Olympia in Bloom and Procession of the Species

IMG_6766Every spring, as the sun struggles to break through the wet, gray skies of the Pacific Northwest, I fall in love with Olympia again. In fact, everyone in Olympia, upon seeing blue skies, white clouds, and a strange bright light beaming in through their blinds, seem to ooze with happiness, apparently forgetting the miserable drizzle of the last six months. It’s difficult to explain the high one can get from seeing the white crags of Mount Rainier against the pure blue sky.

Delirious smiling Olympians come out of their homes and squint into the sun.  The claustrophobic anxiety of winter melts away and light literally seeps into everything I think about. I like to think that we appreciate the coming of spring more than someone in a sunnier place, perhaps somewhere like New Mexico. Although, friends and I have also discussed the pressure that is felt to be outside when the weather starts to change. “I hate when the sun starts coming out because I never know when it will go away and feel guilty if I don’t enjoy it and decide to stay inside and smoke pot all day.” But for the most part, absence makes the heart grow fonder and a shared vitamin D deficiency turns the people of Olympia into sun worshippers.

IMG_0788Another important sign of spring in Olympia is the vibrant Procession of the Species, a community celebration of our “relationships with each other and with the natural world.” The weeks before the day of the Procession are spent in dance and art workshops, bringing together members of the community to create costumes and performances. There are only three rules: no written or spoken words, no pets, and no motorized vehicles. Access to the free community studio, complete with donated materials for costumes, a fully equipped batik workshop, and all of the most welcoming individuals in Olympia, is something I wish I had taken more advantage of in these five years.

On the day of the parade, always the day after Artswalk, the streets of downtown are closed and crowded with kids and sidewalk chalk. Some people come to simply watch and others, dressed as dandelions, giraffes, and alligators, are rushing to parade’s start to find their related species. The parade’s only organization is being divided into four sections: Earth, Air, Water and Fire.

IMG_5574Bystanders too will paint their faces or wear the bright dresses with jungle animals from the back of their closets. Since its start in 1995, the Procession of the Species has grown tremendously and has become a symbol of the rejuvenating energy of spring.

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All Over Myanmar

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The small temple in Kalaw

Myanmar, nicknamed “The Golden Land,” is overwhelmingly beautiful. It is difficult and probably ineffective to retrace our trip. The genuine impressions would be lost in a retelling, but I would like to share the highlights. We stayed one night in Yangon before heading north to Kalaw in the Shan Province. The hills surrounding Kalaw, dotted with the bright golden pagodas in the region’s small agricultural communities, make the military town a popular destination for hikers or “trekkers.” ((Pagoda is a term used to describe any tiered tower. Stupa and temple are more specific. You can walk inside of a temple but a stupa is solid and cannot be entered. Both stupas and temples can be described as pagodas. This was a little confusing initially.)) The landscape, minus the gold of course, brought back memories of the tea-covered hills of Manow. My favorite pagoda was near the market in Kalaw, a fact that would probably make our guide, Palai, laugh. Palai travelled with us as our guide from Yangon to Mandalay. With just the three of us we were one of her smallest tours, which, I like to think, allowed us to have a closer and definitely more humorous relationship with her. Palai lives in Yangon with her husband and two sons but as a tour guide, travels with groups around the country, visiting the same temples and historic sites. In all the places we visited Palai always saw a friend, another guide on the tourism loop.

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Boys playing in the temple in Kalaw

We saw hundreds of pagodas, new ones, gold ones, ancient ones, stone ones, but the small temple in Kalaw was covered in a mosaic of tiny pieces of mirror, giving it a more humble glitter than its more majestic relatives. Inside there were four brightly colored statues of the Buddha surrounded by equally beautiful offerings of fresh flowers, fruit, and glasses of water. Four boys were playing a loud game of tag inside the temples, using the four pillars as safeties.

IMG_5346Our next destination was the famous Inle Lake, also known as “Tomato Lake” because of the enormous amount of tomatoes grown in the lake’s floating gardens. At local markets, Palai always noted the difference between the deep red, ripe tomatoes of Inle Lake and the harder, yellowish tomatoes that were grown on land around the country. Unfortunately, I spent our first day at the lake sick in bed. While Grandma read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, I dozed in and out, my dreams turning the motorized boats outside my gently swaying room into helicopters flying to different villages around the massive lake. Palai also continuously came to check on me. She brought medicine that she had from the local pharmacy and water, which she poured into my mouth while sitting next to me in bed. Her closeness and lack of concern to the gross state I was in was such a comfort. I’m sure she’s an incredible mom.

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Extracting lotus fibers that will be spun and woven into fabric

The next day, determined to make up for lost time, Palai brought us to see silversmiths, blacksmiths, traditional silk and lotus weaving, and boat building using versatile teak wood. In between these quick visits we floated by the placid floating gardens of vegetables and flowers. I was struck by the abilities of the people living at Inle to live entirely on the water. The varieties of ways humans have adapted to live in the most unaccommodating landscapes are really unbelievable. It reminded me of days spent puttering up the steep hills of Seattle in my sad, dying Volvo.

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Monkeys at Phowintaung

In Mandalay, Palai pushed our limits on the pagoda-visiting front. Throughout the long days of sightseeing, we visited what seemed like an endless number of pagodas, each with its own story about the monk or king who had earned merits through its construction. “One more, I think you’ll really like this one,” Palai would say each time we climbed back into the van, an undecipherable combination of sarcasm and honesty in her voice. When we arrived at Kuthodaw Pagoda, which to the uneducated eye appears to be another large, elaborate place of worship, Palai exclaimed, “NO! It’s a book, not a pagoda.” The 729 stupas, each housing a marble slab inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, make up the world’s largest book.

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Kuthodaw Pagoda: The World’s Largest Book

My favorites from Mandalay were the free school in Sagaing and caves outside of Monywa where there are 12th century Buddhist frescos and monkeys that will pull off your skirt for a watermelon snack.

Next we left for Bagan, where Palai warned us we would see thousands more pagodas. We traveled to Bagan on a boat full of proper Europeans. The civilized feel of the boat was shattered after dinner when we ran back to our rooms through the thickest cloud of insects I have ever witnessed. Small, long winged grey flies created a moving blanket over everything on the boat. They were quick to cover everything in your room if you made the easy mistake of opening your door without first switching off the lights.

IMG_1889We arrived the next morning in Bagan, the romantic, yet somewhat eerie ancient city. Eager to explore the thousands of 12th century pagodas of Bagan, we turned down the tour and rented bikes. Although the ride ended rather quickly when Grandma’s tire popped, it was fun trying to find a place to get it fixed and, when it couldn’t be fixed, a replacement bike was delivered on the back of a motorbike. The problem-solving of travel without a guide so often leads to the most memorable experiences within a different culture. On our last day in Bagan we decided to get up early and revisit some of the temples we’d seen earlier in the trip. When the light was soft and the majority of tourists were still asleep, we walked through the now quiet temples. We also encountered the bats that live in the temples’ tall ceilings, and whose waste is still wet early in the morning. The discovery of wet bat waste as we walked barefoot around the empty temples also solved the mystery of the terrible smell in our clothes after our visits the day before.

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Fishing beach outside of Ngapali

Our last destination was Ngapali Beach, where we ate the freshest seafood and traveled on motorbikes through the jungle to meet a couple of incredible elephants. We also got a tour of the local fishing villages from a Costa Rican man who is starting a culinary school to teach locals who can work in the tourist restaurants. After moving to Myanmar about 10 years ago, he bought land under someone else’s name and has been working in the restaurants ever since. He showed us the beach where all of the fish and seafood comes in. It was a busy beach, littered with trash and parts of fresh and dried fish. The stench of fish was thick and unavoidable. People were everywhere: pulling in a fresh catch with the help of some water buffalo, spreading fish out to dry, or sorting a catch for the best fish. One girl, who was sorting through a massive pile of small silver fish found a little squid and quickly tried to hide it before anyone saw, but a woman next to her saw the treasure and threw it into another pile. Stray dogs also wandered around the business deals, looking for scraps of food and getting caught in the fish netting. It was a place that overwhelmed all of my senses and yet we went relatively unnoticed in all of the bustle.

Our very last day was spent in Yangon. We visited the famous Strand hotel, where many famous guests have stayed, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Mick Jagger among them. It was unbelievably hot in Yangon and I spent most of our day there speaking nonsense in the heat and taking photos of the street food.

A New Timezone

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A woman at the market in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar (northern part of Inle Lake)

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.

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Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar (woman are not allowed to go up to the image of the Buddha, which is distorted by layers of gold leaf offerings from men)

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”**

Kwaheri

We’re leaving Manow in less than three hours. We went to Klaus and Carina Dinkel’s for dinner tonight in Itete. It felt weird leaving in a car as the sun set on our last night here. I think I would have liked to stay in Manow and say goodbye but at the end of the evening I felt more adjusted to the thought of leaving and to the western world we’ll be reentering.

Leaving a place where you have lived is so difficult. You know that life will continue as normal even though you have left the pattern. I’ll miss the things we do everyday here. Listening to our water tank overflow outside my window as I fall asleep, waving to our students playing football with the village team as the sun sets, buying vibama from Frank’s mom on the way to Lwangwa, watching the men playing mancala outside of Whitey’s duka, hearing shrill voices scream “Madame! Good Morn’!” from in the maize. I can’t believe I won’t see this all everyday.

This last week was both slow and chaotic as we anticipated and prepared for leaving. Monday and Tuesday we reviewed for the final. They took the final on Wednesday. We were very happy to have a classroom at MLJS, instead of the church where half the class usually takes the weekly exam on benches. We graded the exams on Wednesday evening and determined who would win the scholarships to MLJS starting Form 1 next year. I also made cards for each student. It was really fun to think of a personal message and memory to write to everyone. It reminded me of why I will miss each of them. They have been my first class and they have taught me so much while I figured out how to be a teacher. This was a very difficult job. This being my first time teaching I quickly became aware of the challenges of being such a young teacher (who is really still a student herself). It was also a challenge to be working in a system that is almost totally unknown. My biggest struggle was finding a balance between authority and friend. Being very close in age to some of our students, and being a student myself, it was very easy to relate to their experience. At times this was helpful, allowing me to remember and use my recent experiences in high school language classes. Other times I really had to fight to be taken seriously and get their cooperation. When I played soccer with the boys during break I was excited to be accepted into their games. This also made me job more difficult as I was the only teammate who could end break and decide that class needed to begin again. Everyday I was met with protests as they all dragged their feet back to class. Sometimes I would get so frustrated and yell. I couldn’t understand why, after I was so close with them, they would still make things so difficult. I started to wonder if maybe I was part of a very unfamiliar relationship between teacher and students.

At the same time I feel very proud of my teaching. It’s a really amazing feeling to see them all looking up at you, paying attention, and answering honestly when you ask if they understand. That was one of my favorite parts of class, having them say “Madame Hannah, we don’t understand.” It was the best part of teaching. It helped me find some way to reexplain or redraw a concept and in the end, I think, gave me a better understanding of how people learn.

I did have a few students who I especially loved working with one-on-one. After the final one boy, who had struggled in the course and failed the final, was sitting alone in the back of our classroom. I sat next to him and he hugged me while he fought back tears. He seemed disappointed and embarrassed about his exam as well as sad to know we were leaving so soon. It broke my heart. While we’ve been here he has loved teaching me about his home. To me, he was the kindest and most creative student in the class. I hated that he had done so poorly because he was always so enthusiastic and excited when I worked with him writing his stories. Getting to know him was the highlight of my time in Manow.

Today, our last day, was full of goodbyes. We said goodbye and thank you to the congregation at church this morning, both for our classroom and for welcoming us into their lives. I was excited to see some of our students there to say goodbye one last time. Dot and I went to Isaac’s to meet his family before we left. He has four boys and a very sweet wife, Neema. We also stopped by the Mwasamwaja’s one last time. Their porch feels like a second home here and their family, my new extended family. I feel so comfortable there and it was very difficult to say goodbye. I hope I will see them all again and drink Mama’s sweet, milky tea with her on her porch.

It was a sad day. It came and went too quickly and tomorrow feels so unknown. I feel sad knowing that we will leave before the sun rises and miss the sun coming up over the mountains. We did have an exciting treat tonight though. In addition to cheese that the Dinkels shared, we watched a beautiful thunderstorm across the valley over Lake Nyasa from their porch in Itete. Each bolt of lightning lit the dark sky to reveal the layers of watery clouds. It was a strange end but I suppose I can’t think of how it could be different. I’ll be back again.

“You CUT a chicken, you KILL a cow”

This was our last week of teaching! We taught sex education and STD prevention. I was a little nervous but it was actually a lot of fun. I really enjoyed teaching the reproductive biology lessons and drawing all of the organs on the board, although penises aren’t that fun to draw from any direction. Another highlight was the banana and condom lab on Thanksgiving. Dot took the day off to work on dinner so Katelyn taught the girls and I taught the boys. It went surprisingly well. Only one boy, Bliss, absolutely refused to touch the slimy, lubricated rubber. Yesaya called me over to help him at one point. He was having trouble stretching the condom over his banana. I smiled and said “You just have really big banana!” He grinned. The only misbehavior was from Frank, of course, who wanted to know how many liters of water or sperm a condom could hold so he snuck one outside to test at the spigot.

After the lab, Mwakaje came to our class to translate some the ideas we’d taught all week. He opened it up for questions and reassured the students that it was safe place to ask anything. The kids just went crazy. They asked so many questions, both funny and thoughtful, that they wouldn’t have been able to ask in English. It was great. One girl asked what she should do if she wanted to have sex with a boy but his penis wouldn’t become erect. A boy asked how he can tell if the sperm is in the woman. Another boy asked if a boy can ejaculate without a woman. We said yes and he just asked how…There were also a lot of questions about how HIV/AIDS is spread and how soon you will test positive after contracting it. Later Mwakaje said he had a lot of fun helping us. He said some of the students in form six didn’t even know the things we were teaching to our students. It was exciting to hear that we were really doing something different.

That night we celebrated Thanksgiving with some of our closest friends here. Katelyn and I killed two skinny chickens earlier in the week with a lot of help and emotional support from Martin. Apparently Tanzanians don’t chop off chicken heads with an axe but instead you stand with your legs spread, one foot on the wings and the other on the feet, while you cut the head off with a knife. Katelyn let go of hers after cutting through just part of the neck and I went to get it out of the bushes after it bled to death. I kept my feet still but had to beg Martin to finish cutting through the neck bone. Then together we held its body down until the heart stopped pumping. Martin taught us how pluck, gut, and clean the bodies, although he’d never gutted a whole chicken before. He was making some great facial expressions as he pulled all of the insides out of a small slit in its butt.

For dinner we had the two chickens, roasted carrots,, mashed potatoes, stuffing (made from both Dot and Mama Mwasamwaja’s bread), gravy, beans, avocados, mango salsa (to replace the cranberry sauce), and apple dumplings for dessert. It was a beautiful and colorful Thanksgiving table with a green and white striped sheet as a table cloth. Ngwitika, her son Godlove, Martin, and the Mwasamwajas were our guests. Katelyn, the youngest, washed everyone’s hands with a pitcher and a basin as is the Tazanian custom. Katelyn and I boasted that we had killed the chickens and Mama Mwasamwaja laughed and said, “You mean you cut them? You CUT and chicken, you KILL a cow.” Very cool lady.

We finished the week with a fractured arm. Frank, usually so loud and chatty, was very quiet while we reviewed for the exam. He’d fallen from a tree the day before and his arm was very swollen. He said he wanted to take the exam but sat there, icing his arm, with giant tears rolling down his cheeks one by one. After the exam I walked him to the clinic where the doctor tied probably the worst sling I’ve ever seen. It was a strip of gauze tied around the break and then straight up around his neck. He told Frank that he needed to go to the district hospital in Tukuyu for an x-ray and gave him a report to give to the doctor on duty. Katelyn rewrapped his arm and tied a new sling. I walked him home and he asked for me to stay a while because his mom was still selling food to the students at Manow. It was awful to see Frank so hurt. He has the biggest tears I’ve ever seen.

Now we are preparing for the busy week we have ahead.