A Journey Through Southeast Asia

A fisherman on his boat at Ubien Bridge | Yangon, Myanmar

A fisherman on his boat at Ubien Bridge | Yangon, Myanmar

Muddy rivers, mountainous views, smiling people in villages. The longest drives I have ever taken, the constant smell of fish, rice shared over long tables, a familiar culture spoken in an unfamiliar tongue. These are my memories of Southeast Asia.

I spent three weeks traveling across Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand volunteering as a photographer for In Better Hands — a non-profit organization that helps trafficked children or children in danger of being trafficked in the area. I visited local churches, villages and safe homes located deep in the mountains and rural areas. It was one of the most difficult trips I have taken as an adult and one that I will not forget too soon.

I learned about Cambodia, the corruption related to human trafficking, and the poverty that results in children being sold by their parents. I traveled across Myanmar and learned about the ongoing civil war that has been raging in the country for 70 years. I read about the Rohingya refugees that are still under persecution and visited safe homes that used to be war zones a decade ago. I photographed children in safe homes that were lost without names and family as a result of the war. The hardest part of Thailand was witnessing young women that were just like me, working on the streets working in occupations that pretty much broke my heart. The worst was understanding that the trafficking industry is largely supported by tourists like you and me.

Group photo of a safe home in Tachileik, Myanmar. Each home consists of a pair of house parents and 10–12 children that are brought in from each area.

Group photo of a safe home in Tachileik, Myanmar. Each home consists of a pair of house parents and 10–12 children that are brought in from each area.

Girl with Thanaka makeup(Burmese sunscreen). Everyone wore traditional clothing for the photo shoot

Girl with Thanaka makeup(Burmese sunscreen). Everyone wore traditional clothing for the photo shoot

During my trip, I experienced a lot of self-doubt. A lot of wondering “How can something like this exist in the world?”. Some days it felt like the injustice was too much to take in and the easier thing to do would be to stay in my room and refuse to acknowledge these terrible truths. Yet as a photographer and someone who was raised half of my life in Asia  — I felt a sense of responsibility to share about what goes on outside the comfort of our daily lives.

Documenting a safe home in Pyin Oo Lwin village, Myanmar. Many of these children lost their homes to due to the civil war that has been going for the last 70 years. Most of these children don’t know their names, age or where they are from.

Documenting a safe home in Pyin Oo Lwin village, Myanmar. Many of these children lost their homes to due to the civil war that has been going for the last 70 years. Most of these children don’t know their names, age or where they are from.

Despite the harsh conditions — my photo shoots were filled with the brightest of smiles

Despite the harsh conditions — my photo shoots were filled with the brightest of smiles

The things I took away from this trip was that is was okay with not be comfortable, and understanding that it will always be a challenge working on issues that are easier to ignore. I grew in empathy and listening to people that are from cultures different than mine. I grew in compassion   for people that live in places far away and for people that are close to home.

The beautiful Khutodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar

The beautiful Khutodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar

Kitty resting in the sun

Kitty resting in the sun

Southeast Asia was beautiful. It is a place that is raw, mysterious, and pure. There were moments where I found contentment walking through the countless pagodas, scouting locations, and enjoying the hospitality of the locals. There are beautiful places that are yet to be touched by western culture. It is a place where people value simple things — family, food, shelter. A job to provide all the above.

To conclude, I am encouraged coming back to North America. People have asked me what I took away from this trip. My answer is — be here now, be present, love people that are in your life now. Read Everybody, Always by Bob Goff. Start where you are.

Travel is really understanding that that world is immensely beautiful and broken. It is finding an urgency and purpose in creating beauty and knowing that your voice matters. It is making a choice to keep reflecting what is good, beautiful and true.

It’s going to be good.

Sunset at Ubien Bridge, Mandalay

Sunset at Ubien Bridge, Mandalay

Learn more about my GoFundMe project here or directly support the organization In Better Hands here.

Tamorak — A School for Indigenous Children in Taiwan

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Nestled between the ocean and mountains of east coast Taiwan is Tamorak, a non-profit preschool for Indigenous children.

Tamorak is founded by Nakaw, a local homeschooling mother, alongside the Amei people at Makotaay village in Hualien. As a teacher trained within the Taiwanese school system, Nakaw recognized the need for an alternative education program; one specifically geared toward Indigenous children struggling to fit into the current model.

In February 2015  —  in the humble basement of her home  —  Nakaw began teaching Amei children in their native tongue using a Waldorf curriculum . Over time, new teachers and supportive parents were personally trained by Nakaw and added to the roster of staff at Tamorak.

The days I spent at Tamorak was filled with adventures, creative activities, and fresh, home cooked meals. I have never experienced a community where everyone so authentically supports one another. The children I met were lively, active and in tune with nature. The school setting was homelike with warm, inviting colours and hand-dye linens. The pace was serene and unhurried. During mealtimes — songs are sung with held hands and the staff eats alongside the children. Children dangle off wooden swings and tree branches during recess. Toddlers join in on outdoor excursions and forage for edible plants with surprising agility. The older children are diligent, well-rounded leaders with great maturity and an acute awareness of the outside world.

Nakaw says her goal for Tamorak and for these children is to feel a sense of belonging — to grow up knowing who they are and where they come from. Her greatest wish is to raise these children with strong values and for them to become self-sufficient adults.

I left Tamorak understanding that while they may be a community fighting to preserve their culture, they are also a community filled with hope and a great sense of purpose in who they are and what they can contribute.

Founder of Tamorak, Nakaw, teaches Chinese characters to two elementary student using illustrations and body language.

Founder of Tamorak, Nakaw, teaches Chinese characters to two elementary student using illustrations and body language.

Students in prayer, giving thanks before their mid-day meal by volunteer staff.

Students in prayer, giving thanks before their mid-day meal by volunteer staff.

Students climbing trees during recess. School activities are designed to be closely integrated with nature.

Students climbing trees during recess. School activities are designed to be closely integrated with nature.

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Stone Hot Pot — A traditional Amei meal prepared in hollowed bamboo for the spring ceremony. Organic vegetables, beans, and seafood stew are prepared using hot stones from the fire. The freshest meal I have ever eaten.

Stone Hot Pot — A traditional Amei meal prepared in hollowed bamboo for the spring ceremony. Organic vegetables, beans, and seafood stew are prepared using hot stones from the fire. The freshest meal I have ever eaten.

Tamorak students on their way to classes in the field. These toddlers show surprising agility climbing hills and trekking down mountains.

Tamorak students on their way to classes in the field. These toddlers show surprising agility climbing hills and trekking down mountains.

Facts about Tamorak:

• Classes are taught in Amei language using a Waldorf curriculum. Waldorf education is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner and stresses the importance of hands-on activities, creative play, and learning through imitation. Classes are designed with a focus on the connection between the heart, head, and hands. Nakaw believes this system offers a parallel to the Amei culture and values.

“Classes are designed with a focus on the connection between the heart, head, and hands. Nakaw believes this system offers a parallel to Amei culture and values.”

• Lunches are parent-supported and made with local organic produce.
• Pottery, painting, cooking, storytelling and outdoor classes are included each day.
• Teaching materials, paints, and props are natural and non-toxic. Use of computers and television are limited and only introduced to children at an older age.
• Tamorak (pronounced Damorak) was named after the late village elder. Tamorak means pumpkin in Amei and represents growth.

First-grade student Paha was originally enrolled in the Taiwanese school system, where she struggled with isolation as a result of language and cultural barriers. Paha’s mother, a volunteer teacher at Tamorak, drives two hours every day so Paha can attend classes. The progress Paha has made since transferring to Tamorak has been incredible.

First-grade student Paha was originally enrolled in the Taiwanese school system, where she struggled with isolation as a result of language and cultural barriers. Paha’s mother, a volunteer teacher at Tamorak, drives two hours every day so Paha can attend classes. The progress Paha has made since transferring to Tamorak has been incredible.

Tamorak students enjoying playtime on the outdoor playground built by elders from the Amei village.

Tamorak students enjoying playtime on the outdoor playground built by elders from the Amei village.

Poror, Arigfowang, and Atomo (Nakaw’s three children) stand against the stunning landscape of east coast Taiwan located by the school.

Poror, Arigfowang, and Atomo (Nakaw’s three children) stand against the stunning landscape of east coast Taiwan located by the school.

Children playing with leaves and stones during recess. No plastic or artificial materials are used within the classrooms. As a result, children become very resourceful at making their own toys.

Children playing with leaves and stones during recess. No plastic or artificial materials are used within the classrooms. As a result, children become very resourceful at making their own toys.

Why

The Amei language has no written characters — all communication passes verbally. Because of this, Amei children face incredible challenges in learning and adjusting to the visual elements of the Chinese language. Without a method to communicate in school, Amei children often withdraw from social activities or become trouble makers, and many are incorrectly identified as having a learning disability. Correspondingly, children that successfully adapt to the Chinese language have a hard time readjusting to their own language when they return home.

Nakaw believes that the root of the problem lies in language: She believes children must learn the language of the village and be educated in a system that aligns with their values and culture.

Challenges

Tamorak is currently limited to a kindergarten curriculum, but Nakaw has plans to begin developing the elementary curriculum. As the children graduate, additional teaching spaces are needed, alongside more teachers and resources.

All meals, utility bills and teaching supplies are currently being covered by Nakaw and the Makotaay community. Despite government funding, Tamorak is constantly underfunded. For the school to receive sufficient funding from the government, they must first become certified as an official school, and children will need to pass standardized tests as they come of age.

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“Tamorak is in need of your support to continue the education of these children and preserve the Indigenous language and culture. “ To donate or support the work at Tamorak, visit their GoFundMe page here.

Photos from Bangladesh: A Campaign with World Vision Canada

An afternoon on the streets of Dhaka

An afternoon on the streets of Dhaka

I remember my first day waking up in Dhaka. The world's most densely populated city with 14 million people—a city filled with blaring horns, faded concrete walls, the smell of dust, yellow curry and the serene calls of prayer five times a day.

I had partnered with World Vision Canada on their No Child For Sale campaign where we would visit area development projects in the slums of Bangladesh and visit communities deep in the country. Our goal was to gather resources on child labour involved in the supply chain and how it leads back to consumers in North America.

I remember visiting countless night schools, interviewing five-year-olds that worked as waste pickers on garbage mountains and meeting children with stories that seemed too brutal to exist. Along the way, I was also cared for by staff that treated me like family and meet people that were working as hard as they possibly could to improve those situations.

When I tell people that I have travelled to Bangladesh most people reply with "Why would you go there? It's so chaotic and dirty." or "You must feel super grateful now when you see the way people live there." Both are true and both are perceptions that barely scratch the surface of what is real and what it was like being there.

Mukta and Bhabna both worked as waste pickers at a very young age to help their families. Through attending the learning centre that World Vision partners with, they were able to learn skills and pass exams to enter the local school system. Mukta wants to be teacher and Bhabna wants to be a doctor. Both of them love being able to attend school.

Mukta and Bhabna both worked as waste pickers at a very young age to help their families. Through attending the learning centre that World Vision partners with, they were able to learn skills and pass exams to enter the local school system. Mukta wants to be teacher and Bhabna wants to be a doctor. Both of them love being able to attend school.

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Children from the village and visiting boys that work at machinery shops in Jessore.

Children from the village and visiting boys that work at machinery shops in Jessore.

Creatively, this trip really made me realize the beauty of photography and how it gives me the ability to document stories and be a voice for people that need to be heard. Along the way, I also realized that it was less about me fulfilling my creative vision but about being a person that cared more than taking a great photo and walking away.

I remember being anxious about how gruesome the environment was and doubting my ability to pull off the project. This trip really stretched that idea and my hope for these photos is to share snapshots of beauty I found in this country and translate what it was like meeting the Bangladeshi people in real life.

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Babu and Sabir, two brothers we met in Chila while visiting a group of porter boys. During our visit, Babu never let go of Sabir's hand and piggy-backed his younger brother from the bus station all the way to our shoot location.

Babu and Sabir, two brothers we met in Chila while visiting a group of porter boys. During our visit, Babu never let go of Sabir's hand and piggy-backed his younger brother from the bus station all the way to our shoot location.

To think that you can love someone you’ve met for 10 minutes and care for a nation of kids on the other side of the world is impossible. But I want to share that the Bangladeshi people I met there were people just like you and me. They are warm, they are welcoming, they are funny. They love, they get frustrated over daily life and they love ice cream. They don’t view their living situations the way we do but work at it every day with much dignity and love for those around them.

Tanya lost her mother to a remarriage nine years when her father was blinded during a terrible incident. Since then, Tanya works night shifts from at the shrimp factory to support her handicapped father and younger sister. Tanya lead our team in a terrific Bollywood dance during our visit and says she dreams of being a dancer one day.

Tanya lost her mother to a remarriage nine years when her father was blinded during a terrible incident. Since then, Tanya works night shifts from at the shrimp factory to support her handicapped father and younger sister. Tanya lead our team in a terrific Bollywood dance during our visit and says she dreams of being a dancer one day.

What I am trying to point out is that these trips have given me a capacity for compassion and boldness to talk about issues that seem better kept in the dark. The decision to go on this trip was to challenge myself and take on a project I believed in; knowing that I had to be prepared, to be honest about my experience and have the courage to speak out. Now that I know about these things, it seems quite foolish to stay silent.

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Visiting girls at the shrimp processing depot. These girls spend long hours picking shrimp heads in this tiny dark space.

Visiting girls at the shrimp processing depot. These girls spend long hours picking shrimp heads in this tiny dark space.

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Children we met at the villages in Khulna. These boys spend long hours in the water collecting shrimp larva that they sell to shrimp farms which are later exported. Every day, these children face the dangers of water snakes, floods and malnutrition while making less than a dollar a day.

Children we met at the villages in Khulna. These boys spend long hours in the water collecting shrimp larva that they sell to shrimp farms which are later exported. Every day, these children face the dangers of water snakes, floods and malnutrition while making less than a dollar a day.

There is a deep imbalance about the way we live in developed worlds and the way people live in countries like Bangladesh. After putting a face to these stories and knowing these people that can use our support, I believe that we should all do our part in creating change.

A simple decision can really make a great impact on a child’s life. There are children working in terrible situations and getting paid half of what they deserve because they are young and in situations that make them very vulnerable. By refusing to support brands who are not transparent about their manufacturing process, you might be giving a child a chance to go to school, to make their own decision in marriage and a chance to have a better life.

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My travels in developing worlds have taught to be more aware of brands I support as well as educate myself and others about transparency in goods we consume. To learn more about the campaign I worked on, visit www.nochildforsale.ca and see on how you can take part in creating change.