Myanmar might have seen a huge political shift towards democracy recently, but traditional gender roles are still a few years behind. Women still do a lot of the menial work; one scene I’ll never forget was a group of middle-aged women, dressed in traditional longyi and blouses, breaking rocks on the edge of a highway whilst the men sat in the field behind them smoking and shouting instructions.
So here’s a photographic collection of the ladies of Burma working nine to five, so to speak.
Nestled on the shores of the Adriatic Sea is the beautiful south-eastern European nation of Croatia, home of orange roofs, lavender fields and a proud but turbulent history dating back to the 7th century. In a nutshell, Croatia has formerly been part of the Byzantine, Austrian and Hungarian empires before uniting with neighbouring Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia to form Yugoslavia following the First World War. This period in its history famously came to an end in the 1990s with the bloody civil war and establishment of independent sovereign nations. It’s probably fair to say that Croatia came off best in the years following the war, reinventing itself as a vibrant and appealing tourist hub. It’s certainly a destination that doesn’t disappoint, whether you’re wandering the ancient back streets of Dubrovnik or exploring the exhilarating waterfalls of the Krka National Park. It’s also fair to say that the local people don’t always come across as particularly warm or friendly, being possessed as they are of an eastern European stoicism and reserve…although if you make a friend of Croatia, you’ll find you have a friend for life.
Just starting to emerge as a destination on the South East Asia backpacker trail, but still largely unspoilt, Myanmar is one of the most colourful, intriguing and intoxicating countries I’ve ever visited.
It’s only really been accessible to mainstream tourists for the past three or four years, before which it was the subject of a repressive military regime and a number of subsequent popular uprisings, the most widely publicized of which -in 1988 – resulted in the deaths of hundreds of citizens. All that is changing though: in March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took their seats in government and now the country is looking to embrace a new, brighter future. The atmosphere in Myanmar is uplifting – the gentle Burmese temperament is infused with a joyful optimism and visitors are greeted with a warm, welcoming smile (albeit the cracked, red and black smile that comes from chewing too much betel nut).
Before the photographs, let’s get the technicalities out of the way: is it Myanmar or Burma? Well, both really. Both names have the same meaning, “Burma” is a local derivative of “Myanmar” and is the name by which the country was generally known until the military rulers changed it in 1989. These days, the United Kingdom still refers to it as Burma whereas the UN recognises the name Myanmar. However, I only heard the locals calling it Myanmar – the local beer even carries the brand name “Myanmar” which is good enough for me.
Myanmar is, in many ways, the closest you can come to time travel. Setting foot in places like Bagan or Inle Lake is like stepping into a bygone age…the locals are largely uninfluenced by the Western habits exported to so many Asian countries, most of them still wear the traditional colourful longyi and smear their face with thanaka paste to counter the heat. Transport is chaotic and noisy and sometimes involves an ox, Buddhism prevails, and eating is a communal affair. One of the most common pastimes of the backpacking community is the In Five Years Time game: “In 5 years time I bet it will have changed.” It’s hard to see how it won’t, after all this emerging democracy needs to boost its economy somehow and tourism is there for the taking. However, it’s sad to imagine tour buses parked up all over Bagan, resorts and golf courses around Yangon and the inevitable party boat cruise on Inle Lake. I can only feel equal measures of pleasure and gratitude that I had the privilege of exploring this wonderful destination before it joins Thailand as the archetypal holidaymakers’ paradise.
No,it’s not a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan – it’s a traditional Easter procession in southern Spain.
Semana Santa is the most important event in Spain’s religious calendar and, as we know, the Spanish spare nothing when it comes to celebrating important events. Starting on Palm Sunday and continuing almost constantly until Easter morning, Nazarenos – the male and female participants in the processions – walk tirelessly through the streets for up to twelve hours at a time…the most devoted of them without shoes. There are approximately 70 confradias, or religious “brotherhoods”, in Seville alone, meaning literally thousands of cloaked and hooded figures processing through the city streets, usually accompanied by a wailing brass orchestra and a funereal beating drum. Add in the fact that each confradia wears a different-coloured set of robes and the sight is hugely impressive, if not a little intimidating. One of the most memorable processions takes place on the night of Holy Thursday when black-robed Nazarenos march silently and eerily through the dark.
The biggest processions include re-enactments of the Stations of the Cross, a man dressed as Jesus and occasional public flagellation. Yep, they take it seriously here. One thing you will see in most processions is an icon or statue from inside the church being carried, pallbearer style, through the streets…although this has started to attract criticism in recent years as most of the statues are lavish affairs draped in gold which some people believe undermines the real meaning of Easter.
But what about those pointy KKK hoods? Well, no one seems quite sure why they opted for this particular design, except that the idea is to cover the face to symbolise shame at the sins committed in the past year. The conical shape is possibly there to denote a syphoning off of the sins towards heaven. One thing is certain, though – the Nazareno hoods pre-date the KKK by several centuries; it was the KKK who adopted the style and made it globally synonymous with delusions of race supremacy, which is in stark contrast to the original hoods’ intended meaning. On Easter morning the Nazerenos remove the hoods and stride through the streets, smiling and throwing flowers, to show that their sins have been forgiven.
Semana Santa in Spain should be on everyone’s Bucket List – religious or not – as it’s a sight to behold in terms of sheer tradition, devotion, sense of occasion and, yes, bizarreness. Seville is the obvious destination for a Semana Santa break (most of these photos were taken in Seville) but for a slightly cheaper and less-crowded experience you can also witness it in most towns and villages south of Madrid, including Málaga and Granada. Valencia also has a good one. As for me, these days I’m quite content to sit back and just enjoy the chocolate.
About an hour ago, in a town on the east coast of Spain, there was a fireworks display. It wasn’t an ordinary fireworks display: for one thing it started at 2pm when it was still bright daylight, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because it wasn’t about visual effects, it was about audio impact. The sound of the fireworks reached 120 decibels at one point, louder than a jet plane taking off, and the vibrations pounded the eardrums and shook the internal organs of the several thousand people crowded into the town square to listen. It lasted for about ten minutes. This fireworks display will take place every day for the next nineteen days…but the silences in between will gradually get shorter and shorter as people start to set off their own smaller fireworks in the streets and the parks and the plazas, until finally there is no silence and the city becomes one cracking, popping, roaring wall of sound. Welcome to the wonderful world of the mascletà, and Valencia during the annual Fallas fiesta.
Fallas is essentially a celebration of fire, although the epic firework displays are only a small part of it. Equally as impressive are the four hundred or so ninots – the wood and polystyrene mannequins – erected all over the city. Often taking a topical or political theme, the statues are powerful, eye-catching and enormous: walking around Valencia can seem, to the uninitiated, like wandering into a particularly vivid Disney animation after indulging in far too many hallucinogenic substances.
So, is there a good reason for all of this? Well, yes. Fallas started as a celebration of St Joseph – patron saint of both fathers and carpenters, being a multi tasking kind of guy – and historically seems to have something to do with burning surplus wood at the start of spring. Cool.
These days the festival is a joint venture organised by the different districts in the city, each of which has its own clubhouse and is responsible for raising money and building its own ninot. The ninots take an entire year to construct so as soon as one festival finishes, work will start on the next.
It’s not all about blowing things up and burning things, however. This being Spain, music and processions also play a large part in the festivities. The members of each clubhouse are known as falleros and falleras and they take part in traditional processions across the city, the most notable of which is the Flower Offering where the female falleras carry flowers to lay in Plaza de la Virgen, the most beautiful square in the centre of the city.
It doesn’t come cheaply though – each fallera’s costume, shoes and elaborate hairpiece cost hundreds of euros to make.
Did I mention the food? Valencia is the home of paella, so expect to see plenty of simmering rice (and traditional Valenciano paella uses rabbit meat as its protein) during the festival. They don’t just cook it in their kitchens, that would be very boring – why not cook it outside in the street and have a competition to see who can make the biggest?
Of course no Spanish fiesta would be complete without lashings of alcohol: in this case the local brew agua de Valencia (water of Valencia, but believe me when I tell you it’s definitely not water). If that seems a bit daunting you can buy a beer or some hot chocolate from one of the many stalls, but do it properly and go to one of the streets of lights to soak up the atmosphere.
Although the mascletà is a daily occurrence from the 1st of March, the fiesta officially runs for five days from 15th to 19th March. The population of Valencia trebles during Fallas so don’t expect a relaxing city break…but if loud, bright, non-stop craziness is your thing then this is the festival for you.
Oh – and what do they do with those 400 giant ninots when the festival finishes? They set fire to them all, obviously.