Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Keep Close Tabs on your Travel Guide

    Although we travel alone whenever possible, there are many occasions when we need a guide to ensure communication and to keep from getting lost or delayed. We try to select knowledgeable people from the area we are traversing and we are generally quite pleased with the services we have gotten from these people. We usually save time, have unexpected and rich experiences and get to see places and events we might otherwise not have discovered on our own. But we always keep in mind that our guide may not know what we really want or what our deepest interests are. That's why initial research, a guide book and a strong notion of our priorities enables us to make sure that we go where we want.

    A dramatic instance of this was on a trip in the center of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. We were rolling along in a car toward a small village where we eagerly anticipated witnessing a very strange and unique bullfight that occurs on their market day. I had been reading my guide book along the way and realized that we would be passing one of the rare habitats of the Rafflesia flower, the largest flower on our planet and I was awaiting a stop at that site. At some point I asked the guide when we would reach the forest where the flower grows and he informed me that we were well past that area and that it was not on our itinerary. I replied, "Oh, no!" We were not going to pass up that once in a lifetime opportunity. The guide insisted he could not turn back and indicated that he had to follow the directions of the itinerary. I demanded that we stop at the next town and call the agent for whom he worked. He reluctantly complied. We received the approval from his office to turn around and go back about an hour or so to the location I requested. We got to visit the little village closest to the site of the Rafflesias, got a couple of village youngsters to help us find our way through the forest to where they grew and had a wonderful experience that we will never forget. Our unhappy guide waited for us to complete our trek and continued the drive to the fascinating bullfight that was on the itinerary.

     While the moral of this tale is to make sure you do not miss the Rafflesias along the way, it is also very important that the traveler let a guide know his or her special interests. On a trip up the Mahakam River in Borneo, I mentioned to our guide on the boat that I was a mask collector and had a special fascination with such artifacts. At one point, we pulled into a dock in a tiny village along the river and the guide instructed us to get out and follow him. We walked along a narrow dirt path about a half mile until we came to a hut where the local mask maker lived. He was making masks that are very unique for an upcoming New Years like ceremony that was to take place there. I was able to purchase a magnificent mask from the man who made it in that Borneo jungle village. It is one of my favorite artifacts.  Take control of your trip as much as you can. Your travels will be richer and your satisfaction greater if you follow this suggestion.

Rafflesia Flower, Sumatra, Indonesia

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our Costumed World

     One important way to know that one is actually in a Third World area is the difference in dress encountered in so many of these areas. For those who are interested in cultural variation and interesting photography, places where Western style outfits are the only form of dress usually offer less excitement and opportunity. One does not need to leave our hemisphere to experience dramatic variations. I have mentioned Chichicastenango, Guatemala in an earlier blog. Almost all the Indians in the area wear colorful embroidered blouses or shirts and very distinctive costumes, especially for holidays and celebrations. Not much farther south in Panama, there are several different tribal groups who dress in a unique fashion from the scantily clad  Embara forest dwellers to the commerically influenced Kuna Indians who live on the nearby islands. South America features additional treats from Otovalans in Ecuador with their very distinctive necklaces and Panama hats to the ubiquitous women's dresses with bowler hats, multiple skirts and varied embroidery of Bolivia. Peasants in the hills of Peru tend their sheep wearing colorful home made skirts and blouses. Many villagers dress this way throughout the Andes.

     Africa and Asia offer many more opportunities to experience the wide variety of dress that traditional peoples have created for themselves. In Yunnan Province of South China alone, there are many different groups with totally unique forms of dress from the Bai People to the Yi to Tibetans who have moved to the area and many others. The dressmakers from this area are highly skilled and the costumes extremely elaborate and pleasing to the eye. We stumbled upon a market near Lake Erhai in Yunnan where every single person was dressed in their distinctive cultural fashion. The many tribal peoples in Southeast Asia also distinguish themselves as coming from one village or area by their dress alone. One cannot fail to recognize the Hmong or the White Karen or the Yao people simply by what they wear. Of course, what we are accustomed to considering traditional Indian dress is common in most of the villages of that country as is the dress of rural Chinese but each of these vast nations has scores of tribal people as well who maintain their own traditions and decorations. These are a treasure for the curious and a great opportunity for the photographer.

     Africa offers fantastic variations as well. While there are amazing costumes from the tribes of Niger to the heights of Ethiopia, many of the groups in this area distinguish themselves by face and body painting as well as by dress. Traditional peoples are scattered throughout the continent. One can find find incredible tribal dress in Namibia and equally compelling outfits in the deserts of Mali or Mauritania. The South Pacific area is equally rich in the clothing of the people (or lack of it.) From the hills of New Guinea to the many islands off its coast, people paint their faces often on a daily basis with careful detail and imaginative forms. Their decorating may even be one of the most important and time-taking activities of the day. Among the many treats of Third World travel is the incredible variation that men and women have utilized to cover or decorate their bodies. Take a good look as you travel along.

Woman Smoking Cheroot, Burma