Nepal’s Leading LGBTI Activist

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS report we broadcast from Kathmandu, Nepal.  Meet Sunil Babu Pant, LGBTI Activist, and founding father of the modern LGBTI movement in Nepal.

THIS WAY OUT (Radio):  Nepal’s Leading Gay Activist Rises Above Politics (Full Broadcast Distributed 09/02/2013

 

Sunil Babu Pant

LGBT Kyrgyzstan

GAY FREEDOM AMOUNG THE MOUNTAINS AND YURTS:  LGBT LIFE IN KYRGYZSTAN (Published in Gay Star News June 25th, 2013 )

http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/gay-freedom-among-mountains-and-yurts250613

Other than a few adventurers following the iconic ‘silk route’, a scattering of Israeli backpackers, and any number of French tourists – not many travelers seem to know about the beautiful and mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan.

Officially called the Kyrgyz Republic, it is the second poorest state from the former Soviet Union and the second poorest in Central Asia. But despite conflicts and revolts it has managed to maintain itself as a parliamentary democracy.

Sandwiched between China and a bunch of other Central Asian countries all ending in ‘stan’, this former Soviet Republic has a lot to offer in the way of snow-capped mountains, cosy yurts, and crumbling relics of communism. Somewhat surprisingly, we found Kyrgyzstan also has a lot to offer in the way of a strong, growing LGBT movement.

Only hours after our arrival to the capital city of Bishkek, representatives from Labrys, a local LGBT organization, met us at our guesthouse. Sizing up my partner and me over coffee and concluding we were harmless, they invited us back to their lesbian lair, aka the Labrys offices, and had an employee pick us up from our guesthouse the following day.

The Labyrs building lies in the midst of a slightly shady residential neighborhood and is almost impossible to find if you don’t know where it is. Past the protective walls, security cameras and locked gate, the grounds inside were full of young LGBT people.

We smiled as we walked by staff members smoking, working and laughing at YouTube videos. The women – and a few men – of Labrys warmly introduced themselves and showed us their offices and kitchen, where they fed us freshly-made strawberry jam and copious amounts of coffee.

Since it was closing time, a few of them invited us out to a local city park, which doubled as a charmingly run-down amusement park. They introduced us to the local beer, which we sipped out of half liter bottles, as we rode high into the air on a rusty Ferris wheel, watching the city spin slowly by with our new friends. We all laughed as they dutifully taught us to swear in both Kyrgyz and Russian – a right of passage for any foreigner in a new land.

Over the next several weeks we got to know a few of the women from Labrys, who introduced us to the interesting, post-soviet, nominally Muslim world that is Kyrgyzstan, and they graciously let us interview them about LGBT issues in their country…

To read the full article published in Gay Star News click on the link below:

- See more at: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/gay-freedom-among-mountains-and-yurts250613#sthash.4cJQb0Db.dpuf

 

TIBET: The Undercover Life of a Proud Gay Man in Tibet

Below is an excerpt from our report on Tibet, published in Gay Star News March 31,2013.  Click here to see the full article.

“Finding gay Tibetans turned out to be as we expected – quite difficult.

We are on our international quest to find LGBT communities around the world, and we realized the Tibet Autonomous Region would be an especially challenging – and therefore intriguing – destination. It was a place we knew so little about and whose LGBT voice seemed so markedly absent from the world discourse.

We had read about the first public gay wedding this past October in China’s Fujian province, and we had heard that Shanghai even boasts a relatively vibrant gay scene. But what about Tibet?

Having some sense of the situation there, but admittedly naive about it all, my partner and I set off on our own adventure over newly-paved roads, past prayer flags and monasteries, to the enchanting and controversial city of Lhasa.

Before arriving we had read about a couple of different gay bars there called Blue Sky and Jane’s Cafe, so we were sad to learn they’d closed in recent years. One of the better (and I thought more fun) ideas to try and find LGBT Tibetans, was to sign up for a Grindr account. We included our goofy self-portrait among the catalogue of chiseled chests, saying, ‘Lesbian travelers looking for friends’. After seeing that the nearest person on Grindr was over 700 miles away, we began to fear defeat.

With a final effort we realized that all was not lost. We found a website serving the LGBT community in Asia and checked out its ‘Travelers Board’. Of the two – dated – messages, one was a short sentence which read something about ‘looking for friends’, and it had an email address. Assuming this was intended for hookups, but feeling desperate, we decided to write this mysterious individual anyway and see if he was open to meeting.

Twelve hours later there was a response – he was up for it. After so many failed attempts and dead ends, here was Jetsan*, nonchalantly on the other end saying, ‘Sure’. It seemed too good to be true.

That’s when the worry seeped in – oh my god, who is this guy? Is he a Chinese spy? A serial killer? Why was he being so trusting to people he doesn’t even know? Especially in a place like Tibet, where justified paranoia seems to be a way of life. Choosing to meet in a public space and without giving away too many details about ourselves, we made plans to meet up with Jetsan the next day in a cafe on the outskirts of Lhasa.

Shy, friendly, smart, Jetsan was not a spy or a serial killer. We soon learned he was a sweet and trusting guy whose heart and curiosity about the world was bigger than the hard times the Tibetans are facing.  Over the course of the next hour shared laughter took turns with sad pauses as Jetsan shared with us his story…”

(Read the full article published in Gay Star News by clicking here.)

LGBT Kyrgyzstan Radio Report

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS report we broadcast from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  Meet Lili Ten, LGBT Activist, as she explains the situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Kyrgyzstan.

THIS WAY OUT: Queer Kyrgyzstan, “political power pop”, & LGBT News 04/15/13

 

Lili Ten, LBGT Activist

Walk Like An Egyptian…

   

The second episode of our two part series from Mongolia aired last week on the internationally broadcasted radio program This Way Out!  If you haven’t already, please check it out!But first, what do Mumbai, Cairo and Accra all have in common?  It’s that the Sapphic Nomads have taken each of these cities by storm in just the last two weeks!  While our senses have been delighted by all the new sights, smells and sounds, our sleep patterns and bellies have yet to catch up with what feels like a revolving door of cuisines and time zones!

 

(Eric, Katie and Maggie at the Pyramids)

After celebrating Pride in Mumbai (and meeting some truly amazing LGBT community members there), we were on our way to Ghana via a week long “lay over” in Cairo. During our brief stopover we got to visit the Pyramids, catch up with an old friend from home, and check out first hand the “new” Egypt as it wrestles with it’s evolving identity.  

 

We had seven days of turkish coffee, calls to prayer, and revolutionary graffiti art before heading off to West Africa.  We arrived to Accra, Ghana and found ourselves almost immediately drenched in the heat and humidity!  Each day we’ve gone to bed and been woken up with drumming in the air.  

Maggie and Katie get a drumming lesson.  Accra, Ghana
(Maggie and Katie get a drumming lesson. Accra, Ghana)

After enjoying the culinary magic of Indian food for months on end, the staple of fried rice and chicken here is something we still have to get used to!  But despite the fatigue of jet lag, the constant packing of suitcases, and the ever looming farewell that we know we must say, the arrival to a new place always brings with it a burst of renewed wonder.

 

Thank you for continuing to follow along in our journey.  And please remember to check out our latest radio broadcast from This Way Out (our segment begins at the 19 minutes and 7 seconds mark!)

 

 

LGBT Mongolia: Two Part Radio Series

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS REPORT we bring you a two part series broadcasted on the International Lesbian and Gay Radio Magazine, THIS WAY OUT.  These segments feature Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, Executive Director of the LGBT Centre of Mongolia, as well as Anaraa Nyamdorj, co-owner of the only LGBT Bar in Mongolia, 100%.

EPISODE ONE: THIS WAY OUT: Steel Mongolians, “Tea Leaves” Down Under and LGBT News January 13th, 2013 

EPISODE TWO: THIS WAY OUT: Bristol’s LGBT History, Why Mongolians Beef, and LGBT News February 18th, 2013

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, Executive Director LGBT Centre of Mongolia

Anaraa Nyamdorj, Co-Owner of the LGBT bar, 100%

Samoans featured on the radio program, This Way Out

In this Sapphic Nomads radio report we hear from President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA), Roger Stanley, and from a leader of the growing LGBT movement in Samoa (and former SFA President), Alex Sua.

THIS WAY OUT: Minnesota + Samoa +Ellen + global LGBT news, Oct. 29, 2012

 Roger Stanley, President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association
Alex Sua, Leader in the LGBT Movement in Independent Samoa

Mongolia: Tales of a Dusty City, Friendly Nomads, And Too Much Mutton!

We continued our journey to Mongolia, a small hilly, desert-y country in Central Asia with a population of only 2.8 million, sandwiched between China and Russia.  We arrived to this beautiful and somewhat incongruous country via the Mongolian Express, which had been a long-time dream of Katie’s, and which turned out to be an interesting adventure in itself.  About 20 hours after leaving Beijing, we arrived at the border with Mongolia around 9:00 pm, where we handed our passports to a stern-looking Mongolian lady who did not return our American smiles. Suddenly, we were startled out of our train-induced daze by a loud bang!, and a sharp jolt to the train.  We thought for sure the train was broken, or maybe another train had run into us, and I pictured us having to climb out the window of our de-railed train, trudging with our over-packed baggage through the darkness of Mongolia with hundreds of fellow passengers.

After hours of being banged around our cabin by unseen forces, and trying to ignore it by watching episodes of 30-Rock on our iPad, we decided to look out the window into the darkness.  It was like a surreal post-Communist dream–we were in a giant train factory, where sweaty Mongolian workers were separating the dusty green cars and jacking them WAY up in the air, so they could exchange the wheels for other wheels to fit the Russian tracks.  We looked out across from us at another car–from our train!–where other tourists were gazing out at us, looking like we probably did, but we soon learned they had read about the whole switching wheels thing in the Lonely Planet (I guess we had skipped that chapter), so were not as stunned as we were. After pondering this conundrum for awhile in my head (in a way that involved only abstract cost-to-benefit analysis), I decided that they should just peel up the Russia-bound tracks and replace them with universally-sized ones.  Maybe the sweaty factory workers could do that instead? Or maybe they would get too cold come winter time, since they would no longer be sheltered by the factory?

Finally on our way again, the next morning we looked out the window to see rolling hills dotted with gers (yurts), smoke drifting lazily out of smoke-stacks from the opening in their ceilings.  Horses, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on the already short, brown grass, and women, men and small children rode by on horses, galloping.  As we began to approach the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the beautiful country-side abruptly ended, and we began to pass dusty industrial-looking buildings and mills.  Gers turned to crumbling Soviet-built houses and shops, and we passed more and more trash littered by the train-tracks.

Upon arrival, we stepped onto the train-station with no hospitable ukulele-playing natives to greet us, as they did in Samoa.  We smiled at the locals, who returned our smiles with non-smiling blank looks, and a bit of apprehension set in.  From the train station, we caught a very overpriced taxi to our hostel (which seems to happen to us a lot when we first arrive to a country and the locals can sense that we’re “fresh meat”), exhausted and at the same time excited to be in the country we had heard so much about.

A Little Bit About Mongolia:

Mongolia has fairly recently opened its doors to foreign investors (mostly Chinese), who are pouring in like mad, eager to cash in on the largest gold/copper/coal rush since California 1848-1859.  Subsequently, this post-Soviet, newly democratic country is experiencing the fastest–and perhaps most unprepared for–economic growth on this planet. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar, for instance, was originally built for 500,000 people, and now struggles to fit the million plus who have moved in, eager to be an integral part of this metropolis.  In the south, where the Gobi desert is located, a seemingly endless stream of trucks carry away precious coking coal bound for China.  Herders say that their wells are going dry from the vast amount of water used by the mines, and they may have to leave their nomadic lands because of the dust from the mines, which is making them and their animals sick.

In Ulaanbaatar, buildings are almost literally bursting at their seams, and traffic moves at the pace of a geriatric slug (we were warned to plan an extra hour for any excursion anywhere by taxi, to compensate for this).  On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar (and even within the city), we discovered ger (yurt) districts, where people are literally transitioning from their nomadic lifestyle to that of city dwellers, by living in their fenced-in gers inside city limits.  Their attempt at nomad/city life is not going well, according to some Mongolians we met.  The ger district-dwellers seem to be living in relative poverty and squalor, compared to their counterparts living on the steppes; they have no livestock to eat or milk, and in the winter they sometimes have to resort to burning tires to stay warm.  So not only is it really cold in Ulaanbaatar in the winter, but it’s hard to breathe, as well.

Outside the city, however, lies the true beauty of Mongolia; herders and their families live as they have for hundreds, if not thousand of years with some obvious exceptions (satellite dishes stand by many gers, their tvs powered by generators which are charged from solar panels. Some herders also do their herding by motorcycle).  In the countryside, different from the city, there seems to be space enough for everyone to stretch out in–space of such beautifully epic proportions that it is almost a culture shock driving in and out of the bumpy, crowded roads of Ulaanbaatar.

After settling into our hostel in Ulaanbaatar, we began the process of contacting our leads in the LGBT community.  When we told other travelers about our project here, their inevitable reaction was disbelief: “What?!  You will have a hard time finding LGBT people here!  It can’t be done!”  It was as if gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people were gnomes living in caves underground, coming out only to feed at night, then scurrying back again to safety of the damp, dark earth.  The reality was far different, and we had no trouble finding LGBT folks by the handful. They were falling out of trees and onto our laps, like a bounty of ripe apples.  We came to know our first contact, Anaraa through, interestingly, Maggie’s dad in Florida (who is not gay as one person asked but had happened to attend a conference for professors along with an LGBT activist, who had recently met Anaraa at another conference).  Anaraa, a 30-something female-to-male trans person, gave us the directions to his bar named 100%–the only LGBT bar in Mongolia–which was luckily located near our hostel.  Outside, the bar was pretty non-descript except for the sign, and was located within a dusty, soviet-built concrete building.  Inside, the bar radiated with warmth and positive, relaxed energy, as LGBT Mongolians lounged on the couches, drinking Chinggis- brand beer and chatting with one-another while smoking thin cigarettes.

On this evening, and in our subsequent interview with Anaraa, we learned that he had co-founded the LGBT Centre in Ulaanbaatar, and now concentrates his energy on co-running the bar.  Smiling, he shared with us the inspiration for opening his bar– to be closer to his community and provide them with a space where they can feel free to be who they are.

About a year ago, Anaraa was physically assaulted in his own bar by a man who was not of the LGBT community.  The guy had reached over the bar and punched Anaraa in the face, crushing an eye socket.  The trial happened to be going on while we were there, and unfortunately, the man who assaulted Anaraa was let off the hook without a conviction.  Hate crimes are not recognized in Mongolia.  We interviewed Anaraa in his bar only a couple days after the trial, and he seemed frustrated by the verdict but his spirits were on their way up, and it was clear he was not going to go down without a very strong and very worthy fight.

Our second contact was a gay man (also in his 30′s) named Otgoo, who is the current executive director of the LGBT Centre.  We met with him in the cozy LGBT Centre headquarters (established in 2007, it was the first of its kind in Mongolia), where we admired their collection of LGBT themed books and anti-discrimination posters awaiting distribution.  As we interviewed Otgoo, we discovered that he is, quite possibly, the sweetest person in the world.  His smile was shy yet infectious, and it was clear that he has a huge heart.  Otgoo told us that homosexuality was finally decriminalized in 2002, but that many people are, unfortunately, very homophobic.  He explained that religion doesn’t seem to play a part in homophobia here (the main religion, Buddhism, is relatively accepting of different sexual orientations).  However some people feel that homosexuality and transgenderism have been brought in from “the West” especially in the recent tide of foreign investors and travelers (and although we know this isn’t true, Katie and I don’t mind taking some of the credit for such a wonderful importation).

Otgoo mentioned that things have changed substantially after socialism ended–LGBT folks who had been forced to keep their sexuality on the down-low (homosexuality was a crime in Soviet times) were now able to begin to inch their way out of the closet.

However, Otgoo shared with us his worry that many LGBT people aren’t able to get the info they need, especially in the somewhat isolated countryside, and he mentioned that although information is available online, one would have to have a pretty good grasp on the English or Russian language to understand it (since there is little to no LGBT literature available in Mongolian — another fact the LGBT Centre is trying to change.)

We learned from Otgoo that there has been a recent rise in sometimes violent nationalism, in reaction to all of the gold and coal-rush foreigners.  Some Mongolians compare these nationalists to neo-nazis, and they are often responsible–though not held responsible– for hate crimes against people in the LGBT community, as LGBT folks seem to embody what the radicals view as another western importation .

We did our third interview in the apartment home of a cute, hip and awesomely funny young woman named Azaa, a 21 year-old lesbian.  She mentioned in her interview that most people who know her, know that she is gay, and added that she’s encountered few problems from others because of her sexuality.  She has been able to meet other members of the LGBT community relatively easily, mainly through friends, the Internet and the bar, 100%.

In between interviews, Katie and I left the city to explore the country-side, staying in gers (yurts) with families and riding horses and camels to ovoos (sacred piles of stones) and monastaries.  We were fed rice with mutton, noodles with mutton and soup with mutton, and were offered countless bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk). When eating the mutton, Katie and I created a “fat corner” system on our plates, where we deposited un-chewable fat pieces.  Sometimes I hid them under some noodles, and when we were done, we handed the bowls to small Mongolian children, who would then eat the rest of it.  It was a good system.  We played chess with children when they could steal time away from their herding duties, and in another household we sat silently for long periods of time with a sweet and relatively ancient 89 year-old woman (115 to those of us in the Western world), who cooked the meals and ran the household while we waited in vain for our absentee host to come back.

On another trip to the country-side, we drove down a long bumpy road to a valley dotted with gers, yaks, horses, goats and sheep.  We star-gazed with other travelers and rode horses to a giant waterfall, where the mist from the rushing water created an amorphous and slightly magical and rainbow.

We were so intrigued with the people and landscape of Mongolia that we extended it for another week, so we could be there a full month.  On our last evening, we arranged dinner at a local restaurant called Burgers and Fries (which actually has amazing food), and invited our new LGBT friends, and as we gathered around the table we sat amazed that we had managed to make such meaningful friendships in such a brief time.

We left Mongolia scratching our heads at the complexity of the whole country: the jarring growth  of the dusty city, the amazing and vast beauty of the countryside, and the state of things for our LGBT brothers and sisters there.  We left the country somewhat reluctantly, but with a plethora of fast Face-book friends (who we knew where also real friends), curious to see the adventures Kyrgyzstan had in store for us.

Related Links:  LGBT Centre of Mongolia, 100% Bar (LGBT bar in Ulaanbaatar)

Australia: August 2nd — August 14th, 2012

Ramblings From the Road…

Australia was an interesting, mixed-bag kind of country, more for me than for Katie, I think.  I had arrived in Australia with great and kind of specific goals and expectations, including interacting with Australians and seeing kangaroos.  Most of my experiences of the country and its people came from movies like Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-proof Fence and Whale Rider (I know it was made in New Zealand, but whatever).  Australians we had met while traveling in other parts of the world seemed so friendly, hearty and even wise.  I envisioned a land of people who were kind of like Americans, but tougher and able to take on huge reptiles.  For someone with these somewhat righteous expectations, I was immediately disappointed and stunningly disillusioned in Sydney.  People in that city seemed weirdly normal, both in their dress and their mannerisms.  Other than the kindly folk who worked at our hostel, most Australians we met appeared reserved, quiet and much too civilized–I wanted to shake them to coax out their inner Dundee.

 

We attended a couch-surfing party where we met a young Australian woman.  Sitting across from her while we ate fish and chips, we listened in stunned silence as she made fun of the way aboriginals talk, adding that she was glad many aboriginals were removed from their neighborhoods after recent riots broke out between aboriginals and the police.  We had thought that Sydney-ites would all be more progressive than that, and it was unfortunate that one of the first Australians we met was so racist (Later in our travels we met another woman who works closely with aboriginals, who apologized profusely for the the first woman, so that got balanced out a bit).

Sydney-as-a-city was interesting and kind of pretty: The Opera House was beautiful and looming, and reminded me somehow of a whale, with it’s round and pointy tips stretching to the sky.  We ate vastly expensive hamburgers in its shadow as people scurried in its doorways to see shows.  The next day, we walked through a botanical garden by the sea, which was so huge it reminded us of a sort of tropical Central Park, with huge, other-worldly birds roaming cafe table-tops seeking scraps of meat pie.  For those who don’t know, Australia is a land of tiny, hand-held pies: mushy-pea pies, curried chicken pies, beaf stew pies, beaf stew pies topped with mashed potatoes, topped with a generous scoop of mushy peas…

But I digress.

We had initially hoped to meet with an LGBT contact for our documentary in Melbourne, but unfortunately that fell through, so instead we headed north on the train to Cairns to seek our fortunes there.  On the way, we realized we were sitting across from an older Australian gentleman, who wore a white tank-top, cowboy boots and had a large, bulbous red nose.  At 8:00am, he drank down a large can of vodka lemonade right before our eyes, all the while talking to us in an accent so thick, we understood none of it.  I was in heaven.  His old and worn-out crocodile-skin belt looked like he could have made it himself from a croc he subdued with a huge knife.  We were finally in Australia!  The further north we went, the more “authentically” Australian accents became, and the more friendly and enthusiastic people seemed, and I began to relax.

Arriving in Cairns, we spent 2 days  scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  The dive master showed us how to make giant clam shells close when we touched their thick, iridescent purple lining. Katie loved the waving fields of coral, and the brightly-colored fish were so enchanting that the 40-minute dives went by way too fast.  While on the boat, we were told to cheer and scream so that a mother whale and her calf would stay at the surface longer, and we did.  It was so moving to see them breaching and diving together that I felt my eyes tear up as we shouted, cheering them on.  At one point, they came so close to the boat that we could see the long scratches on the mother whale’s skin, white against glistening black.

After a couple of somewhat uneventful days in which we did laundry and walked the streets of Cairns, we booked a tour to “the lovely village of Karunda”.  We were excited; the train ride up the mountain was stunning and the countryside was beautiful.  After reaching the “village”, we quickly came to realize that it was not a traditional Australian village at all but a fake one, filled with souvenir shops and restaurants selling meat pies and ice cream.  We looked around and saw no locals–only other tourists, who did not seem bothered at all that we were in a kind of Disneyland village.  We skipped the tour through the rainforest and headed straight for the wildlife reserve, which turned out to be a zoo.  All of the animals were caged, except for several kangaroos, who sat dazed and limp on the dusty ground as tourists posed next to them.  Since apparently kangaroos are nocturnal, they were half-awake and not very responsive or engaging as we tried our best to connect with them spiritually.  We fed them nuggets of food from our hands, which they sluggishly ate from our palms.  Although the kangaroos themselves were less then engaging, our dream of seeing them had been realized, so we left the “lovely village” prematurally and headed back to town.  A couple days later, after flying back to Sydney, we we were on our way to the great city of Beijing…

Samoa: July 22nd — August 2nd, 2012

We had arrived in Western Samoa exhausted and more than a little spacey from lack of sleep and jet lag.  After leaving the States we had a 20-hour layover in Fiji, which we spent in a moldy and run-down hotel on the beach, where Katie fell in love with an amiable, 3-legged dog.  That night upon returning to the airport for our flight, we were told it was delayed until the next day, and they put us up in a much nicer hotel close by.  The next morning we ate made-to-order omelets, and since the food was free, we ordered lunch not long afterward, scarfing it down before fleeing back to the airport.  Arriving in Samoa, the heat and humidity hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane.  Western Samoa, along with it’s neighbor American Samoa, lies far, far away in the South Pacific, in the Southern hemisphere.  Fiji, Tonga, and several other tropical islands are distant neighbors, and New Zealanders make up most of the relatively few tourists who vacation there.  I imagine it is similar to Hawaii a couple hundred years ago–unspoiled and mostly self-sustaining with fruit trees and coconut palms, and not much in the way of shelter is really needed since the weather is generally sunny and unbothersome.  In other words, it is seemingly idyllic in it’s lush tropical beauty and friendly people.

We were greeted in the luggage-collection room by three men playing ukuleles, smiling and singing, and Katie filmed them and the luggage moving sluggishly on the belt, while I waited somewhat impatiently to leave and meet my parents.  They greeted us with lei’s that smelled like ginger, made by their neighbor Dolly, and drove us back to the village of Saluafata, where they have lived for a couple years.  Luckily (for them), they moved there from another village on the southern coast of Samoa only a week or so before the recent devastating tsunami hit, killing more than 300 people.  On an island with a small population, this means that at least one person on the island knew, or was related to someone who died.  A sobering thought.

After a couple days of resting, we got to work seeking connections in the fa’afafine community.  Fa’afafine literally means, ‘like a woman’, and fa’afafines have been an integral part of the Samoan culture for hundreds, if not thousand of years.  They are men who choose to live their lives as women, and take on the roles of women in their households: washing clothes and cooking, taking care of children and elders.  After interviewing a fa’afafine who is the president of the Samoan Fa’afafine Association, we learned that a person becomes fa’afafine because it is their natural expression of who they are, not because their family places them in that role (a common misconception).

Fa’afafines, in the role of womenfolk around the world, have the shared responsibility of carrying forth the Samoan traditions, through story-telling and teaching children the ‘fa’asamoa’–the way of Samoa.  From the ex-president of the Fa’afafine Association and leader of a growing LGBT network, we learned that religion has had varying degrees of impact on the fa’afafine community; the older, more established churches in Samoa (such as the Methodist church) are accepting of fa’afafines, letting them wear the traditional women’s pulatasi (dress) and letting them sing with the women in the choir.  However the newer churches (Mormon and Evangelical) do not seem to fully understand this tradition, and speak harshly against fa’afafines, letting them attend services only if they agree to dress and act as men.  Not attending church is not an option in this extremely religious country.  There is a large church in every village, and the older churches expect a large tithe from every family; the contributions are stated aloud in the weekly services, and families are shamed if they do not give a large part of their (often meager) earnings.  The newer churches, while expecting some donations, do not read the donations aloud, so there is a huge incentive in joining up, especially if one cannot afford the hefty tithe.  As more people join these churches, it seems likely that discrimination against fa’afafines in Samoa may increase.

We learned from our first interviewee that some fa’afafines do not believe that they are part of or should be connected to the LGBT community–they feel that their situation is unique, and they therefore tend to stay away from gays and lesbians–who are often discriminated against, and ostracized by many straight Samoans.  Other fa’afafines feel that it is important to band together with other members of the LGBT community there, taking them ‘under their wing’ by offering them some protection through their own status of acceptance.

We were sad to leave Samoa.  We met people who were amazingly friendly and hospitable; in addition to interviewing gracious and patient fa’afafines , we attended a traditional ‘umu’ (meal preparation), we swam in a waterfall with Dolly and her children who beat their chests, chanting and laughing before diving in from high cliffs.  We walked around the small city of Apia, where we ran errands, bought souvenirs and sought internet cafes.  I got to spend some much-needed time with my mother and step-father, and realized (as I have often lately) how fast we are all aging, and how rarely I get to see them, since they are so far away.  Samoa was a perfect beginning to our journey–we spent time with family, learned from fa’afafines about their tradition and culture, and spent some much-needed time relaxing and regrouping after a hectic and stressful departure from the States.  We can only hope that the next places we visit will be as intriguing and hospitable:)


Nepal’s Leading LGBTI Activist

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS report we broadcast from Kathmandu, Nepal.  Meet Sunil Babu Pant, LGBTI Activist, and founding father of the modern LGBTI movement in Nepal.

THIS WAY OUT (Radio):  Nepal’s Leading Gay Activist Rises Above Politics (Full Broadcast Distributed 09/02/2013

 

Sunil Babu Pant
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2014 at 6:43 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

LGBT Kyrgyzstan

GAY FREEDOM AMOUNG THE MOUNTAINS AND YURTS:  LGBT LIFE IN KYRGYZSTAN (Published in Gay Star News June 25th, 2013 )

http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/gay-freedom-among-mountains-and-yurts250613

Other than a few adventurers following the iconic ‘silk route’, a scattering of Israeli backpackers, and any number of French tourists – not many travelers seem to know about the beautiful and mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan.

Officially called the Kyrgyz Republic, it is the second poorest state from the former Soviet Union and the second poorest in Central Asia. But despite conflicts and revolts it has managed to maintain itself as a parliamentary democracy.

Sandwiched between China and a bunch of other Central Asian countries all ending in ‘stan’, this former Soviet Republic has a lot to offer in the way of snow-capped mountains, cosy yurts, and crumbling relics of communism. Somewhat surprisingly, we found Kyrgyzstan also has a lot to offer in the way of a strong, growing LGBT movement.

Only hours after our arrival to the capital city of Bishkek, representatives from Labrys, a local LGBT organization, met us at our guesthouse. Sizing up my partner and me over coffee and concluding we were harmless, they invited us back to their lesbian lair, aka the Labrys offices, and had an employee pick us up from our guesthouse the following day.

The Labyrs building lies in the midst of a slightly shady residential neighborhood and is almost impossible to find if you don’t know where it is. Past the protective walls, security cameras and locked gate, the grounds inside were full of young LGBT people.

We smiled as we walked by staff members smoking, working and laughing at YouTube videos. The women – and a few men – of Labrys warmly introduced themselves and showed us their offices and kitchen, where they fed us freshly-made strawberry jam and copious amounts of coffee.

Since it was closing time, a few of them invited us out to a local city park, which doubled as a charmingly run-down amusement park. They introduced us to the local beer, which we sipped out of half liter bottles, as we rode high into the air on a rusty Ferris wheel, watching the city spin slowly by with our new friends. We all laughed as they dutifully taught us to swear in both Kyrgyz and Russian – a right of passage for any foreigner in a new land.

Over the next several weeks we got to know a few of the women from Labrys, who introduced us to the interesting, post-soviet, nominally Muslim world that is Kyrgyzstan, and they graciously let us interview them about LGBT issues in their country…

To read the full article published in Gay Star News click on the link below:

- See more at: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/gay-freedom-among-mountains-and-yurts250613#sthash.4cJQb0Db.dpuf

 

This entry was posted on Friday, July 12th, 2013 at 5:07 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

TIBET: The Undercover Life of a Proud Gay Man in Tibet

Below is an excerpt from our report on Tibet, published in Gay Star News March 31,2013.  Click here to see the full article.

“Finding gay Tibetans turned out to be as we expected – quite difficult.

We are on our international quest to find LGBT communities around the world, and we realized the Tibet Autonomous Region would be an especially challenging – and therefore intriguing – destination. It was a place we knew so little about and whose LGBT voice seemed so markedly absent from the world discourse.

We had read about the first public gay wedding this past October in China’s Fujian province, and we had heard that Shanghai even boasts a relatively vibrant gay scene. But what about Tibet?

Having some sense of the situation there, but admittedly naive about it all, my partner and I set off on our own adventure over newly-paved roads, past prayer flags and monasteries, to the enchanting and controversial city of Lhasa.

Before arriving we had read about a couple of different gay bars there called Blue Sky and Jane’s Cafe, so we were sad to learn they’d closed in recent years. One of the better (and I thought more fun) ideas to try and find LGBT Tibetans, was to sign up for a Grindr account. We included our goofy self-portrait among the catalogue of chiseled chests, saying, ‘Lesbian travelers looking for friends’. After seeing that the nearest person on Grindr was over 700 miles away, we began to fear defeat.

With a final effort we realized that all was not lost. We found a website serving the LGBT community in Asia and checked out its ‘Travelers Board’. Of the two – dated – messages, one was a short sentence which read something about ‘looking for friends’, and it had an email address. Assuming this was intended for hookups, but feeling desperate, we decided to write this mysterious individual anyway and see if he was open to meeting.

Twelve hours later there was a response – he was up for it. After so many failed attempts and dead ends, here was Jetsan*, nonchalantly on the other end saying, ‘Sure’. It seemed too good to be true.

That’s when the worry seeped in – oh my god, who is this guy? Is he a Chinese spy? A serial killer? Why was he being so trusting to people he doesn’t even know? Especially in a place like Tibet, where justified paranoia seems to be a way of life. Choosing to meet in a public space and without giving away too many details about ourselves, we made plans to meet up with Jetsan the next day in a cafe on the outskirts of Lhasa.

Shy, friendly, smart, Jetsan was not a spy or a serial killer. We soon learned he was a sweet and trusting guy whose heart and curiosity about the world was bigger than the hard times the Tibetans are facing.  Over the course of the next hour shared laughter took turns with sad pauses as Jetsan shared with us his story…”

(Read the full article published in Gay Star News by clicking here.)

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 8th, 2013 at 4:37 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

LGBT Kyrgyzstan Radio Report

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS report we broadcast from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  Meet Lili Ten, LGBT Activist, as she explains the situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Kyrgyzstan.

THIS WAY OUT: Queer Kyrgyzstan, “political power pop”, & LGBT News 04/15/13

 

Lili Ten, LBGT Activist

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 5th, 2013 at 4:51 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Walk Like An Egyptian…

   

The second episode of our two part series from Mongolia aired last week on the internationally broadcasted radio program This Way Out!  If you haven’t already, please check it out!But first, what do Mumbai, Cairo and Accra all have in common?  It’s that the Sapphic Nomads have taken each of these cities by storm in just the last two weeks!  While our senses have been delighted by all the new sights, smells and sounds, our sleep patterns and bellies have yet to catch up with what feels like a revolving door of cuisines and time zones!

 

(Eric, Katie and Maggie at the Pyramids)

After celebrating Pride in Mumbai (and meeting some truly amazing LGBT community members there), we were on our way to Ghana via a week long “lay over” in Cairo. During our brief stopover we got to visit the Pyramids, catch up with an old friend from home, and check out first hand the “new” Egypt as it wrestles with it’s evolving identity.  

 

We had seven days of turkish coffee, calls to prayer, and revolutionary graffiti art before heading off to West Africa.  We arrived to Accra, Ghana and found ourselves almost immediately drenched in the heat and humidity!  Each day we’ve gone to bed and been woken up with drumming in the air.  

Maggie and Katie get a drumming lesson.  Accra, Ghana
(Maggie and Katie get a drumming lesson. Accra, Ghana)

After enjoying the culinary magic of Indian food for months on end, the staple of fried rice and chicken here is something we still have to get used to!  But despite the fatigue of jet lag, the constant packing of suitcases, and the ever looming farewell that we know we must say, the arrival to a new place always brings with it a burst of renewed wonder.

 

Thank you for continuing to follow along in our journey.  And please remember to check out our latest radio broadcast from This Way Out (our segment begins at the 19 minutes and 7 seconds mark!)

 

 

This entry was posted on Friday, March 15th, 2013 at 7:10 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

LGBT Mongolia: Two Part Radio Series

IN THIS SAPPHIC NOMADS REPORT we bring you a two part series broadcasted on the International Lesbian and Gay Radio Magazine, THIS WAY OUT.  These segments feature Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, Executive Director of the LGBT Centre of Mongolia, as well as Anaraa Nyamdorj, co-owner of the only LGBT Bar in Mongolia, 100%.

EPISODE ONE: THIS WAY OUT: Steel Mongolians, “Tea Leaves” Down Under and LGBT News January 13th, 2013 

EPISODE TWO: THIS WAY OUT: Bristol’s LGBT History, Why Mongolians Beef, and LGBT News February 18th, 2013

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, Executive Director LGBT Centre of Mongolia

Anaraa Nyamdorj, Co-Owner of the LGBT bar, 100%

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 at 6:19 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Samoans featured on the radio program, This Way Out

In this Sapphic Nomads radio report we hear from President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA), Roger Stanley, and from a leader of the growing LGBT movement in Samoa (and former SFA President), Alex Sua.

THIS WAY OUT: Minnesota + Samoa +Ellen + global LGBT news, Oct. 29, 2012

 Roger Stanley, President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association
Alex Sua, Leader in the LGBT Movement in Independent Samoa
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 at 4:35 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Mongolia: Tales of a Dusty City, Friendly Nomads, And Too Much Mutton!

We continued our journey to Mongolia, a small hilly, desert-y country in Central Asia with a population of only 2.8 million, sandwiched between China and Russia.  We arrived to this beautiful and somewhat incongruous country via the Mongolian Express, which had been a long-time dream of Katie’s, and which turned out to be an interesting adventure in itself.  About 20 hours after leaving Beijing, we arrived at the border with Mongolia around 9:00 pm, where we handed our passports to a stern-looking Mongolian lady who did not return our American smiles. Suddenly, we were startled out of our train-induced daze by a loud bang!, and a sharp jolt to the train.  We thought for sure the train was broken, or maybe another train had run into us, and I pictured us having to climb out the window of our de-railed train, trudging with our over-packed baggage through the darkness of Mongolia with hundreds of fellow passengers.

After hours of being banged around our cabin by unseen forces, and trying to ignore it by watching episodes of 30-Rock on our iPad, we decided to look out the window into the darkness.  It was like a surreal post-Communist dream–we were in a giant train factory, where sweaty Mongolian workers were separating the dusty green cars and jacking them WAY up in the air, so they could exchange the wheels for other wheels to fit the Russian tracks.  We looked out across from us at another car–from our train!–where other tourists were gazing out at us, looking like we probably did, but we soon learned they had read about the whole switching wheels thing in the Lonely Planet (I guess we had skipped that chapter), so were not as stunned as we were. After pondering this conundrum for awhile in my head (in a way that involved only abstract cost-to-benefit analysis), I decided that they should just peel up the Russia-bound tracks and replace them with universally-sized ones.  Maybe the sweaty factory workers could do that instead? Or maybe they would get too cold come winter time, since they would no longer be sheltered by the factory?

Finally on our way again, the next morning we looked out the window to see rolling hills dotted with gers (yurts), smoke drifting lazily out of smoke-stacks from the opening in their ceilings.  Horses, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on the already short, brown grass, and women, men and small children rode by on horses, galloping.  As we began to approach the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the beautiful country-side abruptly ended, and we began to pass dusty industrial-looking buildings and mills.  Gers turned to crumbling Soviet-built houses and shops, and we passed more and more trash littered by the train-tracks.

Upon arrival, we stepped onto the train-station with no hospitable ukulele-playing natives to greet us, as they did in Samoa.  We smiled at the locals, who returned our smiles with non-smiling blank looks, and a bit of apprehension set in.  From the train station, we caught a very overpriced taxi to our hostel (which seems to happen to us a lot when we first arrive to a country and the locals can sense that we’re “fresh meat”), exhausted and at the same time excited to be in the country we had heard so much about.

A Little Bit About Mongolia:

Mongolia has fairly recently opened its doors to foreign investors (mostly Chinese), who are pouring in like mad, eager to cash in on the largest gold/copper/coal rush since California 1848-1859.  Subsequently, this post-Soviet, newly democratic country is experiencing the fastest–and perhaps most unprepared for–economic growth on this planet. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar, for instance, was originally built for 500,000 people, and now struggles to fit the million plus who have moved in, eager to be an integral part of this metropolis.  In the south, where the Gobi desert is located, a seemingly endless stream of trucks carry away precious coking coal bound for China.  Herders say that their wells are going dry from the vast amount of water used by the mines, and they may have to leave their nomadic lands because of the dust from the mines, which is making them and their animals sick.

In Ulaanbaatar, buildings are almost literally bursting at their seams, and traffic moves at the pace of a geriatric slug (we were warned to plan an extra hour for any excursion anywhere by taxi, to compensate for this).  On the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar (and even within the city), we discovered ger (yurt) districts, where people are literally transitioning from their nomadic lifestyle to that of city dwellers, by living in their fenced-in gers inside city limits.  Their attempt at nomad/city life is not going well, according to some Mongolians we met.  The ger district-dwellers seem to be living in relative poverty and squalor, compared to their counterparts living on the steppes; they have no livestock to eat or milk, and in the winter they sometimes have to resort to burning tires to stay warm.  So not only is it really cold in Ulaanbaatar in the winter, but it’s hard to breathe, as well.

Outside the city, however, lies the true beauty of Mongolia; herders and their families live as they have for hundreds, if not thousand of years with some obvious exceptions (satellite dishes stand by many gers, their tvs powered by generators which are charged from solar panels. Some herders also do their herding by motorcycle).  In the countryside, different from the city, there seems to be space enough for everyone to stretch out in–space of such beautifully epic proportions that it is almost a culture shock driving in and out of the bumpy, crowded roads of Ulaanbaatar.

After settling into our hostel in Ulaanbaatar, we began the process of contacting our leads in the LGBT community.  When we told other travelers about our project here, their inevitable reaction was disbelief: “What?!  You will have a hard time finding LGBT people here!  It can’t be done!”  It was as if gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people were gnomes living in caves underground, coming out only to feed at night, then scurrying back again to safety of the damp, dark earth.  The reality was far different, and we had no trouble finding LGBT folks by the handful. They were falling out of trees and onto our laps, like a bounty of ripe apples.  We came to know our first contact, Anaraa through, interestingly, Maggie’s dad in Florida (who is not gay as one person asked but had happened to attend a conference for professors along with an LGBT activist, who had recently met Anaraa at another conference).  Anaraa, a 30-something female-to-male trans person, gave us the directions to his bar named 100%–the only LGBT bar in Mongolia–which was luckily located near our hostel.  Outside, the bar was pretty non-descript except for the sign, and was located within a dusty, soviet-built concrete building.  Inside, the bar radiated with warmth and positive, relaxed energy, as LGBT Mongolians lounged on the couches, drinking Chinggis- brand beer and chatting with one-another while smoking thin cigarettes.

On this evening, and in our subsequent interview with Anaraa, we learned that he had co-founded the LGBT Centre in Ulaanbaatar, and now concentrates his energy on co-running the bar.  Smiling, he shared with us the inspiration for opening his bar– to be closer to his community and provide them with a space where they can feel free to be who they are.

About a year ago, Anaraa was physically assaulted in his own bar by a man who was not of the LGBT community.  The guy had reached over the bar and punched Anaraa in the face, crushing an eye socket.  The trial happened to be going on while we were there, and unfortunately, the man who assaulted Anaraa was let off the hook without a conviction.  Hate crimes are not recognized in Mongolia.  We interviewed Anaraa in his bar only a couple days after the trial, and he seemed frustrated by the verdict but his spirits were on their way up, and it was clear he was not going to go down without a very strong and very worthy fight.

Our second contact was a gay man (also in his 30′s) named Otgoo, who is the current executive director of the LGBT Centre.  We met with him in the cozy LGBT Centre headquarters (established in 2007, it was the first of its kind in Mongolia), where we admired their collection of LGBT themed books and anti-discrimination posters awaiting distribution.  As we interviewed Otgoo, we discovered that he is, quite possibly, the sweetest person in the world.  His smile was shy yet infectious, and it was clear that he has a huge heart.  Otgoo told us that homosexuality was finally decriminalized in 2002, but that many people are, unfortunately, very homophobic.  He explained that religion doesn’t seem to play a part in homophobia here (the main religion, Buddhism, is relatively accepting of different sexual orientations).  However some people feel that homosexuality and transgenderism have been brought in from “the West” especially in the recent tide of foreign investors and travelers (and although we know this isn’t true, Katie and I don’t mind taking some of the credit for such a wonderful importation).

Otgoo mentioned that things have changed substantially after socialism ended–LGBT folks who had been forced to keep their sexuality on the down-low (homosexuality was a crime in Soviet times) were now able to begin to inch their way out of the closet.

However, Otgoo shared with us his worry that many LGBT people aren’t able to get the info they need, especially in the somewhat isolated countryside, and he mentioned that although information is available online, one would have to have a pretty good grasp on the English or Russian language to understand it (since there is little to no LGBT literature available in Mongolian — another fact the LGBT Centre is trying to change.)

We learned from Otgoo that there has been a recent rise in sometimes violent nationalism, in reaction to all of the gold and coal-rush foreigners.  Some Mongolians compare these nationalists to neo-nazis, and they are often responsible–though not held responsible– for hate crimes against people in the LGBT community, as LGBT folks seem to embody what the radicals view as another western importation .

We did our third interview in the apartment home of a cute, hip and awesomely funny young woman named Azaa, a 21 year-old lesbian.  She mentioned in her interview that most people who know her, know that she is gay, and added that she’s encountered few problems from others because of her sexuality.  She has been able to meet other members of the LGBT community relatively easily, mainly through friends, the Internet and the bar, 100%.

In between interviews, Katie and I left the city to explore the country-side, staying in gers (yurts) with families and riding horses and camels to ovoos (sacred piles of stones) and monastaries.  We were fed rice with mutton, noodles with mutton and soup with mutton, and were offered countless bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk). When eating the mutton, Katie and I created a “fat corner” system on our plates, where we deposited un-chewable fat pieces.  Sometimes I hid them under some noodles, and when we were done, we handed the bowls to small Mongolian children, who would then eat the rest of it.  It was a good system.  We played chess with children when they could steal time away from their herding duties, and in another household we sat silently for long periods of time with a sweet and relatively ancient 89 year-old woman (115 to those of us in the Western world), who cooked the meals and ran the household while we waited in vain for our absentee host to come back.

On another trip to the country-side, we drove down a long bumpy road to a valley dotted with gers, yaks, horses, goats and sheep.  We star-gazed with other travelers and rode horses to a giant waterfall, where the mist from the rushing water created an amorphous and slightly magical and rainbow.

We were so intrigued with the people and landscape of Mongolia that we extended it for another week, so we could be there a full month.  On our last evening, we arranged dinner at a local restaurant called Burgers and Fries (which actually has amazing food), and invited our new LGBT friends, and as we gathered around the table we sat amazed that we had managed to make such meaningful friendships in such a brief time.

We left Mongolia scratching our heads at the complexity of the whole country: the jarring growth  of the dusty city, the amazing and vast beauty of the countryside, and the state of things for our LGBT brothers and sisters there.  We left the country somewhat reluctantly, but with a plethora of fast Face-book friends (who we knew where also real friends), curious to see the adventures Kyrgyzstan had in store for us.

Related Links:  LGBT Centre of Mongolia, 100% Bar (LGBT bar in Ulaanbaatar)

This entry was posted on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 11:43 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Australia: August 2nd — August 14th, 2012

Ramblings From the Road…

Australia was an interesting, mixed-bag kind of country, more for me than for Katie, I think.  I had arrived in Australia with great and kind of specific goals and expectations, including interacting with Australians and seeing kangaroos.  Most of my experiences of the country and its people came from movies like Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-proof Fence and Whale Rider (I know it was made in New Zealand, but whatever).  Australians we had met while traveling in other parts of the world seemed so friendly, hearty and even wise.  I envisioned a land of people who were kind of like Americans, but tougher and able to take on huge reptiles.  For someone with these somewhat righteous expectations, I was immediately disappointed and stunningly disillusioned in Sydney.  People in that city seemed weirdly normal, both in their dress and their mannerisms.  Other than the kindly folk who worked at our hostel, most Australians we met appeared reserved, quiet and much too civilized–I wanted to shake them to coax out their inner Dundee.

 

We attended a couch-surfing party where we met a young Australian woman.  Sitting across from her while we ate fish and chips, we listened in stunned silence as she made fun of the way aboriginals talk, adding that she was glad many aboriginals were removed from their neighborhoods after recent riots broke out between aboriginals and the police.  We had thought that Sydney-ites would all be more progressive than that, and it was unfortunate that one of the first Australians we met was so racist (Later in our travels we met another woman who works closely with aboriginals, who apologized profusely for the the first woman, so that got balanced out a bit).

Sydney-as-a-city was interesting and kind of pretty: The Opera House was beautiful and looming, and reminded me somehow of a whale, with it’s round and pointy tips stretching to the sky.  We ate vastly expensive hamburgers in its shadow as people scurried in its doorways to see shows.  The next day, we walked through a botanical garden by the sea, which was so huge it reminded us of a sort of tropical Central Park, with huge, other-worldly birds roaming cafe table-tops seeking scraps of meat pie.  For those who don’t know, Australia is a land of tiny, hand-held pies: mushy-pea pies, curried chicken pies, beaf stew pies, beaf stew pies topped with mashed potatoes, topped with a generous scoop of mushy peas…

But I digress.

We had initially hoped to meet with an LGBT contact for our documentary in Melbourne, but unfortunately that fell through, so instead we headed north on the train to Cairns to seek our fortunes there.  On the way, we realized we were sitting across from an older Australian gentleman, who wore a white tank-top, cowboy boots and had a large, bulbous red nose.  At 8:00am, he drank down a large can of vodka lemonade right before our eyes, all the while talking to us in an accent so thick, we understood none of it.  I was in heaven.  His old and worn-out crocodile-skin belt looked like he could have made it himself from a croc he subdued with a huge knife.  We were finally in Australia!  The further north we went, the more “authentically” Australian accents became, and the more friendly and enthusiastic people seemed, and I began to relax.

Arriving in Cairns, we spent 2 days  scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  The dive master showed us how to make giant clam shells close when we touched their thick, iridescent purple lining. Katie loved the waving fields of coral, and the brightly-colored fish were so enchanting that the 40-minute dives went by way too fast.  While on the boat, we were told to cheer and scream so that a mother whale and her calf would stay at the surface longer, and we did.  It was so moving to see them breaching and diving together that I felt my eyes tear up as we shouted, cheering them on.  At one point, they came so close to the boat that we could see the long scratches on the mother whale’s skin, white against glistening black.

After a couple of somewhat uneventful days in which we did laundry and walked the streets of Cairns, we booked a tour to “the lovely village of Karunda”.  We were excited; the train ride up the mountain was stunning and the countryside was beautiful.  After reaching the “village”, we quickly came to realize that it was not a traditional Australian village at all but a fake one, filled with souvenir shops and restaurants selling meat pies and ice cream.  We looked around and saw no locals–only other tourists, who did not seem bothered at all that we were in a kind of Disneyland village.  We skipped the tour through the rainforest and headed straight for the wildlife reserve, which turned out to be a zoo.  All of the animals were caged, except for several kangaroos, who sat dazed and limp on the dusty ground as tourists posed next to them.  Since apparently kangaroos are nocturnal, they were half-awake and not very responsive or engaging as we tried our best to connect with them spiritually.  We fed them nuggets of food from our hands, which they sluggishly ate from our palms.  Although the kangaroos themselves were less then engaging, our dream of seeing them had been realized, so we left the “lovely village” prematurally and headed back to town.  A couple days later, after flying back to Sydney, we we were on our way to the great city of Beijing…

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 at 6:42 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Samoa: July 22nd — August 2nd, 2012

We had arrived in Western Samoa exhausted and more than a little spacey from lack of sleep and jet lag.  After leaving the States we had a 20-hour layover in Fiji, which we spent in a moldy and run-down hotel on the beach, where Katie fell in love with an amiable, 3-legged dog.  That night upon returning to the airport for our flight, we were told it was delayed until the next day, and they put us up in a much nicer hotel close by.  The next morning we ate made-to-order omelets, and since the food was free, we ordered lunch not long afterward, scarfing it down before fleeing back to the airport.  Arriving in Samoa, the heat and humidity hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane.  Western Samoa, along with it’s neighbor American Samoa, lies far, far away in the South Pacific, in the Southern hemisphere.  Fiji, Tonga, and several other tropical islands are distant neighbors, and New Zealanders make up most of the relatively few tourists who vacation there.  I imagine it is similar to Hawaii a couple hundred years ago–unspoiled and mostly self-sustaining with fruit trees and coconut palms, and not much in the way of shelter is really needed since the weather is generally sunny and unbothersome.  In other words, it is seemingly idyllic in it’s lush tropical beauty and friendly people.

We were greeted in the luggage-collection room by three men playing ukuleles, smiling and singing, and Katie filmed them and the luggage moving sluggishly on the belt, while I waited somewhat impatiently to leave and meet my parents.  They greeted us with lei’s that smelled like ginger, made by their neighbor Dolly, and drove us back to the village of Saluafata, where they have lived for a couple years.  Luckily (for them), they moved there from another village on the southern coast of Samoa only a week or so before the recent devastating tsunami hit, killing more than 300 people.  On an island with a small population, this means that at least one person on the island knew, or was related to someone who died.  A sobering thought.

After a couple days of resting, we got to work seeking connections in the fa’afafine community.  Fa’afafine literally means, ‘like a woman’, and fa’afafines have been an integral part of the Samoan culture for hundreds, if not thousand of years.  They are men who choose to live their lives as women, and take on the roles of women in their households: washing clothes and cooking, taking care of children and elders.  After interviewing a fa’afafine who is the president of the Samoan Fa’afafine Association, we learned that a person becomes fa’afafine because it is their natural expression of who they are, not because their family places them in that role (a common misconception).

Fa’afafines, in the role of womenfolk around the world, have the shared responsibility of carrying forth the Samoan traditions, through story-telling and teaching children the ‘fa’asamoa’–the way of Samoa.  From the ex-president of the Fa’afafine Association and leader of a growing LGBT network, we learned that religion has had varying degrees of impact on the fa’afafine community; the older, more established churches in Samoa (such as the Methodist church) are accepting of fa’afafines, letting them wear the traditional women’s pulatasi (dress) and letting them sing with the women in the choir.  However the newer churches (Mormon and Evangelical) do not seem to fully understand this tradition, and speak harshly against fa’afafines, letting them attend services only if they agree to dress and act as men.  Not attending church is not an option in this extremely religious country.  There is a large church in every village, and the older churches expect a large tithe from every family; the contributions are stated aloud in the weekly services, and families are shamed if they do not give a large part of their (often meager) earnings.  The newer churches, while expecting some donations, do not read the donations aloud, so there is a huge incentive in joining up, especially if one cannot afford the hefty tithe.  As more people join these churches, it seems likely that discrimination against fa’afafines in Samoa may increase.

We learned from our first interviewee that some fa’afafines do not believe that they are part of or should be connected to the LGBT community–they feel that their situation is unique, and they therefore tend to stay away from gays and lesbians–who are often discriminated against, and ostracized by many straight Samoans.  Other fa’afafines feel that it is important to band together with other members of the LGBT community there, taking them ‘under their wing’ by offering them some protection through their own status of acceptance.

We were sad to leave Samoa.  We met people who were amazingly friendly and hospitable; in addition to interviewing gracious and patient fa’afafines , we attended a traditional ‘umu’ (meal preparation), we swam in a waterfall with Dolly and her children who beat their chests, chanting and laughing before diving in from high cliffs.  We walked around the small city of Apia, where we ran errands, bought souvenirs and sought internet cafes.  I got to spend some much-needed time with my mother and step-father, and realized (as I have often lately) how fast we are all aging, and how rarely I get to see them, since they are so far away.  Samoa was a perfect beginning to our journey–we spent time with family, learned from fa’afafines about their tradition and culture, and spent some much-needed time relaxing and regrouping after a hectic and stressful departure from the States.  We can only hope that the next places we visit will be as intriguing and hospitable:)

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