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Published: June 13th 2013
If you were to blow up a balloon to the point it resists further expansionand then let go, it would likely set off around the room in a haphazard screech. Trying to describe and analyze the course that balloon takes would be akin to me writing this blog in its descriptive entirety. I could plough through it trying my utmost to explain every twist and turn, but after all is said and done you’d be as dazed and confused by it all as I would.
Nevertheless, Thailand was merely a backdrop to our ultimate purpose of the five weeks we spent there, which was to procure ourselves a job somewhere in the region. And so with the aid of the World Wide Web we lingered for a week in and around the vicinity of Khao San road trawling through the contacts and contracts which would determine our future.
Korea was the obvious choice, we knew many people there and we could live well and save a packet, but it seemed a little too familiar and easy; almost like returning home, and in that case why wouldn't we just do that? Pragmatically, here we are with
two kids at a critical learning stage of their lives. It would be nice to exploit our ability to live wherever we wish to engender them with certain skill sets.
China, the most populous nation on earth, soon to be the world’s economic powerhouse yet until relatively recently closed to the outside world, remains to many an enigma -- feared and misunderstood. As the rest of the world consolidates and exhales after years of excess, China is relentlessly pursuing economic catch-up, and for a growing elite this is boom time. Cosmopolitan Shanghai is the spearhead of this new drive. We had been to China twice before as tourists and appreciated many facets of the country. Although we had never set foot in Shanghai we were lured by the bright leading lights. Yet more importantly than all that, our kids would walk away from there fluent in Mandarin.
For a change of scenery we made a little foray down to Phetchaburi, far enough from Bangkok for a respite, but not too far if the need to leave Thailand became an urgent necessity. Back to Bangkok and up to Ayuthaya, another spot close to Bangkok we
Wat Chai Watthanaram
had never previously visited. At this stage Jennifer was juggling two potential job offers, whereas I was still in wait and see mode. Back to Bangkok, two weeks into our visa we were approaching the endgame with regards choices though still hadn’t signed on any dotted lines.
This isn’t the first time I’ve spent time traveling whilst juggling similarly pivotal life decisions. Like an unwanted guest it does tend to encroach upon typical leisure pastimes. I suppose it is a strange way to spend a vacation, or whatever it is one calls what we’re doing, though unavoidable if you effectively live your life between one place and the next.
Even though we had changed hotels to keep things fresh, the city began to feel constrictive amongst all the external uncertainty, making the whole situation feel a little too much like graft. It also felt like we were rushing ourselves into a decision just to make the decision making go away, knowing this would free us up to enjoy what would effectively be the last few weeks of our trip.
To swing the pendulum back the other way, out walking along the
streets one afternoon, I returned to our hotel room with four tickets to Phuket. Hence the next day, on a whim, we were at a resort with three pools, buffet breakfasts, and dinners on the beach. It was at this stage, in our new surroundings, we decided it was better to sort everything out when we arrived in Shanghai, which meant all we had to do was buy our plane tickets and get our visas.
We had planned to travel down to Malaysia and spend that in-between period between Christmas and New year with Ali Watters and co. in Kuala Lumpur before our departure to Shanghai. However (it being impossible) we couldn't buy the Air Asia tickets to Shanghai with a US credit card. So with a change of airline it would be back to Bangkok again, for a New Year’s Eve departure. And, with tickets purchased, we could now enjoy our remaining two-weeks, and so decided to go off grid.
55km from the mainland, the Surin Islands sit at the southern tip of The Mergui Archipelago. Closed to visitors for six months
Surin Islands NP
of the year, the islands constitute a national park with barely any electricity, zero internet connection, and no hotels; visitors sleep in tents by the beach. Perfect.
Some years back I had read a National Geographic article which inspired me in my trip to southern Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago. I'll readily admit to being seduced by such hyperbole as, “They are, of all the peoples of the world, among the least touched by modern civilization.”
(60 minutes). But we never did meet the sea gypsies back then, since our movement was restricted by Myanmar’s military dictatorship. But here, years later we learned, almost as an afterthought from a park official, that on a neighboring island a group were being civilized into domesticity by the Thai government.
For most of the year the Moken (Sea Gypsies) live aboard their low-slung kabang boats, settling on land during the monsoon season on one of the hundreds of uninhabited islands that stretch north from here. Having escaped to high land – after heeding nature’s warnings wrapped in their own cultural myths – they survived the recent Asian tsunami. Recently the Myanmar government, following Thailand's lead, has tried to settle
the Moken permanently in national parks and as tourist attractions in attempts to draw them into the global economy. Here they earn money making trinkets for tourists, which are bought with admiration by their settled and more urbane moneyed cousins; a trend that will ultimately alter their traditional way of life forever.
In the first half of the 20th
century there was a concerted effort in many countries to make nomadic peoples "modern" largely by settling them, educating them and plugging them into the local economy. From the 60s and 70s onwards there was a marked green shift towards a growing concern with the world's biodiversity. People found in areas of wilderness were regularly removed from what were to become nature reserves or national parks, the assumption being that people inevitably destroy nature in its pristine form. Today, nomads of the traditional ilk are increasingly forced to the fringes, surviving on increasingly shrinking tracts of land relatively untouched or deemed uninhabitable or uneconomical by others.
The notion of private property was, of course, invented by those of fixed abode. In a world of exponential population growth, population density, expanding ecological footprints and shrinking biocapacity, it is difficult for
these people to make a case for land loss when they are not permanently situated. Their actual population density is often sparse and seasonal, distributed over vast tracts of land, which often times renders them invisible, marginalized and increasingly disempowered. All the islands off the west coast of Thailand were (some until very recently) home to the Moken. Now they are predominantly home to settled populations from the mainland and millions of transient tourists.
As an anthropologist who has particular experience in this area I am well aware the power children have of transcending cultural differences and knocking down barriers. To the Moken, our little blonde kids were the exotic Other; to our little blonde kids, having grown up partly in an indigenous village in Ecuador, the Moken were just a bunch of local kids to play with.
As I watched their interactions I was fascinated by a group of middle class Thai tourists attempting to photograph these Moken children whilst the Moken themselves marveled at Kiva and Mandalay. What was most interesting was how the tourists attempted to edit out the foreign kids from their photographs, since doubtless these 'complete' images would destroy the myth of the
stumbled upon, and untouched Other.
Although they were fascinated, the Moken kids were clearly leery of actually making physical contact with Kiva and Mandalay. Kiva picked up on this and it quickly developed into a game of one-sided intercultural tag. The problem for Kiva, however, was that these kids were barefooted, fast and knew the terrain. After about 20mins Kiva became exhausted and disheartened. I suggested he play dead and soon the crowd of kids gathered around the sneaky little smirking Other. The highlight for me, though, was watching Kiva sat on the porch of one of the huts singing nursery rhymes and songs which were enthusiastically mimicked by the Moken children of his age. Magic.
Man vs. Culture Shock
Nomads traditionally follow their herds according to seasonal patterns.
With no herd or seasons to follow we are freer to be able to travel wider and relatively unconstrained. Fast and relatively cheap transportation as well as improvements in communication technology have made it possible to travel across wide geographical distances in this ever shrinking
Surin Islands NP
world. We are privileged, make no mistake. Our passports, qualifications and skills afford us a dizzying array of opportunities and access. The career paths we choose to pursue are those that enable us to continue this nomadic existence with the greatest ease, flexibility, and with the greatest degree of freedom.
For the previous fifteen years I have been traveling from one country to another without a permanent home or job, settling for periods working in Denmark, Korea, Canada and Ecuador, in between the main driver, which was travel; which itself has seen me linger for periods in India for 9 months, Australia 6 months, Bolivia and Germany 4 months. The balance sheet of which puts me on a tantalizing quantifiable ninety-nine countries count...a psychologically priced number I intend to cling onto for a while now…ninety-nine again!
Jennifer hails from the States, and spent study semesters abroad in Malta and Italy as well as year as an exchange student in eastern Germany and a summer internship in Austria. However after graduating she got stuck into one of those proper high paid jobs for a couple years before concluding there was more to life than long hours and corporate stress.
dressing up like a princess
Almost a decade back she escaped the corporate rat race to travel while she still had her youth and sanity, before losing both when she married yours truly in 2007.
We have chosen to leave our respective countries of origin in order to live as foreigners in a foreign land. Through the last decade I have come to the realization that you don’t have to be physically traveling to satiate that wanderlust. In fact the longer you cease wandering, the stranger that strange land becomes. For as much as you convince yourself you have adapted to the unfamiliar you are only unlocking new doors.
We’re not economic migrants nor are we in exile.We don’t live this lifestyle for the money, for which we could earn more following other paths elsewhere. In many ways this is a grab for freedom and independence.
By throwing ourselves upon the mysteries of life, this is our cultural bungee into the unknown. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. We keep coming back for more. The higher the jump, the more invigorating. And, as I freefall to the point at which my descent slows and my surroundings come into focus,
Surin Islands NP
I am jerked back again and spun around...is this the dizziness of freedom?
I like the strange and foreign, I cherish the value of difference and I crave the detachment from the familiar. It is by confronting this difference that we learn to know who we are. It forces us to do things differently.
The strange and the foreign render our own beliefs strange and foreign. This cross-cultural adventure leads to personal awareness and broadens perspectives, rather than leaving us to rely on rules, habits or guides.
We take on the expectations and beliefs of others through our upbringing, exposure and education. They call it socialization: “the modification from infancy of an individual's behavior to conform to the demands of social life”
In contrast, Authenticity, as defined by Merriam-Webster is being “True to one’s own personality, spirit or character.” But in this ‘socialized’ life of ours, how can we really know our own personality or character if we are merely a product of our cultural environment? How can we live to, and beyond, the limits of our potential if the societies in which we live define that
very potential, and thereby also its limits and its constraints? Modern society, by way of tradition and cultural norms, suppresses difference and alienates persons from what they can do and be. It is easier that way. It is, after all, what cultures and traditions are for. We are a product of them.
Most tackle life by surrounding themselves with comforting allusions, and habitual thinking. But to stretch the limits of our learning, our potential, surely we need to move outside that which constrains us. The tyranny of the majority is to live like everyone else, without personal vision, and that to me is hardly living at all
We only think when we are confronted with problems. John Dewey
In order to grow ourselves we must overturn established identities and orthodoxies. How can we possibly strive to become all that we can become if we are straight jacketed in a fluffy world of familiarity, cruising along on autopilot, in a world of comforting allusions. I don’t want to live my life on auto pilot, vicariously, being lived.
Reality itself is flux. Change and difference are always and everywhere. The lifestyle we have chosen allows us to have our core beliefs challenged constantly, and forces us
to look at our own and others’ lives with fresh eyes on an almost daily basis.
Travelers increasingly go off around the world in search of authenticity in others, when the potential for authenticity is within them. We are endowed with more possibilities for experience than could be realized in even a thousand lifetimes. So many options to make something beautiful of life.
On our way up to Bangkok we made a visa run to Myanmar, three-year-old Kiva's 25th country. At that age I was doubtless behind the bars of a cot peeing my pants.
We spent Christmas in Bangkok organizing visas. It was said that a thirty-day tourist visa was the maximum available from Bangkok. We needed sixty. It couldn't be done. We were tenacious, and spent days badgering and cajoling staff, jumping through hoops and knocking down arbitrary barriers. We got the visas we wanted and flew off to Shanghai in time to celebrate the New Year.
Are we the same – these traditional nomads and us contemporary upstarts? Do we share some sort of nomadic bond? Dig
a little deeper and we are polar opposites: we choosing to live our lives outside of tradition; they according to what diminishing circumstances dictate, landless and increasingly powerless as they move, or are shuffled, from pillar to post. They are squeezed into a corner where the state wants to civilize them, or where tourists wish to build a wall around them to keep them 'uncontaminated' by the wider world whilst we remain free as birds flying from tree to tree.
It would be the ultimate hypocrisy for me to want the Moken frozen in some abstract cultural time, museumized, so that we can look on at them in awe, as a living relic of a romanticized lifestyle long since past.
But whether these changes are forced upon them by the Burmese military dictatorship, the Thai government, corporate tourism demands, or environmental degradation, their worlds and options, as have ours, are about to expand exponentially.
Don't fret for the Moken. Cultures do not die; they change and evolve. Generations from now, 'civilized' ancestors of these Moken may decide to go on a little walkabout around the globe. They might even claim this
is in their nature. And since every single one of us alive today once were nomads, they'll be in some pretty good company.
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