Otero County History

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I want to share a link to another blog that I have just started helping my grandmother with. She is documenting her parents’ stories of living in Otero County, NM. They are currently in Alamogordo, NM and have so many incredible stories to tell about how the land and people of this area have changed. We are trying to pair my great-grandfather’s stories with photographs of the places he references and I am hoping to make some videos of him telling his stories as well! Take a look!

Otero County History

National Geographic and the Search for Genghis Khan’s Tomb


Albert Lin, Fred Hiebert, and other members of the Valley of the Khans team. (Photo by Ben Horton, nationalgeographic.com)

One of the perks of working at a theater is getting to go to events for free. My favorite at the Washington Center: The National Geographic Live events. Dr. Fred Hiebert, lead archaeologist for the Valley of the Khans Project, came to Olympia in January. I was blown away by the project, a noninvasive exploration in Mongolia in search of Genghis Khan’s tomb. The challenge was the sensitivity with which it had to be conducted. Working in sacred, protected lands the project’s leader, Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, and his team, used noninvasive surveying technology to explore the landscape without breaking ground.

The life of the great leader, Genghis Khan, is well documented, that is, until his death in August 1227, at which point the record keeping virtually stops. His death and the location of his tomb are both shrouded in legend. Many countries claim that his burial is within their borders but its actual location remains one of the world’s great mysteries. Presented with acres and acres of terrain, Yu-Min Lin implemented a genius plan to narrow their search. He asked for the help of the general population to help identify peculiar aspects of the landscape. Satellite images of the area were put into a program that allowed anyone to get online and categorize what they saw as roads, rivers, and modern or ancient structures. After receiving layers of tags from people all over the world, the team was able to pinpoint and visit these locations. At many of these tagged point, miles and miles away from anyone, the team found ancient nomadic burial sites, untouched. The collective intelligence of “online explorers” and the participation of Mongolian historians (experts on all that is known regarding the life and death of Genghis Khan and his family) assisted the National Geographic team in narrowing in on locations where the great leader may have been laid to rest.


While it was actually a surprise storm and a chance encounter with an uprooted tree that eventually led to the discovery of Khan’s tomb, Yu-Min Lin’s decision to engage a larger group makes this project unique. Combining the use of non-invasive technologies and the intelligence of a collective emphasizes the exploration’s heightened sensitivity for the physical and cultural landscapes surrounding this particular subject. Perhaps this project represents a new form of exploration that gives more attention to the cultural and environmental impacts of its efforts. All of this being said, my only complaint would be that there were no women on the expedition!

Read more about the Valley of the Khans Project and explore the ways online explorers helped  the National Geographic team narrow their search:

Valley of the Khans

Valley of the Khans and Albert Yu-Min Lin

Additional reading about Genghis Khan’s widespread Y-chromosome:

Genghis Khan A Prolific Lover, DNA Data Implies

All Over Myanmar


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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”**


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.

Berry Tarts and More Curried Peas

I’ve decided to post twice this week. It’s Wednesday and I have the day off! We’ve set it up so each week on of us will take a day off each week and rotate through for the rest of our time here. Katelyn was off last week. For my day off I am cleaning the house, listening to the Talking Heads (And She Was), weaving mkeka, and eventually walking to Lwangwa for onion and to visit Mama Mwasamwaja (Mwakaje told us her brother died this week). Madame Katelyn and Mama Dot are teaching more on paragraphs today. The students will have to rearrange cut up sentences in the correct order to make a paragraph. They love puzzles so I think they will love it.

It’s week five, which means we are half way through our curriculum. On Friday, we will send home letters to all the parents or guardians just to let them know how things are going and to remind them about the scholarships we will award to the best girl and best boy. We taught TONS of past tense verbs this week. It must be so frustrating to learn all of the irregular past tense verbs in English. Some of the boys in the class are getting very rowdy. We starting keeping students after class if we hear them speaking Swahili in the classroom. I think it’s kind of working. They’re all trying to say things in English more often. I like to listen to Frank and Mponjoli trying to speak only English. They were telling me through the window during chai that in Tanzania they speak Swahili and that I needed to go to Morogoro to learn. It’s funny that they know where Swahili is taught to volunteers (the Peace Corps volunteers learn Swahili in a three month program in Morogoro before going to their individual sites).

Yusuphu is another boy in our class that cracks me up. We’re pretty sure he has some severe ADD. He just can’t stop moving and is always distracted. He has these enormous buck teeth and is just overall a really goofy kid. I almost starting crying I was laughing to hard in class yesterday. We were playing this game where we have everyone line up in two lines and then rotate through the line so each student must say the past tense of the present tense verb we give them. It helps them hear English as well as practice pronunciation (L’s and R’s are very difficult…we even saw signs in Tukuyu that said “Liblaly” and one of our student’s primary school teacher wrote her name “Grolia” instead of “Gloria”). We give candy (peepee) to the winning line. Anyways, Katelyn was working one line and I was listening to the other and it seemed like Katelyn was letting her line go faster so my line was freaking out asking for Katelyn to come back to their line. I though Yusuphu was going to pass out he was so worked up. He made this ridiculous face, opening his eyes really wide and shouting at the top of his lung “TEACHER! NO CHANGE! NO CHANGE!” His urgency and panic were hysterical. Even the good, quiet girls started slapping each other and yelling. Needless to say they love candy.

This weekend we went on a hike with Mwaikema “The Professor.” He’s a teacher at MLJS and the father of one of our students. He’s very smart and seemed very happy to show off his village. He was born in a house in the village along with his six brothers and three sisters. His father fought with the British in WWII and when he came home he decided that all of his children needed to be educated. We’ve met a few of his brothers (Freddy, who is the supervisor and the CO2 plant, and the Mwaikema that drove us to Matema). Another brother works for a tea company and lives in Tukuyu (but still has a very nice white and blue house here). His sisters are in all in Mbeya working too. He comes from a very interesting family.

We walked to the top of this small ridge where there were lots of cyress trees. Along the way he showed us some coffee that this man was growing and the tree that this ugly fruit grows on. It was an amazing hike. We could see Matema and the Livingstone mountains stretching down to the lake. He told us that they go all the way up to Morogoro. We could also see the villages that surround us, Ndembo, Lwangwa, and the one to the west that I can’t ever remember. Tukuyu is also to the west and actually not as far away as I thought. He said before the roads or when the roads were bad people would walk over the hills to the west to Tukuyu. The road is actually a longer route because it goes around the hills.

Yesterday after class, Katelyn and I went back to some berries that Mwaikema had showed us. I can’t remember now what they were called but we picked enough to make a small tart last night. Every time we make something new it is very exciting.

Another very exciting thing we heard this week was about another teaching opportunity. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Malanga, approached Katelyn and me about finding young teachers from the US who might be able to come teach at a school in Malawi. I asked him about art classes since I didn’t think secondary schools had many art programs and he said he would love to integrate it into the curriculum. He seemed excited about any additions we could make to help improve the school. We’re not sure of all the details but I was excited to think about returning and teaching art!

That’s all the news today I think. I still wish I could convey everything that is happening here. I did visit Emily’s blog from last year and saw that she posted photos so I will try to do the same. Also, if anyone wants to write to any of us we would love it! My email is quahan03@evergreen.edu We would all love to hear from everyone.