maasai east africa exploitation

A Little Story… How One Maasai Tribe Is Changing the Face of Responsible Tourism

The sharp guffaw of a wild baboon startled me from sleep. Close as a whisper, the eerie sound ricocheted through my dreams. I awoke in full fight or flight response mode. My eyes whipped open, careening around the space; they slowly adjusted to the soft ochre light emanating from the banked campfire. From somewhere outside the dim glow came soothing melodic murmurs. The language was at once familiar from my months in East Africa, yet incomprehensible.

My heartbeat slowed as my consciousness caught up with my surroundings. A wall of trees shrouded our campsite, creating an impenetrable ring of darkness. A carpet of thick bush began a mere spitting distance from my sleeping spot. Again, a flurry of baboon calls crept across the Loita Plains. The sound echoed in the far distance; it had seemed closer in my disoriented dregs of half-sleep. The ground murmured nearby; my gaze collided with the smiling eyes of Quela, a Maasai warrior and my fearless guide. His head quirked to the side, offering quiet reassurance.

A cushion of sage leaves hugged me as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. Deep breaths filled my lungs with gentle, sage-scented air. The shooting stars overhead left fiery trails—a riot of stars more numerous than I had ever before seen. A Fourth of July sparkler had splattered its joy across the sky. It was just shy of 4am and I was alone, but not. An earthly quiet settled over the night—a quiet that hummed with noise. The slow and methodic breathing of fellow travelers acted as a metronome for my thoughts. Moments and memories played like a slideshow across that canvas of glittering night sky.

maasai experience kenya women in shukas

Five days at the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. It seemed impossible. Time had contracted. Instead of measuring days, I had counted moments. I had collected hundreds of moments. Moments of learning, moments of beauty, and moments of friendship.

That first morning at Maji Moto, I woke with a happy jolt. My body wakes with the sun each day, and a quick glance out my window confirmed that darkness was giving way to light. I threw on my shuka, a colorful wrap the Maasai had gifted to me the night before. It braced me against the cool morning. Snatching my camera, I darted from our circle of manyattas, small mud huts that were well-appointed and cozy. I live for a good sunrise and I was looking forward to watching this one.

I walked to the edge of the campsite. The cool breeze ruffled the leaves and a snap of sticks sounded from the Maasai campfire nearby. Creeping into a new day, the sun began to tint the landscape. The sunrise washed Kenya’s Great Rift Valley in a pastel wonderland. A rising chatter of birds emanated from the thicket of trees—they were excited, too. Mirroring the shutter of my camera, I mentally froze that moment, pressing it into my memory.

review of Salaton's Maji Moto Culutral Camp in Kenya

sunrise in Maasai Mara ethically visit the Maasai of East Africa and experience sunrise in the Maasai Mara National Park sustainable tourism Kenya

After sunrise, and with the rest of the camp still drowsing, I grabbed my book and headed for the dining area. My visit to this Maasai camp in Kenya was the cornerstone experience of my four months in East Africa. Although I rarely plan my travels beforehand, I had booked this week at the Maji Moto Cultural Camp long before the other moving pieces and parts.

I visit social enterprises when I travel; it’s one of my favorite parts of discovering a new place. For months, I had corresponded with Susan, the U.S. facing partner of the Maji Moto camp. Now, I was finally in the one place where I could uncover answers to my many questions.

I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

In the months leading up to my visit, I had heard of canned tourist experiences with African tribes. Now that I was at Maji Moto, I again worried that my money had bought me a one-way ticket to cultural exploitation. Until now, my knowledge of the statuesque Maasai tribes came from the pages of National Geographic magazines. Over the years, internet shorthand and fading attention spans have reduced many ethnic groups to seductively exotic images. They are a blip on our Pinterest board. A rapid “like” in our Facebook feed. Deep thought has given way to a passing interest. In this digital world, we often forget to consider the stories behind those foreign faces and obscure traditions.

After an ethically sketchy slum tour in Cape Town, I had heightened my awareness of my lack of knowledge. There were questions larger than I was thinking to ask. There are issues in Africa deeper than outsiders can ever understand.

Ethical tourism is a complicated subject. The edges and boundaries of responsible travel experiences are soft and porous. Something unprecedented and innovative in one community might unravel in another. The underlying belief that there is a panacea to perceived problems has wrought havoc in Africa. But, I also believe that effective avenues of responsible tourism exist; there are ways to visit the region and support projects that steer far clear of the exploitative models of past colonialism. African-led businesses are solving local social issues and locals are shaping their own communities. But finding these voices among the cacophony of outside development solutions is difficult.

And so above all else, I hoped my presence at Maji Moto lived within the precept of “do no harm.” I wasn’t there to volunteer—I have no skills needed in their communities. Nor did I visit with a mission to change them. I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

campfire songs with the Maasai

Over my five days at the cultural camp, Salaton Ole Ntutu, the charismatic Maasai warrior chief of Maji Moto, led our small group through the customs of traditional Maasai life. With members of Maji Moto’s Maasai tribe as guides, we walked through the Loita Hills and learned the names of medicinal plants. We watched sunset from a rock outcropping. We sang around the campfire each evening. Grounding each day, we visited the local projects that run, in part, with support from the cultural camp.

On the surface, our trip was a simple way for us tourists to responsibly engage with the Maasai culture. Underneath, the cultural camp is a single string in a wider, interlocking web of projects bound by Salaton’s a vision and careful execution.

There’s the Enkiteng Lepa primary school, a gated building on a dusty dirt road a short walk from the cultural camp. That first day at Maji Moto, Rose walked us to the school. A dry baking heat pulsed around us as Rose explained the school’s importance to her community. Although it looks like schools most anywhere in the world—rows of windows, space to run—this one is unique. Enkiteng Lepa emphasizes two primary learning goals: a modern education and a comprehensive understanding of Maasai traditions.

It’s this adherence to traditions that underpinned so much of what I learned at Maji Moto. Although Salaton has created a modern tourism model for his community, every new project sympathetically marries modern development and cultural preservation. It’s this balance that has made his work successful. In addition to the school, the Cultural Camp supports a widow’s village and a girls dormitory.

Widows are unable to remarry in traditional Maasai culture, nor can they own property. As a result, many face difficulties supporting themselves and their children. Maji Moto’s Widow’s Village gives the women a support network they traditionally lack. It also provides them with a source of income—the women teach beadwork to the tourists and sell their exquisite, intricate jewelry.

One other piece of Salaton’s vision had a significant effect on my perception of the Maji Moto Cultural Camp. Salaton and other key leaders in his community are leading a campaign against early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within the Maasai community. He began this work with his mother, a renowned medicine woman and shamanic healer.

Over decades, many foreign NGOs and international groups have campaigned as outsiders against this practice. Salaton, his mother, and local Maasai leaders envisioned a different path that would shift attitudes and traditions. Together, their internal campaign is strong but mighty. It has the ability to affect lasting change in the practice of FGM among the Maasai. Together, they put in motion a movement that ripples across not only his community, but throughout East Africa.

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

ceremony at Maasai Widow's Village in Kenya Rose; review of Maji Moto Cultural Camp what it's like to meet Maasai women

Fighting for education in the Maasai tribes of East Africa exploring the Loita Plains near Maji Moto

The lake near Maji Moto, Kenya.

On my last evening at the camp, Meeri, one of my Maasai guides that week, shared with me her story. We were walking to a camping spot about two hours from the village. The Maasai had promised us a night of friendly conversation, singing by the campfire, and sleeping under the stars. Meeri and I walked side-by-side over the shrubby savannah.

She wasn’t always a part of the Maji Moto community. At her family’s prompting, Meeri dropped out the fourth grade to become circumcised and married. When most preteens are dreaming of their future goals, Meeri became the fifth wife of an old man. Not long after their marriage, her husband died. Meeri, however, was already pregnant. Her husband’s wives and their eldest sons seized Meeri’s possessions and forced her to leave.

She went to her father, but he denied her reentry into the family—he had received a dowry and did not want to return it. Meeri had few options.

She had vague knowledge of a widow’s village in a different Maasai camp; she set out alone and determined. She walked for three days. Each night, she slept in trees to avoid the wild animals. Once at Maji Moto, the community welcomed her. She now had a new future. The Widow’s Village provided Meeri with a support system that most Maasai communities lack. The other widows offered to raise Meeri’s child so she could return to school and continue her education.

The sun hung lower as Meeri and I walked, the soft tread of my uneven gait scuffed the dusty rocks. Although Merri’s words looped through my mind, Meeri continued with enthusiasm when she spoke of her future. Having finished at the local school, Meeri planned to continue her education. She hoped to become a certified guide. Her long-term goal was to lead tours through the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve.

After a time, Meeri left me to my thoughts. It was a lot to digest.

eliminating FGM among the Maasai

Meeri

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

Walking the Maasai Mara in search of our camping spot for the night — we hit a goat traffic jam.

Salaton, a Maasai chief in Kenya working to end FGM among the Maasai. goats on the plains

A rock outcropping near Maji Moto.

Stories have the power to change us. Stories use a steel cable to cinch humanity closer; they bind us across cultures, time, and space. Once you have created a new story of a place, that connection can never be undone. It changes your perception of foreign events in far-off places. I will always have a connection to Kenya. A tapestry of stories bind me to the Maasai. In the span of a few days, I had solidified my once abstract associations. And though the Maasai had become more than just the magazine images from my youth, even more I realized that my role here was as a tourist.

The cultural camp affords the Maasai control over how the tourists experience their culture. Maji Moto’s mission is to create an experience that facilitates connections and stories between Maasai and tourists, while controlling outside impact on their culture. I would leave Maji Moto with a new story of East Africa’s Maasai and with a connection to a people different from my home country. But I would also leave behind my tourism dollars and the far greater impact that money has on this community’s ability to build and shape its future.

My moments of pressing introspection upon hearing Meeri’s story passed in a heartbeat. With alacrity, we arrived at our camping spot. Other warriors had arrived before us. They had prepared a bed of sage leaves for those who wanted to sleep outside, a few tents for others, and the beginnings of a large campfire. A goat rested in the corner; he would soon become dinner.

Once the sun had retired, we gathered around the campfire. Late into the night, I listened to the Maasai warriors converse through song. Melodies echoed with deep reverberations into the night. Some songs included high-pitched catcalls strong enough to pierce the star-studded sky. The Maasai’s contagious joy outlasted me; I crawled onto my sage pallet and into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep to the soft cadence of conversation as it warred with the rustling leaves and the distant hoot of birds.

Our group visiting the Maji Moto Camp, I was the only non-doctor or nurse in the group. Quela, a Maasai warrior who taught me so much about Maasai life. An elder in the community at Maji Moto helping to support women and stop FGM within the Maasai.

One of the Maasai warriors spins the stick quickly to create friction! the Maasai lighting a fire by hand learning how to make a campfire

roasting goat over a campfire

Traditional Maasai songs and dance. Experiencing an evening of Maasai song over a campfire

In the two years since I visited Maji Moto, I have pressed each moment into my memory bank. Like a treasured flower pressed into an age-worn book, some memories have faded with the passing of time. But like that flower, each time I open the book, memories rush back to me. Textures, colors, and scents fill each memory.

My time at Maji Moto is memorable for more than providing me weeklong glimpse into a different culture. Pressed into my memories are those moments of human connection. There’s Meeri’s crinkling smile as I peppered her with questions. I have forever preserved Quela’s infectious laugh as I misidentified the local medicinal herbs growing in the fertile plains. I open that book and I hear Salaton’s measured lilt as he spoke of his passion to preserve his culture through innovative sustainable tourism programs.

The Maji Moto camp, and the people who welcomed me, crafted the tourism experience that I didn’t know I needed. My visit landed squarely in the camp of cultural tourism. Salaton and the elders designed our experience to steer far clear of the cultural exploitation rampant elsewhere. Each moment was guided by a visionary chief working to define what modern responsible tourism looks like for the Maasai of East Africa.

The Maji Moto Cultural Camp operates year-round. They offer multi-night stays at the camp and safaris to the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve. Earlier this year, A Little Adrift readers visited with their two kids; they reported back that they had a wonderful family experience. The Maasai warriors are great with kids and have a range of activities designed to engage and interest them (from beadwork to warrior training). Be sure to book through the site linked here as the similarly named eco-camp nearby is not a part of this social enterprise.

A Little Adventure… Going on an Incredible Safari in Tanzania’s National Parks

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater

The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

A Little Oasis … Fun, Mud, and Friends on Beach in Mexico

I found a slice of paradise last week. I rarely use terms like “paradise” because it feels overdone to claim each new place is better than the next. But in terms of where I was personally, this place was a slice of perfection for what I needed at that moment. From my town, the hike to this secluded mud beach is two hours; we cheated and a friend drove us to the top of the trail leading down to the beach, which meant we had to hike for about 45 minutes through the jungle before sighting patch of beach we would call home for the day.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

We erupted onto the beach (or at least I did since I slid and tripped on the trail more times than I’d like to cop to) as the trail’s steep slope abruptly ended on a quarter-mile stretch of sand bracketed on both ends by rocky outcroppings. The beach’s one drawback is a lack of shade, but beach-goers before us constructed a sturdy lean-to (a juxtaposition of terms but apt) from palm fronds and twine. With shade and a fire-pit we had the makings for a full day on our isolated beach, which we nicknamed Pandora since we were about to act out scenes from Avatar.

The beach’s strongest selling point is the blue therapeutic mud hidden in the walls lining the beach. Our ragtag group of eight embraced the prospect of slathering ourselves in mud with thorough enthusiasm and over the course of an hour we each became a unified shade of pale milky blue.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

And once coated, it was playtime while the clay soaked its healthful benefits into our skin.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

What day is complete without a jumping shot!

And when the mud so dry and caked into our skin that we could no longer move, we rinsed off in the ocean.

The rocks bracketing the beach were my favorite part of the day. These were rocks the universe planted at just the right height for me to crawl all over them to explore the nooks and crannies of life living in the pools of water. My friend’s puppy, Loki, joined me for the exploration and we hunted crabs, snails, and fish in the tiny tidal pools created from the force of the water cresting against the rocks.

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

The boys in our group caught these (I am not fast enough and am always afraid I will squish them when I am trying to capture them!):

crab

hermit crab

shells

She looks all cute, but she’s a scaredy-cat and made me climb up on the high rocks to rescue her!

dog

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexicoa mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

It was a day of laughter, play, and friends in a setting most would call idyllic. :)

a mud beach in near San Pancho, Mexico

akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

coffee
From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art!

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

Lee Akha Ama
Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.

I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

akha coffee beans
Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s Back Story

Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.

As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

akha ama coffee
Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.
The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Coffee Process

The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.

Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.
Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

rice paddies and caves hpa-an burma

A Little Musing… On Small Towns and Small Adventures in Hpa-An, Burma

Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick  close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).

Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out “wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!” That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.

monk alms hpa-an burma
A monk takes alms in the early morning sunshine at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.

And I do often visit places with the “wow-factor.” Saying adieu to the temples of Bagan at sunset, sitting on a soft green lawn as the Taj Mahal changed colors in the sunlight, breathing deeply the scent of dense forest around Tikal’s Mayan ruins…these are all such locations. My hike through the Annapurna range in Nepal was feat I had long dreamed about and if I had a bucket-list,that would have been high on it.

But the tiny town of Hpa-An, Burma?

Well, I can’t sell you on it as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with Ana on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.

rural hpa-an burma
A beautiful bridge through the rice paddies and karst rocks links several rural villages outside of Hpa-An.

Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.

Mornings are my personal time when I travel with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing), and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.

morning market hpa-an
These men loaded their truck from an even more densely packed truck, they stuffed it to the gills with veggies and they will now likely be transported to more rural areas for re-sale.

A trishaw driver fills his bike with lettuce cargo for transport in Hpa-An, Burma.

Early morning market stalls in Hpa-An, Burma.

Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter. Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.

And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.

Flower vendors line the streets in Hpa-An, Burma.
Flower vendors chit-chat amiably on the streets of the early morning market in Hpa-An, Burma.

hpa-an town and market
The town of Hpa-An, Burma from the balcony at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, looking out toward the market.

Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines. He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.

I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.

Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma
Buddha statues in the Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma on a daytrip from the Soe Brothers guesthouse.

Buddha wrapped in saffron cloth in the Kaw Ka Taung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma.

Buddha face, one of many lining the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

A reclining Buddha near in Hpa-An, Burma.

Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.
Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.

We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over. We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!

And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.

Local teenagers wave goodbye to us after some cheerful conversation at the swimming hole near the caves.

swimming hole hpa-an
Ana tests out the cool waters at the swimming hole near Hpa-An, Burma.

Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.

workers, myanmar
Hearty greetings as we wandered the very rural countryside in Hpa-An, Burma.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
These children made my day! They were so sweet and enthusiastic in pointing us onward through the path, while posing and hamming it up at the same time!

As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.

At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.

We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.

It looks like a camel in the rock near Hpa-An, Burma.
What animal do you see in the rock shape? Ana spotted this on our hike up the side of the rock and exclaimed that it is a camel! She has good eyes, because once she said it, it’s all I can see now. :)

Mount Zwegabin Hpa-An, Burma.
Looking toward Mount Zwegabin and the countryside around Hpa-An.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
Ana looks out over the rice paddies and villages we spent the day wandering.

So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.

It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.


Quick Travel Tips for Hpa-An

Where to stay: Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Thanlwin Pyar Guest House.

How to get to Hpa-An: Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.

What to do: Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town. Even if you stay at the mid-range hotel 10k outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).

What to read: I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people. I recommend The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and Finding George Orwell in Burma—each on offers a different but needed perspective on such a contradictory country.

A Little Water… Floating Gardens, Fishing, and Farming on Inle Lake

Growing up I didn’t much care about the word “ecosystem.” I took many classes on Florida history (they made us study state history extensively–at least twice before graduation!), and the Florida Everglades was one of those places I took for granted until I reached adulthood, started to care more about the environment and realized “holy cow, there are some intricate and interesting ecosystems!”

Inle Lake Fishermen, Burma
Men fish the shallow waters of Inle Lake from long, flat wooden boats at Inle Lake in Burma (Myanmar).

This epiphany carried over to the present, and into my days navigating the marshy waters, thin canals and open expanse of rippling waters on Inle Lake in Burma last month. The most iconic photos of Inle Lake picture the fishermen, their conical nets resting on long wooden boats as the men paddle with one leg wrapped like a vine around the wooden oar digging into the placid lake waters. It’s a beautiful, practical custom that, in all its “foreignness” to the Western eye, pulled my focus as I marveled at the old-school nets in place of a modern fishing pole, the lazy motion of leg-led rowing and not a boat motor. The male fishermen stand on the bow of the boat so they can see down to the lake floor, and their legs are a powerful way to more easily row through the marshy weeds that grow nearly to the surface since Inle Lake averages just seven feet deep.

Boats on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Looking deep into the weeds and water grass, the fishermen on Inle Lake fish for both trade, and for their dinner!

But that’s just one tiny, indelible piece of life on Inle Lake.

The super productive ecosystem around this shallow 44.9 square mile lake created a separate lake culture, different from the Bamar majority in Burma, and even different from the Shan minority group, even though Inle Lake is within Burma’s Shan State. Instead, an Intha culture and language grew, specific to Inle, where the lake and its ecosystem have allowed the culture to thrive.

traditional wooden house, Inle Lake
A tall wooden stilt house sits over the canal waters, laundry drying in the sun and boats stored underneath!

The villages embraced their creativity over the years in order to make this lake environment their home. Myths even surround the founding of the culture–some believe a former king banished part of the Royal Army from Burmese land, and to keep their word they created moved onto water! Floating land created from dried and hardened weeds and floating hyacinth secure the floating huts and bamboo villages to one fixed spot.

No joke, floating land.

floating tomato gardens, inle
Dense vegetation on the floating gardens, in particular, stop-light red tomatoes grow well in this ecosystem.

And once the Intha mastered the floating land, then agriculture became a cinch—after all, they have an endless supply of water. So, as our driver navigated the canal waters, I watched farmers slosh around their cultivated square farms of land, marveling that oxen and humans both easily traipsed around the water farms.

Some farms are kept on much thinner land, and miles of fragrant tomato plants tumbled over each other on the lakes surface, beautiful birds dipping into the canals near the gardens when they spotted fish from above. So, now you’re wondering, okay, they have stilt houses, floating land for farming, and gardens, but why doesn’t it all just float away?

I puzzled over this mystery, I even spent time musing out loud about hundreds of 10 foot tall bamboo sticks poking out from the lake in every direction. Ah, the sea of khaki colored bamboo affix a garden to the lake surface. Then, the gardens are tended, sold, and moved if need be in the future.

Floating gardens, Inle Lake
The tall sticks hold the floating gardens in place on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Genius!

The entire lake sustains a purpose-built community around the ecosystem.

Fishing.

Crops.

floating gardens burma
A worker tends to his floating garden on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Animals.

water buffalo, burma
A giant water buffalo is out for his late afternoon snack and a stroll in Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Temples.

Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Temples floating on the shallow surface of Inle Lake

And the seagulls.

Feeding the seagulls was a highlight of the trip. Over the past five months I watched Ana guffaw with laughter at random moments, and smile with patience and curiosity as locals explained the inner workings of something to her, and even frown with concern at the treatment of street animals.

Ana is delighted to watch the seagulls circle overhead while we fed them on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar). A hand feeding the birds at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

And the seagulls on Inle Lake brought sheer joy. She abandoned all thought of being a serious preteen and she and her friend M (from GotPassport.org) threw chunks of deep-fried dough with childish abandon. The birds swooped down to pluck chunks out of their hands and noisily fought over bits flung into the air. And as the sun set over Inle Lake, we cozied into our warm blankets and all enjoyed the bite of cool in the air and the squawk of birds tailing our speeding longboat.

Sunset Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Warm blankets and a content smile accompanied a spectacular sunset :)

Far from subtle, behind us a maze of saffron and pumpkin exploded into the sky nearest the setting sun, while a quiet rose tint settled on the surrounding mountains and we jetted back into the small town center for fresh dinner and a warm bed.

mekong river boats

A Little Photoessay… A Slice of Life on the Mighty Mekong

Originating high in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River is the life-blood of activity throughout the history of southeast Asia. Locally known as the Mae Nam Khong, the literal translation is Mother of Water River. The river runs through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and over the centuries consistently remained an important focal point for locals, governments, and foreign countries.

Locals use the River to sustain life — food, transportation and local trade.

Sunset on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, Laos
Boats are already docked in the gently swaying waters by the time the sun is setting. The boat workers must have left to find dinner because the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang were nearly empty this time of day!

Governments dam and re-route the river in political power struggles between the nations sharing the Mekong River’s natural resources, and international political struggles have relied on the power of the Mekong to push goods out to foreign ports for profit and trade.

There’s a lot to this powerful river and it’s with good reason the the poetic and alliterative description the Mighty Mekong fits so well.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen various parts of the Mekong River–within Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to be exact, and below you’ll find a slice of that life I witnessed as locals use the river waters and mineral-rich banks to sustain their lives and livelihoods.

monks on mekong river
Just before sunset in Luang Prabang, Laos, young monks c00l off from the afternoon heat in the river waters where the Nam Khan and Mekong intersect; their giggles and shouts echoed out over the nearby river banks.
mekong river
These children swam to a sandy island in the middle of the river for a lively game of kick ball. When the other team really got a good kick in, the losers had to dive into the river to retrieve their ball! Luang Prabang, Laos.
boy in river
A young boy was excited to see me so far from town as my niece and I walked the banks of the Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos. Clearly he was familiar with the camera though and hammed it up with different poses!
Slow boats in Luang Prabang, Laos
The iconic wooden slow boats dot the Mekong River all day long as tourists come and go, and locals transport their goods from one town to another. Locals use the small uncovered boats for fishing and quick trips across the river.
slow boats
Satellite dishes adorn traditional wooden slow boats (which are also used as houses for some Laotians) in an odd display of modernity as a man extricates his boat from the docks in Houay Xai, a border town with Thailand.
Several huge semi truks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai.
Several huge semi trucks wait to cross over the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border crossing between Chiang Khong and Houay Xai, the border towns on each side of the Mekong.
slow boat Mekong River
Our captain carefully guides the slow boat down the Mekong River, watching to avoid the huge rocks and swift current in some areas as we make down river from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang, Laos.
huts on river laos
The slow boat occasionally stopped at small smatterings of wooden and bamboo huts lining the Mekong.
laotian boys
Young boys board our slow boat at the tiny towns and sell snacks and cold drinks to the tourists on board. They come on for just two or three minutes and swarm the boat to make sure they hit every possible sale.
Child on the Mekong River, Laos
A little girl with hand-woven baskets looks at me quizzically as I slowly float by her home while she prepares dinner on the banks of the Mekong River.
sunset laos
Ana plays with the light from the setting sun on Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Yangshuo light show China

A Little Light Show…Harmonizing Nature and Theatre in Yangshuo

Murmurings from the large audience hushed as a clear and open darkness dropped over our outdoor theatre. The silence was far from absolute though as a breeze swept nearby leaves into a quiet song, a gentle lapping of water, and eventually the sweet notes of a string instrument drifting up from the distant water as the show began.

The Liu Sanjie light show in Yangshuo, China
My favorite scene from the light show; I love the simple beauty of the illuminated figures on the Li River and the striking white light on the distant limestone rocks in Yangshuo, China.

The boats paddled out from the edges of our riverside theatre and colored floodlights illuminated the distant limestone mountains in a myriad of primary colors accompanying the mood of the story. Back in 2008, I somehow missed the elaborate light shows designed for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics but the shows wowed my traveling companions back then and they instantly recognized the name of director Zhang Yimou, who used his hometown region of Yangshuo as the backdrop for a new but similarly crafted permanent show.

The Impression Liu Sanjie light show is one of those much-touted events for travelers to Yangshuo; even if my friends hadn’t known about the light show, the touts and sales agents in the town’s center made sure we had plenty of brochures in our hands! We debated the cost versus experience and decided to spring for the comparatively pricey tickets and welcomed the opportunity to see one of director Yimou’s signature shows live and in its intended environment.

Light show Yangshuo, China.
Dramatic fire and beating drums up the tension as the story plays out in Yangshuo, China.

I fell in love with the outdoor aspect to the experience. The ancient Greeks had it right all along, epic performances of love, comedy, and tragedy should  transpire on open stages and limitless roofs. Music drifted from the show into the heavens and a misty moonlight penetrated the dense sky, mixing with lights from the show and spreading into the forested areas that made up the “back” of our theatre.

Yangshuo China lights show
A better idea of the sheer size of the outdoor theatre for the Impression light show in Yangshuo.

The show is pretty; the music haunting as it drifted across the water and washed over the stair-step rows of intent faces watching the performance. The story moved through different phases from folk music to traditional dancing and, at times, the sheer spectacle of perfectly timed and choreographed lights and rhythms captivated my imagination even though the entire story was relayed in Chinese (a language very distant from anything I comprehend).

Impression light show in Yangshuo
Huge ribbons of red fabric span the river as the actors stand on personal, tiny boats to create captivating rhythmic patterns to compliment the story while using the vast open sky for light patterns and entertainment.

The show is gorgeous and I alternated between fascination and open anticipation. There were a couple of moments that fell flat from my expectations…perhaps I set the bar too high after hearing so many stories exulting the director’s past shows and skills.  But I enjoyed the evening and the experience of watching a performance that harmonizes the unpredictability of nature with human beings. Even in less-than-ideal weather, the performers embrace the elements and augment the experience with whatever nature happens to conjure up–be it wind, mist, or rain– for that performance.

Quick Tips: Impression Light Show in Yangshuo, China

What: A beautiful display of lights and story set on the Li River; more than 600 actors tell the love story over the course of 60+ minutes of music, dance, and theatrical displays. Show designed by director Zhang Yimou.
Where
: Likely your hotel or the company you book the tickets through will arrange your transportation to the entrance. The light show venue is very near the Yangshuo city center but requires transportation and outside coordination.
When: During peak season two nightly showings at 19:00 and 21:00; canceled in extreme weather (rain, severely cold)
How much: Roughly US $30 (RMB 198) for general seating.
Extra Tips: Bring gear to combat the weather. I visited in the early Spring (last week of March) and was grateful to have my warm jacket and a rain poncho on hand!