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.
Like so many other Burners said before him and will say after him.
Still, watching Playa personalities unfold via a screen gives yet another good impression of the mind-blowing journey of a people & nature spectacular Burning Man is. And of what to expect this year. For old Burners and Burners-to-be.
Oh, forgot to say… I JUST GOT THE TICKETS FOR THIS YEAR TOO!!!
Today I’ll share a piece with you that I wrote for the organisation Tourism Concern, about my township tourism research in Cape Town.
Feel free to contact me to discuss the findings or other relevant topics related to this.
During a holiday in Cape Town in 2009 I went on a township tour. Not knowing much about tourism to urban impoverished areas at the time, but concerned about how the communities would benefit from my visit, I looked for an ethical company I could trust.
To my positive surprise I found out that not only tour companies, but also the government’s tourism body assure that tourism is beneficial to the township communities as well as very educational for the visitor. Any specific initiatives were not indicated, yet tours were promoted as a ‘must’ to learn about African culture.
I decided to book a tour with a small local company and liked the experience as it was indeed eye-opening and the residents I met were welcoming. However, ever since I was unable to stop thinking about what is in it for local populations.
Therefore, three years later, the choice of subject for my final research project during the Master’s program Responsible Tourism Management was easy. I went to Cape Town to investigate the scope of community beneficial initiatives within township tourism.
During the 4 weeks of fieldwork in the townships Langa and Khayelitsha I explored six tour operators’ actions and opinions related to previously identified issues of concerns in the field of slum tourism, by interviewing them about their responsible practices and participating on their tours.
I also interviewed forty inhabitants from the most visited areas about their perceptions of tourism impacts and four representatives from the local government about current work on responsible tourism in the field. I will here reveal some of the findings from my research.
While there is no doubt that the South African township tourism sector holds a large number of professional tour operators that mean well for the communities they visit, the evidences of their many positive impact claims are few.
And although I experienced that both companies and guides conduct tours respectfully in terms of friendliness, photography policy and information giving that assist in combating stereotypes, I detected ambiguity regarding fair pay of involved hosts, as well as several untapped potentials for maximised positive impacts on the communities.
One example of such is tour companies’ avoidance of fairly compensating the most deprived households they involve in their tour. During the distinguishing ‘labour hostel visits’ tourists are taken into the shared bedroom (which also serves as their living room) of four families to see and learn about poor living conditions.
Of the eight such interviewed households in my research half of them claimed to get more than five visits per day, and none stated to benefit economically, unless tourists occasionally left some money. Regrettably I was repeatedly told that donations occurred to a decreasing extent after more local guides had penetrated the market and the competition for the much wanted tourist money had grown.
Another example regards the creation of interaction, which ironically is one of the main promises on the many company websites. It may be a coincidence of course, but sadly I only experienced twice during ten tours that we as visitors were given the time and possibility to interact with the locals (even during the popular hostel visit as described above). The consequence of this is that the hosts (or any inhabitant present) turn into passive objects rather than active participants, hindering them to exploit the big potential for social and economic empowerment.
Regardless of these issues of concern, it became clear to me that township dwellers do welcome tourism because it represents the only industry through which many can enhance their living conditions and situations, in areas that are longtime forgotten by the government.
Throughout my time in Langa and Khayelitsha I couldn’t stop thinking that it is on behalf of this very hope, in addition to the inhabitants’ tremendous hospitality, that the majority of the tour operators earn very good money. And personally, until I know better how that income is redistributed and put back into the community, and the government begins to take the sector seriously and regulate it, I have my doubts for its sustainability. Sadly those thoughts reflect previous research within not only township tourism in South Africa, but also about slum tourism globally.
Lastly though, let it be clear that there is no doubt that good initiatives exist in this field, and some township dwellers indeed have got their livelihood enriched due to tourism. Besides, whether people like it or not, there are reasons to believe this phenomenon is here to stay. Hence is it crucial that the way forward is to actively find ways to awareness rise about its issues and require that government acts, while highlighting and rewarding the many (hopefully) ethical initiatives in place.
FYI. The above article was first published on Tourism Concern´s webpage.
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.
Did you ever reflect over how some cities in the world seem to be loved by everybody? Like, when you’re having a conversation and the name Barcelona comes up, haven’t you noticed how everyone always goes: Oh, Barcelona! Yes, I freaking love that city, man. It’s so cool, it has everything! I really need to go back there. And if someone in that conversation reveals they haven’t been they’ll probably be told: What, you haven’t been? It’s such a must. Trust me, it’s the best! If the person himself didn’t already interrupt: I know, I know, Barcelona is definitely one of the places I have to visit asap. Everybody always tells me that. It’s on my bucket list this year.
No wonder you’ve been in a similar conversation, because sure thing; Barcelona is one of those cities you just fall in love with. In almost all rankings of Best Cities, Barcelona is among the top 3. The other highly ranked cities are almost always New York, Berlin, London, San Francisco, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires and Tokyo… Why is that so?
Personally I’ve been a devoted urban traveler for a long time and consider myself a bit over the top interested in trends within the travel industry. Although there obviously are several factors – e.g. geographical, historical and political – that count for a place to become a popular destination among many people (from many different countries), I personally think a city is amazing when it has a mix of great geography (sea, mountain, forest, rivers), friendly locals, vibrant city life (including a variety of food, art, night life & fashion), and a somewhat characteristic architecture. And that’s why I think Barcelona scores so high. It has all of that!
Since my first visit in 2003 and a six months stay in 2005 Barcelona has been one of my favorite cities – thus a city I make sure to visit every year (though I still haven’t visited half of the cities I’d like to). Out of my love for Barcelona I’ve decided to repost a popular city guide from my blog called 14 musts in Barcelona.
Starting off with the obvious temptations:
1. Gaudi, of course. The extraordinary architecture by the highly admired architect Antoni Gaudi (1852- 1926) is known for having made Barcelona into such a uniquely looking city. There is no place in the world you will see anything like the buildings he constructed over hundred years ago. Sagrada Familia, Casa Gaudi, The Guel park (see point 6), Casa Mila and Casa Batllo and much more. At the tourist information in the airport, or downtown (or at your hotel) you’ll get maps over where to find the marvelous constructions. There is also a Gaudi museum in Barcelona that can be good to start a full-on Gaudi day with. My recommendation however is to divide the Gaudi tours into two days according to where the spectaculars are and mix the go-see with other interesting things in each part of the city.
2. Understand the Spanish VS Catalan issue. The sooner you learn some about this, the better. It can in fact affect even a short stay in Barcelona, if the (wrong) person confronts you with this and feel you’re ignorant to the topic. Respect the locals’ feelings about this topic. Advice: Learn to say good day and thanks in Catalan – they’ll love you for it. “Bon dia” & “Merci” (NOT “Buenos dias” & “Gracias” – that’s Spanish!).
3. The beach! When cultural and vibrant cities have a coastline, they often get considered much more beautiful. This fact certainly concerns Barcelona with its not too polluted beaches, despite of occasionally being pretty over-crowded. The beach is long and I always make sure to spend one day strolling from one end to the other along the well-kept promenade. There is a good chance you’ll find whatever you consider is “the perfect beach slot” for you – it be more family-friendly, party-like, high-endish, or hippie-ish. There are small beach bars every 100 meter and good restaurants along the promenade. Make sure to choose local places over major chains like KFC.
4. The different barrios. In my opinion you don’t actually get to know a city before you get to know the features of its different neighbourhoods. Some cities may not have too defined neighbourhoods (something I quickly find boring), but luckily Barcelona does. You can say Ciutat Vella is what makes up the “city center” and within this area you’ll find the gorgeous and well-kept old towns Born & Barrigotic (see the Gothic Quarter!) on one side of the (extremely touristy) avenue La Rambla, and the vibrant (and very popular) immigrant area Raval on the other. And yes; all the barrios are brilliant for people watching, drinking, eating and shopping.
Then you got the area La Barceloneta & La vila Olimpica by the harbour. Here you can look at the boats, eat in a fine restaurant, stroll down the beach promenade and if you’re interested in such visit the Aquarium. If you got plenty of time, and/or are not interested in walking where all the other tourists are, consider visiting the surrounding Le Corts (a little west-endish), Gracia and Glories (though the most famous tourist attraction in Spain (La Sagrada Familia) is situated in between the two latter so you do indeed meet foreigners here too).
5. The plazas. Because Spanish people love getting together for chats and drinks (and are privileged with a climate that allows it pretty much all year), small and big squares packed with restaurants, bars and fountains are characteristic in South European cities. In Barcelona they are everywhere, however not always that easy to find on a map. Plaza Real (at La Rambla) is one of the bigger and very touristy, Passeig del Borne (Born) is more of a street than a plaza but cool (young, hipstery) people hang here, Plaza del Sol (Gracia) is small, young and hippie-ish, the huge Plaza outside of MACBA in Raval is chilled and full of skaters and tourists, Plaza triangular (Barrigotic) is tiny and quite local, Plaza de Sant Jaume connects two barrios and this and that plaza, oh I could go on forever… Just sit down for a beer or a cold Clara (Spanish for shandy), some tapas and enjoy.
6.The parks. Barcelona has many small parks hidden between streets and buildings, but Ill highlight the bigger parks where you can spend a day relaxing and enjoying a taste of nature within the hectic city. (All the parks are perfect for people traveling with children). Parc de la Ciutadella is ground of both the Catalan Parliament building and Barcelona Zoo and part of its charm lies in its ornamental waterfall and artificial lake. You can take a boat out onto the lake, play table tennis, or enjoy any of the seasonal activities and events the park hosts every week.
Montjuïc park got world known during the 1992 Olympic Games and currently offers a green oasis for culture, sports and entertainment in Barcelona. It’s located on the mountain Montjuïc with a spectacular view of the city and offers theaters and museums, fountains and gardens, sports facilities and fairground pavilions.
The park Guell, built by Gaudi between 1900 and 1924 was originally going to host around sixty houses and a chapel, but was never finished. As a result, it became the property of the city of Barcelona in 1922 and is today one of the main tourist attractions in the city. The view from here is stunning and Gaudi’s particular style is clearly noticeable in the uncommon architectural forms and bright colors.
And for even more stunning views (and potentially some hiking) you go to Tibidabo, which happens to not only be Barcelona’s highest mountain but also represents an old amusement park. The place is well known from the movie Vicky Christina Barcelona and for yet another precious cathedral.
7. Tapas! Though some Nationalistic Catalans (they’re plenty) would disagree, Barcelona is in Spain, and the Spaniards love their tapas. Get used to eating your lunch and dinner like them – and remember tapas is to be shared between people. The classic ones: aceitunas (olives), pan con tomate (bread with tomato), aioli (thick white sauce made of garlic and olive oil, to eat on bread and with seafood), patatas bravas (thick fried potato chunks with a special spicy tomato sauce), tortilla (thick egg omelet with potatoes) and albondigas (meat balls with a touch) and gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimps, or shrimps cooked in a dry-fryish way on a pan).
For the seafood lovers there are plenty of options – especially for the valiant. Grilled pulpo (octupus) and calamar (squid) is very common and delicious! Chipirones en su tinta (mini squids served in their ink!!) as well, and trust me- it’s yummy! Grilled or dry-fried boquerones (anchovies) you eat whole, and various bacalao (cod in sauce) dishes are served many places. And don’t forget your sangria, it’s just a myth that Spanish people don’t drink it themselves.
8. La Champañeria. Actually I was unsure whether to post about this, or not, as it’s one of these places you love just the way it is. But I hate it when others keep those secrets away from me, so here it goes. La Champañeria is a gem of an authentic Spanish cava & tapas bar. It’s located at the bottom of Born, in the small street Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7 (close to the harbour). You find it by noticing the crowd of people outside, especially around midday (lunch time for locals). In my opinion it’s the perfect place to go as a couple or with a small group before or after a day on the beach. The bar is tiny but takes surprisingly many people that don’t mind squeezing together..
Beware! You go to La Champañeria to get some local, historic vibes and taste their Cava and tapas (both simple, but delicious). Here you’ll kick your way through used carton plates and tissues, and order at the bar with jams hanging over your head. The old sweaty waiters are in a hurry and don’t speak much English, so be patient and speak clearly as it’s normally crowded and noisy. One bottle is served with three plates of tapas.
Open from 9am – 10.30pm, closed on Sundays.
9. La Boqueria. Originally called Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, this market is one of the oldest in town, dating back to 1217 (!). It’s easy to find on a map and by walking up La Rambla (with entrance from La Rambla). A perfect place to suck in some history and watch how a typical old Spanish market works, and to buy fresh bread, cheese, fruits, fish and meet (if you’re keen on a picnic in a park or live in an apartment and want to cook).
10. Get inspired! Absorb quirky art and fabulous street performance. Regarding street performance, many seem to think that the street artists in La Rambla are of the best in the world! Regarding contemporary art, visit MACBA in Raval, follow this and google where to find different galleries. Between Barrio Gotic and Born you have two streets full of photo shops and posters and quirky art that I love to visit. For graffiti-interested, the whole city is a gallery actually (just read this). You’ll also find plenty of inspirational stuff by googling the topic.
11. Bars! Oh yes: BARcelona! First of all; the nicest bars are obviously not the ones you find in the middle of La Rambla. Then again some of the most historical bars (and also frequently visited by locals) are very close by. Just google and mark them on a map and start your round. The level of cocktail making skills is high! In Raval you have Rabipelao, Ambar and Lobo bar: all stylish, yet odd, chilled & fun. Close by are the two old and unique bars Bar Marsella (be careful with the absinthe, they’re not joking), and Le Pastis (Raval). However Boadas in Barrigotic claims to be the oldest in Barcelona and you should definitely go here if you want a peak into the 1940′s. Sugar bar, Pipa club and Le Petit Jet lag are also all in Gotic, tiny and innovative. In Born around Passeig del Borne and its side streets (mentioned above) you have many more! Not to mention in Gracia.
12. Nightlife! My favorite club when I lived in Barcelona was Sala Apolo; An old small theatre situated in Raval (metro stop Paralel). It still exists and hopefully will forever, has amazing bookings and loads of experimental electronica and hip hop. Razzmatazz is also great, a huge venue with 5 rooms and good concerts from time to time (but check their events online first). La Paloma is a historical gem but be sure to check if it’s open. It constantly has neighbour trouble as it’s in the middle of a resident area in Raval. La Terraza is beautiful and located up in the hills of the city (perfect for warm summer night), though it’s not my kind of vibe (quite high-endish). City Hall (on Placa Catalunya) also had some good concepts going on, but I’m afraid you have to find out of these things yourself when first deciding to go somewhere. It really depends on your music and style, amigo, hence I’d check ResidentAdvisor.com and Timeout.com to find recommendations for the style/music I’d fancy.
El Row 14 is apparently a mad club where they play with inflammable toys and dress out. It typically offers electronic music and is probably for the more party valiant as it’s situated a bit outside town and in the Spanish clubbing-way open til early morning (I’ve heard many people start their daytime party here around 10am). Very good bookings of national and international DJs. (EDIT: This place is closest as of 2014)
13. Festivals. Sure thing, the Spaniards embrace their festivos (“holy days”) and find any excuse to throw a party or celebrate something with a festival. Ill mention the most known events for now. Late March: Sitges (gay) carnival has become a wild tourist attraction. Late May: Primavera sound. Mid June: Sitges gay parade. Mid June: Sonar: Barcelona’s biggest festival – and one of my all time favorites (thus promoted several times before). It offers electronic music but also all kinds of experimental stuff including old school hip hop etc. June 24: San Juan (celebration of a saint (generally speaking: a massive beach party). Mid September: Merce. A massive traditional carnival alike party in which locals, families and tourists gather to celebrate Catalan traditions, watch endless parades and intense street fireworks (!).
14. Avoid getting pick-pocketed or mugged! With mass tourism Barcelona – that unfortunately holds a large number of poor inhabitants – has become a Mecca for pickpockets. Like in any other place in the world you have to take precautions, and the typical advices are: Don’t watch street performers in crowded areas/ stand on crowded metros/ walk in crowded streets without having control of you valuables. It’s also common that poor kids wander around tourists’ tables asking for money, cigarettes or directions, but with an attempt to steal. I’ve been to many places considered more ‘dangerous’ than Barcelona (and it may of course be a coincidence) but I’ve honestly never heard of/ seen (and even stopped) as many robberies as here.
General points: Barcelona is perfect for a lot of walking so wear good shoes. To travel further you depend on taxis and public transport. The latter is more environmentally friendly and a cheaper and fun way to see the city. Also, Barcelona is very children- and gay friendly.
It’s been a while now Oslo, and I must say you look better than I can remember. You really make October and November shine this year.
I can’t remember the last time the crisp air and orange, red and yellow dress you put on looked this beautiful. And I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about staying here for a longer period. My body and soul really needs it. And the memory of my grandmother needs it.