Inle lake/ Stilted

It’s so bloody cold. Dressed to tan, we wrap the blankets around us, as the water splashes back and the air hits us hard. The long narrow boat cuts through the water, through the hazy grey setting, as we lookout to a what seems like a sea of pale blues and whites. The river is wide and on either side is the occasional spouts of the green and muddy brown marsh land.  Entering our vision, are what seems like flamencos; gracefully stood dancing on the water surface, long silhouetted lines of their extended legs, forming balletic postures.  In our sight were the famous long boat men. Each with a foot wrapped around long sticks, as they guide their boats and fish.  We had arrived at Inle Lake, a cluster of villages living on the nearl water, home to over 70,000 people!

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Unlike in Kerala, where man made banks had been made around the houses, these villages sat wholly on the water. house raised on stilts and boats parked underneath. As you go through you can find temples, monasteries, markets, silversmiths, silk makers, blacksmith. Rowing through the villages, past the small raised spaces you can start to feel claustrophobic, the idea of being prohibited to this defined space. Yet on the other hand you are in awe at the way they have utilised the space, wondering how different it would be to live in this way moving from boat to station, to pavements or large spaces to run free.

The most innovative use of the water is the floating gardens. You see men hauling green gloopy weeds out of the river into their boats, as it engulfs all around them, sure to soon sink the boat,  yet they keep on loading. Later they will use bamboo poles to create an initial structure buried into the ground, where they will then weave the greenery around them creating a layer which they can then add compose to grow above. Lanes of fruit and veg will start to grow, a women on very narrow boats can then weave through piking up the produce as they reach out on the very edge of the boat. Watching this happen makes you think what the world could be like if we continue to flood all around us, the way we may have to life- on the edge of a boat!

 

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Malange/ A simple life

DSCF7618Cycling through the dirt tracks, you can hear the giggles of children ahead. Entering the village, they wave, big grins eagerly awaiting our arrival. Some shy, they grasp at the leg of their mothers, poking their head around to see what all the excitement is about.  Today, we would visit four villages and be given the same warm welcome throughout. They would embrace us into their homes and show us the up most hospitality.

As part of the tour we would learn about the way of life, how each village was governed by their elder, their elected leader. If someone did wring they would discuss it as a village, Whilst the Burmese laws did of course apply, they very much run in isolation, only elevating matters to authorities if required. They explained the struggle they face and their collective objectives- security, electricity, more resources for education and medical security.  They would receive help from the government, but still looking for ways to see how they can improve their quality of life. Each village working the farms or local trades to earn a living and now welcoming in tourists, to show them around and feed them. Collectively they would take it in turns to cook dinner, distributing the wealth angst the four villages.  Despite, having little, working hard and facing some fundamentally living challenges these people seemed genuinely happy. They were sat around laughing together. To an extend they are living hand to mouth, not driven by the same competitive nature that drives the west.  Of course not all is as it seems on the surface, but to see so many with what seemed like genuine happiness in their faces, perhaps there is something to be said for less is more.

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Bagan/ Finding Nirvana

Sun creeps through the blinds and the chants of prayers, which have become our new alarm, ring loud around us. Throwing my tierd heavy body out of bed, into the shower and out the door, I would stand absorbed by the morning routine that awaited my eyes.  A stream of red robes, hung off the shoulders of young boys, shaved heads, bare foots as they stood patiently in line each holding out their bowl to collect food from the village. These were young men in training, a right of passage for all boys to enter a life devoted to Buddhism. Once they have learnt the teachings of Buddha and spent several weeks living on the monasteries they may choose if they wish to return to their families and lives or continue to the path of enlightenment.

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Buddhism for these people is more than a religion, a way of life. It is integral to their being.  It distinguishes their values, their beliefs, behaviours.  Like a Holy Communion or Bar Mitzvah, they will grow up to learn the teachings, celebrating their entrance into the monasteries, spending weeks away from their families.  Monks wondering the streets is a common site, as people continue to dedicate themselves to the teachings of Buddha.  A country adorned by temples. When Looking out to Old Bagan, to the earthy washed landscape of dry baron land, ancient temples take to the horizon.  Walking across the land, amongst the temples, there is a sense of calm, stillness across these quite grounds. Grounds that have been respected, worshipped for centuries.  It is these pagoda’s and temples where the people spend their time. When travelling you see limited places fro entertainment, cinemas, sports, clubs all limited, if at all. it is the festivals at the temples that people part take in. As a result you notice, how gentle, kind the Burmese are, they are modest and respectful. Despite, all they are subjected to  by the rulings of the country, they have faith, they stay true to what they belief in.

 

 

The Himilayas/ Mountain life

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I stare at a steep uphill dirt path on the edge of the mountain, pushing myself up on the balls of my feet. “Erm so Raju is the next 5 days up like this…” “yes yes flat like this.” We laugh, “so this is flat?” “Yes, flat.” “No this is steep.” This shortly became a known as a Nepali flat. Essentially any part of the trek that didn’t have steps, our guide Raju, considered flat, just as anything without snow on it was a hill, to the rest of us definitely a mountain! 

Salt crystals dry on my face, as the cold wind blows over my face. The next few days would be spend up and down stairs and many a ‘Nepali flat’ ascending through ranging landscapes. Dry forest, crumbled stone with towering evergreens, ragged exposed rock walls, marked by the stream of a waterfall during monsoon. Following gushing steams, cold blues, frothing white water crashing over the greys and light browns of the rocks. The water washing calm oasis through the valley. 

A few hours later opening up to vast valleys, feeling tiny as you stare into the deeps vs, formed of luscious green. Feeling the force of how beautiful nature upon you- why have we destroyed so much of this elsewhere!  As you turn the bend,  you see the distant spotted houses of a village, delicately positioned like monopoly houses on the edge of a mountain. As near closer you pass the fields that these people live off, staggered along the steep face of the mountain; rice fields, vegetable patches. 

Trekking through these lands you grow a deep appreciation for the way of life for the people who live here. There are no roads so anything you consume in the mountain is grown here, or it has to be brought up. The first day of trek very much feeling like mary and Jospeh, walking with my stick in hand looking for a place to stay with my herd of donkeys. Having spent 3 hours walking up a zig zaged stoned staircase, as a bunch of donkeys carried heavy loads of gas, stones for building and food supplies from one village to the next in front of me. Just as the next day we walked the entire day with an old lady with a cardboard box which contained a chicken strapped to her head. She would walk for 2 days to deliver the chicken for sale to a guesthouse to cook with, earning just £15 for the chicken at the end of journey. Despite the number of tourist walking through here, life is still very simple, they have their families, they depend on each other and take only what the need something more of us can learn from I think. 

Mumbai/ Neighbours

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Mumbai, a truly cosmopolitan city, modern, feeling surprisingly safe compared to the rest of India. Stepping outside the hostel, I laughed at the British influences- surely back in kings cross. The same grand architecture formed the Victoria train station, as red buses and black and yellow taxis past by. Walking through the city international brands, superstores, boutiques, art exhibitions and street art would emerge. The streets of Bandra, dotted with Hipster style coffee shops, Where come night gaggles of young people take to the rooftops, downing shots and dancing to a mix of western and Punjabi music. There is a different sense of freedom here, young couples holding hands along the promenade, women walking alone and at night, mixed groups socialising. 

Whilst you can see both the lifestyle and attitudes of the west are adopted, there is still a distinct sense of India. The vibrancy of the street food, local dress and winding alleys of open workshops and markets are never far from sight. 

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Amongst the development in the city, what emerges is the extreme differences in wealth and poverty, whom sit next to each other as neighbours. 

When you think of poverty in Mumbai, your mind takes you to the slums. Confined communities living in what we would consider hard conditions. The truth is they are not the poor ones it’s the families who line the streets, homeless, begging. Cardboard sheets lay the ground next to the back road of parks, where young boys in the whites practise cricket, looking into the others who sit in the dirt staring out blankly. Speaking with people who live their they have become accostumed to this way of life, passing each other by, living together, sharing the city together. Where developers have bought slum land and developed properties wealthy families will live next door to a slum family. They may walk the same streets, but their paths of their lives are so different. 

Mumbai/ The heart of Mumbai

A man’s scolding stare burns through me. He stands fragile,  bend over, hand on the rail, looking deeply, his heavy eyes tracking us with intrigue, as we make our way down the railway bridge entering the slums. At the foot of the bridge my gaze wonders the horizon, unsure what is about to be unearthed under the sea of corrugated tin roofs. 

Walking along what is known as the business section of the slums, people hurrily rush pass conversing loudly, trucks squeeze their way through the narrow passages, as mopeds whiz past chopping you up. This was much like most streets in India. We take left past a local store and a small cinema playing the cricket and latest Bollywood films. Turning into the alley the atmosphere changes, confined, dusty, darker. Peering through open doorways sat workers. Small rooms where they huddle closely in the heat, breathing in toxic fumes as they wade through the worlds waste to make a living. The slums recycle over 75% of the cities rubbish, including rubbish from countries like China. Rag pickers will collect plastics from resteraunts and hospitals, left over soap from hotels, Coke cans from the streets; selling them to the scrap dealers who in turn will sell these to the manufactures in the slums. Each dark doorframe reveals another trade. In one sunlight cuts through the thick white floating dust, two silhouettes figures throw large plastics parts into a grinder which churns out chunks of plastic. To be melted and turned into pellets, resold to factories around the world.

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Through another you can feel the heat outside, as your eye is drawn to the bright orange flames of the furnace at the back of a dark room, men melt down cans, pouring them into molds to create alliminum bars. Opposite lies an open space, where suitcase are being thrown and caught again on an assembly line of men sat on the floor. Wheels being hammered in, zips attached.  A hive of energy, each square meter being utilised steaming out noise, smoke, heat- not quite the factory setting you think of when you see ‘made in India’. It’s no surprise though that most who work here will die by the time they hit their 50s, with no concern for their safety they breathe in the toxic fumes, giving many lung cancer, so they can take home the 9,000r to their families each month. 

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Though the conditions are indeed shocking, what stuck me more is the resourcefulness of the people. Here lies communities of people who literally are taking everyone’s trash and finding ways to reuse it and sell it back. Even left over soap from hotels was being melted and mixed with pigments to make black soap, to be used to clean dishes. Just think what could be achieved if we found a way to truly recycle everything efficiently, to be less wasteful. 

Moving away from the work quarters, Fireescape style ladders hang above us, as faces peek from above hanging over the edges of windows. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a young boy, who face wouldn’t leave me. He was sat on the metal framing, an opening window behind him stacked with biscuits. He sat quietly smiling, organising the packets neatly ready for someone to buy them. His tiny arms, and shallowed face from severe malnutrition didn’t look at the packs with desire or lust, just happily helping out. The deeper we go, other small children run past the winding path ways running around your legs, jumping the puddles and minding the pitholes along the cracked concrete. They run in their uniforms to school, singing, pigtails swinging.

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By this point the passage ways are no wider then half a meter, at times forcing me to duck under protruding arch ways (bearing in mind I’m only 5’2- it was getting clostraphobic) Imagine walking through here at night, already it was so dark in this maze of alleys, doorway after doorway lined tightly one against the other. Behind a curtain you can see in, in what be only 35sqm, no bigger than my bathroom at home lies an entire family. Kids drawing, mum washing the clothes in a bowl. 2 elders lying down. Before we can really think about the crammed conditions,we hear drumming getting closer. The alleys open up into a small courtyard, people fill the streets laughter, gold, glittered sparkling sarris. We had walked into a wedding, the bride locks eyes with me, her wide smile inviting us in. She grabs me hand twirling me into the rythem of the music. These people were so happy, full of life.

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Of course it was a wedding people usually are, but we came to learn about the strength of the slum communities. Yes, these people work in unpleasant and unsafe conditions and life in confined spaces, but comparatively to many others in India they have good reliable jobs, a place to live, the support of their neighbours, security, homes. Many of the people who have earn a good living from the slums have property outside, but they rent them out and chose to continue to live in the slums; they say they miss being part of such a close community. The people here make the most of everything they have and value it, something most of us could probably step back and do.