Category Archives: Travel

If you could go back in time, where would you go to?

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So, I’m studying this MOOC module on historical fiction, which has my brain zinging about in all directions.  We’ve had a canter through the historical novel, and there have been some great seminars by authors of historical fiction.  Each author has been drawn by a period in time, or an event, or a curiosity about something.  So, what’s yours? Continue reading If you could go back in time, where would you go to?

The sound of silence…

Doubtful Sound

A damp, drizzly day in February 2011 and I am standing on the open deck of The Navigator on Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.  I have come to one of the world’s great wildernesses to drink in this majestic landscape. Doubtful Sound is an unspoiled wilderness of many moods, today eerie and mysterious with the cloud hanging low about us. Mountains loom out of the waters, shadowy in the swirling mists, scars of dark granite rock revealed by tree avalanches. It is a beguiling place; a landscape that truly makes me feel small.

The Navigator’s skipper, Rex, has invited us to share in the sound of silence. He shuts down each of the ship’s vital systems one by one.  Firstly come the engines, making the vibration of the deck beneath my feet shudder to a halt.  Next he stops the generator, causing the whirr of the fans to fade and falter as the saloon lights flick off, thickening the apparent gloom of the mist. The metal beast had ceased to breathe and it feels like it is now just me in this world. I grow more aware of the movement of the boat, a gentle swaying with the motion of the water.

As the groans and hums of the ship fade away, there is only the sound of the bush that fills the air.  Here, there is no distant drone of road noise, or aircraft in the sky.  I am truly experiencing the sound of silence.

Doubtful Sound is the natural home to dense temperate rainforest, with native bush clinging to the steep valleys carved out by the forces of the ice some 20,000 years ago. The forest is a marvel in its own right since no soil forms on top of the rock, and it does not seem possible that anything should grow, let alone flourish. The thick green canopy is evident before me, held in place by a network of roots – like fingers interlaced, grasping hold of one another to remain the mountainside in defiance of gravity.

As I stand taking in the sights, the first other sensation that I become aware of is the feel of the rain falling on my head.  Cool rivulets are forming through my hair, reaching my scalp and sending icy shivers down my spine.  I turn my head to the heavens and feel the water falling on face.  Drop after drop.  I hear the drops fall on the deck, the drip-drip on the metal, and at a different pitch, I hear the water falling in the Sound itself.  I become more aware of the sound of water; of the rippling water washing the shore, and then somewhere in the distance, of a waterfall roaring down the steep sides of the black rocks gouged by the ice.

My breathing has slowed and my rhythm seems to echo that of the grey water lapping the shore. In the silence I notice a reverberation deep within me, and it feels like a magic spell from this mysterious land has been cast on me.

From the stillness of the bush, there is a lone bird song, the lyrical chimes of a bellbird piercing the air.  I strain to hear it better, but it too seems to sense the silence and its song stops.  That sweet sound is accompanied by the taste of sorrow as my mind wanders to the stories of devastation that I have learned of on my journey across New Zealand. The stoat, rat and possum, although not visible or audible, are discernable in the lone song of the bellbird; these introduced mammals have decimated the bird population. Once there would have been a cacophony, but now there is only the single haunting sound of a ghost-bird.

The long neck tribe, Northern Thailand

Long Neck Tribe

Peter and I had a few days in Northern Thailand in February 2012, as part of a wider tour of IndoChina.  “IndoChina” in three weeks, with quite a crammed itinerary, so our research in advance wasn’t as it might have been. We were to spend a day in the Golden Triangle (learning things we didn’t know about the British and the Opium trade, but that’s a whole other story), and as a last minute suggestion, Eark (our guide) recommended a detour to see the Karen tribe, the long-neck exiled from Burma. Eark is from Chiang Mai, and is a warm, slightly camp man in his mid-thirties, with a smile that could light up nearby Burma. We had little hesitation in taking his suggestion, which he took delight in.  It was a ‘why not’ decision – after all, why do we travel?  In our case, it’s more than to just see the world, it’s to take as wide as experiences as we can, and learn about the lives of others.  However, had we researched it before hand, I’m not sure that we would have made the excursion.

We turned off the main highway out of Chiang Rai, onto a bumpy road flanked by rolling green hills that would eventually lead to Tibet, or so Eark told us.  Agricultural lands lay either side of us, as we juddered along.  After a matter of minutes, we swung off the road into a clearing, a car park, big enough to hold a tourist bus or two.  At the entrance to the village, we paid our 500 baht (about £10.00), and passed along a dusty path, lined with rickety market stalls bowing under the weight of rows of tourist tat, with brightly coloured scarves swaying in the breeze.  A large party of Koreans were leaving, meaning that we were not the focus of half-hearted attempts by the women manning the stalls to peddle their wares.  Unexpectedly, perhaps naively, we were in a tourist trap, but that felt OK because you can’t blame anyone for trying to eek out a living.  We knew we were going on to the village, to interact with the Karen people. We carried on through the market, following the dusty path, to a very rickety bamboo bridge, where we crossed to the village. Eark casually remarked on the wicker litterbins, strewn along the path.  He told us that the guides had been pressing the villagers to clear up the litter, thinking about the environmental benefits as well as aesthetics for the discerning visitor.  Most of the rubbish looked tourist generated, to me, but I didn’t comment.

Across the bridge, we walked through another row of market stalls, this time seeing the women of the Karen tribe, who were sitting weaving at their looms.  It was a startling sight.  In my mind’s eye, I knew what to expect, a woman with her neck encased in brass rings, but seeing them as smiling, beguiling, workingwomen….  I was in awe, and noticed that I was standing, smiling back at the lady before me.  Without fail, all of the women we encountered had a grace and elegance about them.  They politely smiled, and bowed, in a kind of deference, but in their society, the women hold the respect.  It was a really bewildering feeling.

Eark had told us that no one really knows why the wearing of coils had started, perhaps to fight off tigers in the jungles, but what remains from their tradition, and it is true of today, the woman with the longest neck has the greatest beauty.  She can command a high price in marriage – for it is the men that pay the dowry. These women of great poise, with painted faces to make them more desirable, sit and weave. The brass rings are heavy, about five kilograms, and the illusion is of a long neck as the collarbones are depressed.  The brass rings are heated and coiled, wound around the neck by a mother, or a sister.  It is a ritual for women by women. This does not come without cost, as we witnessed in some of the photos that the women showed us, scars where the hot brass has burned their skin.  They seemed to show us this with some pride, as I winced at the images.  The necks are encased from the age of four or five, and for these women who wear them now, the process of coiling would be repeated often as the young girl grows, blossoming into a woman with a long neck.  For the women of the Karen, the coils are changed every few years, as the brass cracks and deteriorates.

The long neck woman is becoming extinct, since the girls entering school are forbidden from wearing the brass rings.  The Thai government seems concerned about potential exclusion and being victimised.  Eark told us that this is the reason that he wanted us to make this excursion; who knows for how much longer we can see this tradition of the Karen tribe.  Modern living means that traditions will dying in the tribe – but I understand why.

We photographed the women of the Karen tribe, with Eark telling us that one lady was as photographed as Angelina Jolie in Thailand! We posed with them, we bought some goods from them, with Eark encouraging us that it would benefit the women directly.

The "Angelina Jolie" of the long neck tribe

We were touched by these women, whose lives are so far removed from our own, but we were disappointed not to see the village or the way of life.  The village was behind the screen of the market stalls, giving little of their lives away.  We found it an extraordinary visit, but left with a feeling of some discomfort, because it was, after all contrived into a tourist showpiece.  And like every such performance, there has to be a Ringmaster.  It wasn’t clear to us who that might be, and Eark was not giving that away.

The women of the long neck tribe have been one of the enduring images that I have brought back, and since then, I’ve tried to understand more about them.  There are articles a plomp calling the tourist villages a “human zoo”, and I appreciate that.  It makes sense, but does it invalidate the experiences that I had, or make it a ‘bad’ thing to have done?  Am I acting against my feminist beliefs in supporting the voyeuristic exploitation of these enchanting women?  I’m not so sure.   These women, traditionally, behold their own beauty, whatever the history of that, it remains true.  Albeit through the translation of our guide, they seem proud of who they are, and perhaps even that they are facing extinction.  At one level, and a very significant level, I feel privileged to have encountered these elegant, enchanting women, and I am very happy that we did make the excursion.

 

Factfile:

We travelled in February 2012, on a Bespoke Private Tour arranged with Cox & Kings.  The visit to the Long Neck Tribe was an excursion from our stay in Chiang Rai.