Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Travel Map

There it is, everywhere I went in my year of wandering and my bird flies routes.

Click on 'satellite' if you want more than just a vague notion of what is going on. Click here if you would like to see the full size map with markers.

5 June 2007: PDX to MEX
11 September 2007: MEX to BKK

27 September 2007: PHN to BKK
28 September 2007: BKK to DEL
16 December 2007: Bombay to Cochin

13 January 2008: Chennai to BOM

27 January 2008: Bombay to Paris

20 April 2008: Take a train into Italy

12 May 2008: Rome to Cairo
6 June 2008: Bus from Cairo to Israel
14 June 2008: Tel Aviv to Riga, Latvia
15 June 2008: Riga to Stockholm by ferry
24 June 2008: Stocholm to Paris
27 June 2008: Paris to Vancouver BC
Mid July: Bus from Vancouver to Seattle to Boise to Portland
31 July 2008: PDX to BNA
3 August 2008: BNA to PDX
4 August 2008: Fly to San Francisco to begin working.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Return!

So, I am working for Slow Food, and everything is well. Hopefully more will be written about the experience later, but I had my photograph on the front page of the Washing Post on Saturday because of it. If anyone has a copy around, I would love to see it. The website has it online at here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Video Adventure: The Presentation

So, I gave my final presentation on the 28th. Want ten minutes of me explaining what I did over my year? Here it is!

The whole thing cuts off before I get to say that I think more people need to follow the spirit of the Watson... though unlikely to get the cash of it. It's all about exploring and talking to people in a way which helps you learn and learn about learning. And I said thank you. Because I am truly thankful.

I know I spoke too quick. And the photos were to fast. But I rewrote the whole thing the night before - from a ten minute lecture on agricultural politics to a bit more about me - and this is the consequence. How far this former state champion in speech and debate has fallen...

I am still trying to figure out what is going to happen with this blog, but things will continue to trickle in over the next couple of weeks which will be talking about my Watson. Then, who knows?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

If you're going...

Tomorrow the Watson Conference begins, and on Monday I leave for a new life in San Francisco. I will be working there for a month helping prepare for Slow Food Nation. If anyone knows any couches which need a Nathan on them, I would be happy to hear about them.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Final Report

I'm back in my parent's home. I will be applying to jobs as well as writing wrap up posts for the next couple of weeks. My final report is below:

Dearest Watson Foundation,

This past year has been full of adventure, even if of a curious nature. Talking to people about their favorite snack cake, debating the effectiveness of development policy, learning to roll tortillas, or hearing about skyrocketing rates of diabetes in developing nations from those suffering from the disease, I was blessed with the kindness of strangers the world over. Every day was a gift, whether or not I knew where I was going or what I was doing. Every interaction had a potential to teach me something new. The effects this year will have on my career path, my personality, and my view of the world are yet unfathomable – but that there has been an affect on my life is unquestionable.

I think perhaps the most valuable thing I learned during the past year is how easy it is to learn. My topic came from a synthesis of several of my personal interests. When I began my journey, I knew astonishingly little about what I was talking about. I began my trip a student of American history – I had baked, I had worked in farms, I read the news – but that’s it. I have never taken a course on economics – let alone studied development agriculture – yet this all worked out.

I am interested in the way that history gets recorded and the Green Revolution is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century that hasn’t yet developed a dominant narrative; I learned how various groups are trying desperately to get their version of the truth accepted as the official history. I am interested in agriculture and I wanted to spend more time seeing where my food comes from, talk to the people who grow it, and learn how their lives are altered by the rapid pace of change; I learned how similar the struggles faced by farmers around the world are and how diverse the answers to these problems will need to be. I am interested in food and I wanted to spend a year eating, talking to people about what they eat and why; I learned about the importance of food traditions to individuals and how to cook foods I had never eaten before.

Over the past year I have been amazed to see how casual contact with people, organizations, and events can lead to such quick and great acquisition of knowledge. Though I am still no expert, I feel like the opportunities which the Watson Fellowship afforded me have given me perspective and experience that would be virtually impossible to acquire otherwise. While building up to my trip I would sometimes ask myself, ‘Just how is this going to all work out?’ As I went, I was amazed to see that somehow everything just fell into place.

It was fortunate happenstance that I began my project as a matter of personal interest and then watched as it became of greater political import over the past year. As I learned more about my topic, its importance simultaneously became clearer. As my knowledge base grew, the political climate shifted: an intellectual game of cat and mouse.

So much time alone in my head and working towards my passions has certainly changed me as an individual, but the line between the changes in my attitude and my education on this topic can be hard to draw. I began this year optimistic about the challenges we face to produce enough fair, affordable, and nutritious food for people the world over. I am finishing amazed by the variety and size of the struggles which lie ahead. Agricultural development is a shining example of the perils of good intentions – though I found that even among aid programs there are few acts which are truly selfless – and the pain poor foresight can cause. Although what I have seen and done has made me more critical, I am finally feeling informed about my topic and inspired to go out and do something about it. I have realized how simple everyone (including me) wants things to be, and how complicated these situations are in reality.

It was amazing to be able to talk to the scientists who designed the technological changes of the Green Revolution, then be able to talk to the policy makers implementing those changes, to the farmers who were doing the work on the ground, and to the people whose diets have changed because of it – and then to realize that none of these players has ever bothered to talk to all the other stakeholders in the system. I saw the benefits of a liberal arts education which taught me to think beyond rigid boundaries and more importantly, the benefits of having the freedom to actually express that curiosity. I can see how much so many people could gain from taking the time to go out and learn in the manner afforded by the Watson. It seems too many people who I spoke to, some making decisions which are impacting the lives of millions, have gone through their education wearing blinders. In their professional lives, their expertise in their own fields made them believe they didn’t need to look outside their own box. I learned that in order to help people, one needs to talk to people.

I love talking to people. I loved the meetings, run-ins, and meals I shared with such a variety of individuals. I love that I have been given this mundane superpower to talk to people – that prior to my Watson I never would have thought to ask strangers about their lives, opinions, or work – but it now seems like the logical thing to do. Although my Watson is over, my curiosity lives on. The most shocking thing I experienced during this whole trip was the ease with which two people who have no reason to speak can talk for hours. Going into meetings with officials or chatting with my waiter, I was amazed to see how little I needed to talk to have others talk to me. People are looking to tell their story. By just showing up and asking one or two questions, people gladly spoke for hours about whatever they wanted to get out and what they thought they could teach me. It was startling to see how little prompting it took to get people to share stories of their own or frustrations with their lives and work, organizations and situations. It was beautiful to realize how much excitement so many people have for what they do. It was remarkable to walk into the lives of strangers for a few minutes and see them suddenly realize they have a voice.

In this way, rather than making me more talkative, I think my trip gave me the confidence to listen. I didn’t enter this trip with an agenda. I wasn’t seeking to change the world, proselytize, or even try to find a new best friend. I came out to explore and to learn. I became more confident in myself, not in overcoming a fear to speak to strangers, but in the confidence not to feel obligated to always do so. Some of the best learning I did was from sitting back and observing, letting a place and people come to me rather than immediately seeking out information or entertainment. The confidence I gained in my solitude gave me a better chance to connect to others.

Nonetheless, the extent to which I kept myself busy taught me that I am wired to work too hard. It wasn't until my fellowship ended and I was vacationing in Israel that I realized how much I had been pressuring myself to learn. I don't know what was expected of me, but I know what I expected of myself. I thought it was important that I be using as much of my time towards my work as I was able. Because I was always moving forward, I never felt lost. Part of me thinks I should have given myself more freedom to be confused and that I should have pushed myself to be more uncomfortable. I was given the most open ended grant you can imagine and still I pushed myself to work on it like I was doing research for a dissertation. Silly.

The pressures of travel taught me an appreciation for simplicity. I met so many people who, out of necessity, made the most of what little they had. Those I met who had recently adopted a Western ideal of consumption brought to light the absurdity of our lifestyle with their newly acquired habits. My small collection of personal possessions was plenty to make it through a year of varied climes, adding to my confidence that in the future I am going to try to live as simply as possible.

Seeing firsthand how fortunate I am to have control over so many variables in my life has likely been the most inexpressible lesson. Reading about poverty is one thing; speaking to those who struggle to meet their basic needs and rights for food, shelter, and water is another. For years to come I will appreciate how fortunate I am to have security and opportunity; trying to figure out how I can help improve the wellbeing of others will be a lifelong quest.

Finishing my year, I don’t know what is coming next. I have wound down from my Fellowship with a little bit of personal traveling and will soon return to the US to begin planning the next stage of my life. As I have begun to see friends it has been amazing to see how comforting it can be to be with those I know and love. Trying to express the growth which I have experienced in the past year, let alone trying to translate it onto job applications, will be difficult. In some ways I thought of this year as an opportunity to put my toe in the water and ask myself if working towards a more just global food system was the direction I wanted to take my life and career. With all of this behind me, I can definitively say that it is. Finding how I will accomplish this goal is where the next adventure begins


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thoughts on Cairo

I've spent the last four weeks mostly in Cairo. It's an enormous and bustling city with great diversity and quirks. The city is so big it operates independently of and indifferently to its inhabitants. I wouldn't say that I love it, but also don't dislike it, it's been a fine place to be and do some research, so the feeling is mutual. There have been a number of fantastic or noteworthy things here though. Reflections on Cairo:

  • Cairo is a city of cats. Of all the world capitals I have visited in my travels this year (Mexico City, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Delhi, Paris, and Rome) all but Cairo and Bangkok have been cities of dogs. The mutts roam the streets looking for food, fornication, or to cause trouble. The city cats however play a quieter role in city life - peeking out from below mail boxes, grabbing scraps of food dropped along the side walk, or reducing the giant cockroach population. Here, I have easily seen thirty cats for every dog. I am a cat person, and I thoroughly appreciate that this city is too. So dignified.
  • One of my favorite things about Cairo (and probably Egypt as a whole) is the use of hand signals here. While you might think that basic hand signals are universal - there has been a degree of variation throughout my travels. My favorites are here. The sign for getting your check at a restaurant in most places is to pretend you are holding a pen and make a motion as if you were signing your name on the bill. In Egypt apparently that doesn't mean much. Instead you make a hand motion that looks like the 'time out' signal - a sharp chopping onto one hand with the other - as if to say 'cut me off, I'm done.'
  • The other hand signal is to indicate size. In most places you ask for something big by holding up your hands a relatively large distance apart, in Egypt you hold one arm out as if to measure the length of something, then make a chopping motion with the other hand on the pit of your elbow. So much excellent hand chopping.
  • Various forms of purdah or hijab are surprisingly ever-present here. Egypt is seen as one of the more liberal countries in the region - but in two informal surveys (simply counting as I walked from one place to another, once in downtown Cairo, once in the outskirts - a poorer region) I counted 91 out of 100 and 88 of 100 women wearing some sort of veil. I have had very little interaction with women here - comparable, but even less than India - and the few I have spoken or worked with have been in international organizations.
  • The police in Cairo are ever present. Any building which has any significance has several guards posted and a truck or two of extra police ready to swing into action... or sit around eating sunflower seeds. They direct traffic, sleep in plastic chairs, and recently, have begun to enforce law. Returning from a meeting one day I was walking through a back alley and saw a phalanx of clothes racks, covered in brightly colored second-hand polyester shirts, running down the street towards me. Each had a pair of feet rushing the clothes down the alleys further into the small, passageways for an unknown reason. When I came upon the main street - and what is usually a market for used clothing spilling off the sidewalks - it was near deserted - save the policemen in a large pick-up truck pilling every clothes rack they could into the back with their shocked and betrayed owners standing by. I suppose it was some sort of crackdown on the informal markets here - but why this one and why this day was unclear. Since, I have seen several other selective examples of law enforcement... and lots of not law enforcement. Attempts to make people cross the street at crosswalks are nothing but comical.
  • Every country you go to where it's clear you're a tourist and you're in a tourist area, people talk to you, even if English isn't the dominant language . Lots of 'hellos,' in India 'one pencil please' was the refrain from children of any age, caste, or class. In Egypt the phrase is "Welcome to Egypt!" nearly always shouted with bravado - but sometimes as if to attract attention by contrast, barely whispered.
  • I don't like taxis. Never have. As a bike rider, they very much intentionally try to run me down as sport. As a commuter, they invariably charge too much, try to stop places I don't want to go to make a commission, or try to generally destroy my faith in humanity. There's a law here (that must be it...) that if a white person is walking down a street and a taxi drives by - irrespective of if you are walking the other direction down a one-way bridge or the taxi is full of cheap suits and several passengers - they are required to honk. I do my best to ignore. My aversion to getting taxis has meant me walking three or four hours in the midday heat to get to places not serviced by the metro or tram. Take that, taxi! Just wanted to let you know, taxis in Egypt are no exception, no matter how high the mercury rises. (And, re-reading this, that I have become a bitter, old man... apparently.)
  • As I depart from Cairo, I look at the weather forecast: "91. Sand." Yes.

Different Drum

Well, plans change. One of the great things about traveling light and cheap is that when I decided yesterday to change my plans, I could. My Watson Fellowship is officially over today (though I will continue to write up blog entries on parts of my travels not yet explained, independent travel, and conclusions for the next two months). Rather than going back to Italy for ten days as I had initially planned, I am heading over to Israel from the 6 to the 14, then flying to Riga, Latvia staying there for two days, then going by ferry across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, Sweden to visit my ol' friend Johan and celebrate midsummer by doing the frog dance around a maypole. Huzzah.