Saturday, February 28, 2015

What is really going on in Burma under the surface?

While traveling in Burma it's hard to figure out what is really going on. On the tourist side, you see a country changing quickly to make room for the growing tourism numbers. The story you hear is that the military government which has had a strict control on every aspect of life here for 60 years decided to begin to open up and allow more political freedom. They finally released Aung sung Sui ki from house arrest. She won a Nobel Prize for her efforts to open up the country and has been one of the worlds most famous political prisoners. When they released her she told the world it was ok to come to Burma again and the travel boycott being observed by many in the west was lifted, allowing millions of travelers to visit. Tourism numbers show 360k coming in 2006, 790k coming in 2010 the year the change happened and 2 million coming in 2013.

So on the one hand, growth in tourism is rapidly changing the country and opening it up to the outside world. Tourists are everywhere. New hotels and restaurants are popping up.  But then on the other hand one is always wondering what is really going on and if the military really does have much more control than they admit. Our guide is very careful when he answers our questions.  Tourists are only allowed to go to certain areas of the country or they need permits that are virtually impossible to get. 

I find myself eager to believe the story that things are changing fast and political freedom is rising and that the upcoming elections this year will bring a new president directly elected by the people, but I also feel myself worrying that that is not going to happen and many of the changes are much more on the surface.  And the frustrating part is there really is no way to figure out what is the truth. 

Added after returning to the US:

I have been getting Google Alerts about Burma news since I got back and feel a bit naive about how little I knew about the ethnic conflicts happening all over the country. The country officials clearly want tourists to see some stuff and bypass a lot of other issues.  I still hope Burma is on the road to the right kind of change since it was a beautiful interesting to place to visit.  I hope tourism is used as a liberating force, not as a way to get money to use to keep the Burmese people in line.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Travels in Burma


My trip to Burma was amazing.  The faces, the color, the culture, the religion, the friendly openness of the people... all blended to make this one of my favorite trips of my life.

Burma is a poor country that sits very low on the development scale. Like so many others, colonialism tore it's identity apart and it has never really found it's balance since. Up until 2010, it was largely cut off from the world and under the control of a harsh repressive military regime. Some equate with the harshness Burma was forced to endure under colonial rule. It is hard to figure out where the country stands right now. Things have definitely changed and the country is opening up to the outside world.  Lots of reforms have been made, but the jury is still out as to weather the military is really ready to cede full power. 

One issue is that Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.  The government recognizes 134 different ethnic groups in a country the size of Texas with a population of about 60 million.  The new freedom is opening up space for contentious ethnic divisions to fester. As often happens, needs and expectations of the people far outweigh results.
Culturally Burma is all about Buddhism. There are ornate gold covered stupas and Buddhas everywhere. It's mind blowing. The thing to do is to visit  temples and learn Buddha's stories. And honestly, I couldn’t get enough.  Now that I am back I miss them. I think its partly because the pagodas seem to be a dynamic center for observing real life in Burma and visiting them gives a vibrant and vivid look into Burmese culture. For instance, we asked our guide what young people do on a date and he said go hang out at the pagoda. Doesn’t seem too romantic to me, but I did see many people using the pagoda grounds as a public space, having tea with friends, reading the paper, checking their smart phones…


We visited Bagan, the city that was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Burma. From the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 temples were built and today over 2000 of them still stand in a small radius. One morning I got up and took a balloon ride at sunrise over the temples. It was a magical experience to see the valley below light up and see then full extent of how many temples there are. 



We were very lucky to be in Bagan for it's biggest festival of the year. It coincided with a full moon and a Sunday so it was even bigger than it might have been. Travel kismet. People from rural villages came down into town and camped for up to a week. They shopped at pop-up markets and visited temples. The faces were amazing and their excitement about seeing us was palpable. 


Burma just recently reduced the cost of SIM cards for cell phones down to $1.50  from $200. It means they are accessible to everyone and now EVERYONE seems to have a smart phone and their nose in it. It also means everyone suddenly has a camera and they love to use it. We were a fascination and we often noticed people sneaking a picture of us. We started to ask everyone who took a picture of us for a picture of them and I posed in many shots. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Cultural Influences of Burma

The more I travel, the smaller the world gets and the interconnections of culture and history from country to country become more apparent.  Whether its the similarities between countries with the same colonial powers, who then share traditions, historical timelines and architectural styles, or migrations of workers and the mixing that happened due to the prominent trade routes throughout Asia, or just that borders were often placed haphazardly so similar cultures live in multiple countries. And then theres religion... it is a huge connector in so many places.

Burma brought all these things together for me. The intersecting cultures were prominent and very visible. Burma shares a border with Thailand, Laos, China, Bangladesh and India and there are influences of them all in the faces, food and traditions. The biggest tug seems to be between the influence of their big neighbors, India and China. 
While seeing the Chinese influence didn’t feel unusual, since China is the huge imposing neighbor to all of South East Asia, I was not expecting so much of the Indian feel. Between being a close neighbor, sharing trade routes for centuries and the huge influence the British Empire had in connecting the two countries, at this point India is ever present.

Please forgive the roughness of these observations. I'm not a trained anthropologist, so I'm just throwing out random things I noticed here. Its hard to put to words all the times someone I was with, or I,  just got that feeling that something felt like India.  It was subtle and wonderful. There were little India reminders everywhere. Religious pilgrims piled high in oxcarts dressed brightly for festival days. Overfilled trucks coming home from the market. The traditional dress for men and women is a long skirt, called a longyi, a long sarong type cloth, similar to India, (and even Coastal Kenya), is a tradition adopted during British rule. Food for sale on the streets includes samosas and other familiar Indian delights.  People drink lots of chai. Dinner one night was served one a huge platter with separate compartments just like a thali, a Southern Indian style dish. Some of the Buddhist temples were built in the same style as Hindu temples and there are also were ornate painted Hindu temples in Yangon, the capital. And then the faces... So many of the faces are Indian faces. I recognized a lot of influence of genes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu in Southern India. And other faces had darker Indian skin tones with Asian features. The faces, were so, so, so diverse… It was heaven for a portrait photographer like me.

And last but not least, frankly, there just was a bit more of the chaotic, cultural vibrance I love than in a typical South East or East Asian city.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Holiday Letter 2014


Hello Friends -

Before 2014 fades away into the past I wanted to send out my greetings and updates. As always, I've been a busy bee. Most notably after taking the plunge last year and grudgingly starting an Executive Master in Public Administration degree program at NYU Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, I ended up loving it so much that I decided to go full time and really take advantage of the opportunity. These classes seem even more interesting than undergrad now that I have a lifetime of experience under my belt. It helps connect so many different dots! Plus I guess I'm just that geeky that I am enjoying immersing myself in a deep culture of learning and discussion.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Adventures in New York: Jackson Heights, Queens


This month I've been helping on a DOT project, tracking pedestrian usage of a plaza in Jackson Heights, one of my favorite NY neighborhoods. The bustling immigrant energy fills me with hope. 
For those that don't know, JH is one of the most diverse zip codes in the world. It is an entry point for Latin Americans and South Asians, among others. The area the plaza is in is transitioning from Indian and Pakistani to Tibetan, Nepali and Bangladeshi, as one set of immigrants achieves the American suburban dream and leaves room for newcomers. 
As I arrive home from a day out there, I feel like I have been around the world and back. Magical!

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Volunteering and Learning Along the Migrant Trail in Southern Arizona

This past week I visited Southern Arizona to immerse myself in border issues. The US-Mexican border in Arizona crosses the Sonoran Desert, which is hot and inhospitable, but for many it is an important path to economic survival.  Current immigration policies and the border fence erected since 9/11 have made what many longtime Arizona residents told me was a routine crossing into the US for seasonal work into a dangerous activity.  In fact, between 200-400 migrants die each year in the Tucson sector of the border while making this journey.

Arizona/Mexico Border Trip


I had an amazing, eye-opening, moving trip down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.


Click HERE to see pictures from my trip

Volunteering at El Comedor, Nogales, Mexico


In May, I spent a morning serving food to the recently deported at El Comedor in Nogales, Mexico, where I had the chance to hear many stories. El Comedor, run by Jesuit nuns and the Kino Border Initiative, feeds migrants who have just been dropped back into Mexico by US Immigration. Each day American volunteers come across the border and join the nuns to serve breakfast and dinner to up to 100 migrants a day. They also provide medical care and advice on how to re-group and figure out what to do next. They help migrants get bus tickets home, get money wired to them, take testimony of any abuse they may have suffered in the hands of Border Patrol and most importantly offer kindness.


Click HERE to see a few pictures

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Visiting South of the US/Mexico Border Fence in Nogales, Mexico

I headed down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.  Since 9/11, efforts have been made to close the border and it is affecting life on both sides.  Before this time there were many border towns that that functioned jointly on both the Mexico and US sides with people working, living and going to school together. When the US decided to put up a wall, families were split, workers were on the opposite sides as their jobs, students were on the opposite side from their schools.  Unfortunately this border fence has sucked the vibrancy out of many communities. One example I explored was Nogales, Arizona, US and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico where many efforts are being made to keep both sides vibrant.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dear Cuba...


Dear Cuba:

I love you!  After my third trip to visit, I am even more in love than the first time I set foot on your shores.  I love your passion for standing tall against the US and the "normal" unbalanced relationship most Caribbean islands have with it.  I still love the ideals you have tried to maintain since the Revolution.  I do wish you could be a bit more open and give your citizens more freedom to make their way.  I have witnessed the energy and drive of your people and believe given the permission and a little help they would be able to help you with your economic woes.  I wish my country wasn't so threatened by you and could just let you be.  I wish the Cuban-Americans could just get over their anger and let policy normalize and see what happens.

But more than all those political and economic issues, I love your strength.  Your people are solid and strong.  I love your music.  There is a beat to every footstep in your streets and the music playing everywhere adds energy to everything. And I love that the music has so many ethnic roots. I love your vibrant rainbow of skin colors from white to black, with 36 gradations  recognized along the way.  I love that a group of boys hanging on the Malecon might have a very pale blond boy, a very black one and few of other shades.  I learned that its not that simple and of course, you, like all lands with slave holding history, still haven't quite figured out how to erase race, but still a walk down any street in Havana had so many diverse faces,which is a delight for a portrait photographer like me.  Surely with some more of the new dialogue on race and work to show more positive images of Afro-Cubans, you will be able to rise to be an almost racially neutral country.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Few Thoughts About Cuba

I leave this trip from Cuba with more questions than answers. Everything I thought on my last trip remains true. It's a beautiful country with impressive architecture and rich culture. The people have a warm inner spirit that makes me keep wanting to go back.

On each trip, I scratch a little deeper and since I was there for an NYU grad school class this time, I really dug in. We met with experts who explained the challenges Cuba is currently facing with its economy. They spoke to us about their healthcare system, where they train doctors from around the world and also send 1000s of doctors to work in other countries.  We also learned about their rich creative community, housing policy, work dealing with issues related to race, sexuality and gender issues. We heard about how they are preserving their historical architecture and are trying to develop a tourism industry that benefits and doesn't displace locals.

I continue to admire some of the values of the Revolution and all the efforts to even the economic landscape for everyone, but feel frustrated that even with so many interventions inequality exists on many levels and tourism and the influx of money from it and other outside sources is reopening old scars.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Classic Cars in Cuba


Re-posting from Cuba March 2005

In honor of my recent trip to Cuba I'm re-posting my write-up from after my trip there in 2005

It has been three weeks since I returned from my second trip to Cuba. I’ve been having a hard time putting what I saw onto paper. I know that a few minutes in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana drinking a fresh sweet minty mojito and listening to one of the many Cuban bands that play all over would bring it all rushing back to me. The slow pace, the comfortable feeling, the beauty, the warmth, the history and most importantly those big smiles that radiate out of every person you see.

The best I can do though is to pop in the cd from my favorite band there and try to gather my thoughts for you…

Cuba is a magical place. It’s both stopped in time and at the same time so very current. It’s got a rainbow multicultural mix of people. Locals could have long blond hair and pale skin, dark black African skin or most commonly dark hair and striking eyes of their Spanish ancestors. The cultural boundaries of racism that keep us separated in the US, seem to be gone there. It’s one of the good byproducts of the Revolution. 

(Unfortunately, I learned in my 2014 trip, that although Cuba is definitely a vibrant rainbow of race, racism exists here too more prominently than I could see on the surface. The ideals of equality in the Revolution came a long way to helping Afro-Cubans achieve equality in economic and educational attainment, but as I saw a prominent intellectual say "Black is still black." so more must be done to promote positive black images in society. The complicated implications of a post-slavery society are hard to erase.  The good news in Cuba though is that an vibrant discussion is finally taking place about this issue.)

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Streets are Lined with Art in Philadelphia!


Somehow I missed this up till now but Philadelphia has an amazing assortment of street art with giant murals covering walls throughout the city. The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 as a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, an effort spearheaded to eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city. The Anti-Graffiti Network hired muralist Jane Golden to reach out to graffiti writers and to redirect their energies from destructive graffiti writing to constructive mural painting. Now 30 years later there are over 3600 murals throughout the city.  I got a small taste of them by following the City Center walking tour, which is a self guide walk by 14 murals.  Each mural has a plaque and a phone number that you can call to listen to an interview with the artist about the inspiration for the piece and who helped them do it.  A big component of the project is to involve community members in the creation of the work.  It was a touching experience to listen to the stories.  

All in all, I have heard that Philadelphia has made great strides to attract artists by subsidizing housing and rehearsal space and seeing art EVERYWHERE showed they take this seriously.  I have always loved Philly, but I now feel a deeper excitement about its vibrancy. I can't wait to go back when the snow isn't falling and the wind isn't blowing and explore other neighborhoods and see their art.

Click HERE to see an online album of some of the marvelous murals on Philadelphia's streets