Jerusalem, the city where everything seems possible

Before I went to Jerusalem I had an exact idea of what to write about my stay in the Holy city. I wanted to write a critical article about the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. I pictured neighbourhoods and people who appear to come from a different century, long black coats and big hats; oppressed women in long skirts surrounded by five or more children.

Yes, these communities do exist in Jerusalem but they represent just a small part of what makes Jerusalem a very special place. Still, I found what I was expecting when walking through Mea She’arim, the famous ultra-orthodox neighbourhood that gives you the feeling of travelling a century back in time.

On the streets are only men in long black coats with huge black hats and long curls on each side of the head. Women wear only long skirts, fake or covered hair and children are all over the place. The walls of the rather poor and old neighbourhood are pinned with signs in Hebrew and English demeaning every women to dress appropriately and according to their moral standards –meaning no trousers, jeans or tight fitting clothes. They ask for tourist groups to keep away from the quarter. The narrow dark alleys of the neighbourhood make you quickly forget about the world outside.

There are more than one million ultra-orthodox Jews, called Haredim, in Israel. Orthodox Jews are strictly against modern influences into their societies and live up to a tight corset of rules and a patriarchal society structures. The workforce of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel is significantly low with almost fifty percent unemployment. Children are going to a special Haredim run school where they receive mainly religious and only basic standard education. Many Haredim live from state welfare, with 60% of them under the poverty level. A Haredim woman gives birth to an average of seven children in her life. The Haredim population is the only one in Israel who doesn’t have to go to the Army. Despite their minority in numbers, they have a major influence in Israeli politics.

The special treatment that they are receiving by the Israeli government causes quite some tensions and aversions within the population, especially in Jerusalem, where the Haredim population is higher than in any other city in Israel.

One city, different worlds

On Shabbat, the Jewish weekend which goes from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, the Haredim define with their black clothing the colours of the city. However this is only part true. If you walk around the old city walls of Jerusalem, away from the famous Jaffa Gate towards Damascus gate, it feels like you’re entering an entirely different world. A world where hello doesn’t translate to Shalom but Salaam Aleikum, where Mosques and crowded colourful markets fill the streets.

The feeling of wandering through worlds comes the closest to my impression of Jerusalem. It doesn’t end with the noticeable differences between Haredim and “normal” Jews, Muslims and Jews or the many different streams of Christians living in this melting pot of cultures and religions. A friend who lives in Jerusalem once said to me: “The longer you stay in Jerusalem and try to define it, the clearer it becomes that nothing is as clear as it seems in this city.” On various occasions of my stay in the Holy city this statement proved to be more than true.

Religion is a good book but a bad movie

There is another outcome of this journey that I certainly didn’t expect. That the sight of all these holy and very old religious symbols and monuments would shake up my perception of religious identity to the ground. I never perceived myself as a particular religious person, although I was raised in a Christian surrounding and still got influenced by that. When I joined a walking tour around the old town of Jerusalem I started to question my identification with religion at the moment the tour guide pointed at a hill behind the western wall where Jesus Christ apparently ascended to heaven. He turned slightly to the left, pointed at another hill next to it and stated that this is the exact place where Prophet Mohammed met Angel Gabriel.

I looked at the pretty but not very spectacular hills in front of me and noticed that it had never occurred to me that there is an actual physical place that can be visited where apparently the key points of religions history took place. It was like watching bad movie to a really good book that destroyed entirely the fantasy world that one created while reading.

A place to coexist

This feeling was a steady companion during my strolls through Jerusalem’s old town. Luckily this disillusionment was sweetened by a silent fascination for the pilgrims reactions when arriving at the holy sights. I watched Christian pilgrims crying on their knees in front of the hole in the ground where apparently Jesus died on the cross. I saw Jewish pilgrims citing phrases and meditating for hours at the Western wall. I admired with fascination their dedication to religion whilst realizing that I truly don’t believe in it.

Apart from the world of the Haredim Jews and the pilgrim tourism there is another outstanding thing about Jerusalem. The mixture of very different and extremely longevous cultures and believes that coexist together in a very narrow and (more or less) peaceful space in the Holy city. Only the old town of Jerusalem includes the Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and the Christian quarter; even within these quarters there are different minor cultures. For example, in the Christian quarter, people form six different strings of Christianity are present. It is fascinating to see how these very special cultures exist and coexist one next to the other.

Nevertheless Jerusalem’s fascination doesn’t end with religious diversity and extreme dedication. The world of secular Israel is not less fascinating. First of all and especially for Europeans the presence of machine guns in Israeli every day life is something new and quite strange. You find them everywhere, in bars, coffee shops, the girl sitting at the train station next to you with her machine gun stuck between her legs so she can post the latest party photo on Instagram. Even at the Western wall, the holiest place for Jews, machine guns can be seen. In Israel still everyone, women for two years and men for three years, have to go to the Army. The thought of defence, potential threats and protection seems to be present 24/7.

The most important lecture I learned during my stay in Jerusalem is, above all, that nothing is as it seems. Before travelling to Jerusalem I got told and read a number of rules on how to behave and how the city was like. Strict, following religious rules before everything else.

On Shabbat the whole of Jerusalem was supposed to be under lockdown. It was true that no train, bus, elevator or even a dish washer was working. All shops were closed. Still, it was on Shabbat when I went out to enjoy Jerusalem’s secret night live along with many young secular Israelis, in a club that was located underneath Jerusalem’s one and only gay bar.

For me the fascination about Jerusalem resides in that it seems like a simple city with obvious options to categorise, but once you get there nothing is how you expected it to be. Just when you think you finally understood what this place is all about, you see a young Haredim boy walking hand in hand with a drag queen and disappearing into the night. This is what Jerusalem is all about.

Catalonia: just nationalism or a freedom movement?

My first encounter with the sentence “I am Catalan” sticks in my mind as a quite sudden moment of change of my perception of Spain. It took place quite far away from the actual “scene of the crime”, in a hostel somewhere in Southeast Asia, nowhere near from Catalonia.

I introduced my Spanish –or Catalan– boyfriend to an anonymous group of travellers: “This is my boyfriend, he is Spanish and works…” I didn’t get further because he interrupted me with a dead serious voice, correcting my introduction: “Actually, I am Catalan.” Silence. “But it’s a part from Spain!”, somebody said. This was the quick conclusion about his national identity. For me  it marked the introduction to a new cultural identity conflict.

Growing up in Germany, I learned –through our education system– not to take my nationality too seriously. I learned that patriotism is a thing that should be better erased from society. After all that I have learned about the history of my country there is no reason to be proud of being German anyway. In general, how can anyone be proud of his or her nationality?

An image of Barcelona during La Diada de Catalunya in 2014. Since 2012, the attendance to the demonstration organized by Independence supporters has gathered millions of Catalans in the streets. Photography by Marc Velasco

Does patriotism make sense?

By being born into a certain place there is no own effort made that one could be proud of. Apart from that, which country doesn’t have a bit of shameful suppressive history? To me, patriotism, the concept of a national identity, never made sense. I consider myself as an individual, born by chance in a certain place called Germany.

So when my boyfriend persisted on calling himself a Catalan I didn’t understand how a world traveled young journalist can concede such importance to a national feeling –that theoretically can’t even be called national, but only local patriotism. It only occurred to me later that his patriotism doesn’t have a lot in common with the German right wing kind of patriotism: waving German flags between racist and fascist proclaims on the streets. I got to know Catalan patriotism more as a defence against corruption and Franco’s –Spain’s dictator until his death in 1975– still persisting influences in politics, through PP –Spain’s conservative party–, and justice. The independence movement is for many simply a defence against the Spanish government, rather than a fight against the country of Spain.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that right wing nationalist and racist people jump on the train of the Catalan independence movement to serve their own ideals amongst the ones that want independence in order to create more open minded and progressive politics. Nonetheless, from an outsider’s’ perspective like mine, this right wing nationalist part is not the core of the movement.

Usually, the conversations like the one in the first paragraph where earlier or later followed by a long discussion of what makes Catalunya so different from Spain. I had never been long in either of them, my history and political knowledge about Spain was quite limited too.

Asking for democracy

With time, I learned about the oppression and ban of Catalan language in school during the Franco regime. I dove into Spanish politics, learned about their failure to reflect on their own mistakes under Franco’s dictatorship. After all, Franco is still buried under his very own monument –erected by his victims– nearby Madrid. What’s more, former Franco supporters are still representatives of the conservative party in the Spanish parliament. I learned about numerous corruption, plagiarism and sex scandals within Spanish politics. Not to mention the fact that Spain still has a Monarchy which was many times accused of the same scandals as the politicians and judges. Coming from a federal republic I wonder if anybody has ever asked the Spanish or Catalans: do you want to have a king? (Spoiler: nope) Another reason that makes me understand why one would wish independence from Spain.

When Puigdemont, the president of Catalunya, got arrested only an hour away from my home town in north Germany I felt like I got personally involved, not only because of the geographic closeness. He got under arrest under the accusation of rebellion. My first thought was, how antiquated this word sounds. With my two years of law student knowledge, I knew that for rebellion there was a particular kind of violence needed that apparently should have taken place during the independence referendum in 2017. Finally, Germany, amongst other EU countries, doesn’t agree on the existence of such an extent of violence during the catalan independence process. They agreed on sending Puigdemont to Spain only for the misuse of public funds. The Spanish judge that requested extradition –under the order of the old conservative government, many suspect– suddenly wasn’t interested in getting Puigdemont back. Now he remains in Belgium under political asylum.

After this arrest I took a closer look and found out that there are actually Catalan politicians in Spanish prisons for more than one year who are accused of the same rebellion that the jurisdiction of several European governments rejected in the case of Puigdemont. The term or rebellion requires a strong threat against the constitution and democracy of Spain.

Can the wish of independence be really a threat to a democracy or isn’t it more an actual APPLICATION of exactly this democratic freedom that we are supposed to live in? The freedom of choice and to create our political environment as we, the citizens, wish? So how can there be political prisoners in Spanish prisons? How are these people supposed to face a fair trial when being charged for a crime that isn’t fulfilled in a obviously corrupt jurisdiction? What happened to the presumption of innocence?

A line for voting during the day of the Catalan Referendum on Independence of 2017, which wasn't legally permitted by Spain and ended up with Spanish police hitting its own citizens in various parts of the region. Photography by Marc Velasco

A Catalan identity

When I came to Catalunya, where I have now already been living for a couple of months, I wanted to build my very own picture about what Catalan stands for and what this fight for independence is all about. Building your own opinion through media seemed to me almost impossible. There are the Spanish news and the Catalan news, and both use the media to propagate their own political views. They create the image of the conflict that they would like to see. Informative and fact based press doesn’t seem to exist at this point of time in Spain.

So from this inside perspective I had, through living with a Catalan family, having a Catalan group of friends, allowed me to learn more about Catalunya and the conflict away from media manipulated influences. I have experienced a very unique and rich culture, a language that is for me a mixture between Spanish and French, still a mystery to solve for me. I joined music and theatre events and visited museums. Through this investigation I found out that Catalunya, unlike the very rest of Spain, barely had any islamic influences during the early Medieval age. Instead it was handed over between Spain and France for centuries. Due to its closeness to France, Catalunya experienced also the Industrial Revolution in a time where Spain was still a farming state. All these differences made me slowly understand why there might be actually something like a Catalan identity that goes beyond a feeling of local patriotism.

I went to every demonstration for independence and the freedom for political prisoners I could go to. I read their demands and I listened to many different ways of expressing and defending Catalan identity. There are people who don’t wish independence but only the freedom of their politicians and a more free and independent relation in economy, taxes and politics from Spain. In contrast to that I also got to know households, where Spanish language is banned from the dinner table.

Over the weeks I heard a lot of people say that they don’t know what will happen when Catalunya is independent, but everything is better than being a part of Spain that tries to oppress their culture and political opinions.

Young castellers celebrate during the 2014 Diada de Catalunya, National Day of Catalonia and main loudspeaker of the Independence movement. Photography by Marc Velasco

To be honest, I have no idea if independence is the right way, if it will help to preserve the Catalan culture or if it will damage it further. I don’t have an idea either if this Catalan culture and history differs so much from other parts of Spain so that calling them part of the same national identity is possible. I am not going to position myself on one side because there are, as in most conflicts, good arguments on both sides.

What I am sure of is that everybody should have the right to vote, everybody should have the right to speak their own language and certainly nobody should be imprisoned because of their political opinion. The fact that this is happening in Europe in front of everybody’s eyes; that the press and the jurisdiction is trying to create violence where here is none in order to silence political ideas; and the fact that the European Union doesn’t move a single finger but calls it an “internal affair” makes me question what the “freedom” in the European Union is about.

This makes me at least understand why over a million Catalans from all political spectrums and ages feel the need to go out in patriotic fashion on the street with Catalan flags in their hand screaming for their own nationalism in order to protect from the loss of freedom of speech and democracy.

Life behind the railway, beauty within the slum

I had the privilege to work in a place whose existence the majority of people prefers to ignore. A place where people walk by the same way they cross a smelling trash bin in a hot summer day; nose hold tight, walking past fast in order to forget the discomforting atmosphere as quickly as possible. I want to talk about slums and what I have experienced during the time working in one of them, a red light district on the island of Java in Indonesia. The memories are too hard to summarise into a judgmental final statement. This will just be a collection of memories and thoughts I had during the time working and living in this extraordinary place.

A ballon that was not

I remember one day driving with my bicycle to work, crossing the railway and turning right into the slum. While turning, the strong smell of burning plastic and feces immediately dominated my nose. I recall driving through the small alley, huts made out of wood and blue plastic roofs on each side, between and in front of the houses trash and ash of burned plastic. In that same trash, the children were sitting, smiling and waving at me cheerfully.

By the time I reached the end of the alley I already gathered a considerable amount of children running behind my bicycle, waiting for me to open the door of the small hut we used to spend the afternoons in. In order to get the key I first had to visit an old lady within the slum who was in charge of it. On the way to her house I had to cross the railway again. The picture I captured there on that particular day will stay in my mind forever.

Imagine daily life next to a railway like this: people drying their clothes, cooking their food and doing all kinds of daily chores. In the middle of this busy railway trail I saw three children sitting on the railway, blowing up a kind of ballon. As I came closer I recognised that the thing I identified as a ballon wasn’t exactly a ballon but a used condom the children must have picked up on their way –now they were happily playing with it. This radical picture of reality is hidden behind railway paths and big fences all across the world… to make it easier for us to close our eyes.

The people I met in the slum were extraordinarily poor, poor in a material way. Their houses are self-made out of plastic, wood and cartoon they find in the trash. The floor of their huts is the actual floor that mother nature provided us with, dust and sand mixed with rubbish and ashes. Privacy is as inexistent as sanitary facilities, running water, a kitchen or a proper bed. All people of the house sleep on the floor, in the same room. The kids I worked with suffer from scabies all over their bodies, through their ripped and dirty clothes you could see numerous infected wounds and bug bites on their supposedly young and smooth children skin, in their matted hair a wide range of small animals. These children represent, to me, the consequences of our privileged living standards.

By using the need for money, low budget prostitution, procuring, gambling and gang violence are witnessed on a daily basis by the children I spent my days with. Most of their mums were earning their little money by prostituting themselves after the city went dark and the children went to bed. Some children call dad somebody who is, in most cases, not their parent but a pimp, somebody who uses the body of their mums to make profit.

I discovered quickly that money, power and education always go hand in hand and flow only in one direction. The destiny these children face is being caught in a circle of material poverty, injustice, violence, lack of education and, consequently, lack of possibilities for their future no matter how talented or ambitious they are.

Within this vicious circle of poverty I found an extraordinary richness of immaterial values and a fascinating human beauty.

Nothing to share, but sharing it all

The kids that attended my classes were, even though some of them never attended school, more creative and fast learning than any child I know. When I would bring material to make handcrafts there was never a need of instruction or encouragement. The children would simply take the material and build things out of it that I wouldn’t have thought of and draw the most beautiful patterns I‘ve ever seen. If I would bring a new game or exercise there was rarely a need for explanation. Even though we didn’t speak the same language they were masters in understanding rules and dynamics simply by watching and experimenting.

One day I brought a new card game into my class. I tried to explain the rules to the children. Of course some of them didn’t understand. However, instead of using the advantage of knowledge to win the game, we wouldn’t start until the children who already understood, explained the rules for everyone to understand.

At one point of the game a new child came into the hut with the wish to join the game. This girl was mentally disabled and, due to her disease, not able to interact properly with the other children. Instead of joining the game, the girl threw away all the cards in the middle of the gaming circle, punched the others –including me– and pulled their hair. Some smaller children started to cry, others started to fight back.

Surprisingly the situation did not end in the exclusion of this girl from the group. Instead, the majority of the children split into groups, one calming down the smaller children, another stopping the others from fighting back the handicapped girl; the rest,with me, trying to calm down the disabled girl and her tension, because she obviously didn’t know what she did wrong. All together we solved the situation and finished playing the game.

After this day I was astonished by what these children, all aged below ten years old, having witnessed many things a child or not even a grown up should ever witness, already learned about living together in a respectful and inclusive environment. Just by being forced to live on a very small area together and share their belongings with each other in order to increase the overall happiness and wealth within their surroundings dominated by prostitution, poverty and violence.

This is the visible beauty within the self-made houses, improvised furnitures and colourful decorations, as well as an invisible social strength through maintaining a culture of giving, sharing, respect and tolerance. Nowhere else have I experienced this beauty, a beauty that grows in this rough and dirty environment, a place our world shuts their eyes from.

How we should write about traveling

The last days I have been thinking a lot about what to write next. I have been going over my diaries and pictures and found quite some adventures that haven’t been told yet but I couldn’t decide what story write first. So I made up my mind and thought that maybe it’s time to write about the one thing all of them have in common. The way they should be told: honest and colourful, erasing black and white from the vocabulary, showing the individual instead of fitting everyone under the same umbrella.

Of course, we are all subjects, formed by our cultural and social surrounding, our experiences and ideas of life. Accordingly, there is no such thing as an objective perspective because then it wouldn’t be a perspective at all. Still I consider it very important when reporting about different countries and cultures not to generalise or classify from my ‘advanced western standards’, what I see or who I meet.

On my trip around the world I looked frequently for advices and tips about my new destination on different travel blogs and I was disappointed how regularly I found terms like “The Burmese people are… / the Japanese all like… / be careful because Costa Ricans like to…”.

It surprised me to read this generalisations about cultures and countries from people who I assumed have experienced the same diversity, the confusing chaos of millions of different customs and ideas while traveling the world. It is simply not possible to sum up one culture or group of people or country with a generalising statement. It is not fair to the people who is being written about, so we shouldn’t write about traveling like this.

Two girls in Kimono. Tokyo, Japan. Photography by Guille Álvarez

Writing in generalities

Imagine how you would feel if somebody would call you a Hitler fan just because you are German or assume that you like toros just because you are from Spain? I am sure you would not be amused.

Now then how can somebody say that all Japanese are accurate, punctual, overachieving and capitalist slaves? Because you know what, the only Japanese I ever lived with was a man living of social services, a chain smoker who never left his house or his jogging pants.

Why did people warn me not to speak or even criticise Cuban politics with its critics? The truth is that we found a lot of people happily sharing their criticism and stories with us in order to carry them out into the world. When I voiced out loud and directly my rather disapproving views on Fidel Castro, nobody was offended at all.

What’s with the surprise I sometimes see in peoples faces when I tell them that I have muslim girlfriends who happily wear a hijab and pray five times a day? Well, they assume that muslim women are oppressed and forced to follow these religious customs (and yes, I have met those women too). Just look at the faces around you. They are all different, each one carries another story. How could they all be alike?

A monk says hi in Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photography by Guille Álvarez

What I’m just trying to say is that as traveler, journalist or simply curious observer we have a responsibility. We should try to portrait the reality the people live in as best as we can, to tell stories as diverse and individual as we can. To leave out blacks and whites and instead get engaged with all the shades of grey.

Certainly, I cannot make myself free from the fact that I write in a subjective view, a German and European view. This is the culture I grew up with. Everything new I automatically compare to what I already know. Each one of us has different impressions and ideas when facing an unknown situation, a new culture or country. The important thing is just to be conscious about the fact that this is your personal view on the world. Therefore we should at least state clearly that this one view is only a little piece of a puzzle of millions which creates the whole picture of a culture or a country.

I wanted to write about how to tell a story instead of what to tell in the story because words are the most powerful tool we have. The way things are written can raise or destroy prejudices, create or overcome boundaries. So whether you are a writer or a reader I want to ask you to think carefully about the words you choose, to reflect on what you read because it makes a difference with what eyes our world is seen.

A young student in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photography by Guille Álvarez

Laos, a country with two surfaces

Laos is beautiful on its surface. There is a very calm atmosphere that surrounds the country. The old capital cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang don’t even count 250.000 inhabitants together. However, they charm every visitor with their French colonial architecture, colourful temples and tasty butter croissants while creating an enormous peaceful and calm atmosphere.

In addition to that, art and handicrafts are present wherever you look. May it be a silk weaving workshop, a pottery class or an alluring gallery with exquisite class. Even Luang Prabang’s vivid night market offers more than just food. Paintings, clothes and other handmade goods can be found along the, it seems to be, never ending night market street. If you pay attention you might even find a free traditional Lao movie pass or a music presentation in one of the hotels around town. You are surrounded by art.

Personally, I most enjoyed the art of coffee brewing in one of the numerous cafés and patisseries I found on my journey across Laos. Simply reading a book and watching the calm and steady daily life of friendly and relaxed Laotians is a beautiful thing itself. Did you know, by the way, that Laos is only called so by mistake? When the French colonialists came in 1893 they mistook Lao for Laos and consequently named it Laos.

A further impression apart from the French charm is present in Laos. Communism! Mainly through flags and Che Guevara pictures on almost every motorbike or Tuktuk. Lao people seem to be attached to their communist past, even though, communism in Laos is now becoming more and more nostalgia then reality. If you have had enough of the cities, Laos nature and ethnic diversity of the country  (more than a 100 groups) make the country beautiful and colourful.

When I mean nature, I don’t want to talk about the horrible fact that the country with the originally highest elephant population in Asia uses them as a riding attraction for tourists. I also definitely want to spare the experience of a bunch of desperate backpackers in Vang Vieng going “tubing” down the Mekong river. Having nothing in mind than the next drink, they miss out on the dramatic mountain scenery that surrounds the river. Vang Vieng might be the horrifying example of how tourism can destroy a village and its people.

However, riding the bicycle or hiking through the landscape of evergreen mountains that pop up like finger huts from the ground or witnessing the different shades of red that appear in the shadows of the mountains after sunset, is just beautiful. Not to mention the waterfalls, caves or blue lagoons which are there to be explored all around the country.

Maybe I have convinced you by now. Laos on the surface is beautiful and definitely a stunning destination to travel.

What lies underneath the earth of this beautiful country has its roots in the time of the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) and still today causes dramatic suffering all across the country. During the so-called Secret War, between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million tons of cluster bombs in Laos. The country was on their way to Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This makes Laos the most bombed country in the world. The U.S. bombed Laos to support the Royal Lao government against the communist political movement and to interdict traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

One third of the bombs thrown on Laos during this nine year period didn’t explode. They lie hidden and ready to explode under the earth. Due to these unexploded cluster bombs, more than 20.000 people have been killed. 40% of them children, playing in the fields, villages or in the forest. By now, regardless increasing effort by the Lao government in cooperation with many countries, only 1% of the unexploded UXOs (Unexploded Ordnance) has been found. Under the surface of Laos, relicts of a war that never happened are a constant threat to children, farmers who want to harvest their fields and all population.

So when visiting Laos keep the current struggles of the country in mind, visit one of the excellent UXO visitor centres in Luang Prabang or Vientiane and never forget that war is never the right option. Not here, not anywhere.

Myanmar, blinded by the light

There are two associations that probably pop up in your mind the moment you think about Myanmar (Burma). First of all, Buddhism and giant golden temples. Secondly, specially if you are a little updated in worldwide news, the Rohingya crisis, as they like to call it. To me it should rather be called genocide.

The Rohingya, all those who don’t know may be forgiven, are a muslim minority living in the west of Myanmar. Due to a hidden ethnic clearance program, the Burmese military has burned down their villages, killed dozens of innocent people and forced around 800.000 of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh, where they now live in huge refugee camps (if they actually make it there).

All of this, to the surprise of many, is happening under the approval of The Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Having traveled through Myanmar I can confirm that both associations are a reality. On your trip around Myanmar you will more or less trail the same route as everyone else. A well designed tourist path with international hotels, restaurants, fancy night buses and, of course, plenty of beautiful sights to see.

From the giant golden shining Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon –whose overwhelming gloom and spirituality drives tears to the eyes– to the old mysterious temple sites in Bagan. Dramatic sunsets on top of a temple ruin or floating at Inle Lake, watching the foot rowing fishermen doing their last catch in front of an impressing mountain scenery.

The tourist industry knows about the attraction of Myanmar, undoubtedly, and this poses a big problem.

Tourist pesticide

Mass tourism is a pesticide –even in a country that doesn’t have a single McDonalds and rarely a shopping mall. Temples that cannot be seen anymore because they are so filled up with souvenir stalls; hundreds of motorboats that replace the rowing boats at Inle Lake, destroying the ecosystem for carrying a huge amount of tourists across the lake on a daily basis. In spite of mass tourism, in certain places, Myanmese beauty and the richness of its golden temples is undeniable, and a sight you will never forget.

However, I have to warn you not to get blinded by Myanmar’s shining lights. You have to keep in mind that the government, who decided to open Myanmar to foreign tourists just recently (in 2011), designed this tour around Myanmar on purpose, building excellent infrastructures to keep people on the path.

They have created, together with the economic elites, a “picture perfect” of Myanmar, the buddhist, happy and tolerant country. All of this, in order to hide the racism, ethnical clearance and poverty that is hidden within Myanmar’s hidden paths. Most of these unknown places need a special permission to go and visit or they are completely locked to the outer world.

Most of the big bus lines, big hotels and airlines, as well as the national park and all “tourist entrance” fees, flow in one direction: the government pockets and those of Myanmar’s elite. Knowing that the government invests their money, money that also comes from tourists. into the military, one might start to question a visit to Myanmar.

By giving money incorrectly to the government, the tourists –you and me–, support a violent ethnic clearance of minorities in several parts of Myanmar, killings of  thousands of people through exclusion from medical care, food supply and massacres, the latest dated from August 2017All of this is happening just as we take a picture of a giant golden Buddha and let the tour guide show us the fair conditions in carefully selected Myanmese weaving fabrics.

So how could I, knowing all this in advance, still travel to Myanmar? Conscious traveling is the keyword. Keep an eye open and observe your surroundings, question what you see and don’t shut your eyes in front of poverty or children serving you at 10 pm in a restaurant. Children. Freeze these images deep in your mind, think of their causes and how these problems can be solved. Certainly not through locking Myanmar up for foreigners again or locking Reuters journalists, then we wouldn’t see at all.

Pay attention to whom you give your money to. Stay in a local guest house and pay the 21 years old taxi driver who only finished primary school to take you around the city rather than booking big tours or fancy hotels. Giving money to a bus company or paying an entrance fee to see a pagoda is not avoidable. I certainly didn’t make my peace with it.

Nevertheless, I think it’s the right thing to visit this stunning and suffering country and share the gained knowledge about what happens behind closed curtains with the outside world.

P.S. This recent article on The New York Times, titled ‘I saw a genocide in slow motion’, is a great account of what’s really going on with Myanmar and the Rohingya.