Earth's Most Threatened Tribe

The Awá Indians are the last nomadic hunter gatherer tribe to be discovered in the Brazilian Amazon.

Today, despite having survived many brutal massacres at the hands of settlers and illegal loggers over the course of centuries, the Awá now face pressing man-made threats and even the natural landscape itself is no longer able to sustain to their way of life. For this critically endangered tribe, extinction remains a very real possibility.

A year or so ago I travelled deep into the forests of Maranhão to meet some of the last remaining members of the Awá tribe.

This is their story.

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Originally from Pará, a state to the west of Maranhão, the Awá were living in villages and farming crops when the Portuguese settlers arrived 500 years ago. Enslaved by the Portuguese, and with their numbers greatly reduced by the introduction of smallpox, the remaining Awá eventually fled east to Maranhão, perhaps prompted by the bloody revolt on the Portuguese plantations, the Rebelião da Cabanagem, which took place between 1835 and 1840, and claimed as many as 30,000 lives.

Fearful of their vulnerability as sedentary agriculturists, the Awá now became nomadic hunter-gathers, able to build a shelter within hours and abandon it only days later, melting back into the forest. In Maranhão, the Awá had moved into the territory of the Guajajara, the largest tribe in Brazil with more than 20,000 members, and they remained unable to secure or defend any land for growing crops.

By 1973, when the Awá were contacted by outsiders for the first time, they had fully adapted to living a nomadic lifestyle, and had lost all of their farming skills and even the knowledge of how to make fire.
A group of Awá taking a break in the forest during hunting.

A group of Awá taking a break in the forest during hunting.

Following the unwelcome invasion of the Portuguese, the Awá, and many other indigenous Indians, continued to suffer great atrocities at the hands of loggers, colonists, and ranchers. For instance, when Brazil’s military dictatorship took over in 1964, it implemented a policy of “assimilating” indigenous people to reach its goal of national unification, which included wiping out those peoples who refused to cooperate, by dropping bombs or feeding them sugar laced with arsenic.

In 1967, the 7,000-page Figueiredo report exposed the true extent of the criminal actions and genocide carried out against the indigenous population of Brazil, and the National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, was established in response. This is the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples. The report also triggered the founding of Survival International, a human rights organization that campaigns on behalf of indigenous tribal peoples, and who consider the Awá to be “Earth’s most threatened tribe”.

The Awá use ambush techniques to hunt the Guariba monkey. Once they have spotted the animal, the hunters will surround it so that the animal finds itself trapped in the center.

The Awá use ambush techniques to hunt the Guariba monkey. Once they have spotted the animal, the hunters will surround it so that the animal finds itself trapped in the center.

Recently Survival International helped the Awá people secure a landmark victory when unprecedented international pressure finally forced the Brazilian government to send in ground troops in January 2014 to expel illegal ranchers and loggers from what remains of Awá territory. Experts warn that it is now critical that a permanent land protection program be put into place to keep the invaders out of the Awá territory.

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[1] Piramahã is the oldest man in the tribe. He is preparing his arrows for the next hunt, and later will prepare this fresh meat for the tribe’s evening meal. [2] Awá often hunt the Guariba monkey and smoking the meat makes it last longer. [3] Young Awá during the hunt.

[1] Piramahã is the oldest man in the tribe. He is preparing his arrows for the next hunt, and later will prepare this fresh meat for the tribe’s evening meal. [2] Awá often hunt the Guariba monkey and smoking the meat makes it last longer. [3] Young Awá during the hunt.

Though the government intervention in 2014 signals positive progress, for many of the Awá it came far too late. Thousands were brutally massacred during territorial conflicts in the 70s and 80s with the fazendeiros, or ranchers, and with illegal loggers. Most recently, in late 2011, illegal loggers tied an eight-year-old Awá girl to a tree after she wandered out of her village, and brutally burned her alive, reportedly as a warning to other native peoples living in the protected area.

The threat of deadly infection after contact with outsiders also continues to pose a significant threat to the Awá. For example, over the last five years, one in seven Awá has died of malaria. The disease was brought to Alto Turiaçu by the thousands garimpeiros, or gold seekers, who invaded the Awá lands and later made a fortune on the international market.

A little squirrel is breastfeeding. In Awá culture, any kind of young, abandoned animal can become a pet, even if it is a species that they usually hunt. When the animal grows to adulthood, they take the animal back in to the forest and set it free.

A little squirrel is breastfeeding. In Awá culture, any kind of young, abandoned animal can become a pet, even if it is a species that they usually hunt. When the animal grows to adulthood, they take the animal back in to the forest and set it free.

The centuries-long bloody conflict with their traditional enemies, the Ka’apor tribe, has also continued to claim many Awá lives, and elsewhere in Maranhão, trains come from Carajas, the world’s biggest iron mine, and cut through the Awá land multiple times per day.

Today FUNAI estimates that there are only 300 Awá left, with around 60 still living uncontacted in small groups of five or six in the forests.
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[1] A young Awá hunter. [2] An Awá mother helps to remove a thorn from the foot . [3] Playing with another unusual pet.

[1] A young Awá hunter. [2] An Awá mother helps to remove a thorn from the foot . [3] Playing with another unusual pet.

In recent years, as they have suffered at the hands of violent invaders and from infectious diseases, the Awá have been forced to seek assistance from FUNAI. As a result, some of the Awá have now chosen to live in purpose-built shelters on protected reserves such as the Alto Turiaçu, but they struggle to embrace this new lifestyle.

Young Awá children check the freshly caught animals. For the future hunter, this is part of the learning process.

Young Awá children check the freshly caught animals. For the future hunter, this is part of the learning process.

The Alto Turiaçu is only a small part of the Awá’s traditional land and the diminishing natural fauna in this area is pushing the nomadic hunters to live more sedentary lifestyles — learning how to plant and grow crops like manioc to ensure a food supply, as their ancestors once did.

Amerixaá is the oldest woman in the Awá tribe. She lives deep in the jungle, far from the rest of the community. In Awá culture, older members traditionally remove themselves from the tribe, living alone until they pass away.

Amerixaá is the oldest woman in the Awá tribe. She lives deep in the jungle, far from the rest of the community. In Awá culture, older members traditionally remove themselves from the tribe, living alone until they pass away.

Yet some Awá still persist in living in their traditional nomadic groups of five or six people. Today in the Alto Turiaçu there is one small community of about 45 people who choose to live this way. FUNAI offers them real, but fragile, protection to continue their way of life.

The Awá spend a long time preparing the arrows for the hunt, and many skills are passed on from father to son.

The Awá spend a long time preparing the arrows for the hunt, and many skills are passed on from father to son.

“The Awá have been continuously threatened by attacks, invasion, and extermination, and even inside the reserve their survival is uncertain,” the people from FUNAI told me.

“We don’t have extra resources to protect them from the ranchers who continue to encroach on their land. Since the forest has been cut back and transformed into farming lands, small towns have sprouted up over the Awá lands. In the face of these changes, Awá numbers have been drastically decreased. We estimate that fewer than 360 Awá have survived the occupation of their land, and around 60 still live uncontacted in small nomadic groups.”

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[1] An aerial view of the Awá village I visited. [2] A family of Awá in the village. [3] A young Awá hunter.

[1] An aerial view of the Awá village I visited. [2] A family of Awá in the village. [3] A young Awá hunter.

Today, in a world where they can no longer live as nomads, the Awá are struggling for survival and for their unique cultural identity. For the Awá, hunting is a way of life, and as the illegal loggers distort the forest habitat, the animals are disappearing. Despite their efforts to keep moving, they face the encroachment of the modern world at every turn, and remain threatened with extinction.

The Awá people need time to recover from the extreme brutality and humiliation they have suffered for centuries at the hands of the invaders. Yet we do not give them time. In our world, time is money. We cannot let the last of the Awá, or any other indigenous tribal people, disappear.

One of the last remaining groups of Awá people today.

One of the last remaining groups of Awá people today.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

— WADE DAVIS

Aparana’i with her newborn baby.

Aparana’i with her newborn baby.

TAKE ACTION

Learn more about uncontacted tribes in Brazil through Survival International as they work to protect the last Awá.

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

 

DOMENICO PUGLIESE

Domenico is an Italian photographer currently based in London. His long term project is working with the "Awa-Guaja" tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.

Warm Waters

WARM WATERS is a long-term photographic project investigating the impacts of climate change on the vulnerable communities and environments throughout the Pacific Region. From rising sea levels and the effects of increasingly extreme weather effects, such as El Niño and super typhoons, to floods and droughts, the destruction of coast, and the first climate refugees — I am collecting visual evidence of what is happening on the front lines of man-made global warming today, and how these phenomena are being dealt with.

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ABOVE: Residents of the South Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati, bathing in the lagoon near the town of Bairiki. Seawalls protect the tiny islets of the atoll from the rising sea levels, however, many of them are constantly destroyed by high tides. (South Tarawa, Kiribati)

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ABOVE: Dead coconut trees on the atoll of Abaiang, in an area of land where soils have become increasingly eroded and salinated by the regular flooding that occurs during high tides. Abaiang is one of Kiribati’s most threatened threatened islands. The government says this area is a “barometer for what Kiribati can expect in the future.” Since the 1970s the residents of Tebunginako have seen the sea levels rise and today a major part of the village has had to be abandoned. (Tebunginako, Kiribati)

Since 2013 I have travelled across most of the countries in Oceania — covering sea level rise in Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands, land grabs and related climate change issues in Papua New Guinea, super cyclones in Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Fiji, and climate change related migrations in Solomon Islands. One of the biggest issues facing mankind today, I aim to document climate change through the prism of communities whose very existence is threatened. Warm Waters shows that global warming is not a distant reality for future generations, but a critical issue for which we must all take collective responsibility and immediate action.

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ABOVE: A plastic barrel of drinking water is hoisted up in the coastal village of Hanuabada in Papua New Guinea. With climate change, tides here are rising, exacerbating already severe sanitation issues. During high tide events, human waste flows freely between water resources, water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, and typhoid start spreading, and potable water becomes scarce. (Hanuabada village, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea)

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ABOVE: Children in front of the Kiribati Parliament House in South Tarawa. Kiribati is one of the four atoll nations that are located in the Pacific Ocean. Most of Kiribati’s atolls rise no more than a couple of metres above sea level, and are very vulnerable to rising seas. (South Tarawa, Kiribati)

2015 was the warmest year on record and sea temperatures are increasing. Responsible for many of the climate conditions in the Pacific, El Niño weather patterns are intensifying. From Category 5 Cyclone Pam in South Pacific, to ice melting beneath First Nations’ feet — storms, droughts, floods, and heatwaves are becoming more severe and frequent.

The ramifications of shifting weather conditions are extremely complex. Physical environmental changes are implicating culture, history and tradition. Rising sea levels and erosion are shrinking already tiny land masses and changes to ecosystems are affecting food resources and tourism. As quickly as communities build sea walls, they are destroyed by storm surges. As people rebuild homes and schools after a cyclone, they are damaged by another. Rising temperatures are fracturing once solid ice and cracks are appearing in otherwise strong communities. People need move inland, and in the most extreme cases, relocate entirely.

“They are not escaping war or persecution, they are fleeing their own environment. They are the world’s first climate change refugees.”

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ABOVE: An aerial view of Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands comprises two chains of coral atolls, together with more than 1,000 islets. It is on average just two meters above sea level. The country faces an existential threat from rising sea levels with some predictions claiming that the islands will be swamped by the end of the 21st century. (Majuro, Marshall Islands)

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ABOVE: A collapsed house on the banks of Mataniko River in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. In 2014 the region was badly affected by flash floods, which took the lives of 22 people and left 9,000 homeless. Thousands of homes located on Mataniko’s banks were washed away and many gardens were destroyed. (Honiara, Solomon Islands)

The longer the locals on these submerging islands search for solutions, the more their landmass is decreasing. While discussions elsewhere in the world still revolve primarily around the causes of climate change, the lives of those living in the Pacific revolve around adaptation and survival. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and these communities, some of the world’s most vulnerable, are already experiencing the reality of one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

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ABOVE: A father and son building a sea wall in front of their house in Fale village, Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau. About 350 people live on this islet, which has a height of no than two metres above the high water mark during ordinary tides. In an attempt to fight the rising sea levels, Fale residents have enclosed their islet in concrete, with 5 to 7 metres high sea walls, hoping to protect their homes from storm surges. (Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau)

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ABOVE: Children playing in the water near a seawall in Tebikenikoora village, one of the islands most affected by sea level rise area in Kiribati. The village is regularly flooded during high tides despite residents attempts to build sea walls or take care of those that were built by the local government, but frequent big waves continue to damage them, putting resident’s houses, and gardens, under constant threat. (South Tarawa, Kiribati)

In 2014 and 2016, I visited Kiribati and the Marshall Islands — small, submerging island states that are starting to disappear because of rising sea levels and the extreme power of super typhoons, which fall on them far more often than in previous decades. Scientists say that they will be unsuitable for habitation by the end of the century. These countries are located on coral atolls, pieces of land in the middle of the vast ocean, which are only several dozen meters wide in their narrowest parts.

During high tides and severe storms, huge waves flood the roads, and seawater gets into the houses, also destroying gardens and vegetable patches. In some parts of Kiribati, whole villages have had to move inside the island because of coastal erosion.

“People live in constant fear that their homes will be destroyed, and their small children washed into the ocean, so during bad weather some parents tie up their children to heavy objects inside the house.”

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ABOVE: Children playing on a sea wall in the town of Betio, near the rusting remains of a wrecked ship that was lifted and smashed onto the wall during a king tide in February 2015. (Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati)

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ABOVE: Jorlang Jorlang, 70, lies on his bed while his wife Tita finishes hanging laundry. In April 2014 a ‘king tide’ hit their house in Jenrok village on the Marshall Islands, and the seawater came inside. The rest of the family evacuated the house, but Jorlang couldn’t move, due to his disability. His wife had to stay with him for two days and wait until the water was gone. (Jenrok, Marshall Islands)

In Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, I visited a cemetery where the graves are gradually submerging. For me, this one of the most convincing arguments for those who deny the effects of climate change and global warming , because why would anyone build cemeteries within reach of the tide on purpose? Several decades ago the locals would never have thought that the bones of their ancestors would be underwater.

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ABOVE: A graveyard in Jernok village that is slowly being destroyed by the rising seas, in the Marshall Islands’ capital Majuro. “Cemeteries along the coastline are being affected,” says Kaminga Kaminga, a climate change negotiator for the Marshall Islands. “Gravesites are falling into the sea. Even in death we’re affected.” In June 2014, rising sea levels washed out the remains of 26 Japanese WWII soldiers on Santo Island. (Jernok, Marshall Islands)

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ABOVE: Children playing ‘hide and seek’ in Teone’s graveyard in Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu. Massive coastal erosion in Teone caused many coconut trees fall down, and the sea eaten its way into and around the trees that are still standing. People from Teone are threatened on one side by the ocean and its tide surges and on the other by a pit that fills with salt water at high tide due the soil salinisation. (Teone, Funafuti, Tuvalu)

I also visited the Polynesian island nation of Niue, which has land much higher above sea level. Already, some of the inhabitants of Tuvalu, another Oceanic state that is gradually submerging, have been relocated to Niue. In recent years, many of the locals from Niue have been emigrating to New Zealand in search of work, so the authorities decided to give Tuvaluan people a home to populate again partly abandoned villages.

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ABOVE: Hetu, 8, holds a shark that was caught by fishermen in Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau. Tokelau is a small atoll nation of Polynesia, which is a self-administering territory of New Zealand. Access to Tokelau is possible only by ferry from Samoa, and boats usually depart every two weeks from Samoan capital Apia. Isolation, lack of job opportunities, and vulnerability to climate change has the forced majority of Tokelauans to leave their homes in search of a better life in New Zealand or Australia. (Fakaofo Atoll, Tokelau)

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ABOVE: Children of Etas village on Efate Island watch a water truck delivering drinking water to their village. After Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu on 13 March 2015, many local communities were left without fresh water supplies. International charity Oxfam organised an airport water tank truck to come to the villages around Port Vila and help locals to fill their barrels with drinking water. Over 15 people died in the storm and winds up to 165 mph (270 km/h) caused widespread damage to houses and infrastructure. Cyclone Pam is considered one of the worst natural disasters ever to affect the country. (Etas, Efate Island, Vanuatu)

In 2015 after spending time capturing the aftermath of the destructive Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu, I travelled to Tuvalu on a UNICEF commission. I was lucky to find myself on the same ship as the official delegation, headed by Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga, and including almost all ministers. The ship went to the most remote islands of Nui, Vaitupu and Nukufetau, all severely damaged by Cyclone Pam. I was the only professional photographer there to capture the aftermath of the cyclone.

Before our arrival the huge waves had eroded the cemetery on Nui, and there were bones and half-decomposed bodies floating all over the island. The pigs and chickens had started to eat them, and so the Tuvaluan government sent instructions that all of the animals must be killed to prevent disease spreading. For the locals, whose livelihood is based on fishing and animal husbandry, it was, of course, a tragedy.

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ABOVE: People from Nukufetau Atoll boarding the ‘Manu Folau’, a ship that will take them to Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, where they hope to take refuge. Nukufetau was among the other outer islands of Tuvalu that were badly hit by Cyclone Pam in March 2015. Many residents left the damaged areas and went to to stay with relatives in Funafuti, which was not affected by the cyclone. (Nukufetau Atoll, Tuvalu)

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ABOVE: Nelly Seniola, 35, extension officer in the Tuvaluan fisheries department, shows a photograph on his laptop of a corpse that was washed out of a cemetery by a storm surge. Nelly told me, “There were many dead bodies, skulls and bones floating around. Pigs and chickens started to eat some of the bodies. We received a radio message from the capital, that we had to kill those animals, as they could spread diseases.” (Tuvalu)

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ABOVE: A house on stilts, built over a polluted ‘borrow pit’ on the edge of Funafuti, in Tuvalu. The settlement, called Eton, is threatened on one side by the ocean’s waters and tide surges and, on the other, by stagnant saltwater filled ‘borrow pits,’ where sand and rocks were excavated by the American military during WW2 in order to build a runway. The pits are a dump for the refuse that is increasingly clogging the islands and a health hazard for those living alongside. (Funafuti, Tuvalu)

Towards the end of 2015 I made a one-month trip around the islands in northern part of Oceania, including Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. In addition to documenting the effects of coral bleaching and sea level rise, I was also capturing the aftermath of super typhoon Maysak, the most powerful pre-April tropical cyclone on record in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean.

Maysak affected Yap and Chuuk states in the Federated States of Micronesia, with damage estimated at $8.5 million (2015 USD). The Red Cross reported there were as many as 5,000 people in desperate need of food, water, and shelter, and who required emergency assistance.

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ABOVE: Roxanna Miller, monitoring technician of the University of Guam Marine Lab, inspecting species of staghorn corals severely impacted by coral bleaching event in 2013–2014. The bleaching resulted in loss of about half of all Guam’s staghorn corals. Although the remaining corals are slowly recovering, because of the increasing effects of global warming they can be hit again by rising water temperatures and extreme low tide events. Loss of the coral reefs would directly impact on local fishermen, as the habitats the corals provide to reef flat fish communities, would be gone. (Guam)

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ABOVE: A small islet in the Ulithi Atoll. With only a few palm trees remaining, it is almost entirely submerged during high tides. (Ulithi Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia)

Most recently, I spent time in Fiji, Samoa, Tokelau, and the Solomon Islands. On the 20 and 21 February 2016 Category 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, destroying the country’s infrastructure and thousands of homes. At the time of my visit, 43 people had been confirmed dead and more then 60 thousand had been forced to flee, living in evacuation centres hurriedly set up across the country.

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ABOVE: The southern part of Taveuni Island in Fiji is among the areas most affected by Cyclone Winston. Some villages were completely destroyed and people were left without food for about a week, as access to the island was cut off. (Taveuni Island, Fiji)

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ABOVE: Locals prepare food rations, given by private donors, for delivery to affected villages of southern part of Taveuni Island in Fiji, one of the most affected areas. (Taveuni Island, Fiji)

As global warming continues, many countries in the Pacific region will feel the effects of the destabilization of the planet’s ecosystem. Extreme weather events, such as unusually high temperatures and cyclones are already devastating small island nations. I have decided to dedicate several years to the Warm Waters project, and have plans to travel around the whole Pacific region from Alaska to New Zealand, documenting the unpredictable and severe effects of climate change.

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ABOVE: Teiwaki Teteki, 28, carries his 4-year-old son Paaia to the shore in heavy rain. Teiwaki and other passengers travelled to Taborio village from North Tarawa by “te wa uowa” (double) canoe, which is the only way to get from north of the Tarawa Atoll to the south during high tide. For nearly two years, it has been raining almost every day in the northern part of the Gilbert Islands chain. In 2015, the annual rainfall was 4 times higher than the average. (South Tarawa, Kiribati)

And yet, despite the painful and challenging situations I have witnessed, this project is as much about resilience as it is about tragedy. Local and international organizations are helping to introduce renewable energy, new water tanks, and fortified roads into these communities. People are being relocated following, and in case of, the ever-increasing likelihood of natural disasters related to global warming. And in the children, I see hope. When it floods, they swim in the pools of water near their houses, or try to surf on improvised surf-boards during high tides.

“Many communities in the Pacific are optimistic and resilient, determined to find solutions rather than be case studies of climate change victims.”

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ABOVE: A young girl playing in the remains of an oil barrel near the shore of Tebunginako village in Kiribati. The island nation is slowly being swallowed by rising sea levels, and will likely be uninhabitable before the end of the century. (Tebunginako, Abaiang Atoll, Kiribati)

 

 

Some photos from this gallery were taken on assignments for UNICEF Pacific and Oxfam Australia

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

 

VLAD SOKHIN

Documentary photographer, multimedia producer and film-maker, represented by Panos Pictures. Author of the book, ‘Crying Meri’.

www.vladsokhin.com

MONGOLIA: In Search of Warriors

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LIKE ALL WORTHY QUESTS, MY FASCINATION WITH MONGOLIA BEGINS WITH A STORY. A STORY THAT TURNS ITSELF LIKE POLISHED STONE WITHIN MY FINGERS.

A hunter, old rifle by his side, returns with a few marmots, highly prized delicacies throughout the Mongolian countryside. / A simple road, common in Mongolia, calls to mind this native proverb, “If you endeavour, the fate will favour you.”

A hunter, old rifle by his side, returns with a few marmots, highly prized delicacies throughout the Mongolian countryside. / A simple road, common in Mongolia, calls to mind this native proverb, “If you endeavour, the fate will favour you.”

This is a tale I have replayed so often since childhood, that when I close my eyes, the characters appear, fully defined, as if I could touch them. At the center is my grandfather, Louis, a young French soldier fighting in World War II. I see him then in black and white, even though when he sat me on his knee, decades later, to tell his story, he was colorful in every way imaginable. It was as if my grandfather had grown up through a period of time when everything existed only in shades of black and grey, as if the entire world with its violence and scarcity had the color sucked right out of it.

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Aerial view of Khvod (Ховд), blanketed by snow, in western Mongolia. / Immense landscapes on a 3,200 km drive through eastern Mongolia.

Aerial view of Khvod (Ховд), blanketed by snow, in western Mongolia. / Immense landscapes on a 3,200 km drive through eastern Mongolia.

But then he would tell the part about the Mongol army. About how he was captured and sent to a German prison camp with British, American, and French soldiers. How the camp was eventually liberated, late in 1944, by a small and mighty troop fighting alongside the Allies against the Germans. They were the Mongolian People’s Army, established as a secondary army under Soviet command. As a young child, to hear my grandfather tell it, these liberators loomed large in vibrant, audacious color, a brilliant contrast to the stark landscape that surrounded them all.

Herders from Ulaangom (Улаангом), the “Red Valley”. / Drinking Mongol tea, made with mare’s milk and salt, at Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур).

Herders from Ulaangom (Улаангом), the “Red Valley”. / Drinking Mongol tea, made with mare’s milk and salt, at Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур).

I was seven or eight years old when my grandfather would tell me this story, and I remember the grin on his face and the tears in his eyes as he told his tale: “The Mongol army charged the prison and the Germans were scared to death at the sight of them. Never before had anyone seen a people like this. They were fierce and the Germans ran away. They ran for their lives.” He told me that afterwards the freed soldiers and the Mongols kept hugging one other and celebrated long into the night.

This is how my grandfather’s life was saved.

As a young boy this account had a massive impact on me. That mysterious Mongol Army of men who saved my grandfather’s life; they saved my life.

A young rider bathes with his horse at Buir Lake (Буйр Нуур). Mongolians call wild horses “takhi,” which means “spirit,” and horses are profoundly important to them. They believe that one rides to the afterlife on a horse.

A young rider bathes with his horse at Buir Lake (Буйр Нуур). Mongolians call wild horses “takhi,” which means “spirit,” and horses are profoundly important to them. They believe that one rides to the afterlife on a horse.

Mongolia.

THE NAME HAS ALWAYS LINGERED IN MY MIND AS A COUNTRY WITH A MYTHICAL CONNOTATION.

Illuminated bands of rain sweep towards a group of “ger” or yurts, huddled on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Illuminated bands of rain sweep towards a group of “ger” or yurts, huddled on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

When I got older, I worked as a photo assistant to a high-end fashion photographer in New York, learning the craft and saving a bit of money. For three years I was absorbed in that world of fashion, which was very glamorous and comfortable, but I was most attracted by the travel and began to long for more. At some point, I determined to go to Mongolia and see the place with my own eyes. In the summer of 2001, I took a month and set off.

While I brought my cameras on that first trip, a bit of equipment and film, I was mostly thrilled to put the experience of traveling first. This journey was more a pilgrimage. I have since returned almost annually for fifteen years, driven by a desire to capture the majesty and serene nature of the Mongolian landscape and inhabitants through my photography. At first I sought to discover the country of my imagination, but with every trip, my relationship with the land and its people deepened and became my own.

Timeless reflection. Surrounded by deserted, low mountains, Tolbo Lake (Толбо Нуур) in western Mongolia. / Stopping for tea, our hosts were caring for their grandchildren. Their nomadic home was quite rustic with carpets for side panels, a long-gone style rarely seen today.

Timeless reflection. Surrounded by deserted, low mountains, Tolbo Lake (Толбо Нуур) in western Mongolia. / Stopping for tea, our hosts were caring for their grandchildren. Their nomadic home was quite rustic with carpets for side panels, a long-gone style rarely seen today.

“Even when quite a child I felt two conflicting sensations in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.” — Baudelaire, Intimate Journals

On that first trip to Mongolia in 2001, I took a photograph of a mother and her infant son at their home on the shores of Üüreg lake, in the western part of the country. I traveled with an easy to pack, black piece of fabric. The light in this country is so beautiful and the fabric was capable of diffusing it to great effect, especially when shooting portraits of people.

Five years later, in 2006, I returned to the region where this family had once resided and sought them out. I often make small prints for the people I photograph and, if lucky enough to see them again, I like to give them as gifts. People in Mongolia, especially in the countryside, live great distances from each other and do not typically have access to this type of technology. I asked my guide to help me find this particular family as most in this area tend to be nomadic and the surroundings are constantly changing. We drove around the area asking people if they knew where we might locate them. Eventually, someone recognized the family and showed us the way.

A Mongolian “ger” (гэр) or yurt, covered with skins and felt, the traditional home of nomads living on the expansive steppes of central Asia.

A Mongolian “ger” (гэр) or yurt, covered with skins and felt, the traditional home of nomads living on the expansive steppes of central Asia.

We arrived, as you do in this part of the world, completely unannounced. The family remembered me, gave us a warm greeting and served us a tea. After we had eaten, I pulled out the photograph and handed it to the couple.

The mother picked up the picture, looked at it and there grew a void, her face filled with great sadness as she left the room. Her husband picked up the photograph and stood, his eyes swelling with tears. Their baby, he explained, had died of a virus three weeks after our first visit. They had never seen any picture of him. Here was this image allowing a mother and father to reconnect to their lost son. For a moment, it was like a resurrection—that powerful. My guide and I drove the four hours back in complete silence, as if we were under the spell of what had just happened. It was one of the most profound moments I have ever felt, creating that deepest human connection.

Mother and infant son, in their home on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Mother and infant son, in their home on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

“There is not a particle of life, which does not bear poetry within it.” — Gustave Flaubert

While in the countryside, especially, you can feel the influence of Buddhism. In every ger, the Mongolian term for their traditional tents, you will find a small altar with a Buddhist icon. In each village there is a monastery. It is a subtle presence, one felt primarily in how people relate to life. Death is a passage, a journey. It happens, it is anticipated as part of the life cycle. Does death trigger sadness? Yes, but life goes on. The religious culture is something that seems to create an overall sense of morality. In my experience, Mongols are extremely fair people. You ask their point of view and they tell you precisely what they think.

Horse riders at rest in Horkon, central Mongolia. / Baasan Lama, a monk at Bulgan Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Gobi Desert.

Horse riders at rest in Horkon, central Mongolia. / Baasan Lama, a monk at Bulgan Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Gobi Desert.

In Mongolia, nothing happens the way you want or expect.

For me, coming from a western culture where everything is linear, this was an awakening. If you are traveling, you only know when you are leaving, never when you will arrive. I found that amazing. In a country as immense as this, the elements are so powerful there is no control. There may be a snow or sand storm. Things that can physically prevent you from moving forward on your journey. You cannot continue… until you can.

Two schoolboys, wearing fur-lined boots, walk home through the snow near the village of Altai (Алтай) in the far west of Mongolia.

Two schoolboys, wearing fur-lined boots, walk home through the snow near the village of Altai (Алтай) in the far west of Mongolia.

I have learned that most of the time when things are not going as planned, that is often when the situation is the most visually exciting. We have to go a different direction than where we came from and stay one more night all because of a flat tire. But, that is when something special happens. We end up saying afterwards, “Wow. Mind blown.”

Take, for example, the following series of images, which illustrate exactly the type of unexpected scenarios that gift themselves to you while traveling through Mongolia. We had a plan to fly direct from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to Tsaatan lands, to visit reindeer herders on the Russian border, but for some reason our flight got canceled. This happens a lot. We had to stay one more night in the city, get on a different flight to somewhere further away, then rent a car and drive back across this vast lake, Khövsgöl, one of the biggest lakes in Mongolia. This arduous journey, all to reach the town we were originally attempting to fly to directly. I was fuming. I had just three weeks for this trip and now I was losing two entire days.

The Altai Mountains, seen on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii. / A bridge near the village of Altai (Алтай), a few miles from China’s border.

The Altai Mountains, seen on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii. / A bridge near the village of Altai (Алтай), a few miles from China’s border.

During the winter months, this lake is completely frozen, often an ice layer of up to six feet, and instead of taking the dirt road, often filled with potholes and hard to navigate, trucks and cars travel directly across the iced over lake. There is a risk, of course. As the drive went on, the truck we were following suddenly began to collapse into the ice, without any warning.

A warmer wind from the south had been blowing in recent days, making the upper layer of ice more fragile. Everyone in our vehicle shouted out in shock “Arrgh!” and we stopped as far away as possible, as the ice in the epicenter was quite fragile. While we contemplated the situation, the owner of the truck, who had at first abandoned it, along with the other passengers, walked back to the vehicle to retrieve his belongings. While he was still in the truck, we heard a massive roar. A roar so deafening we were surrounded by the thunderous sound echoing from the ice.

We knew something was about to happen. Everyone ran from the truck, as it sunk even deeper, seemingly fixed into the ice. Immovable.
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What happened next?

Well, the Mongols are impressively strong willed and determined. They called for help and a few hours later a couple of other trucks arrived.

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Together, the group waited for night to fall, so that the ice was again solid and reliable ground, and then they literally pulled it out of the ice. So badass.

That truck was filled with wood, likely bound for a construction site. There was too much potentially lost revenue trapped in that one ice circle. Fortunately, no one was hurt that day, but locals have told me stories of jeeps and trucks, loaded with occupants, disappearing entirely in the frozen lake after the ice had cracked, never to be heard of again. Only later did we realize how close we were to possibly meeting the same fate.

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This lake was full of unusual surprises. Earlier the same day, we had come across two young men lying on the ice, in the middle of nowhere. We stopped the car and got out, but they did not move. They just stared. They were completely drunk, wasted. It was still morning! They were just lying there waiting for something.

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I love the perspective, the color, and texture of the ice in this image. Knowing the strange backstory makes it even better. I had not planned this particular journey, but some of the most powerful images I shot during that trip happened thanks to that canceled flight. In these types of consistently disruptive circumstances, an overall shift in perspective takes place. In retrospect, the entire experience turned out to be perfect.

A boy from Kharkhorin (Хархорин) wearing a traditional “deel”or robe, with a silk sash. / Two brothers from Khövsgöl Lake (Хөвсгөл нуур).

A boy from Kharkhorin (Хархорин) wearing a traditional “deel”or robe, with a silk sash. / Two brothers from Khövsgöl Lake (Хөвсгөл нуур).

Looking back, all my visits to Mongolia have been marked by unexpected moments like these. One place in particular is layered with memories. Many years ago, when I first arrived on the Trans Siberian railway, with no plans and little idea of a destination, I saw a tiny blue dot on the map, in the far west of the country. I could just make out the words, Üüreg Nuur, a lake. Somehow attracted to it, I decided that was where I was going to go. A few days later, I took the picture of the mother and her baby son, and over the years, I have returned many times, making friends and photographing most of the families living there. I have seen toddlers become teenagers, teenagers grow into young adults, and older men pass away. The full cycle of life.

Wrapped baby, held by his sister, at Üüreg Lake in western Mongolia.

Wrapped baby, held by his sister, at Üüreg Lake in western Mongolia.

Last summer, I returned to Üüreg Lake once again, in June, traveling with two local guides. At some point we stopped because we came across a group of herders who had all of their sheep laid down by the water so they could shear them. When I pointed my camera towards this man, he lifted the sheep high up above his head. It was completely unexpected. Intrigued, I shot a few frames and then asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, “I don’t know — it is something I have always wanted to do.” Often photography inspires a certain playfulness and spontaneity; there is something fundamentally human about posing for a camera.

A local herder shearing his sheep on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

A local herder shearing his sheep on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Perhaps, above all, in this country, I have learned how to adapt.

Nothing unfolds as you might first imagine, but these unanticipated moments bring rich and beautiful gifts. Traveling here has brought me a new perspective, even some wisdom, particularly as it relates to being attached to expectations and schedules. Over time, I have relaxed my grip on the rigidity of my own culture and let go enough to accept what will be. I have applied this in my everyday life. Even if I am on an intense shoot for a commercial job, I now trust that everything will eventually work out just fine.

Two friends go out for a ride near their home by Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Two friends go out for a ride near their home by Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

“A strong cold wind gets up from the W.N.W — that is to say, at our back — but we are on a desolate steppe, where we can find neither shrub nor anything else which can help to combat the cold that it is beginning to be unpleasant. On the other hand, we come upon some very pretty flowers, lovely wild pansies and edelweiss that would delight the heart of an Alpinist.” 

FRENCH EXPLORER, GABRIEL BONVALOT

Across Thibet, The Mongols, 1891

Buddhist monastery in the summer months. / A frozen river winds through the stark landscape, on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii.

Buddhist monastery in the summer months. / A frozen river winds through the stark landscape, on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii.

You will find two contrasting dimensions in Mongolia, bound both by culture and geography. It is the 19th largest country in the world, yet there are only three million people living there. Close to half that population is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, today the country’s industrial and financial heart, where technology has evolved considerably.

Meanwhile, the rest of Mongolia’s people are dispersed all over the country in small villages and towns, with some thirty percent still choosing a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life, moving across the land with their horses. People may have a satellite dish or cell phone, but connection is erratic. Here, life is very slow; it hasn’t really changed over time.

A remote satellite dish provides the evening’s entertainment. / A herder smokes a cigarette rolled from a scrap of newspaper.

A remote satellite dish provides the evening’s entertainment. / A herder smokes a cigarette rolled from a scrap of newspaper.

Vast plains and beautiful landscapes are the hallmark of these remote lands. The air is pure. The food is very simple. Essentially, a meal is meat that has been taken from a sheep killed that morning and cooked with some flour. The customary tea is called suutei tsai and made with mare’s milk and salt. My initial physical experience in Mongolia is always an exponential energy increase from the combination of fresh air, vast open space, outdoor activity, and unprocessed food intake. It is amazing. It toughens you up — all that vitality and energy.

A herder, his wife, and their five young children make their way to winter pastures, transporting their “ger” or yurt and all their belongings.

A herder, his wife, and their five young children make their way to winter pastures, transporting their “ger” or yurt and all their belongings.

There is a spiritual effect as well. Mongolia, overall, is a very flat country, and you can see for many kilometers. Nothing to obstruct you. Somehow, being able to see so far away brings you back to the moment, to where you stand right now. You float through that space. There is a reflection that delivers your own reflection directly back to you. This sense of place and of self, it centers you. In Mongolia, I am able to stay in the moment much more powerfully than other places. The strength and vibrance coupled with the spiritual energy from grounding in the present, is a restorative experience.

“Та өндөр бүтээхийг хүсэж байгаа бол, Хэрэв та гүн ухаж байх ёстой.” — If you want to build high, you must dig deep.

MONGOLIAN PROVERB

Bayanzag (Улаан Эрэг) or the “Flaming Cliffs” in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are said to appear to be on fire as the sun sets.

Bayanzag (Улаан Эрэг) or the “Flaming Cliffs” in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are said to appear to be on fire as the sun sets.

For years, I wanted to photograph the Kazakh, a robust people living in the extreme western part of the country high in the Altai Mountains, who traditionally hunt on horseback with golden eagles. In December 2015, the opportunity finally presented itself. I had two weeks; everything was arranged. The eagle hunters are all ethnic Kazakh their ancestors having fled to neighbouring Mongolia during the mid to late 19th century, in the face of the advance of the Russian Empire troops during the communist era. Some speak Mongol; many don’t. They are Muslim, rather than Buddhist, and for most of the 20th century they remained an isolated, tightly knit community.

The hunter, Jaidarkhan, an ethnic Kazakh whose ancestors fled to Mongolia, and his eagle.

The hunter, Jaidarkhan, an ethnic Kazakh whose ancestors fled to Mongolia, and his eagle.

Living by the ancient art of eagle hunting, I found them to be very generous, kind people. In Kazakh, the word qusbegi, or falconer, comes from the words qus (“bird”) and bek (“lord”), translating as “lord of birds.”

These days, however, only a few Kazakh are still traditional hunters. Some continue primarily for show, as there is a new tourist economy that can support the fading art form, especially each October, when eagle hunting customs are displayed at the Kazakh’s annual Golden Eagle Festival.

In good years, Kuantkhan Ologban and his eagle catch around 30 animals. Some years, none are caught at all due to extreme weather.

In good years, Kuantkhan Ologban and his eagle catch around 30 animals. Some years, none are caught at all due to extreme weather.

Winter in Mongolia often brings raw, biting winds, and extremely challenging conditions, so our journey to reach Kazakh lands was demanding. When we finally arrived, utterly exhausted, in temperatures of –30°C, I quickly became sick with a fever and was forced to stay in bed for seven days. I was deeply disappointed. My guide, and friend, Enkhdul, with whom I’ve crossed the entire country many times, in all seasons, from the Gobi Desert to Tsaatan lands in the extreme north, and from the eastern plains to the Altaii mountains in the far west, told me, “We are not leaving! You have been talking about coming here, to do this, for years.” So, I waited it out and got better. However, I had only three days to shoot everything.

Hunters value their eagles immensely. In winter, they sleep inside with the family. / Alpam, who is learning the art of hunting from his father.

Hunters value their eagles immensely. In winter, they sleep inside with the family. / Alpam, who is learning the art of hunting from his father.

The Kazakh community is quite incredible and their stories fantastic: how they proceed, scaling remote and cragged mountain peaks to find the eagle they will raise. The relationship that forms between the hunter and eagle has a special connection and symmetry that can only come from time and great care. Sometimes a hunter will work with an eagle for ten or twenty years.

Dalaikhan, a champion hunter, with his 2-year-old eagle. He is wearing fox-skin clothes from previous successful hunts.

Dalaikhan, a champion hunter, with his 2-year-old eagle. He is wearing fox-skin clothes from previous successful hunts.

As we were so far north, in the middle of December, the hours of daylight were few. The sun was consistently low on the horizon, casting a golden, soft light on everything and everyone it touched. But once the sun disappeared, the temperatures plummeted to a frigid –20°C. My analogue camera would jam and stop working completely, forcing me to end for the day. Once again, gifts and challenges.

After just one day, my camera and I had become seemingly invisible, to all but the inquisitive eyes of the youngest child.

After just one day, my camera and I had become seemingly invisible, to all but the inquisitive eyes of the youngest child.

Like so many other times in this vast and windswept country, my expectations did not match the reality. I had planned for two weeks and received a mere three days. But, those brief days surpassed anything I could have hoped for in quality and depth of relationship. Their grace and exceptional strength was tangible. Here, among the sweeping landscape and rugged way of life that shapes the inhabitants of this part of the world, I could imagine the men who rescued my grandfather.

The mountainous landscape dwarfs two Kazakh hunters and their horses in the far west of Mongolia, near the village of Altai (Алтай).

The mountainous landscape dwarfs two Kazakh hunters and their horses in the far west of Mongolia, near the village of Altai (Алтай).

While the heroic ferocity of my grandfather’s Mongol Army certainly inspired my obsession with this country, we are all products of our experience. Regardless of culture, each of us are indelibly shaped by the events and history of the generations that precede us. I may have first come to Mongolia in search of warriors, but I return again and again having discovered raw beauty and elegance in a country equally ethereal as it is grounded.

Casting a diffuse, shimmering light, the winter sun was low in the sky, as we watched this young herder and his cattle pass by.

Casting a diffuse, shimmering light, the winter sun was low in the sky, as we watched this young herder and his cattle pass by.

Maybe it is the influence of my professional background, but I have grown attuned to noticing elegance, even in the wildest places in the world. There is always a glimpse of quiet splendor, an angle that calls out something beautiful. Perhaps the knotting of a silk cord along a side pocket or a belt that is latched around a robe, maybe hair done a certain way. I am attracted to these graceful elements and know when I see them that I will make a photo.

Summer rain clouds gather over the lush grazing pastures on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур). / A farmer, pausing for a moment, in his day’s work. / A young woman wearing a traditional “deel” or robe.

Summer rain clouds gather over the lush grazing pastures on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур). / A farmer, pausing for a moment, in his day’s work. / A young woman wearing a traditional “deel” or robe.

All of this is an odyssey. In Mongolia, this journey is most often about shooting in difficult places and seeking the elegant angle. I found photography very late in my life, but am thrilled to discover the range of perspective it offers. It is a learning process that requires great sensitivity. There are constant questions: How am I able to emotionally perceive what I see? What will it take to tell this story in a unique way? All of this fascinates me. This is my passion project. After fifteen years, I have a much better sense of what makes my work distinctive. My sense is that over time, my images have become more artful. Still, this is a work in progress.

I am always exploring.

 

COMING SOON

For years, I have been working to collect material for a retrospective book of my photographic work and experiences in Mongolia. In Fall of 2018, I will be publishing a limited collectible edition of 1,000 books in a large format (17 inches x 14 inches) with more than 250 pages. There will also be a handful of special editions that are offered with a signed print and a special book encasement. Follow along on my Instagram @fredericlagrange to keep up-to-date.

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

 

FRÉDÉRIC LAGRANGE

Photographer & Director based in Brooklyn, NYC shooting for a diverse range of clients worldwide. Capturing nuanced human stories through evocative color & black and white photography.

fredericlagrange.com

 

UAE: A Desert Palette

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Located in the Arabian Desert on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai breaks all records and leaves you speechless. Surrounded by the world’s tallest building, the largest artificial islands, the first "7-star'' hotel, the biggest shopping mall and one of the largest indoor snow parks in the world, everything seems possible in this city. Dubai, once a humble fishing village, has developed into a thriving ethnically diverse metropolis.

But there is more to Dubai than its glamorous lifestyle and the ever-growing number of skyscrapers that shape the city skyline.

Having only 72 hours to experience this overwhelming city, we admittedly didn’t expect a lot. A stopover between two long-haul flights while still suffering from jet lag seemed like too little time to see anything, but for us it was just enough time to dig below Dubai’s shiny exterior.

These warm, golden and dusty hues of Dubai are still very present in my head. Visiting in July is not the best idea. Humidity and temperatures rise high during summer and it is very hard to handle, especially when you are coming from the North. The heat hits you like a wall when you step out of your air conditioned hotel and it is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It completely takes your breath away.

While wandering through Dubai’s bustling Souks you feel the oriental and traditional side in every corner. It’s bright, colorful, noisy and fascinating to explore the labyrinth of covered walkways with it’s tiny stores while the aromas of exotic scents lead you through.

Just a short drive and you are surrounded by untouched desert. Experiencing the seemingly fragile, windswept, rippled orange sand dunes is so majestic and magical.

Exploring them makes you feel very small and insignificant in this world.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ROAM MAGAZINE.

 

EVI RITTER

Evi Ritter is an Austrian fine art travel and lifestyle photographer. She has lived in Zurich, Paris, Los Angeles and Germany before resettling in Sweden. She is an avid wanderer and wonderer. Through her photography you see her love of life’s simple pleasures and her love of the outdoors. Her style is minimal, light and fresh. She loves spending time with her family at the sea and exploring new places. You can follow her work on eviritter.com and her travels on Instagram @eviritter!

Two Years in Cambodia

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It all started on a tuk tuk ride…

I had just landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in Tacloban, Philippines.

Although I had never been there before, Cambodia was already the place I had decided to call home for the next year, or more. It was May 2014. The sky was still painted in black when I got off the plane and was engulfed by the warm and humid weather that, as I would learn over the following months, so much characterizes the country, especially at that time of the year.

As I exited the airport, all I could see was a chaotic frenzy of hands waiving and pointing to their tuktuks. They were all wearing similar clothes – sandals, a pair of pants and a shirt – and they all had big, unequivocally authentic smiles on their faces.

I don’t know if by instinct or pure luck, I ended up going with a driver who would later become a great friend of mine. Bunchai. His tuktuk was painted in red and it was so carefully and effusively decorated that it reminded me of the carnival parades we have in my home country Brazil.

As we cruised the quiet streets towards Tuol Tom Poung, a central neighborhood where a fellow photographer would host me until I found my own place, I just couldn’t believe in what I was experiencing. What was once just a dream was now a reality. I was indeed beginning a new life in Southeast Asia.

The Sun was just rising above the Tonle Sap and people were already doing choreographic exercises along the river promenade. Buddhist monks were walking around with their orange and red robes – some of them holding iPads -, and entire families were impressively balancing on the top of tiny and seemingly fragile motorbikes.

I fell in love immediately. I felt at home.

During the two years I was fortunate to spend in the country I obviously saw extreme poverty and shocking social-economic inequality. I witnessed – and documented – several and horrifying human rights violations. I learned about the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge, which took the lives of over 2 million people.

But I also saw remarkable resilience and an inspiring ability to find joy even in the most challenging circumstances. I saw generosity and kindness. Faith and Gratitude. Compassion and Happiness. I saw a younger generation trying to leave the past behind and embrace the future.


I explored remote and impressive temples from the 12th century; I spent relaxing days at paradisiac islands and sleepy river towns; I zigzagged through the chaotic traffic in Phnom Penh with my 1989 Vespa; and I had way too many beers with my local neighbors (most of them tuktuk drivers), who would always invite for a beer every time they saw me getting to or leaving my house. They never accepted a No for an answer.

I worked for magazines and I cooperated with many local and international NGOs. I photographed every single day during the time I was there and through this daily wanders I learned to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

Cambodia has taught me lessons that I will forever carry on my heart and I hope I will have the chance go back in the near future. The recent news that the only opposition party has been dismantled is certainly worrying and it makes me think of all the friends I left there.

If up until recently Hun Sen – who has been in power since 1985! – at least tried to keep a democratic appearance to his government, it seems that now he is no longer concerned about exposing the true face of his (totalitarian) regime. Cambodians, who have gone through the horror of Khmer Rouge just a few decades ago, certainly deserve better and brighter days.

Bunchai, the first friend I made in the country, is still working at his day job and driving his tuktuk in the evenings and early mornings. The day we took that same way to the airport, but on the opposite direction, two years after our first encounter, was unusually cloudy and gray. I don’t remember seeing much during our ride. Perhaps I had too many thoughts and memories going through my mind…

When we finally reach the airport, after a trip that seemed to have last for an eternity, I give Bunchai a big hug and just can’t hold my tears. I ask him to take care of himself and his family, and I tell him that if he ever needs any help he must call me immediately.

He gives me that very same smile he had greeted me with two years earlier, and says, with both determination and confidence:

“No worry, my friend. I will be fine! See you soon!”

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ROAM MAGAZINE.

 

BERNARDO SALCE

Bernardo Salce is a a Brazilian photographer whose work seeks to celebrate cultural diversity and raise social-environmental awareness. Having previously lived in Cambodia and Colombia, he is now based in San Diego, California. You can follow his work @bernardosalce.

http://www.bernardosalce.com/

MAURITANIA: Journey through the Sahara

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For 700km, day and night, we slithered through the vast uninhabited Sahara desert, sleeping on top of Mauritania’s infamous iron ore train. Heading for the coast, we hoped to find a place of forgotten shipwrecks and unknown surf.

When I was young I would pore over National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like this — train hopping through the Sahara Desert on one of the world’s longest trains.
I had dreamt of the oceans, of the sand, the loud clattering noises of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun. The unknown smells and sounds of the desert, and all the discomfort that goes with it.

That visceral experience was exactly what we got as we slithered night and day through the vast uninhabited desert, sleeping on top of Mauritania’s infamous iron ore train. Our unconventional 700km journey took us right through the Sahara to reach the coast, where we were hoping to find a place of forgotten shipwrecks and unknown surf.

I have always been enthralled by the idea of train hopping and have a particular fascination with the Sahara Desert. As I began researching this unique country, I became even more intrigued. Not many people travel in this part of the world and even fewer have even heard of Mauritania — quite astounding considering that its territory is twice the size of France and takes up a large portion of north western Africa.

Our journey began in the capital of Nouakchott, from where I travelled north with a surfer to hop on the Mauritania Railway. We planned to ride the 2.5km long train from a small town called Choum, located south of the iron mine in Zouerat, toward the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast. My aim was to try and capture the spirit of adventure and exploration as we passed through this incredible desolate landscape.

For me, adventure is not about the destination, but about the challenges, hardship and inevitable beauty in the process of getting there.

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From Nouakchott we worked our way through the interior, on what can barely be described as roads. On one particular day the weather conditions take a turn for the worse and a desert sandstorm begins to form on the horizon. I had stopped to take some photographs and before we knew it, the wind picked up considerably and it started to rain.

Within minutes, the sky darkens and the winds increase to what we guess is around 150km/hr. The stinging and blowing of the sand act as sandpaper and is so intense that I feel like my exposed skin is starting to come off.

We quickly find ourselves pinned to the side of our truck, as we try to find some shelter and reprieve. When the wind dies down and we are finally able to climb back inside the truck there are pieces of shattered glass everywhere. Our back window has completely imploded and the interior is soaked. Our guide, who had been waiting for us in the back seat, has cuts all over his body from the glass. As the storm settles we resumed our journey north through the desert, anxious to find the next unexpected turn of events. 

When we finally reach Choum, we are told that the train usually passes through sometime in the late afternoon. As we settle in and wait in the dirt by the tracks, a few families showed up with their goats and boxes of various goods. The kids run around while the parents make dinner and tea on small fires. As the light of the day descends and the sun dips below the horizon we resolved to try to get some sleep. When the train finally arrives, it is six hours late and long after midnight. We grab our gear and wait for the train to slow but it doesn’t actually stop. We run alongside the cars carrying the iron ore, illuminating the ground ahead with our headlamps.

We have no idea how much time we have to get on so we quickly pick a car and climbed up one of the ladders, throwing our gear and ourselves into it as fast as possible. With no warning the train picks up speed again.

We try to get a sense of our surroundings but end up creating a makeshift bed to try and get some sleep on the heaped mounds of jagged iron ore that fill our car. During the night, the desert temperatures drop dramatically and I put on all the clothes I have to try and get a little sleep. Any kind of rest is difficult not only because the train is incredibly loud, but because its huge length means that whenever it increases or decreases speed the cars hammer together violently.

Dawn brings with it the realization that the dust from the iron ore has seeped into all of our clothing, staining everything a rusty red hue. The abrasive dust gets everywhere, so we wear ski goggles to protect our eyes and wrap scarves around our heads to prevent us from breathing it in.

As the sun gives us warmth, we look out across the vast Sahara desert taking in the endless sand and arid plains. Relentless winds have endlessly recast the undulating dunes of the interior leaving a stark beauty.

The Mauritania Railway serves not only as the sole connection between remote locations and the country’s only major shipping port, Nouadhibou, but as free transport for locals seeking to travel from isolated communities to the coast. The hours pass slowly and the temperatures rise inexorably to become a blistering, sweltering heat. In some ways, there is little to see along the way except a few very small homes and dead camels wasting away beside the tracks.

Eventually we reach the coast and pull into Nouadhibou station, where we head out in search of unknown surf and a huge cemetery of lost shipwrecks. There are land mines peppering the landscape here, so access to the coast is a delicate task. In recent years, many of the shipwrecks have been dismantled and sold for their metal but there are still some fascinating rusting ship skeletons to be found.
 

From the shipwreck graveyards my curiosity leads me to spend time with the Imraguen fishermen in Banc d’Arguin National Park. It is a world heritage site because of its natural resources and fisheries. The Imraguen people have maintained their age-old lifestyles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using traditional sailboats. 

The Imraguen fishermen still use traditional techniques that are unchanged since they were first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers.

One thing that shocks me is that the fishermen cannot swim. The night I arrive in their village, locals tell me that one of fishermen has fallen from his boat and is believed to have drowned. The next day we help the community look for his body but it is never found. It seems incredible to me that these people live their whole lives by the sea and spend every day fishing, yet still do not know how to swim, almost as though cultural superstition prevents them from wanting to learn.

As my journey comes to an end I reflect on our experiences. I realize that this adventure has been one of those rare times in life when the expectations of your dreams and reality converge, and your adventures play out even better than you imagined.
 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

JODY MACDONALD

Jody MacDonald is an adventure sport, expedition and documentary-style photographer searching for adventure in the remote corners of the planet.