On Sunday mornings, I go walk around Yangon on my own. I steadily work through a pile of self-guided tours I downloaded. In the harsh sunlight, I shade my phone with my hand, squint at the map, make wrong turns, make right turns. Every road here is strange so there is no real difference between the two.
During lunch hour, I duck and dive around the impromptu sidewalk cafes. The thick scent of curries and vegetables and the intent faces of people bent over them. People drink much more soup here than I’d think, and every place has free-flowing black tea, piping in a kettle: unexpected in the sticky weather. But then again I can predict hardly anything here. I find a doorway garlanded in plants decorated with neatly impaled eggshells. A Telugu church. A book from 1964 talking about this age of science, predicting the next scientific revolution in “psychical connections” between physical bodies in space. Art galleries lie up rickety flights of stairs, collections of strange, explosive modern creations speaking of a shifting nation to the buzzing air-conditioning.
I wander down strange alleys and watch the shapes of doorways and buildings. The colonial crumbles here openly and strikingly—the old trading centers and banks—and the city fills in the gaps around with new bars and dusty offices. I peer into entrances of shadowy offices and cobwebbed elevators, trying to decipher the way in. I stop and take photos of everything: light through a lattice and strawberries on the pavement, fallen leaves, arrayed keys. This is Asia and I have been here before but every piece of the city is fresh and I feel alive to it all—conscious of my displacement and the shameless curiosity it inspires. I am new here, I keep saying.
Everything here is novel. I am in Yangon for an internship with a company working in building solar mini-grids in rural areas. Before this, my experience with renewable energy was limited to my AP environmental science curriculum and a formulaic essay on wind energy from my sophomore year. It’s my first time working in an office, first time living somewhere that’s empty as often as it’s not.
I am trying to get around the shape of it. Not to presume to understand this place, but to wrap my head around its curves—to be able to pick out individual words in the fast-fired Burmese even if I don’t understand their meaning. When a young child asks if I am Myanmar, I have to laugh out loud. All I share in common with this country is brown skin and a tolerance for spice.
In my work I keep comparing India and Myanmar, doing research projecting Myanmar’s solar market and the regulations needed to ensure the growth of decentralized renewable power generation. As regional neighbors, there are obvious similarities—a booming population and economy, a need for privatization. But what keeps striking me over and over is how different they are. India has never been under military rule; population densities are far higher; Buddhists dominate Myanmar.
They are different countries. And that’s the shockingly novel statement of the century but when traveling there’s always such a temptation for comparison—to call one place a “cleaner India”, or “a mixture of India and China”, when really all that does is brush over the strikingly individual history of the place. Comparisons are a way of rationalizing our understanding of things. I’ve been using them to argue points about patterns Myanmar’s energy industry might fall into—widespread abandonment of community-organized mini-grids, for example, like what happened in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. But I’ve also seen how much further you have to go from them to reach the deep situational understanding that can effect change.
In another breaking headline, I’ve realized nothing has an easy fix. Electrifying Myanmar—a nation three-fifths in the dark—will be a project of tremendous funds and effort and can stem only from intimate knowledge of the country: the need to accommodate monasteries in electrification plans, for example, or the political situation around electricity tariffs. The founder of this company arrived here four years ago—today, their mini-grids have just begun to move beyond the pilot stage.
I have so much to learn here. When I research, I begin from base zero and accumulate a document of notes with acronyms and names I don’t get: SPD, peak power, relay substations. As the outline of it fades into view and I can begin to break it apart, there’s a tremendous sense of excitement, and also a thrill that yes, this work has been done, yes, people are working on renewables with renewed force, yes, a move towards a low-carbon future is in force, yes, there’s still far to go, but yes, yes, yes, we’re moving there. I’ve found an optimistic pragmatism in my two weeks here missing in conservation. For one, this can make money, and conservation burns it—natural gas, oil, coal still have a role in fulfilling shortfall, and you can’t deny them that place in the short-term, but look, photovoltaic costs plummet yearly and this isn’t a sideline moonshot, sustainability is a viable competitor.
It’s thrilling when I can put together an argument for decentralized energy, or privatization, terms I only had a passing familiarity with days earlier: the adrenaline of the accumulation of knowledge. I can feel my world widening before me. I’m not an expert by any means, but I know I can have a conversation about these things now, can navigate where I couldn’t before. Can make pasta on my own, can discuss the policy needed to encourage the renewable mini-grid sector, can understand the respectful epithet to use when addressing someone. My horizon stretches just a little bit wider.
And I don’t know enough, but I think I’m starting to understand what I don’t know. Or what I don’t know I don’t know. Or what I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know and I’m surrounded by alleyways and side streets, and the path to every one is brightly lit.