As I kayak through floating trails of excrement, I am bolstered by the memory of a local woman named Than, 35, whom I met squatting on the rocky shore near the town of Myitkyina. Her wiry forearms were burnished a coffee brown from the sun, and she wore a dirty sarong around her tiny waist. All day long she raised a mallet over a pile of rocks before her, cracking them into halves, then into fourths, to sell to the roadbuilders. Her two-year-old son, naked and with a bloated belly, stood nearby; her two daughters, ages three and twelve, helped gather the rocks. I asked how long she'd been doing such work. "Ten years," she said. There was no bitterness in her voice. Just the crack of her mallet on a new stone.
Since 1996 the Myanmar government has sponsored a campaign to encourage tourism, but there's been much debate in the West about traveling to this country. Suu Kyi advises against it, arguing that tourism funds the government's oppression; other Burmese exiles believe tourism creates much needed jobs for local people and provides foreign witnesses to internal conditions. Shortly after I'd arrived in the country, I shared a taxi with a stranger in Yangon who suddenly started telling me about his support for Suu Kyi and his expectations of the collapse of the country's military leadership. There seems to be a need among people to talk to someone—anyone—from outside the country. To tell the world about a hidden, deep suffering. Unwittingly, I find that I am viewed less as a tourist than as a witness.
As I pull my kayak onto the shore of the tiny village of Myitkangyi, children gather nearby, mouths agape. When I take a step toward them, they run off, screaming. I think of how I must look—bush hat and sunglasses, my face coated with white sunscreen. I remove as much of it as I can. A sole child remains, a toddler of about three, who, to judge from the screams of an older boy hiding behind a boat, hasn't the good sense to avoid strange white women arriving in kayaks. When I turn my back, the older boy leaps out and seizes the child, dragging him to safety.
The children look skinny; UNICEF reports 32 percent of Burmese children under five years of age are malnourished. I take out a bag of candy from my backpack and hold it out to the children. "I come in peace," I say. An adult approaches and encourages them to snatch a piece of candy. Before long, my bag is empty.
Myitkangyi is a primitive village. It has no electricity or running water, no motorized vehicles, no telephones or paved roads. Everyone lives in thatch huts on stilts, and the only ground transportation is by oxcart. Like most villages along the river, it is self-sufficient, with its own blacksmith, carpenter, and wheelwright.
I pitch my tent on a sandbank across from the village, and adults wander over to sit on their haunches and study me for hours. When I eat dinner in the boat, word goes out. Soon a large crowd has gathered, sighing in unison as I open a can of Coke, exclaiming if I drop something.
The local fishermen are a bit more used to outsiders. A few scientists have recently come to the tiny village to witness an unusual ritual: using dolphins to help catch fish. To San Lwin, 42, a fisherman who shows me the practice the following morning, there is nothing remarkable about this. His father taught him to fish with dolphins when he was 16; the practice has been passed down for generations. Lwin's face, bronzed and creased from the sun, expresses a sort of reverence as he studies the silver waters for sight of a dolphin fin. "If a dolphin dies," he says, "it's like my own mother has died."
We reach the area of the river where Lwin says the dolphins congregate. Classified as critically endangered, only about 70 Irrawaddy dolphins are left in the river that gives them their name. Lwin and the other men tap small, pointed sticks against the sides of their canoes and make high-pitched cru-cru sounds. Several gray forms, gleaming in the sunlight, arch through the water toward us. One with a calf by her side spits air loudly through her blowhole.