Jodi Rowley is a National Geographic grantee discovering and documenting the diversity, ecology and conservation status of highly threatened amphibians in the forested mountains of Vietnam.
Although my passion for amphibians and their conservation brought me to this mountainous region in northern Vietnam in search of amphibians, this post isn’t about frogs, salamanders or caecilians. It’s about people.
I’ve been fortunate working with many of the same great friends and colleagues in Vietnam for seven years, but on every expedition we meet more amazing people from new areas. I learn a little about their way of life and they learn a little about mine as we cook, eat, sleep, hike and survey amphibians together in the forest.
On this expedition, we’ve been over a week in the forest with a wonderful group of H’mong men. And for the last few days of the trip, we’ve been invited to stay in their village, at one of their houses. I’m getting sick of sleeping on a tarp on the forest floor, so I’m rather excited to sleep on something flat, even if it is just wooden planks. I also feel incredibly privileged to receive such a generous invitation. It’s not a small thing having five muddy biologists and all their gear take up residence in your cosy house!
After our last night sleeping in the forest, we wake up early, and start packing. Our hammocks, clothes and survey gear gets back first. The food, cooking equipment and tarp gets packed up last of all. We then divide the gear between us, strap it to our backs, and begin the trek out over those tricky limestone rocks, through the forest, and down along a trail through the corn fields in the valley.
The house we are staying in is right next to the narrow road running through the village. We take our wet, dirty shoes and socks off, walk inside, and pile our gear into the corner. The door is just low enough that I hit my head on the way in. The house is basically one big room with walls and floors made of dark planks of wood, and a deck running around the outside. Near the door, a fire is lit in a big metal bowl resembling an oversized wok, and two large wooden beds are on the far side of the house.
We sit on the narrow deck out the back and finish photographing and recording information on the amphibians that we found the night before. We then change into cleaner clothes (nothing we own is 100% clean, but some clothes don’t smell as much), and eat a simple lunch. We walk through the village in the afternoon, and meet some of the villagers. We had met many of them briefly when we arrived almost two weeks before, but after our time in the forest, we were no longer strangers, and were welcomed into homes.
Although all meetings are special, one particular person really connected with me- an old woman wearing a huge, purple head-scarf, with gentle hands and a friendly voice. Perhaps the moments with her were so touching because she looked a lot like my grandmother, who I was very close to, and who had very recently passed away.
When I met her this afternoon, she led me into her house, sat down, and we held hands. She wanted us to take a photograph of her, so we did. In some of the photos, I’m in the frame. I love the photo below because it reminds me of brief that moment- that I can go half way around the world, not speak a single word of the same language, and yet feel so connected.
That night, we didn’t survey for amphibians. Instead, the head of the village hosted a meal at his house, and we were the guests of honour. His home-made corn liquor featured heavily on the menu, and one of the men told us later “We’ve seen westerners before, but they’ve never drunk with us”.
The last night we climbed up the waterfall above the village and found a few frog species that we hadn’t seen at all deeper in the forest. Huge, mottled-green frogs with powerful legs and large toe-pads for climbing up waterfalls. The next morning we packed our gear up, said our thanks to our generous host. Just as we were about to get on motorbikes and head out the village, we saw a small figure inching up the road with a walking stick. It was the wonderful old lady again, wanting to say goodbye to us. She approached slowly, we held hands again, and then said goodbye.
Our amphibian survey is over, but we’ll have a lot of work to do in the office and lab to identify the species we found. I look forward to learning more about amphibians, and meeting new friends, in the forests of Vietnam.