It feels like someone is snapping an elastic band at my foot, a sharp, painful pinch and burning sensation repeated over and over again. Oww!
I’m making my way into the rice fields, walking along the narrow, slippery levees of mud that divide the flooded paddies. My arms are spread wide for balance like I’m on a tightrope. I look down at my feet: fire ants.
I start doing a crazy jig, flailing and unleashing a deluge of creative curses. The women, standing almost knee deep in muddy water, stop working to watch and whoop with laughter.
It’s June and rice-growing season is in full swing in southern Laos. For the last few days, I’ve been travelling on the Stray Asia bus through the vast, flat and open landscape that is characteristic of the region. We’ve cruised past rice field after rice field alive with impossibly vibrant colours, the reflections in the water-filled paddies intensifying the natural beauty.
We stop for the night in the village nearest to Kong Lor cave. Men, women and children are out harvesting the seedlings that will be transplanted into other paddies to grow – just one of the many labour-intensive steps for cultivating rice. On an evening stroll through the village, I climb over the bamboo fence and go into the fields to take a closer look.
After I entertain the crowd with my fire-ants-in-the-pants dance, a woman motions for me to come over. I gingerly step into the paddy and wrinkle my nose at the alien feeling. Mud suctions my feet, goo squelches between my toes. I try not to imagine what ankle biting, blood-sucking creatures may lurk in the waters.
I watch how the woman grips the seedlings near the base and plucks them up, roots intact. Bent over, she moves at a lightning pace and it isn’t long before she gathers a large, neat bunch in her hand.
Pulling the rice plants from the muck is easy enough, but after a few minutes, my lower back and neck begin to ache. Though it is overcast, the rainy season humidity is stifling and sweat drips into my eyes. I’m getting devoured by mosquitoes. How do they do this all day? I marvel.
Experiential travel doesn’t have to come in the form of a tour or a class. You don’t always need a guide or a guidebook. Sometimes you just need to get out there, to climb over barriers – physical, cultural – and jump in. In this case, it meant going beyond the fence, getting my feet wet (and stung), to feel what it’s like to stand in the muck, to feel what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes.