Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, Part 3

We made a long trek to reach the Chin State. We had a day pass (tourists are not allowed to remain overnight in the Chin territory) and a guide to translate for us. Our hope was to reach the villages where the local tribes still have elders with tattoos, by tradition only the women. The government represses the tradition, and it was feared that it had died out.

We had no guarantees that the women would come out to meet us once we reached the villages. At some point in the journey I stopped caring, because every minute in Burma was filled with wonders. The long slow passage upriver had become a journey to a some where, a some thing else. We chugged slowly upriver in NW Burma on the Lemro, from the Rakhine to the Chin state.

Arriving

Arriving

After walking around for some time in the first village, the elders stood before us! It was literally as if we looked up, and there they suddenly were.

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We asked through our guide if Uwe might take photos. The elder women calmly answered in the affirmative. They were, after all, the reason we’d come so far to visit. The tribes are self-sufficient and produce nothing for the tourist market. To meet the female elders is the reason why foreigners come to the villages.

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We were meeting Laytu Chin women (also called Lemro or Laito). The Chin are of Tibetan-Burman ethnicity, and tattooing is practiced only among the southern Chin.

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To a woman they were calm, poised, and radiated confidence. When did the Chin begin tattooing? One claim is that the tattooing was done to make the women ugly so the Burmese kings would stop stealing them to use as slaves, but this claim has been discounted as myth. It’s our modern world that sees tattooing as unattractive and labels it ‘ugly’. It’s far more likely that the Chin women were tattooed in a rite of passage, and that the facial tattoos are a mark of social status and coming of age. The tattoos make the women beautiful.

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No one in the outside world knows just what these patterns signify. The tattoos may be stippling, dots, circles. The Laytu women we met have the most elaborate Chin tattoo, a spider web or rising sun pattern. Our guide told us the men had gathered the materials used in the tattooing process. Jens Uwe Parkitny reports being told that the actual tatooing is done by female tatoo artists.

The women walked us through the village, up to the school. It was originally funded by a foreigner and we were invited to make a donation. It was all very formal: the guide wrote out a receipt along with the amount, our names, and our nationalities.

D30_4957_0800One of the women was in charge of taking the money and handling the donation, but the task is rotated. He translated our questions, explaining that on each day a different woman takes on this task. The responsibility of supporting the village is shared communally.

On that day we were invited up into a home on stilts. In another Chin village we watched one of the old women work at a handloom. We visited a burial ground on the river banks, where the dead are cremated and offerings are set out for the deceased. When we finally set back down the Lemro River on that December 31st, the last day of the year 2009, Uwe and I knew we had journeyed a very far way indeed.

Once we were home in Europe I found myself haunted by the old women’s faces. We got online and began to search for anything we could find on the Chin.

We discovered that the tradition of tattooing hasn’t died out altogether after all. In his exquisite brochure “Im Porträt: Gesichtstatuierungen der Chin-Frauen in Birma” (“Chin Women of Burma and their Facial Tattoos: A Portrait”), photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny documents the Chin tribes and different tattoo patterns of each group. He has made it his on-going mission to document and bear witness to this extraordinary group of people and their traditions. The text is in German and English. This stunning booklet of photographs can be ordered from either of the following sites:

Munich Museum of Ethnology: http://www.voelkerkundemuseum-muenchen.de and

Hirmer Publishers http://www.hirmerverlag.de/

When Uwe and I discovered Parkitny’s brochure on the Munich museum website, we ordered it immediately. Parkitny has also published a new book entitled “Blood Faces” http://www.bloodfaces.com/ . All proceeds from his book go to a children’s charity in Yangon, Burma.

 (All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma, Part 2

We had arranged in Sittwe for a guide, a boat and a special day visa in order to travel on to the semiautonomous Chin State. The ethnic Chin struck a deal with the Myanmar government at the Panglong Conference. The Chin won’t fight for their own independent state. In return the government basically leaves them alone to manage their affairs.

As we headed up the river the small boat traveled slowly. It was the last day of the year, a calm morning with no winds.

Sky and water reflected one another like twin mirrors.

In a mirror

In a mirror

We sailed on for several hours, and I was overtaken by a sense of displacement that was complete. It was preternaturally still, so quiet and without movement that it seemed we had sailed to a place located somewhere between firmament and earth. It wasn’t quite attached to either.

Finally the boat came to a stop and we debarked and began our walk up into the first Chin village. The villages are extremely remote and what makes them extraordinary (for us anyway) is the fact that the Chin practice the art of tattooing. The tradition had been strongly discouraged by the government since the 60’s, and was believed to have almost died out.

In the villages we sailed to by boat, only the old women were reputed to still have the facial tattoos. The men had gone out into the jungle and gathered the materials necessary for the tattooing process. Several days of painstaking tattoo work ensued; only faces of  young teenaged girls were transformed.

We walked through the village with our guide talking to the locals.

Chin village path

Chin village path

Pigs and puppies tumbled on the path as people worked. The tamped dirt was cleared and clean.

After perhaps 20 minutes of walking through the village and watching and being watched, the female elders suddenly appeared to meet us.

Part 3 to be posted soon.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma: Part I

I met my Australian mate Iain in immersion language class: he’d married a German, too. Together we confronted the ‘small’ detail of learning the native tongue. That was 19 years ago. Both of us are still here, still married to our Germans, and we’re still friends.

Iain likes my blog, but he’s irritated with the photo I selected for the top border. “Why do you say ‘Greetings from Germany’, and then use a photo on a river somewhere?

Billowing sail

Billowing sail

“It’s a nice picture and all that, but why don’t you have a picture of Germany?” he went on. “When all’s said and done Deutschland‘s your home now.”

“It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want,” I thought. But he’s right, and I promised Iain I’ll work up a post about beer or Christmas Markets or beer at the Christmas Markets. (Actually, at the Weihnachtsmarkt everyone drinks an amazing hot mulled wine called Glühwein, but that’s a different post.)

So, in the interests of clarity:

The photograph runner at the top of my page was taken as we chugged slowly up the Kaladan River in northwest Burma. For close to 8 hours we sailed by other boats.

Family transportation

Family transportation

We passed a continuous landscape of grazing water buffalo,

Water buffalo

high round haystacks,

Haystacks along the river

and villages along the water.

Everyone works busily

Our goal was to travel from Sittwe to Mrauk U (pronounced more or less “Mrou Oo”), once capitol to the ancient Rakhine kingdom that based its money and power on maritime  trade with Europe, India, and Arabia. Mrauk U’s king employed Japanese samarai as body guards!

There is just 1 road over land to Mrauk U. As of 2009 only the Burmese were permitted to use it. Tourists arrived by boat, or not at all.

The excitement of a boat sailing past

We needed to reach Mrauk U as a jumping-off point to get to the villages of the Chin State. This semi-autonomous region is very near the border to Bangladesh. We hoped to see the traditional tattoed elders and could visit the area with an assigned guide, a special day visa, and a goodly dose of luck. Maybe the elders would come out to meet us; maybe they wouldn’t. We’d have to hire a boat to take us even further upriver and see what happened from there.

On the last day of the year 2009 we climbed into a second, much smaller boat, this one on the Lemro River, and continued up to the Chin State.

Part 2 to be posted soon.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)