It has been over a year since my last post, sharing images from Manow, Tanzania. Since then I have graduated from The Evergreen State College and have been navigating the world of post-graduation life. While the damp, gray backdrop of Olympia may give me a somewhat gloomy outlook; the truth is that I have just returned from a visit to beautiful country, a country operating in an offset timezone. Instead of the familiar one-hour increments between timezones, Myanmar time is half an hour ahead of its neighbor, Bangladesh, and half an hour behind Thailand.
For three weeks in between January and February, I had the opportunity to visit the previously very isolated country of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Since slowly opening up to visitors and investors in the last couple of years, Myanmar has seen a huge increase in tourism and trade. The rapid change Myanmar is experiencing has made it one of the most exciting places I have visited. In Yangon, the roads, not built to accommodate a high volume of vehicles, are jammed with new imported cars from neighboring countries. Cars are being imported so rapidly that the steering differs from vehicle to vehicle. That lack of uniformity was one of the strongest indicators that changes are happening at an incredible pace.
Tourism has also more than doubled in the last year. As my first trip abroad since Tanzania, I struggled to play the role of a tourist. While I recognize that my three months in Tanzania give me no authority to make claims about the country or even the community I was living in, there is a certain intimacy that comes from living and working within a single community. Getting to know and participating in the rhythms of a group requires a more persistent and patient energy than the fast-paced voyeurism of traveling as a tourist. I remind myself that tourism can be a very positive market, especially in a developing country such as Myanmar. Myanmar people are excited to receive visitors and share their country – it is a very literal symbol of the end of their country’s isolation. Having thought about this dilemma throughout the trip, I’ve traced some of my conflict to thoughts on modernization and its competition with traditional culture.
So many people we met in Myanmar were full of excitement and pride about the changes their country is experiencing, changes that appear to be ending their isolation and slowly shifting the country towards a more democratic government. Amidst the positive political changes, there are foreign investors and builders coming into the new, inexpensive market. Maybe my frustration comes from participating in a market that caters to pleasure and excess when so much of the country could benefit from changes in education and healthcare services. It’s too easy to argue that the tourism industry is creating jobs and is therefore a positive development. Too often I think tourism is focused on building and altering places in order to accommodate the desires of visitors.
The other aspect of my conflict has to do with the evolution of culture that comes from increased access to the global community. Living in a country with such immense diversity has sometimes made me feel there is a lack of strong traditions that unite us all. There are communities and groups making efforts to use our diversity of experience to create a stronger culture of storytelling and a tradition of acceptance, but there is something different about a group of people that shares traditions based on common experiences of family and place. Through travel, I have discovered my appreciation for communities that are tied together through longstanding cultural traditions. I would hate to see these traditions changed or destroyed, especially for the benefit of tourism that can often trivialize and exoticize differences. On the other hand, there is an unavoidable and perhaps harmless evolution of culture that is caused by increased contact between communities. There is no reason to preserve Myanmar as it is, or was, because it has experienced extreme need, oppression, and unfortunate isolation. As visitors I think it is critical that we find ways to participate in and give attention to authentic Myanmar (whether it is through conversation, food, or activities).
A recent presentation by Jodi Cobb, a well-known photographer who has done a lot of work for National Geographic, helped clarify my thoughts on some of these issues. As someone who as traveled extensively into places of need and has documented the lives of very vulnerable communities, Jodi Cobb had valuable things to say about the role of a photographer in foreign countries. She uses images to spread awareness and take someone to a new place. She also said something important that relates to my dilemma concerning the evolution of cultures. While it is sad to see some traditions change, she said, “some traditions deserve to die.” In her travels she encountered horrific practices that have become the norm. These are the “traditions” that deserve to die; practices that, although experienced across generations, are not the traditions that celebrate and empower the people of a specific community. The role of a photographer can be to document and share these practices in an effort to bring them to an end. Jodi Cobb’s work is an example of how expanding the global community can have a positive influence on the evolution of culture.
Whew, ok this is a subject that I’m really struggling to articulate. I think it is hugely important but also very complicated. In my current environment of hyperawareness I feel the need to find the perfect words that will not offend or diminish the rights of any party. Writing this has only been an effort to flesh out and explore my feelings about culture and confront some of the discomfort I felt as a tourist in Myanmar.
**See more photographs below in “Golden Hills of Myanmar”**