Tag Archives: Burma

15mm lens portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

How Different Lenses can Help You See Creatively

Watching Zack Arias’ video blog for the Kelby site inspired me yesterday. One of the questions Zack asked in the introduction of the video is, “What do I bring to the table that countless others have not already served up on this massive platter of visual pollution that we create each and every day?”

Zack’s question is probably something we ask ourselves as we try, each and every day, to get better at our craft. How do we interpret a vision with the tools we have? There is no button that says, “Joe McNally” on our dSLR that we can push if we want a photo worthy of a National Geographic feature.

A teacher once told me, When you’re in doubt about something abstract, go back to the concrete. I’m still trying to follow that advice; it’s helped me learn daily.

When we think about seeing creatively, and creating from that vision, it’s such an overwhelmingly large topic that we need to break it down into concrete modules, things we can do today that adds to and strengthens that vision.

We can begin with our tools.

The lens you have attached to your dSLR is an extension of your vision. Through that lens, you can create an interpretation of what you see before you. This interpretation is your vision, the way you say things that you see. How does the lens you use affect that vision?

1. Your lens determines how you frame an image.

Your lens can help you include things in the frame, or exclude things from it. Try going out with a couple of lenses to photograph a single scene. How does a wide angle’s inclusiveness change the story? How does the story change when you photograph the scene with a telephoto? The differences between what we can include or exclude using different focal lengths of lenses determines a lot of the story we present in a resulting frame.

2. Lenses change your point of view.

Because the focal length of lenses can include or exclude, using a different lens to take a photo changes your point of view. A lens that sees the same way the eye can see, namely the 50mm ‘normal’ lens, allows you to take photographs that echo what you see without the camera pressed to your face. A wide angle, say a 24mm lens, gives you a wider view; you can see more background, more foreground. The environmental details around your subject that you capture with a wide angle lens changes your point of view because you now have the ability to use these environmental details to add to the story.

Manila Bay at 50mm Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At 50mm, the lens 'sees' the way our eyes do. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Different lenses affect an image in different ways.

At the different edges of the spectrum of focal length effects, different things happen in your frame.

A wide angle lens like the 24-70mm can distort the subject. For instance, if you use a wide angle lens for a portrait where the subject leans toward you, their face shows up much bigger than their hands. Wide lenses can ‘see’ what’s closer as bigger, and what is farther as smaller.

15mm lens portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

15mm lens renders visible distortion in a portrait. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Telephoto lenses, such as a 70-200mm, tend to ‘flatten’ elements in the frame against each other. When you’re stacking elements in a frame deliberately, this helps you to create planes that the viewer can easily identify, and with good light, you can create a photo that has depth.

Inle Lake at sunset copyright Aloha Lavina

Long telephoto 'flattens' elements. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. Some lenses can render tilt better than others.

Tilting lenses while taking photos is a great way to discover what happens to the image when you change the way you point your camera.

Some tilt can be done on the same plane. What this means is, tilting the camera left or right, but keeping the lens pointed on a plane parallel to your subject. In the photo below, I tilted the camera to change the background, but the camera lens is parallel to the model.

Natalie Glebova for June Fifth copyright Aloha Lavina.

Tilting the lens without changing planes. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Other tilting can use distortion to effect. Here, with a wide angle lens, the camera was tilted to change its plane relative to the subject. I tilted the camera lens down and produced the effect of the clouds ‘marching’ across the sky. This sort of tilt helps you create perspective and depth in a shot.

Balinese sunset copyright Aloha Lavina.

Tilting the lens so it is pointed at a different plane than the one parallel to the eye. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Note on tilt: if you are using a normal lens, or a long telephoto like a 70-200mm, tilt doesn’t work for effect that well, since the focal length gives you a very narrow field of vision.

5. Lenses can help you use depth of field creatively.

portrait in f/2.8 copyright Aloha Lavina.

Shooting at a wide aperture renders the background blurry. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We’ve all seen stunning images that use depth of field creatively. Lenses with large apertures (f/1.2 all the way to f/2.8 for example) produce very shallow depth of field in the images. Portrait photographers love to use very wide apertures because of the ‘creamy’ effect it produces in the background. If you use a very wide depth of field on a portrait with a forest as background, the background is rendered a blurred blob of soft green without much detail. This de-clutters the background and gives a pleasant dreamy quality to a portrait.

You can also use this effect for the foreground.

using blurry foreground for creative effect. copyright Aloha Lavina.

Shallow depth of field can be used to blur foreground for effect. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Seeing creatively—an abstract concept—can be made concrete if you begin practicing it through a concrete tool, like the lens you have on your camera right now. With these simple tips, you can build a visual collection that hopefully, doesn’t “pollute” but beautifies your portfolio.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

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prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

Making Expressive Portraits

Portraits have been called ‘studies.’ Taking this definition literally would mean that you, the photographer, are a student of human behavior. There’s a lot of truth in that last statement. When you make an image, you’re attempting to freeze the complex and beautiful world of human behavior. Studying and waiting for hunting seeking expressive portraits demands that you are attentive to human nature.

small monk young monk Burma grandmother

Photographers have to study people to make good portaits. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You look for moments when people express themselves so that you can capture them and tell their stories.

If you’re a portrait photographer, you really have to be in tune with yourself. You have to dig deep to find truths about why you do what you do. Because our minds isolate us from each other without language or an exchange of some kind, the closest you can ever get to knowing what someone else is experiencing is to link it to something you’ve known and experienced.

How do we tell what someone is thinking or feeling? And how do we translate those insights into images?

One of the ways is to focus on outward expressions of inner attitudes—in other words, posture, gesture and interaction.

Hands tell stories.

hands abstraction old hands Burma faceless portrait

Crossing an arm across the body is a sign of protection from a stranger. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In an old people’s home in Burma, I know my dSLR is a little scary to this old lady. She smiles at me, a little smile that coaxes me to raise the viewfinder to my eye. Then I notice her left arm, crossing over her knees, a gesture that tells me she’s still protecting herself from the stranger with the black machine made of metal and glass.

Outside, a man clutches his prayer beads, and he’s hanging on to something precious to him.

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

We hold on tight to what's important to us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We surround ourselves with things that are important to us. This young weaver in Rangoon hung a picture of her favorite famous person beside her loom. When she looks up, sometimes, the photo might catch the light from the window behind her and cheer her up. To her left is a mirror, for when she thinks to look, instead, at herself.

weaver Burma silk weaving black and white

We surround ourselves with objects that comfort us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At a market, a man chooses a mirror. He looks at himself in one, unaware that he’s also reflected in all the others.

mirrors Burma Burmese man

Notice people who don't notice your camera. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The best travel portraits are the natural ones, not posed, of people who are in their own bubbles of thought, oblivious to the photographer. These are the portraits that teach us the most how to create a picture from a canvas we can’t plan out by sketching all the elements first.

The challenge is in recognizing the moment when we finally find it.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Mandalay Burma temple silhouettes against a frame.

Five Variations on a Theme: Shooting Silhouettes

One of the favorite themes of shooters is the silhouette. Silhouettes are the result of exposing for bright light behind a subject. The camera underexposes anything that is in front of the bright light, resulting in a photo that features a darkened shape—the silhouette.

Silhouettes are one of the creative ways to interpret a scene. With some basic techniques, you can create stunning silhouettes.

1. Look for familiar shapes against a brilliant sky.


U Bein Bridge Burma Myanmar sunset

1/350s @ f/6.3 17mm, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This photo is of one of the most recognizable bridges in Burma, the U Bein Bridge. It is a long bridge made of teak wood, and in the evenings, you can see locals cross it, walking their bikes. The sunset was brilliant on this day, so I decided to include a lot of the amazing sky by using a very wide lens. It’s important to wait until the people in your frame are separate shapes, not ‘stuck together’ because they are passing each other, like in the right side of the image where there is a crowd of people watching the sun set. If they are parts of the same shadow, you will get some unrecognizable lumps in your image which are, needless to say, confusing for the audience.

2. Shoot silhouettes in naturally occurring frames.


Mandalay Burma temple silhouettes against a frame.

1/1600s @ f/2.8 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are indoors, you can use doorways and windows to provide back light for your silhouettes, adding a geometric frame to your image. This image in Burma was taken at a temple, and the man and woman who were passing one another looked dynamic framed within the graceful arches of the temple entrance.

3. Stack elements in the image.


Inle Lake Burma lightray and temple sillhouette at sunset

1/2000s @ f/11, 200mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are faced with a landscape of hills overlapping with some structures in front, like in this sunset photo of a temple on Inle Lake in Burma, you can create an image that has scale. I also waited for some light rays to show up when clouds obscured part of the streams of strong light coming from the setting sun, giving the image added drama. Stacking elements in the image works only if there is a gradation in the silhouetted shapes, or that some shapes are lighter than others, and some are darker. With the different intensities of shadows in the silhouette, the image becomes more dramatic because the gradation adds depth to the photo.

4. Partial silhouettes work, too.


Bhutanese archer against a brilliant sky

1/1600s @ f/ 8, 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This partial silhouette of an archer against a brilliant sunset sky in Bhutan is dramatic because even though his identity is obscured by shadow, we see the color of the ribbons of winning archery shots he’s made that day, and the ends of his arrows.

Also notice that I had a low viewpoint. I actually noticed the sky, and then immediately crouched with my camera almost resting on the ground, tilting it at an angle so it would catch the archer and the beautiful sky behind him. Getting a shot from a low angle gives you more brilliant light behind your subject, and makes it easier to create a silhouette.

5. Same principle, opposite effect. Or, breaking the rule.

Most silhouettes are dark shapes against bright light. What if we reversed the exposure and underexposed on the background? The result is that the exposure on the sliver of light on a person can outline them against a very dark background—sort of a reverse silhouette. This is called ‘rim light’ because it traces the rim of a subject.


Balinese man smoking black and white rim light

1/5000s @2.8f 170mm, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In this photo, I decided to create a ‘reverse silhouette’ because the rim light and smoke made for an interesting graphic composition. It’s a ridiculously underexposed image, but I like it.

So there you are, four basic techniques for making silhouettes, and one rule breaker. If you’re looking for an outdoor project that you can do for a couple hours after work but will get your creative juices flowing, why not try a silhouette or two this week?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Balinese women balancing eggs. Bali Indonesia

Shoot Themes When You Travel

Spice up your travel photography tip # 5: Use themes to shoot your travel stories!

Travel photography is about telling stories about places through your photos. Usually, a photographer travels somewhere and tells the story of the place they are visiting using some common themes, like landscapes, portraits, documentary, night, and wildlife. The variety of images that you can shoot to show what a place is like is as wide as the range of human activity in any country. But how can you avoid shooting the same scene, over and over, only in a different place?

The answer to this question may rest not in the exotic and most far away place you can afford and access. It may not rest in the type of equipment you own and can lug around when you travel. Maybe the answer rests in how you approach the image making.

The way you think about what you are shooting could be the most important set of decisions you could make to spice up your travel photos.

Going out on different days intending to shoot different themes is a way I’ve spiced up my travel photography. While I am open to opportunity and do not let the day’s theme limit what I capture, I try to keep the theme in mind as I walk about, and attempt to tell the story through the theme, throughout the day.

In Vietnam recently, I spent a day photographing how Vietnamese transport things from one place to another.

Vietnam, Hoi An, travel photographer

Vietnam theme: ways to transport things. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Vietnam Hoi An motorbike travel photographer

Vietnam theme: ways to transport things. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In Burma, I looked at how the Burmese work.

Burma worker statues Mandalay

Burma theme: work. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Burma temple cleaning worker Myanmar

Burma theme: work. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Burma worker river boat old car

Burma theme: work. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

And in Bali, it was a natural choice to look for the Balinese sense of balance.

Balinese women balancing eggs. Bali Indonesia

Bali theme: a perfect sense of balance. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Panning technique for travel images, travel photographer, Bali, motion

Bali theme: a perfect sense of balance. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Looking for images that follow a theme can be a creative way to look at cultures from a novel perspective. With a bit of forethought, you can spice up your travel photography and maybe even understand a little more about the place and people you’re visiting.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Change the Way You See

This will be the first in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

The approach on each photo assignment is different. Even travel photo assignments differ even though they are on the same general topic. Shooting dance on four separate occasions, I learned about how I had to change the way I looked at the subject, so I could tell the story of each performance from a different perspective.

The eyes of a tourist


I love the way the dancer kicks the bottom of the dress to create movement. Burma, 2010. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

When I shot this set in Burma, the assignment was to show Burmese dance as a traveler would see it: in a staged performance, from a distance. I had little background in the dance forms and the stories behind each one. That limited knowledge produced shots from a spectator’s point of view. Luckily I had brought along a long lens, suitable for isolating the dancers and capturing uncluttered portraits showing off the costume and motion against a simple background.

The eyes of a storyteller

Dance acrobatics are important parts of a dance story. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

I love Hanuman, the character in the Ramayana epic. When I shot this assignment at the Chalermkrung National Theatre in Bangkok, it was a behind the scenes story of the dancers who made Hanuman come alive every night at a national theatre in Thailand. I had to shoot the story as I saw it unfold, embracing its unpredictability, paying attention to detail. So I did a little abstraction and a little action. Framing the story with images of detail helped to give the necessary background for the actual dance shots, and the action shots gave me the necessary storyline. Hanuman is a singularly amazing character, but he’s actually several guys in a specially made papier mache mask, whose acrobatics on stage are remarkably demanding.

Symbol in dance can make for some great surprises. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

The eyes of surprise

No one knew that rain was going to come from the umbrella. The dancer at Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok in a free-form modern dance gave us a few surprises. First, he wore an expressionless mask which contrasted with the bright costume and the even brighter umbrella. His movements were quick and energetic. And when he sprung the confetti on us, streaming from the umbrella, it was the biggest surprise of all. Less than a minute of white confetti catching the dim light in the dinner theatre, plus not being able to move because there was simply no time, gave me a limited window for a shot. I put the camera on burst mode and tried to anticipate the next twirl.

The challenges for photo assignments make for fantastic learning. Whether your goal is to get a travel story or capture how an event makes you feel, it helps to look at each assignment with different eyes. Changing the way you see can change the story.

A Changing Story

A primer on travel photography themes, for my friend Mary, who just got her first dSLR

Travel photography is like a timelapse video, except the subject is always changing. Arriving at a new place, your attention is on overload—look at that! The temptation is to snap everything in sight, gorging the memory card with content. It’s fun to be trigger happy on a trip, but it can also be overwhelming. Even if your goal is to make images for the family slideshow, there are some themes that will help you organize your travel photography so you can more fully tell the story of a trip—a story tipsy with content and composed with beautiful imagery.

Reaching a balance between being open to the unexpected and staying true to your themes can produce a travel photo collection that includes a full range of imagery, a complete account of a changing story.

Night photography

I have a friend who puts away his camera as soon as the sun is sinking. But most cameras made after 2007 have really good ‘vision,’ meaning their sensors are able to ‘see’ in the dark and record clean enough images that can spice up your travel photo montage. So don’t put away your camera just yet when you see the sun setting. You might just get some amazing shots.

1/2000 @ f/11, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


30s @ f/22, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Photos of people are some of the most interesting and memorable images of a place. It may be a little intimidating, but try taking photos of strangers, and when you do, try to tell their story. It helps to include a detail or two that contextualize the portrait: What are they doing? Who are they with? The charm of a portrait is in its details.

1/200s @ f/5.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/250s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


1/200s @ f/4.5, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

Fauna and flora

Animals and flowers are great story bits. I was in Ayuddhya and visited the elephant camp there. As soon as I entered the camp, I spotted a young elephant jogging around the compound, and then caught him when he was tired, plopping down and bathing himself in early morning sun.

1/800s @ f/5.6, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

At another place in tropical Bangkok, there were these lilies all in a row, graceful and delicate in a shallow depth of field at a wide-open aperture.

1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.


Images that record events give a depth to travel photography. The story of work, for example, tells a lot about a place. What people value and how they interact with their environment are often revealed when we learn about how they work and live.

1/500s @ f/8.0, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

When we make travel photos, we also make our memories of that place tangible, a story captured that will withstand the passing of time.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Taking Home the Intangibles

My friends from faraway have exactly 36 hours before they have to go back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping —buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a year’s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; it’s almost 10 pm. We get back to my place where they’re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.

I used to buy souvenirs from places I’d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a “Yak Yak Yak” t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says “Koh Samui” in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.

I don’t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.

There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. It was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so in the morning the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that leaves froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.

When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.

Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.

Scale. 1/800s @f/8, 17mm, ISO 125.

Like values humans share. The photo of a Muslim girl learning about the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Thai Grand Palace is precious to me. It speaks about scale—the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one person’s joy.

Scale and Isolation. 1/800s @ f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 200.

From Burma I take back contrasts. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.

In another town, I sip the bland loneliness of a tree, flanked by chedi containing stones proclaiming the secret to life.

Perspective. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 17mm, ISO 200.

On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds, summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.

Isolation. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 19mm, ISO 200.

Some moments are like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.

I sit with my friend Ye Myint. We’ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. On this day before I fly to another city, we sit on the roof of an abandoned temple in Bagan. Silently we watch the sky release its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.

1/160s @f/6.3, 70mm, ISO 200.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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The Man at the Window

The man at the window, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

He was at the old wooden temple with his family, but they were somewhere else in the building, in another room. He sat by the window, deep in thought.

It was my first trip to Burma, and I had a D200 with the Nikkor 17-55 mm 2.8f lens.  From inside, I saw him sitting by that circular window. All wrinkles and warm colors, seemingly the same textures as the wood.

I ran downstairs to get this shot.

To get the shot: I zoomed the lens as wide as it could get and angled the shot so that the wood would distort.  I saw the planks at the bottom of the shot, leading to his hand. I abstracted the window by cropping it above and on the right, so his face would float in the dark background. To get the colors to pop, I used Aperture priority and compensated for exposure by underexposing three quarters of a stop.

In post processing, my goal was to enhance the underexposure and separate the man from the shadows around his face. I also wanted the textures accentuated.

Most often my exposures are subjective, so I did not do a levels adjustment with Photoshop CS2 as I was quite happy with the underexposure. The more dramatic the contrast, the better, for me. Instead I wanted the skin tones to remain the chocolate color of the man’s real skin. So I used Channels, using the blue channel for the wood to give it more grain or noise, and the green channel for the man. I blended the two channels using the Multiply mode, which effectively darkens the whole image. Then using a layer mask, I brushed back the color, using a very soft brush and around 30 percent opacity. Later, on a separate layer, I used the dodge and burn tools to achieve more pronounced textures in the wall. Lastly, I sharpened the whole photo using Unsharp Mask and Fade Unsharp Mask combinations, with the aim of increasing the already dramatic contrast.

And that was how this image was created.

This photo is special to me, one of my favorites, and the reason why I fell in love with the stories of Burma.

NOTE: This post was written for LightStalking, who asked me this question on Twitter. Thanks for inspiring this blog post!


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing

Going to Burma

Note: I wrote this after a couple of people on Twitter asked me about Burma. Thanks for inspiring me to write again! ~Aloha

Should you go to Burma?

Like Lonely Planet, I would caution the traveler to decide for themselves, given all the arguments. LP has an excellent summary of both sides of the argument in their guide. Why did I go? Burma to me remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures in Southeast Asia, and the two times I have gone leave me wanting to stay indefinitely.

There are two sides to Burma, or Myanmar. One side is the powerful military complex that has been growing stronger since 1962 when a coup by Ne Win plunged the country into a dictatorship that has endured despite economic boycotts, political sanctions, and a broken economy.  The other side of Burma you will experience if you follow Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice not to “go around in air-conditioned taxis” (in The Voice of Hope by Alan Clements,  1997) and actually engage with locals. Burmese are friendly, with a quiet dignity that belies the decades of suffering they have endured under an oppressive regime.

According to some people I met, 350,000 tourists visit Burma annually. Evidence of some tourism is now visible with the beggars at the temples. When I visited in April 2007, there were no touts at any of the major temples I visited. Returning in 2010, I was shocked at how many postcard sellers flock to the handful of tourists visiting those same temples. A chorus of “Buy from me, buy from me” follow the traveler at these temples, including a woman with a baby who wanted money if you took her photo.

Where your money goes is the question. Injecting money into a dictatorship is not why any one wants to go to Burma; but it is a concern you definitely have to seriously consider if you want to travel responsibly. You must accept that up to 20 percent of your money will go to the government; but you can spread the other 80 percent around to local, family owned businesses and benefit the people.

Travel Preparations

Getting a Visa

There are Myanmar embassies and consulates in numerous countries where you could apply and get a visa. But the disadvantage of getting a visa at a consulate is that you may have to provide a detailed itinerary including hotels you stay during your travels. In the Myanmar Consulate in Bangkok, you do not need to provide a detailed itinerary, and it only takes three days to get your visa.

For more information on itinerary requirements before travel, you can email the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism at mtt.mht@mptmail.net.mm or send snail mail to 77/91 Sule Pagoda Road , Yangon.

A convenient way is to get a visa on arrival. International flights to Myanmar land in Yangon, the former capital city. At the shiny newly renovated airport in Yangon, you will see a counter to the left of the immigration bays with two or three officials. Submit the visa application at the rightmost window with a color photo of 1”by 1.5” where the official will review it. Make sure you have a hotel booked in Yangon because you will be asked to write its address and contact numbers in the application. Then you are called at some point and have to pay the U$30 visa fee. Visas run for 28 days, and you can only extend the visa by exiting the country and entering again. If you want to stay longer, you can overstay your visa and upon your departure, pay the $3 per day of overstay fee at the airport.

What to Pack

Research the climate before you go; but also note that the weather in Yangon could be vastly different from the weather in the Shan State in the same week. In May-June, which is low season for tourism because of the sporadic storms, it may be humid an raining in Yangon, and hot (up to 40 degrees C) in Bagan and Mandalay, and cool (around mid-20s C) in the lake region of the Shan State.

Burmese are modest, and only very few (in Yangon) wear clothes other than the traditional Burmese dress: a shirt and longyi for the men and three-quarter sleeved blouses and long tamein for the women. The longyi is a single piece of cloth which the men wrap around their waist, tuck into the middle to secure it, and reaches to a few inches above the ankle. The tamein is a long single piece of cloth, usually with beautiful designs, which the women wrap around their waist and tuck into the side.

Although it may be hot and humid, I would advise the traveler to dress modestly. Perhaps save the tank top and short shorts for Boracay Island, Philippines or Krabi, Thailand, and bring light linen or cotton trousers/skirts and tee-shirts for Burma. Especially for women traveling alone, being very conspicuously differently dressed than the locals may result in unwanted attention. That being said, I find that at the Inle Lake area and Shan State and beyond, I wore Bermuda shorts comfortably without attracting too much attention.

Mosquito repellant is at the top of the list. There are areas in Burma which are notorious for malaria and dengue, especially in areas below the altitude of 1000 meters. Although Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake are not high risk areas for malaria and dengue, mozzie bites are no fun. Spray your clothes with repellant, even in the daytime, a favorite time for dengue carrying mosquitos, and reapply every three hours. Also: do not wear black. Black holds heat and this heat attracts mozzies.

Sunblock is another must. Traveling in a sampan, a dugout boat, around the Samkar area in Shan State for a couple days, I developed heat rashes on my

Monks in sampan, Shan State. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

arms. I didn’t want the oily sunblock to get on my camera and applied sunblock only once in the morning. Serves me right, but good lesson for you: apply sunblock every couple of hours, and bring a light long-sleeved shirt if you are going to be out all day, which is what I did the day after. After your long days in the sun, it’s good to have soothing after-sun lotion to moisturize—this is essential for golfers (me) and travelers (you and me) in Southeast Asia.

Not only for Burma, but also for traveling in general, you need to pack your own first aid kit. Bring essentials like band aids and medicine for headaches, diarrhea, and antihistamines against dust-induced sinus colds. Also in your first aid kit should be iodine or rubbing alcohol, and I always carry around a 50ml bottle of antiseptic handwash for times when I do not have access to clean water and soap and know my hands are icky. In addition, your feet will gather dust at every place you visit: everyone must take off their shoes at the temples and pagodas, not at the temple entrance but at the gate, and walk on dirt around the temple or pagoda grounds.

Because there is a lot of taking off of shoes, it is advisable to pack a pair of rubber sandals that are comfortable to walk in. I would recommend sandals that surfers wear: light, easy to wash, dries overnight when you wash them, and slips on and off easily.

Carry a day pack that is small and light enough to be easy on your back, but is able to contain your guidebook (I recommend Lonely Planet and Burma: The Alternative Guide by Jotow and Ganz. Read before hand and choose which one to leave at the hotel, which one goes in your daypack, depending on where your itinerary takes you), tissues, mosquito repellant, sunblock, a folded umbrella in case of sudden rains, antiseptic handwash and drinking water. If you wear shorts at any time, buy and pack in your day pack a tamein or sarong, in case you have to hurriedly put it on because you are entering holy sites such as pagodas and temples. I also recommend bringing a clean plastic garbage bag and a few rubber bands, in case you are caught in the rain and have a camera in your bag. I went to Myanmar during their water festival in April, and was doused with water from a fire truck hose—but my camera equipment stayed dry inside a garbage bag I tied together with rubber bands.

Lastly, I recommend a good map—if you are going to be traveling without a human guide. A good one is the Periplus Myanmar map.

Other than these items, you need to look at climate, geography, and possible activities you might do at the places you visit, and pack accordingly.

Eating and Drinking

Jodi over at Legalnomads, who is a much more sophisticated foodie than I am, has written excellent articles on her eating experiences in Burma, and I would recommend you go over to her site and learn about the delicious Burmese soups and other dishes you have to try. (In fact, I live in Bangkok and she gives me advice on which street here has the best duck.)

All I will stress here is that street food is definitely better than restaurant food, but that when you choose the stalls you go to buy your dinner, check first that the dish you will purchase and eat is cooked then and there. Hot soups with noodles and a la carte dishes that the vendor cooks in front of you are better than food that was cooked a few hours before and has been sitting in the hot temperatures for a while. Eating street food cooked immediately in front of you helps you avoid the “traveler’s tummy” that many travelers to Southeast Asia get from bacteria that proliferate with heat and time.

Drink only bottled water and avoid the ice is the simple rule. Tap water and ice in Burma and in many countries in Asia has stuff in it your stomach is not used to, and you will risk amoebic dysentery (trust me, this is something you do not want to get, especially as a traveler somewhere you do not know anyone or speak the language).

Other Precautions

When you are in Burma, do not engage in political conversations with locals you have just met. You are leaving the country; they are not. If the government finds out you discussed politics with someone, that person will get into trouble. Seven years of jail is common for having the wrong conversation.

You will see people working on roads in some villages—carrying baskets of broken stones on their heads and working in the heat. They are villagers who have been forced without pay to work for the government. Usually there are police (blue uniform) or soldiers (bright olive green uniform) around to watch them. Do not take photos of them, or of any police or soldiers. This will get you in trouble.

Tourist taxis and tourists have special laws. That is why cars carrying tourists merge at the most illogical times in the most hair-raising ways because locals know they have to avoid getting hit by or hitting them. Tourists who are robbed usually get to the top of the police priority list. Stealing gets a person seven years in a Burmese jail.

There may be a lot more questions you have, and you do want to read a lot on Burma before you go. I recommend careful research before you go. (NOTE: There is a government ban on books that the government considers containing views “harmful” to the Tatmadaw, the military, so you might meet trouble in case your luggage is hand-checked and it contains these titles.) Here’s my essential reading list:

Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle (Arrow Books, 2007) is a good start for someone who is unfamiliar with Burma’s history. This book frames Burmese history through the life of Aung San, Burma’s most revered hero, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese generals’ most formidable political enemy alive because the people love her.

Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi (Penguin, 1995). Although it is dated, this book has lyrical vignettes of Burmese culture from the Lady’s point of view.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin, 2004) is a quick read, but insightful. Emma Larkin goes undercover and travels Burma accompanied and guided by Orwell’s prophetic ideas.

The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint U (Faber and Faber, 2007) is Burmese history through a personal lens. I find this book comprehensive and sophisticated in the way it interprets Burmese history and the links between events in Burma’s past and the present.

Living Silence in Burma by Christina Fink (Silkworm, 2009) is a comprehensive look into the Burmese psyche and what it’s like to live under military rule for so long. The most recent and second edition includes recent events.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing

Is RTW right for you?

Sometimes when I completely fall in love with a place, I want to stay indefinitely.

Standing in the Sunday market in Bac Ha, Vietnam, my senses are overwhelmed by the colors.  My camera is on overdrive. I am in heaven.

But I spend exactly one day in Bac Ha, leave the North of Vietnam, fly back to Hanoi then Bangkok, bringing back some images and the intention of going back.

Black Hmong tribeswoman at Bac Ha. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I’ve only been to Luang Prabang a total of five days. My first time in Bali, I spent five days there. First time in Myanmar, seven days. The Rajasthan in India, a week. But each time, I was able to bring back some wonderful images and a sense of the place. I didn’t have to stay indefinitely.

I know people who quit their jobs and became travelers full time. One of the most famous of these is Jodi, also known as Legalnomads. Another is Matt, known to everyone as NomadicMatt. They both quit corporate type jobs to do RTWs, or round-the-world trips. There are a lot of full-time RTW travelers: on Twitter alone, @solotraveler, @BKKMichael, and even an entire family, @GotPassport, who have sold everything they owned and relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand just over three weeks ago.

Sometimes, when I completely fall in love with a place, which happened in Burma last month, I wish for a moment I too could just make like Gaugin and run back to the place I was from the place I am.

But is RTW the right answer for everyone? Does short travel make you less of a traveler? I’ve thought about these questions a lot lately. Here are some thoughts.

1. Short travel is OK if you are already an expat.

I’ve lived in Thailand and other countries. I haven’t been in what most people would consider “home,” really, since I was sixteen years old. Wherever I am at present is “home” to me. So I am a full-time expat. What I love about being an expat in Bangkok is that I am able to use all the conveniences I would have back home, and (seriously) there is a direct flight to five continents from this city. So when I have the time, I can fly somewhere with my camera and notebook, and then fly back home. In 2007, for instance, my busiest year thus far, I flew 47 different times to 17 different places and was back on Monday for my full time job.

Faceless portrait, Luang Prabang. Photo by Aloha Lavina

2. You have a job you love.

The people I know who quit their job to travel did not really enjoy what they did as much as they enjoyed travel. Shamelessly, I can talk about my profession for a whole day and never tire. I teach high school English and design curriculum, and I love it. I love the possibility that is in each life of each child I teach; I love the light that happens in their eyes when they understand something, when they learn. And I love that at the end of the school year, I am able to look back and appreciate that my hard work has made someone love learning.

I thought about quitting teaching to engage in my other job, freelance commercial photographer and journalist. But in all these years of being busy both Monday to Friday with school and Saturdays and evenings with photography and writing, I honestly cannot say I would be happy without either. So I am both.

Arm akimbo in Rajasthan. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

3. Your travel needs you to lug heavy equipment around.

I travel so I can create images. The lightest equipment I take somewhere includes a DSLR, at least two lenses, four camera batteries, a storage viewer which can hold up to 160 GB of photos, a notebook (paper based tool I can carry in my pocket to record snatches of thought).

Girl with offering, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I also budget my reading when I travel, because when it’s too dark to take photos, I usually don’t ‘go out’ in the conventional sense, so I read. On a recent eight-day trip to Bali, I read the three books I brought in five days, and I had to buy Eat Pray Love and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest for the three days left plus the plane ride.

And, sometimes I have to carry a tripod and a laptop.

If I had to lug this equipment around on my back for a whole year on an RTW, I think one of a few things would happen:

3a. I will run out of storage space for new photos. On an average day on a photo trip, from pre-sunrise to sundown, I take around 24 GB of photos. Do the math—even if I delete the mediocre ones nightly, I would still end up with at least some 12 GB of photos a day. That makes 160 GB last for an average of 13.33 days, nowhere close to a year. Of course, I could bring more than one storage device, thereby sentencing myself to a lifetime of back problems. (All this equipment on my back every day weighs 16 kilograms which I carry while chasing images.) 3b. I will spend lots of money on books. 3c. All of the above.

4. Budgets are easier to handle.

I generally like nicer hotels. And because I often travel more than 200 kilometers a day from the sunrise location to the sunset, I have to hire a car. When traveling, a nice room and a reliable car often are my two biggest expenses.

5. Every day is full of action.

Tom Swick of World Hum wrote that traveling is “creative hanging around.” For me, that doesn’t mean sitting. As a rule, I am constantly in motion when I travel. On my feet at a location, I can explore ways to make better images than if I sit somewhere and wait for a shot to walk by.

Of course, I also do hang around. I have to make friends before I make photos—that’s another of my rules. So a lot of time is spent socializing with the

Peekaboo, Ubud, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

locals, eating with them, visiting their families, and a lot of time is spent working with the camera. The rest of the time is slow eating and sipping good coffee while writing down my thoughts. Days and days of this, then I go home and process both the photos and my thoughts.

I like being able to live episodically when I travel. It demands that I pay attention to the present, every single minute of every single day.

And it works for me. How about you? Is RTW right for you?


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing
What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name?” says Juliet to the night sky, in the famous balcony scene of Shakespeare’s play.

I bet she did not know about a baby girl who was so fat that when she sat in lotus position on her grandfather’s lap, folds of  her flesh hung in layers, so he affectionately nicknamed her “Buddha.”

I’ve had a lot more nicknames since then. In 1992, befriended by a couple, a tall, lanky girl from Alabama and her Welsh husband, I was called “Little Bit.” Sitting on their porch in the sleepy Thai town of Minburi, we had actual fried green tomatoes and sips of julep, telling stories, and my friend would drawl in lovely Southern notes, “You’re a funny one, Little Bit. Small, but big on personality.”

In 1994, in the beautiful Berkshires, I painted Melanie’s house with her daughter Alison before taking a three-week train trip across the United States. Sitting in Mel’s kitchen the night before I left, Mel asked me, “What’s the attraction for you with this train trip? Why not stay in Boston with Ali to watch the World Cup match with Colombia?”

“If I had a car,” I told her, “I would have driven cross country. This way is less responsibility,” was my way of telling her I wanted to be in motion. I had an open ended pass for Amtrak; I could stop anywhere and get on again after an indeterminate time; it was at that time, the most liberating travel I knew.

“Well then, you vagabond urchin, you,” Mel gives me the nickname which she calls me to this day,” you’ll have to come back to the Berks sometime after you roam the rest of the world.”

Roaming the world since then, I’ve met a girl named Beer in Bangkok. Her father, she said, loved Carlsberg at the time she was born. “At least I wasn’t named Carlsberg,” Beer said matter-of-factly. The Thai tendency to give nicknames to their children stems from a value. Many Thai names are too long, and calling someone their nickname is more saduak, more convenient.

Names we give our children can tell us what we value. I once met an entire family whose names were golf related. The first born was Birdie, whose younger brother was Par, and whose littlest brother was named Eagle. Their dad loved golf. I’ve also met a lot of Tops, some Firsts, and two guys named Army and Navy. Once I taught a student whose name was Nok, who was so shy she flapped her arms in nervousness. Nok, in Thai, means bird. (She later on became a pilot, but that is entirely another story.)

In Bali, I met six different Wayans. Wayan is a name given to a firstborn baby. The second baby is named Made, the third Nyoman, and the fourth Ketut. Then there’s the caste reference in the names. “I Gusti” refers to the nobility, so my friend named “I Gusti Ngurah Rai” belongs to the landed caste Wesya, is a “gift from heaven,” whose personal name is Rai.


But in Myanmar, names are forever. “We don’t change our names after marriage,” Su Mon tells me. Her name tells me she is born on a Tuesday, since all Tuesday babies have names beginning with S. But no, she says, she was born on a Thursday, which would have meant being named something that begins with P, B, or M. Except the astrologer said no.

“We Burmese consult an astrologer when we have to name a baby,” explains Su Mon. “He tells us the most auspicious name for a baby for his or her birth.”

“But your names are forever,” I repeat the awesome fact.

“Yes,” Su Mon says, smiling, “Burmese names are forever.”

Except of course, in 1988 the military government changed the name of the country without any input from anyone else: from Burma to Myanmar. And many towns had their names changed, too. Moulmein to Mawlamyine. Poor Rangoon became Yangon, and then lost its capital status to Nyapidaw in 2006.

It’s in Burma when I realize that what’s in a name could change with spelling, be meaningful with an intention, or even be eternal, tied to the stars.

When it rains in Rangoon, I feel the Burmese nostalgia as my own, thinking about names. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, another Tuesday baby, wrote in her Letters from Burma, “The word monsoon has always sounded beautiful to me, possibly because we Burmese, who are rather inclined to indulge in nostalgia, think of the rainy season as the most romantic.”

“Monsoon Jazz” by Aloha Lavina.

I remember the romance of rain. South Korea, 1990. The winter Bush, Sr. took soldiers to Iraq. The winter the Bengals won the Super Bowl.

That day in the winter of 1990, I walked from the Hyatt Café where I had been writing all night (endless coffee refills and silence), and Seoul Tower at the top of Namsan was still ablaze. Suddenly, the lights went off. It was almost morning, but the street sweepers weren’t out yet. The men and women in the street market in Haebangchon were quietly setting up. An adushi, an uncle in traditional Korean clothes sat sipping a hot cup of barley tea from the vending machine on the corner and squinted at me through the steam rising out of his cup. Every Sunday I bought a whole roast chicken from him, so I could make roast chicken ceasar salad, my favorite, at home. He taught me a lot of Korean words. For instance, because I always wore black, he called me “Woo Shim,” which is a Korean name meaning “rain heart.”

It began to rain when I reached my apartment, and I was happy, sleepless and simply happy, sitting surrounded by sheets of birthed words. Outside, the sky was calling my name.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing

Five favorites from Burma

Sometimes a smile can make you forget the hot dusty Bagan market.

Another smile might be completely unexpected amongst tomatoes.

Grace could pass you by, clutching a red umbrella.

You might find contagious laughter in Mandalay.

You could be thankful for the whim of a flower tucked behind an ear.

Some of the things Burma gifted me are not limited by words.

All photos Copyright Aloha Lavina.

That Beautiful Longing

Ironically, on a Sunday, I am surrounded by idols.

The natural cave at Shew Oo Min, in Pindaya, has around 8000 Buddha figures brought here by pilgrims. Walking barefoot through the cave, on a cold wet floor, I glance at the inscriptions. Many of the pilgrims who have brought in Buddha figures or donated paint to renovate the old figures are from far away. The US, Germany, Singapore.

Like with the other Buddha figures I’ve seen on this trip to Burma—in Bagan, the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, in Mandalay and now in the Shan State—the eyes of the figure are cast down, looking at a point between sky and earth, but not really looking.

A monk studies beside Buddha figures, Burma. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

“It’s to remind us to control attachment,” Ye Myint tells me. We are perched on top of the Lawka Auk Shaung Pagoda, waiting for the sun to set over Bagan. He knows the caretaker who holds the keys, and when I tell him I didn’t want to climb the popular Shwesendaw Pagoda with the other tourists, he takes me to this small, lonely paya, or pagoda. From here, with a zoom lens, I can see the tourists at Shwesendaw to the East in their floppy hats and sunglasses, waiting for the sunset.

Buddhism is founded on the idea that life is suffering, called dukkha. When we become attached to something, we desire it, and the desire most often leads to suffering. “We can’t

Monk prays at Schwedagon Paya, Rangoon. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

have everything we want,” Ye Myint pronounces. He looks away, squinting at the tops of the pagodas in the distance. I follow his gaze, but the sun is too bright and hurts.

“But it’s human to desire,” I say. I am thinking of dreams I have had in Burma, strange and lengthy streams of things from other lifetimes: an old lover’s shoulder in window light, laughter in a faraway conversation I still remember, a day infused with piano sonatas and the smell of good bread, contentment felt on a slow train from Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Things I’ve craved but have compartmentalized in little boxes, signed, sealed, made scarce to make way for the present.

“Yes, but the self is not real,” is Ye Myint’s confident reply. He refers to the other Buddhist precept of annata, or non-self. Like Plato’s world of ideas, the Buddha taught that the self in this world is an approximation of reality. In this world, we are air in jars. Imprisoned in glass, we are unable to join with the air around us everywhere, the universe. Only when the self reaches enlightenment or nibbana, will the self become one with the universe, and become real.

We fall silent in our own thoughts like friends do sometimes. I think of monks who could not keep their eyes down any longer but marched against the military junta in September 2007, and were repressed with force. Which of their 227 rules says they have to forego freedom?

I think of the other lives, the ones who are not in the news.

I meet a man in the Shan State who has an advanced degree from a famous English university. In crisp English, he apologizes that they only have fried rice, even though I am the one imposing on his house, resting from the heat. He gives me a cloth serviette and sets my place at the table in precisely a Western manner. A fork each for both salad and main course, edge of the dish flush with the placemat. We talked for a time, but like my other conversations with Burmese, we danced around the words we wanted to say but didn’t, or couldn’t.

A good friend, whom I ask to take me home for Thingyan, the Burmese New Year when she goes, writes me back a month later, saying no without saying no. “The government discourages Burmese from hosting tourists privately,” she writes, “so please book a tour to that area.”

Young fisherman at Inle Lake. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Even in our letters, we keep to the edges of reality. Our words are ascetic, dripping with dukkha, anointed with annata.

Even now, hundreds of miles away as I write this, I still peer over that edge. And the eyes of what I imagine to be Burma looks back at me, eyes that are large and dark, almost like the water at Inle Lake at dawn. When I look into them I hear the echo of the lone fisherman singing about lost love, the soft splash of his oar punctuating the long high notes of his song.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens

An Unkindness of Ravens

“Give money for blood for baby,” the woman carrying the child says to me at the Schwezigon Pagoda. Bare feet hurting from small pebbles on the ground as I walk, I turn away from her. If I hide my face, maybe she’ll turn away, too.

She follows me. “Give money for blood for baby.” The stone path around the main pagoda stings my feet with heat. I walk around pretending to be completely engaged in taking cliched shots of the golden spires of the pagoda in bad noontime lighting, ignoring the woman and the baby she holds in her arms.

“Blood for baby.” She blocks my path now, and has put down the child. The child is in a bright lime green outfit, complete with hat, and her face has been beautifully brushed with tanaka in butterfly swirls. The child looks up at me, smiles. She’s not sick.

Then I realize the mother is saying food, not blood. I sigh relief but the soles of my feet are baking, and by now she has thrust aside the personal space I assume is always around me. I could rub noses with her with just a slight inclination. The mother puts down the child and says something to her, and the child says, “Hello, hello,” following me. I smile at her but try to engross myself in the architecture. The mother coaching her, the child comes closer to me, in her lime green sandals, tugs at my jeans,”Hello, hello.”

Money, her mother chants. Money, money.

I feel like a pimp, and the camera hanging on my neck has made a whore of them.

She has nothing to sell, so she sells the probability of a photo I might take of her and the baby or both, for money.

Once upon a time, I would have taken the shot and given the dollar. But today, I am resolute: I will not spoil the trip by buying my images, in effect creating beggars around these tourist spots like the photographers who have come before me.

Maybe it’s too late.

I walk fast out of the pagoda grounds, out onto the unpaved parking lot, pebbles biting into my feet. Flanking the parking lot is a row of shops. Myanmar Lager Beer, a large sign announces. Outside the compound, under a tamarind tree, a dead dog lay; split open from whatever cruelty it met last night. An unkindness of ravens pecks at the carcass, making sharp sounds as they feast.

I walk back to the temple compound, still barefoot. Again I steel my shoulders for the swarm of postcard sellers. In the parking lot’s dust, there is one of me and three Spanish tourists, bright in their blondeness. Thankfully, they stand out. The assault of postcard sellers chooses them. I am left alone, to walk to the car I’ve hired, to get away.

I cannot get away. In Bagan, I stop beside one of the city’s ubiquitous peanut fields, to watch a man climb the toddy palm trees lining the field, to gather toddy nuts. The purple nuts the size of half a head yield sugar, which the locals boil into syrup and when hardened, form jaggery, a kind of after-meal candy. The jaggery is also fermented with the nut’s juice to make jaggery juice, a thick, sweet drink in the morning, and in the afternoon, fermented in the heat, becomes jaggery beer, a local favorite.

The man climbs the palm tree using a rope truss, a net hanging from his belt. He cuts the nuts and holds them in his net, so he looks like a strange spider with bulbous legs from where I observe below. He smiles at me while climbing another tree, and I receive this as a sign to take his photo. He plays to the camera, stopping on his descent to give me his smile, and flex his strong and limber leg muscles.

Crossing on flooded path, Mandalay. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Ten minutes later, the matriarch of the family shows me her torn shirt. Her breast shows through a gash in her shirt. She is saying something to me, and although I do not own any language here, I understand she is telling me how poor they are.

I have a few kyats in my pocket. I hand them to her, then I walk away, telling myself I am not creating beggars. I am merely helping someone buy some better clothes.

Maybe it’s too late, now, to change from the change that has already happened. In Minggun, the boat I am on approaches the shore where broken lies the giant lion built to guard the pagoda that was never finished, a giant square block of red brick on a hill. The shore looks deserted until the boat is about a hundred meters away, then I see them.

Women with postcards dangling from their hands. Bead necklaces. Fabric. There are six of them, waiting by one of the jetties. “We are not landing there,” Kyaw Myint says to me. As if they heard, the women clamber, run, away from the jetty toward another, near a broken wall shaded by a large rain tree.

When I get off the boat, six voices chant, “Buy from me, buy from me, not expensive, later OK?” I am trotting now, away from their voices, toward the broken pagoda. At the base of the hill, a couple of shops scream color. Cold Drink, one of them implores in crooked letters hand-painted on cardboard.

A young teen approaches me, three dollar bills clutched like an open poker hand. “Help me change to kyat”, he says. “In Mingun is very difficult.” I know this trick already. The little girl across from the Buddhist University, with tanaka on her face and flowers in her hair, asked me to change 700 kyats to a dollar a few days ago. I shook my head then, I shake my head now at the young man.

One US dollar can get approximately 950 kyats, but the locals use the common currency exchange rate of 1000 kyats to the dollar. Instant profit. It’s almost advisable not to change

Finished walls at a bamboo factory, Amarapura. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

to kyats for food expenses; a 16-dollar meal at a restaurant, instead of the equivalent 15,200 kyats, will cost you 16,000 kyats on the exchange. Multiply that by two meals a day, and you automatically under-budget. But paying with US dollars can also get you into trouble. Legalnomads, traveling in Burma for six weeks, once had to lick a 10-dollar bill to show a man it was spotless, after he had refused to take it as payment because it “had a spot.” Spotless and crisp greenbacks are the only way to go in Burma.

“Please help me change,” the boy says again more insistently, thrusting the three dollar bills to me. I must note that by Minggun my soul is frayed. I have spent five days listening to the mantra of “Money, buy from me, hello, buy from me” and walking through assaults of postcards sellers. This is not conducive to photography, or vacationing; I am tired of it. So when the boy continues his chant, I snap back. “I am not a bank,” I say. My face turns to stone. I put the lens cap on my camera, shutting its sensor in darkness.

In 2007 the impoverished government of Burma increased prices. Gas went up 66%, diesel 100%, and natural gas 500%. Manufacturing costs followed, and price increase was passed on, of course, to the consumers–the common men and women who toil day in and day out to earn the average annual income of $1900. Most people, according to Lonely Planet, “make $1 a day if that.”

But just outside Mandalay, along the Irrawady River, there are people who help each other for nothing. Kyaw Myint has taken me to see a village along the way to Amarapura, but the concrete path leading from the highway to the village broke. Just that morning, the water sliced through, flooding the path. The pedestrians and motorcyclists wade slowly through the mild currents, on another path.

Kyaw Myint wants to know if I will cross, roll up my jeans and wade to the village. But I don’t answer, because the village is here, specifically the men. They have taken off their

Men making a makeshift bridge on the Irrawady River. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

longyi and sandals, and they are chest deep in the water hammering wooden poles into the riverbed to build a temporary bridge. I stand there watching them work, young and old alike. There will be no insurance company who will sweep in and compensate everyone for their loss, for their work. The government, which since 1962 has never been for the people, will take its time to repair the concrete path, if it does. But the villagers, resourceful and cooperative, have already come up with their own solution.

In Amarupura, deep into country very few tourists visit, we find a bamboo factory in the middle of the jungle. A whole family harvest the bamboo and work all day to make mats and walls. “He says,” Kyaw Myint translates,”they can make some 600 kyats per wall. He can make ten walls per day, but he sells maybe three or five.” We hang around the family, laughing with the women, playing with the sleepy baby. I feel my face relax, smile more easily. Under the mango tree I spy another group of ravens, chattering, and remembering a book I read in third grade, the metaphor startles me.

The raven has a bad rep. Known to attack both humans and animals, it eats almost anything, dead or alive. But it is intelligent and resourceful, known to survive in the cruelest, most difficult terrain. It mimics other animals in behavior that gets it food. It is, despite being an annoyance, a magnificent survivor.


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