How to lose your laptop but hopefully not your mind in a remote town very far away from home

By Julian Hattem | May 30, 2017 | Myanmar

When the thing that I had feared the most happened, it came without warning. I was in Mrauk U, the center of an ancient kingdom in western Myanmar that at its peak 500 years ago attracted travelers from as far as Portugal and Japan. I was in town for a total of two days and two nights to explore the history of the place and its potential to help calm ethnic tensions that have splintered Myanmar’s Rakhine state. For the most part, I had gotten the story. I spent the day on the back of a motorbike bouncing from temple to temple as my tour guide/translator explained the ancient history and the sputtering attempt at growing the tourist economy. I interviewed the head of the local museum and chatted with the owner of a small cafe. Things were working out.

Back at the hotel, I had settled in for the least compelling part of a journalist’s work: transcribing hours and hours of interviews, rewinding and pausing repeatedly my digital audio files to turn them into text.

And then it happened. The screen on my laptop froze. I forced a restart but when it came back on the reassuring “bwong” of Apple’s iOS quickly gave way to a blinking question mark inside a folder image on a gray screen. It stayed like that, blinking at me tauntingly. I knew that it meant an internal problem had disconnected the hard drive from the rest of the machine. It had happened to me once before, two months ago, but could be fixed in an afternoon by a technician with a secondhand part for $30. Except that every repairman was hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

As you might expect, I panicked. I paced back and forth in my hotel room. I hyperventilated only a little. I cursed quite a lot.

I went through my options, looking for certified technicians in places I would be visiting over the next two weeks. There were none. I could seriously alter my travel plans to stay longer in major cities with repair shops where I had connecting flights -- Yangon, Bangkok, Dhaka -- but that would throw everything off and upend my anxiously mapped-out schedule. And who knew if they would be able to fix it in a day or a week?

Fortunately, all of the audio files were still on my recorder. All of my photos still on my camera. I had my notebook. After an hour of panic and two large beers at a bar next door, I resolved to trudge on. I would be two weeks computer-less but could get it fixed when I got home and write up my stories there. It would be a delay, but fingers crossed nothing more. I could transcribe interviews (and write this blog post) on my phone instead. A new friend let me use her computer to transfer my audio files to a thumb drive as a backup. And I rationalized: compared to the people I was interviewing who had everything taken away from them in waves of violence, this was not a serious problem. Nothing would be lost except for time.

And so my laptop became a paperweight, resting heavily in my backpack on flights and taxi rides through sweltering southeast Asian cities. So too did the small pile of DVDs I had brought with me, to pass the time in lonely hotel rooms far from home.

I did what work I could on my phone and tried to map out a plan for how to finish once mylaptop was operational again. I read. I watched TV. In a hotel room in Sittwe, Myanmar, I got a single channel, which was connected to the TV in the lobby and changed programming whenever the staff down there switched channels. Usually it was Burmese soap operas or Bollywood films I couldn't understand, but there were moments of familiar Hollywood comfort: the final 30 minutes of “Elysium,” a snippet of “Magic Mike XXL,” the entirety of “Cast Away” late on a Tuesday evening. 

I had planned well for my trip. I'd arranged to spend at least one night in six different cities across three countries, and so far had not encountered a hiccup or serious delay. But it was the thing I had counted on the most -- the thing that, along with my passport, phone and wallet, I triple-checked before I left each room -- that had failed me.

Who knew, but it turned out to be eminently manageable.

Still, I had brought along four seasons of “Game of Thrones” and wasn't even halfway finished. I wonder what happens to Arya Stark.

View All Posts By Julian Hattem

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