In the recent post The exploited Long-neck women in SE Asia (I), I told about my long time interest in the women of the Kayan tribe from Burma. In particular I forwarded concerns from the field of Responsible/ Ethical tourism and Human Rights about the Kayan tribes’ involvement in the tourism industry due to their special tradition of decorating their necks with metal rings. I mentioned that I’m finally going to South East Asia, and that one of the purposes with the trip is to investigate this subject further.
Before embarking on such a trip, I’ve done some research online in order to get a better picture of the situation. Yet, I’ve not fully understood how big this tour product really is, how the tours are conducted, what guides communicate or how involved the Thai government is – despite of human rights organisations’ campaigns against it for years. However, as with other similar issues of concern in the tourism industry; I can only imagine that whatever impression I get through published articles, blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, the situation is a lot more complex than I’ll ever understand.
Still, as mentioned in the previous post; what´s clear is that there exists lots of information about the history of the Kayan people, including their origin, myths about their decoration custom, historical western fascination with them and key to my initial interest: Debates about the exploitation of them as tourist attractions in Thailand.
If the latter isn’t true, the question arises: What’s in it for them? Which clearly is the main reason why human rights organisations like Tourism Concern work on subjects like these.
Before discussing the ethics, lets go through some history.
The origin of the long-neck women is quite known even through tourism nowadays. The so called long-neck women are members of a tribe called Karen (by themselves pronounced as Kayan), out of which many fled from Burma to Thailand in the 1980s after having been one of many harshly oppressed ethnic minorities in the country. Soon after, there were built specific villages in the Chiang Mai region in Northern Thailand for – amongst other fleeing tribes– the Kayan people.
As most of the Kayan women stuck to the old custom of coiling rings around their necks, Thai authorities soon realised their value as tourist attractions, and built separate villages for them to where visitors could pay to come and see them with their own eyes and learn about their tradition.
According to a huge variety of sources the mythical stories and beliefs about why the women coil their necks with heavy metal rings then, seem to be presented and believed in numerous forms, but the three most common mythologies explain that:
- It’s done to prevent tigers from biting them
- It was originally done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders.
and the opposite of the latter:
- That an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery therefore, is said to be punished by removal of the rings.
As tempted as I am to rabble on about the ways so called “culture tours/ tourism” can develop, and why it often represents an issue of concern within the field of Responsible Tourism – it be visits to tribe people in African countries or the Inuits of Canada or the Samis up North in Norway – I’ll keep to four sentences:
- Culture tours/ tourism is B I G business, and it’s increasing in popularity every year as today’s travelers are increasingly keen to discover whatever they see as authentic in a destination.
- The very people of interest (when it comes to this tourism form) often represent historically marginalised groups of people due to their status as indigenous/ ethnic minorities.
- Due to the longtime oppression of the latter, they often struggle with poverty, stigmatisation and language barriers which make them easy to exploit in industries like tourism.
- Additionally and unfortunately, currently existing tribe people often live in areas with poor standards of human rights’ protection.
Back to the Kayan tribe, it’s important to have in mind that the international knowledge about its people – and especially its women’s customs – didn’t actually start with tourism in recent times. The truth is that the long-neck women first got internationally known through Western adventurers and anthropologists that “discovered them” and brought pictures back to Europe from Burma during the Colonial times.
Here’s an example I found when … yeah, googling.
According to content I find on the world wide web about their modern history (meaning from 1900), Kayan women were even taken to England in the 1930s for cultural-educational purposes, which reminds me of what I learned in school about a black man who was displayed in Oslo 150 years ago, and in University about miss Sarah Baartman, that was exhibited in London during the same era.
As for the Kayan women, they were invited to join theater plays (!).
And invited to drink tea the Brittish way.
Those were the Oh mighty colonial days, you may be thinking…
Today however, we tend to think that in terms of human values we’ve come much longer since the colonial racist 1930s… It would be seen as completely unacceptable to exhibit people less powerful in a Western country today, right? Besides, think about it: Today we’ve seen it all. One way or another, we know about all kinds of people and ethnic groups that live on the planet. It’s not like it used to be back then when traveling was seen as an extreme luxury even for most Westerners.
Instead, in the increasingly globalised world and with our increasing travel opportunities we are constantly given the chance to learn about real people with other traditions than ours – in their very own habitat. Wherever it is, we just travel there! Where there is a demand there will be a supply as it works strikingly well in an overly market oriented world. And it’s in this very reality that sightseeing the villages of the long-neck women has become a popular experience for travelers to tick of their lists.
One can start wondering when seeing the above pictures, whether that early display and fascination – and the fact that we even had pictures of them in school books in European countries throughout the 20th century – has fueled the whole concept of the Kayan women as tourist attractions in modern Thailand today? And others alike.
Truth is that for a long time, rather bizarre tour products in which indigenous people are the main attraction, have popped up around the globe replying to the demand among authenticity- seeking tourists. Not seldom are they marketed as beneficial to the attractions themselves, but honestly I’ve yet to see such a concept – developed in a bottom-up, trustworthy and sustainable manner – with my own eyes.
One crucial question however, is whether the Kayan women were more oppressed in Burma before fleeing to Thailand, as opposed to what they are currently putting up with as tourist attractions? Because according to various spokesmen and organisations the treatment and exhibition of the Kayan tribe women is a perfect example of systematic oppression of indigenous people going on around the world. And that oppression grows especially strong in the tourism industry.
Wrapping this up therefore, Ill attempt to give some advices for travelers to be, so to assure they don’t take part in the vicious circle of exploitation of indigenous people, but rather find ways to support initiatives that work for a fairer treatment of them, as well as a fairer tourism industry. That is to say: The problem with organised tourism to marginalised areas we count as interesting, is that we as travelers often don’t know – and we’re certainly not told – in what way the people we visit benefit from, or feel about it. We don’t know how much power the hosting local people actually have themselves over the situation. Thus is it very clever to investigate such matters before visiting places that might be reasonable assuming didn’t plan tourism development in their backyard themselves.
Or simply avoid them, just in case.
For over three and a half years now, I’ve been working voluntarily for the UK-based charity Tourism Concern, that through campaigning- and lobbying try to fight exploitation in tourism. The organisation’s vision is that tourism always benefit local people and their work often concerns awareness raising of the sector’s different stakeholders about serious issues in the industry.
If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of such a concept, let me quickly inform you that the tourism industry (part from being a force for good in terms of increasing mutual understanding between people and cultures and a facilitator of peoples’ possibility to enjoy a holiday), also is – like many other industries – notorious when it comes to facilitating powerful actors’ means to earn money in a dirty way.
Personally I’ve given good reasons for why the work for a more ethical/ responsible tourism is so crucial. I’ve written about orphanage tourism, and suggested what it takes of responsibility policies among tour companies and governments to hinder that slum dwellers exist as pure tourist attractions, and I’ve mentioned why I’m so interested in the topic myself.
Today I’ll write about something that’s been on my radar for long, since I first started studying issues within the field of exploitation in tourism.
I still remember the picture in the brochure; of three ladies with Asian features sitting on a bench in traditional colorful clothes and metal rings around their long necks. In front of them was standing a corps of tourists shooting pictures with their massive cameras. The women with the metal rings were of the Kayan tribe, living in Northern Thailand, and the photographing charade was categorised in the brochure as a ‘human zoo’.
In tourism they go under the name “long-neck women” and occasionally also giraffe women, although they refuse to adapt the latter themselves.
Since working with Tourism Concern I’ve learned that they’ve – together with other human rights organisations – flagged their concerns about the exploitation of various tribe people in tourism. With regards to the Kayans, Tourism Concern has campaigned against tourism that involves them, and pushed tour operators to stop offering trips to their villages.
From what I’ve understood there are also several organisations that have pushed for governmental actions. But as with other similar stories of exploitation in tourism, it’s very complex. Poverty and means of oppression are complex. So is tourism.
Back in 2011, one of the first in-depth articles I posted on my blog concerned the exploitation of the Kayan people. I called the post the trapped giraffe women, unaware of the Kayan’s own opposition to the Giraffe- reference, so my apologies for that. I also referred to the women and their tribe as both the Kayan and Padaung in that post, but recently learned that Padaung isn’t really what they like to call themselves either. According to new sources I came across Padaung is a Thai-implemented categorisation of the Kayan tribe. Lets thus stick to calling them the Kayan (people).
In the mentioned post, I shared my frustration over not finding more than a few articles online about the Kayan people despite quite a lot of research. I was looking for content concerning the exploitation of them and their current situation, and most of the articles and blog posts I found were typically based on people´s tour experience in a tribe village. Commonly, (uncritical) travel writers seem to retell stories that guides have told them, and write about the situation in supportive manners. This isn’t new at all in tourism of course, nor very illogical, yet it can be dangerous if what people are told isn’t not true at all.
Since the last time I wrote about the long-necks, Ive not investigated much about the topic, but as I’ve just made a dream come true and booked my tickets to South East Asia for 2015, I recently went back to it.
For now my plan is to travel in three countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia) for approximately three months, and I’m of course going to the region where the 1 day sightseeings of the long-neck women’s villages are taking place. I want to find a way to not only see it with my own eyes, but also talk to people involved in the sector and understand more about what is actually going on. How tour companies are marketing it, what the guides say, what tourists think about it and especially what the ladies themselves feel.
The latter is the most difficult part though; also considering I’m not going as a long time researcher with the access to a neutral translator. Nevertheless, Ill do my best in getting a local translator, and who knows: My previous research experiences make me believe Ill be lucky this time too, and that things will fall into place.
So, preparing for my trip, I’ve done some new secondary research in order to renovate my knowledge about the matter, and found out that not only has the subject been flagged again since late 2011 and throughout 2012 and 2013, but the history of Westerners’ fascination of the women that coil their necks with big brass rings is much crazier and longer than I knew of!
Just take a look at this picture! What does it look like to you?
To keep posts in suitable lengths for reading, I’ve made a new post about the matter. Go here to learn about Westerners longtime facination with the long-neck women from Burma and to get some additional information regarding the reasons behind tourists’ interest in visiting them. I’ll also present some reasons for travelers to think twice about supporting the concept of so called culture tours, as they often include complex issues of exploitation.
What you’re about to read is the last bit of the story about when I met a shaman in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, and the first part of it is to be found here. It took me more than a month to get this down on paper, as this first experience with a session of Instalaciones Familiares in a so-called spiritual retreat center was absolutely mind-blowing to me. Besides, in between of experiencing it a lot of things have happened, as I traveled throughout Mexico for another week after my time in Chiapas, and if you’ve been reading my post – ended up loosing my grandmother while on my way home in October.
However, despite of feeling far away from Mexico now, being back in Norway where the winter is around the corner, I’ve had this constant memory of my first meeting with a Shaman on my mind, and wanted to share it with you. So here it is. Please bare with me as I’ve written all of this in my second language.
When we finally found the twelve-cornered concrete house where the session was going to take place, we’d been walking outside in the rain for a couple of hours. Even my underwear was wet, and all I dreamed of at this point was that it was warm inside of the house.
As we approached it, the music from within got louder. Although it wasn’t exactly warm inside, we all forgot about ourselves as soon as we met the Shaman.
There he stood; a tall, handsome and young man with kind eyes, in a pair of bleached jeans and large loose hanging green sweater on. He welcomed us with a warm smile and a gesture of open arms. I couldn’t help laughing to myself having imagined all Shamans are old with long grey beard and worn out fabrics hanging from around their shoulders.
After we had left our shoes, wet bags and clothes by the entrance (without ending up naked that is), the Shaman signalized with his hand that he wanted us to sit in a circle on the floor facing each other. Candles were lid up and placed in two corners of the room, and two ladies in their thirties were already sitting in the middle of it. One older man and a younger woman came in behind us. When everyone were sitting down, the Shaman presented himself while looking at each and one of us before he lighted some incenses and started walking around us while humming to the background music.
Soon he sat down himself and introduced the session. His wish was that we´d contribute to the session with whatever topic that we wanted to talk about. It could be something we consider a problem, although we were not using such a word here he said, as problems don’t exist – only problematic attitudes towards them. Thus we should refer to whatever problematic topic we want to talk about as a topic (tema in Spanish).
I already liked him.
The lady to my right started sharing her story. I understood she has been coming here for a while as her story seemed known to the Shaman. She told about her extreme fear that something dreadful had happened to her kidnapped husband (yes, kidnappings/ disappearances are more common in Mexico than many other places); a topic she felt she had dealt with better the last month (he was kidnapped three months ago). Now, the topic had started haunting her again, especially at night shaped as awful nightmares, which affected her ability to be a good mother to her two sons.
She couldn’t stop crying while sharing her story and it was clear that she felt completely out of control over the situation. The nightmares, part from being uncomfortable, had also given her new hope that her husband is alive as she meant they represented his desire to communicate with her while at sleep. Note: I won’t go into too many details as it’d be disrespectful towards her, but with the mentioned you’ve got a picture. What’s most important from the session isn’t the topics people brought to the table anyway, but the solutions the Shaman came up with, and the things he made us do for one and another.
Everybody listened in silence to the crying lady’s topic. The Aussies where listening too with big eyes although they don’t understand much Spanish. The Shaman kept handing the lady tissues, and when she was done talking, he looked straight over to the younger woman sitting at his right side, and invited her with a small gesture to tell us about her topic.
The woman, perhaps in her late twenties, had shiny long black hair, big green earrings and beautiful black eyes. She looked at the Shaman while explaining how she couldn’t stop being angry at her husband after his event of cheating on her seven months ago. While she had accepted his mistake, she couldn’t stop thinking about it and wanted help to let go of the pain. She was so angry at her self for not allowing love to win over the hate she felt. The only thing she wanted was to truly forgive her husband as he had shown regret, and start all over.
The old man by her side said he wanted to treat some fear issues, but didn’t want to explain further at this stage. When at the Aussies, the Shaman asked them in perfect English to tell about their worries, and so they did. The Mexican next to me, a cheerful young man that I actually got to know the first night I was out in San Cristobal, revealed struggling with huge doubts for his future in terms of not knowing what path to choose. Then it was my turn.
Surprisingly – considering I was sitting next to a bunch of people I didn’t know – the words just came out of my mouth on their own. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it soon being my turn to speak, but when it was, I felt like talking openly about my difficult feelings over the person I for long thought was The One, but that I’ve lately come to realise I need to let go. I expressed my awareness of having to trust my own feelings of not being happy with the situation, yet that I need to manage to free myself from the attachment to the relationship as it’s an illusion rather than reality. As emotional as I already was sitting in this special circle with so many open human beings around me, tears were falling down my cheeks only a few seconds after I began sharing my topic.
The Shaman nodded his head gently while constantly keeping my eye contact, and gave the impression as if he understood everything. The weird thing looking back at it now, is that while hearing my own voice in the room in front of these people I’ve never seen before, I realised I felt completely safe. I sincerely wanted to share with them, as I had enjoyed the way they recently had shared very personal things with me.
After another person had shared his story, the Shaman told the lady with the cheating husband to start the session, and welcomed her on to the floor. She was told to pick a person to represent herself and a person to represent her system; the latter representing all her emotions and reactions to the cheating. She picked me as her self and the Aussie girl as her system. Without none of us (the Aussie and I) knowing how a session like this actually turns out, we were quickly into it due to reasons I still can’t understand very well. The Shaman stood next to us and only communicated with the lady. At the same time he wanted her (me) to look at the system and allow all my (her) bad feelings to float.
So there I was, in front of the Aussie girl looking at her, considering her my system. Perhaps it makes little sense reading this, but I’ll try my best to explain how the whole session made a lot of sense to me, the Aussie and the others in that room. Interestingly I honestly started feeling as if angry at my system (the poor Aussie), and horribly let down – all on behalf of the lady I’d only known for fifteen minutes (but whose story seemed so familiar). So when I looked at the Aussie, I didn’t see the Aussie I knew from the hostel any longer, but someone who’s part of me. It felt for a moment like she was me, which probably was the whole point as she was supposed to be my emotional system, and I felt so tired of her hurting me with her constant negative thinking. I started thinking she had to leave me alone and let me forget the past. All this happened without anyone saying anything in the room.
The Aussie kept looking back at me, with her mouth trembling a little bit, and after a while I had to reject her with my eyes. I felt like I had to protect myself from her as she was killing me with her negativity. It might sound bizarre but at this time new tears came running down my cheeks, without me being able to stop them. The Aussie didn’t let go of my eye contact, but her trembling turned into shaking and one could see that she felt extremely uncomfortable and struggled not to cry. Then the Shaman – who had been moving slowly around us observing us in front of each other – asked the Aussie how she felt. She said it was indescribable, and mentioned ‘very empty’ and ‘sad’, ‘as if dragged down’ etc, while constantly attempting to keep my eye contact. On one (rational) side I did feel a bit sorry for her, but I also knew that she was aware that it wasn’t actually me, Jeanett, standing here in front of her right now, but instead the lady who had told us her topic. Somehow therefore, I suddenly came with all the energy that the lady was feeling in her life, as if this above force were controlling us…
We stood like this for a while until the Shaman started telling me what to tell my system. I had to repeat stuff like “I don’t need you, this doesn’t make any of us happy. I can control you to think otherwise. You are my friend, not my enemy” etc. Not surprisingly the energy changed dramatically after I had said those words.
Then the Shaman told the lady to talk to her self (me). She was supposed to face me as if I was her soul’s mirror and she was told to repeat the Shaman. I won’t go into details, but he said a vast amount of serious stuff about loving yourself and particularly that she is sorry for forgetting to love herself and that she will never again let herself down like this. It lasted for at least five minutes, and from the first moment the lady started speaking she cried so strongly – yet it only struck me as extremely beautiful – that I kept wondering whether I should embrace her or not. By looking into her eyes and having her this close to me, I could seriously feel her pain in my whole body, and got the feeling that my chest could explode.
It may sound crazy but I honestly felt that I loved her and really needed her, so when she told me all the beautiful things (which was her talking to her self), I started wishing the most beautiful things for her. Bff, I guess I can’t really express it all in words, it was so powerful. In a way, I felt like I was traveling through my own life, through my own heart and feelings of loss, but more than anything I felt for this woman and only wanted her to know that it’s going to be alright. I was like: It’s alright, just look at me, I’m here. I’m you and I love you.
Does any of this make any sense of all? Because what I just told you is really the essence of the whole point with instalaciones familiares. What the Shaman made us do was actually to transport ourselves into being pure emotions and portray pure love, for one another, through being close to one another and allowing the energies to flow between us. And the fact that we don’t know each other is also the point, I think. It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and everything the Shaman made anyone do in that room – through different sessions – really makes sense when in the middle of it. In a way it was the closest I’ve got to acting, yet I can’t really say if this is how it feels for actors. But looking back at it, it makes me think so.
For instance, with no words at all, I went from feeling very sad to very strong on the lady’s behalf and by listening to what she told me (herself), I truly felt it in me as well. That I’ve forgotten about myself. And now I understood all it takes is something like this, to look myself into the eyes and tell me how much “I love me” and that I’ll take care of me. After the lady had promised herself to never let her down again, but to love and trust herself, take care of herself and always hold herself close, the Shaman told me to look at the system again. And so I did, and there she was, the Aussie, not looking scary at all. I saw through her, so vulnerable and loving, and understood her with a new strong awareness that she can’t let me down, that I’m in power here. That she’s nobody without me and I have to only love her and nurture her.
Throughout the next hour other people were invited to the floor, and picked their selves in other people present, and whatever other topic to be represented by a second or even third part. Most of the sessions were as strong as the one described. The last one however, was unique in its form, and made me sure I’ll never ever forget the power of human energies.
The Shaman waited with the lady whose husband is missing till the end, and I can see why. She had been crying most of the time throughout the session, while everyone else went through their topics. Outside it was now pitch dark, and still raining heavily, and the Shaman asked the lady if she wanted a session. She nodded, mumbled something and stood up. He handed her an incense and placed her in the middle of the circle in which we were sitting. He laid his hands on her shoulders, and she instantly burst into tears again, and leaned her head backwards onto his shoulder. I thought for a moment that the sound of her sobbing was dancing with the sound of the rain on the roof.
While watching them, I remember feeling like crying – again – but something else happened: As I looked around me, the presence of everyone sitting in the circle felt intensified to a completely new level. Everyone had their eyes on the lady and Shaman standing in the middle, and their were as filled with love as their faces were totally open. Then the Shaman went over to the CD player and put on one of the most beautiful songs I know of: Todo cambia, by Mercedes Sousa. On repeat.
With the music came a weird strong sense of hope and love and filled the room. It had been a while since I had heard that song, I thought, and awed to myself over the perfect selection and felt goose bumps popping up over my body. The Shaman handed each of us an incense while we were sitting down, and smiled to us without saying a thing. Automatically we all knew what to do. With the incense in our hand and without any indications, all of us got up and took a step towards the lady, as if embracing her with our bodies. The Shaman kept moving slowly around the lady and marked several areas around her head with the burning incense as if he was embracing her with it. Soon, the lady who was still crying, looked up and around her, caught eye contact with some of us, and smiled. I can only speak for myself of course, but the feeling of collective love towards her in that moment was out of another world.
I remember looking at the others, smiling, feeling them, loving them, and looking at the woman and moving in a circle around her. The Shaman took our arms and put them on her head, her shoulders and back. Then he went over to the CD player and turned up the volume, and the woman started swinging from one side to the other. Her face opened up, almost as if her heart came through it, and she started laughing through her tears. We stood like this for a few minutes; swaying slowly together, looking at her and each other, smiling, someone holding hands, while others held their arms around the lady. No words were said; but everyone still seemed to communicate pure love and compassion to the lady. To each other.
Since we ended the session, got our shoes and clothes on and left the place, I’ve been thinking about the weird fact that none of us actually talked to each other about what we had just shared, before going home. As if it wasn’t necessary. Still, I’m confident everyone felt the same way about the Shaman’s brilliant way of dealing with this poor lady’s topic. What she was going through was of another level than the rest of us, and one should be forgiven for thinking no words could make her feel better anyway.
Part from the ones that came out of the speakers: Todo cambia.
and the Gipsy Giraffe is one heck of an unforgettable experience richer!
Remember I told you that San Cristobal de las Casas has a special spirituality to it, and that the city is surrounded by mountains where people live more unconventional lives and hold workshops in meditation, yoga, human energies and so forth?
Well, now I’ve been there. And it was amazing. It was mind blowing in a way I don’t know if Ill be able to explain yet, so for now I’ll explain the journey it was searching for the Shaman.
First I was about to go up there alone, but then through talking to people I’ve met in town throughout this week, three new friends came along. The Australian couple from my hostel, and a young Mexican guy that just moved here searching for meaning. All three very friendly, open-minded and adorable people.
Before going we had tried to find some info about upcoming events, and could only trust a Facebook page that mentioned something called Instalaciones familiares. By the time we had reached the city center to grab a bus, it had started raining heavily. Suddenly we bumped into Gustavo on the main street downtown, an older gentleman (standing to the right in the below pic) I met the first night I was out on a Mezcal riot in a very popular bar called Revolucion.
First Gustavo laughed at us wanting to go see Lauro (the main shaman of a spiritual community in the mountain) as he meant it all had become too commercial. Then he said Lauro has become an old man, besides that he supposedly is out of town.
Two of which statements I was already aware of through having talked to a guy in my hostel that had been to the mountain, and some random people on the streets (yes, Cristobal de las Casas is like that! Everybody speaks to everybody).
Furthermore he claimed that we should trust that we have all the spirituality we are seeking for within ourselves as opposed to finding it through a Shaman (yes, Gustavo is one of the interesting personalities whose beautiful saying I already told about here). I listened to him with polite interest, yet explained that we wanted to go there of various reasons and interests he might not have inside due to his specific life experiences and the fact that he is a resident. He seemed to grasp that.
The rain kept poring down and soon the soaking wet Aussies – that don’t speak Spanish – looked more and more inpatient while I tried my best to translate Gustavo’s well-meaning opinions. We thanked him and told him to meet us later to hear how our experience turned out. Arch, you can’t go walking in the mountain in this rain. Ill take you there. Vamonos! he said suddenly and pointed us towards the street where his car was parked.
Out of the city we went. Through narrow streets with more and more worn out houses the further we got. We passed a lively fruit and clothes market with cages of live hens, and soon went up the hills towards the mountain of el Señor Lauro. All the way we sat listening to Gustavo singing to Joe Cocker from beneath a big cowboy hat, with his grey curly hair dancing to the tunes.
Gustavo left us in the mud outside of the famous Lauro’s retreat haven, where two women welcomed us and confirmed that Lauro unfortunately wasn’t present at the moment. They told us we had thirty minutes to discover the site or walk up the mountain before the Shaman would start his session Instalaciones familiares. Despite of the rain and one of the Aussies being barefoot, we decided to walk up to the mountain to check out its famous energy and see the city from there. Everyone we met on the way greeted us with a smile and Buenas tardes. One man told us where we would get the best view.
Some houses and dogs later, we had to cross a hill on a tiny path covered with trees and huge cactus plants before we finally reached a good spot to see San Cristobal from another angle. A tiny cliff revealed itself in front of a huge rock and the four of us agreed this has to be the best offered view over the city. We lined up together and agreed without a word that the rather dangerous way up here was worth it. We stood there for a while in silence, yet in awe, and it seemed to me we had one wish in common: To stand here forever and let the pouring rain wash of our faces. It might have been placebo of course, but I´d argue one could feel something in the air up here. I felt as if I saw faces of this place´s ancestors painted on the mountains and got a weird sensation of all the destinies I don´t even know of whom exist in between the buildings on the ground. I got high on nature and high on a feeling of being united with a place I didn´t even know I needed to unite with.
But we couldn’t stand forever. We were on a mission to meet a Shaman, and the lady had told us to be back in thirty minutes. On the way down to el Lauro, the Mexican guy told in our group me he has never met a Shaman either, but that he has dreamed about it since he arrived to the city. He´s the kind of guy that loves experimenting with anything spiritual and recreational, and told me about an epic journey on Cayote he recently did while we where on our way down. Oh, Mexico.
Down at Lauro’s place we walked around in silence in the beautiful garden, all soaked wet and rather cold. Then we were told the Shaman was ready to see us in a wooden house well hidden behind some enormous trees.
Our relationship is in its early stage and yet, San Cristobal de las Casas fascinates me a lot.
There’s something with the energy. A special, like an increased spiritual one, energy. These things are difficult to define, let alone to explain, but it’s as if you can sense spirituality in the peaceful, awake and smiling local people, and on the streets among the old cars and worn out, colorful houses.
Perhaps indigenous history is responsible, or perhaps it’s the surrounding nature. Maybe even the bohemian expats living here does their share? Either way, it’s been a long time since I sensed so many kind and interesting personalities around me, overall good energy around any corner and knowledge in every wrinkly face passing me on the street.
There is undoubtedly an extra touch of spirituality in the many foreigners here too, many of which seem to be unable to leave this place. Most of the foreigners I’ve met in San Cristobal call themselves artists, yet aren’t interested in talking about anything related to ambitions in that regard. They’re simply into the making love, making art sort of lifestyle, as well as making sure to detach as much as possible from the capitalistic world view out there.
By the way, defining spirituality I like to think that:
it’s an individual practice that has to do with achieving a sense of peace and purpose. It also relates to the process of developing beliefs around the meaning of life and connection with others.
What’s inspiring with people like this, is that none of them know where they’ll go from here. It’s just not a topic. They rather show you how much they’re in love with this very moment of life, focusing on what happens here and now around them. Which – hands down – isn’t an attitude people overwhelm you with when closer to societies highly impacted by the rat race mentality.
So, why does some places have this effect on people? Or why does some places attract these people? Or even; how do people’s attitude towards life effect a place or society?
Pondering over these questions quickly opens for the chicken and egg argument, I guess. And as always there are several factors to take into consideration when reflecting over subjects like these. Walking around in San Cristobal, and even while writing this, I often ask myself if the ‘spirituality’ is something everyone senses. Like, as something presently stronger than in other places?
When out traveling, I often sense it in places where nature is more present and important to people’s lives. And we all know nature is full of the purest energy. But so are human beings. And personally, I’ve always been more people-oriented than nature and landscape-oriented.
Thus, for some reason I assume the kind and relaxed energy I sense in San Cristobal is put in place by the people living here. But again, it’s obviously also adopted by the many visitors, and perhaps that’s how the place has been shaped over time. Various residents Ive talked to also claim that the mountains surrounding the village represents important spots where influential and spiritual individuals have lived for decades, perhaps centuries.
Apparently there are a couple of places where people arrange energetic and spiritual events open for all to attend. I’ve always wanted to try something like that so I’ll definitely go up there one of these days, hopefully to find interesting ways to treat whatever topics that concern me. Maybe it can be a good way to find the tools to stop worrying about some things, and be more confident about how I feel. A helpful way to enforce a beautiful inner journey, which I always find equally important as the outer journey we’re constantly on when traveling.
Because although we tend to forget, a journey is much more than seeing things and ticking of destinations. It’s equally much about being on an inner journey, developing as individuals and moving on with more knowledge, reflections and tolerance about the world and people in it. Though that’s not always something all places we visit evoke in us.
When traveling solo I think the above concept is even more predominant. Due to the simple fact that one has to trust strangers even more in addition to learn how to spend time with oneself. Both of which are good lessons for self development.
Honestly, I didn’t expect anything special from this place, but quickly got that wonderful feeling that sneaks up to us when living now and then: that this is the place to be. There is no other place I’d like to be, right here, right now.
It be a coincidence or not, two beautiful souls I’ve met in San Cristobal by now have said things to me about this very topic without even knowing me or whatever I struggle with. Separately they’ve told me they think I’m in the right place to find out of things. Quite randomly they´ve both even claimed that people like me has to confidently live more through the feelings, as opposed to through the thoughts.
Fair enough. But what does that really mean?
I´ll continue thinking about that for a while, and hopefully Ill get more input on the matter as time goes and Ill get to know more people with more views on it. Right now Ill run out to grab some tortillas in my spiritual neighbourhood. 😉
Edit two months later: If you started reflecting about the advice the two men had given me as mentioned above (regarding living more through our feelings), I´ve now written something about it here.
Honestly I can’t remember what I actually imagined about this place before coming here.
I was excited about it yes, as everybody I know that’s been to Mexico told me San Cristobal de las Casas is a must-see. Together with the smaller village San Juan Chamulas, it’s supposed to be one of the Chipas region’s hippie-like and colourful mountainy villages, I was told.
Well. CHECK CHECK CHECK!
Besides, Oventic – where the Zapatistas live in their own demanded autonomy – is a neighbouring village, reachable for specially interested. I’ve indeed been especially interested in the Zapatistas since I first learned about the movement in University. (I´m very into social movements, but that´s another story).
Before arriving to San Cristobal de las Casas, I hadn’t worried about accommodation as Id seen online that the place was full of decent hostels. After three hours of traveling on roads of various standards, away from the weird little place Bacalar, the bus left me and my metall-seat-tired-bum at the station downtown. As I started walking with my overweight backpack towards the center I was quickly moved by the look of the place.
Welcoming me were old, narrow streets full of small cement houses painted in all kinds of bright colors and busy working women on every corner dressed traditionally with cotton blouses tucked inside wide woolen skirts. Already on the first block I walked down I’d seen a blue house with yellow door frames, two neon orange houses with turqoise window sills, a pink house with grass green borders and numerous worn out balconies with ceramic flowerpots and painted chickens on them.
From the look of the people in the streets I felt much closer to the pre-colonial history of this country than in Mexico DF.
A closeness that comes with a price I’d say, because the streets are full of seemingly deprived indigenous people (including kids) working as street vendors. Everywhere I’ve gone till now, most indigenous people (out of whom only the women are dressed traditionally as mentioned above) seem to be selling textile, sculptures, fruits and cigarettes, or polishing shoes. Fortunately Ive spotted some shops and cafes managed by indigenous people as well.
Another blast from the past that visualizes on every corner are the functioning Volkswagen Beetles. They are everywhere, exist in all colors and seem rather popular. I mean, they even serve for driving classes:
I asked a man in my hostel what’s up with all the Beetles.
Oh, el bocho, he said, referring to a beetle in Spanish. It used to be a very popular car when it first came to Mexico. Since then we’ve produced our own Volkswagen cars, therefore we have so many. I think the last bocho was made only ten years ago.
Now that I think of it, one could assume it’s due to the fact that I LOVE old beetles that I love it here already, and for sure it definitely has something to say with my instant good feel in this town. It took me a day to start dreaming of living here for a period with an old beetle to take me around, with a small flat in a pink-painted house whose balcony is perfect for my morning coffee hour and where I can create art in the evenings.
One day maybe. Why not?
Regarding my hostel, El hostal de Paco, it’s perfect. I found it as a result of many coincidences, which of course adds up to my awe for everything here. As it’s located quite far away from the other hostels I had spotted on booking.com I realised upon arrival that my backpack was too heavy for me to get there walking. So I started walking towards a sign saying “we got rooms” on a random street, when a taxi driver stopped next to me and the driver asked if he could help me. After I had mentioned the name and address of El hostal de Paco, he confirmed it was in close distance to the town center and I jumped in.
When driving down the two main streets however, I understood the hostel was further out of the center than a couple of the others Id found, and got a little annoyed with myself never having booked a place before my arrival. Still, I decided to trust the driver and also knew that whatever is called town of San Cristobal de las Casas, is within small distances.
Words can´t explain how happy I am today that I didn´t go for that tiny gut feeling in that taxi! The welcome committee in the El hostal de Paco was beyond imagination and made me realise in a second that I’d chosen the right hostel. I think I have to write a story one day about all the personalities I´ve met here, but for now these features are worth mentioning:
- The owner (Paco) is the perfect chill host with a big C and H. He´s as weird, funny and occasionally annoying as can get , but since I tend to like odd personalities, I think I almost love him. His way of yelling WELCOME HOME! YOU ARE ANDREA RIGHT? WE´VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU!, actually made me feel a bit awkward in the moment I entered the building with my huge backpack on (and admittedly a bit annoyed after the long journey), but after finding my place here Ive realised that that one glimpse of a feeling like WHO THE HECK IS THIS MAN AND WHAT KIND OF A PLACE IS THIS? WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME? only were products of my own realisation of Gosh-Jeanett-you´re-outside-of-your-comfortzone-now-travelingsolo-on-top-of-everything-feeling-a-bit-insecure-about-it-all kinda thing. I even forgot about my potential allergies to the two adopted (former stray) dogs living in the hostel who jumped at me when I arrived, and decided to trust Paco who assured me that they never enter any of the guest rooms. Honestly though, seeing how he treats the dogs was another reason I was convinced this hostel is the best in town! I´ve made it clear right? I feel at home here.
- I’ve been placed (for my self) in an authentic old fashioned 7 people’s dormitory that must be over three meters tall, with the walls painted in sky blue.
- A German retired man with a US citizenship has lived here for 2 years (!) and the first thing he did when I came was to show me his German museum: his room covered with miniature castles and train stations from Germany made out of paper or plastic. Yes, he is another oddy that´s for sure, but I also already love him! The story about his life and reasons to be here is to be continued, but to give you a picture I’ll share this picture I took of him this morning while I had my breakfast in the kitchen. He always starts his day like this:
He sits there, in the middle of the hostel´s patio, which he calls his office, for an hour or so with a book, coffee and beer.
- Then there’s a young, beautiful Australian couple – that’s been traveling in Mexico and Guatemala for a year – renting a room for two months. Due to having adopted a dog (that they had seen in a small cage in a pet shop and felt sorry for) on the way, they’ve now planned to work in Canada for 6 months over winter season in order to save up enough money to get the dog with them overseas back to Australia.
- More stuff worth mentioning about the owner Paco then; he´s extremely friendly with regards to longstay guests and seems much more into having longtime guest as opposed to random tourists just coming for a day or two. It´s as if he´s creating his own little community here where everyone is invited to come and live. Hah! He´s also constantly making jokes about the German man, and never answers seriously to any question about himself or the dogs, which can be a little pain in the ass attitude at times, but as for advice for where to eat and travel and what to visit however, he is the King.
- Last interesting guy around is a Mexican in his late 20s who came for a month to escape some love issues back home. He works on his computer and seems to be going through an interesting phase of life. I already consider him a good friend after having spent several days with him in the village, out on bars, chatting, drinking tequila, laughing and sharing life stories. There you have it: I already have a new person in my life I consider a good friend, only because of this weird little gem of a hostel (and random pick of it).
Today this new friend and I went to the neighbouring Zapatista village together. We´ve talked about sharing an interest in visiting since I came, and finally found a good day to go.
I honestly got some mixed feelings about the whole trip and need to reflect over it, but overall it was super interesting (for us at least…). When I get my head more around it Ill try to write a piece about it.
All in all: VIVA San Cristobal de las Casas!
Now I’m off for some delicious tacos in town. Adios!
To visit this country has been a dream for long.
The country of the pre-colonial Toltec, Aztec and Mayan civilizations, of ancient ruins, shamans, high mountains, two immense coast lines, turquoise waters and deep jungles. The country of the tacos that got rewarded the first place on the UNESCO heritage list of cousines. The country of the avocado, the cactus & magic mushrooms, tequila and a diversity of interesting musical styles and instruments. The country of latin lovers, the Zapatistas, cowboys, chaotic drug wars and corruption, surf tourists and a vast variety of indigenous cultures.
Since I decided some months ago to do the US west coast trip (I just started) I thought why not wrapping it up with a visit to Mexico when I’m first on this side of the Atlantic ocean.
From September 25th Ill have at least 6 weeks to spend or as long as my money reach – and that all on my own – so the journey will be different in an exploratory and self developing way.
The below are my two planned routes, set up after taking friends’ and travel blogs’ advices of must-sees. I’m planning to have 3 weeks for each route though they are subjects of impulsive changes.
And then Ill hit the road to travel the other way around. More or less..
As one does now and then, I’m sitting here thinking about what I want to do with my life, what drives me professionally and why I’ve applied for the master in Responsible Tourism Management – starting next autumn. One bizarre, yet complex situation within the field of tourism impacts (widely categorised), came to my mind.
You may have heard of it or perhaps even done it yourself; the sightseeing of tribe villages in rural Northern Thailand inhabited by the Padaung people, whose women maintain an old tradition of wearing heavy metal rings around their necks. There are many explanations and beliefs for why the women started coiling their necks (even discussed on main stream Youtube and Wikipedia), but the common saying is that they do it for beauty, and/or to prevent getting killed by a tiger (who would attack the neck). Another commonly stated ‘fact’ is that the rings are put onto a girl’s neck from an early age, and that she – if they’re never taken off – gets an abnormally long and weak neck within adulthood. Important to note; it’s actually not the neck itself that stretches but the collar bones that sink down – making the impression of a longer neck.
Peoples’ curiosity and (Western) visitors’ awe over this unique tradition has probably both fueled and replied to the marketing of the females of the Padaung people as astonishing and incredible giraffe women/ long-necks. Today however, the custom is diversely rewarded amongst the women themselves, as the rings’ current purpose is questioned amongst both visitors and indigenous peoples’ groups. It is in other words, a situation that thrives both mythological and ethical debates, with the latter mainly concerning the exploitation of the women as tourist attractions Thailand since the 1990s.
Now, let’s first of all remember that the fact that people are tourist attractions themselves isn’t really new at all. Some Scottish men line up on touristy streets in London with their skirts and sack pipes for a living, and although we’re living in the 21st century some Norwegian youth still choose to work on remote farms in summer with traditional clothes on so that tourists can come and see “Real Norway”.
Not to mention the Masai people in Kenya jumping their asses off everyday inside any game reserve to show tourists what authentic Masai culture is about. They’re not doing it because they’re constantly jumping elsewhere, they probably wear jeans and t-shirts when off duty. Point is, people working in (a place with lots of) tourism often entertain their visitors in an attempt to add value to the tourist’s experience. It’s their job: They entertain, earn money and proudly or not, show off bits of their culture. Thing is however; the Europeans doing this probably all have a health insurance, and could even easily get another job. Some of them probably earn good money and feel their lives are much freer and flexible this way as opposed to if they were working for a corporate, or in a post office.
The Masais on their side, despite of living in a third world country – and having been oppressed in various ways throughout history with regards to land grabbing etc. – are actually quite known for being in control of the way they’re part of “cultural commodification”. Studies I’ve come across state they earn fair money on tourism, interact a lot with visitors, move around freely and thus aren’t considered very exploited (I’m sure there are many sides of that story, but for now I leave it at this).
As for the tribe women in Northern Thailand, I’ve learned that they’re most likely not earning much at all through tourism. Truth is that although they represent major tourist attraction in many places, it wasn’t actually their own idea to become such magnets, and due to language barriers etc. they’re actually not in too much control over the whole phenomenon. As one could argue a Scottish man is if he become one, or as I’ve exemplified how the Masai people seem in control of their work as attractions.
The giraffe women on the other hand are members of the originally Burmese Karenni people – specifically the tribe called Padaung as previously mentioned (FYI: The tag giraffe women or long neck is (re)invented for tourism marketing), but commonly call themselves Kayan – just to complicate things a little. Due to their “unsuitable” religious beliefs (Christianity) and major ethnic conflicts in Burma over two decades ago, the Padaungs were allowed to settle in small villages in the Northern regions of Thailand (as other Burmese hill tribes had done before them). However, the Padaungs still represent a small group of stateless people, as the Thai government never entitled them the same rights as other citizens during all these years! In which regard they were given limited access to electricity and water, and still live in very poor conditions.
But quite quickly someone predicted there was a potential solution to this: With the Padaung women’s special neck-coiling-customs they could attract people willing to pay a fee to see them with their own eyes. Which with the ever-since booming tourism industry in Thailand proved them quite right as long-neck tourism turned into a big thing in the 90s. There is only one major problem to this according to Tourism Concern (the watch dog organisation I’m assisting), and other human rights organisations: that tourism revenue doesn’t really go back into the tribe members’ pockets. It’s left with the tour operators. Moreover, women have reported they’re forced to stay in the villages and work as tourist attractions – which seems to prove the main issue here – that the Thai government is keeping these people as if in prison, due to their appeal (more on their rationale for this later).
This article by Cultural Survival tells about how women that wished to remove the coils, where forced not to, so that they could continue working as attractions. And in this article from 2009, a former giraffe-neck woman called Zember, tells how she removed the rings in anger when the Thai government refused to let her and other family members refugee to New Zealand, even though they’d got their asylum applications approved there through UNHCR. According to the article, the Thai government rationalised their refusal by claiming that the Padaungs are regarded a Thai tribe hill now (after decades of not being regarded as such – which was part of the reason they lived under such bad conditions in the country), and crucially: that their culture needs to be protected. This protection-of-their-culture argument is confirmed on this tourism promo site about Chiang Mai.
Supported by UNHCR officers in Thailand, Zember therefore speaks out on behalf of her community about the longtime exploitation of her tribe in tourism due to their special custom of coiling their necks with brass rings: A situation she states they became part of quickly – and unwillingly – after settling in Thailand. “We didn’t know they’re getting money from the tourists, we couldn’t speak English or Thai. The older generation were grateful to have a means of surviving, but did not understand tourist comments that they were a “human zoo”. Ours is the first generation who can read and write.” For herself therefore, Zember decided to remove the rings in order to look for a better life, not because she rejects her culture, but because they’re a weapon of exploitation by powerful local Thai authorities. “Long-neck tourism is big business in Mae Hong Son, but little of the money returns to the Kayans — the operations have always been run by Thais”.
Similar to what I’ve read of human rights organisation work on this, Zember describes how the Padaung are exploited in tourism. Women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month to run souvenir stalls, and can earn a little extra by selling traditionally weaved scarves. Men in the villages receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month. In one village, Hway Su Thao, the women have had their tourism income deducted for riding motorbikes, talking to foreigners outside the village or attending educational courses that keep them away from the village during the day.
Though I find it very admirable of Zember to speak out this way, I get frustrated to see there is little information available on the subject. When searching online for information about the giraffe women and their inclusion in the Thai tourism sector, I find bloggers writing about their amazing experience watching them (and posting pictures), but little on people’s concern. One reason to this is obviously the fact that most travelers don’t know about the background of the current situation, and a guide working in the field won’t possibly tell them that they’re fueling exploitation.
Of online media content about the matter I only find a few published things, in addition to some academic research. Then again – and related to similar subjects – it’s for sure challenging and time consuming to research such topics in-depth. The language barriers for a foreign academic or journalist can be massive, not to mention how it’s often difficult to get members from marginalised communities to speak out due to their status as oppressed and fear/threat of punishment. Unfortunately, this is ironically part of the reason why marginalised people stay marginalised.
Despite of having few sources telling us what the Kayan women themselves feel, my impression remains that of the ones that speak out, either are:
- young women speaking out on behalf of the community stating they’re exploited for tourism revenue (some of whom have taken of the rings and fled in order to do something else with their lives)
- old women stating to wear the rings to protect their traditions and culture, and that they don’t mind tourists coming to watch them
This all fosters important questions like: How to deal with this situation if we assume both the above groups are right about how they see it? More essentially: What if everyone stopped going to their villages? What would actually happen to the income level of these women and their tribe? How would they be treated by the government if they refuse obeying like they’ve done for decades?
When debating rights and wrong in tourism, one quickly finds a lot of polarizing opinions and realistic, yet complex, intertwined truths. Some think it’s better that the tribe people – who aren’t given the same freedom as regular Thai people to look for jobs, or get an education despite of having lived in Thailand for decades – earn some money through tourism, rather than nothing.
Others think that the Thai government should take responsibility and first of all stop exploiting tribe people for tourism revenue, as well as entitle them the same rights as any other Thai tribes, so that they can choose what they want to do with their lives themselves. Judging from common sense and the interview with Zember, Id go for the latter suggestion. Realistically though, we also know this isn’t happening. Yet.
My little research and blog rambling however is based on some understanding of the situation. To actually have a job projecting me to get a deeper understanding of these bizarre, yet complex situations would be a dream! An understanding whose results could be shared with the involved stakeholders, including good recommendations on how they all can do something about it. And then I’m not only referring to involved actors related to the Kayan/Padaungs, but all kinds of exploitative operations in tourism. Unfortunately they’re way too many.
Thus I’m very excited to soon learn more about how to approach, detect and change them. In the meantime; please go here to get some advices on how to take action with regard to topics like the above.