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    Asia Travel

    The Remarkable People of Inle Lake Myanmar

    Magical Myanmar

    You might not immediately understand the comparison, but Myanmar, and Inle Lake specifically, reminds me very much of Guatemala. Beautiful Guatemala – one of my favorite countries in the world because of its simple, shy but welcoming people. A people often living a subsistence lifestyle, happily and faithfully like their ancestors before them. This is how I see the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar.

    We are blessed with two full weeks in Inle, about eleven days longer than most people stay. Our slow travel style has us enjoying the peace and quiet here, from our stilt house over Inle at the Myanmar Treasure Resort – a splurge hotel from our normally simple Airbnbs. From this vantage point we are swept away by the lovely people of the region, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar, whose lives are intricately connected to the lake.

    Fisher People

    Fishing on Inle Lake Myanmar
    Inle Lake Fisherman

    Of course the lake provides so much to the people – it is highway, bathtub, garden and washing machine. But mostly it is a food source. Watching the unique fishing style of the fishermen, it’s a bit like a ballet. The men have developed this system of standing at the stern of their boat, using one leg to maneuver the paddle while using both hands to manipulate their nets or baskets. This system came about because the water is clear, and it’s easier for the men to see the fish in the shallow lake if they are standing.

    traditional fisherman Inle Lake Myanmar
    Traditional Fishing Style, Inle Lake

    Lake Fact – Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar (45 square miles) but only 12 feet at its deepest point most of the year. During the rainy season the lake can rise about 5 feet.

    Unique fishrman Inle Lake Myanmar
    Fisherman use their legs to paddle

    Gatherer People

    Many people still living in the old ways have little need for cash money. They live a subsistence life, with fishing, farming and gathering providing their daily needs. Gatherers can be seen collecting betel leaves, foraging for wild plants such as pennywort and morning glory, and pulling lotus stems from the lake to create thread for weaving (more on this below). In the forests, teak and bamboo are taken for many uses.

    Lotus gatherer Inle Lake Myanmar
    Gathering Lotus Stems

    Lake Fact – Inle Lake was designated a UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserve – a protected area that demonstrates a balanced relationship between people and nature and encourages sustainable development.

    Farming People

    The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created an ingenious farming method. Using weeds gathered from the bottom of the lake and bamboo poles for support, the people have built floating gardens. The gardens are tended from a dugout canoe, and due to the rich and abundant mineral lake water, the crops flourish.

    Inle Lake Floating Gardens
    Floating Gardens

    Additionally, farming of fruit, beans and nuts, rice, corn and sugar cane is abundant in the region. Yellow tofu made from chickpeas is a regional specialty and exported to other regions.

    Markets at Inle Lake
    Market

    Lake Fact – daily markets take place around the lake, moving daily to five different locations. Here the people sell homegrown produce, fresh caught fish, eels and snails, as well as baskets, weavings and tofu.

    Craft People

    As people will do everywhere in the world, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created income from their ability to create beautiful things from local resources.

    Silvermaking Inle Lake
    Silver Jewelry Making

    The mountains that circle the lake are a source of silver, and silver making of jewelry and other ornamental items is big business particularly for the tourist trade.

    Weavers of Inle Lake
    Long Neck Tribal Woman Weaving

    Weaving is traditional and several styles of weaving are important to the region. Silk, cotton and lotus thread weaving occupies many women.

    Lotus thread weaver Inle Lake
    This woman making thread from the Lotus Stems

    Unique to Inle, gathering of the lotus stems and creating thread from the fine spiderweb-like interior creates a unique and beautiful style of weaving. Most of the robes the monks wear are made from this lotus thread cloth. It is very expensive because of how delicate it is and the time-consuming work. Lotus cloth or silk cloth is usually reserved for special occasions for the average person, who dress daily in cloth skirts known as longhi.

    Color scarves
    Color scarves being sold

    Cigar making is also an important industry. Most women of the older generation smoke handmade cigars while men lean to chewing betel leaves. The cigars are all hand rolled and it’s quite remarkable to watch the process. Several styles of cigars and smaller cigarette-like cigars are made using tobacco, tobacco mixed with spices or honey, and also some filled with cornhusks. Some have filters, others do not.

    Cigar Making Myanmar
    Making Cigars

    Lake Fact – their are four cities on the lake, but dozens of smaller villages, many built on stilts out over the water and accessible only by boat. The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar are mostly of the Intha tribe, with a mix of Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayak, Danaw and Bamar.

    Lake village on stilts Inle Lake
    Village on stilts

    Transportation People

    To live effectively and have any kind of a life on this lake, people need to either own or have access to a boat. The boats that ply these waters are all very similar in style, and are usually built from teak.

    Boats of Inle Lake Myanmar
    Fishing size boat

    The boats used for fishing are the smallest, 7m, some have a motor while others do not. A family boat is about 10m and the largest boat used for transportation, similar to a taxi or ferry service on the lake is about 18m.

    Boats of Inle Lake Myanmar
    Largest size boat

    Boat manufacturing is a specialized craft all done by hand, usually in a family owned business handed down over generations. Even the teak trees are cut by hand and hewn by hand into the beautifully shaped vessel. The boats are designed to maneuver through the narrow passage ways on the lake and are low to the water. A mixture of shredded teak and tar is used to fill the gaps in the boat. Lacquer is used to paint the boat. A boat well cared for will last about 20 years.

    Handmade Teak Boats Inle Lake
    Handmade from Teak

    Transporting people and goods is a business into itself. People who grow vegetables and other items in the hills around the lake need to transport the items to the people on the lake and vice versa. Of course transporting tourists is big business today as well.

    Transporting goods Inle Lake
    Women unloading goods to carry back to their hill village

    Lake Fact – the teak trees grown around Inle Lake are known as the finest teak in the world.

    Faithful People

    Nearly all of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, and temples and pagodas dot the Inle Lake area, just like the rest of Myanmar. Monks are revered and the people make a practice to visit the temples and worship regularly.

    Monks Inle Lake
    Monk’s at prayer

    Most monks live a simple and quiet life at monasteries scattered around the area. While some children are apprenticed as monks very early, not all remain throughout their life. It’s a difficult life. Monks often walk the street each morning and the people come out to provide food to them (known as alms) and often this is their only meal of the day.

    Alms Myanmar
    Morning walk for Alms

    Monks infrequently engage with tourists but occasionally receiving a blessing from a monk will occur. It is important to never touch a monk’s robe.

    Simple Monk Life

    Lake Fact – there are several monasteries and temples (also called Pyay) accessible by water on the lake and visitors are welcome. You must always remove your shoes, and sometimes women must cover their heads. In addition Pyay and temples are also scattered around the hills and can often be illuminated by the rising sun in the morning. A beautiful sight.

    Our time in Myanmar has been memorable, and it isn’t over yet. Looking forward to learning more about the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar over the next week, before we move on to Yangoon.

    Magical Myanmar.

    Next Friday’s blog – the food of Myanmar!

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    Adventure Travel  --  Africa Travel

    Namibia Part II

    Oh The Places You’ll Go

    Location: Namibia

    Namib Desert

    Namibia quickly became one of my favorite countries for its varied landscape, colorful cultures and interesting history.  So although I did not see the entire country, Namibia Part II is an opportunity for me to share a bit about what I saw and learned during my fascinating ten days touring with Wild Wind Safaris.  Namibia Part II – Oh the Places You’ll Go.

    Only a few years ago Namibia never showed up in articles or blogs about travel destinations.  But then all of the sudden there it was – stunning photos of dunes and mountains, animals and oceans.  Article after article listing it as a must see destination of 2017 or an out of the way place to see before the crowds of tourists discover it.

    The furthest south latitude at which the sun is directly overhead at the solstice.

    And so, I wanted to be there.  I wanted to see what few people had yet seen.  Namibia was high on my list.

    Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of tourists, and plenty of tour operators and companies to help you find your way (check out the company we used and were so happy with: Wild Wind Safaris).  But we didn’t meet any other Americans, and 99% of the tourists we met were German.  Germans know about this place and flock here, partly because German is spoken here as is English, Afrikaans and tribal languages.

    Most visitors come to go on safari in Etosha

    Magnificent

    National Park and it is a must of any visit to Namibia (see blog here).  Etosha is not even remotely as crowded as the safari I did seven years ago in the Serengeti with about a million other people.  Etosha was quiet and beautiful and amazing.

    Sociable Weaver nest can House up to 200 birds

    But a trip to Namibia really needs to include time to see and experience more than Etosha.  I’ve come away from the country with an even greater appreciation of the remarkable geology of our earth, and an incredible insight to the importance of preserving cultures and not just objects and nature.

    Our guide explains to Arne

    Until 1990 Namibia was part of South Africa (and from 1884 until after WWI it was a German colony).  Gaining its independence the country has embraced tourism but being such a new country it still has its share of problems.  Like many places we have been, government corruption takes much away from the average person and tribal cultures suffer.  But the roads were remarkably good (even though Namibia has the highest car accident death rate in the world) and the people we met (mostly in the service industry) were incredibly friendly both with each other and us.  In fact some of the friendliest and most genuine people we have met anywhere in our travels are the Namibians.  That really hit home.  We never felt like we were unsafe or being cheated in anyway – although warnings of pick pockets we took seriously.

    Himba women with mud hut

    Namibia has 13 ethnic groups scattered about the country and the native people identify with an ancestral tribe even if they no longer live in the region where that group is.  Our amazing tour guide “Seven” explained to us some of the differences and he could look at nearly every person and know immediately what ethnic group they were from.  Since we didn’t see the entire country we missed learning about most tribes, including the Owambo of the north, the tribe Seven is from.

    We did get to learn about two distinctive tribes – the Himba and the Damara as well as a little bit about the Herero, an offshoot of the Himba.

    Little Himba girl

    Using smoke to “wash” hair

    One of my favorite experiences of the entire ten days was our short visit to a special Himba village where we were able to meet Himba women and children.  Note the photos of these remarkable people.  These are not costumes.  This is the way they dress everyday.  The hair style is really remarkable, and a female Himba begins wearing this hairstyle at puberty.  The adornments are made partially of their real hair and animal hair and are updated every three months.  Because of the shortage of water in the north of Namibia where the Himba people are found, they do not bath with water.  Instead they daily “wash” their hair with smoke – literally holding their head as well as their underarms over a special perfumed smoke (similar to incense) that keeps bugs and (most) odor away.  They also cover their bodies daily with a mixture of butter and ochre as a cleanser and repellant, this is what lends the red tone to their skin.

    Me with ten-year old girl

    The village we visited was a special place because all the children here are orphans.  This is a place where Himba orphans are brought to be raised in the culture of their parents rather than being adopted out of the culture.  The women here care for these children as if they are their own and there is a school here too.  The people are sustained by raising goats and cattle and they have access to a well so water is available but their bathing customs remain the same.

    Damara village

    As we visited the women let us take photos and then they wanted to look at the photos on our phones.  They seem to very much like to see themselves in a photo.  The women’s first question to us was if we had children.  When we said we had grown sons they wanted to know if we had grandchildren.  When I said not yet they wanted to know why not?  Why had we not yet chosen wives for our sons?  My answer that our sons would hopefully marry someday and have kids didn’t seem to satisfy them.  Their entire existence and culture is wrapped around family, child-bearing and daily survival.

    Once again I am reminded of how many people live every day hand to mouth.

    Dancers at Damara village

    We did not visit a Herero village but these people endured near genocide by the Germans who wanted their land and intended to eliminate the Herero race to have it and the 1904 Battle of Waterberg ensued.  Half of the total Herero population was

    Herero Women

    killed. Luckily not all were massacred and today the women have developed a very unique dress that is a unique mix of Victorian gown and petticoat and a unique cloth headpiece that is designed to resemble the horns of a cow.  Today the Herero people continue a battle in court with the German government for retribution for all they lost during the genocide period.

    Damara man building fire

    Swakopmund pier

    The Damara people, the other tribe we learned about, are the oldest tribe in Namibia.  They came from the East and settled in the middle region of the country.   This tribe was primarily hunter gatherers and pastoral, raising cattle and sheep and living off the land. The Damara have an incredibly unique language known as “click” language.  The language uses a complicated system of mouth and tongue clicks and is very musical and fun to hear. The village we visited was a reproduction of how a village would have looked hundreds of years ago.  Where the Himba live in huts made from wood, mud and cow dung, the Damara live in huts made of wood and thatch.  The Damara dress was tied to the animals they raised creating clothing from

    Damara Medicine Woman

    sheepskins.  The women use ochre on their cheeks much like we use blush today.  Music and dance and making ornamental jewelry and carvings were a big part of their culture, where the women did domestic chores and the men tended the livestock.

    Cape Cross Fur Seal colony

    Pink Flamingoes in Walvis Bay

    The geology and scenery of Namibia is as diverse as its ancient people.  The incredibly beautiful red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei region are the oldest dunes in the world and the stark beauty of these dunes is remarkable.  The turquoise blue water of the Atlantic Ocean at Swakopmund in contrast provides visitors and locals a cool get-away from the heat of the interior.  Here on the Atlantic the fog settles every day and so do thousands and thousands of fur seals, flamingoes and other shore birds.  Local seafood is a treat including the KingKlip and Kabaljou two of the most popular and most delicious fish caught locally and served everywhere.

    Welwitschia plant

    Dolerite Dike

    From the ocean heading east within minutes you are back in the arid desert where the welwitschia plant grows – the only region in the world this unusual plant is found and growing as big as ten feet across and living as much as 2000 years I was reminded of Audrey Two in Little Shop of Horrors.  The inhospitable environment has little greenery and almost no animals except birds.  The valley of the moon and eroding  mountain range are desolate yet beautiful in their own way – especially the interesting dolerite dike a natural phenomenon of black sunburnt rock that runs along the ridge of the mountains like the spine of a dragon.  This area is home to the largest Uranium mine in the world.

    Ancient rock etchings

    ANcient rock etchings

    Namibia’s storage hunter-gatherers and Bushman (San) people were nomadic and traveled the country wherever the animals were.  Their history is written on stones in several regions and we visited two fascinating sights to learn more.  The Twyfelfontein site is today a UNESCO Heritage site in the Kuene region. Guides take visitors on a walking tour of the hundreds of rock etchings estimated to be several thousands of years old.  The etchings depict animals as well as human footprints and tell a story of the nomad life and the animals they followed for substenance.  It is thought this place was both a message board and a spiritual gathering place for thousands of years.

    “The White Lady” is the pale figure on the left

    More paintings

    Even more amazing though was the preserved painting of “The White Lady” estimated to be 6000 years old.  This painting is located in a very remote region of the Brandberg Mountain, Namibia’s highest mountain.  It is a two mile hike to visit it.  Not as many people see The White Lady because the trek and the heat make it difficult.  I’m glad we endured it however in 100 degree temperatures.  Very different than the rock etchings, these paintings are preserved because they are inside a cave and out of direct sunlight.  Discovered in 1918 and now a protected heritage site, the White Lady is actually not a lady at all.  Early anthropologists believed it to be an Egyptian women, but today archeologist know it is a local tribal shaman, painted with the traditional white a shaman would have on his legs and body from dust and mud.  The painting includes other human figures and many animals all painted with ochre (red), egg, animals oils, charcoal and blood.  The painting has luckily withstood the test of time, although since its discovery humans have touched it and thrown liquid on it to try and see it better and this has deteriorated it.  Today though it is protected and can only be reached with a guide who makes sure no one does any damage to it.  It was a beautiful and remarkable world heritage site to enjoy.

    Moon landscape

    The Namibian people have a great deal to be proud of and I hope this beautiful country overcomes its problems and finds its strength in the world.  It has so much to offer, charm and beauty, history and culture.  I will never forget my time here and I can say with all seriousness it is by far my favorite African country of the seven I have been to.

    Thank you Namibia.  Thank you Wild Wind Safaris.  Thank you Seven for showing us your remarkable home.