A School in Myanmar Bringing People From Around the World Together

As travel photographers, we try to capture the spirit of a place and usually end up falling in love with that spirit. Total strangers invite us in, share their lives and the beauty of their culture with us. They honor us and hopefully, our images will in turn honor our hosts. David Heath, a very gifted artist and photographer, allowed his spirit to merge with that of Myanmar. Its people, stories and culture, strength and landscape wove its enchantment into David’s heart and brought him back over 16 times. As the UK Daily Mail related, “Immersing himself into the rhythm and culture of villages that had never before been visited by a Westerner, the intrepid explorer managed to create a breathtaking photo series which acts as a tribute to the land clinging to its traditional ways, whilst aiming to embrace the new modern world.”

This photo series became a beautiful, leather bound book entitled, “Burma, An Enchanted Spirit,” The book notably includes a handwritten endorsement by renowned 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy: “Truly an enchanting book – the pictures reflect the beauty and diversity of Burma faithfully.” A percentage of sales from each book sold are used to fund the building and development of schools in the city of Yangon. The Inwa School is the first of these. The Inwa School of Performing Arts is a new cultural high school in Mandalay that prepares young artists to perform Myanmar classical dance and music to professional standards. It provides continuity for excellence in classical arts and extends their reach to world audiences. The school connects master teachers with students in their teens who aspire to careers onstage. The Inwa School operates The Mintha Theater, where students and professional artists present spectacular dance repertoires nightly in central Mandalay. The Mintha Theater is a social enterprise that maintains quality and authenticity of the arts in a contemporary setting while preparing students for live stage careers. Proceeds from the theater benefit the school.

Inwa School, Mintha Theater, Myanmar from Frances Schwabenland on Vimeo.

The goals of the school are the following:
To provide opportunities for talented low-income students to train as arts professionals in the authentic traditions.
To create employment opportunities for teachers able to provide the rigorous training required for high caliber arts performance.
To develop an intensive course of study in Myanmar performance, dance, singing, music, and storytelling from classical sources.

Being able to travel to the Inwa School with David was definitely another highlight of my trip to Myanmar. As a teacher, I loved getting to know the very talented students and teachers and as a photographer, I loved the opportunity to witness their daily practice session. In one afternoon, I saw that beautiful continuity of cultural traditions across generations. While I was filming, I asked one student what the school meant to her and immediately tears welled up in her eyes as she related, “The school is most important in my life.”
“I want to become a dancer for myself and my parents and dance to well known works.”
“I want to be happy with the arts and my appearance.” In order to honor her privacy as she so openly shared from the depths of her heart, I did not include her name or that video footage but wanted to share in words one of the most powerful experiences for me. The Inwa School, its dedicated teachers and students are truly a part of a unique, beautiful transformation which is exactly education’s highest calling.

It Is All About The Journey

The New York Times advertises their trips as, “Journeys for the Curious Mind.” Robert Frost encouraged us to take the road less traveled and Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us that, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” There is something that fascinates me about people on a journey and I am drawn to photograph them…people living their daily lives, putting one foot in front of the other to discover the unknown or return to a place of knowing. I have a deep curiosity about where a person is headed to and why. New understandings unfold through the accompaniment either in silent observation or animated interaction. Is the person walking fast or slow, bent over or standing tall, smiling or deep in thought? So much can be learned about the other and leads to a connection of “you AND me”.

On The Journey

A Smile For The Journey Off the Beaten Path

Balancing and heavy burdens on the journey.

Many people piled into a truck sitting on top of produce.

The Journey is better when shared with a friend.

Women walking around the fields looking for beans

Trusting in the wind and the currents.

Tender Moments Along The Journey

A Burmese Mother and Her Child on the Journey

Making the journey so much easier with love and laughter.

Gentle parental protection

Such tenderness in this moment as a grandson washes his grandmother who no longer has fingers to do this herself.

This young girl took her water buffalo on a journey for a cooling bath.

I also try to check in and explore the internal territory of my journey and was very focused on this with the beginning of the new year. What path am I on and is it the best for me at this moment in time? Am I creating touching moments for those on the same journey and am I taking the time to just stop and say, “Thank you” for so often being on the receiving end of welcome, touching kindness and generosity. May I just take this opportunity to extend my sincere and heartfelt gratitude to those who have walked beside me for a bit or for the long haul! You have and continue to add much sweetness to my journey and I wish you all a journey of wonder, undiscovered paths with the curiosity to explore and times to just sit and enjoy the view.

From my heart to yours.

Buddhist Monks in Myanmar

Myanmar has recently broken free from an intensely repressive military regime. While there are many growing pains, there is much hope. As with many countries struggling with issues regarding refugees and immigrants, there are some who profess strong opposition to inclusion, holding tightly to the concept of borders and singularity rather than seeing us all as interconnected and occupying only one planet. There exists in Myanmar a longstanding anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment. Prashanth Parameswaran stated in “The Diplomat” that, “there’s a real challenge here that’s symptomatic of a country in which the question of national identity has always been fraught, complex and unresolved.” Almost 90% of the population in Myanmar is Buddhist, most practicing Theravada Buddhism. Their practice follows the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness. Amidst all the complexities, the Buddhist monks that I saw, were a gentle and quiet reminder to simply be mindful of what I say and what I do and to ask myself if my words and actions are healing and uplifting. I am not sure if I believe in karma, but I thought that even if I start out with only two out of eight, it is nice way to live life!

Lofty Thoughts and Dreams

Lofty Thoughts and Dreams

Sitting In The Heart of Greatness

Sitting In The Heart of Greatness

Lost in Prayer

Lost in Prayer

Eyes That Capture A Heart

Eyes That Capture A Heart

Monks Walking and Talking Together

Friends Together

Monks Enjoying Favorite Drinks

Monks Enjoying Favorite Drinks

Tired Buddhist Monk

Oh So Tired

Daily Life

Daily Chores

Viewing the results of an earthquake.

Buddhist Monks Keeping Watch

Buddhist Monks Keeping Watch

Reflections from Inle Lake, Myanmar

“As above, so below…” This is the name of a 2014 horror film and also the name of a song on the debut album of the Tom Tom Club. In actuality though, the quote has it origin in the ancient writings of the Hermetic Principles, studied by philosophers, scientists and spiritual leaders throughout history. The next line in the quote is, “As within, so without.” Without going off on an esoteric monologue, suffice to say that these powerful but simplistic words speak to a unifying and dynamic energy connecting all. The sky and the heavens are reflected on earth. The way one is feeling and thinking radiates outward with rippling effects able to lift up or tear down.

At Inle Lake, Myanmar, I was mesmerized by the brilliant patterns and impressionistic reflections on the lake. Light, color, design, vibrancy, “As above, so below” …”, it all danced together so beautifully and I felt totally alive to be brought into this oneness.

Flower Boat, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Flower Boat, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Reflections on Inle Lake

Reflections of Home, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Reflections of Home, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Reflections of Home

Reflections of Home

Lotus Reflections

Lotus Reflections

The Colors of Sunrise

The Colors of Sunrise

Swirls of Blue

Swirls of Blue

Dancing Colors

Dancing Colors

Lessons From Myanmar

Life on the Water

Life on the Water

Home on The Lake

Home on The Lake

A very common site to see while in Burma are people smoking both long and short truncated cigars called cheroots. Rudyard Kippling mentioned them in his famous, “Road to Mandalay” as he described his Burma girl:
“An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin white cheroot, an’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s feet.”

Burmese Woman Rolling Cheroot

Burmese Woman Rolling Cheroot

The color of cheroots can vary from green to black and are made with a mix of tobacco leaves and pieces of bark. The smoker may enjoy a distinctive sweet taste when honey, star anise, tamarind and jaggery are added into the tobacco mix. (Being from Philadelphia, I had no idea what jaggery is but discovered that it comes from the sap of palm trees and is mixed with sugar cane juice. We just have the Liberty Bell, not many palm trees!). Cheroot filters are made from small corn husks and it is all rolled together in thanal-phet leaves with sticky rice acting as the sealant. In the midst of stilted villages, floating gardens, fishermen balancing on one foot and small havens where cultural traditions are still carried on, the Inle Lake region is a must see for any traveler wishing to get caught up in the magic of Burma. We saw girls sitting crossed legged, hands moving at lightening fast speed as they separated the spices and rolled the leaves of these subtle fragrant cheroots, following in the footsteps of generations before them.

Woman In The Fields Taking A Break

Woman In The Fields Taking A Break

Having A Good Laugh!

Having A Good Laugh!

Love That Smile!

Love That Smile!

Twinkling Eyes

Twinkling Eyes

Reflecting and Relaxing

Reflecting and Relaxing

Here Comes Another Smile!

Here Comes Another Smile!

Often, older, older women whose faces have been deeply etched by the forces of nature are photographed puffing on cheroots with smoke snaking around their serious faces. We are so drawn to the wizened crone characteristic and the stories that lie beneath those many lines and wrinkles. Actually, there are 98 photographs of these women on Google Images (I counted!) So many photographs are both striking and compelling but I noticed that there were only 8 where the women were smiling. If this is an enjoyable past time, I wondered why such an absence. I will probably never know the many back stories to those photographs but I would like to share my experience with these women. Let me begin with a quote. An 18th century German composer, Robert Schumann stated, “The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart.” David Heath and Win Kyaw Zan are two men I hold in high esteem as true artists. I was so fortunate to have their mentorship throughout my recent trip to Myanmar. There is such an obvious brotherhood between David and Win. It has been forged during their 16 adventures together, documenting life and traditions hidden away from the Western world for so very long. I was thrilled they brought me “into the fold” and made me feel like family… but then that is what I saw them do time and time again with many others, which brings me to the main point of today’s post. Sitting in thatched huts or out in fields, we too were drawn to photograph these brown skinned, weathered and wise women enjoying a good smoke! We could have photographed with a long lens, never making our presence known while in a way stealing something from them and or we could respectfully enter into the intimacy of their world and not miss out on an amazing opportunity. David and Win went for the latter. Outgoing and fun loving, the camera went down while their smiles, introductions, compliments and jokes brought about quick friendships. We all lingered and laughed and loved every minute! The Burmese women easily allowed us to photograph them. They showed us the pensive look, but now they also flashed those wonderful smiles that were definitely contagious! The “strangerness” melted away into that “light being sent into the human heart” and we were family, connecting continents, cultures and hearts. I was so fortunate to travel with two masterful photographers. They encourage and challenge me to truly be mindful of the artist’s calling. May we all discover that vocation and pass it on now…it is so needed and our children are watching.

Watching with Hopes and Dreams

Watching with Hopes and Dreams