Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Pope Visits Yangon

Pope Francis drives among the crowd at the Papal Mass in Yangon. 

Covering Pope Francis' visit to Yangon was my main reason for this trip to Myanmar. His visit was historic (the first papal visit to Myanmar) and came at a complicated time for Myanmar, still finding its way through a tricky democratization process in which the military gave up some power but it still the most powerful entity in Myanmar. 

The Pope sort of invited himself to Myanmar. In August, when the current anti-Rohingya pogrom started, the Pope made some statements in support of the Muslim minority, whose home is in Rakhine state, in northwestern Myanmar. He also said he would visit Myanmar and Bangladesh and try to negotiate an end to the bloodletting. 

I think it's important to note that he wasn't really invited. The government of Myanmar didn't say he wasn't welcome, but neither did they roll out the welcome wagon. 
Nuns lineup near the airport to see the Pope on his arrival. There were a few hundred people at the airport, but the government did not close roads for the Papal motorcade. 

Myanmar's Catholics were excited about the Pope's visit and churches in Yangon were packed with Catholics from the countryside who came to Yangon early and slept rough on church grounds. One church, St. Francis of Assisi, hosted more than 1,500 on it's grounds. The church I went to Hwambi, had more than 500. But for the government of Myanmar it was a minimum effort. 
A woman prays in a chapel at St. Francis of Assisi. 

The sanctuary was set up as a dorm. 

The Pope participated in two masses in Yangon. The first was at a large sports complex, on the infield of a horse racing track. About 150,000 people are estimated to have attended the mass. There are about 450,000 Catholics in Myanmar, so the 150,000 attendees represent a sizeable percentage of Myanmar Catholics. 
Part of the crowd at the papal mass. 

I had credentials for the mass, but journalists weren't supposed to leave the risers we were positioned on. Vatican press officials said the risers were 100 meters from the altar, but it felt a lot further. More like 150-200 meters. I had the equivalent of a 400mm lens and I could not see the Pope at the lectern during the homily. 
My view of the altar. 

I photographed most of the mass, then got off the riser and worked some remote parts of the mass, not in the main infield. The pictures were much better and showed more of the Burmese Catholics devotion to the Pope. 



People pray in a field adjacent the mass. 

The Pope also said a mass at St. Mary's Cathedral. The only media allowed to cover the mass was the Pope's traveling pool, Vatican based photographers who travel with the Pope. 

I photographed people on the streets around the Cathedral. Hundreds of people gathered to witness and participate in the mass, but the government refused to close the roads around the Cathedral, so it was hard for people to pray or participate because traffic was roaring by. 
Myanmar police keep people without tickets out of the Cathedral. 

A boy in a Pope outfit in front of the Cathedral. 

People pray in the street during the mass. 

After the mass, I was able to get into the Cathedral grounds and photograph the Pope walking out. 
Pope Francis leaves the Cathedral.

There are more photos related to the Papal visit in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Rice Harvest in the Ayeyarwady Delta

A woman harvests rice by hand in the Ayeyarwady Delta. 

One of the things I do on every visit to Myanmar is drive into the Ayeyarwady Delta, west south west of Yangon. It's become a marker I use to gauge economic changes. And there have been a lot of changes. My first visit was five years ago. There was one roadside restaurant (by that I mean proper restaurant with service people, tables and chairs, and a building) but many food stalls. My last visit was two years ago and there were a lot of changes. Many more restaurants, many gas stations being built and more traffic. 

This time the changes were overwhelming. The road ultimately leads to Chaung Tha Beach, about five hours from Yangon and now the road is packed with beach goers. Hotels, more restaurants, and gas stations have sprung up to serve the people going to the beach or exploring the delta. 

My main reason for going into the delta though is to photograph agriculture. Photographing farmers in Myanmar is like stepping back in time about 150 years, maybe only 100. Almost all of the work is still by done by hand, although some tillers and tractors are making inroads and mechanical threshers are becoming more common. 

Gathering baby rice plants (top photo) and transplanting them into a paddy (bottom photo). 

This is markedly different from Thailand where agriculture has been heavily industrialized and most of the rice is harvested mechanically. Farm work, whether it's cutting lettuce in Yuma, AZ, or harvesting rice in the Ayeyarwady Delta, is hard, back breaking work. 
A worker throws harvested rice into a mechanical thresher. 

Now for a shallow dive into rice geekdom. 

I like rice. I eat a lot of it. And while I'm not a rice connoisseur, I've eaten enough rice through the years to have formed opinions about it. I can tell when I'm eating Thai rice or Vietnamese or Cambodian or Lao or Burmese rice. Thai rice is always better (I think almost every Thai would agree with me). Sometimes much better. Thai rice (especially "jasmine rice") has better kernels, better aroma when it's steaming and better flavor. 

Myanmar was once, generations ago before World War II, the world's leading rice exporter. The Burmese rice industry is working hard to improve its international standing and regain some of the export market. As a result, Myanmar has made huge improvements in its rice crop. The rice I had in the delta this time was a huge improvement over what I had five years ago.   
Feeding harvested rice into a mill. 

The rice I had in the Delta was more like Indian Basmati rice than regular white rice found in the rest of Southeast Asia. The grains were longer, firmer and didn't clump together the way rice usually does. It also had a nice flavor. 

That's enough rice geekdom. 

A miller in a small town about three hours from Yangon told me the biggest challenge now facing Burmese rice farmers is the lack of infrastructure. 

His mill, for example, is on the far side of the river from the town he lives in. The local power grid ends at the river bank. He has no access to electricity for the mill. He generates all of his own energy. Power for the mill is generated by burning rice husks. Power for the office is generated by solar collectors. He is literally 200 meters past the end of the line.

There are no roads on his side of the river. Rice harvested on his side of the river is taken to the river by bullock cart and floated to the mill on barges. Rice harvested on the other side of the river (the side on the grid) has roads (we got to the town on roads and then took a boat across the river to the mill), rice is brought to the river on trucks and tractors then floated to the mill on barges. All of the rice in the area is harvested by hand.  
Rice delivered to the mill is offloaded by manual labor. The town, where the electrical grid and highway ends, is on the far side of the river. 

He sees a lot of potential for Burmese rice, but the industry is also facing a lot of challenges. 


Cutting rice by hand. 


On the side of the river that is on the road system. The rice is gathered by hand and stacked in the field. After it is threshed it will be taken to a local mill by truck.  

There are more photos of the Delta rice harvest in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Catholic Mass in Hwambi

A man prays in the portico during mass at Sacred Heart's Church in Hwambi. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing and a few people joined the mass in the church's portico. 

I wanted to photograph a mass in rural Myanmar as a part of my package on the Pope's visit to the country so I went out to the church in Hwambi (sort of pronounced "moby"). 

I wanted to get out of Yangon because I was afraid the churches in town would be swamped with foreigners and journalists doing the same thing I was - seeing Burmese Catholicism on the eve of a historic moment. Hwambi, about two hours from downtown Yangon, was a good choice. I was the only foreigner there and the priests and their congregation were very welcoming. 

I got out to the church about 6.30AM for an 8AM service, I like to get to events like religious services early enough to talk to officiants and make sure it's okay to photograph. I explained to the priests that I was working on a package about the Pope's visit, asked if I could photograph mass and they told me I was free to do whatever I needed to do. Then they offered me a traditional Burmese breakfast of mohinga, a relatively mild (compared to Thai curries) fish curry. 
Girls pray before mass. Burmese girls and women still wear veils to mass. 

Priests get ready for mass in the vestry behind the sanctuary. 

People started arriving for 8AM mass about 7.15. Some went to confession, some sat or kneeled quietly in the pews and prayed. By the time mass started, the sanctuary was completely full, with more than 500 people in the church. The priests told me that this was a normal Sunday attendance. 
Sunday mass in Hwambi. 

Men make the sign of the cross during mass. 

It's traditional Southeast Asia to remove one's shoes before entering a temple or a home. In Thailand, Catholics leave their shoes on when going into a church but Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims take their shoes off when going into a house of worship. In Myanmar, Catholics, like Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, take their shoes off and the doors to the sanctuary were lined with footwear. 

Women pray during mass. 

The mass itself was just like a mass in the US or Europe or Mexico, except that it was considerably longer than a mass in the US. It seems that priests in the US try to get people in and out and most masses run about 50 minutes, maybe a little longer depending on the number of people who take communion. (A Mexican priest once told me he didn't understand the American mania for a fast mass.) The homily was longer than a homily in the US (or maybe it just seemed longer because I don't understand Burmese) and almost every adult at mass took communion. It didn't end until about 9.30. Then people gathered to socialize, buy Pope memorabilia and get their tickets for the papal mass. Most didn't leave the church until about 11, many people were at the church from 7.15 until after 11, pretty much unheard of for a Catholic church in the US. 
Parishioners leave the church after mass. A portrait of Pope Francis hangs over the door. 

People bought Papal merchandise after the mass. 

Nearly every member of the church got in line for tickets for the Papal mass in Yangon.

There are more photos from mass in Hwambi in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Back in Burma

Apologies for apparently abandoning the blog. For a couple of reasons, I am not updating as frequently as I have in the past. That may (or may not) change in 2018. In the meantime, here are some updates from a recent trip to Myanmar.  
Monks at Botataung Paya (Pagoda) in Yangon. 

Okay, I know it's now Myanmar, not Burma. But "Back to Myanmar" doesn't have the same ring to it that "Back to Burma" has.

I am in Myanmar for a couple of weeks working on the scheduled visit by Pope Francis to Yangon, and after that Bangladesh. I am covering the Yangon portion of his visit for ZUMA Press. I was here a lot 2013-2015, but this is my first since the election of Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2015. Two years to the week since I've been here. 

Buddhist novices (boys temporarily studying in a monestary) wait for alms in front of a Yangon business. 

Myanmar is a remarkably photogenic country that is changing at warp speed. There have been obvious infrastructure improvements in Yangon. Electricity is more reliable. Roads have been improved. Mass transit has been overhauled, and the once decrepit busses have been replaced by new, air conditioned ones imported from China. Malls are sprouting up in Yangon like mushrooms after a rain. It's dizzying. 
A boatman in the Irawaddy River. 

A lot of things haven't changed. There's still crushing poverty. A trip to the Yangon docks reveals that most things are still done by manual labor. Although the malls are popular with foreign tourists and wealthy Burmese, I couldn't help but wonder about the people displaced to create the foreigner enclaves and whether or not Myanmar's income disparity is too great to support Bangkok style malls.

Most of what I'm doing here is related to the Pope's visit, the first Papal visit to this southeast Asian country. Myanmar's Catholic population is tiny, about 450,000 people or 1% of the country identifies as a Catholic. I will be posting updates related to the Papal visit in coming days. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.