50% report

Dear Watson HQ,

David Waggonner is a New Orleans-based architect who works closely with Dutch urban planners as he tries to prevent the horrors of Katrina from reoccurring in his city. About a year ago, I had a phone call with Waggonner while my application was under review and completely out of my control. Although a significant amount of time has passed, I think about that phone call often. He spoke about his work with enthusiasm. His passion for addressing the risks cities face inspired me. Writing this 50% report, a remark he made—in his soft-spoken and amiable southern drawl—came to mind: “You know, the problem with starting in the Netherlands is that it’s like eating the icing off the cake. You’re doing the best part first.”

After the Netherlands—where flood protection is built so flawlessly into the cityscape its presence goes unnoticed by the majority of Dutchmen—anywhere could be seen as a letdown. The Dutch have been managing water for 800 years; Argentina has only been a country since the end of the 19th century. There aren’t architects and planners thinking about climate adaptation; there is no flood protection infrastructure to sketch.

That does not mean that I haven’t had an important three months here. I’ve learned heaps about a new country, a new culture, and a new a city. It’s been a powerful experience. In fact, spending time here only complicated and expanded my insights on the intersection of cities and climate.  Living in Buenos Aires has reinforced the notion that there is no universal solution to these climate problems; the problems that need to be addressed are as diverse as the geography, cultures, and histories of the cities themselves.

The Netherlands is the northernmost country I’m visiting and Argentina is the southernmost. In many regards, the two countries are just about as polarized on this issue as their geographies. The Dutch have implemented projects that protect their citizens for the risk of a once in 10,000 years flood event. The government of Argentina struggles to provide vast swaths of Buenos Aires with basic amenities like light and water.

The Argentine government has neglected to upgrade the city’s faulty power grid and supply does not nearly match the demand of the growing metropolis. The city has been struggling with power outages during one of the hottest summers on record. Many Porteños spent their Christmas and New Years holidays in the dark, boiling in 40-degree (Celsius) heat. Riots have ensued as a result. I’ve listened to the negative public opinion of the city’s direction; I’ve witnessed street blockages and the riots. Buenos Aires has showed me how climate problems can be exacerbated by government mismanagement.

Government inaction not only causes hot problems, but also wet ones. When it rains, water piles up on the curbside rather than flowing through the runoff sewers. The existing system hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.

To complicate these problems, Argentina has an unstable economy, and is tapering towards a financial crisis. How can Argentine citizens plan ahead and invest in climate adaptation, how can they pay a premium for risks that are predicted to occur in the next 50 years, if they are not able to save their income from one year to the next. Inflation rates are as high as 40%. Prices change every couple weeks. There’s a feeling of instability.

I am more personally affected by the black market exchange rate. The Argentine valuation of the U.S. dollar is about 150% of the official ‘pegged’ government exchange rate. I’ve had to exchange currency behind the veil of drawn blinds and within the security of double chain doors and security cameras. These concepts are so foreign to me having grown up where I did. I learned a lot from adjusting to a cash economy with numerous exchange rates for a few months. But I’ve learned more from living among people who have this tattered economy as their reality.

The level of poverty in Buenos Aires was new to me. (I’m sure extreme levels of poverty will become more exposed to me in the next six months as I enter the megacities of the east). One of my first days in South America, I saw a man sitting on the curb on the fringe of a Buenos Aires’ villa, a shantytown community squatting on Retiro station’s railroad property. He finished a plastic bottle of coke and threw it onto the street. I knew that the bottle had a good chance of flowing into the Rio de la Plata River, one of the most polluted in the world. Had this been at Bowdoin, I might have immediately confronted this man, aggravated by his action. But, being vocally crippled near a rough neighborhood, I kept my silence. Here, I was also more sympathetic.  How can someone care to be a steward of our planet, if the world hasn’t necessarily been a steward of him? I have no idea what his background was, but I knew for sure that he lived within a world of poverty and destitution that I have only really ever experienced within the binding of books. Is environmentalism only a concern of the privileged? How do we balance economic progress and environmental stewardship?

Learning a new language was one of the main themes of my past three months and one of the most rewarding parts of my experience here.

I got to Buenos Aires a couple days after I sent in my first quarter report. On the plane ride here, I sat next to a very pleasant couple from Buenos Aires. At least they seemed pleasant. I couldn’t engage in conversation, past telling them my name and proclaiming that I was ‘good!’ Standing out on the street for the first time, I remember feeling as though the world was spinning faster than it normally does. ‘Is this just a physical sensation of being tipped upside-down in the Southern Hemisphere?’ I joked to myself. I was hyperaware of signs, voices, and traffic patterns. It was all unknown and misunderstood; everything was curious. It was like being a child once again.

Being such an outsider teaches you humility that I would imagine is hard to learn elsewhere. I was raised to be capable– if not excel– in social, physical, academic arenas. When I came into Buenos Aires, I didn’t have the vocabulary to buy fruit and vegetables. The simplest everyday tasks were challenges. I tried to take on the tasks completely unabashed and eager to learn. Along the way, I gained important lessons in patience and humility, everyday was a blank page and I saw the world with a newfound attention to detail.

In my first couple weeks, I felt that it was especially important to try to rebuild (‘re’ is generous) my Spanish skills. I took classes for my first three weeks here. Now, after three months of immersion, travel and time spent living with an Argentine family, I’m proud to say that the world has stopped spinning so fast.  Earlier today, I had a conversation with a Columbian man on the 152 bus. We talked about the differences between Buenos Aires and Bogotá. I learned more than I had ever imagined by immersing myself in a new place. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any level of Spanish fluency, but I’m capable of asking questions, stating my opinions, and recently I’ve even been able to make some people laugh. Well—I’ve made people laugh since the first day, but recently I have a feeling they are laughing with, not at me. I know for a fact that if the October David met January David, he would greet me with a high five and a pat on the back. I’ve learned more than I had imagined and exceeded my expectations. I count that as a success.

The second theme of this second quarter was actually ‘experiencing’ the science of climate change I had only ever read about before. In Buenos Aires, I’ve lived in a heat wave. I spent sleepless nights, rolling around half-naked above my sheets in sweltering heat and dreaming of getting buried in fresh snow.

I stared down three separate tongues of the Southern Ice Field, the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. I felt the glacial wind knock me back onto my heels. I traveled the length of the ice field. The first tongue I saw was eight hours, and 900km from the third one. All three were connected by one great spine through the Andes. I experienced the size.

I witnessed a calving event that made the rocks I was standing on rumble. The breaking ice emitted a minute-long growl, like thunder’s sound waves looming over me for an eerily long time. I looked out over the glacier expecting to see a mountain of ice tumbling into the lake, but only saw car sized-boulders rolling off the top that looked as insignificant as pebbles. Something as relatively minute as that had such sheer force. I saw the size, volume, and power of the glaciers in the flesh.

Traveling through Patagonia was enlightening and inspiring. I traveled from Buenos Aires by bus, so was able to put a scale on the world that you can’t achieve by air travel. I was moved by the magic of traveling, staying in 10 different places in 12 nights, meeting families, shopkeepers, seeing the country outside of the capital. I felt like I was on the frontier. I was able to read more than ever before and taught myself how to juggle. After the Netherlands, which isn’t much bigger than New York City, Argentina introduced me to the wonders of travel.

Glacier spotting in Patagonia, I had an internal moral debate about my plans for January. I was accepted to paint in an artist residency in Buenos Aires, but the only caveat was that it was expensive, so much so that I would have had to be much more cautious about my budget in the second half of the year. Traveling introduced me to a bohemian way of doing things and taught me to take advantage of new acquaintances fresh opportunities that are presented ‘on the road’. Through connections, I found the owner of a ranch in San Martin de los Andes who invited me out to stay with her and paint in her barn. The opportunity turned out to be fantastic.

For two weeks, I lived with a family. It was a homestay where I learned more about the Argentine way of life than I would have staying at the artist residency, likely living in an apartment alone and working in a international setting studio space. The ranch was 30 miles removed from Internet, cell service, and groceries. It doubled as a lunchtime restaurant so the staff there was young and welcoming. It was remarkable, the food exquisite. It was certainly one of the highlights of my year and I was able to be productive painting and drawing, disciplined with my homemade artist residency.  If that stretch was the highlight of these months, yesterday I experienced a low.

Yesterday, while crossing the dauntingly wide twelve lane boulevard, 9 de Julio, I witnessed a collision between a car and a motorcycle. You usually need to cross in three segments. I was standing on a middle island when I saw a motorcycle speeding through trying to catch a yellow light before it turned red. My eyes followed the speeding bike. I saw a car illegally maneuver out of one lane into the path of the bike. Time slowed as I watched the bike collide with the driver door, ripping the handlebars off the bike and tossing the man like a ragdoll twelve feet into the air and land on his head. His sneaker flew about five lanes and slapped the tarmac as the busiest and loudest road in the city fell silent. I almost threw up as I thought I just witnessed someone die. He lay on the ground, but after a couple minutes began to shake his leg. There were masses of people around, many trying to help. Knowing I was useless I continued towards home, unsure of the outcome. That experience was shocking and rattling. It was a reminder of the unpredictability and fragility of life. It was a gruesome reminder of risks and vulnerabilities that can appear in a flash.

As in my 25% report, I’m writing to you at a point of transition. I’m starting to solidify plans for Mumbai half a world away. I’m excited for what’s yet to unfold, but I’ve also been nostalgic for the past: not only the distant past with friends and family in the U.S, but also time from earlier on this year. I’ve been ecstatic traveling, but at times also longing for stability. I assume the roller coaster of thoughts and feelings are natural, and right, and probably can only enrich my experience.

Thanks for everything.

Best wishes,

David

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One thought on “50% report”

  1. Fantastic. Loved reading it. And yes your feelings are absolutely normal. One of the reasons I settled in Barcelona and took a job was because after 3 months of traveling, I just couldn’t absorb anymore. I had to start giving back – somehow, somewhere. You’re already at 6 months so you’re going great. And you’ve had the opportunity to take time to do things like paint. So you’ll be okay for the long haul. Congrats hijo mio!

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