The Yangon Circle Lain Train, Myanmar

Many of the worlds big cities have an expansive metro system and a so-called ‘Circle or Loop Line’ with a variety of stations or stops that circumference the inner or outer metro areas. Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin and Beijing are all famous for this type of transit system, but the most unique and authentic one can be surely found in Yangon, Myanmar.

The Circle Line in Yangon consists of 45.9 kilometres of track via 39 stations, which form a loop around the capital connecting its satellite towns. The system is heavily utilized by the locals, selling about 150 000 tickets daily and providing cheap transportation.

A ride on this train provides a window into the daily routine of the Burmese people and allows experiencing the true essence of local life, travelling for three hours through the city’s rural landscape.

Myanmar’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia and jumping on this train at Yangon’s train station feels like stepping back in time: handwritten train schedules, passenger lists listed in old paper books, aged platforms and colourful, rusting antiquated trains.

Along with the constantly changing scenery outside, passengers of all ages and social groups come and go: local ladies with their plastic baskets, monks and nuns peacefully staring out the window, eager food and drink vendors wandering the carriages, children with thanaka painted cheeks, market sellers with bundles of live chicken and food – the traveller’s senses will surely be on overload when watching the commotion that takes place along the route.

The lack of mass tourism due to its military regime has preserved Myanmar way more from westernisation than its neighbouring countries, making it one of the most interesting places to visit now, though already being at a tipping point for the optimum time to travel.

Posted in Asia, Myanmar, Photography, Travels

The salt workers of the Danakil depression, Ethiopia

We are in one of the cruelest and hottest inhabited places on Earth, not far from the Eritrean border: the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. One hundred meters below sea level, the dry moonscape is so surreal that it doesn’t seem to be a part of the Earth at all. It’s a place of genuine, raw adventure. Few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness of volcanoes, aridness, and temperatures frequently saying hello to 60ºC. Not a place for everybody.

The Danakil depression is home to the fierce Afar people who live in East African countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea. They are a proud tribe, embracing a man’s strength and bravery. Vengeance killing is common and war the primary context for much of their culture, though it’s diminishing more and more. A few decades ago, a young man was not considered an adult until he had killed one man, usually a member of an opposite tribe. Regardless of which country they live in, the Afar crisscross the deserts with their livestock, living and surviving in the hottest and cruelest places on Earth.

The Danakil depression — specifically the area surrounding Lake Afdera — is the place from which close to 100% of the salt production in Ethiopia comes. The lake yields more than 1.3 million tons of salt annually, and around 750 officially registered salt miners work in this area. Teams of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the Ethiopian Highlands gather daily, and ten months out of the year, they mine the salt and transport it by camel and donkey to a small town called Berahile. In the past, the salt blocks — called amolé — were used all over Ethiopia as money. Although cash has replaced the salt, the trade itself remains the main livelihood of the Ethiopian Afar, and they guard and manage the “white gold” as their greatest treasure.

The salt flats in the Danakil depression, along the borderline between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are located 100 meters below sea level. This huge salt crust, often up to 1,000 meters thick, goes deep in the earth’s crust. It’s here the salt miners break plates of salt out of the ground. First, using an axe, the crust of salt is chopped into large slabs. Then workers fit a set of sticks in the grooves made by the axe. Finally, working with the sticks, the workers lift the big slab of salt, which is cut into tiles of standard sizes called ganfur (about 4kg) or ghelao (about 8kg), according to their weight. The tiles of salt are stacked, tied and prepared for transport.

The city Mekele, around 100 km away from the Danakil depression, is the hub of Ethiopia’s “white gold” trade and known as the old salt caravan city. Until recently, the tiles of salt were transported on camels all the way to Mekele, but this has changed over the past years. “We live in a world of transition”, says Adem, who manages one of the many salt storage places in Mekele. “Nowadays, the salt caravans walk only to Berahile, which is about 60 km away from Mekele. Then big trucks transport the salt from there to the storage places in Mekele. Each truck can transport up to 350 camel salt loads, which saves a lot of time, money and workers. From our storage places, the salt is transported and sold to all parts of Ethiopia. It is mainly used as table salt and an add-on for animal feed.”

The salt miners in the Danakil depression work under very tough conditions, in which temperatures hardly drop below 50-60º, even early in the morning. “I have been working as a salt miner for more than 10 years,” says Abebe, one of the workers I meet along my way. “Every day I have to walk almost two hours to the salt flat. But I enjoy my work, though it’s unbelievably hot and I can take off burned flaps of my skin every day. When I am on my way home, it burns like fire but, for me, it’s a great feeling that I can nourish my six children and wife thanks to my work as a salt miner.” Abebe earns 1 Birr for each salt tile he cuts, around five cents, and on a good day he can make up to 200 tiles. His working hours are early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and makes his work impossible.

Around 2,000 camels and 1,000 donkeys come to the salt flat every day to transport the salt tiles to Berahile, about 75 km away. Only male camels are used for the transport, which takes up to three days. “A strict organization is behind the camel and donkey loading,” explains caravan guide Haile Selassie. “I have been working here in the Danakil depression for more than 10 years and have my own 18 camels. Each camel can carry 30 salt tiles and walk up to 25 km a day. When we leave the salt flats with the animals, we have to walk around 20 km through a stone desert. After that, we have to pass a 40 km-long canyon where, luckily, we can always find water. From this point on, both men and animals are safe, as the riverbed never dries out.”

Another caravan guide crosses my way. Hadschi has been working in this profession for more than 40 years. “My dad started this business when he was young and we used to own around 500 camels and 1,000 donkeys. When my dad got too old, we sold most of the animals and I stayed with 100 camels and 150 donkeys to keep up the business. In the whole Danakil depression, there must be around 20,000 camels working for the salt business. Every day, the camels have to rest 4-5 hours and then walk until late at night. We only have tea and bread for the three-day walk, but we feel happy with this job. The salt business is part of our identity and culture. And most of us have grown up with our animals and we feel proud of them.”

For each load that one camel carries, 30 salt tiles at 4 kg, the men get around 7€. A man like Haile Selassie, who has 18 camels, can earn around 120€ with his camel transport. From this money, he still has to pay wages for two assistants who walk all the way with him, food for the animals, and customs for the camels when leaving and entering the desert. “It takes me one week to Berahile and back,” Haile tells me. “And at the end, after paying all the costs and wages, I earn 45 € in this one week. It’s not a lot, but for me enough. I still don’t have a family. I am lucky that the camels are mine and I don’t have to pay for them. Many men just rent the animals and a big part of their income goes to that.”

Every day, early before sunrise, a new day starts for the people involved in the salt business in the Danakil depression. It’s a day that brings heat, pain, and money hunting, but also laughter and pride. It’s a question of time how long the salt caravans will continue transporting the salt from the salt flats to Berahile. “At the latest when there is peace with Eritrea, there will be trucks coming from all sides to transport the salt tiles to the next cities,” says Haile with a worried face. ”One day our camels will be useless here in the Danakil depression…but first roads have to be constructed. So I hope I can fulfill my beloved job until my legs cannot carry me anymore.”

It’s time to leave a place where time has stopped. A journey into another world and time. A journey to people who acquire their resources and small treasures from a hostile and cruel nature. People who have developed their identity and culture out of this struggle. People who can be proud of this. The salt workers of the Danakil depression.

Posted in Photography

The story of Medina: “The scars in my face reflect my tough childhood. Being an Afar woman is not always easy.”

“It’s better to die than live without killing.” – Afar proverb

I am in the oddest place I have ever been to in my travels. Lying 100m below sea level, the Danakil Depression – where, sadly, four tourists were killed in January 2012 – is officially the hottest and most inhospitable place on earth. So surreal is the dry moonscape here that it doesn’t seem to be a part of the Earth at all. We are not far away from the Eritrean border and I have come here to witness and photograph caravans of camels transporting salt from the nearby lakes and showing the men’s tough work. It’s a place of genuine, raw adventure. Few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness of bubbling volcanoes, dryness, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort, ferocious tribes like the Afar and temperatures frequently saying hello to 45ºC. Not a place for everybody.

After some long hours on the public bus, I have finally arrived in Berahile. The heat is unsupportable and the only solution I see is to get one of those breezy dresses the local Afar women wear. I don’t exactly remember the moment when Medina appeared, but suddenly she was there, next to me, helping me to find my dress material and get it tailored. The first thing I notice about Medina were the big scars in her face – and her beauty. Two scars on her forehead, two on each cheek and two big, long scars running from ear to ear along her chin. Medina is a young woman of the Afar tribe. She doesn’t know her exact age, but guesses she is around 20.

The Afar people are located in East African countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea. They are a proud people, emphasizing a man’s strength and bravery. Vengeance killing has been a strong value and war the primary context for much of the culture, though it’s diminishing more and more. A few decades ago, a young man was not considered an adult until he had killed one man, usually a member of an opposite tribe. I asked many Ethiopians about the Afar people and got feedback like, “I am afraid of them”, “They are very scary” or simply “They are overheated motherfuckers”.

I cannot help it but I feel a strange vibe in the air. A man wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt comes towards us talking nonsense. Many men carry guns and spend their afternoons chewing chat leaves, which give them an unbeatable high, suppress their hunger and prevent tiredness.

Yesterday, there was a beautiful sunset. I walked outside the family’s house where I was staying, trying to capture the amazing sky colors with my camera when suddenly a stone came whizzing past me. It was one of those “overheated fellows” thinking that I had captured him with my camera. Another example? The same evening, I asked for a toilet and was taken to an outside hole in the ground surrounded by corrugated metal. While I was inside, I suddenly heard the noise of stones thrown at the toilet enclosure, followed by an angry voice of a woman. Luckily my Ethiopian friend Zemen was close and could calm down the shouting lady. When I got outside, I found out that I had been directed to the toilet of a Moslem family. When she heard that I was Christian and using their toilet, she became very upset. For them, it is like contaminating their reputation, and I felt very bad. Welcome to Berahile, Danakil.

I wanted to know more about Medina’s scars. My friend Zemen starts translatingbetween us and a short, but intense friendship is about to start. “It’s part of our Afar tradition. It symbolizes the toughness of a woman”, Medina tells me. “In the past, all women got scarred with razorblades. My mother also has scars in her face. She was the one who pushed me to get it done. I was really afraid, but the pressure around me, even from my friends, became bigger and bigger. At the end, some of my friends scarred my face with razorblades when I was 10 and it swelled up horribly. When I came home, my dad got very angry, beat me up and threw me out of the house for some days. My mother was happy, but my dad had been against this tradition since the beginning.”

Medina is from Awash, central Ethiopia, and comes from a very traditional Afar family. “My father was always the dominant person in the house, but that is normal in our culture. The scars in my face reflect my tough childhood. Believe me, being an Afar woman is not always easy”, she tells us. “When I was around 13, I fell in love with an Afar man from Berahile, the northern part of Ethiopia. He used to work temporarily in my town and all my friends really liked him, saying that he was very cute. He stole my virginity when I was 13 years old and my parents found out. It is a scandal in our tradition. You have to be married, and my parents got him arrested. He freed himself, paying them 20.000 Birr (= 850 €) and giving them a gun. Some time later, he had to go back to the north, and I decided to follow him and run away from home. I was crazily in love.”

My dress is finally ready and we decide to have a cold drink in the shadow. I cannot talk directly to Medina. All conversations are through Zemen, but I can tell that she is worried…and that she has the need to talk to somebody. Her beautiful smile is present all the time, but I can see her worries behind it.

“In the first years, he was such a good person. He was like a mother to me, gentle and kind,” Medina continues, about her beau. “We got married and lived together here in Berahile. When I was around 15, I got pregnant and our son was born. But everything changed when he met this other woman. In our tradition, men can have up to three or four women, but I really loved him and thought he would never do this to me. I felt so hurt when the other woman moved in. She is an Eritrean refugee and comes from the refugee camp near the Eritrean border. She doesn’t even know how to cook and, suddenly, he started using me as a slave. I had to make food for them, clean, and wash their clothes, and he gave me cheaper and bad food. I had to serve his relatives when they came for a visit, but he stopped respecting me and even refused to support me financially.“

I can feel how emotional Medina gets about this topic and that she feels very confused. We propose to go back to the family’s house where we sleep over and Medina wants to join us. In the midday heat, there is nothing to do except sit in the shade…and our conversation goes on.

“He started using me only for his personal interests and gave all his attention and financial support to the new woman. He began to beat me, became very aggressive and even threatened to kill me in some moments,” she told us with a sad voice. “I could not stand this situation any longer and just wished to become independent from him. I went to the women’s court and asked for a divorce. It was a long way to achieve it, as he was giving me a hard time and wanted to save his reputation, but finally he gave his agreement to get divorced. Without the agreement of the men, we cannot get divorced.

When I finally managed to move out and have my own small hut, I decided to sell chat and some drinks in my home in order to make a living. Chat is a good business here, as almost all men are addicted, and I even sell it in small towns nearby as Hamed Ela. My ex-husband has been telling all sorts of rumors about me, for example that I am working as a prostitute, which is not true. He started to ruin my reputation and, sadly, many people in this town believe him.”

Her face gets very serious and she shows us her black, wild hair. I am surprised that it’s not braided as all the other women’s hair. Medina explains, “The women here don’t want to do my hair. Most of them believe the stories my ex-husband has been telling and refuse to help me. Sometimes, and when I have a little bit of money left, one woman from the Eritrean refugee camp comes here and does my hair. She is the only one. I have nobody here and my family is far away.”

The conversation continues in Tigrinya between Zemen and Medina, and I can tell that she hasn’t talked to anybody about her worries in a long time. I can see from their faces that they talk about something serious. After a long time, Zemen finally translates, “She is worried because the ex-husband has their son. After the official divorce, he got so angry that he refused to give him to Medina. Now the son lives with the ex-husband’s parents and he threatens to kill her in case she attempts to get the son back. Medina is desperate. She wants to leave this place and thinks about going back to her parents’ place, but there is no way she can get the son.”

“What about the court?”, I ask Zemen. “Is there no way she can go there and get help?”. Zemen laughs, “We are in Afar area and here rule the laws of the men. He didn’t care about the divorce and that’s why she achieved it, but she will never be able to get the son through the court. Forget it.”

Her story starts to make me sad and angry at the same time. I can see that Medina needs a break for herself and gets up to say good-bye to us. “Please come to my house tomorrow”, she tells us with her beautiful smile. “I would like to invite you for dinner, and you can also have some chat and coffee at my place”. I don’t feel excited about the chat proposal, but look forward to seeing her again.

We accept her invitation and, the following day, go to her small hut that she has transformed into a simple, but lovely 3-in-1 café. We spend the whole afternoon talking and drinking coffee and tea. I can tell that Medina is an experienced housewife: the way she prepares tea and coffee, the way she cleans her small fireplace, the way she organizes her few kitchen belongings and the way she serves her three guests who are Afar men from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border area. She gets up and starts looking for something in a box that she hides behind her bed. Proudly, she takes out a big perfume bottle that looks kind of old and covered with dust. She starts putting it on me, spraying it on my hair, my dress and my skin. “This is a sign of truly friendship and affection”, Zemen explains to me. “She really likes you. For her, the perfume is one of her most valuable belongings and she wants to share it with you.”

Medina smiles at me and goes back to her small kitchen place. She starts making our dinner, local injera with pasta, and continues telling us her story. “There is something I didn’t mention yesterday”, she confesses. “Some time ago, I met a new man. He is Eritrean and comes from the nearby refugee camp. He used to be a chat customer at my place and we started to get to know each other more and more. He is kind, gentle and knows everything that has happened to me. He now lives in Hamed Ela, about an hour from here, and we see each other regularly. He supports me and wants to stay with me in whatever I decide to do.”

Our table is the floor of her small hut and together we sit down and eat the huge injera with a pasta portion for at least five people. It’s delicious, and prepared with affection by Medina. “When my ex-husband found out that I was seeing somebody else, he freaked out and threatened to kill him,” she explains. “I am afraid and feel it’s time to leave this place, but then I have to leave behind my son. I have been trying and trying to get him back, but there is no way. I am risking my life,” she says in a sad voice. “I have been thinking about going back to my family in Awash. We are still in contact and my mother tells me to come back, but I am afraid and feel ashamed. People will ask questions and I have failed in so many ways: I ran away from my parents, I got divorced, I have to leave behind my son, and I am alone. I don’t know what to tell them, how to answer all the people’s questions. I promised them many times I would come back, but never did, and now they don’t believe me anymore. My sister also ran away from home when she was young and escaped to Djibouti, following a man. She has a similar story and is now back home, but I know that she is not getting along with our father.

The Eritrean man I am seeing now has to go to the capital, Addis Ababa, soon to finally get his visa and do the last medical check. He keeps telling me to go with him and then return together to Awash, my hometown. He knows about my fear, but insists to support me in whatever might happen. I can feel that he really loves me and only wants my best”, she tells us with a smile.

Silence is in the air and Zemen and I are both digesting her words and story. We don’t know what to tell her, we don’t know the answers to her questions and fears. An intense and lovely evening is coming to an end, and it’s time to say goodbye to Medina. We are leaving Berahile the next day. I feel that she needed those two days with us, to share her story, and that she needed somebody who would listen to her. She insists I should sleep over at her house and save my money for the rest of my trip. When I want to give her something for the dinner, drinks and coffee, she refuses and tells us that we are friends and not guests. “Friends don’t pay at my house. That’s the beautiful side of the Afar culture. Many people here ask me for money and, if I have it, I lend it to the people. But almost nobody pays it back to me. See this.” She shows us a book full of names and numbers next to it. “My friend writes down for me who owes me how much money. I cannot even read and write. I have never gone to school in my life”.

We give her a big hug and I can smell a cloud of perfume, the same one I am wearing that day. I insist that Medina should take my small money. “It’s not for the food and drinks. It’s going to be for your bus ticket to Addis Ababa and then back home. Do you promise?” I ask her.

She shows us her beautiful smile and thinks for a few seconds. “I promise”, she says firmly.

Inshallah.

 

Posted in Photography

Bull jumping ceremony, Hamer tribe, South Ethiopia

During my stay in the Omo Valley, South Ethiopia, I was able to witness the traditional bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer tribe (one of the many tribes in that area). The event is a rite of passage for men about to marry and is seen as a step from childhood to manhood. It lasts three days and friends and relatives from nearby villages come in order to witness this important happening.

One selected man must jump four times over a line of bulls, completely naked, ideally without falling. If this task is completed, the man joins the ranks of the “Maza”, men from the same tribe who have already completed the bull-jumping event successfully. During the ceremony, the bulls are hold in place by the Maza. If the man fails to jump over the bulls without falling, the women will whip him with wooden sticks and his whole family will feel very ashamed.

Before the actual bull jumping takes place, young female relatives provoke the Maza to whip them on their bare backs. This causes life-long scaring on the women and is obviously very painful, but the women willingly take part in this important event. The scars are a symbol of devotion to the men and are encouraged by the tribe. They are said to be proof of the woman’s sacrifice for the man and, therefore, it’s impossible for him to refuse her needs in times of emergencies. In addition to jumping bulls, the Hamer tribe requires that the man pays the bride’s family a dowry in form of cattle. One Hamer man can marry up to four Hamer women.

The bull jumping ceremony definitely is a “goose bump event” and marked one of the highlights during my Ethiopia trip…

Posted in Photography

The Mentawaian tribe (Siberut Island, Sumatra, Indonesia)

The Mentawaian tribe lives on a very distant corner of the globe: Siberut Island. Siberut is a 12-hour night boat ride away from Sumatra, Indonesia’s biggest island, and forms part of the Mentawai archipelago. Surfing is a big business in Mentawai as the islands have supposedly the best waves on earth and most visitors come for the surfing and not the Mentawaians. I stayed one week with a Mentawaian family in their “uma” (house) and could, apart from getting very sick in the jungle, learn about their way of life and beliefs.

The Mentawains can only be found on Siberut Island and very little is known about their origin. It is assumed that they emigrated from Sumatra to Nias Island and made their way to Siberut from there. The Mentawains have their own language, traditional laws and regulations, and many of them are skilled boat builders and hunters. After the independence from the Dutch, the Indonesian government banned many of the Mentawains’ customs, such as their body tattoos, sharpened teeth (many of them still have their teeth filed into points) and long hair. Although the ban has not been enforced, some villagers have adopted modern fashions nowadays. Traditional clothing is a loincloth made from the bark of the breadfruit tree for men und a bark skirt for women. Mentawains traditionally wear bands of red-colored rattan, beads and brass rings.

Traditional villages are built along riverbanks and consist of one or more “uma”, communal houses. Several families can live in the same house and, the houses stand on wooden piles and are windowless. Discussions affecting the community take place in the uma and important men make most of the major decisions.

The Mentawaians’ native religion involves the worship of nature spirits and a belief in the existence of ghosts, as well as the soul. The chief nature spirits are those of the sky, the sea, the jungle and the earth. The sky spirits are considered the most influential, and there are also two river spirits. All inanimate objects have a “kina” (spirit), which gives them life. The worship of the soul is of big importance, being vital to good health and longevity. The soul is believed to depart the body at various times during life before its ultimate escape at death. Sickness, for example, is the result of the temporary absence of the soul and dreams signify that the soul is “on vacation”. My Mentawaian family tried to cure my sickness with plants from the jungle, chanting and rubbed my body with a chicken before sacrificing it, trying to chase away bad spirits. The same day I arrived their 2-week-old baby had died, and in their belief there was a bad spirit over their house. When the soul leaves the body at death it is transformed to a ghost, and Mentawains try to avoid these ghosts, whom they suspect of attempting to rob the living of their souls. To protect themselves, they place fetish sticks at every entrance to the village and monkey head skeletons inside the house opposite the entrance.

It has been the missionaries who had the most influence on the Mentawai people, creating fundamental changes in their culture. After the Protestants, Catholic missionaries arrived and also Islam began to make inroads during the Dutch era. Today more than half the population claims to be Protestant, 16% Catholic and 13% Muslim, while the rest have no official religion.

Staying with the Mentawaians is definitely a highlight of a trip to Sumatra, as many of their traditional beliefs, habits and “looks” (their sharpened teeth, body tattoos, hunting with bow and arrow) can still be witnessed.

Posted in Photography

Iban bejalai body art, Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and divided among three countries: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. The natives of Borneo consist of different tribes where each has its own language and culture, but all tribes share something in common: the tradition and practice of tattooing.

For many centuries, the tattooing has been a way of life for the Iban, one of the largest tribe, and there is a big mythos and mystery behind the Iban bejalai. The bejalai can be defined as a journey, or a voyage of discovery. After leaving the safety of the village, a warrior-to-be would head out into unfamiliar lands where lessons were learned and skills were taught (shamanism, hunting, boat building, etc). With each lesson mastered, the “traveler” would add a tattoo to the body creating a biographical constellation of designs.

Traditionally, an Iban would get the first tattoo around the age of 10. The initiating tattoo is the eggplant flower (bungai terung), drawn on each shoulder. The design is rich with symbolism, and commemorates the beginning of one’s journey as a man. After receiving the eggplant ornaments, the Iban was ready to leave home and scores of tattoos, as the popular crab design inked on a man’s arm or the coveted throat tattoo for the bravest travelers, followed. The bejalai never stopped during a warrior’s life, although when they returned to their village, and the tattoos acted like stamps in a passport: recounting stories of adventure. The number of tattoos acquired greatly increased one’s desirability as a bachelor and it was believed that it enabled a soul to shine brightly in the afterlife.

For women, tattoos on the arm meant that they were skilled at craft making and the designs enhanced their beauty. It is believed that the darker the color of the tattoo, the more beautiful the tattoo and the bearer is. Women were also tattooed as proof of their accomplishments in dancing or singing. Aside from these, the Ibans also bore tattoos for protective purposes as it is said to help ward off harm and disease. There are also several taboos surrounding the bejalai tradition. The most important one was to avoid getting a tattoo on the top of one’s hand, as this area of the body was strictly reserved for those who had taken heads. Also, every animal inked facing inward must have something to eat, because if the design was left hungry it would feed on the bearer’s soul. Over the last century the tattooing materials have greatly changed and the tradition has evolved as well. Traditionally, the ink was made from soot mixed with sugarcane juice, and needles were made from bone or bamboo. Nowadays standard surgical steel needles are commonly used. In recent years, fewer Iban are getting inked, and those who do generally get designs commemorating trips to other countries, or military service.

Although it is by no means a lost art, the tradition of bejalai body art is beginning to fade…

Posted in Asia, Borneo, Photography, Travels

ADRA development projects in the Dry Zone, central Myanmar.

On my bus ride from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar, I was lucky to sit next to a Project Manager from ADRA, a non-profit and international non-governmental development and relief organization working in more than 120 countries worldwide. In Myanmar, it was established in 1993 and has been providing development and relief assistance throughout the country. The central office is located in Yangon and there are 5 satellite offices in Labutta (Ayeyarwaddy Division), Pakokku (Magwe Division), Sisaing (Southern Shan State), Laukai and Namtit (both Northern Shan State). ADRA seeks to identify and address social injustice in developing countries and has partnerships with rural communities, country authorities, donors and fund raising partner offices within the ADRA network. In Myanmar, ADRA concentrates on six cores: water & sanitation, food security & livelihoods, healthcare, education, disaster rehabilitation and infrastructure.

Thanks to the Project Manager and his team, I was able to get an insight into ADRA’s work in the Pakokku district where I was taken one full day to visit different projects. We visited 3 small villages in the so-called Magway Region or Dry Zone, central Myanmar: Kan Net with 538 inhabitants, Pay Pin Taik with 700 and Tha Yet Kwa with 786 inhabitants.

I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of the villagers who had prepared a table full of food and drinks for me, took their time to explain me the main problems, needs and progresses in each place, who came to see me as if I were famous and even offered me presents and their hard earned food. A 90-year old man, for example, offered me a hand full of rice that was going to be his only food for the next days. He makes bamboo baskets by himself that he exchanges at the local market for rice, his main alimentation. In Kan Net, a 92-year old lady had heard about my visit and walked a long way just to come and see me.

ADRA will provide assistance in these villages at least until 2013 and the main problems in this area are: lack of water and job opportunities, harsh working conditions and dryness, no market for local products and low education opportunities. The main needs and objectives for 2012 will be electricity, village libraries, water facilities, and bridge and road renovations to improve the villagers’ everyday life.

My visit to these 3 villages, and the very special way I was welcomed, was definitely one of my Myanmar highlights that will last forever in my memories. I would like to thank the ADRA team for making this visit possible (I know that getting permits for foreigners in Myanmar is not always easy) and taking their time to explain me the different projects.

Posted in Myanmar, Travels

“Come to Myanmar, but don´t steal. The government doesn’t like competition”. – Moustache Brothers comedy team of Myanmar, performing in their small garage in Mandalay.

I just came back from my trip to Myanmar (also known as “Burma”) – home to a totalitarian military dictatorship. As a tourist, I was careful to minimise any money going to the government and was warmly welcomed by the Burmese people throughout the country. There is no right or wrong answer in response to whether or not foreigners should visit Myanmar, but those who choose to go should ensure they do extensive reading before and during their travels about the political situation.

In Mandaly I had the opportunity to meet and see the activist comedy trio “The Moustache Brothers”, known for live performances in their small garage that combine satirical criticism of the totalitarian Myanmar military regime (government), comedy and classic Burmese dance.

The Moustache Brothers are composed of U Par Par Lay, U Lu Zaw, and Lu Maw. Lay and Zaw served almost six years of a sentence to seven years in jail, for criticizing the government in a performance at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon in 1996. Amnesty International led a campaign for their release and negotiations by Suu Kyi contributed to their release. Part of the conditions for their release is the fact that they are under house arrest regulations and that they are now allowed to perform only for foreigners, in the small garage of their Mandalay house. Despite several arrests and the fact that they are banned from performing in Burmese throughout the country, as they used to do in the past, the Moustache Brothers haven’t given up their positive spirit and irony.

“One day I had a toothache, so I went over the border to Thailand to find a dentist”, tells Lu Maw during the show. “The dentist took a look at me and said surprisingly: <Why do you come all the way to Thailand? Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?> I looked at him and said : “In Myanmar, we have dentists – but we’re not allowed to open our mouths!”

The Moustache Brothers have been covered numerous times by the BBC and international press, but they live with the daily fear of the Myanmar secret police (or the ‘KGB’ as the comedy trio calls them) who could be in the crowd watching or filming their show.

Those foreigners who end up in the hidden Mandalay back street of the Moustache Brothers, as me, can happily watch a condensed version of the once-glorious comedy-and-dance show of the trio. “It’s not the same as when we traveled around the country playing to the Burmese,” says Lu Maw. Nevertheless, the brave brothers say that “the show must go on”. And that’s actually happening in the their small garage, somewhere in a hidden back street in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Posted in Asia, Myanmar, Photography, Travels

“My dream is to see the ocean one day…and to read and write. I want to be able to read my cellphone messages.” – Mai, a 31-year-old Hmong woman from Sapa area

I never imagined that my last days in Vietnam would turn out to be so interesting and intense. Not expecting too much after traveling through a way too touristy country, at least to me, I arrived in Sapa, northwest Vietnam, close to the border with China.

This area is well known for the many ethnic minority groups that live there: Hmongs, Dsai, Dao (Yao), Giay, Pho Lu and Tay. On my first day, I was very lucky to run into Mai, a 31-year-old Hmong woman from a small village called Hau Thao. She ended up taking me on an unforgettable four-day trek to her village, offering me her house, and to her mother’s place far away in the mountains where I met the rest of her lovely family.

The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, China and Thailand. They began a southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land. Vietnam, where their presence is documented from the late 18th century onwards, is the first Indochinese country into which the Hmong migrated.

Their traditional cultivation of the opium poppy, prohibited in 1993, guaranteed them a regular cash income over many years. Today, farming is the main economic activity and most of the ethnic minorities, including Mai and her family, work their land on sloping terraces in the mountains. Their staple foods are rice and corn. With sub-tropical summers, temperate winters and 160 days of mist annually, farmers can only produce one crop of rice annually. As such, food shortages, malnutrition and other health-related problems often result.

“Believe me, our situation is not easy”, Mai tells me. “We work very hard in our fields and many ethnic minorities try to live from the tourists. Twenty years ago, there was no tourism around Sapa. Now it is a big business, but the money goes mainly to the Vietnamese. People come to learn about our culture and see us, but the Vietnamese  control the business and don’t like if we have direct contact with the tourists.”

Mai keeps looking blankly at her cellphone and finally tells me why: she is illiterate. “The school was too far away from my mother’s village, but I really want to know how to read and write, to be able to read the cellphone messages I receive once in a while.“ She shows me her display, but I only see Vietnamese text and symbols. “Can you help me?” she asks with a big smile, a golden tooth flashing in the sun. In the culture of many ethnic minorities, a gold-covered tooth indicates that a woman is married.

“I got married when I was 21, but there are girls who marry at the age of 15,” she says. “In the past, when a boy wanted to marry a girl, he made his intentions clear and ‘snatched’ her at any opportunity that was appropriate. This was a symbolic kidnapping in our tradition. In the past, our parents used to choose the life partner and arrange a wedding, but that has changed, too.”

Mai is the mother of three handsome boys, ages 2, 4 and 8 years old. “I gave birth here at home,” she tells me, pointing towards one of the two rooms which make up her simple, but lovely wooden house. “Usually, we Hmong women prefer to give birth at home and not in the hospital in Sapa. Vietnamese people work in the hospitals and they shout at us if we cry during a tough birth. They don’t treat us in a nice way so I feel better giving birth here at home”.

Shoe, Mai’s older sister, tells me another anecdote about the Vietnamese who issued her ID card: “On my card, I am actually two years younger than in reality,” she says. “My name and  birthday are correct, but the year is wrong. Usually, when they issue ID cards for Hmongs, they do it without paying attention. We are not important to them, so who cares about our correct birth year?”

“I hope to get a passport,” Mai adds smiling. “My dream is to see the ocean, especially Halong Bay, one day. I want to take a train, maybe even a plane, but I don’t know how to pay for it. I haven’t even seen $100 in my life, but I don’t give up dreaming”.

Mai is a tough woman. She takes care of her childen, and although she has great help from her husband, she carries heavy wood for many hours through the mountains, walks long distances with her small broken slippers, treks the steep and muddy way to her mother’s village with her baby on the back and helps the family on the rice fields. But she never complains and always has a smile. She seems to run through the mountains so easily, so familiar with each stone, plant and obstacle along the muddy way.

“Come on, Christina, let’s have dinner,” she calls to me. “My husband has made banana flower for you. I am sure you have never tried it before. He collected it from the banana tree for you.” We have dinner at the fire with the whole family and one bowl after the next of delicious food is served to me, accompanied by many shots of homemade corn wine.

Beautiful days in another world come to an end. I fall asleep in Mai’s mother’s bed. It feels like a stone… but is so warm at the same time. Stunning sounds from outdoors accompany my night’s slumber.

I hope that Mai will be able to go to Halong Bay with her husband one day… if somebody deserves it, it’s definitely them.

 

Posted in Photography

Aki Ra, Cambodia: from a boy soldier to a United Nations landmine clearer

The aim of writing the story of Aki Ra is to highlight the horror of the landmines which are still prevalent in Cambodia, one of the things that impacted me most during my trip to this country, besides its sad and tragic past at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime*. I visited Aki’s landmine museum near Siem Reap and was able to learn about his (war) experiences and dreams for the future.

“I am not sure of the exact date of my birth, but I have information that I was born in 1973. I have always lived in North-West Cambodia and have spent most of my life surrounded by guns, artillery and the horror of landmines. My parents were both killed by the Khmer Rouge when I was only 5 years old. From that age on I was brought up by the Khmer Rouge and forced to work in their army. I was taught to lay mines, make simple bombs, and fire guns and rocket launches.

At the age of about 10, I had my first gun and was forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge. When I was 14, the Vietnamese occupied our village and I was conscripted into their army and went to fight against my previous army, the Khmer Rouge. One day, I was shooting across the field and suddenly saw my uncle who I was ready to shoot. I shot over his head until he ran away. Only last year I spoke to him about that day and we had a laugh. I stayed with the Vietnamese army until 1990 when they pulled their troops out of Cambodia, and went on to join the Cambodian army which was still fighting the Khmer Rouge. In 1993, the United Nations sent peacekeeping forces and I went to work for them, helping to clear the landmines that had been laid over the years by the various fighting forces. “

Between the years 1984-1990, many people were killed or injured by landmines. Still today there are many weapons left behind by the army men as during fighting they were too heavy to carry. Many children and people are still injured or killed by such weapons and landmines, many of them civilians working in the fields.

“During my days spent clearing the landmines all over the country, I would find many relics from the war, and slowly started collecting various bits and pieces which I hid in several places around the jungle. I then hit upon the idea of starting a museum, as I had found so many things. I created it gradually and finally opened it to the public in 1999. Many people in Cambodia still feel distress for the loss of their families and because of the hardships the Khmer regime created, but I feel that Cambodia should concentrate on moving forward and rebuilding the new way of life. There is no way dwelling on the past because it is sadly irreversible. We live daily with the legacy of the landmine and unexploded bombs. I hope that my museum will help to explain that for us the horror is not over. We still need help in dealing with this massive problem and I feel that the world is not fully aware of the scale of situation. It may take up to 100 years to find and clear every mine, as there are many unrecorded minefields. Hopefully, we will get enough support to speed up making this country safe for its people. That’s my dream.”

* Between the years 1975-1979, it’s estimated that over 3 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge who mercilessly tortured and killed in the many killing fields around the country .

 

Posted in Asia, Cambodia, Conflict, Travels