Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stage 4 - Connecting Cultures

Today's stage was less about logging additional miles on mud-clogged trails in the quest for drawing that many steps closer to finishing the 250 KM journey, and was instead more about a small rural community celebrating what they have achieved and where they hope to be going next. Stage 4 ended in the town of Ta Van, Vietnam, a small village that is home to 700 people who primarily work amongst the terraced rice paddys of the Sapa Valley. But on this special day, the town swelled in size to several thousand as local ethnic tribes from around the valley (and some funny looking and very muddy foreigners) gathered in Ta Van for one of their biggest festivals of the year. Lastly, it was also the day that Ta Van looked ahead and made a big leap forward by utilizing technology as an investment in the community's future growth and prosperity.

Making your way to the festival grounds required ingenuity, skill, and a bit of balance to traverse the chilly waters of the river, but most found the make-shift bamboo bridge an acceptable choice. Approaching the gathering crowds you could sense the excitement. People chatted away in an array of ethnic dialects, music could be heard off in the distance, and colorful accessories were on full display to commemorate the day. Young families picked out their fortunes from a dazzling palate of colored notes hanging from a tree. Inpromptu markets were springing up to sell special desserts and treats, some of which looked strikingly similar to colored easter eggs.

Ta Van was a sea of color. The ethnic tribes dawn their traditional clothes on most days but everyone was looking their best and brightest for the festival. The most vivid colors were to be seen at the dance competition. Dance Teams from each representative ethnic group, and one from a local village just across the border from neighboring China, was invited to perform.

Bright colored sashes and ornamental flowers accentuated the flowing movements of each of the teams' routines. Some teams incorporated live horns and drums into their performance to the delight of the onlooking crowd. This festival, rich in tradition, pays tribute to the past and celebrates the present. What followed later in the afternoon set the stage for Ta Van's future.

For the last 10 months, the rural and isolated community of Ta Van has been utilizing one of the most advanced technologies currently available. Ta Van is one of the first places in the world to be a pilot site for Wi-MAX technology, which brings broadband Internet connectivity wirelessly without the need for fiber optic cables. To explain Wi-MAX, it is easier to think of it as Wi-Fi on steroids, whereas a person today using Wi-Fi in their local Starbucks can enjoy wireless connectivity within a range of about 300 feet, but with Wi-MAX the coverage area can stretch to several kilometers and is perfect for outlying areas where wire or cable infrastructure is absent or infeasible. In the photo above, you can see a satelite receiver dish, which is pulling down broadband from an orbiting satellite in outer space. That broadband Internet access is then parsed over the entire village of Ta Van via Wi-MAX, so that everyone in the community has continuous access to the Internet at anytime, anywhere, and without wires.

Local villagers of Ta Van are using the Internet to connect them to the rest of the world. The traditional pillars of the community are now connected. The provincial government office now has ways to link more effectively with the capital in Hanoi as well as to the people of Ta Van. The school is connected and teachers are using the web to research and create content to improve and enliven their lesson plans. The healthcare clinic uses the Internet to help research appropriate medications and help with introductory diagnosis, since there is not always a certified doctor on-site. Farmers are using the Web to check on spot prices for their crops and to see upcoming weather forecasts which will help them plan. Guest House operators in Ta Van are using their connectivity to entice tourists to come visit their beautiful village, while access to email, blogs, and photo uploads are attractive features for travelers and help convince these tourists to stay longer in Ta Van, thus helping the local economy.

The next step in Ta Van's evolution in the use of technology to invest in its future took place on this very special day. I was honored to say a few words during the donation of 10 Classmate PCs for the school in Ta Van and was joined by the Mayor of Ta Van and representatives of the major ethnic people that make Ta Van so special. The Mayor and I had met several times over the course of last year and even though he can speak no English and my vocabulary of Vietnamese words is extremely limited, we always have an ability to understand each other. He is a progressive man who strives to give the people of his village a chance to grow. He's been so delighted with how his people have taken to using the Internet and believe that now giving the local children a chance to have their own durable PCs will open up even more opportunities for them. He understands that it is Ta Van's youth that are the future of his town and he was equally grateful and excited by how these systems can be put to positive use by the kids.

The smiles of the children are all beautiful and touch you in so many ways. The racers, volunteers, and media that have been a part of this race over the last several days have all experienced it. These smiles contain the unfiltered and unrestrained joys of the moment, and yet they also act as a window into the aspirations and dreams that all kids must have. Over the course of this endurance event thus far, the racers have taken joy in being able to stay connected to loved ones and family via the Internet; drawing inspiration, motivation, and encouragement from each human interaction that is contained within the digital bits and bites. No one thought they would be able to have this access in the rural outposts of northern-most Vietnam but through technology and partnerships, we've been able to make that happen. It has been a surprise for most to learn that the agriculture-based community of Ta Van also has benefited from having access, and has been doing so for the last 10 months. What has been learned here is that "Being Connected" is not an expectation or privilege solely of citizens of prosperous developed nations, but is rather a basic and intrinsic human desire that is shared amonst every single one of us. Connecting cultures surely enriches us all.


At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's so cool to be able to see such colorful display of dances and festival during your visit there!


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