Tell most of your friends and family that you’re heading for Iran and an awkward cringe will be drawn across their face. Tell most Iranian city dwellers that you’re destined for Kurdistan, and they’ll make neck-slitting actions accompanied by sound effects. I, on the other hand, had somewhere, somehow, once heard the contrary. That the Kurdish were incredibly friendly and hospitable people, which was enough of an incentive to add it to my itinerary.
After a long day’s travel to get to Kurdistan’s capital Sanandaj, I hired a taxi with a charismatic driver named Ali. I told him that I wanted to go to Howraman-at Takht. A small town wedged between the mountainous ranges separating Iran and Iraq. We set off along thin hairpin roads and chatted in a mix of both broken English and Farsi. Between offering me pumpkin seeds and apples to snack on, Ali continually questioning me about where I planned to stay, as to his best knowledge there were no hotels. Every time he asked I would reply ’family’. He understood this as ‘I have family in Howraman-at Takht,’ where as I was actually hoping he would help me find one to stay with.
After close to 4 hours on the road, Ali dropped his speed and pointed ahead saying ‘Howraman’. I in return pointed to him, and made the following hand gestures and actions ‘you…talk…Howraman…family,’ and finished with my head resting on my hands to signify ‘sleep.’ He said some Farsi words, kept smiling and nodding. We had in someway learnt to understand each other from our time spent together in the car.
Night was falling and people had retreated back to their homes. Ali had rolled down his car window and was doing his best to recruit me a home to sleep in. At one of the last houses before the village ended, Ali managed to get a woman’s attention and propositioned her with a foreigner and a backpack. She peered into the taxi and got a good look at my face, while I was doing the same, checking if this was the face of a woman I could trust. We both instantly came to a mutual unspoken agreement and before I knew it I was whisked inside her house to meet the rest of her family and acquaint myself with the Kurdish of Howraman-at Takht.
Found in the harsh terrain and inhospitable climate of northern Mongolia are the nomadic Tsaatan (Reindeer People). For generations, daily life has been centred around their herd of reindeer who in return sustain the livelihood of the Tsaatan.
The reindeer are a resourceful animal providing the Tsaatan with most, if not all the basic needs for continuing the same life which has been lived int eh Taiga for over 3000 years.
Reindeer antlers used for trade and medicinal purposes, the female reindeer are milked twice a day for milk which can also be made into cheese. Their dung is used to fuel stoves and the adult animals are also a vital system of transport.
A nomadic lifestyle has been ingrained in the unique culture of the Tsaatan, who move their orts (tepee) between 5 and 10 times per year to find special grass for their reindeer to feed
Today, the Tsaatan represent Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority, with approximately only 45 nomadic households herding a diminishing 2200 reindeer in comparison to the 15000 reindeer that lived a mere 15 years ago.
Harar, Ethiopia. The great famine of the 1890’s, land a dusty yellow, crops no more than dry seeds, farm animals faint figures of skin and bone and hyenas attacking what was left of villager’s livestock.
In efforts to wade off Harar’s hungry hyenas, residents began leaving porridge out for them to feed. Once the famine ended, residents of Harar continued this tradition as an annual feeding event, using the result to foretell the destiny of the year ahead.
If the hyena were to eat more than half the offering, the following year would be at ease, however if the hyena refused to eat or ate the entire serve, famine and disease would be predicted.
The modern day feeding of Harar’s hyenas began in the 1950’s. Known by most as the ‘Hyena Man’, Yusef and his family began feeding scraps of meat to the Hyenas for good luck. When tourists began showing interest, they started charging a fee, creating a spectacle of the event.
Existing blog posts describe the Hyena Man alike the dog-whisperer, possessing dimensions of communication and powers over a wild species. Writings allude that the Hyena Man has the ability to call out to creeping shadows by name, summoning the animals to eat shreds of meat that hang from a small stick which he holds between his teeth.
While the feeding methods are daring, impressive and true to the writings, the call to the Hyenas as I witnessed, was something much less.
As the sun begins to disappear behind the hills of Harar, Hyenas can be seen scavenging through the dumpsite. The Hyena Man’s son Abbas, a young, less-photogenic modern man, sits on the fringe of the dumpsite, throwing scraps of meat to entice hungry hyenas. The animals seem content foraging through the dumpsite, but as tourists begin to arrive, Yusef takes over the head seat while Abbas walks through the dumpsite forcibly herding the hyenas by flashlight towards the tourist crowd.
As dusk quickly turns to night, car headlights illuminate the scene, casting dramatic shadows of the ravenous animals. At first the animals approach the Hyena Man with caution, however once the feeding has begun, the hyena are more reminiscent to a pack of tame dogs. Most hyenas gracefully feed from the stick, gently grasping strips of meat before stepping back to consume. A few hyenas are a little more aggressive in their feeding manner, hungrily snatching meat from the stick. Then there are those who break all rules, ignore the tiny strips of meat on a stick and go for gold. They bury their heads deep into the basket of meat and gorge on the offerings while the Hyena Man repeatedly smacks them over the shoulders to get them out. I doubt this would be attempted on a wild hyena.
There are a few tricks that are put on throughout show time, Hyenas are trained to jump on the backs of tourists while they feed and every tourist present has the opportunity to feed the hyenas themselves in whichever manner they prefer - if they dare.
After fifteen minutes or so, the Hyena Man packs up his basket of meat and waits for the next carload of tourists while an agent collects money from the spectators making the whole experience feel like SeaWorld.
On a sweltering hot afternoon along the banks of the dried up Kaske river, the cracking sound of a whip echoes through the thick air. Turmi, a dusty, dry and isolated southern Ethiopian town is home to many of the Hamer tribe and their most important tradition, the Bull Jumping Ceremony.
Hamer women adorned with bells around their legs and semi-traditional clothing dance together in a rhythmic trance. After a morning indulging on sorghum homebrew concoctions, these women are ready to celebrate. To a chorus of deafening bells and screaming horns they congo-line in a circular figure before gathering together jumping and thrusting their heads in time to the beat.
A woman unexpectedly abandons her dancing group. She begins to yell insults and heckles the topless young man before her. The aggression in her tone rises until he lifts the tree branch in his grip and deals a forceful whip to her body.
Blood can be seen seeping from the wound, yet the woman continues hurling abuse at the young man shouting for all to hear that he didn’t whip her hard enough.
This young man is known as a Maza, among many present, he has completed his own Bull Jumping ceremony but is yet to marry, and until the date he continues the role of a ‘whipper’ at other Bull Jumping ceremonies.
The Bull Jumping Ceremony is a rite of passage into manhood for a young Hamer man and there are several stages of the initiation process. Once his family has announced a jump date, he must act as an ukule (donkey) to the elders and assume any task that is asked of him. After successfully jumping, the young man becomes a charkale, accompanying other triumphant jumpers in the calming of the bulls at other ceremonies. After 8 days, the young man becomes a Maza, and remains in this role until a date to wed has been set.
The women dance throughout the ceremony and frequently break circle to chase young Maza’s and endure more whipping. The scars from these whips attest the woman’s loyalty to the young jumper, usually a male relative. In the future, if the woman faces strife, using scars as proof of her devotion, her male relative is obliged to help.
Whilst the ceremony generally remains true to tradition, some aspects have changed. 15 years ago, the existence of money was unknown to the Hamer. In times of modernisation and a stream of curious tourist, the Hamer have become privy to the worth of cash. The Bull Jumping segment of the initiation can be witnessed by any and for a fee, foreigners included. It costs an inflated sum of 500 Birr ($25USD) for an all access pass to the main jumping event.
The tourist presence during the ceremony has mixed reactions among the community. It is common to see locals painting tourist’s faces and encouraging participation in the preparatory activities. Others are not so inviting, lashing out, shouting and violently pushing cameras away. It is common to see Elders and guides having fights about what is off limits for camera happy tourists.
Remotely held Bull Jumping ceremonies may have little or no tourists in attendance, however for events held in the outskirts of town, tourists can easily outnumber locals. Despite the sometimes-large tourist presence, the event is not staged. The bloodshed and scars that prevail are evidence this tradition remains strong.
Whether locals side with farangi (foreigners) or not, in the late afternoon the entire party relocates to a site where the bulls have gathered, all walking together.
The animals are herded into the centre and women continue their dancing and horn blowing circling the herd. The noise agitates the animals, the Charkale trying their best to keep them calm.
The Bull-Jumper nervously appears. He is put in a circle of men where prayers are said, and rituals are undertaken. Standing naked, he is rubbed with sand to cleanse his sins and smeared with cow dung for strength. Donned in only thin bark strips tied across his body to deter evil sprits, he is set to jump over the line of castrated bulls and cows before him.
Traditionally the Charkale would gather 15 – 30 bulls in a line and smear their backs with butter or dung to make them slippery. However 6 – 10 have become the standard line-up.
With bells and horns still sounding, the naked young jumper runs up and hurdles onto the first bull’s back, quickly stepping on the backs of the rest before leaping back to the earth. He must do this 4 times in total, and if he falls he is susceptible to a whipping himself by the women.
When he completes his jumping, cheers, horns and bells fill the air. An animal skin is placed around the neck of the triumphant jumper and a prayer with his peers is said. All quickly disperse back the village for evening festivities and at the grounds all that remains is a pile of used whipping sticks.
No meat here, only the piercing and slicing of human flesh.
Legend has it that over 150 years ago a travelling Chinese Opera company fell gravely ill whilst on tour in Phuket. In hopes of better health, members of the company turned to a vegetarian diet and miraculously recovered. They realised they had forgotten to pay their respects to the Gods, so continued this tradition annually there on.
This has evolved to an elaborate annual 10 day festival during the 9th Lunar month where strict vegetarian diets are observed.
'Mediums' undergo bodily sacrifice and feel no pain as they are possessed by the Gods. For 10 days it is a common encounter to see heavily pierced faces, syringe threaded skin and sword-cut flesh parading the streets of Phuket, all in the means for good-merit making.
Deeply rooted in Orthodox Christianity, 11 churches form what is known as historical Lalibela, Ethiopia.
During the 12th century, King Lalibela commissioned construction of the churches. They were not created as per common building methods of the time, but were excavated from the rocky earth, painstakingly hewn and chiselled to form doors, windows and interiors. Depending on whom you ask, you may be told that angels built the churches in the silence of the night.
Despite discrepancies in Lalibela’s history, the churches are impressive. Modern Day Lalibela however, has two faces. True to its purpose, locals draped in godly-white cloth occupy the grounds from dawn. Worshipping the churches, kissing the rock walls and introspectively chanting text from their bibles. The space vibrates serenity in the early morning light.
As the strong Ethiopian sun pierces the sky, locals disperse to work, to school or home. By 9am the stone grounds are filled with khaki wearing tourists by the busload, full-bellied from their buffet breakfast and armed with their cameras and guides.
Whilst researching travel in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, I came across beautiful pictures of the Mro tribes taken over 10 years ago. The imagery resonated with me, and I felt an impulse to find the Mro people.
Days earlier, in a blind scramble to fill out official forms at the district commissioner’s office, I flicked between my handwritten notes and guidebook and itemised half a dozen names of places for my intended visit on the travel permission forms.
By chance, I had listed on the form the town of ‘Alikadam’, a small, local town near where villages of Mro were settled. My travel destination was becoming clear.
The Army were especially strict with foreigners and their movements throughout the Hill Tracts region; therefore, official permission papers were needed, and travelling beyond listed destinations was prohibited.
I was unsure if I would be let through the Army checkpoints. My destination village was an hour away from Alikadam, and I worried it would not be classed as the same region.
Approaching the checkpoint, I realised the Army only required the driver to sign in and out, but I doubted foreigners would pass through this easily, so I cloaked myself so only my face, hands and feet could be seen. From the back of the motorcycle, nervously, I made no eye contact with any Army personnel, and as a result, not one eyelid was batted in my direction either.
On the other side of the checkpoint, a huge sense of freedom and relief was felt. I could see the greens of the hills, the blues of the skies; everything was bright, clear, and vibrant. Close to 30 kms away from Alikadam, the bikes stopped. Yung, a local from the village who greeted us, said we were a 20-minute walk to his home. Wrong. In the 2 pm heat, walking up and down steep paths while carrying my bags, it became more like 2 hours.
The village was spilt across 3 small settlements, and the part I called home was a cluster of 8 houses snuggled into the hillside. The family had three generations living under one roof, and was also home to extended family members who had lost their parents at a young age to illnesses such as diarrhoea or fever. It was common across all families in the village to have lost at least 1 or 2 family members this way.
The men and women of the village were beautiful. The women all had stretched piercings in their earlobes that were braced with metal, double-sided, conical tubes. After a day out at work, they would fill this tube with wild flowers from the field. When the weather was warm, the women would face the world bare-chested, leaving only layers of hand-beaded necklaces and waistbands on their torsos.
The men had lush, waist-length hair and wore it perched high in a bun on the tops of their heads. Some of the men were still dressed traditionally, clothed in a dong (a small loincloth) covering their groin area.
Village life sounded a little like this: women worked in the jum (field). They chopped the firewood, they cooked the meals and they pounded and sifted the rice. The men, well, sometimes they worked in the field, and sometimes they undertook construction work on the village., the rest of the time, they drank tea and smoked cigarettes.
The women were strong. On their backs, they collected and carried heavy bowls of water from the river and somehow also managed to hold their crying babies. They were responsible for the village’s firewood, and it was a frequent sight to see a pregnant woman of six months or more hacking at large fallen trees, breaking them down to small pieces of firewood. The women were incredibly hard working. After a day in the fields, they would come home and pound rice well into the dark of the night – they were really something.
Rice is the lifeblood of the Mro people. It is eaten alongside vegetables from the jum with all three meals of the day, each member consuming over half a kilo of cooked rice per sitting. Each house stores a surplus of one year’s supply of rice grain. Not only do women work the rice each day, but it is also a young girl’s playtime, practicing the rhythmical moves of pounding rice for fun.
At the time of my visit, the village’s school (a single room bamboo hut) was closed for renovations. Even if it had been open, there was no teacher available to teach. So the children just played, girls pretending to pound rice and boys running through the jungle with their slingshots.
I followed the men fishing one day. They moved through the jungle at a pace I could barely keep. When they arrived at certain points along the low- flowing river, they would work together cutting foliage to create river walls, then dig and re-route the flow of the river in order to drain the water and catch all fish and river creatures that were left behind.
The Mro live a very peaceful life, farming organically, using only what is necessary, and living well within their means. However, their future is unclear. Although the Mro culture and tradition is still strong within the community, the Mro teenagers know of modern technology and want to be part of its world. The Mro boys are following Bangladeshi fashion, trading the dong for the lunghi (male sarong), and chopping their locks to conventional Bangladeshi lengths. Only time will tell how much the Mro world will change and adapt, but for now it remains almost as it did 50 years ago.
It is a burden for many to raise a blind child in India. A blind man and his family occupied this small one-roomed dwelling. Over time this building became a home for the unwanted and disowned blind children of Mukandurpur in Orissa.
As strangers, they learnt to love and care for each other, those with partial eyesight looking after those with none, regardless of age.
Most importantly they all learnt how to live again.
The Moken were historically a seafaring nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in the waters stretching from Burma to as far as Philippines.
Moken handcrafted wooden boats called ‘kabangs’, this was their home, their workplace and their life, they were born out at sea, lived out at sea and they died out at sea.
This traditional life is no longer possible for many Moken, after countless generations at sea, many are now settling on land.
30 minutes from the Thai mainland, a small community of ethnic Moken inhabit a section of the southern Thai island of Koh Lao. Adapting to life on land, this is how they live.
“We catch the fish one by one with rod and line. If we used nets, tomorrow there may be no fish.”
- Kune Gunarthna Fisherman of Gurubebila
A cheeky step into the backstage world of colour, splendour and all that sparkles at the travelling Chinese Opera.
Historically the Mlabri were nomadic hunters and gathers. They lived in makeshift banana leaf thatched shelters deep in the jungle, and when the leaves turned yellow, they moved on. They kept their distance from any outsider and as they only ever left traces of their existence, local Thai’s named them ‘Phi thong leung’ which translates to ‘sprit of the yellow leaves’.
No hellos, no goodbyes, no thank yous. These are words that do not exist in the Mlabri language. It is a face-to-face community where there is no need or reason for routine pleasantries.
As former hunter-gatherers, the Mlabri lived to adapt rather than plan. These fundamental Mlabri principles are still consistent with their lives today, living day-by-day based on the conditions as they present. The Mlabri are no longer nomadic due to the logging of their forests and are living in small villages across Northern Thailand.
Now, Mlabri occasionally work as cheap labour in the neighbouring Hmong fields. Many think the Mlabri should be given land to start farming within their own community. However the cultivation of land is against the Mlabri Animistic belief. In this belief, it is said that the gods would send a tiger to kill the Mlabri if they ever attempted to do so.
Jealousy is also a word that never existed in the Mlabri language. There are words for similar emotions, but none that described the same feeling as jealousy.
With influences of modern Thailand, all this is changing. The Mlabri youth have desires to own possessions and live like the soap stars they see on television. This will shape the future of Mlabri culture.
Less than 10 kilometres from central Kandy in Sri Lanka grow lush hilly tea fields. Some of the biggest producers in the world manufacture the leaves plucked from Kandy. The predominantly female workers meet in the morning, say a prayer to the shrubs, and move through the closely planted bushes at lightening speed. They measure the shrubs with a marked stick and anything higher than the mark is plucked. While they are moving through the plantations, leeches attach on to the moving workers, branches scratch and even tear their skin.
Wanderings, photos and stories.
Wanderings, photos and stories.
Wanderings, photos and stories.
Wherever the fish are, that's where we'll be.
Roaring like lions, squawking like birds and slithering motions that could only mimic snakes. All can be witnessed at the Wat Bang Phra tattoo festival.
Thousand of devotees travel far and wide to partake in this yearly gathering held on the temple grounds. It is here where infamous monks are known to give greater than holy-water inkings that provide spiritual and protective powers to the bearer.
Inked members of the crowd fall into trance during the gathering and become possessed by the animals tattooed on their bodies. The animal spirit takes over, the devotee screams and acts as the animal and tramples through the crowd making a beeline for the central stage, in the process rugby tackling any being in the way.
Standing on the central stage is a religious statue. It calms the possessed and after a wai to the stage, normal life resumes.
Celebrating the 2,600th anniversary of the Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, mass alms giving ceremonies took place across Bangkok. Some of which involved up to 30,000 monks gathering before dawn.
For over 100 years organised buffalo racing has been taking place in Chonburi, Thailand. In local tradition at the end of the Buddhist Lent, famers from all over Choburi province would travel into town by buffalo and cart to trade their goods.
During these yearly meets, each farmer would prize their own buffalo, creating a competitive atmosphere which lead to the first Chonburi Buffalo race to determine the better animal.
Wanderings, photos and stories.
From the days of being a simple border crossing to a now flourishing boom town; journeys through Thailand's border town Mae Sot.
“When you make a to-do list whist chewing khat, you wake up the next day, read the list and laugh at yourself as it’s not possible to achieve” – Occasional Khat User.
Khat, a legal drug in Ethiopia is a stimulant that is used by many, drivers, students and teachers, to name a few. It is a bitter leaf that is chewed for hours at a time and produces effects similar but not as potent as speed. Students claim it helps them study, you’d be hard pressed to find a driver that’s not chewing to stay alert and many coffee shops lined around the country double as Khat houses where patrons sit and chew.
While many maintain that the effects of Khat keep them feeling alert, energetic and with a sense of euphoria, it is common to see many chewing alone, in an introverted daze.
Awaday in Ethiopia’s East is the heart of the countries khat world. The cash crop is traded 24 hours a day, the busiest hours being from dawn to 9am. Bundles of khat are packed in makeshift sacks amongst other leaves for safety and the worth of the pristine harvest can sometimes be as high as $2000 USD a bunch. Trucks leave Awaday daily heading to destinations such as Djibouti and Somaliland to deliver the in-demand leaf. It is estimated that 25,000 kilograms of khat are sold daily in Awaday.
Many women are big traders in Awaday’s market, but it is also common to see them gathering away from the activity for a cultural dance.
The khat market is a bustling space, pushing, shoving and being grabbed by the shoulders is all common practice in the aisles of the market place. However, unlike other khat markets in the country, the people here are some of the friendliest.
“We deal in Minerals and Money.” A young brash miner yelled proudly in my direction.
Artisanal gold mining in Tanzania involves unregulated, low-cost, low-tech, labour intensive excavation and processing of gold. Those with limited education or those who just want to make a quick buck, turn to the trade.
Equipped with a makeshift head-torch and a simple hammer and pick, miners descend as deep as 600metres underground with no safety equipment or breathing apparatuses.
It is as dangerous as it sounds. Many perish yearly at the mercy of the mines, however the risk doesn’t deter. The mining shaft is permanently in peak hour with men jumping throughout day and night. David, a long-time miner, suggests that to work on the roads as a Motorcycle Taxi in Tanzania could possibly be a more dangerous profession.
Majority of small-scale mining takes place on unlicensed, unauthorised mines. Some unlicensed mines exist for many years and are usually controlled by the land owner or a prominent community member. Other “gold rushes” spring up quickly and exist for a few months, typically on land owned by another individual or mining company. Communities rush to these areas when there is news of someone striking gold and settle there until the deposit depletes or until they are evicted by local authorities. 1
Makeshift housing with plastic bag facades are built to support the temporary residents, although crudely constructed, the dwellings can be homes for as long as 5 years.
The mining process is laborious. After excavating the rocks from the earth, rice-bags full are transported by bicycle down muddy paths. The rocks are then hand-beaten into smaller fragments before being run through a crushing machine where the remnants are sifted and panned using mercury to find any gold. This entire process bar use of the crushing machine is at the expense of manual human labour.
The biggest risk to human health occurs when the workers burn off the mercury in order to release the gold from the amalgam (Gold and Mercury combination). This creates an invisible toxic gas but few take even basic precautions to protect themselves or others. 2
Despite the marginally higher wages artisanal miners in Tanzania earn compared with other trades, when asked if it would be a profession fit for his children, David the long-term miner replied that he would rather his children be a doctor or teacher.
1 & 2. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/tanzania0813_ForUpload_0.pdf
Wanderings, photos and stories.
Wanderings, photos and stories.
Sun-clad pristine beaches are what most think of when the country Maldives is mentioned. However little know about the local population.
Each inhabited island is the equivalent to a small village. Each island will usually have a school, a mosque, a police station, one or two milk bars, and if you’re lucky a café serving tea and short eats where only men venture in.
Children are never taught to swim, only a few of the rebellious ones learn on their own. During the days the woman gather outside of their houses and can spend hours chatting or just sitting and watching life go by. Oh, and there is a great love for football across the islands.
Wanderings, photos and stories.