Tag Archives: culture

The Packaging of Culture: Dai on the Lancang

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A thick mist settled over the highway as we drove out of Jinghong, and only through short patches in the haze could we see the extent of the vast scenery we were passing. We were headed to the southeastern edge of Xishuangbanna prefecture, just 30km from the Burmese border to visit several communities of Dai people.

An ethnic minority, the Dai people were part of an ancient culture that inhabited what is now China’s Yunnan province until political chaos and wars forced them to disperse south. Now spread across China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, the roughly 60 million Dai are divided by modern international borders.

As we wound our way along the mountain road that would take us to the Dai villages we passed through dozens of small villages, catching fleeting glimpses of people walking through the blanketing fog, heading to their farms or leading their livestock to feed. It wasn’t until we arrived at Olive Dam – so named for it’s resemblance of an olive from the air, and the word dam meaning “basin” in Mandarin – situated at the bottom of a deep valley, that the sun fully rose to burn off the mist.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The Jinuo are an ehtnic minority found in western China.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village.

Packaged Culture

Though we knew the area was advertised heavily as a tourist attraction, the extent of the commercialization of the culture was seemed excessive. Gift shops and souvenir stalls lined a large parking lot where tour busses had already gathered, despite the early hour. An information pamphlet welcomed us to the “Dai Minority Park”, and we began to suspect that the day’s cultural experience might be something less than authentic.

Through our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, we learned that in fact the park was owned by a private real estate developer that had consolidated several Dai villages into a single tourist destination. In exchange, a portion of the income was given back to the Dais in the form of jobs, infrastructure, and possibly cash. While we decided to reserve judgement until we had seen more of what lay inside, we immediately began referring to the area as “the theme park”, and the immaculately paved roads and manicured gardens further increased our skepticism.

As we walked through the community, it was clear that the residents of the minority park were far better off financially than those in the less developed villages we had passed earlier that morning. Most of the houses were new looking and well built with concrete and finished wood, and newish looking cars and motorcycles were parked in front of the majority. Living in the theme park was apparently not without benefits.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

In the distance the thumping bass of loud music drew us deeper into the village until we reached a large open area, packed with people. In the centre Dais, dressed in brightly coloured silks, splashed in a shallow pool of water encircling a fountain and tourists ringed the outer edges, cameras at the ready. The event was a reenactment of the annual water festival celebrated in April of each year, held twice a day for the enjoyment of visitors. And while the whole affair was a rehearsed performance, the Dai actors were clearly enjoying themselves as they hurled buckets of water at each other, and occasionally those tourists who ventured too near the water’s edge.

After half an hour of the playful display, the crowd migrated towards a nearby stadium, stopping to buy snacks of fried vegetables or spicy papaya salad. A solitary caged elephant stood by, and some visitors opted to climb a metal staircase onto its back to have their photos taken. Since spending a great deal of time earlier in the journey learning about the precarious relationship between humans and elephants in Laos, we were especially sensitive to the plight of the animals and the sight somewhat dampened our spirits. However we knew there was nothing to be done about it, save staging an ill-advised prison break, so we resigned ourselves to muttering an impotent apology to the animal as we joined the flow of people entering the stadium.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

For the next hour the audience was treated to a variety of Dai traditional dances and calligraphy displays. While the dances were impressively choreographed with dozens of young women in beautiful silken dresses and the calligrapher mesmerizing to watch as he smoothly painted characters onto large parchments, we knew we were learning about as much about the realities of modern day Dai life as a trip to Disneyland could teach us about film production.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village  in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the Dai Minority Village, and obviously it had brought security and prosperity to the communities. Dancing was surely a nicer way to make a living than toiling in the fields, but we wanted to get away from the canned performances to see what normal Dai people did in their everyday lives.

The Opposite Bank

After waiting for the arrival of a small ferry boat to shuttle us across the Lancang to the Dai village of Manhenuan, the difference was immediately obvious. Unlike in the Minority Park with its expansive paved roads, there was a stone beach with a rutted motorcycle path that lead inland. Locals sat along the water’s edge, casting fishing rods into the river and waiting patiently for bites that did not seem to come.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

“Here we grow many things like bananas, corn, rubber, and beans,” Yu Yinghan said. A young woman in her late 20’s, we found Yu fishing with her husband on the river’s edge and had stopped to ask her about the differences between Manhenuan and the nearby cultural park. “We have what we need here, so we don’t want to work full time for a big company. We would rather work for ourselves.”

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village.

Further inland, the rockiness of the Lancang’s banks gave way to bright green expanses of farmland, set against the backdrop of the rolling mountains on the horizon. Moving between neat rows of string beans, we met Yan Wenxiang and decided to switch gears to ask about the role of the Lancang in the daily lives of Manhenuan residents.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I water my crops from the river, though it’s too dirty to drink. Usually there is enough [for the crops], but sometimes because of the nearby dams there is not. Yesterday there was enough, but not today.”

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village.

Unlike those across the river, the Dais of Manhenuan lived a more traditional lifestyle and relied on the land and its natural resources as their primary source of income, instead of the tourist dollars that supported the Minority Park.

While we watched labourers heft 60kg sacks of picked beans onto tractors to be sold for 2-3 Yuan (roughly $0.50) per kilogram, we chatted with them and reflected on the strange paradox of development. As outside observers, the rural lifestyle of Manhenuan’s farming Dais conjured words like “idyllic” and “natural” in our minds. Friendly and laughing the whole time they worked, it would have been easy to assume that this way of living was inherently better than allowing a real estate company to turn their village into a theme park.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village.

But at the same time, as we watched the workers sweat under the weight of the beans, it was obvious that this was not easy work – either physically or financially. As always, we had to remind ourselves not to judge the quality of the lives of others based on romanticized notions of simpler times.

Following a dirt road for a few kilometres, we reached the centre of Manhenuan town and immediately realized that the community was already on its way to following in the footsteps of the Minority Park. Multiple construction crews and 70 tonne excavators were busily tearing up the small roads and preparing them for paving. Building sites were everywhere, and the extent of the bamboo scaffolding indicated that the new structures would almost certainly dwarf the existing ones.

“Soon a new bridge will be built and it will allow tourists to come here more easily,” Yan Ying said. 52 years old and sporting a magnificent Soviet-style winter hat, Yan explained that Manhenuan was preparing to follow the example of the Dai across the Lancang and convert itself into a tourist attraction. “Many things are changing.”

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.  With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village.

Currently living in a small makeshift shack with his wife and daughters, Yan had torn down his house in order to build a more modern structure in its place. “I thought about building a traditional style house, but I decided to use bricks so I could rent out the rooms to tourists,” he said.

When we asked him several loaded questions, trying to gauge if he felt any anger about the immanent commercialization of his village, he didn’t express any personal misgivings. “I don’t own any land, and since there is none available to buy, tourists will be the best way for me to earn money to give to my children.”

“Some people are arguing with the company,” he admitted after continued probing, “They think we aren’t being paid enough. But for me it’s good.”

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village.

As we left Manhenuan, we couldn’t help but feel saddened by the knowledge that the little village would probably be unrecognizable if we returned in five years. But at the same time, it was more than understandable that Yan preferred the thought of his daughters working in an air-conditioned hotel instead of labouring in a sweltering bean field.

For better or for worse, the modern world would march on. We could only hope that in the process Dai traditions would not become just another packaged culture for the convenient consumption of those who could afford the price of admission.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture.

After a three year hiatus Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, returned to the Kingdom last week. Meant to mark the the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river – and the associated fishing and agricultural fertility that brings – the festival is one of the biggest holidays in Cambodia. Over three days of races, long boat crews from all over Cambodia converge on the capital, seeking to win honour (and hopefully a piece of the prize money) for their home towns.

Despite the historical and cultural importance of the festival, the tragic stampede incident in 2010, which saw roughly 250 dead and 750 injured led to the suspension of the event for three years – though strong arguments could be made that the government, fearing large gatherings of people during the past year of civil unrest, had ulterior motives for cancelling last year’s celebration.

Political agendas aside, it was clear from the lower-than-normal turnout that the memories of 2010 have had a stigmatic effect. In past years the estimated number of attendees was somewhere close to two million, whereas this year – despite having very little in the way of official census information – it was widely agreed that not even one million were present. Fear of a repeat disaster, it would seem, has tarnished the festival’s popularity.

Diminished crowds aside, the festival is still one of the most significant events in the Cambodian calendar year, and worth checking out if you’re in Phnom Penh at the right time.

A boat crew dances on the first morning of the water festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew dances in the early morning of the first day of the annual Cambodian water festival, 2014. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Many event spectators have come from distant regions of Cambodia, and camp along the river banks for the duration of the festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A man watches the early morning practice sessions from his hammock. With such an influx of spectators, many of whom have come from the countryside to support their local racing team, parts of the east bank of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh turned into an informal campground.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew move aboard their racing boat in the early morning, warming up before the first of the day’s races. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews are roughly 50 strong, and around 250 boats participated in this year’s festival. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boats move down the Tonle Sap river. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

 

A racing boat crew warms up on the Tonle Sap river before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat from Kampong Chhnang passes under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh before going on to win its race.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Water Festival Returns To Cambodia For First Time Since 2010 Stampede Tragedy

Racing teams speed down the Tonle Sap river. With nearly 250 boats participating, the boats are often moving in very close proximity to each other.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after having finished a race. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day's races will be held. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day’s races will be held. VIPs, from the King to the Prime Minister, attended the races, often sponsoring teams of their own. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Though attendance numbers were much lower than in past years, the riverfront was still a buzz of activity.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh's royal palace.   Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river.   because of the river’s role in previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river after the day’s races have finished.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Long Tail Diaries: The First Challenge

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats.

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats. It will take nearly four hours for us to find the entrance to the river leading to Phnom Penh.

After working flat out for most of 2014, when a month-long drought in assignments set in I didn’t know how to handle all the down time. Over coffee during this period of restlessness in the long, hot Cambodian summer, the blueprint for a reckless adventure was born. 

Harkening back to boyish memories of grand National Geographic-style expeditions, I made the decision to buy a boat. Together with Gareth Bright, a South African photographer newly settled in Phnom Penh, we tracked down a wooden long tail fishing boat for sail in the floating community of Kampong Luong on the western bank of the immense Lake Tonle Sap.

I am in the process of setting up a dedicated site to host a more comprehensive account of the trip, but the basic plan is to self-drive ourselves along all of Cambodia’s major waterways to look at the cultural and environmental state of life on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Sometimes referred to as the lifeblood of southeast Asia, this project will eventually expand to include all the countries the Mekong passes through on its way to the ocean. Traveling through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China will take the best part of a year, but the first leg of the trip – from Phnom Penh to the Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake – will start in two weeks.

The first of the countless problems we will almost certainly encounter as we try to pull this trip off presented itself a few days ago when we learned that we would have to pick up the boat weeks before we were ready to go. Luckily a friend found us a place to store it in Phnom Penh, but first we would have to get it there – a daunting two day drive against the river’s current. Since up to this point we had barely logged two hours each of actual driving time, we decided that it was best not to attempt the passage on our own.

With the help of a Cham (as Cambodian Muslims are known) community leader and his son we arrived in tact, though both sunburned and soaking wet. I won’t go into too much detail about the minutiae of the experience in this post, but I wanted to introduce the concept of the trip since it will probably dominate much of my creative output in the coming months.

In the time leading up to the official departure we have an ambitious schedule of practice drives lined up, by which time we will hopefully be more river-ready than we are now. And if not, it will surely make for entertaining reading.

Though I primarily shot video over these two days, here are a few frames that sum up the experience.

Boat Delivery_-18

Almost immediately after departure a violent rainstorm forced us to take shelter on a floating barge-cum-traveller sanctuary. As it is raining nearly every afternoon in Cambodia, the upcoming start of the trip promises to be a wet one.

Boat Delivery_-20

Taking a break from bailing water out of our boat. Roughly 20 litres of water accumulated in the boat in just an hour under the rain clouds.

Boat Delivery_-17

A captive monkey in a sadly cruel enclosure built out of chain link fence. Two monkeys inhabit the one square metre cage, which is suspended over water to prevent their escaping. Passers by stopped regularly to pour energy drinks into the monkey’s mouths.

Boat Delivery_-14

Washing the dishes at dusk, the worst of the storm over.

Boat Delivery_-12

With a 4 a.m. planned departure time, we all turned in early.

Boat Delivery_-7

A clear sky at sunrise allowed us to start searching for the river entrance that would lead us to Phnom Penh.

Boat Delivery_-5

The morning sky quickly gave way to scorching heat. With no place to hide on the exposed boat, we took to soaking our clothes to stay cool.

Boat Delivery_-4

Nearly 12 hours later we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Boat Delivery_-3

Arriving at the Cham village, a floating boat community under the shadow of an under-construction luxury hotel. Our boat will stay in this community for the next two weeks while we get it ready for departure – and better learn how to handle it without the help of a guide.

Boat Delivery_-2

Sunset at the Cham village where our boat will live while in Phnom Penh. The Chams are ethnic Cambodian Muslims, who often live in floating communities.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Tibetans in Exile

I’m getting close to finishing my project on Tibetan refugees and the impact that being exiled from their country has on their culture, so I thought I’d share some more faces of the people I met. The work on the refugee centre in India is finished and now my focus is on finding Tibetans who have settled in Western countries to see if or how they are able to keep their culture alive. Luckily I found out that some of the people I interviewed in India have family living in Canada, so in the coming weeks I hope to round out the story with their perspectives.

For now, here are a few of the more interesting characters from the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre in Darjeeling, India.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

A view of the Tibetan refugee centre in Darjeeling, India as seen through some Buddhist prayer wheels, the Himalayas in the background.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Karma is around 80 years old, but doesn’t know exactly. He fled the Chinese army and crossed the border into India where he worked in the Refugee Centre’s dairy. After suriving such dangerous times as a youth and emerging unscathed, his finger was bitten off by a cow in India – an irony that is not lost on him as he humorously displays his stump. “My heart says we will get Tibet back, but my brain says otherwise,” he says.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Pema (82) walked from Tibet to India with her family flock of sheep. Her only child, a daughter, died of an unkown illness in the Indian state of Sikkim before they arrived in the refugee centre. She says she has no ill feelings towards Chinese people, only their aggressive government.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Passang (91), left Tibet at age 35 after watching Chinese soldiers arrest and torture people in her home city of Sakya. She walked with a friend for nearly a month before settling in Darjeeling.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsewang Rinzin (42) is a first generation refugee, meaning he was born in exile. In hopes of fighting against the Chinese for the freedom of Tibet, he joined the famous 2-2 regiment of the Indian army and became a personal bodyguard of the Dalai Llama. He left the army when his mother (background) became ill, and Tsewang is now an amateur bodybuilder.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsering Chomphel (59) is better known as “Sap” to the Tibetan community. He escaped from Tibet on his mother’s back at age 3. Like many other Tibetans he joined the 2-2 regiment of the Indian army, hoping to fight back against the Chinese. Now, however, he believes that education, not fighting, is the answer to beating China

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Samdup (87) was a soldier in the Dalai Llama’s personal guard. He and his unit retreated from the Chinese invasion and joined the royal entourage as it crossed the border into Nepal.

Posted in Blog, India, Tibetan Refugees Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Some colour for a change…

A traditional performance near Namsan

As I continue working on my project about life in Seoul’s shantytowns, I thought I’d change it up a little and post something a little more lighthearted. During the cold winter months I’d forgotten that Korea can actually be a vibrant and colourful place if you’re in the right place at the right time. I stumbled on this traditional drum and dance performance while hiking on Namsan mountain with a few friends recently. Definitely a nice break from the bleak greyness of the city.

I’m finishing up a post giving an account of my most recent trip to the Guryong shantytown, which should be ready in the next few days. It was definitely the most eventful visit to date. Without telling the full story I will say that it involved alcohol,  some culturally sensitive confrontations, and some lessons learned. More on that later…

Posted in Blog, South Korea Also tagged , , , , , |

Street Graffiti

Graffiti near Seoul's Hongik University.

Graffiti near Seoul's Hongik University.

In many ways creativity is discouraged in Korean society. This is not to say that Koreans do not appreciate art or culture, but from a young age children are often told that the only worthy professional pursuits are those which are the most lucrative. In a country where 80% of the population hold university degrees, the result is a glut of engineers, IT specialists and international business students.

But as the competition in these fields increases, young Koreans are bucking this outdated definition of success. A burgeoning art scene shows how some youth are moving away from traditional career paths and try to express themselves creatively. Though Korea is still far from an artist’s haven, places in Seoul, Busan, and the small Southern city of Gwangju are carving out reputations as creative communities.

Korea has experienced 50+ years of frenzied development, and it will be interesting to see how this is manifested in art.

in a K-pop dominated music scene, this is definitely unusual

Posted in Blog, South Korea Also tagged , , , , , |

Meals on Wheels

A delivery bike speeds down a side street

 If there is one thing that Korea has really gotten right is its system of food delivery. Unlike Western society where delivery items are limited to pizza or similarly priced things, more or less everything that can be eaten can be delivered – regardless of quantity or cost. It is possible, even common, to order something which costs 5-6000 Won ($5 or less), and have it delivered to your door. The food will also come with real cutlery (i.e. metal and not plastic), and be served on dishes, not paper plates or take out containers. When you’re done eating, just put the plates outside your apartment door and someone will be by an hour later to pick them up. Magic.

How this system is cost efficient is beyond me, but everyone does it. Even McDonald’s delivers, usually 24 hours a day.

While Korean “bali bali culture” (fast fast) can be a negative force in fields like education or pretty much anything creative, when it comes to having things delivered, no one does it better. Restaurants employ small armies of scooter and motorcycle drivers who race through traffic at breakneck speeds, for whom traffic signals are suggestions, not laws. They tear through red lights, weave into oncoming lanes, and use the sidewalk as an extension of the road. Terrifying for pedestrians but wonderful for the hungry.

The drivers are known to be excellent multi-taskers as well, typically either smoking, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving. And they exemplify the job dedication that is so revered in Korean culture. Once a friend and I saw a pizza delivery driver drop his bike at high speed and slide violently into a concrete wall. When we asked if he was OK, his only response was to check to make sure the pizzas hadn’t been damaged.

Korean delivery men, I salute you. Now, just tell me how to say my current address in a way you will understand and we can begin a glorious reciprocal relationship.

Cell phone, cigarette, ignition.

 

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Portraits of the Himba

Himba women are red. That was my first impression driving into the small village outside of Uis, a small community in central Namibia. Their hair, their bodies, even the earth they built their villages on – all red.

A Himba woman looks at me impassively. Click on the image to see the full gallery.

During the first few weeks in Namibia, I had noticed these red women sporadically. In the gas station; walking through the aisles of the supermarkets; sitting at the side of the road. It seemed completely bizarre to see a woman of Amazonian presence, red from head to toe (including lengthy red dreadlocks), casually buying a tin of snuff from the local grocer. And while I eventually stopped gaping every time I saw them, the curiosity always remained.

So when a man stopped Brad, my traveling companion, and I on the side of a dusty road in Uis to ask us if we would like to drive out to visit one of the remaining Himba settlements in the area, we jumped at the chance. Well, in truth we initially feared a scam, but once we were told that the only payment required were some sacks of corn meal and a few kilos of sugar (no cash) we decided to take him up on his offer.

The village was an hour away, down a bumpy access road. Among the dung and thatch huts sat a large circle of women and children, all of them red. After giving them our ‘gifts’ we were given free range of the village, and spent the day trying to communicate with them through music, photos, and sign language.

The Himba are descendants of the Herero, sheep herders who were displaced from their traditional lands by an intertribal conflict. The Himba are nomadic, moving their cattle from place to place in search of grazing lands. The ‘village’ we saw was actually just a temporary camp that they would inhabit until their cows had eaten all the grass in the area. The men mind the herds during the day while the women stay in the camp to do domestic chores and prepare food.

Their striking redness is a product of ochre and fat, which the women rub on themselves and in their hair to protect themselves from the sun as they churn milk into sour yoghurt. It gives them their distinctive colour (and unforgettable smell!). From what I could see, the men were not similarly dyed, but I never found out why this was a specifically female habit.

I took a series of portraits of some of the Himba, which you can see HERE.

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