Article: ‘End of the road’ for Bhutan’s identity? (724 words)

The road makes me happy,” she says, “as it will greatly improve my family’s living conditions and make life easier.

Interesting article with fantastic images from photographer AJ Heath and Traveller Magazine.

AJ Heath spent 12 months in Bhutan and while he was there photographed the Brokpa tribe in the village of Merak in the east of the country.

As well as in Traveller Magazine, AJ Heath has written about this project for Edge of Humanity, Maptia and Lightfoot Travel.  A larger selection of photos from this project can be viewed on AJ Heath’s website.

The Brokpa, who are ethnically distinct from the Bhutanese, are a tribe of semi-nomadic yak herders.  Up to now, the remote village of Merak could only be visited by undertaking a multi-day trek which went over a 4,300m pass.  AJ Heath reports that that is about to change with the construction of the first road.

The traditional way of life and distinct cultures of rural communities like the Brokpa in Merak are at risk of disappearing.  As communications improve, they lead to a desire for more modernised lifestyles. Electricity was introduced in 2012 which was followed by satellite TV and fridges and mobile phones.

In his article for Lightfoot Travel, AJ Heath noted:

As the majority are illiterate, I was fascinated to know how they put people’s names into their phones. One lady showed me that she used the emojis – ‘dog, dog, cat, heart’ was her son who lives in Thimphu and ‘cat cat heart heart’ was for her daughter.

AJ Heath’s project documents the Brokpa and their way of life, and the articles examine the change that completion of the new road will bring.

Their lives have not really changed in centuries, but change is coming and the change will happen very quickly. I wanted to capture this before it is lost.

As Bhutan develops, its people struggle to preserve their traditional way of life and unique identity as they look for diferent and/or easier ways to earn a living.   

The road will increase tourism which will increase the incomes of the Brokpa.  Paradoxically, tourism provides an incentive to maintain traditions but its increase will, in turn, also put more pressure on their traditional way of life as the Brokpa use that income to modernise and buy consumer goods.  

There is an inevitable tension between the Brokpa’s desire to improve their lives and tourists’ yearning for things to remain as they are.  In a bid to prevent the loss of culture as a result of modernisation, the Bhutanese government has introduced legislation to protect cultural traditions.  

According to the articles, some fear that this could lead to unequal development within the country with some communites being preserved as living museums to satisfy lucrative tourist demand while other parts of the country are permitted to develop.  

Travel in Bhutan is only possible as part of an organised tour, which costs around $250 a day, or $290 if travelling solo or in a pair.  The rationale for this daily fee is to permit sustainable tourism which protects Bhutan’s land and culture while offering tourists an insight into a unique way of life.  A portion of the fee is used by the government to fund roads, infrastructure, health and education programs.  

While money from tourism plays a part in improving the country, the challenge for Bhutan will be how it manages not to distort development while maintaining that income; to keep both international visitors and Bhutan’s population satisfied.

While the tourists yearn for Bhutan to remain the same, Heath said that the Brokpa people welcomed the changes: “They all seemed very excited by the prospects of the new road being built. They thought it would improve their lives and that their living conditions would improve. The road would also bring in more tourists which will give them extra income to buys TVs and fridges.

In a country which places much stock in the idea of Gross National Happiness, only time will reveal the effect the road has on communities like Merak and whether the Bhutanese government and people are able to balance the competing demands of development, tourism and tradition.

For more about British photographer, AJ Heath and to see more of his work, visit his website (where there are more photos of a different aspect of Bhutan), or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.  

Photo essay: Vietnam’s iconic non la hats

I respect the people I photograph. Respect is the most important element in establishing a relationship with the subjects of your pictures and is key to accessing their real life.

Short but sweet photo essay from Reuters Wider Image and Mexican-born photojournalist Jorge Silva focussing on the iconic Vietnamese cone hat.  

Currently based in Bangkok, Jorge Silva took these photos in Hoi An.  Famous for being laid back, full of old world charm and its historic centre which blends Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and French colonial architecture, Hoi An contrasts with the traffic and pollution found in other Vietnamese cities.  

Hoi An’s well-preserved state owes more to luck than design.  It was once a busy port whose importance dwindled after its river silted up; until tourists started arriving in the 1990s, that is. 

The iconic hats themselves, found in various forms throughout Southeast Asia, are made of materials such as palm leaves, tree bark and bamboo, hence their name in Vietnamese:  non la, or leaf hats.   

See more of Jorge Silva’s work at Reuters or on Instagram (@jgesilva) or twitter (@jgesilva).

Article: Alastair Humphreys busks his way across Spain in Laurie Lee’s footsteps

When you plan an adventure some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” And so you’ll often walk alone. But If you make your journeys like this you will have your reward, so long as all you want at the end is a cold, crisp beer.

Alastair Humphreys hosted an evening to promote his latest book, Grand Adventures, back in May.  The event was organised by the travel book specialists, Stanfords, and took place at the Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane in London’s theatreland near Covent Garden. 

Being close not only to where I work but also the imposing Art Deco Freemasons Hall (no connection to my job), I normally associate the pub with after work drinks on the pavement outside and the Freemasons I have seen descending the stairs from the pub’s first floor room carrying oversized briefcases.  So, it was nice at last to have the chance to form a different association with the ‘PoW’.     

Alastair Humphreys was entertaining, enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging others to try their hands at adventures, big or small. Towards the end of the evening, he outlined the ongoing preparations for his own next adventure.  

Humphreys told the crowded upstairs room that a story about someone else’s journey can often serve as an inspiration for your own journey.  As I sat in silent, self-satisfied agreement, Humphreys name-checked Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger as inspirations, before citing Laurie Lee’s As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning as his favourite travel book (if I wasn’t already, I must surely have been smiling and nodding with approval by now).

It was for this reason, Humphreys explained, that he was currently having violin lessons. He intended to follow in Laurie Lee’s footsteps and walk across Spain supporting himself financially only with the money he earned from busking.

Alastair Humphreys seems to have forged a career largely from persuading others that they need no particular talent or skill to undertake adventures of many different kinds provided that they have the enthusiasm and desire to go out and make something happen and the determination to see it through and succeed.  Alastair Humphreys is indeed a great advert for his own philosophy of adventuring.  

Thanks to Instagram, it was easy to follow his progress as Humphreys posted regular updates from his journey throughout the summer, posting a mixture of photos, video shorts and text sharing stories and reflections about his trip.  

In his posts, Humphreys explains that it is not only Lee’s writing he admires but also his style of travel noting that he “travelled slow, lived simply, slept on hilltops, and loved conversations with the different people he met along the hot and dusty road.”

Humphreys’ wanderings in Spain were great to follow.  Overcoming his fears about playing violin in public, we follow his disappointments and triumphs as he lived from hand to mouth.  It is a story of small successes and pleasures, measured in handfuls of Euros, but also of a tough life on the road walking across Spain’s meseta in the heat of summer before crossing the mountains of the Sistema Central and arriving in Madrid.  

Along the way, Humphreys’ Instagram posts capture the joys of travelling solo, adapting to the tempo of the Spanish way of life, settling into the rhythm of his journey and enjoying the abundance of time:

Time expands when you are away on a journey. It feels voluptuous and luxurious. Back home, time is my scarcest and most precious commodity… And now here I am beneath a tree, watching the leaves, listening to the swallows…I have nothing. Nothing but time. So scarce at home, so bountiful out here that I wallow in an excess of it. I’m wilfully inviting boredom (though I’ve rarely felt it, yet). I’m allowing my brain a fallow month to wander where it wonders and to recalibrate a little. 

Tramping across Spain, Humphreys received unexpected and generous hospitality, enjoyed beautiful scenery, found idyllic places to sleep for the night and also novel places to cool off.     

Setting off solo to follow a literary hero’s footsteps with nothing but his wits and a nascent proficiency in playing the violin may be a touch quixotic but is still impressive.  In the process, Humphreys shows what determination can do, living by his creed that the expertise one needs to undertake an adventure can, to a large degree, be obtained along the way.  That must have made the final cerveza he enjoyed in Madrid just that little bit sweeter and makes you wonder, maybe, just maybe, I could… 

Follow Alastair Humphreys’ journey across Spain on Instagram – www.instagram.com/al_humphreys/ – or find out more about him on his website: www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Photo essay: Urbanistan, a street photography project

UrbaniStan is a street photography project that explores the urban environment of the developing world. The project aims to demonstrate that ‘urban’ in the developing world does not necessarily mean modern and to draw the attention of the general public to the slowly declining social values that are sinking under increasing pressures of modernisation. 

Excellent photo essay from Maptia and Slovenian photographer, Matjaž Krivic.

Breathtaking in its scope and with beautiful images, this gallery of 80 images of urban life around the world is a visual feast for any travel lover.  

 

The photos in this gallery are the result of Krivic’s many years’ globe-trotting in Asia, Africa and the Middle East but they are much more than simply a collection of postcard images of famous places.  

Although many of the locations are well known, Krivic captures a different angle and gives them a personality whether it is of boys playing volleyball on the streets of Thula in Yemen, Jaipur primary school pupils having a maths lesson, a boy studying at a medrassa in Mali or people at work, play or prayer around the world.  

 

Matjaž Krivic has been travelling and photographing the world for 22 years.  According to his website, he focusses on poorer parts of the world “characterised by traditions, social unrest and religious devotion…the marginal world – the voices of the neglected”.

Intimate, spontaneous and striking, this is a gallery to get lost in, to wonder not only at the places themselves but also at the people who live there and the lives they lead. Inspiring and thought provoking. 

More of Matjaž Krivic’s work can be found on his website (www.krivic.com), on Instagram (@krivicmatjaz) or on Twitter (@matjazkrivic) and if 80 photos aren’t enough and you want to see more of the Urbanistan photos, look here.  

 

 

Photo essay: Ebb and Flow of life in Indonesia

Ebb and Flow is about a small, remote community living on the coast of Sumbawa, Indonesia. They live and work in harmony with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Gorgeous photo essay from Suitcase magazine and photographer Lulu Ash.  

The subject is a small community on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.  One of the Lesser Sunda islands, the chain stretching east from Java towards Darwin, Australia and Papua New Guinea, Sumbawa is located between the more famous islands of Lombok and Flores. 

Lula Ash’s photos concentrate on the rhythm of the community’s life which is dictated by the tides as they go about daily life, fishing, harvesting seaweed, fixing boats and surfing. 

See more of Lulu Ash’s work online at www.luluash.co.uk, on Instagram (@luluashstudio) or on Twitter (@luluashstudio).

Photo essay: Bolivia’s Cholita climbers

The women climb in their traditional “cholita” garb, but trade in their bowler hats for helmets.

Inspiring photo essay from Bolivian Reuters photographer David Mercado about a group of Bolivian women who have set out to climb some of the highest mountains in the Andes. 

The group of indigenous Aymara women, known as the ‘Cholitas’, are mostly in their 40s.  The wives of mountain guides whose previous experience of the mountains was limited to cooking and cleaning for climbers, they decided to see what mountain climbing was like for themselves.  With no formal climbing experience, they climb mountains in their cholita dresses, shawls and cardigans although do wear helmets and crampons…   

They have now summited five mountains all of which are higher than 6,000 metres:  Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosi and Illimani.  Their goal is to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside Asia.  

Fantastic images and a great story about determination, possibilities and trying new experiences, the Cholitas show that climbing is a sport open to anyone.  And the Cholitas’ verdict?:  “It is difficult but not impossible.”  

 

 

 

Article: Shifting perceptions – In search of the real Sahara

We laugh a lot in the Sahara.
The environment may be hard and brutal… but the behaviour is sweet.

Sometimes a trip can work out differently to the one you planned and dreamed about.  

That is what photographer Arnaud Contreras found.  Contreras had been travelling through Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger and Western Sahara with a plan to study their cultures.  However, when he arrived in Timbuktu, what he found inspired him to change his approach.

 

In this article from the great Huck magazine, Contreras tells the story of how the sight of teenagers in Timbuktu swapping music videos made him rethink his plans.  Abandoning the traditional narrative for reporting on Africa, Contreras instead photographed communities in the Sahara that were embracing modernity and mobile technology.

A fascinating glimpse of the side of life in the Sahara that is normally sidelined by the mainstream media which prefers stories about terrorism and poverty, Contreras focuses on the story of a desert that embraces rock music and is forging an identity under the desert sun that defies the normal stereotypes.  Travel and reporting as it should be, Contreras’ photos are a tonic. 

More of Contreras’ photos from his book Sahara Rocks! along with his other work can be seen on his website at www.arnaudcontreras.com

On the theme of shifting perceptions, this photo essay complements another story from Huck about the project Everyday Africa, a network of photographers who contribute to the an Instagram feed to represent a more balanced view of Africa away from the traditional images of war and famine: 

 

Article: Lost tower tombs of Oman

The British helicopter pilot, John Nowell, was astonished. He was flying over a remote rocky plateau in the Al Hajar ash-Sharqiyah mountains of Oman, when he saw dozens of unusual conical stone towers dotting the landscape. The rest of the world had no idea they existed.

Fantastic article with stunning photographs from Maptia about The Lost Tombs of Oman.

Older than the pyramids of Egypt and hidden in the remote desert mountains of Oman, the beehive shaped tombs were only rediscovered by chance in the 1990s.  

In 2013, Barcelona based photographer, Oriol Alamany, and his wife set off with a map, a 15 year old scientific article, mobile phone, GPS and a 4WD vehicle to look for the tombs.  With only little (and vague) information to guide them, they set off on their quest along perilous gravel tracks, braving switchback roads in the southeastern end of the Al Hajar mountains.  

It was magnificent. We saw dozens of towers of many different heights were scattered all over the surrounding hills and cliffs, bathed in the golden evening light that now filtered through the clouds.

The towers themselves are around 5,000 years old and are funerary relics from a time when Oman was known as Magan and trade with Mesopotamia was the source of its wealth.  Funerary towers are not new discovery in Oman, or in the Gulf states, but it is the excellent state of preservation which makes the Shir tombs special as Alamany’s photos show.

A genuine tale of discovery and adventure and a tantalising hint of what further archaeological treasures may still lie undiscovered in the mountains of the Arabian peninsula.  

Oriol Alamany is a photographer specialising in wildlife and the natural world. HIs article on the Oman tombs was originally published in National Geographic (Spanish & Portuguese edition).  More of his photos from Oman are on flicker:

Oman

If you’re interested in reading more about Oman you may want to see Jan Morris’ book, Sultan in Oman:

Book: Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop

Brave New Burma, by Nic Dunlop

Dewi Lewis Publishing (2013) 

I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power.  

This is how Nic Dunlop explained his interest in Burma to BBC journalist Fergal Keane at the May 2013 launch of Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club in London.

A significant challenge for Dunlop in undertaking his quest was the difficulty of capturing life in Burma under a totalitarian regime:

For most visitors to Burma at that time, stories of slave labour and repression seemed at odds with the images they encountered: smiling people, exotic festivals and gleaming temples.  Burma was a mature totalitarian state, its operations to subtle for the casual observer to perceive… The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets.  The vey absence of the army was proof of its power.

How then does one capture the brutality of a military dictatorship when the army is not visible on the street?  Or record something so pervasive that it is almost imperceptible?

Dunlop did, through 20 years’ patient travel and photography.  The result is an impressive combination of photography and written journalism which, steering clear of cliches, lifts the lid on a secretive country where another reality lies beyond the sight of most observers.  Brave New Burma documents not only the country and its struggles but Dunlop’s own journey as a photographer and journalist as he seeks to uncover hidden stories about the reality of life in Burma.    
 

Dunlop tracks down those who have been forced from their homes, tortured and forced into labour before penetrating the military heart of the regime to observe the leaders up close shortly before protests by buddhist monks were brutally put down by the Tatmadaw in 2007.  

Brave New Burma is structured as a series of essays accompanied by photos, dealing in turn with Burma’s internal conflicts, the invisibility of the totalitarian regime, imprisonment, torture and forced labour and the military regime.  Brave New Burma is gripping, chilling and unflinching in its examination of the ethnic divisions and conflicts that have riven Burma and been exploited by the dictatorship, the plight of refugees and the humiliations, rapes, mutilations, psychological scars and privations inflicted on the country’s population.  

What makes Brave New Burma particularly powerful is its mixture of political and historical background interwoven with portraits and personal accounts from those he has interviewed, which make it an intimate and compassionate portrait of the country’s people.    

Brave New Burma is not just a record of a repressive regime that will hopefully soon be consigned to history books but also an excellent introduction to Burma and valuable for anyone wanting to gain an insight following last November’s historic elections. 

In the final chapter, Dunlop examines the possibility of change and potential freedom from the fear that pervades both civilian and military life.  Dunlop seems more hopeful than optimistic.  Avoiding the simplistic view of freedom versus a totalitarian regime, his view is nuanced and highlights the difficulties that will accompany real change in the country from ethnic tensions, the weight of expectation on Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to the risk of future exploitation as external forces eye economic opportunities in Burma.  It is perhaps for that reason that the last photo bears the cautious caption, ‘No end in sight’.

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based, award winning photographer with photo agency Panos Pictures.  Panos specialises in global social issues, “recognising that photography is more than pictures on a page” and believing “in the photography of ideas…with the aim of interpreting rather than simply recording.” 

Watch Nic Dunlop introduce Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club launch in May 2013: 

Alternatively, listen to the event on Soundcloud or preview Brave New Burma on Panos Pictures’ website:

You can read some earlier articles and view some of Nic Dunlop’s photos at Prospect magazine, here, here and here

Video: Holi festival of colours (1m47s)

Hindus throughout the world observe Holi, an annual celebration of the victory of good over evil; of colors, spring, and love— (from Jungles in Paris)

This video is a few years old now but is still captivating:  

See more photos of Holi celebrations and read more about the Hindu festival in this article on the excellent Jungles in Paris, an online travel magazine with a focus on culture, craft, geography, and wildlife and specialising in photo and video.

Book & Photo Essay: Palaces of Memory – India’s Coffee Houses

Palaces of Memory
by Stuart Freedman with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri

Published by Dewi Lewis (2015)

“The air of lassitude in these places, the stains on the table, are as important to the ‘historical attitude’ of the coffee drinker as the coffee itself.”

Stuart Freedman is a photographer and writer based between London and New Delhi whose work over he last 20 years has been published in major outlets around the world. 

This book, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is in Freedman’s words “a love letter” to the Indian Coffee House, a national network of cafes across India owned by their workers.  (Stuart’s Kickstart funding was to meet the costs of publishing a limited edition hardcover book rather than travel to take the photos).

Stuart’s attachment to the coffee houses began when he first started visiting India.  He describes them as a “refuge” and “a respite from the noise and movement of a difficult but fascinating city” and also a reminder of the : 

Suddenly, I felt more at home in a strange city. When I travelled through the country, I sought them out. As a young journalist, the Coffee Houses taught me to see similarity not difference: that people were the same the world over and that was a lesson to be cherished.

Passing time in these coffee houses, speaking with strangers and observing other customers, enabled Freedman to experience an India “far away from the stereotypes of both poverty and exotica”.

An interesting essay on Freedman’s website describes how the history of the coffee houses is more than about just coffee and how they were a social meeting place, an ‘adda’ – “a specifically Bengali meeting place: full of conversation and discussion” – a home from home where politics and culture were discussed.

Freedman also describes how the history of the coffee houses reveals the political and economic history of India from the opening of the earliest coffee houses in Kolkata and Madras during the years of British rule, through to Indian independence and the 1960s and 70s when the coffee house “was like a kitchen of ideas just waiting to be cooked”. Latterly, as Indian economic fortunes have changed, India is becoming more familiar with a different type of coffee house which does not encourage is customers to gather, sit and chat for long periods although the coffee houses it seems are continuing to survive, if not thrive.  

Chaudhuri’s foreword to the book is available online at The Telegraph of India.  In it he considers the shabbiness of the coffee houses, with their plastic or folding chairs and formica or wooden tables.  He cautions against assuming they reflect underdevelopment and suggests they reflect “a strategically cultivated ethos” or “cult of austerity” borne out of “the morality of Nehruvian socialism and Gandhi austerity”.  The unselfconscious simplicity of the coffee houses thereby reflecting a modernist aesthetic or ‘historical attitude’ –  “history not as knowledge, information, and fact, but as an assignation of meaning to shabbiness” – in the same way that “a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains”.

A gallery of images from Freedman’s book can be viewed on his website while this BBC report by Howard Johnson gives an insight into the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata:

Photo Essay: Comfort Zone

Once we find ourselves on a beach, we forget about everything and start acting in an absolutely different manner

Pauline Eiferman of Roads & Kingdoms interviews Lithuanian photographer Tadao Cern about his Comfort Zone project which captured photos of sleeping sunbathers on the coast of the Baltic Sea.

Whatever the ethics of photographing people without their knowledge, there is undoubtedly something calming and captivating about the vulnerability and peace of this gallery of people relaxing in the sun.

By choosing to showcase photos of people whose faces remain hidden, Cern prevents the images form being too personal yet without sacrificing intimacy.  The resulting images highlight that, no matter how self and image conscious people are in their everyday lives, their attitudes are affected by being on the beach where people relax with less inhibitions.  With such natural and unguarded images, it is little wonder that Cern told Roads & Kingdom:

Sometimes I had to give some explanations, but usually I tried to walk away quietly…

Photo Essay: Awá indians, Brazil

It is astonishing that there are still uncontacted native people in such a devastated part of the Amazon. The modern frontier, with its chain saws, bulldozers, loggers, squatters, and cattle ranchers, has been eating away at the Awá’s rain forest for 40 years. Illegal logging roads have penetrated to within a few miles of where one of the three known bands of isolados roams.

Feature article from Vanity Fair.  Survival International enlisted photographer Sebastião Salgado and writer Alex Shoumatoff to journey into the remote Amazonian jungle to focus attention on the plight of the Awá.  The Awá, are an Amazonian tribespeople who were first contacted at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s.  Despite winning a legal battle requiring the Brazilian government to evict the illegal loggers, the Awá remain one of the world’s most threatened tribal people. 

Read the article here.

Sebastião Salgado’s gallery of photos are here.

Survival International is a charity that champions tribal peoples’ rights.  It was formed in 1969 in response to a newspaper article by Norman Lewis in the Sunday Times Magazine.  

Read more about Survival and its work here.