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Tribal People and Western Monoculture

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The complex dot paintings of the Pitjantjatjara people of central Australia.  August 2012.

On our recent trip to Ladakh we spent an amazing week camped out beside a frozen stretch of the Rumbak River, a river that had carved out a narrow gorge which had been traversed by people on foot and on horseback for centuries.  At the start of our first day in Rumbak, just as we neared the entrance of the gorge, we saw a truck load of road workers on their way to begin another day forcing a road through the gorge to Rumbak village and other tiny hamlets that sit in the shadow of one of the area’s highest mountains, Stok Kangri.

Only a week earlier we stayed with a family at a tiny village in the Ladakh Range opposite of Rumbak called Ullay.  On our drive into Ullay we saw the poles and cells going up that would eventually provide Ullay with a much needed source of power.  I asked Norboo, the head of the family and now a lovely friend, when they might expect to get power and he said “Next year, hopefully”.  In neighbouring Saspoche the power was already on, a school had been set up and the community had a co-operative greenhouse.  We both embraced the modernisation of these tiny towns, but the miracle behind this progress lay squarely in the fact that the Ladakhi people had still managed to retain their culture in the midst of it.

Ladakh was one of the few places in the world that I’ve visited that gave me hope that some cultures might survive despite the irresistible allure of western culture introduced to it by the media, NGOs and christian missionaries.  Although I do fully understand the good aspects that have come from the intervention of those entities, what I find really disdainful is when the influx of  a mass group of well meaning foreign groups succeed in annihilating the culture of the countries they set out to help and I’m left questioning the real consequences of that help.  Functioning assistance should benefit everyone.  At best these groups are responsible for installing vital infrastructure, delivering aid and medical attention in times of crisis, better health care, dietary and financial assistance. At worst they are small, ineffective, poorly run and can have a devastating effect on the culture of some of the people they believe they are either ‘saving’ or assisting.

Increasingly I’ve been to more and more countries where this has been truly evident.  I had a very large break from international travel in my thirties and I have only really recommenced exploring the world six years ago.  I’ve loved every journey of my travels through the 64 countries that I’ve been lucky enough to see.  I travel to learn and it is my boundless enthusiasm and curiosity that invariably propels me along to explore new places and learn things from cultures that I had only an academic connection with prior to my arrival.

One could argue an evolutionary aspect to what I am about to say and I’ll repeat it again – I am NOT against the great work of NGOs operating in some countries.  I have not only supported some of these organisations financially, I have sponsored a child for 15 years and generously given my time to them.

My first real experience with mass foreign intervention was in Cambodia.  At least, despite the myriad of different orphanage organisations, medical assistance and schools, you can still walk down the street in Siem Reap and feel like you are in Cambodia but the sheer number of different foreign groups operating there were overwhelming.  Thankfully, despite all of it I could still eat with Cambodian people in their markets, most of the street signage was in Cambodian, many people didn’t speak english and of course the wonders of Angkor stand as a true testimony to a magnificent, yet tortured culture that has occupied this wonderland in south-east Asia for many years.

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Traditional Apsara dancer at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  November 2011.

Fast forward two years and I found myself in Maun, Botswana.  The contrast between Maun and Cambodia or other places I visited in Africa was completely disturbing.  The town was almost completely devoid of the African culture that may have existed there once. Over the last fifty or so years Botswana has enjoyed a relative peace in comparison to its neighbour country Zimbabwe but if you ever want to see the true culture of Botswana, you certainly won’t find it in Maun.  The whole city is peppered with a variety of NGOs and odd Christian church sects, many of whom I’d never even heard of.  Where had all of these come from?  Were these sects offshoots of the larger Christian churches that had failed to attract followers in other countries so they tried to grow their following in a naïve population like Maun?  In the short time I was there I didn’t see one iota of African art, people dressed traditionally or any kind of physical culture that I couldn’t have found in the American mid-west.  It saddened me.

Many places further east in Africa are like this.  The people have adopted western culture and clothing to the point where their true traditions are only being upheld by a small number of elders.  Call me selfish, but if I want to see and experience western culture, I don’t need to travel.  I can get all of that at home without viewing transplanted versions creating a mono-cultures of it elsewhere.

Two years later on again, in January this year, I travelled through Honduras and was hit with the same sensation.  I had to really dig and scrape through our travels in Honduras to find real Honduran culture.  We finally found it in the sensational Hacienda San Lucas out near the ruins of Copan.  Upholding a fabulous tradition of horseback riding and the wonderfully rich culture of the Maya, staying at the Hacienda San Lucas, I felt like we had struck gold.  Finally, finally, after visiting whole towns filled with the Amish, Mennonite, gospel singing christian communities that have all sprung up in the country in the last thirty or so years, we found a  place that was both modern and functioning, yet still retained the charm and charisma of Honduran culture.  It was an oasis of colour, smells of tortillas baking in a wood fired oven, hand woven rugs and leather saddles.  A small haven that contrasted greatly from the plastic, charisma-less expanses of Honduras’ countryside.

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Leather saddles are stored over the railings at Hacienda San Lucas.  Ready for use.  January 2014.

During my trip to Africa when I visited Maun, I got so tired of scratching the surface of western culture to find the true Africa.  After we crossed the border into Zambia I decided to take off in a cab to downtown Livingstone and find a real community.  Despite all the forewarnings that it was dangerous, I pulled a cab up and asked if I could be taken to a market?  The driver responded with “OK there are two great souvenir markets in Livingstone, one in the main street….” And before he finished his sentence I cut him off “No, I want to go to your market, where everyday Zambians go to shop”.  He looked at me quizzically.  I suddenly remembered that I had no local money with me so I apprehensively asked if he could take me to a bank en-route.  While I stood in the queue for the ATM I could see him making phone calls.  After withdrawing a small amount of cash, I approached his car and from the outside asked “What’s going on?”.  The warnings I’d been given made me unsure of this guy’s intentions.  Who had he been phoning?  Was he going to take me down a dark alley and mug me for my newly withdrawn cash?  He replied “I’ve just called the manager of the market to let him know you are coming.  White people don’t go there often and no one speaks english.  He will guide you”.  Finding his response more comforting I climbed back in the car  and we went to Dambwa Central Market.  As promised the market manager met me and we wandered the aisles of stalls separated by dirt paths strewn with chicken heads, overflowing black eyed peas and litter.  It was earthy, real and fascinating.  I found women selling clay for pregnant women to chew on in case they were anaemic.  Another seller was vending dried caterpillars.  She offered some to me.  Being the only white person in the market and, shock horror, a female journalist, a crowd had assembled around me to see if I would actually be brave enough to try a caterpillar.  I tried one and oddly, it tasted quite nice.  Then I explained to the market manager that in Australia I’ve eaten live caterpillars (witchetty grubs) and everyone fell about laughing!  On another stall I tried bubblegum fruit which quite literally tastes like bubblegum.  On yet another I saw many pots of brightly coloured pigments and queried what they were used for.  I learned that the local people mix the pigment with wax to colour the floors of their houses.  The whole afternoon was a true highlight of my entire African trip.  Finally I found somewhere I could learn something new.

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An elderly woman takes a break from her stall.  Dambwa Central Market, Livingstone, Zambia.  September 2012.

I had also experienced some brief moments of joy in another African country, Namibia, where I did the most incredible trip with a gentleman called Boesman to learn about the ways of the San.  In brief stops we also met people of both the Herero and Himba cultures of Namibia.  From those experiences I learned that San children first learn how to recognise the footsteps of their mother in the sand so if they are ever lost, they can find their mother this way if they see her foot prints.  I also learned that the Himba give birth to their children by hanging from a tree.  The women of the village will tie an expectant mother by her wrists to a tree, surround her and assist the birth alongside the gravity of her position.  It seems to work for them.  These are desert people who have done things this way for centuries.  Despite the horror that this act might induce in our western minds there is quite a number of healthy Himba children running around the Namibian countryside who were most likely born this way.

One of the many questions that people ask me about tribes like the Himba is “Don’t they smell?  They live in the desert and never bathe”.  My response is usually something along the lines of “Yes they have a leathery smell.  Tourists smell worse”.   My first encounter with the Himba was in Swakopmund and a few women had covered themselves up to come into town.  Later on in Namibia we encountered a true Himba woman all statuesque and proud. Her beautiful coloured skin was painted in ochre, her hair was dreadlocked and covered in animal skins and mud.  She wore shell jewellery and her feet were protected by leather sandals. Her ankles were covered in the numerous leather bands that would protect them and her legs from snake bites.  I was mesmerized by her.  She was so incredibly beautiful that I felt like her ugly white sister.  I found myself hoping that she would never try to emulate the way I look, wear clothes like mine, choose my costume jewellery to replace her shells, replace those beautiful sandals with trashy western shoes.  No, she was proud and she was Himba.  I was awe struck.

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A Himba woman covers herself for her trip to Swakopmund.  September 2012.

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Shells form part of the complex traditional dress of women.  September 2012.

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Statuesque and proud.  A beautiful Himba woman contemplates the location of her son who has gone off to play with other children.  September 2012.

Earlier in my career I was lucky enough to work with some relatively true aboriginal cultures in the western part of Cape York, northern Australia.  I have since worked with the Pitjantjatjara people in the red centre and the people of Arnhem Land.  Australia has a long and ugly history of suppressing the culture of its indigenous people.  Finding aboriginal people that are still perpetuating their traditions is extremely difficult.  When I met the Wik people near Aurukun I mainly communicated with them via an interpreter but I learned how to find the hives of native bees, find mudshells, hunt for stingrays and harvest paperbark and ti-tree for cooking.  I laughed many times with them as they tried to teach me to wrap my tongue around the pronunciation of words in their language “NO!!! It’s Wik Munghnh” they used to say to me!  I still can’t pronounce that word! Two of the highlights of my trip into the western Cape included eating freshly caught seafood straight from an open fire on the banks of the Archer River and learning how to cut pandanus, treat it, then make traditional carrying baskets out of it.

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Holding a mudshell.  Aurukun, western Cape, August 2005.

I feel blessed to have learned so many things through these people and feel so humbled by the fact they have wanted to teach me.  This is probably the reason that I travel.  There is literally nothing that I won’t try in terms of food and I find that cultures hold an endless allure.  I am captivated by them.

Someone asked me recently why I love visiting places like Tibet, Nepal and India and I struggled to pinpoint an answer to their question.  After all my mother visited Sri Lanka in the 1960s and really didn’t like it there.  I think the main appeal these countries have for me is the fact that  Western culture has taken a smaller foothold in them.  The people have embraced some of it but you don’t have to go too far to completely escape it and feel like you are travelling in another world.  In a confrontational place like Pashupatinath, the largest and most sacred Hindu ghat in Nepal, a place that sees so much death, I feel, oddly, so at peace.  You can sit quietly on the steps at Pashupatinath and watch the sombre ceremonies of Hindu devotees as they prepare the bodies of their deceased relatives for a riverside cremation.  They then carry their relative or friend to a large fire where they are cremated in full view of the public before their ashes are spread into the Bagmati River and carried away by its currents.  Nothing is shameful about this ceremony.  Life isn’t hidden by these people.  This is the way it has happened for centuries.  Turning away from that spectacle you can walk up staircases pitted from the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims over hundreds of years and commune with brightly coloured and eccentric Saddhus, the Hindu holy men that call Pashupatinath home.  Further around the complex there is an old people’s home that is manned by volunteer medical staff and other carers, for people who are too poor to receive geriatric care elsewhere.  It feels like a great cycle of openness and caring being in Pashupatinath.  It is a rich, colourful, traditional place perfumed by the aroma of smoke and incense.  Each time I visit I usually stay way longer than I plan to.  I get sucked up by the sheer spectacle of it.  If I am not messing around taking photos of local kids swimming in the river (yes the same river where the cremation ashes are spread), I am having a laugh with one of the elders in the care home warning me about the Macaques choosing to shit on people carrying cameras so I should always look above my head!!!  Children fly kites and feed pigeons.  The temple complex is a sanctuary of peace away from the bustling street life of Kathmandu.

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Children swim in the Bagmati River at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, September 2013.

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An elderly woman at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, September 2013.

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Ghat.  Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2013.

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Dyed powders are sold as offerings on the entrance to Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2013.

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One of the Saddhus, or Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, Nepal, September 2013.

Even with the devastation of Tibetan culture, you can still see so much of it when you travel there.  It isn’t gone.  The very fact that Tibetan culture has survived  and exists in the face of such massive opposition is a testimony to its strength.

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A tribal nomad girl in western Tibet, October 2013.

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Often its a small handful of elders who uphold the traditions of their communities in the face of nearly everything.  Tibetan elder, Lake Manasarovar, western Tibet, October 2013.

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Nomad woman.  Lake Manasarovar, western Tibet, October 2013.

Most recently in Ladakh, I learned about a wonderful program called Himalayan Homestays which has dedicated its cause to preserving an authentic experience for travelers visiting rural villages across the world’s tallest mountain range by teaching a small business model for families to support themselves if other sources of income fail.  Tourists can stay at a homestay, eat with families, participate in their lives and learn many other things during their stay.  It is one way of maintaining the integrity of the cultures in which the homestays operate and travelers can go away with that knowledge while the family also receives the financial benefit of their stay.

Driving around Leh I was pleased to see that the city had adopted a ‘no slum’ policy and was looking at ways to safely accommodate its people through affordable housing.

In Saspoche, despite the fact they have electricity, water, a vegetable garden and schools, I was still invited by a traditionally dressed local lady to have tea in her best tea cups. I sat on the floor while she cooked it on an open fire with wood grown specifically for that purpose in a village plantation.

In Ullay we saw that Norboo had a satellite phone and solar electricity but we still ate our meals while we sat on the floor of the kitchen, our food was cooked on an open fire, the nearby field was used for spinning wool that is made into rugs and clothing and we slept on woven mats on the floor in a room of the house that had been in Norboo’s family for eight generations.  It was magnificent.

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Norboo’s wife, the ever smiling Dolma, in Ullay, Ladakh, April 2014.

Walking along the side of the Rumbak river  later on in our trip, I heard a series of yells accompanied by the tinkle of more than thirty bells.  Next minute a herd of colourfully adorned, fat little ponies rounded the corner carrying all manner of supplies to the mountain villages upstream.  They were both led and followed by herdsmen trying to keep them all together.  The weekly freight trip was underway to Rumbak.

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I was saddened to think that all of this could one day stop but I found out later that it won’t.  The road into Rumbak isn’t going to be a free-for-all for anyone to use.  It is going to be gated and will only allow emergency vehicles to help the elderly or sick get ambulance access or larger loads of equipment that can’t be carried on horseback.  The decision to gate this road has ensured the continuity of the horseback trade that has operated on those mountain trails for centuries.

I felt comforted that Rumbak Gorge will continue to echo with the tinkle of bells for many years to come due to the sensitivity of the people in Ladakh to maintain this transport as a part of their cultural heritage.

A middle path between progress and tradition can be found.  I just hope that some of the minority cultures I’ve worked with are strong enough to find it.

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