Off the Grid

Fishing boat on the lake

There is both an uneasiness and sense of liberation that comes from being out of communication range. In an increasingly connected world, it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find places that are beyond the reach of both Internet and cell phone service. A few such places are the remote regions of northern Myanmar, where I am about to travel for the second time.

I got my first exposure to disconnecting for a significant length of time last year when I spent two and a half weeks at Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. When a group of backpackers traveled through the guesthouse partway through my stay, one of them asked me how I was faring without access to the outside world for so long. I somewhat surprised myself when I told him it had been great – and I meant it. It had taken a bit of getting used to, but the feeling of uneasiness quickly switched to one of liberation.

I would come back to the guesthouse after a day of community meetings and could just be present. I read a lot. I drank tea and beer with the guesthouse owner and other guests, and watched sunset colors fall on the lake. I wrote some, but mostly savored my ability to unplug.

The lake wasn’t entirely off the grid – the local 3G cell network did get some service. My Lao coworker had successfully acquired a local sim card and was able to check email and Facebook. At that time, the shops didn’t have the ability to cut the sim cards to fit my iPhone 5s. Trying to use the tenuous lines of communication also seemed too draining. One collaborator from the UK spent most of the evening trying to send an email home on a colleague’s local cell phone over the faint connection.

Bringing the technology

Even electricity was a bit hard to come by in Indawgyi, although when needed it could be provided in full force, thanks to a generator. It was a bit of an incongruous feeling, to spend the night at a guesthouse with a few dim bulbs powered by a small solar panel system, and no electric sockets for charging anything. Then in the morning we would haul computers, a printer, and even a projector to the local villages (all on the backs of motorbikes) and use them for our community workshops. One village even had a giant speaker set up complete with a wireless microphone – but it took a little jerry-rigging to get the electrical system up and working that day. Nothing a piece of tape couldn’t fix.

I find that I’m pretty good at switching off devices and unplugging. In fact, I often prefer it – which is sometimes at odds with my job as a Communications Director. That said, it’s a special thing to be able to share my travel experiences with others, which also helps me document these memories for myself. I’m still trying to find the balance between these two desires when I travel.

Fixing the electrical setup

For me, the most uneasy part about lack of communication while traveling is the fear of the unknown – and also worrying that my family back home is worrying about me (I guess it’s hereditary). Three weeks in a remote region felt like a long time to be without any contact last year, so luckily I was able to use a satellite GPS messenger from work to send periodic check-ins to my coworkers and family. When I came home, I learned that only about half of my messages had come through, even though I had tried to send them every day. This time around, I’ll try leaving the device on longer to transmit to the satellite, even after the “message sent” light flashes. Hopefully I’ll also be able to retrace the path of our upcoming trek with those GPS points.

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to some remote mountain villages in a different part of Kachin state. I’m not sure what kind of communication ability awaits after I leave internet connected Yangon in the morning. On the one hand, I was amazed to have a decent wifi connection at the small town I visited in Laos on a field project about a week ago. On the other hand, I got a taste for the “internet access” in northern Myanmar last year when I spent a day in the city of Myitkyina after returning from Indawgyi and waiting for my flight back to Yangon. My hotel professed to have internet, but I spent a whole day with a browser open, trying to send my first email home in almost three weeks. I wasn’t entirely sure if it went through in the end.

86 days later, my dad forwarded the email message to me, saying it had just arrived. Who knew emails could get lost in the mail too?

Signing off from the Humble Footprints guesthouse in Yangon, where my computer and phone still recognize and remember the password to the Wifi network from when I stayed here last year…amazing!

Indawgyi Folk Song

Indawgyi Folk Song Recording

One pleasant surprise about my trip to Indawgyi was the number of other foreigners who were also working on the project. It was exciting to feel like a part of something bigger in this isolated place, and I felt like I always had company. I met a French couple, Claire and Hugo, who had lived for several years in New Caledonia, and were volunteering their time with Fauna and Flora International to make a video about the project. Claire shot video, while Hugo recorded audio.

Fallen MangosThe pair decided they wanted to record some local music to use as a soundtrack to the video. Very few people in the village where we stayed spoke any English, but somehow Hugo managed to convey that he was looking for someone to sing a local folk song about the lake. He invited me to come along while he made the recording. We walked to one of the little stores in town to wait for someone to take us to the folksinger. It wasn’t clear how long we’d have to wait, so we ordered some mangoes and other snacks.

Then a woman arrived, and we followed her down one of the dirt roads in the village. A big storm had blown through the day before, and the wet dirt was littered with leaves, tree branches, and tiny green mangoes. I discovered the hard way that the mangoes attracted big red ants. They peppered my feet with fiery bites through my sandals.

We arrived at a house where we met a woman and her daughter, who spoke a little English. Hugo struggled to explain that he needed total silence to make the recording. The first time, a phone rang, and the clock chimed in the background. The singer, whose name is Daw Yee Tee Tin, seemed a little nervous, but obligingly sang us a lovely song. Then we changed positions to have her sit closer to natural sounds from outside, and asked her to sing again. This time, I turned my camera on, trying to keep silent and not intrude on the recording. That was especially hard at 0:52 seconds, when I discovered an ant had hitched a ride on my pant leg and started to bite…

This time, she accompanied the song with graceful hand gestures. I imagined how she might have performed the song with others when she was younger. Will anyone learn these songs to pass them forward? It was a special moment that filled my heart, and I felt fortunate to be part of it, to have captured it. We played the song for others, like the owner of our guest house, and he smiled at the familiar references to the birds and beautiful golden pagoda; he mimed rowing a boat on the lake. Claire had the song translated when she returned to Yangon, and passed them on to me. Learning the words makes the song truly enchanting.

Like a vast silver mattress,
News about this place should be passed,
Let’s go pay homage to the holy pagoda with a boat,
Birds are playing in the water,
In the northern state of Kachin,
Imagine the scenes,
The Shan ladies are pretty,
In renowned charming Indawgyi Lake,
O fellow countrymen and countrywomen,
You must come to Indawgyi,
Residents of the lake have pure hearts,
When you row a boat,
Looking to make friends,
The sound of Shan drums,
Can be heard,
O Burmese brother from the plains,
If you stretch your legs to travel,
We invite you to visit Indawgyi.

You can hear the song at the end of Claire and Hugo’s video here.


Moments in Myanmar

Bittern flying across the lake

In one week, I’ll be heading to Asia on a trip that will include 10 days in Myanmar. It feels like a fitting time to post these snippets of moments and memories I jotted down as I was sitting in the airport, preparing to leave Asia last June. In May and June of 2015, I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar as a consultant to Fauna and Flora International to help communities around Indawgyi Lake establish Fish Conservation Zones, or community protected areas for fish. While at the lake for two weeks, I was almost completely off the grid. It was an experience I had approached with much apprehension, yet it ended up being an incredibly unique and liberating time…

There was the time we rode a boat around the lake and watched the birds take flight. The purple swamp hens ran across the algae mats like they were walking on water.

There was the time when the ladies at the meeting tried to marry me off to an eligible older bachelor with 25 acres of rice fields.

There was the time when I taught the restaurant owner the English word for “cucumber.”

There was the time that the whiskey delivery truck got stuck in the mud and everyone came to observe and offer advice.

There was the time when a few fireflies glowed green in the darkness, one and then another.

There was the time when the little baby with a shiny bald head waved at me and blew me a kiss.

There was the time when we walked down the road littered with fallen green mangos after the storm, and firey red ants bit my feet.

There was the time when the ants bit through my plastic bags and Cliff Bar wrapper, and one lucky fat pig got to eat the chocolate chip bar I tossed in the pile outside the guest house.

There was the time the village head joked with the villagers not to fall asleep during the meeting, then proceeded to doze off during my presentation.

There was the time when all the frogs starting singing at night, and one lone frog croaked forlornly.

There was the night after the big rain that insects swarmed the walls at night, turning the guesthouse into an entomological curiosity.

There was the time when two mating dragon flies skimmed right over my face as I floated on the water, never breaking their concentration.

There were so many more special moments and little stories. Thanks to inspiration from Amy West and other courageous creatives, I’m committing to sharing these moments, both past and present, more regularly in this space.