta Shat I woke up to the smell of meat. “We cooked a chicken in Echo’s and your honor” they explained. I was shocked, appalled, but not unready for this. I had considered this happening for a long time, and was preparing myself mentally for traveling through Africa, where I was told that if I refused meat it would be very insulting. So I did what I hadn’t done in 8 years, and I ate a bit of chicken. I felt bad for that chicken, having died at all and to losing its consciousness, but it was too late so I took a few bites. It wasn’t good, maybe that is because my taste buds are spoiled with some of the best vegetarian food the world has to offer, or the meat was over cooked, either way I ate one piece and spent the rest of the meal gorging myself on the awesome cheese.
After Varta Shat we got a ride to Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh, the unofficial state that takes up about 25% of south western Azerbajan has been independent for over 20 years, is not about to be conquered and is unrecognized by everyone. Even though it is “unrecognized” Armenia sends its boys over to keep the borders secure, Russia sends weapons and the USA paves roads and puts up signs in English which none of the locals can read.
Again we village hopped from one place to the next, from a city that once had 40,000 people but had been bombed so badly that now it only had 3,000 people, to a tiny village famous for destroying an armored troop transport with a World War One era gun and a bunch of women. I never did figure out how they took out that transport but I know they are ready now. The eldest girl of the family that we stayed with told me “Every day we have military practice, I like to shoot the AK47 but I can’t wait till they let me practice with the Anti-tank missile”. She was 15 years old and in high school. But Karabakh did fight a civil war, one of which as many as 25% of the men aged 16-24 died. It left nearly every family scarred. Time after time mothers would tell us their stories or fathers would drink a shot of vodka to their lost son. “Now we are ready” they tell me as they show themselves strong and proud while hoping that war will never come to their people again.
There are far too many individual stories to tell about Village Hopping. I can tell one at a time, but not all at once. One thing I am sure you are wondering about Village Hopping: Is it safe? Yes, I have never had a problem with anyone in any of these villages ever. Later I will add more stories about the villages I have visited and link them here. I will leave this story finished here. But what I hope you take from it: If you travel, go to villages, see the locals, learn from them, and make new family. If you are not going to travel then know that people all over the world are good and friendly and if you ever get the chance to take someone in, then do so. You will learn a lot, have a great time and maybe end up with another family member.