It was another day I seriously thought about taking stock out in dramamine while I regretted the fact that I didn’t at least bring more. Again, we went in search of tribes hidden away high up in the mountains of Myanmar. Over the past two years with the military rule giving way to democracy, the government has been trying to build roads to connect all of it’s people. The one road in and out was very narrow as it snaked along the side of the mountain. Rather than a very long drop, it remained a scenic vista thanks to the skill of our driver.
When we were about 20 minutes away from our destination, we stopped at a small village for a man to jump in the van with us. He was our “Wayfinder”. He was going to accompany us and introduce us to the tribe at our final destination. As far as we knew from Clement our guide, no Westerners had ever journeyed here before and we had the distinct honor of being the first. Be still my heart!
Our first sign of village life was looking up to see three beautiful girls high up in the hills working with the planted crops. As we approached, they didn’t stop but continued putting hand to the earth. They were in the moment and so were we!
When we arrived at the village of Daw Ri Dar, without asking, we were again taken to the elders. Imagine 4 total strangers, unlike anyone you have ever seen coming right into your home with cameras all around their necks…this is exactly what we did. A shaky wooden ladder led up into what many would consider to be an impoverished hut but I found the criss-cross design of the reeds on the walls expressive of a wonderful artistry and attention to detail. The hut was basically open. There were no doors to lock or windows to close. There was no reason to keep anyone out, all were and are welcomed in. The first women we met was a huddled over 98 year old woman. She was sitting looking out on her world. When she saw us, she folded her hands in the prayer of welcome. I was the only woman in the group and the first Western woman she had seen. We did not know each other’s language, but she tenderly stroked my face while I held her hands in mine. She was very animated with us and her family all gathered around enhancing the sincere hospitality we felt. Presence was their true gift. It was difficult for me to take our leave because I just wanted to stay with her, to somehow keep her with me longer knowing that we may never see each other again. Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey, an Hawaiian anthropologist and the first female National Geographic fellow eloquently said that, “Every time an elder dies, a library burns down”.
We then were introduced to a centenarian whose eyes were very tired and red. One of the other photographers I was with had eye drops to ease the soreness. It was quite something to watch her totally trust him as he put the drops into her eyes. She had never been through this experience before and yet she was totally open as she was blinking away. Her granddaughter wanted them also! She suffered from a goiter but had been unable to get any kind of medical attention.
In many cultures and religions, one goes to the elder before a journey, in illness or a special occasion to receive their blessing. We were then told that one by one, each of us would receive her blessing. We walked up to this our elder with our wrist extended. She then said a blessing of protection and good health over us and tied a cotton thread around our wrist. The white thread serves as protection from misfortune and evil and to ensure the blessing stays with the person. In a small wooden hut, a profound moment of grace and a bit of healing.
Throughout the day, there were several other older women wearing the black and blue dress adorned with shells, beads, coins and ear lobes elongated from the weight of the traditional silver earrings. This may be the last generation to carry on this tradition of beauty and identity. While they all wore the head wrap, it seems that T-shirts are making their appearance on the younger woman. These elders we met are the true wisdom keepers of ancient ways.
The ascension metaphor became my touchstone. For me, it is so much easier staying at sea level. My knees don’t take to climbing very well but yet, in the rising, I saw sights few others have seen. I learned about the magic of presence, an openness to new experiences, meeting someone who looks differently with curiosity, interest and welcome rather than fear. I learned that somehow a common language can be found even it it is just in touch or a blessing. I saw what trust truly looks like and when I looked deeply into an elders’ eyes I saw an acceptance of life with all its joys and sorrows. I saw the knowing of the bonds with tradition from generations passed. This day and its people who crossed my path truly elevated my body, mind and spirit. My hope is that my photographs in some small way serve to provide a testament to these female elders of the Kayah tribe.