On Burma and How We Can Help

I’m sure you all have heard, especially if you’re making it to this blog, of the tragedy in Burma from Cyclone Nargis. As bad as Hurricane Katrina was, Nargis has already killed ten times as many people, and there are many many more unaccounted for. There are stories of entire towns, houses, people and all, being literally washed off the map. Those left in its wake face even more hardship, now having to fend off disease, find food and clean water, and start putting their lives back together.

I think what strikes me most about this tragedy is how “unavoidable” it was. There are some reports that the people were not notified well enough, but first of all, there is no clear way to contact everyone as its not like there is a TV or radio in every house. Even so, I’m sure people are quite skeptical of the state run media by now, not to mention people often don’t abide by storm warnings, as we so often see in this country. The truth is that the only thing that would have really saved lives is better infrastructure, and that does not come without a stronger and more developed economy. That path was carved 30-40 years ago. So say what you will about the regime there (and we have), but there was not much they could have done to prevent this tragedy.

What they can do, however, is address the aftermath with conviction and honesty. Their people need all the aid they can get and there are people around the world willing to give it to them. This is where their actions most offend me. So far, they are making things rather difficult because of bureaucracy. The only place to get a visa into the country is through the office in Yangon, which, as you may imagine, is not very functional at the moment. I imagine this will find an expedient resolution very soon, and there are already a number of amazing organizations already in the country doing their best to provide necessities to the people of Burma. The Network for Good has a great post about the best ways to start helping the people put their lives back together. Please do what you can to help the Burmese people get back on their feet so they can go get their democratic leaders (in 2011 … if it’s not ignored this time).

Tuning Out

Last Friday, an article I wrote about travel-related songs appeared on Brave New Traveler. (You should go check it out if you haven’t already.) Anyhow, writing it got me thinking about music and just how portable it is now. MP3 players (specifically the iPod) are ubiquitous these days. Almost everyone in the 35 and under crowd owns one, and a whole heck of a lot of people in the older age groups do too. With these gadgets, you can literally carry with you thousands of songs in your pocket. Pretty amazing. I’m certain Jeff and I will enjoy this technology multiple times while we’re on the road…on those marathon bus rides, in noisy hostel rooms, etc.

But sometimes, I’m tempted to just leave my iPod at home. Though I wrote that article on music and though I love me some good tunes, I’m not a music junkie. I’m not up on the latest bands, and half the time, I’d just rather ride in silence in the car than listen to the radio, so it’s not like I’d be missing some integral part of me. And, I have to admit, that I often find the iPod or other MP3 gadget to be more than a little annoying. For instance, while out hiking yesterday, we passed a fellow hiker walking with his earbuds in through a gorgeous stretch of woods where the birds were chirping and a creek was burbling. What? Why go out in nature if you can’t disconnect yourself? You’re missing half the experience of being outdoors.

Sometimes I think we’ve become so “connected” to technology that we’ve become entirely disconnected from the world. On my Metro ride everyday, I’d say at least 75% of the people in my car are listening to iPods. No one talks to each other. Everyone just pops in their earphones and escapes to their own world…while oftentimes taking others with them whether they want to go or not because apparently most of the world is deaf and must listen to their iPods at a volume that makes the earphones unnecessary. (Lord, I sound like an old person.) Now to be honest, I doubt too many people would talk on the Metro even without the iPods, but still, I find it bothersome when people use their iPods as a means of ignoring other people. Can you not take your stupid earphones out for one second while you’re checking out at the grocery (I’m sure the cashier would appreciate some acknowledgment), when your coworker comes to talk to you (Um, you are at work, and she shouldn’t have to yell over your music), or when you’re in the freaking great outdoors (Soundtrack already included).

On our trip, that totally oblivious iPod person is not the person I want to be. I’m traveling to learn more about the world, to become more in tune with it…not my favorite songs. What’s the point of traveling around the world, if I’m always going to escape into my own private world? Will having an iPod be an easy escape from a difficult situation? Will I miss out on a fabulous conversation with a local on a bus because I’m too busy listening to my music? Will I seem out of reach, uninterested, unaware if I pop a set of earphones in? In the end, will being “connected” cause me to be completely “disconnected”?

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Remember that stack of guidebooks I brought home a few weeks ago?

South America Guidebooks

Yeah, that one.

Well, just in case anyone is keeping score, I’ve now made my way through 3.5 of them—Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, and half of Ecuador. Jeff, on the other hand, is sporting a big fat zero in his total read column. He claims that he has been very busy, which, I’ll admit, he has. But it’s not as though I’ve been slacking. Between the day job and the hiking guidebook writing gig, free time is hard to come by around here. I do have the advantage of Metro rides, however, which are excellent for reading. And there’s the fact that I like to read, and I like to plan, and he’s not so hot on either.

Anyhow, as I’ve been reading, I’ve been jotting down notes—things like where I want to go, how easy/hard it is to get there, how many days to spend in said location and in transport, how pricey it is, the best time of year to go, etc. The end goal is to shape it all into a loose itinerary, so we can do things like buy plane tickets, arrange for friends and family to meet us at specific points, and be certain that we’re not missing anywhere that we feel very strongly about.

Looking back at my notes on the places I want to visit, a very strong trend has emerged. Almost every place I’ve listed is a hot spot for outdoor activity. They are places where you can go on long treks, scale volcanoes, kayak through islets, mountain bike through jungles, raft raging rivers, camp with wild animals, etc. Sounds cool, right? Obviously, I think so. I mean, I think hiking 30 miles every weekend for 6 months is a good time. The problem is that it isn’t tenable. First, it gets pricey. You have to rent equipment, hire guides, get to out-of-the-way locales, pay admission fees, etc. But second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s exhausting. Though we’re pretty fit (and will be even more so once this hiking book is complete), we’re not crazy ultrasport people. We don’t have mad endurance. Our bodies just aren’t going to tolerate being pushed to extremes day after day. (Not to mention the kind of mood I’d probably end up in because I can just imagine how freaking hungry I’d be!)

So what we need to find is balance. Awesome outdoor adventures mixed with relaxing days in small towns or even busy days in big cities (but where we’d get a chance to shower and sleep in a bed). Yet, every time I flip a guidebook to a section about a city, I find myself uninterested. Church, museum, plaza, yada yada yada. Maybe it’s just the way they’re described. Maybe these guidebooks simply fail to capture the spirit I’m looking for. I mean, I’m not anti-city. I love New York. I love Berlin. I’ve had a great time in Stockholm, Rome, Paris, London, Dublin… But so far, I haven’t stumbled across a city description that gets my soul soaring the way the descriptions of the wild places do.

Maybe when I get to the Argentina book and Buenos Aires? I’ll let you know.

But for now, you let me know. Do you move to the beat of the city or the rhythm of nature? What is the best city you’ve ever visited, and what is it that makes a city fabulous for you? Come on, give me some reasons to start adding some cities to my list.