I love the Romani people and I seek them out wherever I travel in Europe.
I am always warmly received by them and conversely, most every place where they reside, they are marginalized and on the outskirts of society, the latter being their choice as well. Have just always curious about these people.
In Romania, there were many gypsies and in Bucharest, they were scattered throughout the city instead of just occupying one neighborhood or corner. I was walking along this road, just lost and wandering as always when I saw this group of kids. The cluster of apartments formed a gypsy enclave of just a handful of Romani families. Spent just a few minutes playing with the kids, talking to their father.
There were many kids absent from the photos as he has fourteen of them.
We were driving north about an hour out of Bucharest when I saw the cluster of sheep on the horizon. The land at this point had flattened out into a billiard table plain and the only feature besides the road and the power lines running along side was this flock of sheep. We pulled over and trudged through the soft ground. The sheep dogs came out early and challenged us and the fixer I was with, froze in fear. Lots of issues with feral dogs in Bucharest. The shepherd appeared from his shack and admonished the dogs and the dogs were still barking at us and the fixer called out that we wanted to talk to him for a bit so soon the flat plain was full of shouting and barking.
Everyone settled down soon enough.
The shepherd was happy that we were there as he did not get a lot of visitors. He did not have any tea to offer but a bottle of palinka, the Romanian fruit brandy grain. The shack where he lived was just clapboard and blankets, a small stove and pots and mugs. This was not his flock of sheep, he said, but he acted as a caretaker for two villages who pooled their sheep and goats together. He milked the goats and delivered the milk daily.
I turned around slowly in a complete circle to take in the vast plain. Except for road gutting it down the middle, there was nothing but those two villages and some hills on the horizon. The through line to the past was strong and a straight line in that moment. I asked him if there had been a shepherd here, in his role for a long time. Maybe hundreds of years? Without hesitation he said that this had always been pastureland and the two villages had been there for at least a thousand years, so yes, there was always a shepherd here.
I was taken back to all the folktales I had read, stories from when I was a kid in the states of harsh winters, woodcutters, strange visitors from the forest.
And what about wolves, I asked.
Not much anymore. Too many people, he said. But that is why I have the dogs.
I was north of Chiang Mai with my driver, traveling to a hill tribe village in a steady and thick rain when I saw the sliver of massive stone steps cut into the side of a mountain, just visible through the jungle foliage. I asked him to stop and since the way was wet and filled with shoe eating mud, the driver said he’d stay in the car.
I climbed the stairs and saw the monk there, standing by his buckets and bowls, out collecting the rain for drinking water. He was the sole caretaker of this meager temple, a small cave and statue and run down altar. He was actually Chinese and spoke French fluently, but very little English. His cigarettes were foul, hand-rolled affairs, terribly strong and stinky. I gave him my pack of American cigarettes and we smoked in the cave, sheltered from the rain while he told me stories and lessons that I could not understand.
There were only poor farmers nearby and I doubt any tourists would stop by this tiny cleft in the mountain. This was truly a life of solitude and he was far from where he had started from. As was I but I would return to my life of cities soon enough.
We passed the time and my feet were wet and there were enough cigarettes to last us for a good while.
When I was in Chiang Mai, I did not find a fixer so instead I hired a normal tour guide to drive me around the northern hill tribe area. For the most part it was a great and fruitful couple of days, visiting villages, following whim and taking chances. There were a few times where he tried to take me to touristy shit: elephant training camps, waterfalls, etc.
The one place he did take me to that was a complete tourist trap was a Padaung Karen “village”. It was obviously a piece of show because there was a gravel parking lot to accommodate buses, lots of signage in english, the people springing up when I came by in the wooden shacks, tribal wares on display.
It was only afterwards that I did some research and realized how much controversy surrounds these “longneck” hill tribes. Please refer to this article on CNN for more information.
Putting these images up in the hope that people doing research for their trips to the hill tribes area can find this and stay away from any longneck villages. There are plenty of tribal villages to visit which are authentic and you can participate and contribute, even spending the night and doing work for and with them.
It’s a fine line. Did I document a people that are disadvantaged or was I exploiting these same people or was I even documenting their exploitation?
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