Charles Bonnet Syndrome and the Kalash

No, its not a band name; though it would be a good one. Charles Bonnet Syndrome is a condition that affects many people with significant eye problems and the Kalash are a unique ethnic group residing in the far north-west of Pakistan. Here is the story of how the two met.

 

Kalash children with a balloon. Balloons and the exquisite outfits always catch my eye

Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is a condition that affects many people who have suffered vision loss for a variety of reasons including glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, damage to the optic pathway and most notably macular and retina problems. The symptoms of CBS are a series of complex visual hallucinations or phantom visions which range from coloured blobs, dots, lines, shapes, patterns such as web or lattice type images, flashing lights, flowers, figures, faces, animals, buildings and landscapes.  Some people report seeing figures in hats and wearing ‘eastern dress’, not to dissimilar to the outfits worn by the Kalash.  They can be abstract in nature but at times also super-real. Importantly, these hallucinations are not linked with any other senses such as sounds, taste or smell and occur in people who are mentally sound. Generally speaking, the experiencer knows that these visions are not real but the experience of them is very real.

I have played around with ‘colour in’pictures overlayed with a ‘test pattern’ to try and convey CBS hallucinations and to have some fun with the syndrome. The test pattern motif is fitting as the colourful CBS hallucinations I experience are the things you see when other parts of vision are not working properly

The hallucinations seem to be a product of sensory deprivation due to significant vision loss leading to the firing of neurons within the visual system creating phantom images. More research in this area needs to be done though.

Previous, professional statements indicated that these hallucinations only lasted a short amount of time; days, months and sometimes up to four years but this idea seems to be changing as more research goes into the condition. It would be even better if health professionals actually listened to those with the condition.

It is hard to know exactly what percentage of those with vision loss experience CBS as it is under reported by sufferers as many think at first it may be linked to mental illness. Health professionals, especially specialists of the visual and psychological fields, are also often unaware of the syndrome or choose to ignore it, thus it is also under diagnosed. Thankfully the stigma around CBS is slowly melting away as health professionals and sufferers discuss it and begin to understand it better.

An example of a CBS hallucination that I have experienced

I have had CBS since August 2001 after a retinal haemorrhage. Thankfully I generally don’t see images of people, faces, animals etc. My experience of it is largely restricted to coloured patterns, dots, lines and geometric shapes. These images are constantly changing and moving throughout the day and their general nature has changed over the years as I have experienced more vision loss as a result of glaucoma and retina problems, some bought about by many surgeries. Initially I mainly saw a circular image with lines radiating out, a bit like a target or a psychedelic dart board. Now I see more random shapes and swirls, dots and lines. It is a very hard thing to describe with words.

The colours and shapes can be at times intense; quite ‘psychedelic’ but don’t go thinking it is a fun psychedelic experience as they can be very frustrating, especially because they further obscure already limited vision. For example, having low vision means it is already difficult to see peoples’ faces properly and very hard to read body or facial language. When the CBS visions are intense faces dissapear completely, instead appearing as a colourful,swirling mess. This can be very, very off putting whihle trying to hold a conversation. Still I try to look the person in the eye, or where I assume the eyes would be and carry on.

Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh

I have used Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting to try and convey my hallucinations due to its vibrant colours and depiction of swirling shapes and lights. Interestingly it is now believed that Van Gogh himself may have had retina problems and possibly CBS, unfortunately for him the professionals of the day merely called him mad.

My version of Stary Night. I have used ‘colour in’ pictures with added colour to play with and represent the idea of Charles Bonnet Syndrome hallucinations

Cave paintings and other forms of indigenous art such as those done by Australian Aborigines with their coloured lines and dots are similar to what I have experienced and cave art by the Chumash Indians of California are particularly akin to what I see and have seen as a result of CBS.

A depiction of some cart art done by the Chumash tribe of California. The circles with lines image in the bottom left is very similar to the first hallucinations I experienced with CBS. The other images are also very similar to those that I have and do see. Only difference is that I would add brighter colours

There are currently no recognised treatments for CBS. The best way to deal with the symptoms is to recognise and understand that they are a result of vision loss and not the loss of mental health. For this reason I hope more health professionals become aware of CBS and are prepared to discuss it with patients. I also encourage those who experience CBS to talk about it with their friends and family and to educate health professionals about the syndrome. When discussing it with health professionals, especially those in the psychological field, I recommend being armed with some literature or Internet links about it so that they can see it is a real thing. I have had the unpleasant experience of bringing it up with health professionals only for them to react in a way that made it appear they thought I was crazy. If you do have CBS and have this experience stay strong and remember that the ignorance rests with them and not with you and encourage them to read about it for themselves.

Like bigfoot, it can be hard to tell if CBS hallucinations are real but for those that experience or see them there is no doubt that the condition is real

 

Blind photography – yep, its a thing!  Find out more here.

 

Kalash woman and one of our hosts while in the Kalash Valleys

The Kalash ethnic group of north-west Pakistan are not a hallucination. They are very real and trace their origins back to members of Alexander the Great’s army who decided to stay and populate with the locals when they were in what is now the regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Kalash, who have their own language Kalasha, are unique in their geographic region in that they do not follow the religion of Islam (though some have converted to Islam at varying times). Their religious beliefs have variously been described as animistic, pagan and a form of ancient Hinduism however it is best to view their beliefs as Kalash. They revere numerous gods, goats and environmental places, particularly river sources. I am by no means an expert on their religious views so feel free to do further research or perhaps ask the Kalash themselves. They are very open minded in regards to religion, treating other people’s beliefs and customs with the respect they would like shown to theirs.

A goat’s head and wood carvings adorn a Kalash temple

Unlike their Muslim neighbours, the Kalash don’t view consumption of alcohol as a taboo. In this aspect they are more akin to the Greek heritage they claim with most households making their own wine from local grapes. Red and white wine is on offer as is a stronger concoction. We were randomly invited into a house while walking to share some of the white wine which went down particularly well with the goat cheese that was offered. Of course, the conversation with the gentleman who invited us in was the highlight of the feast as he told us about the problems of living in such an isolated location but also highlighted his proudness of being part of the Kalash community. The hospitable nature of the Kalash towards visitors cannot be questioned.

The Kalash are perhaps most famous for the strikingly colourful attire worn by the females. Home made outfits featuring brightly coloured motifs on a black background is accentuated by dizzyingly colourful patterned head dresses and jewellery.

A Kalash woman outside her house

It is these outfits that for me initially linked the Kalash with Charles Bonnet Syndrome. When set amongst the dusty villages they stand out like a CBS hallucination. The brightly coloured outfits, or cheos, are adorned with imagery ranging from patterns of lines and geometric shapes to flowers and much more that escapes my eyes. The head-dresses, or kupas, in particular remind me of CBS hallucinations being adorned with seemingly abstract, but no doubt full of meaning to them, patterns of lines, dots and geometric shapes of a multitude of colours. To me, they are CBS visions come to life and celebrated in a riot of colours and patterns. Cowrie shells, beads and buttons are used to great effect to make these head-dresses.

The Kalash are also known to decorate their traditional homes, temples and other buildings with wood carvings. One I saw in a few places was an image of an eye with slanted lines on either side; this motif of an eye surrounded by lines immediately made me think of the CBS experience.

An example of the beautiful and colourful head-dresses worn by the Kalash women

The fact that the Kalash people have managed to retain their culture despite a rapidly changing world and with the pressures that arise from living in the geographic and geopolitical region they do is testament to their strength. They are proud of their heritage and culture and don’t plan on changing to suit anyone else. The attitude of ‘live and let live’ is one which they follow and should be congratulated for. Isolation in the valleys of the rugged and seemingly inhospitable Hindu Kush mountains has helped this but even as they become more connected with the outside world they seem adamant to hold onto their culture and I sincerely hope these unique people are successful in that endeavour.

Kalash woman and child, ensuring their beautiful culture lives on

Those with CBS also need to find this inner strength to overcome the symptoms of the condition. That and understanding are the only real treatment we currently have.

As I mentioned, CBS can be a very frustrating experience and this is where my experiences with CBS and the Kalash are also linked. I was fortunate enough to visit the Kalash Valleys recently and while the people themselves were not frustrating, quite friendly actually, my experience there was.

I had hoped to take many photographs of the Kalash, not just the amazing outfits but their way of life and lives in general but this endeavour proved largely just out of reach, like CBS hallucinations themselves. I had the travellers curse of an upset stomach and the need to not venture too far from the toilet which made exploring the area difficult and uncomfortable but even more frustrating was the fact that we had to have armed security with us at all times during our visit. Being so close to Afghanistan makes this somewhat understandable but personally it seemed to be a bit of overkill. At all times in the Kalash Valleys and all over Pakistan, we were made to feel very safe and secure; the people themselves always look out for visitors making sure they are treated well. People with smiles are much better at offering a feeling of security than people with guns. Having an armed guard made us feel uncomfortable and I believe stopped locals from approaching us for a conversation. The police guards we had were both very friendly and did their best to show us the highlights of the region we may otherwise have missed but due to not having a shared language it was hard to converse, creating even more awkwardness.

I was also seemingly struck with the ‘camera curse’ in that when the best opportunities for photos emerged I stupidly didn’t have my camera at hand and when I did ask for permission to take pictures of some of the family we were staying with in one of the villages my camera didn’t want to play ball or I dialled in the wrong settings. I did however manage to snap some pictures which is great as it was hard for me to see and properly appreciate the outfits and the villages in person but I can use my photographs and computer to better see them.

‘Camera curse’. There is a beautiful image in there somewhere but like CBS visions it is not quite right

Not getting the photographs I would have liked is certainly not the end of the world, in fact it is a good reminder not to view people merely as photographs and to view them as human beings. Visiting the area and talking to the people we did meet was still a rewarding experience even if it was frustrating at times. Just the same as doing my best to see past my CBS hallucinations is rewarding while also being frustrating.

We had a great day exploring villages, eating, listening to local music and generally hanging out with Ishfaq while in the Kalash Valleys. Whilst Muslim rather than Kalash, Ishfaq and his Kalash friends provide a good example of how people can happily live together and appreciate each other despite cultural differences

If you get the chance, visit the Kalash Valleys for yourself. Don’t be put of by my frustrations as they are just that; mine.  It is a unique and beautiful part of the world and well worth the effort to visit.  Hopefully the security situation in that part of the world will improve so that tourists can be more independent and more importantly so that the Kalash, and everyone in the region, can continue to live their lives and practice their culture without fear.

If you get the chance to see CBS hallucinations yourself pass that opportunity up! Life is better with clear vision.  If you or someone you know does have Charles Bonnet Syndrome talk about it with friends, family and health professionals, the best thing we can do is raise awareness of the condition to ensure it is better understood and diagnosed so that those with it and those around them aren’t left wondering.  And remember, be strong and keep in mind that there are may of us out there with it and we are not crazy; we just see things a little bit different than most people.

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This painting, Adam’s Expulsion from Eden, always reminds me of the visual and emotional effects of CBS. The disc image is very similar to a recurring CBS vision I experience and the cracked or latticed sky in the background is also very familiar

A Kalsh cemetary. Bodies were traditionally left above ground while nature took its course with the bones then placed in open coffins. More Kalash are now buried underground as outsiders vandalise or steal remains. Such places should always be respected. I only took photographs after being repeatedly encouraged given permission by locals

 

A great video about Charles Bonnet Syndrome by Oliver Sacks

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Blind Photography; Giving Lenses to the Lensless.

Blind photography; yes its a thing and you may be surprised to know there are many of us who pursue this avenue.

  Photo Gallery page.

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Kalash children and balloon, Bumbaret, Pakistan

Personally, I take photographs not despite being legally blind but because I am legally blind. My eyes do not have lenses but my camera does. It is my way of seeing detail in an otherwise blurry world. By using a digital camera and a computer I can enlarge and enjoy images of people, places, actions and events that would otherwise be alien to my eyes. It is how I make sense of the world. Being legally blind makes photography a challenge of course but it also makes it very rewarding.

Being a keen gardener I needed to find a way to read the small print on seed packets. Glasses were no longer cutting it. Thankfully my mum had a DSLR camera which I used to take photos of the text and then load it onto my computer. This allowed me to zoom on the text and slowly take in the information.

From there I started taking pictures of the garden itself as a way to check my vegies for pests, disease and ripeness.

Eventually I started taking photographs in an attempt to get good looking pictures; it was the best way I could visually appreciate my garden. Not only did it mean I could enlarge details on the computer screen but it was a static, stable image which was contained on a flat screen with the whole image at an equal focal length. My numerous eye conditions mean I have trouble focusing with objects at different distances crashing into each other in a blurry, jumbled mess. Photographs on a screen mean that my eyes only have to try and focus on a single focal length.

 

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A sunflower at night.  Using a camera makes beauty emerge out of the darkness

 

I kept taking photographs of my garden because I enjoyed taking photographs. At its most basic it gave me something to do and think about, at its best it gave me a sense of achievement when I managed to snap an image that appeared beautiful and/or interesting to me.

Unfortunately though after a while I stopped taking photographs of the garden. Partly because I wanted more interesting subjects to capture and they seemed largely out of reach but also because my eyesight was rapidly detonating further. Many surgeries with many complications reduced my vision and for too long the main images I saw were my bedroom walls, the walls of hospitals and the too frequent bright lights of operating theatres as I waited for the anaesthetic to kick in and my eyes to be carved up even more. I couldn’t see much joy around me and for a while despised visual images.

What is it like to hallucinate 24/7 for nearly twenty years?  Find out here!

Thankfully  a couple of years ago my brother provided me with the opportunity to travel the world, something I had wanted to do for as long as I remember. I wanted to see everything I could so before I bought a backpack I bought myself a DSLR. I knew it would be the key to unlock the world.

I knew that it would be the best tool to not only try and see the things that would cross my blurry and deconstructed vision but that it would make me see. When visually impaired it can be all too easy to go to the back of the crowd, I mean if you can’t see anyway what’s the point of going to all the effort to try? With a camera in hand the point becomes trying to capture an image, a moment, a story. Suddenly there was a point and a reason to make the effort. Whilst I still miss the majority of the action that is unfolding in front of me, wanting to take photographs makes me look around. It makes me search for that flash of colour that might be something special. It makes me think about the best angle or perspective not only to take a picture but also to see. It makes me strain to see all I can and makes me appreciative of what I can still see. It makes me become involved in the action rather than quietly hiding at the back of the crowd in a state of frustration. It makes and allows me to see.

 

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Chinlone; a South East Asian sport.  A player kicks the ball over a volleyball style net while doing a backflip.  At first I couldn’t see any of the action but a long lense helped me get involved.  I used the sound of the crowd and a lot of trial and error to snap some pictures so that I could enjoy the action on my computer screen

 

Photography, like most passions, has also become a great way to meet people. A guy with a white cane, struggling not to bump into things but also having a camera in hand is a conversation starter – especially with interesting people.

When I was in Bagan, Myanmar I couldn’t wait to take photographs of the area and so got up early and hit the streets by myself. Usually it is hard finding my way around familiar places let alone new ones but still I found myself darting and running around trying to capture the action around me. By the time I went back to the hotel for breakfast I was happy with the fact that I had ventured out by myself – it is sometimes the little things that mean a lot. The day continued to get better at breakfast. I couldn’t see if I needed to go to a counter to order, if there were waiters or if it was a buffet situation so when I heard someone in the room speaking English I went in that direction to ask for help. The guy was happy to help but only after I answered a question; “What the hell is a blind guy doing with a camera?” Long story short; the person I asked for help turned out to be the film director of the original Woodstock documentary. We sat, ate, drank coffee and talked Indigenous Australian rock ‘n’ roll. If I wasn’t a blind photographer that meeting wouldn’t have taken place. For once being blind had an advantage!

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A parade of boys in Bagan heading to the monastery to being their term as monks. Bagan, Myanmar

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Michael Wadleigh, the film director of the original Woodstock documentary.  Someone I would not have met without being a blind photographer

 

Having a camera hanging from my neck also turned out to be a great social tool during a recent trip to Pakistan. My brother and I did our best to blend in by wearing the “Pakistan uniform” also known as a shelwar kamez. Before we went I was unsure how Pakistanis would react to a westerner with a camera on display. The media told me that the Muslim people of Pakistan disliked westerners and weren’t happy about their images being taken. How wrong both these things were! As we walked the streets people constantly asked me to take a photograph of them or their friends. Some even chased us down the street to make sure they could be photographed. A photo would then lead to a conversation, which would lead to an offer of tea and food, which would then lead to more conversation and friendship. My photographs of Pakistan are by no means amazing from a technical standpoint but the experiences with the people who wanted their picture taken certainly was. The camera was the best tool I could have to not only see Pakistan but to hear the stories of the people and actually experience the country.

 

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Some of the many friendly people of Pakistan that I may not have met without a camers

 

I do enjoy a beautiful landscape picture but more and more I want people in my frame. Life is an amazing thing and we all have stories and it is this life and these stories I want to try and capture and share.

 

Making chapatis, Rajastan

Grandmother and granddaughter making chapatis in rural Rajistan, India.

 

I prefer candid photos of people but I also want my pictures to be respectful; both the end product and the process. Sticking a camera in someone’s face isn’t the most respectable thing nor is taking sneaky shots. This is particularly problematic when being visually impaired as I cannot read people’s body or facial language.

What I need to do is converse with people, listen to their stories so that I can try and capture and share their story. Take a posed photo if they are willing. and when I have gained trust with the subject let them go about their normal activities knowing I will be taking pictures. This isn’t always possible when travelling as often images occur and disappear in a flash and currently I travel for travel’s sake rather than for photography’s sake so there isn’t always time to make friends with those I wish to photograph. I hope this will become easier as I gain more experience and confidence in photography and meeting people.

Whilst people and their stories are what I want to capture most, photography also allows me to see landscapes and animals that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to appreciate.  Visiting Chitwan National Park in Nepal could have been a frustrating experience as with my limited vision spotting the wildlife would normally be near impossible.  With a camera however I was able to take part in the metaphorical hunt and experience and see things that otherwise would have passed me by.

 

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A rhino at Chitwan, Nepal.  An amazing experience to be amongst these creatures

 

Having low vision means that detail often escapes me but colours are what attract me. I would like my photographs to be as colourful as possible as that is usually what attracts my eye in the first place. I also want to further explore black and white or minimal colour photos as sometimes the simplicity makes it easier to actually see what is going on.

 

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Colourful hats of Myanmar.  During the Phaung Daw Oo festival of Inle Lake, Myanmar I couldn’t see much of the procession so I let my eye wander over the crowd looking for colour and shape.  Thankfully these beautiful hats were right in front of me

 

Being legally blind obviously creates many challenges when photographing. I have mentioned some of these above but the biggest challenge is of course seeing what is going on in the first place.

Often I use sound to find a picture. The ringing of bells on a convoy of mules, a gasp or a cheer from a crowd during a sporting event or a friendly voice. These are often my signals that something is happening, it is then that I try to see and capture those somethings.

 

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A smile I otherwise would have missed without the use of a camera.  Whilst on a small boat in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar I heard a lound mingalapar! (hello) and quickly pointed my camera in the direction of the sound.  I was then able to enjoy the welcoming smile and wave on my computer screen.  Seeing this smile always makes me smile.

 

Having limited vision also makes it hard to get out and about independently, particularly in places like India where the constant flow of traffic and people stops for no-man and where routes are crowded with holes, poles, uneven and ever changing surfaces and innumerable other obstacles. This means it is difficult to get to where the action is and also means I can’t necessarily be in places during those magic hours of light around sunrise and sunset. This lack of independence is one of the most frustrating things about being legally blind but still I am extremely fortunate to be able to travel to some amazing places with my brother. I need to better learn my craft so that I can capture the best images in whatever light is available. It can also be good to not only take photographs during these magic hours though as life happens at all times of the day and night, not just when the light is right.

Using the camera itself can be a challenge. It is hard to see the dials and displays on my DSLR which means I need to spend more time getting familiar with my camera’s functions so I know which button to press and which dial to turn without thinking about it. This will only come with trial and error.

Seeing through the view finder is also a challenge. Not only do I only see out of one eye which has very limited vision but I can only see out of certain parts of that eye meaning I can only see a fraction of the frame. I rely on the camera’s autofocus as I cannot adequately focus it manually however it is often difficult to see the symbol in the viewfinder which signifies where the focal point is.  Thankfully digital cameras allow me to take numerous photographs to find that one picture. Digital cameras combined with computers means I can crop images in post editing if there is something in the frame which I don’t want. This isn’t a perfect scenario but it is at least a scenario I can work with.

Post editing is another field of photography I need to develop. I don’t like to alter the image into unreality. By that I mean I don’t like to add different skies or backgrounds digitally – I want to capture what is actually in front of me. Currently I use a basic computer programme to do a few basic things. I like to boost the clarity to get images as sharp as possible – I see enough blurryness as it is!

I also often give the colour a boost. I boost colour as it can be hard for me to get the right exposure. I try not to boost the colour into an unrepresentative state but to try and get the picture closer to my mind’s eye when I click the shutter. Admittedly I probably over do this at times; I need to get more advice and constructive criticism in this regard as it can be hard to tell where the right balance is as my colour spectrum differs from those with ‘normal’ sight.

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On the road to Leh, Ladakh, northern India.  An example where I may have over edited in terms of colour boost etc but an image that is closer to what I saw in the split second our bus turned a corner and this scene jumped out at me

I rationalise my tendency to boost the colours for another reason. My ever changing visual landscape has meant that I have seen colours in many different ways. At times everything has been shaded green due to retina problems, not unlike some of Van Gogh’s paintings where everything is tinged yellow. Some surgeries have also altered my colour perceptions, washing out purples, blues and reds. Colours aren’t always what you think they are, they can be abstract and consumed differently by all of us.

I do however want to improve my photography skills so that I can eventually do as little editing as possible while still having images with boldness and richness.

These challenges can be frustrating at times but it is challenges that make life interesting and ensure we continue to learn. I know that as long as I continue to take photographs I will continue to learn and refine my skills. This means that photography will always be exciting and there will always be more photographs to take.

Rather than being solely a negative I believe being legally blind can have some positive influences on my photography. Lines, patterns and form along with colour, are what I take in to decipher the world around me. This can be problematic in real life; beans for example can have the same basic form as chilllis! Hopefully I can infuse the shapes and lines into my photography to help capture and creating visually stimulating images.

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Rainbow of boats, Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Most importantly being legally blind creates empathy with others. I have learnt the hard way that life doesn’t always go as planned; in fact it rarely does. I have learnt that things can change, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively, in a blink of the eye. I have learnt that good people can find themselves in terrible situations that they cannot control but that it is possible to swim rather than sink. I have learnt that at our core, we as humans and more generally we as animals, are basically the same; we are all skin and bones, hearts and neurons, minds and emotions. It is this shared humanity that I want to capture and share in my photographs. I have learnt that things aren’t always what they seem; that what we think we see or are told isn’t necessarily the reality and that we need to scratch and dive under the surface to get the real story. I have learnt that all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from have a story to share. You don’t need to be blind to learn these things but they are thrust upon you in a situation like mine so I will do my best to let these learning experiences inform my photography and story telling.

 

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I had an amazing experience meeting this Chin woman in far western Myanmar.  Sadly her grandson had recently lost an eye so despite our lifestyle differences and language barrier we could relate perfectly with each other.  I could not see her tattoo in real life, only when on a computer screen.  The full story of this meeting can be found elsewhere on this blog under the MYANMAR section

 

Ultimately there is one more reason why I enjoy taking photographs and viewing the photographs other people take; you would be hard pressed to find someone who appreciates a strong image more than someone whose visual world is blurry, disjointed and disappearing. Strong images are like oxygen, it is what we crave.

Due to having a number of degenerative eye conditions the day will most likely come when I cannot see at all. Until then and maybe still after then, I will continue to point my lens wherever a flash of colour, a sound or a story directs it and hopefully the images that catch my eye might just catch yours as well so that we can share a story.

More of my photographs can be found on the Photo Gallery  page and throughout the blog.

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Some of my favourites

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Music, dance and colour in Rajastan.  Blurry but still beautiful to me

 

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On the Silk Road near Leh, Ladakh, India

 

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Golden Rock, Myanmar

 

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Hard at work, Rajastan, India

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Shared bed, Rajatan, India

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Balloons always catch the eye

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Lunch, Peshawar, Pakistan

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Train snacks, Yangon, Myanmar

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Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

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Seddan Cave, Hpa An, Myanmar.

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A mule train in the Himalayas

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High plains desert, Himalayas, Ladakh, Leh

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Mule train with bricks, Peshawar, Pakistan

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Colour and beauty, Lahore, Pakistan

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Find more photographs on the Photo Gallery page

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Family, Fishing and Festivities in Kula Lumpur, Malaysia.

The purpose of travel is often to experience new places, people and philosophies; to experience the exotic and see life from a different perspective. It is about breaking out of the comfort zone and finding yourself in situations that might otherwise be elusive at home.

 

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It is all smiles when the fish are biting.

Before setting out on this latest adventure through Asia there was plenty of possible new experiences to be excited about. From the tropics of southern India with its palm trees and beaches to the Himalayan peaks and valleys of the north plus all the colour, tastes and sounds in between. Excitement and wonder about what life will be like in Pakistan – real life, not the version that is often displayed in the media. Would we make it to China and then North Korea? If we did where would we go next and if we didn’t where would we head instead? Everything on the horizon was new – new landscapes, new languages, new cultures.

Sometimes though it can be great to blend the old with the new; the familiar with the unexpected; the old points of reference with the unexplored. This was the happy situation we found ourselves in at the beginning of our trip – a new adventure in Malaysia with the familiarity of family.

Travelling with my brother means that the family connection is always strong while on the road. References to past and private events are understood which can be great grounding when in an unfamiliar situation. Travelling with a family member who I can trust is the difference between me being able to travel and not. The family connection was further heightened in Malaysia as our older brother, sister-in-law and two nephews live and work in Kuala Lumpur.

 

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Another catch ready to be released.

 

The highlight of our time in Kuala Lumpur was the simple activity of fishing with my nephews Dash and Flynn. Fishing is always a great opportunity to sit back,relax, talk and have fun while waiting for the fish to bite. We couldn’t sit back for too long though as there were plenty of bites and many fish caught and released. It was great to have the boys as guides to the lakes around their home and even better to hang out with them and see how they have grown and matured. It was also fantastic to see my brother, their uncle, teach them the finer points of baiting, casting, waiting, reeling and how to hold the fish in order to release it. When travel is involved people always learn. When not fishing we did our own interpretations of the fish by cooling ourselves from Malaysia’s humidity and heat by splashing about in the pool.

 

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My brother and nephews celebrating a catch.

 

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Yikes  Photo by Dash Emerson

In between the fun with our nephews we also managed to fit some sightseeing and cultural experiences into our visit.

Kuala Lumpur is a sprawling. cosmopolitan city.  Shopaholics will enjoy the city with everything from night markets to modern malls ready to tempt you.  Prices are more than reasonable and marked meaning you won’t have to have a stressful time haggling, though you can always try, particularly at the markets, so as to get that extra good deal.

Food of all varieties is available from fine restaurants to delicious street food – there is something for everyone. After dinner one can kick back in any of the many shisha lounges or head to a nightspot like the Helipad for a drink. The Helipad can get quite crowded and is a bit expensive for those on a low-budget, backpacking trip but worth the effort to have a drink with friends and family whilst enjoying spectacular views of the city, especially the radiant Petronas Towers that dominate the sky.

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The Pirate of the Petronas Towers.

 

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Celebrating Chinese New Year

Whilst heading out to eat in downtown Kuala Lumpur we were blessed with a bit of luck. The restaurant we planned to eat at was full so we found a stall and a table on the street. This was fortunate as the celebrations for Chinese New Year were coming to a close meaning that the streets came alive. Performers in a range of costumes including the ubiquitous dragon and lion ran riot through the streets. Some balanced impossibly on poles while others rushed around the street. All and sundry lit uncountable fire crackers. These were ear burstingly loud, particularly when a group of crackers were released right beside our table but the noise and smoke created a lot of excitement and enjoyment for all – even if it did seem a bit like being in a war zone at times!

 

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Fire crackers exploding to herald in the Chinese New Year.

 

 

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Skewered lips for Thaipusan.  Photo by Colleen Derham

 

We were also fortunate to be in Kuala Lumpur during the Hindu festival of Thaipusan. This festival which takes part over a few days features devotees carrying a kawasi, which is a large colourful and decorated canopy of considerable weight. Some kawadis were influenced by the colour and beauty of peacocks (I have a thing for the influence of peacocks on many religions and cultures) whilst many others were seemingly random creations – at least to my eyes. All were beautiful and mesmerizing to see. Whilst some of the weight of the kawadis is burdened on the carriers shoulders via wooden poles and beams, much of their size and weight is supported and balanced by a series of piercings of the skin (chest and arms), tongue and cheeks. Skewers are also inserted in these places representing the devotion of the carriers. These actions, along with the preparations that take place over 48 days preceding the festival, including fasting and praying, put the carrier into a trance during which they perform the kawadi attam (burden dance) whilst carrying the kawadi up numerous steps into a cave where it is left as an offering to the Hindu god Mungen. This was a great way to start our grand tour of Asia and gave every reason to be excited about what other festivities we may encounter in India and elsewhere.

 

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Self mutilation at the Thaipusan Hindu festival.  Photo by Colleen Derham.

Travelling Malaysia (particularly Kuala Lumpur) as someone who is legally blind was a revelation. I was expecting there to be no infrastructure providing assistance and was prepared for an Asian country that had no idea what a white cane is and means. This can be particularly problematic at times as I largely use my cane as an identification symbol, something to let others around me know that if we are walking towards each other that it might be best for them to take a step to the side as I may plough through them or to let people in shops etc, know that my requests for assistance aren’t due to laziness but restrictions from medical problems.

I was amazed to find though that the city and people of Kuala Lumpur are very receptive to those of us with visual problems. There are a lot of tactile markers in the city that cane users can utilize to help with freedom of movement. In fact, there were much more tactile markers; raised dots and grooves than I have encountered in my home country of Australia. At times it was nice to slide my cane in the grooves and follow the course knowing that I could look around and take in the new city without walking off course. Yes, there are spots where the tactile markings just disappeared or obstacles and obtrusions are not marked but on the whole the infrastructure for the blind within Kuala Lumpur is superb.

The people themselves also made travelling through the city enjoyable as they always showed the utmost respect to the cane and myself as its user. When on the street people always got out of my path and made space without any hassle. They did their thing and allowed me to do mine.

 

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How to win friends and influence people; get a big stick!  Photo by Colleen Derham.

Using public transport in the city was a revelation. Nearly every time I made my way into a train carriage people would be very quick to show me to a vacant seat. If there was no seat available they quickly and without fuss offered me their seat after a subtle touch of my arm to get my attention. I happily accepted this hospitality when needed and at the times I was happy to stand it was hard to do so as people very much wanted me to have a comfortable and secure seat. I had to draw the line when women with young children and bags of shopping stood and collected their goods to make room for me though – I was very grateful but happier knowing mum and kids could sit and relax for a minute or two.

This treatment is certainly not forthcoming in Australia. Yes, some people are helpful and thankfully over the years staff on public transport have developed a better understanding of the needs of the visually impaired but there is certainly not as much empathy and positive action shown. People in Australia often see a cane and its user as an inconvenience; something that might slow them down or get in the way so being treated with such respect by the Malaysian people was a very appreciated experience.

As an aside it is also interesting to note that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and whilst that sector of the world’s population is often demonized by the media and politicians the Muslim people of Kuala Lumpur showed much more empathy and respect to me than in largely self-centred cities like Melbourne, Australia. I thank the Malaysian people very much for this and will always remember the informal but informed way they treated me and treat others.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to our trip and am glad that this won’t be the last time I visit Kuala Lumpur.

Whether you are blind or not make sure to put Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia in general on your travelling itinerary. There is a lot to see and do and the locals will make sure you enjoy your time there.

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Pensive as by the lake.  Photo by Flynn Emerson.

 

 

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Travelling India Blind

 

Sticks and stones. Hampi

The constant beep of car, bus, truck, motorbike and of course tuk-tuk, horns assault the air. The vehicles behind the noise sometimes crawl but often whiz by with only millimetres to spare. The road you are forced to share with the vehicles abruptly falls off into a sewage drain, a pile of rubbish or a seemingly bottomless valley. People push past in every direction. Street dogs dart and lay with the occasional bark, monkeys flitter in the trees and rooftops above and an endless stream of cows, many sporting nightmarish horns, roam the streets. Its not too bad when they are moving; it is when they are lying down or have left a warm, gooey reminder of their presence, that you really need to worry.

Yep, getting around India has many obstacles and challenges for any traveller. For a blind or visually impaired traveller they can seem quite extreme but despite the hecticness they are challenges that can be met. The fact that I’m alive is proof!

While the challenges may at first seem daunting there are innumerable experiences in India for the blind or visually impaired traveller to make overcoming the obstacles worthwhile. I will talk about individual locations in detail in separate posts but for now we will discuss the challenges and experiences that await the blind backpacker in India and hopefully provide a few tips and tricks to make your journey that little bit easier and more enjoyable.

An Indian path

As mentioned, the traffic in India can be extreme. There is a never ending flow of motorised vehicles of all types. There are usually no footpaths either so pedestrians are forced to mingle with the motors, often having to walk in the centre of the road with vehicles whizzing by on both sides. Road rules, as we know them, are basically non-existent in India. Vehicles move in any space they find whether it be on the wrong side of the road or footpaths in the rare instances they exist. The only rule we could discern was that the bigger vehicles have right of way. Buses and trucks are on the top of the food chain and are usually the ones doing most of the overtaking when traffic is rolling. Vans and smaller trucks come next, then cars, motorbikes and finally pedestrians at the bottom of the ladder. This isn’t a strict, written law, it is just the notion that bigger vehicles use their size to dominate. It is up to you to safely navigate the traffic. When walking with the traffic or crossing the road you need to fight for every inch and be careful to take up as few inches as possible as ultimately if the fight gets physical you will never win against a bus that is trying to keep to its schedule.

When walking with the traffic I always use the little sight I have to concentrate on my brother’s legs before me. There is no time to look around or try to judge the traffic myself, I just watch his legs to see exactly which route is best whilst also trying to recognise if he is stepping over something, up something or down something. There are a lot of ‘somethings’ in India! When crossing roads I would try and stay just to my brother’s side, half a step behind, and pay attention to his shoulder to see when we could move and when we had to stop. It can be quite unnerving walking like this through traffic, the natural reaction of course is to look around and try to see what the traffic is doing but it was best to leave this up to my brother to make the decisions while I followed as best as I could. It worked; we are still alive!

Celebrating survival!

I usually used my white cane whilst in traffic, or at least had it in my hand, but ultimately it doesn’t provide much help. Nobody recognises the symbology of it, it is just another stick in a country where many people carry sticks, so no one will see it and allow you right of way. It also doesn’t help much in deciphering the changes and hazards in the path as there are too many different surfaces and by the time the cane tells you what is going on you have either been pushed into by people or have many horns blaring at you. Vehicles, especially motorbikes, are more likely to just drive straight through it; I was constantly worried about the cane getting lodged in a motorbike’s wheel and causing a nasty accident for us both.

Bullock carts, horse carts and donkey convoys must also be contended with. The donkey trains can be particularly daunting when they rush towards you on a thin mountain track. It is up to you to quickly find a spot on higher ground to let them pass, they have right of way and wont stop for anyone. You must make sure to let them pass as they can kick. Thankfully for the blind traveller the donkeys have bells so the faint jingle at least provides an audible sign to move.  Oh, and as always – beware of goats!

A mule train in the Himalayas

Goats always want to return to the mountain; so don’t get in their way!

Even when out of the traffic ease of movement is often restricted due to the many hazards encountered. Roads are often dirt and rock providing a myriad of unevenness to navigate. Rubbish is everywhere, motorbikes are parked randomly, dogs sleeping wherever they see fit, shops pop up out of nowhere, low lying electric lines snake through the air and on the ground, roads and paths can drop off any second into rivers, valleys and random water filled holes. Again, I am extremely fortunate to have my brother to follow and warn me in these situations but it still means I need to be on guard and ready at all times. Slow, small steps are often required to safely make our way but not too slow, things are always moving.

I previously mentioned the only road rule we could discern; that is that bigger vehicles have the right of way. There is one major exception to this rule though. Cows rule. They dominate the traffic regardless of what is happening. If they choose to sleep on the road, which they often do, it is up to vehicles and pedestrians to go around them regardless of how treacherous your new path is. For pedestrians they are usually no problem but at times one or two might get curious. My brother and I both had instances when a cow nudged us out of the way. Thankfully we just got a little nudge from their horns but it was enough to show that they are boss. It is India, cows are everywhere and they rule the roost so be on guard; you do not want to hit one with your white cane!

If you mess with the cow you’ll get the horn

Feeding time

India is famed for its huge population; there are people everywhere. As a result it is a constant game of tetris when trying to get around. People will push and dart to get where they are going without much thought for others. It really is a matter of survival of the fittest or fastest and a white cane wont help; a blind pedestrian is just another pedestrian. All you can do is try and go with the flow and push back when needed. Be sensible though, it never hurts to stand back and let others through or past. It is basic manners and whilst the favour isn’t often repaid it may give you some good karma or at least make you happy that you didn’t push and shove someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Pushing in when in line for a shop or ticket counter etc is also very common and it can test your patience very quickly. Situations like this are perhaps when my white cane was most useful. It can be a great tool for creating a little space for yourself or to block others from pushing past. It doesn’t need to be used violently but if it is held across a partitioned line or used to gently tap the shins its message can be quickly conveyed.

It is frustrating not being able to see and take in all the sights, be they historical buildings or daily street life, but it is even more frustrating not being able to do simple tasks like going to the shops for water or food; it is frustrating not being able to pull my weight and help with these little tasks while receiving help to do bigger tasks. These frustrations are diminished by a great experience with a local person or a laugh with my brother.

It is not all stress and frustration though; there can be much to take in and enjoy in India even with low vision.

Indians and their technicolour dream blankets

India is a very colourful country. I am lucky that while I miss many details I can still discern colour so there was always something to catch my eye. Women’s saris and shawls come in many bright colours, sometimes all at once, which are always a delight to see. Even in the dirtiest streets the outfits are beautiful and something to behold. Men aren’t lazy in this regard either, Sikhs especially add a splash of colour with their bright turbans.

The markets or bazaars are also washed in a psychedelic hue. Open sacks of spices sing out and many piles of paints and dyes add to the rainbow, especially around Holi time, the festival of colour. Table cloths, rugs and all sorts of fabrics can be seen everywhere for sale and whilst the price is often too inflated to purchase they all add to the colour. Fruit and vegetable stalls are amongst my favourite things to paint the streets with colour. Their freshness and brightness radiate, creating a feast for the eyes as well as a literal feast.

Holi preparations

Due to the amount of people in India going about their day there is always something to see. Whilst again I miss a lot of the action and detail there is still much to take in. People plying their trades, whether it be manufacturing basic goods on the side of the street or indeed building or fixing the streets as you walk them, always provide something of interest. Building houses, shops and streets is usually done manually and often leaves the unaccustomed viewer in awe of how much hard work and sweat go into such endeavours. There are people scraping, digging, sorting and carrying rocks etc and much of this work is done by women so it is not uncommon to see a lady in a bright and beautiful sari swinging a pick or carrying a dish of stones on their head. There is never nothing going on in India, it is just a pity that it is often hard to find a space where you can stop, look and properly take in everything that is going on.

Hard at work

With so many people there is also a lot of noise. Horn blasts from traffic never stop and the sound of people talking and yelling permeate the environment but more positive sounds also abound. Indian music, both traditional and modern, blasts from car windows, the doors of houses and everywhere else. The beat of drums can often be heard, sometimes accompanying dancers, sometimes heralding a procession of devotes on their way to pray or creating attention for political activities on the street. I was hoping to listen to more traditional Indian music in the villages but wasn’t really able to achieve this but I can’t complain when the streets are so full of music of all types anyway.

Music, dance and colour in Rajastan

One of the best things about travelling is meeting and talking to local people, finding out about their lives and sharing yours. This can be difficult at times in India as all too often the people that approach you and start talking aren’t genuine in their motives. Many will act friendly and tell you what you want to hear but unfortunately it is often only done so to try and part you with your money. Lies will be told and repeated and products or services offered at inflated prices. Thankfully though there are many good people in India to talk with. Some of my best memories of India involve standing in dodgy and dingy bars talking with the other patrons.

As Aussies, if there was a lull in conversation, we could always bring up cricket which is sure to make most Indians come to life. There are also always many foreigners from all parts of the globe travelling India so it is a great place to discuss the whole world with the whole world.

Colourful cover in Hampi

With such a deep and varied history, India has many significant sites awaiting the traveller. Well known places like the Taj Mahal and other Mogul era architecture, archeological ruins such as those at Hampi, decadent palaces, ancient and still flourishing cities like Varanasi on the Ganges River, the Bodhi Tree and many, many forts only scratch the surface of what can be seen and visited. As a blind traveller many of these sites lose their detail and significance but some can still be enjoyed. Sites such as palaces and the Golden Temple of Amritsar are best viewed at night so the sight of the colourful light displays can be absorbed somewhat if you are lucky enough to have some light and colour perception. Places like the Bodhi Tree are still worthwhile just to know you are in a place of immense historical significance. Many places like Elora and Ajanta Caves and the ruins of Hampi can be touched and felt even if their overall splendour is blurry.

Sikhs enjoying the sight of the Golden Temple at night

On the road to Leh

India is also blessed with some beautiful natural scenery ranging from the palm clad beaches of the south, the rolling sand dunes of the great Thar Desert and the Himalayas in the north. Again; details may be diminished by having low vision but thankfully I can still appreciate the contrast between the green palms, white/orange sand and the green of the ocean. Sight isn’t needed to enjoy the warm sea water of the Indian Ocean. The Himalayas are a part of the world I have always wanted to visit and what I saw of them didn’t dissappoint. Travelling through the deep valleys and over the high altitude mountains was an experience I won’t forget. The snow capped peaks are always beautiful to see due to the contrast of the snow against the sky and otherwise desolate mountain tops. My brother and I had previously never experienced snow so it was a thrill to finally feel some in my hands – even if my brother did have to grab us a handful through the window of a moving bus!

The magical Himalayas

India; you will love it and hate it – sometimes in the space of a few seconds but if you can survive it as a blind backpacker you can survive anywhere!

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Home life

Balloons always catch the eye

Even camels need a haircut

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Pakistan So Far…

 

 

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Pakistan; wow!

Pakistani people; words cannot describe their genuine friendliness, hospitality and desire to share their country and time with foreigners. I’m actually kinda speechless in regards to the warm welcome we have received here but I’ll try.

I had anticipated waiting till the end of my journey to write about Pakistan so as to have an overall picture of the country and I will have more to say about individual places and the country in general but when things are this good it would be unfair not to share as soon as possible.

I was excited but also nervous before coming to Pakistan; images I had seen of the country’s  landscape and reports I had read from fellow travellers with experience of the place gave me a lot to be excited about – images and reports I had read in the media and by politicians gave me reason to be nervous. Would I be safe there? Would the ugly and unhuman face of terrorism show itself? Would I be able to cope with my surrounds being legally blind? Thankfully I had no reason to be nervous and every reason to be excited.

 

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Pakistan is a country that is blessed with amazing natural beauty of all kinds. Scorching hot deserts to the south, snow covered mountain peaks, lush valleys, glaciers and more to the north. The mountainous regions of the north, which take in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan Ranges are known around the world for their unique beauty and I hope to showcase this area better in the future once more exploring is done.

It is also a place of immense historical activity and significance. Cities like Peshawar are amongst the oldest on the subcontinent and the nearby Khyber Pass has been a major corridor linking Asia with Europe and the Middle East,  for millennia. Thoughts and philosophies such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and of course Islam have called Pakistan home, spreading to and from its neighbours. Alexander the Great came through here and many of his men refused to leave places like the Kalash Valleys. Numerous other armies and empires,  including the British, have done their best to claim the country and other  empires like the Moguls have left their mark with immense yet delicately beautiful buildings, shrines and architecture. Sadly, groups like the Taliban have also tried to conquer Pakistan in recent times. Its history is deep and continuing.

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What is most important though is what is happening here now. It is the general public of Pakistan who are creating their own destiny and future history and if the future is left to the average Pakistani on the street then the future is bright!

You will be hard pressed to find more friendly and hospitable people anywhere in the world. If you do know of any please let me know!  Since arriving we have been treated with the utmost respect by the people we have met. Gifts of clothing, food,  drink and more have been offered without hesitation everywhere we go.

Everybody is quick to offer their services in any way possible, whether it be showing us around the immediate surroundings or further afield. Food and drink are lavished upon us and whilst accomodation can at times be hard to find when looking at the usual online sources and indeed when walking the streets, people will always do their best to help you find a place that suits you. Information is shared freely and if somebody doesn’t know the answers to our questions they are quick to try and find out or find someone who can help. We have copious phone numbers and new Facebook friends who are happy to offer their services, whatever we may need, at any time of the day or night.

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What is most amazing and humbling is that these offers are one hundred per cent genuine. Services and promises are not offered in the hope of receiving money for their efforts, they are offered because the people are extremely eager to help and ensure we are happy and safe. Even when we try to pay for servicces or shared green tea, mango shakes and  meals we find it impossible to do so.  Most seem almost offended that we would try and pay as they are adamant that we are the guests and must be treated with the utmost hospitality.   Despite them feeling that they are required to offer such hospitality it never seems that it is a chore, quite the opposite, it is fulfilling for them and humbling for us.

There have been many media reports for far too long inferring and stating that the Pakistani people and Muslim’s in general hate the west and despise foreigners. This is a terrible lie. Everyone has been overjoyed to see foreigners in their home. They look back on the days when many tourists visited Pakistan with great relish and are saddened that they haven’t been able to welcome visitors as often as they like in recent times. It is entrenched in the culture to welcome and help visitors in their land and has been for eons.

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I really cannot descrice just how excited the average Pakistani  is to meet and welcome visitors. As an example; in the hill station of Madyan in the Swat Valley word got around very quickly that there were a pair of Australians in town and many people have been waiting for an opportunity to meet and help. Last night when returning to our hotel after dinner there were two gentlemen waiting to meet us. They had been to our hotel a few times before but either we weren’t there or they thought it was too late and didn’t want to disturb us.   As we spoke their exuberance was over flowing, eyes almost popping out of their heads. This wasn’t because they were naive to foreigners or uneducated about the world – quite the opposite. One was a doctor who works with Medicine Sans Frontier as an ER supervisor on the Afghan/Pakistan border and the other is completing a Masters Degree in zoology. They were eager to meet and talk, to offer us food and drinks and would not take no for an answer. One of them risks his life to help people while the other aims to help the animal kingdom, yet it was us they were calling noble for visiting their country. They made it clear they were honoured to meet us but really the honour of meeting such people is all ours.

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Age places no limits on this welcoming behaviour either, teenagers through to the elderly will go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome and ask if there is anything they can do. Respect is an ageless and timeless thing.

Similarly occupation makes no difference to the people’s attitude towards us. As well as our doctor and student friends we have been warmly welcomed by shepherds, leaders of mule convoys, shop owners, food preparers, those in the tourism sector, the retired and the unemployed. All walks of life want to share their lives with us and be part of ours.

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Language is also no major problems. Many people speak English and are happy to converse and those that don’t can still be communicated with via hand signals, gestures and smiles. Admittedly, seeing and understanding these gestures can be hard due to my limited visual acuity but it is not unsurmountable.

Sadly, Pakistan has seen more than its fair share of problems at the hands of extremist groups like the Taliban, local and international militaries and international governments, media and rumour peddlers. Actions including murders and the restriction of education and freedom by groups like the Taliban and others of their ilk are abhorrent wherever and whenever they occur but it is particularly heartbreaking when people as genuine and peaceful  as those we have met are targeted. At times I’ve had to fight back tears while thinking of what these people have endured but ultimately I am made to smile by the fact that they have endured.

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Think of the absolute worst of the extremist groups, let your mind explore the stereotype that all people in this area of the world are extremists or their supporters; do your worst. Now think of the polar opposite. Think of open minded, resilient, genuine, hospitable, respectful, peaceful people. This is closer to the true spirit of the Pakistani people. It is closer but no matter how good your thoughts are the Pakistani people will still astound you further when you travel to their home and speak with them.

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As for my nervousness about travelling here whilst being legally blind, a nervousness that can be found wherever I roam, be it in far flung places or the neighbourhood I call home, that has been nothing to be too worried about. Yes the traffic can be insane, yes infrastructure is underdeveloped in many places meaning there are many pot holes, uneven surfaces, large drops and all sorts of obstacles to contend with but when travelling with my brother I am gifted with a huge amount of help and reassurance. I am blessed to have a family member and trusted friend to travel with and help me.

The biggest frustration is not being able to recognise people I have previously met or take in all the smiles, waves and handshakes that are offered.  I have trouble even recognising my own family when at home so this is not something particular to this area. Sure I miss a lot of the detail of the historical and general sites/sights and the daily action occuring on the street but ultimately I can still talk with and learn from the many people we encounter – this is indeed a blessing.

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I am extremely fortunate that I still have a month or so to further explore Pakistan and its people and will no doubt have much more to share.

If you have thought about visiting Pakistan but are unsure for any reason, dispell all fears.  If you haven’t considered such a trip I urge you to do so. I am positive that you will be as enchanted and amazed by this place and its people as I have been and you will be doing a great honour to the people you meet here.

The world needs to know the reality of Pakistan and its amazing people – you will only truly know the reality if you go.

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Face Tattoos and Eye Patches; the Ordinary Story of a Pirate in a Chin Village.

mamBAB

“You are now entering a war zone.  Please be careful and don’t go to any strange places.”

That was our welcoming warning by a Burmese man as we stopped for morning coffee in rural Rakhine State, Myanmar.

The warning didn’t seem inappropriate just a little late; it had felt like we had already been in a war zone.  For the past 14 hours or so we had been crammed into a minibus doing a night run through the mountains that separate Rakhine State from the rest of Myanmar.  The minibus constantly broke down and even more constantly stopped to load and unload goods.  Its other passengers were about as welcoming as the seats were comfortable – that is not at all.

What was most disconcerting was the warning not to go to strange places.  That wouldn’t do at all.  The very reason we were making the trip was to visit strange places.  Mrauuk U itself had the allure of the unknown and strange as did the villages we hoped to visit which are inhabited by the Chin ethnic group and feature women with full face tattoos.

Despite being in a crammed bus and being extremely tired the view of rural Rakhine State out of the window was amazingly beautiful.  Rocky mountains merged into rolling hills and green plains as small streams flowed into massive rivers.  Ribbons of wild growth, at times spares hardwood trees at other times dense jungle gave way to lush green paddy fields glistening with morning dew.  Goats, pigs and chickens fluttered in villages as we drove past while farmers walked buffalo and other livestock on leads to water holes.  Hay bales were carried on heads to other animals.  Whilst blurry and less detailed than it would have been to most viewers, the images that presented themselves as we rolled through Rakhine State were amongst the most beautiful I have seen.  Outside the bus the sun was rising with increasing intensity and the bus was feeling even more crammed.

 

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The outskirts of Mrauk U

 

After too much travelling we finally found ourselves in Mrauk U and got fed and watered.  We had had a run of bad luck with the bus trip and Mrauk U was turning out not to be the friendliest town on our travels but we were absolutely blessed to come across Ko Pauk Sa.  Ko and his family run a tea shop in Mrauk U which is well worth visiting and he also offers tours of the area.  He is very proud of Rakhine State, particularly the Mrauk U area and loves sharing it with visitors.  We needed his help to get to the Chin villages we hoped to visit and in engaging him as a guide we also gained a great friend whom I hope to visit again.  I will give more details in regards to Ko Pauk Sa, including his contact details, so if you are planning a visit to the area make sure to get in touch with this generous man.

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Ko Pauk Sa – If you need a guide or a friend in Mrauk U this is the man to see!

Early on our second day in Rakhine State we began our journey with Ko to the Chin villages.  After a bumpy pick-up ride to the Lay Mio River we continued on boat for two hours or so.  Such boat trips give a unique view of river life in Myanmar.  Boats ply back and forth carrying passengers and any number of goods; fishermen work in trawlers and with hand nets and little villages cling to the upper banks.  I miss most of the detail as we go but I use my camera to shoot at the colour and movement I perceive to enjoy later on a computer screen.  I would love to be able to see things properly as they occurred but the act of trying to photograph them creates an extra challenge and level of fun.

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Life on the Lay Mio River, Rakhine State, Myanmar

 

I similarly knew that once we reached the villages that I wouldn’t be able to see the face repeated word  tattoos of the Chin ladies in person but I was still keen to visit, take some photographs and experience at least a little village life in this remote part of Myanmar.  We were worried at first that it  would just be a commercial experience where we would take photos of stoney-faced women for a fee and be hounded to purchase tourist trinkets. Admittedly there was a tiny bit of that though the hand weaved goods on sale were top quality, attractive and reasonably priced.   Their makers and sellers were also good fun.  Walking through the lush, green villages with pigs, goats and chickens darting and lounging about was a great experience.  Chewing beetle nut, joking and laughing with the villagers  was a lot of fun and learning about the tradition of the face tattoos was extremely interesting but the highlight of the visit was when these elements melted into the background and real conversation, despite the language and cultural differences occurred.

 

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Lunch with this woman was a lot of fun!

 

 

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Showing off her handiwork

 

One women we visited had no interest in selling anything – she could find nothing to sell even when I repeatedly asked.  She was however very keen to have visitors in her house as she very much wants to share the story of her face tattoo before the tradition is lost forever.  As  a child she desperately wanted a face tattoo like the other girls and women but at first her parents were reluctant to let her be tattooed.  She begged to be allowed to receive the traditional tattoo and when her begging didn’t work she became depressed and refused to eat.  Thankfully her family relented and she proudly wears her tattoo as a symbol of her tribe, her tradition and her own  strength.  She is very sad that she had no daughters to pass the tradition onto and also very sad that she was one of the last to get such a tattoo.

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Ma and her face tattoo which is unique to her tribe.

As she told her story I noticed the person sitting next to her give her a polite nudge and point out to her that I was wearing an eye patch.  Whilst I often struggle to see and interpret body language I could instantly tell that this exchange of information was done with respect rather than them making pirate jokes.  The Chin woman, I’ll call her Ma from now on as I believe that is the Chin word for woman, quickly stopped her story about her face covering and asked me about mine.

I let her know as best I could that I have to wear the patch to cover one eye as it is the only way I can get a bit of useful sight in the other eye.  I couldn’t explain the exact reasons – that is hard enough to do with people whom I share a language with and have medical degrees – but I let her know that I wore it because I have many eye problems and have poor eyesight.  She was interested in my eye patch because tragically her grandchild had recently lost an eye.

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With the sharing of this information  we started talking together.  Yes, we still needed an interpreter but we could both we could also understand each other’s feelings and experiences without having to use words.  I could feel her sadness and concern in regards to her grandchild’s future.  I could feel that her sadness and concerns were similar to my mother’s in regards to me.  I quickly forgot that she was a tribal woman with a face tattooin an isolated village in a state that is described as a ‘war zone’; she was just a woman, a human, the same as the rest of us.

Ma thought it odd that I, as a Westerner, still had eye problems and strange that the doctors in my “clever country” couldn’t just fix it so I had to explain that we aren’t as clever as we often make out – I could tell that she also viewed me as a fellow human rather than a foreigner or a visitor.  Ma was an instant friend, an instant family member.

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Giving the white cane a workout!

We were both near tears as we talked, listened and sat  so to try and lighten the mood I stood to show her my white  cane and its uses.  As I stood a spare, new eye patch fell out of my pocket and I instantly turned and offered it as a gift to Ma for her grandson.  She seemed genuinely moved to receive it.  She delicately took the patch and had it carefully placed in a bag and put inside her house. Whether or not it will be used or useful I am e sure but it was a heartfelt gift that will hopefully be a reminder that a story was heard, understood and cared about.   I was further humbled and moved when I received by email a few weeks later a photo of this woman  with her grandson wearing the patch.

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This little champ is the latest member of the Pirate Ninja Alliance.  Ma and her grandson.

With perfect timing, another Chin lady made her appearance with a bamboo walking stick instantly making us all laugh as we saw the universal usefulness of a humble stick!.  We quickly compared our sticks and their uses.  It was at first decided by the women that my white cane was inferior as a walking stick as it lacked strength compared to the sturdy bamboo version but they were impressed when I demonstrated how I used it as a mobility aid.  They were even more impressed by how I was able to fold it up.  This bit of engineering magic particularly impressed my ever-thinking guide Ko Pauk Se who took great delight in folding and unfolding my cane over the next day and a half; figuring out how it worked and how he could use the same technology himself.

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This woman not only had an awesome bamboo cane but also had an awesome sense of umour.

I would love to be able to return to this village and its people again.  It would be an honour to spend more time with Ma and meet her grandson.  Obviously it would be great to be able to help or at least show some support but ultimately a return would be a catch up with friends rather than any kind of humanitarian mission.  I would love to spend more time there to witness and photograph daily  village life to tell their story and show that there is a lot more to the ladies of the village than just face tattoos.  I’d also love to get some gardening tips from these enterprising people!

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Preparing beetle nut.

We had originally wanted to go to strange places and meet strange people.  Tribal women with face tattoos promised to offer such strangeness but instead they were beautifully ordinary.  Eye patches, face tattoos; bamboo or graphite sticks – it really doesn’t matter.  Strange people, blind people, tattooed people, tribal people, western people – we are all just people.

*This trip would have been impossible without a good guide and interpreter.  Thankfully, In Ko Pauk Sa we not only found that but also a friend.  Ko went well above duty in helping me get around and experience the village and people.  Alsways their with a helping hand to get up and down steep steeps and barely there tracks but also quick to help us understand the people and places we visited.  I also spent a day exploring themany temples and sites at Mrauk U itself which was a great experience for me and extra hard work for Ko!  He has a great knowledge about the area, its people, the temples and Buddhism in general and is happy to share – ask him as much as you can and he will let you know.  Ko can be found at his tea shop in Mrauk U which he runs with his family.  Tours can be organised their and bus tickets out of Mrauk U can also be bought there.  You can contact Ko Pauk Sa on email kopauk.311@gmail.com or phone 09421721059.  Please let him know that Kristan from Australia with the eye covering sent you!!

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The best tour guide in Rakhine State

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Buffalo and Buddhist monastery, Mrauk U

 

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Ploughing the banks of the Lay Mio River.

 

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Pilgrimage to Pyay; the Spectacled Buddha

Bagan, Inle Lake, the Shwedagon in Yangon; these and a few others are usually the first places to make the ‘must visit’ list when planning a trip to Myanmar.  One place that doesn’t usually make people’s intimacy at all but was always going to be an important destination in mine is the Shwe Myethman Pagoda  otherwise known as the Golden Eyeglasses Buddha or Spectacled Buddha which is located in southern Myanmar,  14km south of the town of Pyay.

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The Spectacled Buddha and his golden rimmed glasses

 

As someone with numerous eye diseases it was a no-brainer that I would want to visit this place which features a giant statue of Buddha replete in golden rimmed glasses.  Whilst the huge and happy blind Buddha doesn’t rate highly to most international tourists it is a place attracts many Buddhist pilgrims from across Myanmar and other Asian countries.

SUch sites only become places of pilgrimage due to the power they hold.  In this case; many believe that praying to the Buddha and making an offering has the power to heal numerous illnesses particularly those to do with eyesight.    The power isn’t necesarily  the exact power expressed in the narrative that accompanies the site; the power lies in the meaning the place has for individuals and how that can equate to shared experiences and strengthening of bonds.

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A pilgrim prays

 

The narrative that accompanies this site began in the 4th century A.D., during the Pyu period.  The King, Queen and the entourage were on a pilgrimage to the Shwenettaung Pagoda when.  During a sleepover the Queen dreamt that she prayed to a nearby Buddha image which offered the power of healing.  The King, the Queen and all their men searched for the spot and located it when they saw flashing lights ascending to the skies.  Here they erected the Buddha image.  Over the years the Buddha has had numerous pairs of large glasses donated as adornments with some being stolen and some one display with the Buddha.  These tributes were made as thanks for or as hope for cures of eyesight problems.  Many, many more pairs of glasses and donations in the form of money has been left by thousands of pilgrims over the years in the hope of their own miracle.

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Myself with some of the many donations to the Spectacled Buddha

 

I must admit though that I don’t believe in miracles and my desire to visit the site wasn’t in the hope of sudden healing.  My eye problems and years of wearing glasses myself did of course create the initial interest in the site and I did admittedly share a quiet word, or prayer with the Buddha as I do believe in respecting such sites, but miracles weren’t the thing that imbued the place with meaning for me.  What gave the spectacled Buddha and Pyay in general meaning for me was the fact that my brother had previously made the effort to go there when he visited Myanmar in 2014 and that he was keen for me to also visit the place.

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The Spectacled Buddha and the Blind Backpacker

 

When my brother first visited Myanmar I was coming to the end of what seemed like a marathon of eye surgeries – all of which and only lessened my eyesight.  I was obviously unable to even think about visiting such a place myself at the time but Caleb was attracted to the site straight away as a visit, a prayer and  an offering to the Spectacled Buddha was at least something he could do to try to help.  His visit didn’t result in a miraculous recovery of my eyesight, in fact I was back in hospital for more emergency surgery not long after but it did at least sow a seed.  As we planned this visit he was adamant that we go there so that I could visit the big Buddha myself.

Whilst not being Buddhist myself, the visit and lead up to it was very much like a pilgrimage to me because it had meaning.  Other statues of Buddhas I had seen all around Myanmar were impressive for various reasons but ultimately they were just statues.  The Spectacled Buddha however seemed like a friend.  A long-lost friend or someone I had heard a lot about before we finally meet.  His serene smile, calm but dominant pose and golden spectacled gave off a feeling of strength and comfort.  He didn’t seem to say to me that he could offer miracles,  maybe just a little understanding and empathy.  A feeling that while things aren’t perfect, there are many of us in the same basket together and within that weaving can be found strength.

 

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Offering some eye patches in case he needs them…

 

Along with the other pilgrims there at the time I said a quiet word on bended knees to the giant Buddha.   I put in a good word for my mother as well as a young boy from Rakhine with eye problems  whose grandmother I had recently met.  I didn’t ask for a miracle for either of them as just things are foolish; I just offered a hope to the world that things go as well as possible for them and those around them.  I didn’t ask for a miracle for myself either; I said a heartfelt thank you that I was able to be there in rural Myanmar in front of the Spectacled Buddha.  I said thank you that I was able to see the little of him that I could and that I was able to experience the country he resides in.  I said thank you for those people I had met on my travels in Myanmar who look to the Buddha for guidance.  I said thankyou for my brother saying his own prayer at the site a couple of years earlier and for making that seed grow and flower by helping me visit there and other places myself.  I made sure to say this thank you to my brother as well as Buddha.

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Blind leading the blind

 

The rest of our time in Pyay was spent not doing too much at all.  We didn’t visit any other temples, stupas or statues in the area though there are many that would be interesting but for us the Spectacled Buddha is the king of the area and anything else would have seen like a support act.  Pyay was an enjoyable place to do not much though.  There is a large river to laze by and plenty of options for food and drink.  By the end of the night we had probably visited a few too many of the drinking establishments making for one of those memorable nights when you can’t remember too much!

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Making new friends at the Shwe Myethman

 

Don’t wait for miracles – hit the road and make some memories and create your own meaning!
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Are You a Tourist or a Traveller? Inle Lake and the Phaung Daw Oo Festival.

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Mingalabar! and welcome to Nyaungshwe.

“Are you a tourist or a traveler?”  What’s the difference and does it even matter?  In this context a tourist is one who is focused on seeing the major sights in a limited and well organised time schedule; who eats and sleeps at eateries or hotels that best remind them of home and basically let guidebooks dictate their experiences.  A traveler on the other hand takes things as they come; is more interested in local people and foods than the major sights or the comforts of home and lets the local conditions, environment and actions influence their movements and experiences rather than a guidebook.

In reality we all have at least one foot in the tourist  camp.  We have to plan our wanderings at least to some extent and be conscious of our time due to restrictions such as visas, finances and other constraints There are usually speciic sights we want to see or places we want to go based on other people’s experiences..  Often though the most memorable moments of a trip come when in traveler mode; when going with the flow and taking things as they come. The experience and extent of both forms of travelling are heightened by being legally blind. My time in the township of Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar provides a good example of both types of traveling.

 

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

 

 

The Phaung Daw Oo Festival is an annual Buddhist festival that takes place on and around Inle Lake in September or October each year.  Four Buddha images, which are usually kept with a fifth at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, are paraded along the shores of Inle Lake to surrounding villages over 18 days.  A replica royal barge is used to convey the images around the lake and is towed by long boats powered by leg rowers who are unique to Inle Lake.  Great excitement and honor is held in each village when the procession and Buddha images  arrives and stay overnight.  The excitement is at a peak as the festival makes its way to the lake’s biggest town, Nyaungshwe where it stays for three nights.

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Devotees place gold leaf on Buddha images at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda.  The middle, rounded figure is an original Buddha image now obscured by many layers of gold leaf.  This original Buddha image is kept at the pagoda whilst the others travel as part of the festival; the newer images take their place.

 

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So much gold leaf has been placed on the Buddha images over the years that their original shape is unrecognizable.  The central, newer image travels with the older images in lieu of the one that stays at the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda.

 

 

 

The tourist in me had been anticipating this festival for months before.  I was looking forward to witnessing the ancient festival and austere religious event.  I had, as best as possible, organised in my mind where and when the procession would be and how best I could see it all.  As the festival procession got under way though the tourist in me had to depart and make way for the traveler.

My lack of eyesight meant that I just couldn’t witness the festival in the usual manner; I could barely see the boats or their leg rowers as they made their way down  the canal in to town.  The outfits and ornaments of the rowers, their boats and the others involved in the procession were basically none existent to me.  It would have been easy to get disappointed and depressed about going to the effort of  attending the event but not being able to see it but instead I decided to channel my inner traveler and go with the flow.

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Everybody wants a pic of the procession

 

Instead of concentrating on the visual elements that made up the procession I listened to the aural.  Traditional Myanmar music reverberated across the water.  Melodic yet abrasive, tuneful yet seemingly random in its rhythms and time signatures, Myanmar music takes a bit of working out.  I still have a lot of working out to do;  it often seems that each musician is playing a different song together at the same time but hearing the music being played in such a setting was a great experience.

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Travellers constantly arriving and departing Nyaungshwe during the festival

 

The activities draw a large crowd as people from many surrounding villages and all over Myanmar converge on Nyaungshwe for the procession and festivities.  My limited vision and lack of local language made it difficult to truly appreciate the crowd but it was very interesting nonetheless to take in the atmosphere.  Pa-O, Inya and other ethnic groups were in attendance in traditional dress, most strikingly the Pa-O with their colourful, cloth headwear.  The more typical conical farmer’s hat was also well represented in varying degrees of decoration.  Monks in their red robes intermingled with teenagers in tight jeans and western tops featuring pirates (yay!) and hello kitty (not so yay!).  Each boat of leg rowers in the procession represented a different village so it was interesting hearing the nearby Pa-O women point to various boats abd mention the village names; from their smiles and laughter I am guessing that some comments were made in pride about their village or villages of friends and family whilst other comments were good natured jokes and gossip about other villages.  Iit was a lot of fun just being amongst the local crowd and enjoying the colourful atmosphere.

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A festival of hats and colour

 

The tourist in me thought I would just witness a colourful yet austere  Buddhist ceremony with perhaps a market or two to satiate the crowd, instead the traveler found a town that transformed itself into a carnival for four days or so.  A small number (but large in size) of carnival rides had made their way to the edge of town as had a larger number of sideshow skill games, market stalls and food/beer stations.  Exploring these stalls with the procession of people they attracted was much more enjoyable than the formal procession itself.

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Colourful outfits that can attract the eye of even a legally blind person!

 

Market stalls offering the latest fashions; traditional and contemporary, lined the makeshift streets along with tattooists offering a more permanent fashion statement.  Vendors selling sim cards and spruiking the latest in technology sat beside piles of wood ready to have its bark crushed and turned into the thanaka that many female and young male Myanmar people wear as protection from the sun and as a form of decoration and expression.  It was ‘touristy’ in that it drew a crowd but the crowd were mostly locals and they were keen to have a good time.

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Fellow travellers at the fewstival

 

Walking around the town and carnival in the heat requires sustenance and that was on offer everywhere.  We came across an eatery beside the main bridge in Nyaungshe which didn’t look like much but provided heaven in the form of some shade and one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.  Shan noodles seemed to be the main thing on the menu so that’s what we ordered and we were well and truly rewarded.  The noodles and accompaniments had just the right crunch, just the right moistness and well, just the right everything.  It was mouth watering and was only made better by the woman sitting next to us offering an unknown biscuit-ish item to dip in the noodles’ sauce.  I’m not sure if this place is there all the time or was just set up for the festival but if you find something resembling this description there go for it!

 

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Passersby enjoying the sight of an impromptu dance

 

 

Nyaungshwe has many other eateries and beer stations, all of which are worth exploring but sitting, eating and drinking at the makeshift stalsl amongst the carnival was perhaps the most entertaining.  Watching the people walking past, waving, smiling and saying hello or mingalabar was enjoyable enough but was heigtend by the occasional impromptu dances that accompanied the music emanating from the beer stations.  It was great to see many of the people who had previously been involved in the procession having fun once the formalities were over.  The leg rowers were particularly keen to enjoy their time in town.

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Inle Lake leg rowers quenching a hard earned thirst.

 

Many skill testing games were on offer with  prizes of alcohol, cigarettes, soft drink and money.  In some cases it involved throwing or rolling a hoop over an object or knocking it over with a ball.  There was no obvious signs of slight of hand or cheating and no giant teddy-bear on display and small teddy’s occasionally given out; here it was a simple situation of if you knocked it over you won it.

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My brother attracting a crowd and trying his luck.

 

 

My brother and I both tried our skills on a couple of games and whilst we were unsuccessful the locals at least enjoyed watching our attempts.  We enjoyed watching theirs too.  A highlight off our time was enjoying a drink while watching a monk at a skill game across the path.  He was constantly throwing tennis balls at a shelf of bottles and cans earning himself a drink or two,  For what seemed like nearly an hour he threw ball after ball.  He seemed mostly oblivious to his surroundings and was totally concentrated on the task at hand.  I’m not sure if such carnival meditations lead to enlightenment but the monk did end up with an impressive collection of ‘free’ beer so at Ute end of the day he was a winner!

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Monk in deep concentration at a skill testing game; Phaung Daw Oo Festival, Nyaungshwe, Shan State, Myanmar.

 

Such experiences can’t be predicted or summed up in a guidebook and thankfully so.  They are the experiences of the traveler.  Similarly, the rollerskaing rink in Nyaungshwe doesn’t seem to be a popular destination amongst guidebooks or travel forums but it can be a great place for travelers to stumble across.   Many teens and young adults were whizzing around the rink obviously enjoying the freedom that movement, loud music and not being at home creates but one group of men in their early twenties were having a fantastic time showing off their skill.  Whilst they seemed to be able to skate well that wasn’t the skill the wanted to show off; no, it was the skill of crashing and falling down they seemed to enjoy the most.  It appeared that the more spectacular the fall the more it entertained them – and us.  An impression of Running Man before a fall seemed to be top of their list and never failed to make us laugh.  We spoke for a minute to one of the skaters who was  from a nearby village but currently studying away at university doing a business degree.  He was back in town for the weekend and keen to make the most of his time with his friends – which meant getting back to skating and falling over.

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Nyaungshwe roller-skating rink.

 

Our time at Inle Lake and Nyaungshwe was forcefully extended when the bus we had originally hoped to catch out of town was full.  This could induce great frustration and problems for the tourist but for the travelers in us it was a blessing.  We were more than happy to go with the flow and enjoy more of the festival atmosphere.

With extra time on our hands and a desire to explore the local surrounds we found ourselves peering into little bamboo shacks.  We came across one where we thought we might get a meal but were instead greeted with a rice wine shack.  The rice wine was incredibly cheap and surprisingly good tasting.  The proprietor was right to be proud of it.  We sat on woven mats enjoying the rice wine and cheroots while we surveyed the scene and the locals surveyed us.  The longer we stayed (and the more we all drank) the friendlier our drinking partners got and while we couldn’t talk much due to the lack of shared language we were all more than happy enjoying each other’s company.  We were sitting there while the afternoon’s deluge of rain came down and there was no where else I’d rather be.

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The perfect place to spend time during a downpour.

 

As a legally blind person I have no choice but to be a traveler rather than a tourist.  I have to go with the flow and take things as they come.  Yes, I still need to plan, in fact I probably need to plan some things more than a sighted tourist but I have to be prepared for the plans to go out the window.  I have to take my enjoyment and make my memories from the random rice wine shacks rather than see the details of an anticipated Buddhist procession.  I need to be amongst the laughter and smiles rather than stupas.  I need to take things as they come.  I can’t rely on a guidebook written by a sighted person, I need to find my own traveling path.  As I go I hope to continue finding this path with help from my brother and all those I meet on the road.  As I go I hope to travel and experience life as it is rather than life as a guidebook says it is.

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Boats and bridges; ready for travelling

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Snakes on a Train! The Yangon Circular Railway and Twante Snake Temple.

Snakes on a Train!

Snakes on a train!?  Is my Charles Bonnet Syndrome taking over again or have we entered a bad Hollywood prequel?  Thankfully neither is the case; instead this is a story of  just two things you can do on a trip to Yangon.  Visit the Twante Snake Temple and ride the city’s infamous Circular Railway.

 

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The Snake Temple near Twante.

 

Visiting the Snake Temple was high on my ‘things to do in Myanmar’ list.   As is often the case though the journey to and fro ended up being more interesting than the destination itself.  To get to the Snake Temple the first thing you need to do is get out of Yangon on the ferry to Dala.

The ferry ride across the Yangon River is over quickly but full of life while it lasts.  Sit on the bottom deck and you will see and hear all manner of local snacks being carried (in hands and on heads) in front of you.  Not hungry?  That’s OK, toys, clothes and other goods are also paraded and offered to all.  One of the many things I love about Myanmar is that a market can spring up anywhere and at anytime!

Once in Dala we chose our taxi (after many offers) and made our way to Twante.  The drive to Twante was my first chance to see a glimpse of rural Myanmar.  Palm trees and rice paddies along with bamboo shacks and the occasional livestock surrounded me.  The joy and excitement of seeing this new environment, if only a blurry glimpse of it, overtook any fear created by our increasingly speeding driver on roads which appeared to have no rules.

We were dropped off on the outskirts of Twante and began the fun of getting a ride to the Snake Temple.  Since we didn’t know the name of the temple and the locals didn’t understand English we did our best to mime the actions of snakes to a group of motorbike drivers.  Many puzzled looks and laughter were shared by us and a group of motorbike drivers until we all managed to see eye to eye.  If you are planning on visiting this temple I recommend saving a picture of it to show motorbike or taxi drivers – this tip holds for any other places you may want to visit throughout the country.

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The welcoming commite at the Snake Temple.

 

 

After a 20+ minute motorbike ride we arrived at the Snake Temple.  I had previously read that the Burmese pythons that live at the temple are fed pop-corn dipped in condensed milk by the caretaker nuns.  With this I had imagined a Dr Suess meets Indiana Jones type atmosphere, instead it was a very subdued one.

The pythons that were there were more concerned with lounging about and sleeping than they were with eating popcorn and their caretakers were content to do the same.  With low vision it was hard to see the snakes at first and I was initially disappointed.  I was hoping that the nuns that look after the place would be active in showing off the temple and its inhabitants but all was quiet.

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A Burmese Python at the Snake Temple.

 

 I was thankful to have my brother there with me as he was able to point out the snakes that were hiding in the roof and in the donation box.  I doubt I would have even seen the ones that were on the floor without help so I am glad that Caleb pointed them out before I discovered them with my white cane.

I quietly circled the temple a number of times and whilst not a place of much action it was enjoyable just experiencing the peace between human and snake; two creatures who are often better known for their destructive deeds.  It was hard to see them at the time I used my camera to try and capture their image so that I could at least see them later.

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A python amongst Buddha figures.

 

From the temple we decided to walk the kilometre or two to the motorbike/taxi stop on the main road back to Dala.  I must admit that I found this walk just as enjoyable as the temple itself.  It was hot and  the scenery itself wasn’t spectacular but it was great just to be walking in rural Myanmar.

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A Myanmar Mobile – I can’t always see them well but can always hear them!

 

With ferries, taxis and motorbikes taken care of, next on the to do list was travel on the Yangon Circular Railway.   The Circular Railway takes approximately 3 hours to travel the 46 kilometre loop.

 

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The Circular Train.

 

A train whose destination is the same station as where it departed from doesn’t sound particularly appealing.  The uncomfortable seats don’t help.  The ride on the Ynagon Circular Railway is however an extremely enjoyable experience.  Over its 39 stops the train travels from the city centre, through the suburbs and into the outlying rural areas.

I found it a fantastic way of seeing the area.  Legal blindness  obviously means I can’t see as much when looking out the windows as others.  Constant movement can make it even harder to focus on things or realise what they are before they pass b., Despite this, being on a train has its advantages for the blind traveller.  Once aboard I don’t have to worry about my own movement and bumping into objects and people.  I don’t have to exert all my energy in trying to deal with my surroundings.  Instead I can sit back and let my surroundings unfold before me.

 

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Life on the tracks.

 

Daily Myanmar life carries on just outside the open window.  Small scale food vendors and larger markets; people walking to work and home and monks collecting alms; rice paddies and piles of burning rubbish  all went by and I happily soaked it all up (OK, could do without the burning rubbish).  It is a great taste of Myanmar life from the relative comfort of a train seat.  Many people that we passed carried on the age old tradition of waving to the train passengers which made an already enjoyable experience more memorable.

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A smiling passerby – something you’ll have to get used to in Myanmar!

 

It is not just outside the windows where this play of daily life is put on.  The train itself is not at all just a tourist train but is used by local commuters.  Families, friends and solitary travellers constantly get on and off the train at its various stops, filling the carriage with colour and conversation while they are on.

 

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A family enjoys the view.

 

Vendors use the train to carry their goods from market to market and the aisles of the train of course become mini markets themselves as all manner of foods pass by.

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A vendor on the Yangon Circular Railway.

 

We stopped at one of the main markets on the line and I highly recommend others do too.  Navigating the market that fills the train platform with low vision and a cane was at first difficult but with help from my brother it was doable.  We made our way to the back of the market, past the rats and over the paths that at times resembled small rivers and found a suitable place for lunch.  I cannot tell you what it is that I ate but it was delicious and at 1,000 kyats (or approximately 1 dollar) for a large lunch it was great value.  Conversation was limited but lunch was served with numerous smiles from the staff and other market goers.

 

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Lunchtime

 

 

With 39 stops there are many other options to break up your train journey and of course if you don’t want to travel the whole loop you can also disembark anywhere and catch a taxi back to the centre of Yangon.  Early mornings are the best time to travel if you’d like to see the carriage full of market vendors and their goods but the train trip can be enjoyed all day.

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One of many markets along the line.

 

For me the Circular Railway was a definite highlight of my time in Yangon.  A chance to sit back and witness a glimpse of daily Myanmar life.  Even while being legally blind there was plenty to see and experience.  I will defiantly take the journey again should I return to Yangon and highly recommend the experience to any others planning on visiting the city.

 

 

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Train tracks coming to life.

 

 

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Upon arrival in Yangon there was only one thing to do; forget about any concerns I may have about travelling blind and dive in to this city and country’s sensual delights.  That’s right, it was time to  eat a grasshopper

No, I can’t blame this on choosing the wrong food due to not seeing it properly as is sometimes the case.  This insect eating wasn’t an accident but something I was looking forward to as a way to immediately put my other senses to work and to get  in the mind frame of trying something different.  The  fried grasshopper wasn’t bad either.  Not a lot of taste but a lot of crunch – a great beer snack.

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A pile of fried grasshoppers just waiting to be devoured.

 

19th Street is a treat for all the senses.  The sounds of laughter, talking and enjoying a meal mingle with the music that spills out and over from street food vendors, restaurants, beer stations and buskers.

The aroma of fresh fruit, flowers and BBQ’s in action waft and drift, often just in time to obscure some more offensive or factory experiences.  The little sight I have highlighted a rainbow of colours from people’s clothes, their fruit stalls and flashing lights designed to attract attention to stupas and street stalls alike.

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Market stall in the vicinity of 19th Street Yangon.

 

We found a table and let the food find us.  I’m not sure if the establishment we first visited actually sold anything themselves but the service was impeccable.  We ordered some BBQ which they didn’t have so out into the street they went and got it for us.  We ordered beer which they didn’t have so out into the street they went and got it for us.  We ordered more food that they didn’t have so off into the street they went and got it for us.  I loved this aspect of Myanmar; businesses work together rather than in competition.  You can take a drink from one establishment into another whilst snaking on food from the street unlike in Australia where each business makes sure you only consume what you buy from them.  This business model not only seems to work for the business owners but makes for a relaxed and enjoyable experience for the customer.  .

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19th Street, Yangon.

 

The taste buds were very happy with this experience; the food was delicious and the beer was incredibly good – Myanmar Beer is up there with any international brew.  I was quickly falling in love with the place and fears about travelling blind were soon pushed to the edges of my mind – yes it was hectic but the people were friendly and the food and beer cheap and delicious.  Finding out that whiskey is even cheaper than beer and hearing a family of street buskers while enjoying said beverage was the clincher.

The music was incredibly good, just voices and basic rhythm from dad and the kids but beautifully tuneful, interesting and enjoyable.  If you are lucky enough to hear and see them when you visit Yangon make sure to give them some Kyats as it is well deserved.

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A family of street performers in 19th Street, Yangon.

 

A number of pleasant evenings were spent in similar fashion in 19th Street though occasionally a less busy part of the city provided an alternative place to sip after meal whiskeys and sugar cane juice.

The blind or low vision traveller does need to be careful when navigating the streets of Yangon including 19th.  Footpaths are often overcrowded with market stalls and the roads busy.  Many market stalls feature BBQs which must be carefully avoided and people don’t necessarily have the time or opportunity to see or recognise the white cane or other devices so go slow and carefully but enjoy.

When you’re there don’t forget to enjoy a Myanmar Beer and a grasshopper or two for me!
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Nighty-night Yangon.

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