Lifting blankets

The next week was filled with growth, us as human beings improving communication on many levels with a group of people that is not easy at times to interact with, our knowledge base concerning cultures/ ways of living,  the power of opinions, prejudice and how your own thoughts shape the world around you. Nothing new about those topics but seeing them in real life together with a minority that mostly lives well under European standards makes you question them in a different light. 

On our second day we visited Lunik IX again, this time with our cameras. We heard about other photographers/ journalist coming here on a regular basic so the last thing we wanted to do is creating an atmosphere where the people here feel like they’re in a zoo. Respect and dignity. Therefore we didn’t just start taking pictures, we talked first, had a look around and started thinking of how we can capture the atmosphere in an honest way. Many people from the day before recognised us, not long after we got there we noticed that it was a holiday for the Roma, a day to listen to loud music and enjoy themselves. Obviously the two of us were easy to spot, within half an hour most people that didn’t know us from the day before knew some white guys with cameras were here. A few men, clearly in charge of the music, waved to come to them, we obliged and walked, with our drop of constantly changing children that followed us right from the start, towards what seemed like the community center. On the second floor of that building which was looking over the main square was the music area, two massive speakers surrounded by a bunch of men. First things first we got invited to have shoots of vodka, can’t really say no, down they went. A few jokes later we started taking portraits of several people and promised to bring print outs the next day. 

“Alles klar?” , I looked around looking at a middle age men smiling, thats how we met Marek. He is in charge of the music whenever there is something to celebrate and we heard that he even records some songs, plays guitar and piano, and even better talks some German. It turned out to just be a few words but it was the best communication so far, quickly he invited us to his flat, it was in one of the two blocks that had running water. We talked as much about the situation in Lunik as the language barrier permitted, got offered coffee and they were happy to be in front of the camera.  

After Marek showed us around the area and took us to a look out spot nearby from where you could see most of Lunik. He told us some pretty horrible stories about the destinies of some unfortunate families. 

We continued returning each day talking to different families and returning to ones we had seen before. Slowly we started understanding the dynamic about living here and that even the community within wasn’t as strongly weaved as thought, a sense of true compassion for their peers living besides them seemed to be missing however the family bond was strong. It didn’t seem like anyone had to go hungry.

On our last day we got a great insight through an interview with a resident, she lived there for 17 years and has seen many changes. In general she says, it improved. The population in Lunik decreased rapidly in the last 10 years which made the living quality better. Many of them moved to England, Belgium or the Netherlands for better opportunities getting work. Entering some of the apartments we actually were surprised as they looked immenlsly better than thought by looking at the run down blocks with missing windows in the stairways.

The interview was made possible through the translation of the community centre which was situated directly in Lunik, half funded by the European Union and the other half by the city itself. Martin was our contact person, he needed some serious convincing to help us even though we are reaching out for the same people, trying to spread the story of how it is living in Lunik as well as brightening up the everyday life of people living at times a dull, unspectacular lifestyle that screamed melodies of wanted change and passed opportunities. It felt like Martin was missing grit, little internal drive to keep on trying implementing change in this world where appreciation for his work was little. We had a talk with a women who lived at Lunik for the last 17years, she told us about great change in the number of people living here, 7000 down to 3500, that the school inside Lunik is looked down upon as a special needs school where they play more then learn. Two living blocks that the city deemed unsafe to live in where closed down, most people moved into other neighbourhoods but the once that wanted to stay close to their family build tiny sheds just outside Lunik. Very poor living conditions, especially in winter has even lead to the death of children due to cold. 

Already before this interview we got invited into many houses, made friends and also had to prove ourself in front of angry young men. We witnessed great housing initiatives to give families a kick start and give them the chances they deserve. 

ETP Slovensko has set up a micro loan project to give the families and small kickstart, building of the houses is done mostly by the families themselves with occasional help by a builder which leaves the cost much lower. In Rankovce a program is in place were local women create handbags and sustainable wood chip blocks for income. 

In the end we noticed, once again, how all of us sit in the same boat, some have a rougher journey then others, ride waves as big as abandoned housing blocks that with their falling stones of aging decay close the barrels of life till it all collapses on you, but some, ride it out, stick up to their fears and can’t does to defy expectations, they create their own reality through actions and thoughts. We are hopeful for the future of Lunik, we are hopeful for this world being able to straighten up from injustice and unsustainable ways of living, but it won't happen by itself, the change has to start from within ourselves. Lets make it happen. 

All or nothing

Our heads full of revolution from the Euromaidan we came back, highly motivated, to start telling the story of the Roma people.
Our contacts were not available yet, waiting is not our strong point, we decided to take the luck in our own hands, in New Zealand we would say “just winging it”. On our first day we went into the infamous and pretty much official Romani ghetto in Kosice, Lunik IX.

Lunik IX

Lunik IX

We wanted to get a feel for it, are the people really as aggressive and inhospitable as we got told or is there a prejudice in the public of Slovakia just how it is observed often with poor minorities that for decades lacked the right integration into local society? 
Armed with a polaroid camera we dived in and were able to give something back straight away, show people the power of photography, a frozen piece of time that can not be altered, therefor a true impression of how life is at a given moment.

It was a big success, soon we were not only surrounded by children but also three men, which quickly dressed up to have a picture taken. Many different people came and left, we laughed, we danced (a lot), sang, did cartwheels, handstands and ate, to me still unknown, unripe fruits from a tree.

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Three hours later we left, exhausted, but with a much better understanding about their life and a first step closer towards a meaningful exchange on which we can tell an authentic story about an ethnic minority very rich in history and culture but with a past that sadly has not been too great at all. History is riddled with devastating stories and hardships the Roma people had to endure to be here in the first place. To this day it seems that most of them still haven’t been given the best chances to integrate well into the local societies of where they now call home. If we take the middle of all the estimate we saw it should be around 10million Roma in Europe, the reason of why they left their homes of Northern India and Pakistan is still unknown. No matter where they went the role as societies outcast living in the outskirts seems sealed, even after living in countries for several generations.  Our next days will be focused on unpacking some of those, to us, mysteries, in order for everyone to understand each other better, because in the end of the day, we are all made out of the same materials, external factors have shaped the way we behave and had a huge say in the opportunities that we found along the way, let’s all appreciate this fortune while leaving a world of prejudice, let’s fill our pockets with compassion, a healthy mix of smiles, authenticity and open mindedness. 

 “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet : Act 2, Scene 2.

We love kids, their curiosity is contagious, the middle finger we just noticed later ;) 

We love kids, their curiosity is contagious, the middle finger we just noticed later ;) 

 

 

The big mountains

After 4 days of "lazy" farm life we decided it was time to get active again. The mountains were calling us and so we listened.

We continued our journey through Slovakia going all the way up north - the high Tatras. It says the highest peak is only to be reached with a local guide or for members of alpine clubs. Well, if you know Johannes, you will know how this story continues. I decided to stay out of this one - which was probably a life saving decision. 

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Johannes went for it and impressively conquered the whole thing and returned to the car in the dark, grateful for such a wicked mountain adventure. Below you can follow his accent.

The next day, we went on to some less deadly climbs. Not less scenic in the slightest though we decided hike up to Teryho Chata, second highest hut in the High Tatras, overlooking three beautiful mountain lakes.

The ascend wasn't too much of a challenge and we tackled it in three hours with stop and go to take pictures .

The path was pretty well done almost all the way up to the top which is why there was quite a lot of people. A bit too many for my liking. Hoewever the last third of the walk was covered in snow which made it hard to see where the path continued so I found myself broken into the snow hip-deep at some point. Survived. Again.

 

I am kind of torn over what impressed me more... the incredible view or the sherpas who carried goods of 100kg up that bloody mountain! I mean, what? They are the only 'sherpas' in Eurpope btw, delivering goods to the two huts and a few others scattered in the high Tatras. Locals have called them that for decades and they are very popular in the region.

On the very top we had to realise that all the lakes were completely covered in snow which was a shame. But a hot apple tea later, everything was forgiven and forgotten.

The hike was great and the views were amazing. Worth every bit.

The day after we continued to what the Slovaks call paradise. A national park south of the Tatras. We made our camp at the nearby castle where we met two climbers who spent the night, which was full of wicked lighting and thunder, in their car, just like us. The local boys were super excited about getting to know everything about our journey and I think they fell in love with Sabine a bit. To be fair... she is quite a catch.

We invited them for a coffee and had a nice chat with them as it's always interestig to hear things from a local's perspective. They invited us to go climbing with them but our schedule was set to head towards the Ukraine the same day. So off we went heading towards this exciting journey. 

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