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!

Over the Bridge and Through the Mud


Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!

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.

The Floating Market


Although I’ve now made it safely back home to California, I wanted to keep documenting some of the highlights of my trip.  Although the main point of my visit to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was to learn about fish research, I did have plenty of time to play tourist. The ultimate touristy excursion—a trip to see the floating market.

At first, my cousin and I weren’t so sure about the 5:30 am departure from the hotel — at least, I wasn’t. But I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the local time during the first week of my trip, and luckily the jet lag worked in my favor. Apparently all the action at the market happens early, so no sleeping in.

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The sun wasn’t quite up by the time we headed out on the water. Condensation clouded my camera lens after sitting in our over-air-conditioned hotel room all night. We had a boat to ourselves, and our driver was a skilled multi-tasker. She made us a variety of gifts throughout the day by folding and wrapping the leaves of a water coconut—while driving.  Sometimes it did seem like our boat was veering off on a questionable course…I guess it’s better than texting?IMG_0930

Lots for sale here...

Lots for sale here…

A lot of the activity had already quieted down by the time we reached the market around 7 am, but the piles of produce made a pretty sight in the early morning sun. A few boats sidled up alongside others, fruits and vegetables exchanged hands. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the advertising.

Each boat had a long pole attached to it, and our boat driver pointed out the produce hanging from each one —announcing what was for sale on the boat below.  That way you can make your way toward the correct floating stall from a distance. We happened to take this tour on Halloween, and I was surprised by the large number of pumpkins dangling from the poles. I didn’t even know they grew pumpkins in Vietnam.

Part of the tour included a visit to a rice paper and noodle-making factory.  We watched while the workers mixed rice flour, heated it into thin round sheets, and set those sheets out to dry or fed them through a noodle cutter. Maybe 10 people made up the whole operation. I’ve eaten so many noodles without ever wondering where they came from. IMG_0898

We then headed to a second, smaller market, where the biggest attraction wasn’t even staged for our benefit. A Vietnamese cell phone company called Mobifone had parked a huge powerboat at the edge of the market. The young employees in bright polo shirts and baseball caps made their way among the vendors in a smaller boat. They handed out to prizes like motorbike helmets, tried to get everyone ramped up to the blaring music, and (I’m assuming) extolled the virtues of their company’s products and services.  The vendors wearing their conical hats and patterned fabric shirts and pants mostly looked on. Just when you think you’ve found a tranquil backwater, here comes “the future” banging on your door…

By 10 am the sun was high and it was already hot. Our driver steered us to restaurant for lunch, where Quan and I had fun chatting with a German couple also from our hotel.  After eating, we walked around the back garden, crossing over a number of bamboo “monkey bridges,” each one looking narrower than the last. We also took a walk among some of the houses and rice fields.  Seeing the raised graves like stone houses, the burning incense offerings and papaya trees reminded me of the one kid’s book I had about Vietnam, called Ba-Nam.

Monkeying by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Monkeying around…photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

After lunch, our driver had thankfully put up a canopy on the boat for shade. We took a meandering ride back through the canals, past houses at the waters edge with laundry out to dry, trees with straw-like roots sticking out of the water, and little palm frond huts on stilts – covered “parking spaces” for boats. We got caught in a shower not far from the dock, sudden and intense, the way the rain just bursts from the clouds in Southeast Asia.  I would say thank goodness for putting up the canopy, but it somehow let loose a great splash of water all over my head. But in the Vietnam heat, it’s hard to stay wet for long.