Sunday, July 26, 2009

Villager Encampment

With hundreds of families attending the Ananda Festival, there is no way the local guest houses could accommodate them (even if those families could afford it). Instead, the visiting villagers set up camps around the temple and a makeshift town springs up on the plain of Bagan. The camps are typically arranged by putting the ox carts in a circle and stretching tarps over the center if there are no trees to provide shade from the blistering sun.

With a population this size, personal needs can be somewhat difficult to manage. There are numerous latrines around the temple grounds. Laundry is typically hauled to the nearby river for washing. There is also at least one station where the villagers can bathe. The men do so in the open, wearing their longyis for modesty.

Cooking takes place on open fires burning whatever scrap wood they can find, or using charcoal purchased at the market.

Water for cooking and washing must be hauled to the camps in a familiar way.

One group of villagers set up camp outside the north wall of the temple. This provided some shade and enabled them to use the wall for part of their temporary homes. The framework of the huts consist of bamboo poles tied together with bamboo cord. The walls consist of woven bamboo while reed matting covered the floor space (and sometimes the walls as well).

One morning, as I wandered through the makeshift village, I saw a group of women preparing tanaka.

When they saw me eavesdropping, they invited me to enter the area inside the circle of carts to sit on the woven mat. Through gestures, I had them demonstrate how they went about preparing the wood. They wet a special grinding stone then rubbed the pale tanaka stick against it before carefully applying the resulting paste to their faces with the aid of a small mirror.

Laughingly, they offered to apply the makeup to me as well, but I graciously declined. I was well aware that tanaka is worn almost exclusively by women and children. I suspected, by their grins, that they wanted to pull a trick on the strange visitor.

One of the women called for snacks and a girl brought out a bowel of some type of crisp bean cracker. A few moments later another of the girls brought a small basket of peanuts. While I did my best to pantomime conversation with everyone there, the girls cracked the nuts, blew off the skins and handed them to me a few at a time.

By the time they had completed their preparations, most of the kids had joined in and a few of the men drifted by to see what was happening. Outside the cart circle, neighbors had also peeked in. Before I left I took a group photo. Looking at the two lovely girls in the center, I'm struck by how they think that tanaka makes them more appealing. A western mind-set can be be both a foundation and a wall.

That afternoon, I went back to pay a visit to the family. I wanted to return that morning's hospitality with gifts of my own. I had brought with me some pink nail color and lip gloss for just this purpose. I knew such items would be a total luxury item for them and presented my gifts with no ceremony. My offerings were met with astonished delight. It took me a few moments, however, to convince them I was giving them the cosmetics, not just letting them have a look. I realized soon after that they thought I was giving the gifts to each specific person as a few of them looked rather disappointed. I did my best to make it clear that the cosmetics were for all of them to share.

I also brought along some bars of scented soap. I'd planned to use them myself, but knew they'd be a big hit. Besides, I didn't want to make the men feel left out. The senior-most male had a good sniff of the soap and proclaimed his approval.

As the girls tried the nail color and lip gloss, I struggled for some way to get the communication lines open. I figured the one thing that would work was music. I experimented with a couple of tunes, hoping that my lack of musical ability would be overlooked. Each song was met with polite smiles. One of the older women tried to convince some of the kids to sing, but everyone was overcome by shyness.

I stayed a bit longer, politely nibbling on the proffered bean crackers before begging my leave.

It only occurred to me later that I should have hired one of the numerous English speakers in the town to act as informal interpreter for me. Next time.

See the full size images here.

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