Sunday, July 30, 2017

And They're Off!

On the straightaway at a buffalo race in Jembrana. The "whip" is a studded stick drivers use to urge the animals to run faster. 

I went back to the buffalo races in Bali. The season is pretty short, from July through October. The races are held every other week and they're in out of the way locations far from the tourist centers of Ubud and Kuta/Sanur. All of which means going to the races is as much of an adventure as the actual races. 

This year, I was able to stop to make pictures of rice farmers and fisherman, so the trip was well worth the investment in time and money.
A man pulls his team of buffalo to the starting area. 

Racing water buffalo may seem like a contradiction, because they look slow and unagile. But they are surprisingly fast, even if they are unagile. 

Buffalo are raced throughout Asia. In Thailand, men ride them in the same way jockeys ride horses, in Sumatra, men ride a ski like contraption pulled by buffalo, in Java they ride plows pulled by buffalo and in Bali they ride small carts, not unlike silky, or trotter, racing in the US. 
A pair of racers come into the finish line. 

The rules for Balinese buffalo racing are kind of complicated. The winner is determined by how much distance there is between teams at the finish line. The race is held on a narrow track that winds through rice fields and racers start at the same time, but one behind the other (there are usually two teams on the track at one time, but sometimes there are three). There is a set distance between the two teams. The winner is based on whether or not the distance changes at the end of the race. If the first time pulls further ahead by the finish line, it wins. If the second team (or third team) closes the gap, it wins. If one team passes another, a gutsy move since the course is barely wide enough for two teams to pass, it wins with a roar of approval. 
Spectators stand in a rice field and watch the races. 

It's when there's a third team on the course that things get really interesting. The course is an unpaved road that, every other day of the year, is used by people going about their daily lives. The races are a mere diversion and people, even on race day, use the road to get from point A to point B, though thankfully only on foot (motorbikes and not allowed on the course on race day). 

People clear off the road when they hear the carts coming and then get back on the road after the second cart passes. It's when there's a third cart, bringing up the rear, that things get "interesting." Locals are smart enough to look before running back onto the road, but tourists not so much. I didn't see anyone get hit, but I did see a couple of close calls as people wandered back onto the road to get to a better vantage point, only to realize at the last minute that were still buff on the course.
A cart speeds down the track. 

Complicating the scoring is that races are not only between individual teams, but also between communities. Communities have their own flags, red (first photo) and green (above). The final winning community is based on a cumulative score drawn from that day's races, with more importance given to the last races of the day, run by each community's best teams. It's a complicated way to figure out who has the fastest water buffalo. 
The buffalo wear ornate headdresses. 

It's worth going to the races if you are in Bali on a race weekend (every other Sunday July - October) and you can figure out where they are and you can arrange transportation up to Jembrana. In addition to the races, you will see slices of island life that foreigners don't often see.
Vying for position at the finish.

A boy pulls his buffalo out of an irrigation ditch they lumbered into after the race. 

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Life Near the Sea

A fisherman in Airkuning, a fishing village on the Indian Ocean in southwest Bali, carries an outrigger to shore after landing his canoe (background) following a night at sea. 

A lot has been written in the international press lately about fishing in waters of Southeast Asia. Most of it is bad news related to overfishing, depletion of fish species, slavery and climate change. Factory trawlers, many crewed by virtual slaves, prowl the seas scooping up everything that swims. Fish that have market value (big predator fish and tuna - especially tuna) are kept on ice and processed. Small fish or fish that don't have market value are ground up into fish meal. The oceans are being emptied before our eyes. 

Villagers push outriggers up onto the beach in Airkuning. 

Some people, though, still cling to their traditional life. One such community is Airkuning, in southwest Bali. People here still go to sea every night in tiny outrigger canoes to do subsistence fishing for their families and to sell what they don't eat (or vice versa, and eat what they don't sell). The canoes are much smaller than they look. The "deck" is a rattan mat practically at gunwale level. Nets and the catch, when there is one, are stored below deck. They still have masts and sails and use wind power when they can but almost all of them also have outboard motors.
An outrigger under engine power motors through the breakers on its way out to lay nets. 

Their catch is getting smaller all the time though. As the boats came in while I was there, very few had a usable catch. Many were empty. 
A woman carries supplies from her husband's canoe back to their home after he came back in the morning. 

Perhaps even more shocking was that nets hauled in from shore pulled in little besides tiny, palm sized fish and plastic (there is always plastic). 

Men haul in net lines set out by a canoe earlier in the morning. 
This was their catch. It took about 15 men more than an hour to haul in a net line about a kilometer long. And this is all that came out of it. Some small fish and plastic bags. 

Whether or not they do it by choice, I have a lot of respect for people who live this way. I don't think I could do it and I realize that by the luck of the circumstances I was born into I don't have to. 
Men coil up the net after it was hauled in. 

A family brings their canoe up the beach. 

A canoe is brought up the beach. Outriggers, that prevent the tiny vessels from flipping, lay on the sand, waiting to be collected. 

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Bali and Rice

Rice terraces in Jatiluwih, Bali. 

It's impossible to escape rice in Bali. It is literally everywhere. You see rice growing in urban Denpasar, near the international airport, on your way out of town. It's on almost every plate of Balinese (or Indonesian) food you order. There are fields crammed between hotels in Ubud. There are so many rice fields in the countryside that other crops seem startlingly out of place. 
A woman carries freshly cut rice out of a field near Jatiluwih. 

I've photographed rice farming in every trip I've made to Bali and I promised myself I wouldn't do it this time. But like so many promises one makes to oneself, this one was forgotten as soon as I started a trip across the island. 
A farmer tills his field. Mechanical tillers are making inroads in Bali, but most farmers still work with water buffalo and oxen. 

The rice fields are like catnip to photographers. For landscape photographers, there are great vistas, endless fields of emerald green. For photojournalists there are photographs of people toiling to eke out a living under difficult circumstances.

Farming in Bali not like industrial agriculture in the United States or even Thailand. 

This is farming as it's been practiced for millenniums, since man first domesticated beasts of burden. This is the way agriculture is still done in much of Asia: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, India. It wasn't until late 20th century that Thai agriculture became mechanized.
A woman loads rice into a thresher... 
While another, under the conical hat, surrounded by chaff, sorts rice. Even portable mechanical threshers are unusual in Bali. Jatiluwih may be more prosperous than many villages because it collects an admission fee from non-Indonesians driving through the terraces. 

Rice farming is changing even in Bali though. Mechanization is creeping in. There aren't many tractors yet, but small mechanical tillers are more common. The real danger is real estate speculators. It seems like every foreigner who comes to Bali, whether as a tourist or retiree, wants to stay in the middle of a rice field. This is driving up land prices and many farmers (or villages, if the land is communally owned) are selling or giving long term leases to developers who want to build villas in the rice paddies. 
In central Ubud, a rice field surrounded by tourist housing. "Downtown" Ubud is just behind the new construction in the background. 

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Back to Bali

A dancer at a ceremony in a Hindu temple outside of Ubud. 

I'm headed back to Bali for a couple of weeks. Bali is a great place for a photographer, there's no shortage of subjects, from Hindu ritual to hard working farmers to fisherman to radiantly green landscapes, Bali has it all. 
Dancers mimic birds during a mass cremation ceremony in Ubud. 

Bali is about a four hour flight from Bangkok, so it's a place we've been to a few times. This time, I'm hoping to photograph workers in the fishing industry, buffalo racing and daily life. 
Buffalo racing on the west end of Bali. 

Some of it, like the fishing, I've done before, but I want to spend more time working on it and some of the daily life features I want to revisit because it's been a few years since in really rural Bali, away from the tourists. If I have time and things work out the way I hope they do, I plan to photograph seaweed farmers who live on a small island north of Bali. 
Women working in a rice field near a guest house for tourists. Mass tourism is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it provides economic opportunities for many Balinese, but on the other it's destroying what makes Bali unique. I've photographed a lot rice farming in Bali, I'm not planning to photograph it on this visit. 

I hope to update my blog on a regular basis, but that depends on how good the internet access is in the places I'm staying. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Another Neighborhood Disappears

Soi 27 off of Sathu Pradit in Bangkok. These shophouses used to be home to a community of middle class families and their businesses.

It's not just working class and the urban poor who are being uprooted in Bangkok's never ending drive to change itself. I've worked a lot in poor communities that have been disrupted, but that doesn't mean the issue doesn't touch others. Indeed, it impacts almost everyone in the city. 

Last week I was exploring and I ended up on Sathu Pradit, a street that in many ways reflects Bangkok itself. It's lined with expensive European style restaurants, Thai street food stalls, musical instrument shops, mom and pop shops that sell almost anything you would need, ubiquitous 7-11s, and bars. It's a very eclectic neighborhood. 
Chinese shrines in front of the empty homes. 

One of the sois (small streets) off Sathu Pradit, Soi 27, was abandoned. All of the shophouses lining the street were empty and trash was strewn everywhere. The people who lived here were all gone - a developer has decided to build a condo tower on the site. This had been a street of middle class businesspeople and entrepreneurs.  
A wall in an empty shophouse, the outline of the stairs to the second floor still visible. 

I wandered around the empty homes for a couple of hours. The homes were empty and abandoned but evidence of previous life was everywhere and it was kind of spooky. 

Signs of life left behind, from top: photos of babies clipped from a magazine, a shot up silhouette target and an old campaign poster of Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand. 

This, in many ways, is the story of Bangkok today. It's a city that is always going through a process of creation and recreation.
The only other person I saw on Soi 27 Sathu Pradit. He was picking up the last of his personal belongings in what had been his family home. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Cambodia and Back

Cambodian migrant workers line up in Poipet, Cambodia, before walking across the border to accept jobs in Thailand. 

I went back to Poipet, Cambodia, this week to photograph migrant workers. Thailand has the largest economy in mainland Southeast Asia. An insatiable demand for low wage workers fuels a part of that economy. As the Thai middle class expanded, Thai labor became more expensive (compared to labor in neighboring countries) at the same time wages in Thailand increased much faster in Thailand than wages in neighboring countries, so increasing numbers of migrant workers came to Thailand to earn a living. 
Aspiring migrant workers in Poipet arrive at the border with their backpacks. Most of the men arriving at this border crossing have their documents in order and will be taking legal jobs in Thailand. 

The situation is not unlike what's happened in the US attracting migrant workers from Latin America or the UK, which has attracted migrant workers from Eastern Europe. The workers come, drawn by higher wages available in Thailand (or the US or the UK) and employers hire them because they can pay them a fraction of what they would pay native born workers. 

This has been an issue in Thailand for as long as I've been coming here. In 2009, I photographed women working in a garment factory in northern Thailand. The factory owner told me he only hired Burmese because they didn't demand all the perks Thais did and they worked for less money. It's exactly what US employers in Arizona said about Latin American immigrants they hired. 
Cambodian migrants just returned to Cambodia from Thailand cross a busy street in Poipet. 

From time to time, Thailand tries to regulate the migrant workers. In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled Thailand, fearing a military crackdown and ethnic violence directed against them. I covered the 2014 exodus and it was one of the strangest things I've ever photographed here. 

Last week, the Thai government announced a new crackdown on foreign workers and this prompted another mini exodus of migrant workers. A few thousand Cambodian workers returned to Cambodia and tens of thousands of Burmese workers returned to Myanmar. (In stark contrast to 2014, when literally hundreds of thousands of Cambodians trekked back to Cambodia.) 

I went out to Poipet, about three hours from Bangkok, to photograph Cambodians returning home. Poipet is a dusty frontier town. Not unlike Aqua Prieta, Mexico. I was expecting to see crowds of people in the center of town making travel arrangements to return to their home towns. 
A sugar cane juice vendor in Poipet crushes cane for customers just returned from Thailand. 

There were a few people coming back to Thailand, crossing the border with everything they owned stuffed into plastic bags. But there many more people in the center of town waiting to be taken into Thailand.
Women returned from Thailand wait for transportation in the center of Poipet.

A man who works for a labor broker (center, blue hat) returns passports and documents to men he is taking to Thailand. He made sure all of their documents were in order so they could work legally in Thailand. 

The migrants in Poipet were prepared for their journey to Thailand. They had passports and the brokers were checking documents to make sure they could work legally in Thailand. It was very systemized.
A Cambodian woman sells Thai SIM cards to Cambodian migrants waiting to cross the border into Thailand.

Americans tend to think immigration problems are a uniquely American issue. Americans would be wrong in thinking that. It's a global problem. Employers are focused on maximizing profit with no regard for societal costs.