Tales of beginnings: marriage customs among indigenous peoples

According to Katherine Warner, anthropologist, “…men move out of their natal area to another hamlet to find a wife and settle there, or go on journeys that last for years.”

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We traveled around 2 hours from Chiang Mai to the borderlands of Chiang Rai province, north of Thailand. A German, Malaysian, Bangladeshi and an Ibaloi-Northern Kankana-ey Filipino decided to end days of academic presentations and discussions with a visit to an organic coffee farm, sing songs, and witness the lives and culture of fellow indigenous peoples, the Lahu.

Suan Lahu Farm is a project started by my good friend, Carina, together with Lahu partners, which aims to empower local peoples in appreciating organic and sustainable coffee farming. Seeing the farm reminded me of home, as relatives also plant coffee along mountain slopes, breathing fresh highland air, living in a tight-knit, culture rich, indigenous community. I felt so at home, excitement flowed in each step through the farm, hearing Carina’s stories, seeing Lao-ue explain coffee processing, and asking questions of our own about her research, organic farm project, and future plans to come.

As dusk covered us, we sat around the simple cafe for coffee, alcohol; and funny, sad, and interesting stories. Yes, the coffee was really really really good, I did not need milk, creamer, nor sugar. The alcohol was even better (smoother but less potent than our Philippine 2×2 or 4×4 San Miguel gin). To make things best, our shared stories and singing sessions made everyone laugh here and there, listening to songs of various tongues and tunes, and appreciating the diversity and beauty of the moment. At around 6 pm, Lao-ue told Carina that a community dance ritual will be performed and asked us if we wanted to see it. Yes of course, but first, everyone had to sing.

I sang “Anak” by Freddie Aguilar as Carina requested it. It was just that I forgot the lyrics, and I only reached the 1st stanza! Deym! Hassan sang two beautiful Bangla songs, Kamala did a meaningful, religious Hindi song, and Carina sang a Spanish and German tune. To compensate, I did a “pitik” or a prayer to toast a newly opened jar of rice wine. I blessed everyone in the group and for some reason I cannot now remember, they asked me how young I was and if I’m married or in a relationship.

Well, I told them bluntly that I was looking for a wife (cue Katherine Warner). *lol* On the other hand, I also told them that I need to choose my future wife carefully and honestly. Marriage means spending more than half of your life with the mother (or father) of your kids, so, one has to choose wisely. Additionally, my family follow local customs, so if I ever get married, I need to feed a thousand well-wishers, as relatives to the 4th or 5th degree are invited, as well as invitations to friends and their friends who want to see one of the many traditional forms of Igorot marriages. The marriage ceremony is also an all-nighter, and the bride and groom also need to dance every now and then. To oblige to their request, I demonstrated one of the dances during such occasions.

But we had to see another kind of dance and we are now at the dancing ground of the community, seeing men stomping to a 4/4 beat (I think), while playing a flute-like instrument. They were circling around two lit candles made of beeswax, while the women were dancing in the inner circle in a forward-backward marching pattern. Carina soon joined the dancing women, and the men continued playing, either with the flute-like instrument or a stringed instrument. We sipped on tea, and watched the revelries. They said that the occasion was for a member of the community who just came back from another place.

As we were about to depart, the folks told us to stay for a while, as they had just killed a snake along the road, a bad omen perhaps. So we went to one of the houses for dinner, ate with our hands of a meal of stewed pork and highland rice, dipped things in chili, and in no time we finished our food. We said our thank yous and started our journey back to Chiang Mai.

In the car, Carina told us about a Dutch man who was looking for a Lahu wife. Arrangements were made and a ritual will be made in the morning. The Dutch man and the Lahu woman were considered married the night before, so when the people went to see the man in the morning for the ceremony, they were surprised to find the man sleeping and apparently uninterested! To make up for such grave and foolish decision, a horse (or was it a pig?) was required (and to be paid for by the man of course) for a ritual to break down the marriage.

Those and other stories made the trip back to Chiang Mai a very memorable one. There is love in Chiang Mai (oh yeah!) and I blessed everyone again as we parted and I went back to my sleeping place. Another great day indeed!

In reflection of these events on this 1st day of the year, I ruminate upon notions of marriage, love and family as a theme for times like these: new year… beginnings… life. That again, we should think of these things deeply, seeing these events as serious but happy and fulfilling moments. Let us just be ourselves then, not putting up our ideal facades, and showcase our honest, raw, and unique personalities and character. In this way, we begin with truth to know our significant other, and eventually live a phase of our lives with our lover, friend and partner in growing love and life. 😉 And for all the married folks, bless you still as you also continually grow in love and life.

***

So at this point in time, greetings of a happy happy new year and of enjoying your journey in discovering yourself and your partner in life this 2016! Makko wishes you all the best this year and throughout all the days of your life!

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