Tibetan Mastiffs

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Norzin with newly tied Thopdan in 2010

Tibetan mastiffs, guardians of nomadic herds are large and fierce, and stand up to their reputation. One learns to stay clear of nomad camps when on foot and to watch out for dogs when riding a motorbike in the pasture near a yak of sheep herd. We used to take guests on nomadic visits on little motorbike convoys, and I once saw a dog trying to knock Yidam and Dechen, who were riding ahead of me, off their bike. The dog circled them menacingly, trying to destabilize the bike so it could attack. Yidam was a skilled driver, but it was an alarming sight. Norzin’s nanny, who is terrified of dogs except for her own, showed us a scar on her arm, from a childhood mastiff bite. Her niece was bitten in the face as a toddler and her mother had to carry her for hours to get to a hospital where they could save her from being scarred for life.

In Ritoma, every respectable household has a mastiff tied to a chain, to scare visitors. Before we had the Norlha guesthouse, we put up guests at our Production Manager Dunko’s house. Our Swiss guest was intrigued by the plate of dried bread left by his mother on a table near the kang, the heated platform where she slept. She was later told it was destined for the dog tied near the outhouse, to distract it an allow her to pass. The next day, she realized she should have kept some for the return, but fortunately, the dog was still chewing and let her by.

Mastiffs come in all forms and sizes, and ‘perfect’ ones can fetch an astronomical price. When Dechen and Yidam moved into their new house in 2009, Yidam’s parents gave them a puppy they named Thopdan. Dechen loves dogs, and wanted Thopdan to be free to roam at will. He enjoyed life as a puppy, wandering in the house, following her to the workshop and frolicking on the hills with other puppies, but when he reached adult size, she began to feel the pressure. He enjoyed frightening people and would send the workshop women in a frenzy with his ‘friendly’ leaps. In the end, the village ordered her to tie her dog before he caused anyone harm. He was scary, and though he knew our family, even allowing new members into his circle, he could also detect fear and acted upon it. One day, the nanny showed Dechen her arm and lectured her on respecting local customs and Dechen, heartbroken, had to comply.

As the years rolled by, we saw how the dogs behaved. Our accountant Serwo had a ‘nice’ mastiff, one that didn’t try to scare people, and he roamed around free. One day, a man riding through the village on his bike saw, on the plane in front of the village, a child walking towards a group of houses and a fast moving three dog pack running in a beeline towards him. The man redirected his bike to the child, and arrived just in time to interrupt the first dog’s attack. One of culprits was Serwo’s dog, spoiled by bad company; young dogs in a pack turn to being bullies and a lone child is an easy prey.

Nearly eight years later, Thopdan is still tied up. Unhappy at first, he grew used to his fate. For two years, he was tied near the guesthouse, and made many friends there. His peaceful disposition towards other animals made him a favorite of little dogs or puppies who came  by to share his food and seek his company. At home, he is tied near the front door, terrifying guests with his bark and threatening manner, but sheep are not afraid of him, and sneak around the house to get to his bowl while avoiding the front door. He never minds sharing his food.

This year, there was Lennie, the neighbor’s  yellow mastiff puppy. Dechen decided that Lennie, with his hazel eyes and friendly manner, was cute, and Lennie set his mind on our family, adding himself to the little group trooping up and down to the workshop every day; Dechen, her poodle Norbu, Baby D, Norzin, the nanny Tsering Kyi, or accompanying Dechen and Norbu on their early evening walks. They became inseparable. Lennie, after checking out Thodan’s bowl,  also liked to come in the house, to sample the trash bin, scattering around any bones or other interesting content. Countless times I would pick up Lennie, who was getting heavier by the day, and move him from the kitchen corner to the front door until one day, like any other, Lennie stood by the trash bin and growled at me, then barked. Seeing me hesitate, he stared straight at me with his yellow eyes, and moved one step further; he began to attack, biting at my long scarf, that hung loosely. He looked like a child who has discovered something new, and quite pleased about it.  The cute puppy had turned into a snarling, dangerous creature that I decided I didn’t want to fight with. I called Dechen and said sarcastically that there was “a huge yellow rat” in the kitchen that was trying to attack me. She took it literally and sounded very puzzled until she figured it was Lennie. She laughed and no one took me seriously, Lennie’s days of freedom were counted anyway; let him enjoy them, said Dechen. The next day, Lennie was back, and life went on as usual.  On my next visit, he had disappeared, having taken up his post at the neighbor’s on the end of a chain.

 

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Dechen and Norzin with puppy Thopdan, 2009 

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With Thopdan in 2010 

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In early Spring, there is little left of the pasture and sheep are desperate for a mere blade of grass. Thopdan generously shares his dinner. 

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Sochoe quickly made friends with Thopdan; dogs seem to smell family members as such. 

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Norzin in her latest outfit in our back yard 
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Taken for a walk on the hill 

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Looking into the living room window 
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Puppy playing with a tied dog 
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Dechen with Lennie and Norbu on the hill 

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Playtime with Lennie 
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Gang of humans and dogs trooping up to the house 

Chilren’s Games

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Games in the fields; Tibetan settlement of Karnataka, India, 1994. Sochoe, Dechen and Genam with friends Kalsang Dawa and Pemba Dolma

How did children play in my time, in the time of my parents? They played outside with other children, climbed trees, played hopscotch, marbles and jump rope on a dusty playground, invented situations like going to a party, borrowing their mother’s dresses and shoes and smearing on makeup or running a store or a kitchen using play cups, kitchen utensils flowers, leaves and mud which we smashed into suspicious looking brews that we tried to feed to adults. At home, they may have a few toys, dolls for girls, cars for boys, board games, a bicycle or a good set of marbles or a Lego.

I loved buying toys for my children, especially since there were none where we lived and they were part of the excitement of opening a suitcase full of treasures when returning from a trip from Europe, East Asia or the US. Over the years, I noticed that the excitement often stopped there; the toys were unpacked and marveled at, often ending up in a pile in their room, bits lost and scattered, often the prey to rats or puppies. Dolls, cars and logos kept them busy inside in the evenings, but real fun was outside, playing with their friends and pets the same way we played as children.

The same goes for my grandchildren. They have toys, all in piles in their room. They play outside with other children, running up and down the hills in Ritoma in little packs, taking over a stone pile and fighting with dung, or settling somewhere and setting up a house, store or kitchen, building a little fire, using stones and bits of toys  they collect here for furnish the space or their imagination. Young dogs or a pet sheep will hand around for the company.  A cardboard box becomes a house, the mud in the creek, leaves and flowers become food they eat or prepare. Norzin, with her innate sense of enterprise, collects pretty stones from the river and ‘sells’ them to visitors.

Inside, Baby D will pick from the toy pile, add objects gathered around the house and pack shopping bags that she will walk around with, then stash somewhere. If a piece of something goes missing, we know it is in Baby D’s stash. Norzin and her dress up sometimes very creatively and smear makeup on their faces, or dress up the kittens, or both. Toys are mere accessories to be added to all kinds of other objects collected in the house or pasture.

Some say that the way children played for hundreds of years is threatened by the world of television, phones, computer games and IPads and it is certain that these mark the new wave of entertainment for children. They may keep children indoors and ‘safer’ though their remoteness from the real world and nature bring on a different kind of danger, one still very much unkown. I am grateful that I can still see my grandchildren play the way I always knew how to play.

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Sochoe, Dechen and Chonyi, their school friend, dressed up in imaginary characters to scare Genam. India, 1991
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Sochoe and Dechen in their “House for Two” built in our garden. India, 1987
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Genam and Noryang in their improvised magician’s outfits, India, 1993
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Genam and Noryang in India in 1993, Genam in his home made superman suit
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Ritoma, Tibet 2016; playing home games
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Getting ready to dance, Ritoma, 2016
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Timeless jump rope, Ritoma, 2016
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Gang of friends
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Timeless playing with earth
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Bringing favorite plastic kitchen implements to play
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An improvised swing in a friend’s nomad shed. Baby D didn’t like it

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Setting up a restaurant; Ritoma, 2016. Improvised objects, sometimes trash make it all happen
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Doing homework on the hill, Ritoma, 2016
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Box Houses, Norden, 
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Norzin in her yukata, wi th Genam. Ritoma 2016
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Sliding on ice, Ritoma, 2015
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Norzin’s favorite activity in her friend’s nomad winter house
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What Norzin and Baby D wear

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Favorite pets; Sangmo the kitten was terrified of Thopdan the mastiff, who meant well

 

 

A Trip to Kashmir

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1971, the year of my first trip to Asia, was full of buzz about Nepal. It was the place to go, to discover. For this very reason, my father made up his mind that we wouldn’t go there and sought to be original. He choose to make a two day trip to Srinagar, easily reachable by flight from Delhi.

His Indian associates tried to warn him that the weather there in February was very different from Delhi and Rajasthan, and that the people there very tricky. My father didn’t like people trying to tell him what to do so they went ahead and made what arrangements they could, telling him approximately how much he would need to pay for accommodation.

From the plane, Srinagar looked bleak. On arrival a short man in an oversized coat and astrakhan hat greeted us. He was a little obsequious, which put my father on edge, especially when he started calling him his friend. The first piece of news was that we were coming off-season so the hotels were all closed, but we had the opportunity to sleep on a houseboat. When he stated the price, way over the Delhi estimate, there started a long discussion, something my father was very good at, which seriously deflated the guide’s expectations, while my mother and I watched helplessly.

I thought the houseboat was fun, there was another houseguest, an unflappable Englishman in this early forties, who could very well have been a kind of James Bond, my mother was convinced of it anyway. It was quite cold and we seriously lacked warm clothing, so the guide sent off a boy in a wooden boat who came back an hour later with a selection of local garb, woolen formless tops that reached to the knee. They probably had been picked here and there and were not new, but I was soon wrapped in a burgundy one with gold embroidered neckline. My mother declined, choosing to stay in her Dior Spring weight coat.

My father had read about the area and said he wanted to visit the gardens. The guide timidly said that we could, but it wasn’t the best time to see them. The main Palace was closed, so we saw a grey flowerless garden after another, driving on bare poplar lined roads in the rain. I got my fill of photographs, though my parents were disappointed. That night, we sat in the houseboat around a stove with ‘James Bond’ telling us stories of his travels. The boat was freezing, though the hosts did their best to keep the fire lit.

We left for Delhi the next afternoon, and when my father expressed his disappointment, the Indian associates restrained themselves to a knowing smile.

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Monsieur and Madame Locquet

In 1959, my parents bought Le Mont, a small chateau in great need of repair from the Folleville family, who had owned it since the time it was built in the 17th century. We had a common boundary with the Loquets, several fields away, who owned and old fashioned farm,  which they ran with their daughter.

When renovating the property, which took several years, my father had the barns nearest to the house knocked down and Monsieur Locquet, as the new farmer neighbor, offered to take the large cider casks. My father asked how much he was offering for them and he replied that he was offering to take them away for free. My father figured we had no need for them and let him haul them away. After a while, M. Locquet informed my father that he had noticed he had a large quantity of apples and requested to have them to make cider. My father said he could, but that they should split the cider. Locquet replied that if he made cider, it would be for himself, and the deal was off. My father took this as an introduction to the Norman way of life.

The Locquet were already old, or seemed old to me from my six years. We bought all kinds of farm produce from them, and we often dropped in, for a bottle of cider or a pot of fresh cream, or just to look at the farmyard animals. My sister Christine and I would cross the fields to their little Normand farmhouse which had no running water, and rooms accessible from individual outside doors. We only ever saw their kitchen, which was the main room of the house, dominated by a large stove that heated the space as well as a pot which always simmered with hot water. Madame Loquet, who limped and complained of rheumatism, would greet us, slip into her wooden clogs and hobble over to the farmyard where we would look at the animals. They raised chickens, guinea fowl, rabbits, goats and of course, cows. I found the cows scary, they always seemed to look at you, and once when I crossed the field alone, they all came towards me at once with determined expressions. I ran in terror until I reached the farm. Madame Locquet laughed away, saying that they probably thought I was bringing them a treat. The goats were the most fun, especially the kid goats, that would jump over you if you crouched down. The chickens were everywhere, white hens followed by a more colourful cock. One day, Madame Loquet pointed to a black and grey cock saying he would go to the pot on Tuesday. It was Friday, and I felt sorry for it, with its aggressive cocky manner, thinking he didnt know what he was in for. There were broods of guinea fowl, mothered by hens, who made a better job at raising them than their guinea hen mothers, the farmer explained. I found it fun to chase the chicks, who ran ahead of me with loud squeaks, until the hen came at me in full force and pecked at my calves. I was stunned, and my nanny Germaine, who was getting a pot of fresh cream, made me feel like a bully, explaining that the mother hen cared as much about her guinea chicks as her own.

A visit to the Locquet was always accompanied by a glass of cider, which they brewed themselves and was quite strong, and I often returned home tipsy.

The Locquet had several sons and a daughter. The sons had left for town, where they made a career. They came to visit on vacations with their children, who were younger than me, and the wives would walk across the fields to the Little House where I played all day to sit and talk with Germaine. They made it clear they would never think of making their lives in the country and praised the wonders of Pont Audemer. The Loquet daughter, the only one left at home was too old to be married, and in 1964, she committed suicide by jumping in the well where her father found her. I had never seen a man cry and the sight of M. Locquet, with his little Hitler mustache, in tears as he related the story to Germaine, while his wife silently wiped her tears with her handkerchief stayed etched in my memory. Normandy had the highest rate of suicide in France; men hung themselves and women jumped in wells. This was attributed to the characteristics of Calvados, said to have a depressive effect.

In the mid 70’s as I spent time in the kitchen gossiping with our Russian, locally married cook Vali, she told me stories about our neighbors the Locquet. She said Madame Locquet was a tyrant, and though she couldn’t move around much due to gout, she managed to keep control of the money, denying M. Locquet any freedom. I had already heard the gossip that she had always been like that, and that she had been quite attractive in her youth with a very fulfilled love life, Madame Bovary style minus the debts and the suicide. Vali told me that Monsieur Locquet’s biggest wish was to own a transistor radio, to listen to his favorite programs while tending his vegetable plot. I had recently bought two ducklings, a spontaneous gesture, a reaction to seeing them being pecked at in their market stall and when she saw me coming home, not really knowing where to put them, she suggested that I give M. Locquet an old radio and ask him to look after them, that he would be so pleased he would forsake eating them.

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Madame Locquet in her kitchen
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Monsieur and Madame Locquet
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Monsieur Locquet in his cider/ calvados home brewery

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I showed Vali an old radio I had upstairs, and she suggested I give it to him myself, without Madame Locquet knowing or she would take it from him. I brought him the radio and the ducklings. He was delighted and promised he would look after them with his life. When I came a month later to visit him and the ducklings, with a Madame Locquet who didn’t suspect about the radio, they looked happy enough in their movable cage. A few months later, my mother took a picture of them, dawdling around in his yard. One looked a little like a turkey. Unfortunately the turkey looking one came too close to the edge of the woods and was eaten by a fox.

 

 

Monkey Business

The little wood below our house teems with life. First we had coyotes, then leopards, who turned out to be civets, colorful pheasants, throngs of winged creatures, including bats who came to inhabit Sochoe’s terrace, and most of all, monkeys, both macaques and langurs. The coyotes are long gone, the leopards have moved higher, and the civets seem to have moved on too, a good thing because they both ate our dogs. Now, more than ever, the monkeys are the kings.

Macaques typically move in bands composed of a few males and many females with babies. They jump from the trees below the house onto the terrace, where we had to give up leaving flower pots. Our neighbors chase them with BB guns, slings and what not, but we just let them be and we share the terrace. At night we can hear them grunting and whispering from our roof or in the nearby trees.

I never tire of watching monkeys. The other day, a whole band of ‘women and children’ came on the terrace. They saw me watching them behind the glass, and leaving their little ones a few paces behind, took on a defensive pose. Then, they ascertained the glass was between us, and became quite relaxed, grooming each other one tending to a leg sore a foot from where I stood, glass between us.

India in 1971

India was the last and longest stop on my first journey to Asia. We boarded a small plane out of Rangoon which stopped over on what was not much more than an airstrip in the middle of nowhere, probably Western Burma. Soon after takeoff, we flew over the most extraordinary landscape, rivers in formations that looked like thousands of blood vessels that converged into a triangle that poured into the ocean. It was the Bay of Bengal.

We landed in Calcutta, my first experience of India. I had heard about Calcutta from our family pediatrician, Dr Lamy, who had his practice in an Art Deco building somewhere on the side of the Invalides. His waiting room was full of modern statues from the early part of last century, zebra skins and other objects that attract the attention of children, which meant in retrospect that he was a traveler. One night when I was burning with fever, my mother called him and he came and sat by my side. As I cooled off, I guess I wasn’t that ill, he relaxed and told us about his experiences in Calcutta, during the great famine in Bengal. My mother, Germaine and my sister Christine all gathered around my bed, listened mesmerized as he described the streets of Calcutta, explaining that people slept outside and that every morning, so many failed to rise, having died of hunger during the night, that trucks had to come by and pick up hundreds of bodies. After that, I always thought of India as Calcutta and the frightening scenes that Dr Lamy had evoked. By some twist of fate, Calcutta turned out to be the first I saw of India, the country where I was to spend most of my life.

After Shri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, which in spite of their relative poverty, exuded a relaxed charm, Calcutta was a shock. The city was vast, it’s buildings, some grand and crumbling, others, products of the 60’s, new and already worn by mildew, had a look of exhaustion. The number of people was staggering, the crowded buses, the beggars, the anguish I saw everywhere, the rawness of all this put together was of an intensity that I found hard to take in, though it evoked more fascination than revulsion.

We were taken around by a representative of my father’s Indian partners, the Firodias, and I was to discover that everywhere we went was a Bajaj or Luna man to greet us and take us around, appearing at the airport, arranging cars and hotels. This one told us a little about Calcutta, saying that there were at least twelve political murders every day. It was February, but the air was tepid, and vegetation sprouted everywhere. We had an Indian lunch in a dark restaurant and I told my father my film supply was getting low, that the twenty rolls of large format film was down to one. I still had the Leica, but had largely ignored it until then, preferring the Rolleiflex’s large format and comforting viewfinder which saved me from pointing the camera at people. My father grumbled that we should have bought film in Hong Kong, and the Representative took us to a shabby photo store where we only found 10 rolls of Agfa aged film, carefully extracted from a wooden cabinet. My father bought those and I said I needed more, so we settled for what he had, a choice between Check and Polish imported film in equally shabby packaging. This film, which was very poor in quality and the fact that I had a real problem with under exposure, resulted in my two weeks in India yielding much less that what I would have wished. There were very few personal photos, as I was trying to distance myself from the Kodak Instamatic that my mother still used, which commanded that one pose in front of each and every building. My photos were for art’s sake only, I had decided, though I did manage to dig out a few photos of my parents posing. Too few, I regretted over 30 years later.

In spite of this rough beginning, India fascinated me. Nowhere was as intense as Calcutta, and I settled into the noise, the color, the realness of what I saw around me. We did the usual tour of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur, a short jump to Kashmir, finishing with Bombay and Pune and the Ajanta and Ellora caves. I left swearing I would be back, and I was.

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      Rajastani merchants
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    Woman carrying water, Rajastan
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    Woman in a stylish purse, holding a child. Jaipur or Udaipur
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    Udaipur
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    Little girl in a Rajastani bazaar

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    Jaipur Bazaar
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    Bazaar Babus in Jaipur
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    A group of Rajastanis on the road to Jaipur
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    Woman with her vegetable stall, Rajastan
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    Palace door, Rajastan
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    My parents in Fatapur Sikri, near Agra
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    View from the Taj Mahal
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    Inside the Taj Mahal
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    Taj Mahal, Agra
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    View from the Taj Mahal
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    Old Delhi street
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    Rajastani Babu
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    Tailor talking to his customer

    Burma in 1971

    My first trip to Asia included a stopover in Burma. I knew about Burma through my 7th grade Laotian friend Genevieve who wore rings that she claimed were from “Burma”. When I told my nanny Germaine that Genevieve wore ruby rings from Burma, she told me they were fake, that “Burma” was a costume jewelry store in the 9th arrondissement in Paris. I repeated that to Genevieve who got very angry and said that Burma was a country, that she had lived there, and not only that, her father had been the Laotian Ambassador to Burma. I was embarrassed, and never forgot that Burma was a country. Now my cousin Colette Benveniste Stermer lived in Rangoon with her husband and three sons and we were visiting them.

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    At Swedagon Pagoda; left to right, Colette and Les (who was taking the picture)’s three sons Mark, Dean and Todd, Colette, my parents and me, cradling my Rolleiflex, lighmeter around my neck and newly acquired Shaun bag on my shoulder. 

    At 15, I looked to Asia to show me what I felt was the “real” side of things, what I looked for in France in old towns, in markets, in the raw look of children and old people, things that were beyond automated modern life, the layer underneath, that I tried to capture through photographs. In going to Burma, I was afraid of finding a modern city with a highway, and that in the few days we were there, I would only see more of that greyness I despised about what people called “modern’. I had been charmed by the green of Shri Lanka, fascinated by Honk Kong and loved Thailand, but I was suspicious there must be something ugly some where on the way.

    It had taken weeks for my parents to get us visas for a week and Colette had warned that customs would open our bags and conduct a thorough search. The airport was dark and gritty, full of armed soldiers who smiled at Colette’s little boys. Burma was a revelation. It had nothing of what I was afraid to see, quite the opposite. Light was everywhere, roads were bumpy and everyone was dressed in a sarong. Colette’s husband Les was a diplomat and they had been in Burma two years. As we drove, he pointed on the right to a market, “the Black Market” he said. Imports were forbidden but everything could be found there, at a price. Colette told us how women who had too little breast milk couldn’t find formula milk or afford the Black Market.

    They took us around for three days, and I got my fill of “the layer underneath”. There were markets with beautiful crafts, temples full of light, people who smiled and didn’t mind that I take their photos, waiting patiently and giggling when I struggled with my Rolleiflex and pointed my light meter at them. We stayed in the best hotel in town, built by the Russians in the 50’s. It was crumbly and the rooms full of lizards that sang loudly. There was a precious stone exhibition and sale going on there, where people from all over the world came to buy raw and cut stones or finished jewelry. There were rows of bowls full of uncut stones of all sizes and my mother watched in horror as Colette’s sons Mark, Dean and Todd, went from one to the other, running the stones through their hands with the security guards smiling and laughing with them.

    One night, Colette and Les took us to dine at the house of Burmese friends. They had been abroad, posted at the UN in New York and spoke English. They lived in a large house around a large extended family with an elaborate dinner laid out on a very large table. The old grandmother came to inspect, smoking her cigar, which Les told us was something women did here. After dinner, the girls took me to their room and dressed me in a sarong. They had a record player and I saw they had a Crosby, Still and Nash album. I asked if I could play it. Hearing my teenage favorite in a Burmese girl’s room was like putting two worlds together. Little did I know then that I would spend my life putting several worlds into one.

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    Boys in the Swedagon Pagoda in Rangoon 
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    Boys in local sunscreen 
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    View in the Swedagon Pagoda 
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    Old woman and reclining Buddha 
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    Monk and a family at Swedagon Pagoda 
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    Patterns and more patterns 
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    Girl with oversized bag 
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    Swedagon Pagoda; a city temple 
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    Girl selling straw bags 
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    View of Swedagon Pagoda 
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    Food vendors 
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    Flower seller with her cigar 

     

     

    Hong Kong in 1971

    In 1971, my father took my mother and I to Hong Kong, a stop over on my first trip to Asia. We stayed there five days, taking up residence in the Peninsula Hotel and making frequent trips to Hong Kong Island on the ferry. There, we explored the antiques market, where my father, who knew it well, took me along, streets crammed with small shops, their treasures spilling out onto the sidewalk, where children and dogs played. At noon, school children in uniform, shop keepers and office workers would crowd around the noodle sellers, fill their bowls and slurp their noodles.

    I was an avid photographer and I tried by best to capture the wonders around me. The old Rolleiflex I used offered me some shelter, since I had to look down into the viewfinder and could avoid pointing the camera at my subjects, though I soon learned to be careful, especially after an enraged cabbage seller screamed insults and shook her wet cabbage at me, sending me running.

    On one part of the Island, I think it was the Aberdeen side, was a whole population of people who lived on junks, and we wove our way among them on a rented boat. We also climbed up to the heights and I took shots of sceneries that looked just like the Chinese paintings I so admired.KYHK1971032KYHK1971016Scan 158KYHK1971015bKYHK1971014KYHK1971019KYHK1971018

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    Refreshing a piece at the Antique Market 

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    I didn’t return to Hong Kong until 2008, 37 years later. It was another place, another planet, and all my pictures were in color.