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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Lights out

“In order to make a beehive, you first have to…”

The lights flicker out. The sound of rain pounding against the windowsill is overpowered by the strong clap of thunder still echoing through the mountain valley.

Shushu, my host “uncle” during my stay here in a small Tibetan village outside of Danba County, Western Sichuan, casually gets up from his stool. Despite the darkness, he makes his way over to the corner of the room and rummages through a small pile of bags until he finds a long, thick candle. He fishes out a lighter from his pocket and lights the candle before placing it on a stool in front of me. Unfazed, he continues his lesson:

“First you have to find the right piece of wood, usually a trunk of a tree. Then, you can use an ax to hollow it out.”

Once he finishes explaining his “how to” guide on making the perfect beehive, he peers around the eerily lit room and proclaims it’s time for bed.

I fumble for the toothbrush on the table near my bed and carefully tip toe outside to quickly brush my teeth. Before settling into bed, I instinctively plug in my phone to charge, only to be reminded that there is still no power in the house. I nervously look at the right hand corner of the screen: 12% remaining. “There is no way I will be able to wake up at 7 A.M. without an alarm,” I think to myself. Despite my worries, I’m left with no other option. I feel around for the covers on the bed and slowly crawl in.

The sun shines through the window adjacent to my bed, naturally waking me out of a deep sleep. I roll over to check my phone, but am disappointed to see a stagnant, black screen.

I hear a consistent thumping noise coming from the kitchen. Ayi, my host “aunt,” is already up chopping vegetables for today’s breakfast. I place my water bottle on the counter next to the kettle, just as I had done each day before. I eagerly pick up the kettle to fill my water bottle with sanitized, hot water, but sadly not one drop remains. Ayi smiles, picks up my empty bottle, and moves it over to the large stove in the middle of the room. She uncovers the large wok that sits comfortably on top of the fire, fueled only by firewood collected near the house and wood scraps from Shushu’s beehive-making the day before, to reveal the boiling water inside.

The rest of the day seems the same as any other. We eat breakfast together and wash the dishes using the hot water from the wok. I watch Ayi milk the cow and feed the pigs. I go with Shushu to look at his already completed hives, now swarming with life and building up sweet honey inside. Despite the entire village losing all electricity and cellphone service, the villagers easily find ways to gather. I sit with Ayi at a village “women’s meeting,” where all the women of the village skillfully eat sunflower seeds at an incredible pace, crack jokes, and chat about village gossip, such as what its like having a group of young foreigners come to visit. At night, we sit by the candlelight chatting and cracking open walnuts to offer each other as snacks.

Gradually, the longing for my phone fades away. I no longer pay attention to the time of day or worry about who may be calling or texting me. Life moves on without a hitch.

It has now been almost 3 days since the power first went out, and I can’t help but reflect on how little the villagers rely on electricity in their daily lives. While I mourned the death of my phone battery, Ayi and Shushu adjusted to life without power with ease. They simply reverted back to how things were done before power was installed in the village a short 20 years ago.

Growing up in such an electronically-dependent world, it is refreshing to be in a place that so highly values interacting with others and staying present rather than Instagram posts and Facebook updates. I am frightened to think about how easy access to electricity controls my daily life and how often I use technology as a distraction from the world around me. I’ve come to understand that oftentimes the most important connections in life aren’t made in a virtual reality, but instead are made by being present.