Category Archives: The Netherlands

75%

 

My first night in Mumbai, I woke, startled, at dawn by the echoed sounds of prayer calls. My preconceptions associated those throaty songs with fears and unknowns of the Middle East. I was staying in Agripada, on the 10th floor of an apartment building in a Muslim district, away from the cushioned tourist center of South Mumbai. I got myself out of bed and looked out the window. Orange lights glowed through the thick, hot tropical fog, and the city was beginning to bustle even though the sun had barely broken the horizon. I’ll always remember that anticipatory fear—a feeling that will may be hard to replicate. I thought of snowy New Hampshire: I am a long, long way from home. I felt a little bit like I was looking out over a movie set, out over a fantastical, fictional world. 

My voyage to India from Argentina, via London, had reinforced the notion I was living within the bindings of a storybook. In the back of the British Airways 747, I looked out over the snowcapped mountains of Northern Afghanistan. It was the land of Al Qaida I’d seen only on CNN, the mountainous pass that Hosseini describes crossing in The Kite Runner. The landscape was stunning: snow capped ridges were dark in shadow besides pink triangles of lights on their peaks, lit by the setting sun. A few hours later, at midnight, the plane landed in Mumbai, then taxied along the gate of an airport wall. From my perch in the plane, I could see over the wall and into the Annawadi Slum, an underground world of poverty, police brutality, conflict, and tension that I had been introduced to a few weeks before when I started Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There it was. Right in front of my eyes. I could even look right inside some of the corrugated metal shacks and see the life going on, as it had for decades before, and as it will for the rest of my life. 

Before I had arrived, what was in books, on television or in movies was all I knew of India. Three months ago, India existed only in my mind and it was only a small, distilled idea. It was ‘the over there’  country with more than a billion people living in crowded un-environmentally friendly cities. In the past weeks, India has become real. I’ve unlocked a box. 

My conscience has swelled with the sights, smells, sounds, stories and feelings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Islamic architecture, slums, the history of the East India Company and the British colonization, the history of the Mughal Empire, Indian traffic rules (or lack there of), new economies, labor pools, and unthinkable jobs and so much more. I’ve tapped into a country that’s as rich in culture, language and history as the entirety of Europe.  As Dr. Anurag Danda, the head of Climate Adaptation for the World Wildlife Fund, India put it to me: “People were amazed and excited when the EU happened, but hold on, we in India did that 50 years earlier. There are changes as big as national differences every 200 miles as you travel by ground across India.” 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the vulnerability of Mumbai. Water knocks on three sides of the Manhattan-shaped island city. Every square foot of the city is used for something, and the majority of it is paved over and built up. Then 20 million people are packed in. Building projects—often without proper permits or on environmentally sensitive land—dot the cityscape, growing up, up, up to combat the demand for space and subsequent expensive rent. “Lots of development projects,” I said, nodding at the cranes and walls of glass above me while talking casually to a wise, english-speaking old man on the street. “Development suggests progress,” he replied, “Lots of building.” 

It’s not just large scale high-rise projects that make Bombay’s growth so obviously visible. Outside of the apartment I was staying in, shelters would grow daily on the sidewalks as migrants looking for opportunities in the city would drag traffic dividers from the roadways together to make three walls and cover the walls with a tarp to make a roof. Each day there would be a new conglomeration of people calling the sidewalk home. As you round the blocks, you can walk on a real-life timeline of these shelters. They change from barren walled shelters into homes, with two 5 foot floors, electricity, and re-wired cable television. 

Land in between rail lines is farmed, sidewalks become foundations for temporary homes, and the homeless find shelter within concrete breakwater structures along the coastline.  There’s an amazing resiliency to the urban poor in India. They make lives and homes for themselves in conditions that most in the Western world would give up on. 

There’s a remarkable and innovative use of the lack of space, but there’s more space than there once was. Bombay was originally seven islands. The British reclaimed the land and filled in the bays between the swamps. The lowest lying land (what was once sea) floods each year during the monsoon, sometimes with devastating consequences to the urban poor who live there. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, is one of those areas. 

Among the most pressing problems that Mumbai must address—navigating through the corruption of the city and national government—sea level rise doesn’t make the list, The Energy and Resource Institute’s (TERI) associate director, Dr. Anjali Parasnis told me. To her, sea level rise is a problem of plenty, left for rich countries like the Netherlands, United States or Singapore to deal with. If an earthquake or a tidal wave hits, what will Mumbai do, she said, there’s nothing we can do when disaster strikes. 

But I disagree with her point of view, respectfully of course. Sea level rise isn’t like those other disasters. It’s characterized by a slow onset. There are low-cost measures and initiatives that the city can undertake today to save money and protect human lives in the future. Climate adaptation doesn’t mean building a Dutch-style Maeslant Barrier. For example, there’s huge value to knowing what areas are susceptible to flooding and distributing that information to people who live in those areas. 

Mumbai seems to have this thrusting growth, an energy of its own. It gives off an essence that it is impossible to tame, plan, direct, or control. It’s a disheartening place in which to be environmentally conscious. Trash fills every nook and cranny; the river is an open sewer. It’s a dense and complicated system that’s described, by many I’ve met all over the country, as a jungle. 

I left the jungle and took a train down the east coast of India to Kochi, a port city in the South Indian state of Kerala.  Water tapers on the edge of the whole place; it has a Venetian aesthetic. Serendipitously, I stumbled into an artist residency there while desperately searching for a bathroom to tend to a stomach virus. Once relieved, I spoke to the young woman working there and I found myself a nice place to stay and paint for the next week. It was a good warmup for spending the next three weeks in Varanasi at Kriti Gallery. 

I vastly enjoyed spending March in Varanasi; it was great to have personal space, build a temporary nest, and make some artwork reflecting on the first two-thirds of my year.  Varanasi, although not a coastal city, has astonishing flood problems during the monsoon season. The river level rises 20 feet at its record height. You can see plastic debris and vegetation along the telephone wires overhead when walking along the riverfront. 

Varanasi is one of the holiest Hindu cities and the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It’s a cultural marvel, unlike any other place I’ve ever known. I will never think that a place is crowded, loud, dirty, violent or hectic ever again. Herds of buffalo start traffic jams on the dusty streets, where symphonic waves of bikes, motorcycles, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional car mesh into one. It feels like everybody is dying in Varanasi. The public cremation fires constantly burn along the riverfront. Death isn’t hidden like it is in the rest of the world, and I felt that personally. While resident, a dear friend lost her father and my grandmother’s life ended after 104 well-lived years.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Kolkata.  A 76-year-old professor, Dr. Asish Ghosh, who is deemed India’s forefather of environmentalism, has taken an interest in my project and has invited me to do research out of a center he started called the Center for Environment and Development. I’ve explored the Sundarban mangrove forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Sundarban plays a crucial role in protecting Kolkata—and Dhaka—against cyclones. It’s a buffer, a natural storm wall, that absorbs the power of hundred and fifty km/hr winds and 40 foot waves. 

In the afternoons, I go to the Maidan, the green space in the middle of the city, and play rugby with the Kolkata Jungle Crows. The Crows have started an incredibly admirable foundation to use rugby to give structure and motivation to impoverished kids. In an environment found nowhere else in the city, the very rich and the very poor interact as friends and teammates. The foundation, funded by donors in the U.K., runs camps and clinics every week in villages. It’s been a pleasure taking part in the program, if only briefly. I get the sense that it means a lot to the players to have a Westerner around who really believes that what they’re doing is important. Rugby is an incredible game. A foundation like the Jungle Crows wouldn’t work with many other sports. 

I feel like I’m doing exactly what I proposed I’d set out to do in Kolkata. It’s a good feeling. 

For all the marvel of the past three months in India, it has been an incredibly isolating place. It’s an amazing irony that in one of the most populated countries in the world, I feel most alone. I really enjoy meals alone to a book or writing down reflections and thoughts, but I’ve largely—with the exception of a few coffee or lunch meet-ups—spent the past three months without the comfort of a peer or a friend my age. I have met fantastic people and become good friends with such people two decades or older than me, but that’s different. 

It’s all part of the experience, though. I travel back to my guesthouse from Crows rugby with a big burly 33-year-old Fijian man who moved to Kolkata to work for an NGO with his wife. (Please appreciate the head-turning caused by the sight of a 23-year-old white man and a big, strong islander both clad in dusty rugby apparel as we go on the Kolkata metro during rush hour). We were chatting about my experience and my life before. You’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices for this year, he said. Yeah, but it’s worth it, I thought without hesitation.  

In India, the poverty and destitution have taken an emotional toll. Seeing kids sitting around a fire at night underneath a freeway.  A baby lying on a blanket on a sidewalk with no sign of parental care in sight. A featureless burned man sitting begging, shielded from the sun underneath an umbrella. A man with tumors covering every inch of his body following me home on his bicycle. These are things you can’t un-see, and at times I wish I had company to grab ahold of or to just debrief with. Before shifting gears and moving to Kolkata, I had a rejuvenating visit from my Dad, one of my top fans and friends. 

Last weekend, I had a bout of Delhi belly that I described in a blog post: “my body decided to rearrange interior decorations and put everything inside, outside in the most violent and abrupt means possible.” 

That was life changing. 

Due to the state department travel warning for Thailand, I’ve changed my itinerary, I’m avoiding Bangkok. Due to the geographical proximity of Dhaka, I inquired about a visa to Bangladesh and was offered a week to quickly visit the country that will produce millions of climate-related refugees. I’ve set up some contacts, and the visit should be a huge value-added addition to my quarter in India. After, I decided to replace Bangkok with Shanghai, the #1 most vulnerable city in the world based off all studies about population and infrastructure there. With only a month-long China visa, I’m going to purchase a round trip ticket through Singapore and maybe I can set up an arrangement in Ho Chi Minh, another delta city in a similar situation to Bangkok. 

So surprised that three reports have come and gone. 

I’m just as excited and thankful as I was on March 15th. I very much look forward to meeting you. Best, David. 

 

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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