Journey to the Cham Village

This is an exciting time for us because we just grew our company by one wildly creative person and travel companion. He prefers to remain anonymous for some reason, so we assigned him the nickname “the Rambling Shaman” (Rasham for short). Please help us welcome him to the ETHNOTEK team as you will be hearing a lot from him over the next few years. Rasham was hired on as travel writer, photographer, sourcing assistant and anything else we’d like our new gofer, I mean good friend to help with. Not only does he have a view askew of the world, but he also has almost the same amount of bag design experience and as many stamps in his passport as our Founder and Chief Designer Jake, so he’ll be able to relay all the technical terms that are needed to describe our process as well as contribute some creative inspiration while we’re planning new collections from the road.


Photo: Rambling Shaman, brackish pole-vault, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Rasham has been joining Jake on all of his fabric/ THREAD sourcing adventures and is tasked with documenting anything and everything they encounter along the way. Sounds like a dream job, but it’s going to be hard work.

Rambling Shaman’s first project was to meet Jake in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam to join in on the Cham village project and then follow him on to Java Indonesia in a blind search for Batik fabrics. 

 “I’m honored to join this colorful team and will try my hardest not to bore anyone with my documentation. Armed with only my MacBook Pro, a Canon Rebel T1i and my wacky perspective, I approach Southeast Asia with an open mind and clear conscience… Let’s go celebrate some culture!” -- Rasham

           

Saigon Arrival:

Written by the Rambling Shaman

After nearly missing my connecting flight from LAX to Seoul via Korean Airways and a long 21 hours of travel I finally arrived in Saigon (a first time visit for me). Immediately after exiting the plane I noticed the humidity. I nearly had to lean forward to embrace the density of water particles that were preventing me from walking in my normal stride and breathing at a rate in which I’m used to. There’s no question, it’s hot and it’s STICKY! I picked up my visa upon arrival, breezed through the stone-faced guardians at customs and then walked up to a slim, well-dressed Vietnamese man who was holding up a sign with my name on it. Wow I thought, special treatment already, ETK arranged for a chauffeur for my first day on the job, cool! Not the case! It turns out my luggage was sent to Hong Kong not Ho Chi Minh so I had to visit the lost luggage counter to sort things out. Not a good Omen. Normally I wouldn’t stress too much, but because the one huge piece of luggage missing was the one Jake had me take with from Minnesota which was a duffle containing only raw ethnic textiles which were to be used in the new THREAD collection. Yeah, after greetings, hugs and pleasantries Jake looked a bit nervous after hearing about the lost fabrics, but said, hey what can ya do, let’s go eat some noodles! From that point on, we just had to hope for the best and go about the rest of our planning for the Cham village trip.

Outside Saigon international airport, of course, since Jake believes in baptism by fire in a playfully masochistic kind of way, had a motorbike waiting for me in which I was to drive myself to our destination. A bit worse for the ware, I just smiled, hopped on, and off we rode on our 100cc steeds.

The white-knuckle ride through Saigon traffic from the airport to a friend’s place we’re I’d be staying for a while was definitely an eye opener. I’ve always liked a bit of danger in my life from time to time to get the adrenaline going, but this was insane! I’ve travelled many places in my day, but never have I moved trough such exhaust clouded chaos. The most crowded streets in India have nothing on this traffic. There were humans on wheels going in ever direction. I sort of felt like I was caught in a heavy current just swimming and paddling trying to find shore. I soon found out that resistance and trying to paddle too hard proved to be counter-productive. Just like trying to navigate any river by canoe or trying to find surface mid-undertow, you just have to go with the flow. The trick is to proceed with purpose, not like a dear caught in headlights. As you casually proceed, the tide parts, the current slows and away you go. It’s funny, but I observed that by making eye contact with someone basically means that you’re giving him or her the right of way. Funny logic, but it’s how they roll, so we just went with it. It’s not full awareness direct line of site type driving, it’s all-peripheral. Good thing the Vietnamese government made helmets mandatory in 2007.

After cooling the nerves and getting in touch with my inner jet-lag, we pulled up to a street side vendor for some Bún Mắm. My esteemed colleagues informed me that in South Vietnam Bún Mắm is much more popular and commonly consumed by locals than Phở. Of course the latter was my assumption because I enjoyed Poe or Foe all the time at home of course with my ignoramus pronunciation. The correct pronunciation is Pha with the intonation going up at the end. Anywho, the fresh passion fruit juice that came out pre Bún Mắm helped take the edge off and the soup was delicious and easy to see why it's the local favorite!


Photo: Bun Mam soup, Saigon.

After soup, a shower and a short snooze, the airport called to confirm that our precious stash of fabric had arrived safe and sound from Hong Kong. Not sure how it got directed there and then again re-routed, but our THREADS really do travel. Even though sometimes in unintended directions.

More on Saigon culture coming at a later date. It’s mission time. Cham here we come!

10-28-2011 – Night mission to Cham Village from Saigon:

As the crew gathers and checks inventory on all the gear, I take a quick headcount. The members on this particular adventure consisted of Founder & Chief Designer Jake, his lady-friend and Village Projects Volunteer Cori, ETHNOTEK packaging Guru Bao, Head Bag Developer & Softgoods extraordinaire Mikey, and yours truly, the Rambling Shaman.

We were taking a Mai Linh sleeper bus from Saigon at 11pm en route to Nga Trang, but we were disembarking somewhere in between. The main road which takes tourists and Vietnamese truck drivers from one major destination to the next was our only way to get close to the Village and because our location wasn’t a major stop (or a stop at all) we had to brief the bus driver where to stop and he’d yell out when we were there. Just in case, Mikey being the meticulous one of the group knew that it would take about 6 hours to get their so he set an alarm in case the driver forgot.

We swapped our colorful THREADS out for ballistic black THREADS and threw our ETK packs into the belly of the beast and boarded the bus. First impression was awesome! I had never rode a sleeper bus in the US so a bus filled with beds looked like it was going to be a blast. Of course an imagination like mine went back to when my parents would take us on family trips. Whenever we’d stop at a hotel we’d always book a room with two big beds and my brother and I would bounce back and forth from bed to bed until we were exhausted or until one of us broke something. The visual I got of everyone in the bus partaking in this game brought a smile to my face devious enough to worry Mom and Dad. If anything it just looked like it was going to be a comfortable and restful journey.…. 

We soon found out that the rarely maintained road and our driver with a death wish had different plans. Not to worry, Bao whipped out a batch of home made booze that his father in-law makes from fermented tree bark, medicinal herbs and other fruits and spices, which I guess you could classify as fortified wine. It was pretty tasty stuff and strong too, wow, that stuff packed a punch! The presentation was the best part. He had it in a plastic thermos and brought out a tiny thimble of a shot glass to pass around as we hit nearly every pothole that time carved out on this insane stretch of highway. We had some laughs to say the least. From that point on, that stuff was called Bao’s medicine and he was to be the medicine man.

 

Photo: Bao, ETHNOTEK Packaging Supplier and Medicine Man.

Thanks to Bao’s medicine everyone slept well, except for me. There’s just too much excitement that wells up inside of me on trips like these, so even though it was dark, I was making sure to soak up as much nighttime roadside scenery as I could. There admittedly wasn’t much to see other than a few roadside stops and deserted restaurants. Some towns had restaurants and stores still fully open with people shopping, eating etc. at 2am, which was really strange. Seriously, I saw what looked like a meeting going down with like 6-10 people in a wedding dress shop in the middle of the night. Weird…. Something surprising to me was all the Christian churches I saw along the way. Most of them had neon lights outlining the cross atop the steeple which made for a surreal sight, big electric blue neon crosses in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside lighting up all the surrounding palm trees and rice terraces. 

Cori stirred from her sleep and mentioned that she had read that a majority of Vietnamese people classify themselves as non-religious, although they visit religious temples several times every year. Our friends at Wikipedia say that “their everyday behaviors and attitudes are dictated by the synthesis of philosophies which can be traced from many religions, especially Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Those religions have been co-existing in the country for centuries and mixed perfectly with the Vietnamese tradition of worshiping their ancestors and national heroes. That special mix explains why the people there find it hard to say exactly which religion they belong to”. One really interesting religion worth noting that we learned about (founded and seen only in Vietnam) is the Cao Dai sect in Tay Ninh, 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Caodaists believe that all religions are the same in principle.


Cao Dai (a.k.a. Dao Cao Dai or Caodaism) is a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement with a strongly nationalist political character. Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. – from Religious facts.

 

Just another example of why there is never enough time to explore while traveling. But at least it was worth elaborating on a religion that solely exists in an area our bus was speeding past lucidly through night.

Cham Arrival: 

Around 3am I managed to nod off and Mikey’s trusty alarm chimed in at 5am sharp, waking us with enough time to tell the driver to let us off. Correct, the driver forgot, good call on the alarm Mikey! It seamed like the bus didn’t even stop rolling by the time we were off and trying to figure out what to do next as the sun was procrastinating to rise. In the dusty twilight of central Vietnam our eyes started focusing, we yawned, stretched and sauntered over to the nearest place that could serve our weary selves some tea. We sat and drank. No one talked. We just were… Once the sun decided to peak it’s glowy top, Mikey called over a couple guys, they discussed a few things in Khanh (main spoken Vietnamese language means king) and they presented us with two motorbikes. They gave us the keys, no helmets and we piled our 5 bodies on to two bikes and drove off….. Cori and I made eye contact and cracked a smile to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation and started laughing uncontrollably.

The air was cool, crisp and waaaaay cleaner than the Saigon O2 we were getting used to. It was better than any cup of espresso at a small café in the Alps. We were awake! We were alive! Soon, we veered off death wish highway onto a dirt road that ran perpendicular to the main road. After blazing through a few small villages where it was easy to tell no one was awake yet, we ducked through a few patches of jungle and then a giant clearing opened up. What we just throttled into was the most beautiful sight these eyes have seen in a while. We were on a narrow dirt road and on both sides of us were huge expanses of vividly green rice fields with palms on the horizon and a huge mountain range that was cloaked in low lying clouds. There were white crane-like birds hovering over the fields looking for breakfast and the few clouds that were in the sky took on an orange glow on the underside from the rising sun and a purple hue on the topside because the night sky was still lurking above. We were in it!

 

Photos: Cham Village countryside.


After a few more wide-eyed jaw dropped miles we approached a large gateway that read ----Cham----. We made it! We knew we weren’t in Vietnam anymore, we were somewhere else, we were somewhere special. The women walking around the village were wearing traditional dress and the only vehicle in site was an ox-drawn cart. We stopped at the culture center, which was owned by Inrahani, the women who makes our textiles, employs many of the villagers and is heading up one of the largest Cham restoration efforts in Vietnam. There is a lot to say about Hani, her family and their cause, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

 

Photo: Our village homestay.



We set our packs down at the culture center and stood for a moment just taking in the scenery of the village. The villagers were doing the same to us.

As we stood and waited for a few minutes more, Hani soon greeted us in all her glory. She was wearing a traditional Cham dress, which of course was hand crafted by her. She greeted us in a gentle way that was her own and then escorted our red-eyed selves through the village to her home where we were to stay for the weekend. As we walked to her house the sun was almost fully up and it kissed the exposed metal rooftops and reflected off of the water in open patches of rice terrace. It was very still and quiet except for music that was echoing throughout the village. Mikey said it was traditional Cham music and later informed me that Hani’s husband Inrasara is an ambassador for Cham culture in Vietnam and a well known poet and author. The songs we were listening to were poems written by him. Incredible!

 

Photo: Inrahani showing us around the Cham Culture Center

In Cham, the family name comes first and the given name second, but combined into one word. i.e., Hani=given name (first name), Inra=family name (last name) becomes Inrahani.

We dropped our gear and went for breakfast and coffee. Breakfast consisted of Bánh canh, which has many variations throughout Vietnam, but here was a basic flat rice-noodle soup with a catfish stock, fish cakes, sliced green onion and crushed white pepper. It was warm, simple, comforting and delicious. It’s all that we needed, however they noticed how interested I was in everything else and ordered us a batch of Xôi, which also has many versions, but on this day was sticky rice mixed with a kind of red bean and accompanied by a mixture of salt, sugar and crushed peanuts that melted into the hot sticky rice. It really is a stick to your ribs kind of dish. It was served on a lotus lily pad and was to be eaten by a spoon made from palm shoot. Talk about eco-friendly packaging!

 


Photo: Xoi, sticky rice breakfast.


Because we were all dealt a 2nd breakfast on behalf of my curiosity I had to help Cori with hers. She looked at me with trepidation for not wanting to offend anyone by not finishing, so I was happy to oblige. In between force-feeding myself, I asked questions about the village, daily life etc. and we found out that the woman that served us breakfast is one of only two in the village that prepares breakfast for everyone. There are 550 households in this village and even though it is common to cook at home, it’s up to these two women to kick off the day in a quick and healthy way for those who are out and about. They definitely get extra points for the creative and non-wasteful packaging.

Mmmmm. Finished, stuffed and fueled for the long day ahead of us.

We walked back to Hani’s house, brushed our teeth and geared up for a walking tour of the village. We started with a coffee (Vietnamese style) which comes in a small self-brewing tin (by pouring hot water over coffee grounds contained in the small tin) that sits atop the glass until it has dripped it’s last drop into your cup. Not the style of coffee for your typical in a rush Starbucks crowd, but it definitely does the trick if you make the time. Coffee time for all Vietnamese is a lengthy affair. It’s cherished as a time to be social, enjoy each other’s company and wake up slowly. Which was admittedly difficult for me at first being that I am definitely not a morning person and can’t get caffeine in me fast enough, but thanks to Vietnam am broken of by now. As we watched the hypnotic drip and talked casually, we were waiting for Hani’s son Inrajaka to arrive. All we knew of Jaka is that he speaks English, is well educated, well traveled and is an expert on Cham culture.


Gritty coffee brew now finished, we gulped our thick, oily and richly bitter ambrosia and the mental fog began to lift. Just in time for Jaka to roll in. He was coming down from the mountain town of Dalat, which was about a 4 hour drive from where we were. This means he had to start his drive in the dark at 3am to meet us. Respect! 

Upon first site it was easy to see that Jaka was a unique spirit. Rolling in on a Honda Wave (or Future, we couldn’t be sure), he downshifted and coasted up to our street side table where we were having coffee with his Guitar strapped to his back and his long black hair snarled from a long windy journey. He greeted us with a calm demeanor similar to his Mother’s, shook hands and immediately started offering fresh guava that he picked along the way. This lasted a while, he must have had two-dozen guava stashed in the various pockets of his wonder-emporium of a vest. It was humorous watching him rediscover the hidden green gems that kept coming out of the depths of his jacket. After politely doling out fruit, Jaka excused himself, took his jacket off and put his hair into a bun using one of our coffee spoons to stab his wind-thrashed hair to keep it in place. A pretty creative use of the tools at hand I thought.

 

Photo: Jaka

The dude definitely has charisma and style! Jaka was wearing loose brown trousers, a shirt and a vest that was unmistakably Cham. He had facial hair that reflected a young man of thought. After all, he is a product of his father and poet, Inrasara…..I could tell Jake took a particular liking to Jaka, perhaps they were kindred spirits….

The Champa Kingdom:

Jaka went right into it! He was there to inform us, and inform us he did! The Champa Kingdom was an Indianized kingdom that controlled what is now southern and central Vietnam. The Cham people are remnants of this kingdom. They speak Cham, a Malayo-Polynesian language. Champa was preceded in the region by a kingdom called Lin-yi (林邑, Middle Chinese *Lim Ip) or Lâm Ấp (Vietnamese) that was in existence from 192 AD, but the historical relationship between Lin-yi and Champa is not clear. Champa reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries. Thereafter began a gradual decline under pressure from Đại Việt, the Vietnamese polity centered in the region of modern Hanoi. In 1471, Viet troops sacked the northern Cham capital of Vijaya, and in 1697 the southern principality of Panduranga became a vassal of the Vietnamese emperor. In 1832, the Vietnamese emperor Minh Mạng annexed the remaining Cham territories. Mỹ Sơn, a former religious center, and Hội An, one of Champa's main port cities, are now heritage listed.

 

Photo: Cham people photo archive at the village Culture Center.

Formerly, the Cham people had established a single country in a region of South East Asia, officially named Champa2. After the decline of the Champa kingdom, most of the Cham communities left their homeland for Cambodia, Thailand, Hai Nam, and Malaysia. The Champa kingdom established trade relationships and exchanged culture with neighboring developed countries, including India, Arabia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Therefore, it experienced the influence of many different civilizations and cultures.

Photo: Red spots indicate the last remaining Cham regions in Vietnam.

Cham culture is comprised of 3 main religious groups, Ahier (Cham-Hindu) primarily focused in Shivaism, Awal (Bani), and Islam. Cham villagers from differing religious groups are not allowed to marry only because how you die is unclear. Death and death rituals are an important part of Cham culture and without having clarity of what happens on this last piece of life’s puzzle or first re-birth there can not be unity within the household. Ancient Cham script is a form of Sanskrit and nearly all-physical copies have vanished and can’t be explained why or how. Some rumors are that it was destroyed during the Dai Viet upheaval, and some say it was locals and foreign explorers who stole it for re-sale. The latter was most definitely the case in thievery of the Shiva statues on Cham temples, which sold for a pretty penny. A similar case to that of the headless Buddhas and faceless Apsaras of the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.


Photo: Phan Rang Thap Cham temple.

We were now on our feet and following Hani and Jaka through the village. Jake was firing anthropological question after anthropological question and I was in the wake taking notes as fast as I could. We walked past a gated structure that resembled a mausoleum or cemetery without the headstones, which Jaka noted was the Village Kut (pronounced kook). It was a shrine with two urns in the center (one for men and one for women) where skull fragments of the deceased villagers are kept. After someone passes away the bones are returned to the mother’s side and before doing so 7 pieces of the center/ forehead of the skull are removed and kept until the village shaman deems it is time for them to be placed into the urn. Sometimes it can take 10, 20 even 30 years before the time is right. It is still unclear how the right time is decided, but the shaman knows, and it is only fair to add to the urns when other spirits have rested.


Photo: Village Kut.

Village Tour:

After chasing little kids and livestock, which ran freely throughout the village, I caught up with Jaka, Jake and Hani just in time for household visits. Our first stop was in a courtyard just off of the main square of the village where Hani was talking to a woman. We learnt that she was Hani’s sister in-law Tho, who kindly invited us for dinner that evening. They all looked to us for approval and before they even could finish the question Jake was nodding with approval that was equally confirmed upon our giddily excited faces.


Photo left to right: Hani, Jaka, Jake, Bao, Mikey.

We then proceeded down a narrow street and noticed that each household was walled in. Each small and very basic compound had a main house where the grandparents, mother, father and children lived, cooked ate and slept. There were usually two other small separate houses for storing supplies, building materials or for loom weaving. The side houses were usually made out of a combination of mud and grass which is the perfect insulating material because it keeps the inside cool in peak heat and warm in during the evening chill. It looks as if they build a wooden frame first and then layer on the mud-grass compound so that it has a proper substrate to grab onto while drying. 

Each household has it’s own vegetable, chili, herb and fruit gardens. Jaka was constantly picking and eating from these. He was even eating the leaves of the trees. And of course Jake was happy to join him in this gastronomic foraging. Everything that grows in this village is edible noted Jaka. One interesting plant was what looked like a large pea pod hanging from a tree. Jaka cracked one open and handed it to me. It had a strong smell, kind of sulfuric and not too appetizing honestly, but I ate it anyway and the taste was actually really good. Like a snap pea with a slight spiciness too it. Jaka said that is was used to cure stomachaches and aid digestion. I had sour stomach all morning and was excited to learn this and sure enough, my stomach cramps subsided. Thanks Cham tree bean!

 

Photo: Common house construction & garden.


The first household we entered was that of an elderly woman who came out in traditional Cham dress with the assistance of a cane. She was noticeably in poor health, but was beaming with good vibes and an ear-to-ear toothless grin. She was extremely happy to see Hani and said hello to us as well. Cori played with their guard dog, who wanted to play back, but had to fight the urge in order to fulfill is sworn duty to defend the family. It’s funny seeing a bark that goes along with a smile and tail-wag. 


Photo: Cori making friends with the household guardian.

As we waited and observed our surroundings I noticed Hani give the woman money. As we left, Jaka explained that many families in this village are too old or of poor health to find work and in some cases, can’t even grow their own food. Inrahani, his father Inrasara and Jaka took it as their personal responsibility to give back to the community and help those in need in any way they could. Because Hani and the family now live in Saigon they aren’t able to be in the village at all times, but they come to visit on a regular basis. We just happened to be witnessing one of those such visits and we tagged along as Hani visited household after household to say hello, catch up on family stories, village news and to make rounds distributing money to those who really needed it. 


Photo: Hani making household visits and contributions. 

One particular household that gave Mikey and Bao a concerned expression was a Man who’s wife passed away several years ago and shortly after, his eyes began to fail him. Because the family couldn’t afford surgery he lost his eyesight and was left to raise their handicapped son alone. It was difficult for all of us to observe, but we were comforted by seeing Hani and Jaka comforting them. Smiles were created and money was handed to them and the blind father walked us out to the front gate and sent us on our way. If there was ever any doubt that the money from purchasing our THREAD textiles was being put to good use or not, it was now obliterated. To see first hand that not only are we creating demand that results in jobs, but Hani single handedly distributes small cash donations to those truly in need. This realization brought tears to my eyes. I’m a fortunate person to be working for a company that sustains such social-cultural connection. Right on ETHNOTEK!


The next household was a larger compound that housed about 8-12 women, all which were debilitated and cared for by one woman, Hani’s friend. We noticed that most of the women were in wheelchairs. Jaka mentioned that his family purchased the wheelchairs for them, which gave the women the mobility to freely move about the village as they pleased as well as get around their living space without the burden of needing assistance. The lovely wheel-chaired woman of this particular household made a lot of hand-loomed textiles and we were allowed to see the space where they wove. 

Jaka informed us that each and every household has at least 2 looms. One for mother and one for daughter, so that the craft and tradition can be passed down from generation to generation. Before Hani’s involvement, the art and tradition of hand-loomed textiles was nearly extinct.

One of the main pillars of Hani’s restoration of Cham culture was to teach and empower the villagers so that they could create and sustain their own businesses. Primarily in textile weaving. She hosted a workshop several years ago in which any and all villagers were welcome to attend for free. It was an intensive workshop where Hani instructed the men and women how to spool yarn, how to dye, how to set a warp, how to plan, map and design motifs, how to set up the loom and how to weave. After finishing the workshop and mastering the techniques, the villagers were able to return to their households armed with the tools and knowledge in how to move forward with not only a means of acquiring income, but with an understanding of the importance of preserving their own ethnic heritage and cultural practices.


A fun little Cham fact from Mikey, is that having geese in the household is to ward off ghosts. The geese that we encountered during our visit were loudly and aggressively fending off ghosts, or us, not sure. Perhaps our whiteness gave them the wrong impression. 


Photo: The original top-loading Cham backpack.

After visiting a few more families we circled back around to the culture center. This is the foremost center for knowledge on Cham culture in this region and was founded by Hani and her husband Inrasara. It acts as a museum and library for active learning. Jaka explained that this is unique because many institutions like it are either in someone’s home or in a big museum. Both equally intimidating and unapproachable. The Culture House has open doors all the time and is neutrally located in the middle of the village. It was built as a space to gather and encourage their active learning philosophy. The small library, many that were written by Inrasara himself, is free and open to take books with the trust that they eventually make their way back. This is a casual approach yes, but the challenge is finding someone young who speaks and reads both the Cham language and Vietnamese to help run the library/ culture center. Someone who kids can relate to, have fun with and accept his or her soft introduction to a complex culture. 


Photo: Jaka presenting his Father's literature at the Culture Center library.

Jaka would do it, but when he’s not traveling the globe, he’s extremely busy spearheading Cham cultural awareness and community development projects in the big city of Saigon. One such project is dream counseling. He meets with young people to discuss their hopes, dreams and ambitions and helps them realize, in his own Jaka approach, that they already have the tools and ability to achieve those dreams. Positive reinforcement and open discussion of such topics unfortunately isn’t very encouraged in many Vietnamese households. His sessions range from a sit down discussion with tea or even group trips outside of the city. 

Another cool project of Jaka’s, is the Thousand Book Project. He started a word of mouth children’s book drive that would be donated to the school library in the Cham village. It took only a few weeks before people started coming out of the woodwork to help his cause. Jaka would drive to each person to retrieve the books as opposed to meeting in a neutral location or having them sent. He chose this personal approach so they could have a short dialogue during each visit. That’s Jaka! Sure enough, the books donated were well over the 1k mark. Jaka took it upon himself to read through all of them one by one to make sure they were of appropriate subject matter and actually contained information that would further development in the right direction and not just fluff. Apparently it’s hard to find children’s books that foster values and life lessons as opposed to just pictures and funny stories Jaka says. After filtering the content, Jaka delivered the one thousand books to the Cham school library where they reside to this day. 


ETHNOTEK and the Cham Weaving Process:

The village tour concluded with a visit to the house that was responsible for making our very own fabrics. Needless to say, Jake had a noticeable pep in his step and what looked like a shroud of focus and seriousness that enveloped him. We removed our shoes at the door and slowly ducked into the warm house. In the main room a woman by the name of Cat was seated at a loom diligently weaving our Vietnam 4 THREAD fabric. This was like magic happening right before our eyes. Traditionally Champa’s main style of weaving was done on a back-strap loom. The more modern style, which has been adopted throughout the entire village, is conducted on an upright loom that is uniquely Cham and similar to the looms used in west Africa to make Kente Cloth. The frame is made of bamboo and stretches the length of about 10-15 feet. 


Photo: Cat weaving ETHNOTEK fabric in her home.


Photo: The moment we removed the red thread from Vietnam 4 so that it could become what it is today.

One end houses the warp yarn after it has been dyed, spooled and feed through the weaving heddles. The opposite end houses the tension-rod and cloth roller to contain and manage the finished fabric. This is also the end where the bulk of the weaving is done (though the weaving head can move into any given position if the fabric style requires). 


Photo: Jake, doing his thing.

The warp yarn or long vertical running yarn is feed through 3-4 motif heddles which are intricately designed to create the exact amount of thread spacing needed to weave any given motif. The heddles are individually raised by hand with every single weft pass to dial in the motif and it is up to the weaver to know exactly which heddle is to be lifted and to which degree. The heddles are weighted by pieces of coral and hand-carved stone. 


Photo: Heddle weights seen above and below the warp yarn are made from coral and hand-carved stone.

It’s truly a site to behold. In front of the motif heddles are two shedder heads, which are controlled by foot peddles. Shedding is the process of lifting and separating the warp threads so the yarn shuttle can be passed through to set the weft (horizontal) or filling yarn in place. After the warp/ filling yarn is passed through, the weaver battens the yarn tightly with a wooden tool that resembles a machete. A set up like this takes about 4 days to complete before weaving can even begin.

 

After a couple hours of overseeing the weaving process we retired to Hani’s home to get ready for dinner with Tho and her family. A down poor started just then and we were thankful to have shelter and good company to wait it out. The clouds parted and we were on our way. It was a muddy motorbike ride through the countryside to get to Tho’s house and we nearly slipped off the road a few times, but muddy shoes was worth it for the experience we were about to have. As we waited in the garden in front of Tho’s house we had some time before dinner was ready, so we spent some time snapping photos and watching Mikey and Bao goof off. I failed to mention earlier that these two are childhood friends, so it’s easy to see just how comfortable they are with each other and how much fun they have being big kids together. 


Photo: Mikey sporting a flower earing he picked from Tho's garden. Lookin sharp buddy :-)


After playing around a bit, Mikey informed us that everything from our meal came from the land. The free roaming chickens to the herbs, fruits, chilies and vegetables were all taken from the very garden in which we stood. Proof of this was Tho’s son who occasionally came out from behind the house to pick various items from the trees or surrounding shrubs and vines. We were starting to get hungry! Dinner was served and we walked around to the back of the house where the feast was sitting atop a large table that stood about two feet off the ground. We discovered that not only was dinner served on this table, but we also sat on the table. An interesting presentation since tables we usually eat food at in the western world are sat around, not on. Very cool! 


Photo: Approach to Tho's house.

Liberal amounts of rice wine were shared and the style of drinking in the village is to share the same glass with everyone and to never pour your own. The small shot glass was to be sipped, never drank in one gulp. The nervousness of mis-stepping into the land of taboo wore off quickly as the firey liquid kicked in. The food was unbelievable and there was so much of it! We felt bad because we didn’t finish it, but Jake had Mikey translate our thanks and apologies for not finishing. Tho said not to worry, it was free and from the land, and they were very fortunate to have us as guests. A very humbling experience to say the least.

 

Photo: Hani & Tho.

We drove home through the mud in the dark and arrived safe and sound back at the Hani homestead. You’d think after all action of the day that we’d be tired, but not the case for most of us. Bao and Cori packed it in for the night while Jaka, Jake, Mikey and myself took a night walk through the village to a lake that Jaka recommended we see. It apparently is a crater from a bomb dropped during the American war and over time was filled with rainwater and has been a lake ever since. It was a nice way to end the day. The night was cool and very quiet as we shared a cigarette and listened to Jaka’s various existential philosophies, stories of village psychics called “see’ers” and many more inspiring musings.

 

Photo: Long exposure night time lake spot, Cham Village. 

We were later exposed to the embroidered patchwork textile process used in our Vietnam 2 THREADS. This process really is an example of ETHNOTEK’s brand concept coming full circle. The hand-embroidered pieces are textile remnants from Hmong tribal garments of Northern Vietnam that are recycled and sewn back together by the Cham people specifically for our THREAD collection. 


This is an interesting collaboration between two of Vietnam’s oldest ethnic minorities and is impressive how it all comes together. The genesis for starting ETHNOTEK stemmed from a solo trip Jake took in 2007 through the highlands of Northern-Vietnam, a region that is home to over 54 ethnic minority groups and nomadic tribes. I asked him about it and he responded:

"I remember sitting down to rest in Bac Ha after hiking through the highlands all day and looking down at my muddy shoes. I was so transfixed by what I was seeing I almost forgot about my modern lifestyle and upbringing. I come from the states, the land of gas guzzling SUV’s and triple fried Twinkies on a stick. MmmmMm fried twinkies, I digress. It was 2007 and the local people that I’ve been connecting with for the past week or so were still living the way they always have for hundreds of years. I thought to myself, we are all so fortunate that this sort of thing still exists. I felt a wave of responsibility and inspiration wash over me.


Rather than manufacture preachy blogs about the death of culture or try to flood tourists into these regions as if the tribes were animals on display, why not use the tools I already have in a very low-impact way to get the message out? The region I was in had some of the most amazing embroidered and hand-loomed textiles I had ever seen! I was a bag designer at the time. Why not combine the two by offering a unique piece of hand-made global culture in the form of something practical and useful like backpacks and messenger bags? Boom, ETHNOTEK was born.” - Jake


Pretty inspiring stuff to see that 4 years later, Jake launches ETHNOTEK and has commissioned a THREAD that brings both tribes together to make a living, breathing (and wearable) piece of global culture.


Well everyone, there are a lot more stories and misadventures from the road to come, so if you liked what you’ve been reading so far, (or have any questions or recommendations), please reach out to us on facebook. We love swapping stories with our fellow travelers... That’s what the tribe is all about!

 Signing out – the Rambling Shaman.


March 06, 2012 by Jacob Orak

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.