Battaglia Delle Arance

Hello Ivrea, on the foot of the Italian Alps, where every year Carnival is celebrated with the Battle of the Oranges. For three days, locals paint the town orange: teams on foot and on horse-drawn carts fight until the last orange is thrown. Wasteful? Dangerous? Join in, and see for yourself.Catch


All I can see is a flash of orange, then I am hit in the chest. It knocks my breath away. I slide backwards, fall bum-first in a pile of orange mush. What the heck? I touch my head: my red hat is still there.

During Carnival, official public notices are plastered on the walls around Ivrea, ordering people, especially tourists, to wear a red hat. Or else they can be considered a ‘fair target for gentle and moderate orange-throwing’.

The red hat people are ordered to wear is not just any hat. The berretto frigio, a sock-shaped hat sold on every street corner, is the symbol of the carnival itself. It is a symbol of freedom; worn in Roman times by freed slaves, during the Middle Ages it was on the heads of peasants rioting against feudal lords.

Back on my feet, I make sure my hat is on, and visible. I want to get another look, but  soon I am hit again. On my forehead. My head jerks back, I wipe my face, oh my goodness, it’s blood! I am going to need stitches, maybe it’s a concussion?

Then I remember blood oranges.

Shivering from the quick succession of shock and relief, I retreat to the back of the square, away from any flying fruit. This is the first of three yearly battles; everybody is fresh and excited from a year-long wait. Nine teams of aranceri (orange-throwers) on foot, wearing uniforms, hurl oranges at their opponents on horse-drawn carriages, clad in Doctor Whoesque costumes with padded shoulders and leather-covered cylindrical helmets. An hour into the battle, the square is covered in a thick sludge, mixture of orange pulp and horse manure. It smells sharp, sweet-and-sour.

Aranceri on foot rush back and forth, to the sides of the square stacked with orange crates, filling their shoulder bags and baggy tops. As soon as a cart approaches, they charge, bombarding it with oranges. Horses halt, for a few minutes; oranges explode, then the cart takes off again, the aranceri chase it for a while, hurling the last of their supplies. Aranceri on foot wear no protection; they walk around with their hair caked in orange bits, juice running down their faces. Some have broken noses, some clutch a side of their face, arms or ribs. They held their heads high, shouting their team’s war cries.

“This is the moment we wait for all year” says Silvia, holding an orange cut in half on her right eye. “I’ll be happy to have a black eye tomorrow.”

She sits with me, sipping a glass of mulled wine. “I think carnival is good for our psychological health. During these three days I can let it all out, all the frustrations I have built up during the year. After I feel refreshed. Of course, accidents happen” she adds, pushing the orange on her swollen eye. “But you should try, it’s good for you”.

I am curious to know what it feels, I admit. I keep thinking I am wearing a hat, and the public not supposed to join in the battle. Even so, that doesn’t seem to stop hat-wearers from throwing the occasional orange. To prevent further trouble, volunteers advise the public to stay behind protective nets.

“Forget the nets” says Massi, an arancere of the Morte team, with a gigantic skull on the back of his orange-stained uniform. “If you want to live the carnival, you have to be in the middle of the battle.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting hurt?”Right At Ya

Massi laughs. “If you compare the risk to the rush you get, a black eye is a small price to pay.”

He fills his top with oranges. A cart is approaching. “Come on, throw your red hat away and come with me”.

I am tempted, but I decline.

The carnival is the celebration of a medieval rebellion. Feudal lords had the right of sleeping with brides on their first wedding night. The beautiful miller Violetta promised her fiancé she would refuse to subdue. Alone with the lord in his chambers, Violetta extracted a dagger and beheaded him, then showed the head to the people standing around the castle walls. This event sparked a revolt; the castle was set on fire and the people marched victorious, led by their heroine. During the battle of the oranges, the aranceri on foot represent the people, the lord’s army are those on horse-drawn carriages, whose protections are supposed to be reminiscent of Medieval armours. Over the centuries, the legend changed time and time again, including dozens more historical characters from different epochs, but, as the locals say, the bottom line is one: revolution.

Why do people throw oranges? There is no official answer. The most likely theory defines the battle as an evolution of the 19th-century custom of throwing oranges, then considered an exotic fruit, to official parades as a sign of respect. How that became a battle, no-one knows. Nowadays, the battle draws to Ivrea hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Three thousand tonnes of oranges are thrown during the three days of Carnival. After the battle, they are processed into compost.

I run into Silvia again, as the battle is winding down. “You’ve got to have a go at throwing, it’s your last chance” she says, dragging me towards the crates. She hands me a shoulder bag, bulging with oranges. “Don’t worry, just throw.”

I stuff my red hat in my pocket, follow Silvia towards the approaching cart. All I can hear is the whomp of oranges crashing. I start throwing. At first I am careful, but the melee is such that I just get caught, I am hit in the head, chest, neck and stomach, but I don’t feel any pain. I feel light. It’s liberating. The atmosphere is charged; the masked characters become my frustrations, the people that made me angry during the years. The teacher who threw me out of high school. The boss who sacked me. The girl who stole my boyfriend. The government.

The bag is empty. I pick up handfuls of orange mush on the floor and keep throwing. Silvia pulls on my sleeve. “Calm down, the cart’s gone. So, what did I say? It’s good, isn’t it? I bet you’re coming back next year.”Going Solo


A Lift from the Georgian Police

Published on The Guardian, 15/12/2012

Runner-up the The Guardian’s Travel writing competition

Chapel Women

Not a soul to be seen. The roads were empty: no babushkas at the windows, no children running in the fields, no men sipping chacha (brandy) on their steps. Although we knew Ushguli was remote, we hadn’t expected the streets to be completely empty. That was worrying. From Ushguli, we’d been told, we could catch a shared jeep back to the regional capital, Mestia.

There were no jeeps. We walked past stone houses, towards the tiny church, the white-tipped peaks of the Caucasus just visible behind. At last, the villagers appeared, streaming out of the tiny door, making for the cemetery below, where, in front of crooked gravestones, tables were laden with food. Tomatoes, roasted suckling pigs and bottles of chacha – the living and the departed feasted together.Mountain Towers

“Mestia?” we asked, wandering between tables, accepting fresh cheese pies and hunks of pork. “Tomorrow,” they replied. The penny dropped. It was Assumption day, one of the holiest of the year. I was petrified at the idea of spending the night banqueting with the dead. We’d have to hitchhike. Back on the main road cars sped past, covering us with dust. Then hours would pass with nothing. Our hopes were fading with the light. We prepared for a night under the stars, but the temperature was dropping fast. Suddenly, a police jeep pulled up. “Mestia? Come with us.”

I could not believe our luck. Three policemen, vests bulging with ammunition. “Move the guns,” one of them ordered, pointing to a pile of machine guns on the back seat.

We bobbed over bumpy roads, squeezed between guns and police muscle, shells digging into our chests, past the conical summit of Mount Shkhara and the twin saddle-shaped peaks of Mount Ushba, heading towards a mountain pass.

At the top, the jeep pulled to an abrupt halt. “Get out,” barked one policeman. We climbed out shaking, thinking they were going to test the guns on us. They looked at our frightened faces, then burst out laughing. “We not kill you! Just little rest.” In the twilight, we swapped stories between rhododendron bushes and Alpine wildflowers, joking about how lucky we had been. A reminder to check the calendar, next time we go on a trek.Village Mountain StreamChurch Ushba Mountain  Glacier Ridge

An Italian Birth

Square and WaterMy great-grandfather Manfred was born in Trieste in 1865. His father Papy was a young Austrian chemical engineer, who specialised in ship paints. When he wanted to start his own company, the logical move would have been to set it up in Venice, the main port of the Austrian Empire. But Papy didn’t like Venice. It was too musty and damp, he used to say. Mamy, his delicate wife, suggested moving to Trieste, a small, provincial port town, which was breezy and dry, a lot better for her nerves. What started out as a whim ended up being Papy’s fortune, for only one year after Manfred’s birth Venice was annexed to the newborn kingdom of Italy, Trieste became the Kaiser’s main port, and the paint business flourished.

The family lived in the borgo Teresiano, in a baroque-façaded, powder-pink building that still stands today. It was close enough to the port, so Papy could wake up every morning to see his paints covering the Imperial fleet, but not so close that Mamy had to walk through the thick, salt-laden air in the maze of streets around the bustling harbour. Mamy preferred sitting with her husband in one of the kaffeehauses in what was then the Piazza Grande, sipping real Viennese melange, a milky concoction of coffee and cream, the drink of choice of wealthy citizens of the Empire. Trieste was very cosmopolitan then: Austrians drank their coffees in the piazza along with Greek ship-builders, Armenian merchants and Jewish moneylenders, while Italians, Slavs and Albanians waited at their tables.Boat

Manfred used to sit on Mamy’s lap, stiff-backed in his pinafore. The square looked like a theatre, he said, closed by buildings on three sides, the sea as a stage. From Piazza Grande, Trieste watched the show unfold on the Adriatic in front; on idle summer days, ships crossed the golden expanse, travelling to and from the four corners of the Mediterranean. In winter, ships bobbed and listed, whipped by the bora, the katabatic wind of the Northern Adriatic. Trieste’s streets had handrails; when the bora blew, people had to hold onto them, or else they would be blown away, thrown into the choppy sea. Mamy never took Manfred out then.

Manfred didn’t remain in Trieste long, after his childhood. He was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Vienna, where he studied to become a diplomat. He returned to the town of his birth at the end of World War I when, at nearly fifty years old, he was appointed Head of the Garrison on the island of Lussinpiccolo. Manfred sailed to the island at the end of the days of Habsburg Trieste, on a ship painted with the memories of his childhood. The victorious Italian army marched in a few weeks later, on November 3rd, 1918, claiming the city as their own, renaming the square where his mother drank coffee Piazza Unità d’Italia. Trieste was made Italian; having been born in Trieste, ‘with the stroke of a notary’s pen’[1], Manfred became Italian too.trieste statue man

[1] Jan Morris, “Trieste and the meaning of Nowhere”

The Eagle

Eagle Hunter Bloody Beak

The golden eagle stands in a ditch, tied to a pole by a 10-inch length of rawhide around its legs. “What’s its name?” I ask Bigboulat, our leather-faced host. “Her name. She is Palapan, little baby” he says. “She is like a daughter to me.”

The eagle’s ditch lies in the centre of the nomads’ yurt camp, between the sky and the steppe, long grasses waving gently in the wind. Nomads hunt with eagles in winter. These animals cannot be completely tamed; their hunter instinct doesn’t abate during the summer months. The eagle looks around, carefully, for prey; for a field mouse, or one of the many hay-coloured marmots scurrying in and out of burrows. As soon as she spots something, she lunges, arching her body upwards, ready to take off, but the rope is tight around her legs, bringing her back to the stake. “I have to keep her tied. Or she would fly away, and wouldn’t return for weeks” says Bigboulat.

He has built a turf tussock for the bird to roost. The eagle is drawn towards it by the rope, after her failed attempt at freeing herself. She rips apart, gashing, clawing, tearing, slashing at the tussock, until there’s nothing left. Bigboulat understands. He approaches the eagle; exchanges the rawhide strip for a longer rope. In a flash, the eagle is in the air, swoops down. I see her perfection of wildness. She is infallible. She is queen.

The eagle holds a small marmot on the ground, pins it down with her curled, slate-coloured talons. They are eye to eye for an instant; the marmot is still alive, barely. Suddenly, the eagle gives a loud screech, flaring her golden neck feathers. She stares at us, shrieking, tongue sticking out, the prey safely tucked in her claws. Men around us are belittled by her fierce gaze, look at her with deference from the top of their horses, then ride off over the hills, across a land with no boundaries.

Eagle Hunter Fast Food

Then, a few fast beak movements, the marmot is skinned and gutted. The eagle eats the flesh chunk by bloody chunk; she dangles the marmot’s innards from her beak, stringy purple and grey, then gulps them down. The skin is tossed on the side, discarded.

She climbs on the mound where her roosting tussock used to be, now destroyed. It happens all the time in summer; Bigboulat says he will make her another one. I look at the eagle from up close; her downy, delicate feathers, swirling around her eyes, the underside of her neck soft and fluffy, the sharp-looking feathers on her shoulders, looking as if they were carved from wood. The feathers’ colours change with the sun; brown becomes caramel, golden is turned into cream, buttery white.

Above, eagles ride the thermals over the hills, towards the snow-streaked peaks of the Altai Mountains, on the horizon. I give her a last look, just as she looks at me. Or through me. For an instant, I feel her longing for the wild, open skies. I feel the wind brushing her feathers, as she sweeps towards the quarry, the same wind on the nomads’ faces as they ride across the steppe. The same yearning to hunt.  Eagle Hunter Flared Head

Mamuthones and Issohadores

Kiddie in the Middle“I can’t let you in. I can’t just let anyone in. Sorry.” says Basilio, one of the eight issohadores of Mamoiada. “It is more than getting dressed. It is a metamorphosis”  he adds, as he slams the door of the Mamuthones and Issohadores Association in my face.

I am not allowed to enter the courtyard, where the preparation of the masked characters is taking place. I sneak towards a door left ajar, and glimpse moments of a century-old ritual, pervaded with superstition. The men, dressed but not yet masked, circle around a bonfire, lie on the floor, help each other strapping bells on their backs. The straps are pulled so tightly that some men seem to be about to collapse from the weight of the bells, up to 40

kilos, and lack of oxygen. Bells are arranged, straps buckled and unbuckled, crossed together. Men jump and shake their backs again and again, bells jangle. When the sound is right, the mask is worn. They are no longer men. They have become mamuthones.

The day of Sant’Antonio, January 17th, is one of the most popular festivals in Sardinia; the saint is the protector of animals and fire, and each year bonfires are lit to symbolise purification and renewal, to ward off the cold winter and welcome spring.

In the village of Mamoiada, the bonfires of Sant’Antonio offer a supernatural background to another event, a lot more important to local people; the first yearly procession of mamuthones and issohadores, masked characters unique to the town. Smoke billows in twirls from the fires, a sleety rain falls, interspersed with bright spells; then a double-arched rainbow appears, crossing the mountainous expanse east of town.

Many Sardinians will tell you Sardinia is not Italy. Here, people speak another language, completely unintelligible to Italian speakers; some refer to Italy as ‘the continent’, with a mixture of indifference and contempt. Barbagia is another place altogether. Far from the beaches of coastal Sardinia, Barbagia is a tough place of mountains and shepherds. The name of the region itself derives from Barbaria, barbarians, the name given by the Romans to the people of the land, proud and elusive, who never subjected to their rule.

I am no longer in Italy; I am in Barbagia. Mamoiada lies in the heart of the region, tucked among a mountain massif riddled with streams and caves, where nomadic shepherding is still practiced.

The village is surrounded by squat, windswept mountains, covered by gnarled olive trees and myrtle bushes. The wind blows, thick with sleet. This is an isolated land. A place where the harsh territory allowed people to preserve their culture, language and tradition.

Mamoiada’s masked characters are an example. Mamuthones wear grotesque wooden masks, painted black. They are all handmade by local artisans, all different to one another. Some have giant hooked noses, others have protruding foreheads, pointed chins and grimacing expressions, lending mamuthones a spooky, devilish appearance. They wear vests of dark sheep fur and huge copper bells, arranged like tortoise shells on their backs. Issohadores are their lighter counterpart, vivacious and cheerful; dressed in a red tunic with a black bandolier, an embroidered, fringed shawl tied around the hips, a black hat held together with a colourful bow.

When the characters reach the main bonfire, in front of Mamoiada’s largest church, the procession starts. Twelve ma

muthones in two rows, surrounded by eight issohadores. Their movement has been defined by anthropologists as a ‘danced procession’, because of the grave yet musical, rhythmical pace it follows. Mamuthones move slowly, with heavy steps, as if they were chained. Their backs are curved under the weight of the bells, under the coarse vests, under the grimacing masks. Rhythmically, they shake their right shoulder, the left foot advances, bells clang in unison. Issohadores move with agile, deft steps, surrounding the darker figures

as if they were hoarding them, guiding them, then confronting them. Their function is complementary; mamuthones do not interact with the crowd, while issohadores skip across the road, catching young women with the soha, the slim reed rope after which they are named. One issohadore, at the head of the group, has the function of setting the pace of the procession; every now and then he lifts one arm, then waves, the mamuthones answer shaking their bells three times, in rapid succession.

The public looks on speechless, silent and composed, as if they were assisting to a religious procession; looking scared, then between awe and bewilderment, hypnotised by the slow, yet imposing gait. There is no joy; the atmosphere wavers between austere and otherworldly. No one dares speak. The parade continues, from early afternoon to late night, repeating the dance at each of the thirty-eight bonfires in Mamoiada.

The origin of mamuthones is unknown. They have been in Mamoiada as long as anyone remembers; it is likely that the town itself has taken its name from them. Now, they are a symbol of Mamoiada’s identity. “We were born to be mamuthones” said Augusto, standing with his nine year-old son in a small mamuthone costume. “The first time, he was eighteen months old”.

The pace of mamuthones is seen by some scholars as an interpretation of the pre-Christian limping dance in honour of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, that each year died in winter, and was born again in spring as the grass in the fields, bringing rain and fertility. According to this theory, this is why the first mamuthones procession of the year is held on the day of Sant’Antonio, celebration of spring.

Other scholars see the Mamuthones as an animal metaphor; the bells on their back are the bond between shepherd and animal, their shared destiny of working in the fields, of roaming the mountains.

Mamuthones have also been defined as a representation of the collective soul of Sardinia. The bells symbolise the yoke of subsequent dominations, from the Romans to the Vandals, from the Piedmontese to the Italians. The cavorting issohadores in their exotic costume are the invaders; the shuffling mamuthones, bent under their load, are the Sardinians, prisoners, forever shaking the bells of their pain and suffering.

At the end of the parade, in the dead of night and bitter cold, the characters return to their association, to undress, become men again. Then the party begins, wine flowing until morning. This time, everybody is welcome to join in.

Shake It Up

For more Mamuthones and Issohadores images go to

On Community Based Travel

I had done my homework. I had learnt to avoid the Chiang Mai area in Northern Thailand, described by leading guidebooks as “considerably over trekked”. Like most travellers to South East Asia, a hill tribe trek was high on my agenda. I wanted to get an insight into villagers’ lives; I wanted to witness – as I wrote on my blog at the time – “lifestyles unchanged in centuries, perhaps even millennia”. However, wanting to travel responsibly, I was worried about how my presence might influence local people’s traditional way of life. I travelled to the remote hamlet of Luang Nam Tha, near the Chinese border in Northern Laos, and signed up for a three-day trek, at a much higher price than if I had paid in Chiang Mai. I chose the local branch of a Laotian ‘eco-tourism agency’, visiting what was promised as a ‘non-touristy area’. The wall was adorned with a pie-chart, informing visitors that up to 45% of the trek fee went directly to villagers, and a further 10% was invested in community projects. I did not mind paying a slightly higher price, if the communities were going to benefit from it.

The first village we stayed at was home to the Khmu tribe, who migrated to Laos centuries ago from what is now Cambodia. It was built on the side of a hill, in the centre of a patch cleared of forest, surrounded by fields on all sides. The air was thick with ash and smoke; this area of Laos, as indeed most of northern South East Asia, still practices slash-and-burn agriculture. Trees are felled and burnt, and the ash is used as fertiliser. My eyes started streaming as soon as we arrived; within a few hours we had all developed sore throats and persistent coughs.

We were housed in a large, solid, tin-roofed hut, built for tourists, a few hundred yards downhill from the rest of the tribe. A long-drop toilet was for us to use. We spent the day wandering around the village, surrounded by muddy-faced children; their joyful chatter, broken by fits of dry cough, accompanied us as we walked around. Women in colourful headscarves were happy to take a break from weaving and dyeing natural fibres to have a chat, and offer us their handicrafts for sale. The men were at work in the fields. We noticed that the villagers had no toilets; they used an uncultivated field above the village for their needs. Their huts were a lot smaller and flimsier than ours, with thatched roofs and leaning walls.

The following day we visited the Lantan people, originally from Yunnan in northern China. The village, built on the bank of a river, was enveloped in cipria-coloured mist, thick with ash. A bamboo gate, strangely streaked with blood, marked the entrance. There were no bedraggled children about. As soon as we arrived, a few women raced out of their huts holding baskets of handicrafts, touting for our custom; their children tiptoed outside, curious to see us. When the ladies realised we were not interested in buying, they retreated inside, dragging their children along. Despite the insistence of our guide, they refused to interact, leaving us no alternative but to leave.

We learnt later that the Lantan were in the middle of a religious festival; the blood on the village gate belonged to a recent sacrificed animal. When I asked the guide why we were taken to that particular village, where we were clearly unwelcome, he replied that tourists usually like the Lantan, because of their colourful traditional clothing. The encounter was so brief I had not even noticed what the women were wearing.

Unable to spend the night in the Lantan village, we walked downriver, looking for somewhere to stay. None of us were concerned; rather, we were disappointed after being taken to a place where we were neither expected nor wanted. At dusk, we arrived at another Khmu settlement, close to the road back to Luang Nam Tha. This village was larger than the first one we stayed at. Huts were sturdier, some of them two-storied, all with a long-drop toilet in the yard. Villagers wore Western clothes, brought by cunning Chinese merchants who visited weekly. The village looked comparably better off; downhill from the burnt fields, the ash had subsided, the air was breathable again.

This village rarely saw visitors. When we wondered why, we were told tourists do not like it, because inhabitants wear Western clothes and have mobile phones. Being close to the road, villagers enjoy the benefits of trade to supplement their own agriculture-based economy. Some tourists labelled the village as not authentic, westernised. Not authentic on the basis of what? Of their own romanticised idea that minority tribespeople live in shacks in the deep forest, running around in colourful garb?

The villagers were happy for us to stay. We ate together, talked about our lives, and spent the night in their houses. I stayed in the chief’s house, which was not particularly larger or wealthier than the others. When it was time to go to bed, the chief’s mother even tucked me in. We were not expected there, tourists rarely visited; the village hospitality was genuine.

Three years on from this trek, I am still struggling to define the experience. Did my presence bring benefits to the communities, or did it interrupt their life? The debate on the topic is raging, on traveller’s forums on the net and in smoky South East Asian bars, and beyond.

The main idea underlying the concept of community-based tourism is that it encourages travellers to discover cultures while supporting local communities, which in turn allows them to preserve their traditions. Widespread tourism, alongside travellers’ penchant for what is ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’, has brought sizeable benefits to people living in isolated villages. Despite ideas of bucolic paradises, the lives of minority tribespeople are often far from being idyllic; a failed harvest means famine, distance from medical assistance may result in death from a minor infection. Tourists can help locals in need of medical supplies; reports that a tourist trekking through the Thai hills gave antibacterial cream to a farmer with an infected hand, potentially saving his life.

Tourism provides local people with an alternative source of income, one that requires minimal initial assets beyond their land and culture. Moreover, a steady stream of travellers ensures these communities do not have to alter their lifestyle, because it is their lifestyle that attracts tourists, after all. Khmu women are able to continue dyeing natural fibres, weave and embroider, and pass these skills onto their children, as long as there are tourists visiting and buying their handicrafts. Tourism allows these people to remain in their ancestral land, instead of moving to cities to find mainstream employment. It brings development, in terms of economy and infrastructure. It is possible that community-based tourism has allowed cultures to thrive, when alternatively they would have survived only in anthropology books.

On the surface, it sounds like a win-win situation, both for villagers and travellers. Reality, however, is seldom that simple. Local-tourists relationships are rarely direct; more often than not they are mediated by one or more ‘middle men’, such as guides, local and international travel agencies. On paper this is essential to provide travellers with the necessary know-how in relating to tribes. However, during my trip to the Laotian hills, we were given little information on how to behave. Incidents could have occurred, bringing about not only short-term animosity but also reinforcing stereotypes of tourists as boorish and disrespectful. Similarly, middle men are supposed to inform locals how to relate to visitors respectfully. The behaviour of Lantan women led me to believe that tourists had been presented to them only as potential customers for handicrafts.

Most tourists are genuinely concerned for their presence to be as beneficial as possible to the local communities, hence choosing – just as I did – operators promising to share their profits with villagers. However, detailed information on how profits are shared is rarely disclosed. Our guide had no idea. And what happens to the extra 10% that, according to the pie-chart in Luang Nam Tha, was to be invested in community projects? Again, he did not know. A pie-chart was all it took to convince me to sign up. However, on the agency website there is now no sign of it, leading me to believe it was only bait for gullible tourists.

On, JoAnna Haugen argues “community-based tourism walks a very fine line between sharing local traditions and exploiting them“. In order to identify when cultural sharing becomes exploitation, it is necessary to define culture first. If culture was born in the community, it must survive for the community, within the community. This is not to say it should not be shared with visitors; but if it survives only because of tourists, is it still culture, or does it become a mere representation of what life once was? Going back to my experience, I have been wondering whether the Khmu and Lantan women of Northern Laos wore traditional clothes, dyed and wove natural fibres because they wanted to, or whether they did because they were asked to do so by the agency. After all, we were told travellers did not like to see tribespeople in Western clothes; the second Khmu village we stayed at was labelled as ‘unauthentic’. Would it have been more ‘authentic’ if agencies had insisted people wore traditional clothes?

Our visit to the Lantan was a complete disaster; yet, according to our guide, travellers liked visiting them because of their traditional clothing. Does this justify intruding on a community during a time when outsiders are not wanted in the village? On the other hand, in the last, ‘unauthentic’ Khmu village we enjoyed spontaneous hospitality. There were no handicrafts for sale, villagers wore no colourful garb; they were curious about our life, we were curious about theirs, with the aid of our guide we were able to communicate and learn about each other. Three years on, I have come to the conclusion that it happened because the village was not overloaded with tourists; hence, villagers still possessed a genuine desire to share their culture, which had not yet been commodified. Hopefully it never will be.

So, do we exploit communities just by visiting them? Community-based tourism requires little initial assets, and it offers guaranteed returns. Communities are exploited when they do not benefit from such returns. It is very hard to find out how profits are shared with the locals; guides often do not know and information provided by travel agents is vague at best. With the exception of NGO-run community tourism projects, most enterprises operating in the South East Asian region are run on a for-profit basis. This leads me to believe that, in many cases, villagers only see a minimal part of the profits, which have been swallowed up by middle men along the way. The first step towards improving community-based tourism is greater transparency in terms of profit-sharing. Tourists have the right to know where their money is going; more government control should prevent enterprises involved in community-based tourism, regardless of whether they are locally or internationally owned, from promising one thing to the tourists and delivering another to the community, hiding their greed behind meaningless pie-charts.

In what form should profits be returned to the community? Does every household get an equal share? With the introduction of tourism to hill tribes in South East Asia, changes that in the West have occurred over centuries, are taking place within few decades. South East Asian tribes are collectivist communities; the introduction of a cash economy, through which it is possible to get rich faster, may lead some individuals to perceive tourism as a way to make a quick buck for themselves, rather than sharing with the rest of the community. Meanwhile, hierarchical structures within the tribe are usually strong; this may prevent profits being shared equally, causing competition and arguments between villagers, which may end up destroying the harmony of the community.

A sustainable approach to community-based tourism can offer positive development, while minimising internal tensions and disruption to village life. Community projects are sometimes offered in lieu of cash payment, such as a water pump for the village, school supplies for the children, regular doctor visits. Development projects could also be valid alternatives; for example introducing other forms of agriculture alternative to slash-and-burn, detrimental not only to health but also to the soil, which becomes exhausted after only few years of planting, ultimately increasing deforestation. Sharing profits in this way would bring tangible benefits to the community, and allow every villager to enjoy a better quality of life.

It is also important to prevent community-based tourism from becoming the only source of income. A day spent with tourists is not as hard work as a day in the fields; this was not yet the case where we visited, but in some villages near Chiang Mai agriculture has all but been abandoned. What would happen to the village if tourists stopped visiting one day? Community-based tourism should be a way to complement traditional village economy, not replace it. An alternative could lie in small tourist numbers, and some villagers already recognise the benefits of this. On the Huffington Post, Duya Luke reported that her guide, a Karen tribesman from a village north of Chiang Mai, ran only a couple of tours a month, in order to promote cultural sharing and empower young generations to continue practicing sustainable tourism; generating income for the village, but without disrupting daily life.

As stated on, community-based tourism is “neither unequivocally positive, nor unequivocally negative“. The real challenge is maximising positive aspects. The first and foremost step is mutual respect. Tourists should remember that locals are not there to provide entertainment; villages are their homes. If locals feel their experience of community-based tourism is beneficial, they will be motivated to protect their land and allow access to tourists; otherwise they may become unwelcome and resentful, ultimately driving travellers away.

Avoiding contact with tribespeople accomplishes nothing, unless this is what the tribe chooses; at the same time, flooding villages with tourists can be detrimental to local people’s life. The secret lies in balance; working on sustainable numbers, and investing profits back into the community. As such, the experience can become positive to both tourists and villagers, as the last night of my trek in the hills of northern Laos was for me. An experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. To the community, our visit was a window on the world, which widened their experience and perspective. It increased their self-confidence, providing them with the knowledge that they have something that others want to discover: their lifestyle and traditions. Something worth maintaining, and passing onto future generations.

Village Life in Romania

Marina walks down the path with a steady pace. She knows the place well; she has spent her childhood in the hills north of Bucharest. It is not a very nice day; a sticky rain falls without respite, the sharp wind of the Carpathians creeps beneath our jackets. The path continues uphill, disappearing behind the hilltops, our destination is not visible yet. It is not easy to keep up with Marina; the smooth sole of my shoes slides on the damp, moss-covered boulders, grassy patches are turning into swamps. A thick fog is bathing the hills with a sinister light. The shining eye of a crow observes us, menacing, behind willow branches. Suddenly, we hear the unmistakable clop of hooves on stone. A boy on his way back from the mill stops to rescue us, offering a lift to Auntie Alina’s house.

Marina is a friend from Bucharest. She lives in a Soviet building with her sister, in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. She has been living in town for years, but she comes from Petricaua, a village in the countryside two hours north of Bucharest. After having spent several days in the city, I was growing tired of the wide boulevards, incessant traffic and Soviet architecture, looming Metropolis-like behind each corner. Marina had planned to visit her aunt, in her home village, and invited me to go along. I was happy to accept.

Shortly after leaving Bucharest, on the road, Dacia cars give way to tractors and horse carts, potholes become deeper and more frequent the closer we get to our destination. Then the car gives up, the road is too bad, we have to keep walking. Auntie Alina is expecting us at midday, but thanks to traffic and several deviations we are nearly an hour late.

After trekking for another hour up the hills in the unforgiving weather, we are wet and cold: the cart looks like a godsend. The driver’s name is Mircea; he’s a 15 years old high school student, helping his family during the Easter holidays. We climb on board, and sit on top of the plastic sheets covering hessian bags bulging with flour. We proceed with jerks and bumps; the wooden wheels are hard on our backs. At one point, crossing the muddy path in the cart becomes impossible. We are bogged. Mircea laughs as we get off to help him push the cart, with mud squelching beneath our trainers and the horses’ hooves. Following his directions, we break free, and lead the cart towards a smaller path, little more than a track, leading towards a house on the top of a hill.

“We are nearly there, that is Auntie Alina’s house” says Marina, gazing towards a small wooden house with a painted cross in the courtyard.

“Guys, take off your shoes” whispers Marina, pointing to my dirty trainers, still bearing the signs of our battle to wrestle the cart free of the mud. Dozens of shoes are outside the door. There are heavy work boots, coloured plastic flip-flops, trainers in various sizes, fluffy animal slippers and even a pair of leather sandals, with chunky stiletto heels. From the house we can hear singing, chatter, laughter. “We are lucky! This is șezătoare” Marina informs us, with pride. Sezătoare is a local tradition, exclusively for women. The literal meaning is ‘gathering’. Women meet to work, but at the same time they enjoy themselves, sing, gossip and tell each other jokes. In the room, a dozen women are sitting around a long table; they are singing a cheerful song, while their skilled hands deftly move the spinning wheel, embroider, mend socks, spin wool and wrap it into balls. The fireplace warms the house gently; the room smells like straw, the bodies close to one another have the sharp and pungent smell of people who work with animals.

Alina sits in the centre, singing with a steady voice; the glances of other women reveal her authority. She must be about seventy; her face is browned by a lifetime working in the fields, lined by the wind that whips the Carpathians all year long. “They always have șezătoare at Alina’s house” reveals Marina “people in the village, especially the women, holds her in high esteem. She is like an unofficial leader, the village matriarch; everybody goes to her when that have a problem”.

Marina introduces her to her aunt; her handshake is firm, confident. She asks me about where I am from, about my family. Many women she knows have moved to Italy, my home country. They work as nurses and maids, she says, away from their own families. Her gaze pierces me, for an instant. I notice Alina has the habit of pursing her lips when making a point, making them look like a flower. She wears a daffodil behind her ear; she holds my hand and leads me towards a picture of herself fifty years ago. She was a beautiful woman, with a flower behind her ear. She loves flowers, she says.

Meanwhile, șezătoare continues. Two women play with a five-year old named Geanina: they brush her hair and dress her, chatting animatedly.

“They are exchanging recipes for Lent” Marina says. There are young women, one with a pierced nose, and older ladies; most of them wear colourfully embroidered shirts with geometrical cross-stitch patterns, heavy black skirts and a kerchief on their heads. They start singing another song; this time following a plaintive, mournful rhythm. The hushed tones bounce on the walls of the small room.

“They wrote many of these songs themselves, they are written on that book” explains Marina, pointing towards a blackened handwritten book on the table. “This is Elisaveta’s song. She died two months ago.”

All songs begin with a reference to Nature. “Willow leaf, when I was young, I married a poor man. My parents said to me, if you believe in God and work hard, you will be happy. Now I am old, but I have a horse and a cart, with them I see the world”. Elisabeta observes us from a framed picture on the wall, looking pleased. A life in a song.

The sound of a bagpipe comes from outside; the women stand up together, Catalin has arrived. Alina introduces him to us: “He is Eugenia’s husband, my cousin. He is the village musician. He would like to meet our guests”. Catalin plays the bagpipes with passion, then changes to a handmade wooden flute; he plays a jolly tune, while the women dance on the grass, first in a circle then in pairs, holding hands, skipping and beating their heels on the grass. The weather has improved. The sun peeks shyly behind the clouds, the flute plays along birds singing, and the bleats of lambs that will live only another week, until Easter. Joyful cries accompany the dance, a game of questions and answers between Alina and her cousin Maria. Listening carefully, it is possible to hear words; it is strigături, a traditional chant from the Romanian Carpathians.

“Villages here are scattered on the hills” Marina explains “Strigături means ‘shouting’, it developed because people used to scream to communicate from one hill to another. They are merry songs, talking about life in the village”.

After a little while, Auntie Alina leads us back into her home. She very proud of her ‘museum’; a couple of rooms on the back of her house where she has gathered the memories of a lifetime. Carpets, vases, musical instruments; there are also two small frames with a collage made using bark, moss and dried flowers. And most important of all, a collection of embroidered shirts; hanging on the walls, draped over the divans, some are over one hundred years old, made by Alina’s grandmother. A school photo is hanging on the wall; Ceausescu’s emotionless face observes the group of children, who look as if they were about to burst out laughing. Alina points to the teacher; the same face, beautiful yet stern, the same flower behind the ear that greeted us at our arrival. She moves to another room, sits at the loom and starts to work, and reminisce.

“We have been so lucky. We did not have to leave. Many had to go to Bucharest, to Ploiesti, to work in the factories. They used to come and take them, but they never came to Petricaua”. Some women are spinning wool. The freshly sheared wool is tied to wonderfully carved wooden sticks, which the women keep tucked into their belts. Their hands turn tufts into yarn with apparent ease. The click of the loom accompanies Alina’s memories.

“Girls nowadays are too outspoken. They were a lot quieter when I was young. But I was a tomboy! I was the first born and I had no brothers, so I was raised with the ‘needle and the whip’. I had to help my mother with sewing, but I also used to ride and hunt with my father. And I loved playing football, but the boys always wanted me to play as goalkeeper. One day there was this boy I fancied, trying to catch the ball I slipped and caught his belt, his trousers dropped and he was left stark naked!” Alina laughs remembering the episode, the yellow daffodil falls on the loom.

Back to Alina’s living room: it is nearly six, people eat early around here. It is the last week of Lent, a time of fasting for the Christian Orthodox community, forty days without meat or dairy products. “That just makes Easter lunch taste better!” Marina jokes. The table is laden; we eat from communal plates, bean puree covered in tomato sauce, vegetable soup, a corn and nut mix, another soup made with prunes in lukewarm water. We drink elderflower juice and warm brandy poured generously by Catalin, who does not part from his bagpipes. More than thirty people sit in the same room, shoulder to shoulder on the wooden benches.

“Most people from the village eat together, during Lent. Especially during the last week” explains Marina. Children chase ginger cats under the table, women chat and help each other in the kitchen, men down glasses of brandy; the atmosphere is familiar, joyous, festive. Many families are like one, eating together, sharing. A pang of envy hits me, I have never experienced this feeling of community, of people being there for one another.

Alina wants to talk to me a little more.

“Are there villages like ours, in your country?” I must admit I do not know. Then I remember my grandmother, and her tales of growing up in the countryside, several families under the same roof. I remember her stories of Sunday lunches; of growing up with animals and dozens other children, of the wide horizons, of her sadness when she moved to the city after the war destroyed her home and family.

“There may be some villages like this one, still. My grandmother grew up in a place like this” I answer. “But she lives in a city now”.

Alina wants us to stay, but we have to get back to the car before it is dark. Little Geanina returns home with her grandmother, pulling her toy truck. Another woman goes back home from the fields, carrying a haystack on her shoulders. The end of a day of work in the fields. She enters Alina’s house; the other women offer her a bowl of soup. Alina comes to us, to say goodbye: “My parents used to say that before we go, we all have to leave something for the village. My father left the cross in front of the house, my uncle dug the well, my grandfather built the mill. I created the museum. I would like to open it to visitors, friends, I would like to tell people about our life here, in Petricaua. We have been so lucky. We have always had each other”.