Tuesday, 21st May 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Why travel far?

Posted on 06. Apr, 2017 by in Curious Travel

Globalization is the new reality of the rural world.


A traveler’s dream — being the first foreigner to trek in Nagaland.

LAHE, Myanmar

My travel agent friend in Yangon sent me an itinerary for a trek to Nagaland, with a comment every traveler dreams of: “This place is more virgin; you will be first to visit.”

This was such exciting news that the anti-porn filter on the computer of a potential trekking companion blocked my incoming message transmitting this happy news, perhaps considering it overly-titillating.

First foreign visitor.  How often does that happen?  Today every seemingly-remote village seems to have been intruded upon by an assortment of tourists, adventurers, shucksters, plant-collectors, missionaries, imperialists, development experts, thrill-seekers and do-gooders.  Where are the blank spots on the map with the notation “Here be dragons”?

Some two million Naga live in the Himalayan foothills straddling India, where the majority of Naga live, and Burma, which is home to some 100,000 Naga — nobody is too sure of the precise number.  Foreign, mostly British, explorers, government officials and anthropologists have trekked up and down the corrugated-hills of Indian Nagaland for over a century.  Visitors are welcome in “safe” Indian Nagaland destinations, but the central government in distant Delhi doesn’t want outsiders to witness too-closely the on-going Naga independence movement, with related protests about dams, environmental destruction and land disputes, and therefore restricts access to large swathes of the region.

In spite of its important but often-overlooked role in World War II, the Burma side is largely off the tourist and development map.  An annual Naga New Year’s festival, featuring a giant hornbill (similar to the Iban Gawai Kenyalang festival of the Iban, a hill tribe in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo), draws a few dozen curiosity-seekers, but for the most part the visitors are not allowed to leave the towns where such celebrations were held. And then my “more virgin” friend Saw Hla Chit said he could obtain permits for us to trek through, and spend the night in, isolated Naga villages along the upper Chindwin River.

* * *

Modern travel maps of Burma, like my 1:1,000,000 Freytag & Berndt edition, show the Naga region as a pale green hilly area to the west of the Chindwin River, abutting the cream-colored lowlands to the east.  No villages can be seen on this map, but the town of Lahe is marked.

I went to the Royal Geographical Society and British Library in London to look at old colonial maps from the nineteenth-century and British War Office World War II-era maps to get a better sense of where we would be going.   I came away with two impressions. The first was a renewed appreciation of British mapmakers who traipsed through isolated corners of the Earth with their surveying equipment, compasses and altimeters, trying to make sense out of our planet’s geography.  The second impression was that Nagaland is a difficult place in which to travel.  On these early maps large chunks of land were left blank with the notation “Unsurveyed.”  Sprinkled throughout were notations like “Dense bamboo forest” and “Steep forested terrain.” The hills, shown in black and white relief, looked like fissures of the brain, one fold merging into another, quite beautiful to look at on a map, a pain in the neck to walk.

* * *

The people who live in these hills lead a tough life.  In his book The Jacaranda Tree, telling the story of English settlers in Burma travelling through Nagaland with the Japanese army in pursuit, H.E. Bates wrote:  “It had always been a country of continual exodus up there: a wandering from place to place by thin cattle, lean men, sore-eyed children, women with faces of teak-wood, an endless search for the hills’ less bitter places.”  He dismissed the people he met as “the eaters of opium, the headhunters, forever squatting, spitting chewed betel nut and waiting silently for nothing.”

Because the hill tribes are further from the cities they have less access to education and communications, and are forced to create their own entertainment and stories instead of relying on TV dramas.  To be sure, there is a surfeit of drama in just surviving, but getting a villager to tell stories that sound logical and detailed is a tough ask. Partly it’s reticence, an innate shyness that has evolved in conjunction with trepidation about outsiders coming in and doing horrible things.

And partly it’s a different way of thinking. We in the West grow up comfortable with narrative story structures. However getting a story out of a hill tribe elder often requires repetition of the most basic type of questions: “Tell me again which came first, your dream or the day you caught the tiger?”  Let’s chalk some of this up to the fact that they are talking to a foreigner, and the conversation is being translated (not always accurately) through intermediaries.

Consider U Mg Nan, the shaman of Long Khin village.  He has tales to tell, but I didn’t succeed in learning much about him or the work he does.  Physically he presents a curious sight — torn T-shirt, old green-checked longyi, droopy eyes and a wispy moustache.  But what sets him apart is that he wears a blonde wig, cut in a bob, and struts around like Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He offered to sell us a basket he used for collecting medicinal plants which was decorated with a monkey skull.  Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. Perhaps he didn’t trust me. Or I simply didn’t have enough time to get to know the guy.  U Mg Nan, 65, had stories to tell, and I didn’t get any of them.

* * *

It was almost disturbingly easy to get to “more virgin” Nagaland.  Farquhar, a friend of some 40 years, Saw Hla Chit, our “more virgin” travel agent, and I took an early-morning flight from Mandalay to the market town of Khamti, on the upper Chindwin River.  We crossed the river on a small boat.  We had been expecting to drive to the even-smaller town of Lahe by public bus, in reality an open truck, but Saw Hla Chit managed to get use of the four-wheel-drive vehicle owned by the Naga Development Authority, and the seven-hour drive on a dirt road to Lahe was done in comfort.  From Lahe we walked or took motorcycles to four villages, which, in spite of my notes, in spite of the photos, seem to merge in my memory.  This is a truism of travelling, at least for me, situations that are intense at the time quickly lose their vitality as soon as I leave, wilting, like a hothouse plant transplanted into a too-chilly open-air garden.

* * *

Actually, it’s not hard to be the first European (polite descriptor for a Caucasian from a rich, cosmopolitan country) to be the first person of his ilk to visit a particular place.  You just have to be prepared to drive along rough roads and walk a bit, and anyone can do the same.

Folks in Makyan and San Tone villages said a handful of Europeans had visited their villages some years ago, following the New Year’s Festival in the nearest town of Lahe.  A new road is halfway finished and no doubt these villages will become more popular.

However, not much further, but in a different direction from Lahe, people in Lone Khin and Kha Lei villages claimed we were the first foreigners to visit.

* * *

Naga villages are spread along hilltops, and the houses and agricultural fields are visible from great distances, appearing tantalizing close but far enough away to require some effort to get there  This penchant for hilltop living comes from the Nagas’ desire for security from other marauding tribes, but it makes it harder to get water. One welcome side benefit — the altitude, about 1,500 meters, means it’s not overly hot and the hills are largely mosquito-free.

Houses are mostly made of wood and thatch, mercifully tin roofs have yet to make a significant dent on Naga architecture.  Villages sprawl on steep hills. There are no paths and while traction was fine during our dry season visit, during the rainy season rivulets of muddy water turn the village into a pratfall opportunity, particularly for less-than-sure-footed visitors.

From the village the views are dramatic — hills everywhere.  But virgin forest, along with much of the wildlife, is long gone.  The farms create a patchwork of green and brown that jumbles into the farms of adjacent settlements.

The wildlife one does see comes in the form of domestic creatures — pigs roam freely, large, snorting, black-bristled beasts which can devour an unfenced garden in minutes.  And every thatched-roof extended-family house features dozens of dramatic skulls of mithun, a domestic form of the gaur, also called the Indian bison, the world’s largest wild cattle.  Wealth is measured by the number of mithun a family owns, and major rituals are not properly consecrated without significant animal sacrifices.

* * *

My quest to visit the Naga, and their hill tribe cousins worldwide, is admittedly Euro-centric, blatantly egotistical, and reveals more than a tinge of colonial adventurism.  Yet the idea has always intrigued me; I fancy myself an explorer going where none have ventured before.

Is this innocent amateur anthropology or arrogant tourism-colonialism?  A mature curiosity about this great big world we live in or a teenager’s rebellion against the ho-hum of daily life?

Why do I travel to places like Nagaland?

On the intellectual side I want to see how simple societies handle the transformation to cash-commerce, introduced-religion, and external-governance.

Sometimes, especially at dinner parties, I might suggest that I visit isolated hill tribes in order to write gritty, empathetic exposés of environmental and social injustices, leaving unsaid but implied the suggestion that my prose is as smooth as old bourbon, as sinewy as cafeteria steak.

I rationalize my quest by explaining that I’m studying tribal communities, which live relatively untouched by Western habits and consumerism. This is important because such societies are disappearing, either through genocide or, more commonly, because power brokers in the capitals hit them with a double-whammy — they steal traditional land and aggressively promote a homogenous national identify.

That’s all true, but it’s also a lot of politically-correct hogwash.  There is a lot of ego involved. I like to test myself physically, do things that my friends wouldn’t.  I like being hot and cold. Dusty and soggy. I like the smell of wood fires. I like sleeping on wooden floors and extricating myself at 2 am from a sleeping bag to wander out to the scrub in back, snorting pigs watch out, to pee. I like not bathing for five days. I like walking like an exhausted zombie up one more sun-drenched hill because there isn’t any alternative. Being out of range of cellphones and far from medical care. Hoarding a Snickers bar for a moment of great need.

Visiting a “more virgin” village is exactly what I enjoy. And I enjoy it partly because I’m good at it.

I like to hunker in the dust with old guys and ask about their tattoos. I like sleeping on bamboo floors, with chickens and children running about. I like taking care of my bodily functions in the manner of the proverbial bear in the woods.  I like it because I can do it, because I’m still fit enough to do it, because I’m still ornery enough to be different, because I like to feel I’ve earned a luxury hotel bed at the end of the journey.

The Naga, like the numerous hill tribes of Borneo, Vietnam, Laos, Sumatra, Burma and Cambodia I’ve visited, are intriguingly “ethnic.” I don’t know how else to describe folks who weave intricate baskets, who rely on shamans to cure illness and dispel evil spirits, who weave blankets from dog hair, wear monkey skulls and bear fur on their straw hats, who wear, admittedly only on “dress-up” days, elaborate headgear adorned with the canine teeth of wild boar and hornbill feathers.

How superficial of me to engage in such cultural-porn. But there it is.

* * *

Consider the emotionally-loaded and seductive phrase “headhunter.”  What images it evokes.

Until the moral and legal restrictions of the British and fundamentalist Christian missionaries came into force both the Iban as well as the Naga, were robust headhunters, although for different reasons.  The Naga felt that human heads ensure a good harvest (a 1911 article in the Burma Research Society Journal noted that “arms and legs were cut apart in the most horrifying way because [the Naga] believed [the] longer and deeper the pain and horror was, greater the good return would be.”)  The Ibans in Borneo, a tribe I first encountered some 45 years ago when I lived in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, however, took heads as part of an elaborate rite-of-passage.  In retrospect I imagine myself at my suburban New Jersey Bar Mitzvah, standing in front of the expectant congregation and holding up a still-dripping head (perhaps of the school bully Tommy), and proudly claiming “Today I am a man.”

* * *

Since I was a child I’ve been intrigued by distant horizons. It was armchair imagining, mostly, writing school reports about Tibet and reading The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, the first book I ever read that had no pictures.

In time I graduated from boyhood dreaming to the real thing — having the means and opportunity to journey far.

When I spend time with welcoming, relatively un-Western people like the Naga I hear of an occurrence that I not only do not understand but in a dozen lifetimes would have no hope of comprehending.

And each day I will find someone willing to explain what’s going on, with more patience, probably, than I would explain the rules of baseball to a first-time visitor to America.

My Cartesian, logical, scientific, fact-oriented left brain says one thing, but the smoke and mirrors-reality in front of me says something else.  There are more things in heaven and earth … , I tell myself.

Jonathan Glancey, in Nagaland, describes this drive: “There is in many of us a desire to both live a civilised life and experience, if only temporarily, a wilder, less-controlled world. The tricky thing is that to do so we need to step into other people’s everyday lives.  And such trespasses tend to expose our dreams as just that: dreams.  Nevertheless, the reality of such places, even if so very different from the stuff of our expectations, has the power to make us think differently about the ‘civilised’ world we return to.”

* * *

Why do boys leave home and set off on adventures?

Peter Kedit, an Iban who is former director of the Sarawak (Malaysia) Museum, might call this kind of travel a form of berjalai practiced by the Iban tribe, part of a young man’s rite-of-passage in which he travels far and seeks exotic (and hopefully lucrative) experiences.

Similarly, Stanford  University neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky discussed self-exile in the context of young male primates leaving the nest. “Another key to our success [as humans] must have something to do with this primate legacy of getting an itch around adolescence. What is going on with that individual’s genes, hormones, and neuro-transmitters to make it hit the road?  An adolescent female chimp cranes to catch a glimpse of the chimps from the next valley.  New animals, a whole bunch of ‘em! To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in your stomach. Curiosity, excitement, adventure  —  the hunger for novelty is something fundamentally daft, rash, and enriching that we share with our whole taxonomic order.”

Although I’m well past adolescence, I continue my Peter Pan travels even though my knees are wonky and my cholesterol is too high.

* * *

Even today, in our supposedly-enlightened world, sophisticated people (the kind of folks who dislike the term “tourist” and refer to themselves as “travelers”) are intrigued by esoteric customs and costumes.  The government-run Sarawak Tourism Board, in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, invites visitors to spend the night with descendants of Iban headhunters; tour operators are not shy about promoting images of tribal folks wearing loincloths, wearing vests made of clouded leopard skin and caps adorned with hornbill feathers.  The dramatic and photogenic folks a visitor sees during an Iban cultural show wave machete-like parangs while stomping about on the bamboo floor of a scenic longhouse.  When I first lived in Sarawak, in 1969, many rural riverine longhouses had little sanitation.  The river offered you a toilet, a place to wash your clothes, go fishing, a means to travel to another village and water for bathing and cooking.   The communal open-air bamboo terrace often was a playground for small children, dogs and chickens, with pigs snorting below the elevated kitchens.  To a middle-class boy from New Jersey it was terribly exotic, the “real” Sarawak.  Today virtually all of Sarawak’s longhouses boast electricity and TV and at-least-rudimentary plumbing.  The fancy dress is reserved for festivals.  It’s all very civilized.  Modern-day Sarawak is a bit like Hawaii, with people showing off traditional dances and costumes when they feel like it (which sometimes means when someone is paying).  The next day, be it in Sarawak or Honolulu, you’re likely to meet them at the 7-Eleven or the university lecture hall.

There are, of course, distinctions between “cultural tourism” and more outrageous behavior such as the “human safaris” organized in the Andaman Islands of India in which visitors, who are driven along a road cut through tribal territory, ogle near-naked members of the Jarawa tribe.

And there are borderline cases like the gawking tourists who visit villages in Thailand housing “long-necked” women of Burma’s Padaung tribe.  It’s unseemly, it’s degrading, it continues, partly because the ladies with coils of bronze around their necks allow it to continue, earning more money posing for photographs and selling trinkets than they would back on the farm.

* * *

Where possible in Nagaland we stayed in the village’s “monastery,” a grand name for a solid wooden house where lived the local Buddhist monk and often a few young novices.  These structures were infinitely more comfortable than bunking in a village house, where we would have had to sleep next to the open fire, within earshot of all the domestic noises that become irritating awfully quickly, and where we would have been woken during the night by curious dogs who stopped by to have a sniff.  One evening, in Makyan, I was happily getting ready for bed and had already put on my sleeping sarong and climbed into my sleeping bag, which was placed near the altar.  I was trying to read, but was in that nether-world between page-turning and dreaming when people started to arrive. I stayed where I was, figuring they were coming to visit Saw Hla Chit, who was resting on the other side of the room.  Then more chattering people quickly filed in, and then the monk arrived and turned on a TV with a DVD player.  He played ten minutes of Burmese music videos and then started his sermon.  I was in the awkward position of being in everyone’s line of sight, perhaps sacrilegiously-close to the Buddha statue, and the room was filled with people.  I finally extricated myself from the sleeping bag and huddled back to the other end of the house.  I consoled myself with the thought that while I might have been rude I was indirectly earning merit just by being there, since we always made generous donations of cash, food, medicines and footballs to the monks-in-residence.

* * *

How should I describe these people, who have their own language, their own customs and rituals, who consider themselves as a unified group, but who also have strong links with various government, religious and commercial bureaucracies.

Words can unite people; they can also cause confusion.  Take the terms “indigenous,” “tribal,” and “uncontacted.”

Survival International, while noting that distinctions can be “problematic,” does a good job of trying to sort out the terminology.

“Indigenous,” they suggest, “means the same as ‘native’, but in many places that word is not used now because it carries too many negative colonial associations  …  The term ‘indigenous peoples’ is used today to describe a group which has had ultimate control of their lands taken by later arrivals; they are subject to the domination of others.”

A “tribe,” according to Survival International, describes “a distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood, largely self-sufficient, and not integrated into the national society … There are an estimated one hundred and fifty million tribal individuals [in more than 60 countries], constituting around forty percent of indigenous individuals.”  Although tribal land ownership rights are recognized in international law, they are not properly respected anywhere, the group says.

And then there is the almost-mythical sub-set of “uncontacted people.”

Survival International describes “uncontacted people” as “Peoples who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society. There are about 100 uncontacted tribes in the world.” There are two key phrases in that definition — “no peaceful contact” and “mainstream or dominant society.” The Naga clearly do not fit into that rarefied description.

The Naga I visited in Burma have plenty of contact with the “outside” world. The Naga districts elect five Members of Parliament to the federal government and receive various forms of support.  The government is building roads throughout the region, a development welcomed by the Naga. Some houses in Naga villages have solar panels and can receive television and run a few electric lights (or more annoyingly, play irritating loud Burmese pop music on CD players.)  Richer men have motorcycles. Some of the children go to school in town, a very few are given scholarships by Indian Naga associations to study on the other side of the border.  They buy supplies in town. They are visited by health workers and are savvy enough to sell their products to traders without getting cheated. They are rural, and don’t have a lot of cash, but are hardly unknown to outsiders nor do they intend to remain in isolation.  They want pretty much what people everywhere want — dignity, a share of the wealth of the nation, recognition of their tribal identity and claims to their land, a political voice, and a healthy future for their children.

* * *

As a bonus the Naga have a variety of gods to choose from. They respect animist spirits which, refreshingly for me, imbue the air with the scent of fairies and demons along with blood sacrifices and ancient rules concerning when to sow, harvest and celebrate.  And, if they choose, the Burmese Naga can have their souls saved by Buddhist and Christian missionaries.

The monks and the pastors are missionaries, sent by their respective churches to obscure places they certainly wouldn’t have visited had it not been for the unrefusable demand of god’s administrators.  Buddhist missionary Venerable Khema Siri in Makyan, for instance, comes from the Mergui Archipelago on the far side of this large country, a great distance in both kilometers and culture from his home.

Nagas, particular in India, were participants (some might say victims) of “the most massive movement to Christianity in all of Asia, second only to that of the Philippines,” according to Richard Eat in Journal of World History.  Primarily Baptist, the missionaries used a tried and true tactic — translate the Bible into an often-invented Roman script form of local languages.

Pastor U Pakun, 30, who lives in Kha Lei, preaches for the Baptist-like Assembly of God.  He’s bright, enthusiastic and proudly notes that (in spite of not allowing smoking, drinking or drugs) he has 218 people in his flock. But times are tough; most of his converts became Christian before he arrived in 2010; in the four-years since he’s only had six new converts. It’s a numbers game, but he sits cross-legged under a large poster of a classical European-featured Jesus and promises to continue doing his best.

In the four villages we visited the Baptists and related sects claimed about one quarter of the populations, with the rest following a fuzzy mélange of Animism and Buddhism.

* * *

I would make a good missionary, provided the religion pleased me.

The basic consideration in choosing a religion is whether you desire a deity who is a Hairy Thunderer or a Cosmic Muffin.  I’d opt towards the fluffy, compassionate side of the cosmos, but recognizing that a deity holds power by being unpredictable. Sometimes She acts like a kindly grandmother, offering fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, but once in a while, like a high-strung woman having a bad hair day, She causes volcanoes to erupt and important computer documents to disappear.  (Perhaps serendipitously, the Naga, historically at least, don’t feel that the Supreme Being must be male).  She is a cosmic Earth Mother, presiding over the sun and rain, the tornadoes and the tides, the maple trees and the mud, the dandelions and the ducks.  All-seeing, all-powerful, but too busy with the Blue Sky stuff to worry about day-to-day management.  Her name is Sunny.

But Sunny, as a successful Supreme Being, requires a messenger, a prophet to be sure, but one with organizational ability, someone to manage things on Earth.  In my religion this would be Hilda, a petite, fire-breathing, Dr. Seuss-quoting redhead with green eyes — cute until cornered, wise beyond her years, generous, forward-thinking, with unpredictable magical powers.

Hilda schedules droughts, floods and plagues.  But she also grants outstanding wine vintages, creates iridescent butterflies (Nagas believe dead spirits can transform into Lepidoptera) and gives engineers the skills to design a forgiving golf club that hits the ball cleanly every time yet which is legal under R&A rules.

Hilda is Sunny’s tough-love administrator and scolds people who cut trees they don’t need.

She would be supported by a legion of nymphs, fairies, sprites and wisps, who enact a full moon naked dancing ritual, who supervise the planting of flowers in the forest (because even sprites get bored by monotonous green), and are the patron saints of bingo.  Yes, there must be bingo. Thursday nights.  Friday nights are when the guys drink beer and play poker.

It would be an animistic faith (waterfall spirits deserve special rituals), with civil admonitions that promote village sanitation, birth control and education that accepts evolution. It would prohibit littering and prohibit playing of loud music (except for the Beach Boys and Verdi); kicking of dogs is verboten.  Heavy on rituals and rites-of-passage ceremonies. The religion for which I would be a missionary would be called Temple of Heroic Imposters and Natural Kwirkiness. The theology I’d preach would dump the Ten Commandments and promote just one, all-encompassing admonition:  Don’t be a jerk.  Who determines jerkness?  Well, as the appointed emissary of the bureaucracy of this new orthodoxy, I do.  I’m a pretty easy-going guy, except when I’m not. Don’t push me.

* * *

Let’s imagine the reverse: the first Naga from Burma to visit a “more virgin,” never-been-visited-by-a-Naga hillside in Arkansas.   Let’s say the above-mentioned Naga from Burma drives up some dirt roads into the Ozark Mountains.  The Naga gentleman is accompanied by a travelling companion and a guide. He approaches a dilapidated farmhouse.  How quaint  And look, lots of abandoned refrigerators for the naked little kids to play in!  He is dressed in Western clothes that are correct, but not exactly the style worn by the locals.  He doesn’t speak English well and relies on his tour guide to translate.  How would he be received? Would the local Arkansans welcome him into their home, give him tea, and patiently answer questions about local rituals and migration patterns?  Could he poke around the kitchen to see what store-bought goods they had (the easiest way to determine how reliant folks are on a cash economy)?  Might he ask to see their ritual masks for rite-of-passage ceremonies?  What animal sacrifices do they make to ensure a good harvest? What would be the reaction when he asks about politics, and offers small gifts of seeds to the parents and balloons to the kids?  And what is their reaction when he asks if he could take a few pictures for his Facebook page?

* * *

Westerners have always had a fascination with “primitive cultures.”  My bookshelf is full of old travelers’ tales describing natives, savages and men just a few degrees more sophisticated than apes.

Consider the name Naga.

The Naga are sometimes referred to as the “Naked Naga,” not simply because in earlier times the men wore loincloths and the women simple skirts, and little else, but also as a descriptor of their outsider status in society.

Now consider the “human zoos.”

In the second half of the 19th-century and first half of the 20th, “human zoos” exhibiting exotic populations were popular attractions in Europe and the United States. The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, visited by 28 million people, displayed 400 indigenous people, and Colonial Exhibitions in Paris in 1907 and 1931 displayed tribal people in cages, often nude or semi-nude.    At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, “primitives” were displayed to illustrate the bottom end of a “parade of evolutionary progress;” the African Pygmies from the exhibition were subsequently displayed in the Primate section of the Bronx Zoo.  The purpose of the exhibit was twofold: to exhibit the civilizing influence of American rule in the Philippines, which had been obtained from Spain six years earlier (an event which catalyzed Kipling’s poem “White Man’s Burden”) and to set the stage for economic exploitation of the Philippines’ rich natural resources.

For me, this two-barreled approach of demonizing primitive societies and viewing them as less-than-human savages, along with a widely-held perception that wilderness is a place of demons, snakes and disease, sets the stage for wanton environmental destruction worldwide.

Here’s my argument.

This dynamic has been going on for as long as technologically-developed people have confronted less technologically-developed people.  During the centuries of European colonial power, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, French, Germans, British and Americans had little compunction against subjugating black and brown folks and taking what they wanted.

Closer to home, consider the “conquering” of the American West.  The principle was that the educated and powerful decision-makers from the Eastern seaboard (old rich white guys) had a “Manifest Destiny” to civilize the Indians (convert them to Christianity if possible, exterminate them if they refused), slaughter the buffalo, and convert large swathes of wild forests and plains into more productive (and more “civilized”) agricultural land.

Today that situation has morphed from white-brown colonialism into brown-brown colonialism.  In Asia, for instance, government leaders and businessmen in the lowland cities of Rangoon, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manila and other capitals have little compunction about being paternalistic towards their naked, darker, less-sophisticated brethren in the hills.  I’ve met numerous government ministers who have told me:  “We have to help our poor, naked cousins in the forests enjoy what we have.”  They are, in fact, saying: We who live in the city are educated, well-dressed, speak the national language and believe in the de-facto national religion, have a responsibility to help the poor folks in the hills who might lack proper housing, education, sanitation and, how foolish of them, might not even know all the players of Manchester United. We have a manifest destiny, and opportunity, to give them religion and development. And all we ask in return is that they become good citizens. Oh, one more thing.  We don’t recognize their land claims for the forest they’ve been living in for centuries, so we’ll go ahead and extract the valuable timber, burn what vegetation remains and plant oil palm.  Don’t they dare complain; it’s not how civilized people behave. And especially don’t complain to foreigners, that’s unpatriotic — we’re trying to build a nation here.

The implication is that the world is governed by a natural and inevitable progression of cultural development ranging from the most primitive at the bottom (Naga) to the top-of-the social totem pole folks (lowlanders in big cities) who epitomize grace, culture and learning.

So, this arrogance and greed becomes a deadly combination for both traditional culture and the natural environment.  It’s real, it’s prevalent, and it’s unstoppable.

* * *

Perhaps this “we” vs “them” arrogance towards wilderness partly stems from man’s “need-fear” relationship with nature.

On the one hand, we need nature.  We come from nature, we are part of nature.  This connection is very deep, very ancient, very Jungian in its impact on our collective unconscious.  Our very earliest ancestors, before the development of agriculture and writing, even before the wheel and fire, when people groveled with other animals and fought them for carrion, found shelter in the forests, opportunity in the plains. They understood, at least unconsciously, the cycles of rain and drought. Our ancestors came from nature; nature was part of them.  This may explain why today the presence of green scenery slows our blood pressure and relieves stress.  It might explain why people working in bleak, anonymous offices nurture houseplants to brighten things up, and why people recover faster from when their hospital window has a view of a park (curiously, even having a photograph of nature in the room speeds healing compared to a barren wall).

But what about the fear?  We define ourselves partly by what we are not.  We are no longer “savages” who co-exist with animals; we are civilized, we have left the darkness. Our ancestors learned to use plants for medicine, build complex shelters, and after much trial and error, to dominate nature by mastering fire, making metal tools, growing crops and domesticating other animals. We became the masters of the universe.  We have civilization, language, Michelangelo and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. We have ploughs and guns; bicycles and cellphones.  Many of us have been imprinted by one of the three strict, paternalistic, monotheistic desert religions that put a lot more emphasis on us having “dominion” over nature than on, say, the Buddhist approach of living in “harmony” with nature.  That’s why we’re uncomfortable when “undisciplined” nature approaches too close.  We manicure our gardens and kill crab grass to “manage” nature.  That’s why the Balinese file the teeth of their pre-adolescent children – so that the child does not have pointy, animal-like cuspids. That’s why most first and second-generation urban people, like those you’ll find in Rangoon, for instance, will look at me askance when I explain that I’m going into the deep forests.  I’m likely to get a response like: “Ugh, full of snakes!” or “No electricity” or “Go shopping in Bangkok instead.”  It’s all a way of saying “the forest is alien, it’s dangerous, it’s filled with dusky people with rough hands having strange animistic beliefs who worship spirits that reside in the trees and streams and volcanoes.”  There are creatures in the deep wilderness (think yeti) that will tear off your head.   We’re afraid of looking too deeply into the mirror and seeing our wild side.

This is near to the core of our schizophrenic relationship with nature.  We need nature but we fear it.   We’re part of nature but we want to dissociate ourselves from anything too wild.   On one side we have what could be termed a female/yin approach to nature – we are part of the global scheme of things, the interwoven tapestry of life — mysterious, complex, sharing, questioning, supportive, fertile.  On the other hand we are very male/yang: logical, goal-driven, suspicious of outsiders, confident, potent.  Conquerors.

* * *

In his 1939 book The Naked Nagas an anthropologist with the suitably-exotic name of Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf liberally illustrates daily life in a Naga village with photos of comely young women who live up to the title of his scholarly book.  He carefully records how “the youngest — and naturally often the prettiest — girls, wear their hair quite closely cropped.  This is a sign that they are virgins, or at least are taken for such.”  He then advises the reader that “the average Naga girl soon grows weary of her premarital state, her short hair, and her virginity,” and enters into a casual trial marriage; such relationships “seldom last long and are usually dissolved in the most peaceful way.”  (He also notes that the “magical current” that is released during clandestine trysts held in rice granaries enhances the vigor of the seed rice stored in the shed, but that’s another story.)  “Perhaps it is the fear that the girl may die without love experience which is responsible for this strange custom,” von Fürer-Haimendorf tells us. “Virginity wins no halo in the Naga heaven, but is regarded rather as a sin, for has not the deceased failed to fulfil the duties of her earthly life?”  The ex-virgin, he explains, then returns to society, lets her hair grow and seeks a more lasting union.   The young man, meanwhile, “boasts of his first love affair by decorating his black loin-cloth with three rows of pure white cowrie shells, while a Don Juan, succeeding either in seducing a married woman or in carrying on a simultaneous love affair with two sisters, proudly adds a fourth string of cowrie shells to his loin-cloth.”

* * *

When we walked into Kha Lei, one of our “first contact” villages, the few people who weren’t at the farms scattered, seeking refuge in their houses from where they could safely watch our progress.  Who knows what they thought? Adults and toddlers alike behaved the same, scampering away, but curious.

The next day things changed.

We walked around the village with the head man and the shaman.  We visited the basket maker and the old lady who knows about medicinal plants and the headman’s grandson, who is prepared, perhaps even keen, to take over when his grandfather dies.  We gave small presents — my travelling stash includes packets of vegetable seeds, reading glasses for the old folks, multi-purpose tools, some Buddhist amulets and postcards from home — photos of snow-covered mountains always generate discussion.  Not quite the trading of beads and mirrors offered by gold- and nutmeg-seeking European explorers, but more in the nature of small presents to thank people for letting us wander around their village and drink rice wine in their homes.  But actually we do the same anywhere in the world — if you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner you bring flowers or wine or cheesecake.  A few folks mimed taking a photo and asked why we didn’t have a Kodak?  Well, we had been reluctant to wander around the village snapping photos but indeed, we did have Kodaks tucked away in our backpacks.  We politely asked if we might take some pictures of ourselves with our hosts, and promised to send the photos back (which we have done, via Saw Hla Chit who returned some months later).

During our walkabout a group of young women shyly monitored our progress.  After a few hours of watching us make small talk with the older men and women, the bolder of the teenage girls stepped up. They too wanted portraits taken by the foreigners.

Timid at first, Wi Thwe, 18, her friends, the sisters Pa Phaw, 20, and Wi Phaw, 17, asked Saw Hla Chit whether the strange (or good looking?) foreigners could take their picture.  The girls ran inside their houses to change and returned in formal Naga dress, with strings of old yellow beads and mostly-black hand-woven costumes. Snap snap snap. Have a look at the little screen on the back of the camera. Giggle, giggle. Then they ran inside again, only to emerge minutes later wearing modern Burmese clothes — blue jeans and a red floral top.  In a way it felt like a Vogue shoot with Kim Kardashian, except the Naga girls kept their boobs well hidden and had probably paid only a few dollars for their outfits.

The girls, all wearing long hair, I noted, were in a hurry to try on as many different outfits as possible before the light ran out.  But we wanted a relationship, at least a conversation.

Pa Phaw shyly explained she had finished secondary school in Khamti and her sister Wi Phaw completed her primary school in the smaller town of Lahe.  Both wistfully said they’d rather live in town than up in the hills.

Their friend, and leader of the fashion brigade, was Wi Thwe.  She completed “a few years” at secondary school in the town of Lahe.  She’s had her share of problems — she’s an orphan and has a glass eye due to an infection when she was six and went to distant Mandalay for treatment.  Wi Thwe worries whether she will find a husband who can overlook her deformity.

Without encouragement the girls posed with hand gestures that would be recognizable to any user of Instagram anywhere in the world.  The two-fingered V sign.  The exaggerated angular postures, leaning against each other.  Making the heart sign with their hands or arms.  Snap snap. Then they repeated the process with another quick change, this time a pink shirt with pink pants and a blue Chinese style dress for another round of photos.

Farquhar and I asked how they got their fashion sense?  “It just happened,” Wi Thwe suggested, this time wearing a black T-shirt with black jeans.  She doesn’t feel she is fashionable, she’s just a village girl, she said, perhaps implying that we should disagree and praise her sophistication.  “Not at all,” I said. “You’ve got good taste in clothes and look terrific.”  The girls explained that they see magazines and go to town for weddings and festivals.  They watch TV.  “Where?” we ask.  “At the monastery,” one girl says.  Like our friend Khema Siri in Makyan, the Buddhist monk at Kha Lei also shows Burmese pop music videos to attract acolytes; once he has them well and truly entertained by the flash and glitter of modern life he can lecture them about the Four Noble Truths.

Eventually the light becomes too dim for decent photos. We promise to return the following morning for another photo session. My main thoughts were:  what a wonderful invention is digital photography. And how quickly so-called isolated, so-called rural, so-called-simple people adopt and adapt.

* * *

We had a brief conversation but I don’t claim to understand anything about the lives of these girls.  What dynamics run their daily lives?  Do they believe in an after-life?  Do they worry about the future?  Do they celebrate birthdays? Did they have rites of passage? Is my ten-day-old beard a mark of desirable masculinity or a nosy old-guy’s aberration?

Put another way, are we fundamentally different or are we like-minded citizens of a global village?  Is there a basic belief-chasm between American and Naga, between urban and rural, between people who understand a written culture and folks who are comfortable with an oral culture?


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted at his website: www.sochaczewski.com

This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new five-book series Curious Encounters of the Human Kind. Available on Amazon.com