Jaipur is in Rajasthan, India’s Westernmost state. Rajasthan has become immensely popular on India’s tourist track because of a multi-million dollar effort by the Indian government to promote tourism. But regardless of the efforts, the draw of story-book-quality 17th century palaces and forts is magnetic.
The Amber Fort transports those of us with wild imaginations back to the times of the Mughal empire where sturdy walls were built to protect the royal family from the likes of leopards, snakes, coyotes, and herds of elephants just as much as threats from neighboring armies. The Imperial complexes were lavishly constructed from war booty. They gleam high on desert cliffs. Below, goods were carried from bazaar to bazaar by mules, camels–even elephants.
Emporers are no longer comforted by multiple concubines within the reaches of ruby encrusted marble walls, but the transportation methods remain exactly the same. Nowadays, colorfully painted trucks pass camels towing carts rigged with expired airplane wheels. The carts attach around the camel’s neck, about 8 feet in the air, and slope backwards at 60 degrees, an arrangement that looks particularly uncomfortable for the driver, at least in comparison to those lucky enough to lounge on the backs of the elephants hauling fabric into town.
The auto rickshaw felt even more unstable than usual when a tree-trunk sized leg of an elephant thunders down less than a meter from my nose.
Outside of Jaipur is a temple devoted to Hanuman, a monkey-faced Hindu god, where monkeys actually rule with utmost power. The cavernous temple is set above a watery pool where hundreds of Nazuri monkeys groom, scratch, and play with each other. While baby and adolescent monkeys entertain each other, the biggest males prefer stalking jittery humans like prey, exposing their teeth and big claws. They approach so close that you can only throw a bag of nuts the other way to maintain your safety or back away nervously if you’re empty handed. The monkeys are agile and show off their upper hand by clamoring around the temple’s rocky faces with ease.
Jaipur is sprawling out horizontally faster than bacterial growth. Rajasthan’s desert’s natural predators are no longer a threat to humans safety, but theres a thin line. When water is short in the summer, overheated leopards come into the villages in search, at least until the monsoon comes in and cools the environment off.
Jaipur is thrusting its way towards modernity faster than most economies in the world. Metro lines and arterial flyways are popping out of the ground, the city has grown by over 2 million people in the last 30 years.
In gaps between the modern glass and metal facades, historic archways transport you back into the 17th century orient.
It’s easy to get a sense of what the place once was simply by talking to the people and hearing their family history. Vijay Singh’s ancestry dates back to the beginning of time here in Jaipur. His grandfathers were always warriors for the Maharajas. India’s independence came in 1947 changed everything for the Singhs. A family of warriors turned to tourism to guide westerners around places that their ancestors once defended their lives over.
30km south of Jaipur, one of country’s most longstanding paper-making families has built itself a home after a long series of moves in the past four centuries. From Turkey, to China, to India, the Hussain’s have finally settled in Sanganer. Sanganer’s seven rivers provide abundant supplies of water, a necessary input to transform ground hemp into pulp and make hand-crafted paper generation after generation.
Hussain paper making was recommended to me by Sharon and Tom, two New York artists that I met in Varanasi. I tested the waters and asked various people involved in the tourist industry if they had heard of it and if it was worth visiting. I didn’t want to disappoint my father who traveled across the globe to come spend time with me for two weeks.
Nobody had heard of it but going to see the paper company was a bee in my bonnet. It’s hard to trust people in the Indian tourist business anyways. The touts usually recommend you to go to neon-lit, multi-storied, air-conditioned and elevator-serviced ‘village craft emporium’ and restaurants where a creepy wide-eyed dancer/musicians playing a traditional instruments will stare you down while you try your hardest not miss moving your shaken hand from the plate to mouth in a completely empty restaurant. Basically the rule of thumb: treat everything you’re told by tour-guides and hotel owners as opposite. If its ‘great’ then I will feel like an innocent man walking into prison and if they say it’s not that cool I probably love it.
I gave the company a ring and after a couple of unanswered calls got a response through a crackly phone-line who told me to call his brother. I had a quick call with the brother. We didn’t understand each other at all, but I thought that I heard, ‘come on down, we’d be delighted to show you around’ and relayed the news to my Dad.
40 minutes later we were in suburban India. I was used to the sights after spending the past three and a half weeks in Benares but I was much enjoying my watching my Dad react to the car wind through sandy back-alleys–with only centimeters to spare–past goats picking goodness out of garbage, impromptu cricket games, and traffic that only has one unspoken law: hit me and have an army of townpeople beat you into paper pulp.
Hussain paper-making is a smaller operation that describes itself as “probably the last of india’s traditional papermakers.” Our driver didn’t exactly know where to go. We stopped, totally dead-ended and asked for directions. After 35 seconds, half the local school, 6 pairs of men on motorcycles and even a family from on top of the roof of the adjacent building had joined in a town-hall meeting to chat about exactly where we were to go and the best way to get there. The committee (we had zero say in any matter) decided to send one of the kids along in the car with us until we found the family’s house.
The young boy, exhilarated to be sent on this seemingly noble mission, directed us around the nonsensical layout of the village. The kid signaled our arrival by jumping out of the window of the car.I slipped him 10 rupees for his service before he rushed back to his cronies to report.
I got out and looked around in the midst of the dusty road, pondering the next move. A minute later, a door opened behind me. An ancient dark-skinned muslim man beckoned us into his house. His black skin was muscular and veiny in stark contrast to his white Topi, or cap, and big white, but bloodshot eyes. His gloomy appearance was trumped by his big heart. He projected kindness. He warmly invited us into his home to sit and wait.
His home was minimal, there was a stack of about eight thin mattresses all pushed to the corner of the room so the bedroom could double as a living room during the day. Women rushed through the room, rather quickly, to cast a glance at the unfamiliar visitors then returned to their household activity. No conversation was exchanged, except our sincere thanks, bowing down with are hands clasped over our hearts, for the seat offerings. It would have been rude to reject the seats, as much as I’d preferred the elderly man to sit down and relax.
After about 15 seconds, a young spritely man in a blue business shirt that was weighed down by a mobile phone ushered us back into the car. He directed us out of town to the factory.
This adventure was turning out marvelously, and I was very glad to see my Dad wrapped up within the brilliant charm of the sporadic and unplanned.
As an ex-corporate lawyer, Father Bruce is a lover of itineraries and unhappily married to the stress that the over planned days bring. India is unpredictable and tight planning mixes like oil in water.
The factory was inside of what looked like an abandoned sandstone house from the set of Star War’s Tatooine. The paint outside was chipping, the gate was rusted, trash was seeping out of the nooks and crannies (no different from any other part of India).
Inside were three concrete tubs where ground hemp is mixed with water to become pulp. One man was slowly and confidently straining the pulp onto a sieve that cut the shape of the paper and was piling the sheets in sets of 200, each separated by a linen cloth. Once 200 were made, the paper is stuck to the wall to dry in the 95 degree dry heat of the desert. After dry, its varnished, giving it a glossy smooth face.
The family makes multiple types of paper, most from hemp, some from recycled paper. Some is thin, others are sturdy three ply pieces pasted together. All is strong. One man demonstrated to us by scrunching the paper and pulling at it with all his might. It had the maneuverability and resiliency of a tarp.
The youngest of the Hussains showed us around the small campus. The whole operation would fit inside of a two car garage. He pointed out one man who was neatly piling dried paper into stacks–it was his father and explained that the man who let us into his house was his grandfather. There were three or four other men working there who were brothers and uncles. And five women–none of whom were introduced, mentioned, or acknowledged. There was a fishtank too.
Here’s an excerpt from the website:
The Family Arrived in India via Bokhara in Central Asia. They arrived in India around 800 years ago, settling in the Rajasthani village of Sanganer, just outside jaipur. The family name Khagzi literally means paper maker, from Arbic, and the word currently used for paper in modern hindi is Kagaz
The history of paper dates back to the history of human culture and civilization. Handmade paper making is a traditional art that has been practisized by a particular class of people and generations together. This art has been passed from one generation of craftsmen to another generations of craftsmen. These craftsmen are also known as kagzi. Mohammad Hussain Kagzi runs one of the few units making paper. He is a part of extended Kagzi family. They were originally from Turkey and from there mover to China and then family settled in India. Kagzi family history goes back to 14th century when the rular was Feroz Shah Tuglag in Delhi. Even in those days Royalty used handmade paper made by them for official document, pantings, calligraphy, and to make copies of Holy Quran and to maintain account books. In the 16th century the rular of Amber, Raza Man Singh brought the Kagzi saganer and settled them on the bank of river Sarsvati. Thus the town emerged as one of the biggest paper producing center in North India.
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.
I’m in love with Dulce de Leche. I need no mistress in my life. I have Dulce. It’s delectable on toast, bananas, ice cream, apples, and many many other things. I once mixed it with avocado. That was surprisingly off-putting. Not recommended. The girls at Quechequina introduced me to taking full spoonfulls of it. The stomache-wrenching ache you get 10 minutes later is totally worth it. Drinkers deal with headaches after a night out; I’ll deal with bellyaches.
I got back to Buenos Aires yesterday after a 20 hour bus ride across the country. I booked my ticket early, so I was able to claim the best seat on the whole bus. I was on the top deck, in the solo aisle, right above the cockpit. I had a 270 degree view out the front windows to look out over the dust-blown desert, stagnant farm towns of La Pampa and look out at the constellations of the night sky. There are pretty much three segments of the trip back to Buenos Aires. The first part is through the void, the Andes’ rain shadow. Next are expansive farms of La Pampa, and finally, as you cross into the Buenos Aires province, where over 75 percent of the Argentine populous lives, the landscape starts to look inhabited.
This is quite a sight. It’s about two and a half hours east of the Andes in a small desert town.
I’d like to remark on the institution that is Argentine bus travel. Middle to long distance bus travel is much more popular in Argentina than it is in the United States. Most Americans tend to fly with discount plane fairs–or drive themselves– any distance that is over 8 hours by road. Here, cheap flights don’t exist. There are only two airlines that fly domestically. For the majority of people, taking a sleeper bus is the only way to cover ground within the country.
Here are notes from my book:
“At Retiro station–the central bus terminal in Buenos Aires–the departure deck is lined with about 60 double decker coaches that line up and stretch out into the horizon. Perfect for a drawing 1 exercise in perspective.
The station is always filled with a mix of locals, foreigners, rich and poor. All barrios come together. The young the old. It’s a sample size of the country. Walk here through Recoleta, then past the villas. The thin line bordering huge economic disparity.
The calming voice of the announcer over the PA system contrasts with the impassable throbs of people.
Relaxing warmth of a cloudless summer day at dusk.
I remember the first time I was here–going to Iguazu–sensed a chaotic disorganization in the bus system. Nothings really on time. Now I understand it and feel at home here in the gateway to other parts of the country. I know the system. Comfortable in the chaos. Anything less would feel eerie. It’s real. It’s departure, arrival. Tears, hugs, love, loneliness, excitement.
Someone next to me is bringing a fishbowl back from the capital back to home, I assume some place he can’t buy a fishbowl in town.”
My time spent on these buses has reached close to a full work week. (36 hours to Iguazu and back, 20 hours to Bariloche, 8 hours from Calafate to El Chalten and back, 16 hours from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia, then 42 hours from Buenos Aires to San Martin and back). I don’t really think of it as lost time. I get to read, think, draw, write. The worst parts of the trip are the meals. Likely plastic and more foul than any airline meal, the nice buses serve you wine and alfajores, though. All buses have some sort of mix up between the wiring of the AC and the audio system. Either sounds come out the air vents or air comes out of the speakers. The former is much more of a nuissance. You can always throw on another layer, but you can’t do enough to muffle the noises of the atrocious movies they play.
The buses never run on time, but they are always ‘on time.’ Once, my bus ran about an hour and a half late, but the clock inside said it was running 3 minutes ahead of schedule. Disorganized travel is a theme here. Things usually tend to work out as planned but if they don’t, it is not a big deal.
I feel like I got a lot accomplished during my three weeks in San Martin de los Andes. I went out there on a spur of the moment, last minute decision. My original plan was to participate in a three week artist residency that I got accepted to in Buenos Aires. As I was hiking around Patagonia in December, I rethought that plan, as it was signifcantly expensive and didn’t include room, board, or materials. The idea of having to pay that much to paint seemed ludicrous.
I explored other options and found Jeannine Facht and her estancia in San Martin. She invited me down to her property on a lake in the Andes and said that we’d be able to find a place where I could post up and make some work.
I tripped out west, slightly weighed down with guilt from having cancelled on the artist residency just a week before it started. The director was severely ticked off. She told me I was making an extremely unwise decision by forfeiting the networks and resources of the residency, but she said she wasn’t surprised given my young age and immaturity. The other reason that I should have stuck around, she claimed, was that they already taken the time to make a page for me on their website, but copying and pasting what I wrote into google translate isn’t really too hard.
All being said, I felt awful that I had changed my mind so late and upset the other party. But you can only be young, wild, and free once, right? I have no regrets whatsoever. My two weeks in San Martin were some of the most remarkable of my entire year.
I stayed on a ranch 30 miles outside of San Martin de los Andes. The property had a couple thousand hectares with trails through the woods, lake-front with amazing hidden coves, a saw mill that manufactured pieces for log cabins, and a lunch-house where long-time customers and tourists alike visited for lunch.
The tea house was run by Jeannine and four Argentine girls, two my age were cooks and bakers and two 19 year olds served the tables. The place was open for tea, drinks, lunch, and pastries from noon until nine. There was no TV, internet, cell service, or anything out there. The place had the vibes of Camp Nor’wester. One of those amazing places out in a beautiful part of the world that relies on good old-fashioned human interaction, good food and good company.
Speaking of good food. I was served all sorts of culinary marvels: tongue that was boiled for two days, peeled, soaked in tangy onion, pepper, basil, oil sauce, venison milenesa, flank steak boiled in milk, home made pizza, I was taught how to fold an empanada, home made gnocci, blood sausage…just to name a few things. It was delicious. We ate all our dinners family style, besides empanadas that we took out to a field to eat under the full moon, and the home made pizzas that we ate around a fire.
They taught me how how to bake bread.
I taught myself how to juggle.
There was a ranch dog there, Bones. She looked like a super fit and skinny black lab. But she was some sort of mutt. Bones was a fantastic dog. One day, almost a decade ago, she showed up as a puppy. Someone had left a box with stuff on the side of the road near the ranch and she was in there. Living at the ranch, she has become one of the most capable, least domesticated dogs I have ever met. Bones was an outstanding jogging companion. As I’d weave through the forest trails, she’d keep up but not get in my way the way my dog Ollie does. She would also go off on her own pursuits and adventures to find water, take a quick dip in a pond, or catch a snack. I once saw her craftily catch a rabbit by pretending to maneuver one way behind a tree, but then speedily sidestep and come around the other side to freeze the rabbit in stride. I let out a supportive cheer for bones, and hurried back to the tea house to promote Bone’s accomplishment. It was nothing new, Bones is an expert rabbit catcher, she snacks on a least one or two a week and doesn’t even bother to cook em! She takes them down whole, hair, bones, and everything. Bones lived outside in a bush that one of the girls, Fleur called the portal. She would disappear in there for hours during the heat of the day.
During the day, I’d paint in my abandoned stable studio, read by the lake, or go swimming. I got to read a lot in the past three weeks. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai slum. Tales of a Shamans Apprentice, stories of ethnobiologist Mark Plotkin’s adventures in Surianme’s rainforest living among natives to understand medical and spiritual uses for plants. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin’s tales of his Patagonian adventure. City of Thieves, a story of two Russians looking for a dozen eggs during the Nazi blockade of Lenningrad. It’s more than I’ve ever read in my life.
Here’s what I put together there:
My last day there, I hiked up to a peak on one of the hardest of all the trails I’ve done in Argentina. It was vertically straight up for 2.5 hours. At times I was keeled over on my knees huffing and puffing. I got to the top to a 360 degree panoramic view of the Andes range, but strong winds and ominous black clouds prevented me from reaching the peak. The rocks up top were soft, the footing was bad, and I didn’t want to get myself into any sort of trouble as I was hiking alone and I was the only person on the trail.
My nickname at the ranch was Boobs. Here’s why. Before I showed up, Jeannine told the girls that they were going to have a visitor, an artist/ traveler named David Bruce, David ‘Booze’ one of the girls heard and asked his name is David Booze?! A second girl was in the other room and heard David ‘Boobs’ then questioned, his name is Boobs?! They broke down into a hysterical fit of laughter, as they did about eight times a day and the name stuck. For the first two days, they called my boobs when I wasn’t around. After they figured out that I had a sense of humor, they let me in on the joke and it stuck.
Hola desde Buenos Aires!!
I’ve got a story to tell. Travel here was notable.
On the train ride from Roma Tiburtina to Fuimicini Airport, someone was having serious gastro-intestinal issues. This was not any normal fart, in fact it was one of the most awful smells that has ever been registered in my brain. That’s saying something after spending the past four years with a bunch of dingos on my college rugby team, where a lot of off-putting smells were produced from a whole lot of off-putting activities. This smell was so potently rank that it sent the whole 60 seat train carriage spasming in their seats. I’d imagine that this would work better than tear gas. My fellow sufferers were grasping at their arm rests with looks of desperation. At one point I played would you rather…have a broken arm from jumping out of the train buckling through Rome at least at a 90kmh tick or deal with this stench produced just about on cue every 4 and a half minutes for another half hour. It was like opening the drawer of the fridge where you keep wet spinach that’s been soaking there for over a year. Or quiche. Disgusting, messed up quiche.
I’ve never seen a more chaotic plane boarding process than watching the Italians and Argentinians mob their way onto the Boeing 777. Woah nelly. The plane is right outside and the pilot is hanging out in the corner back there. Lets all cool down a second. People were so frantic to get on board that they were trying to sneak in through the first class ‘sky lounge priority boarding’ entrance. The whole scenario reminded me of the part in Titanic when everyone was fighting for survival and trying to get one of the last spots on a safety boat. I just sat back and watched this hollywood quality entertainment unveil before me.
I’d relate to the commotion if everyone was rushing to get to their first class seat where they were served champagne and strawberries from the vine. But, the 99% of us were not heading into la la land. People are pushing and shoving to sit in a sardine can for 14 hours? Shit. Their vacation must have really been a downer. Maybe these plane-boarders were just trying to get as far as possible from the man with the seriously diseased GI tract. I understand now.
I was sitting directly over the wing of the Alitalia 777 on the window next to a Argentinian couple. I tested my spanish to set a benchmark. I determined it couldn’t get any worse. Which is good. There’s room to improve. My spanglish though, I was very proud of my spanglish. I understood about half of the words that they were saying to me, and I was able to convey about a quarter of my thoughts to them, so all in all we had about an eighth of a conversation. And that’s pushing it.
The flight was bumpy. The whole way. I was like baby trying to sleep in a cradle that was being rocked by a gorilla. I got some good sleep, although patchy, and the 14 hour flight went by quicker than I had imagined.
At one point, I just stared out at the stars from the cloud-top perch of the airplane. Up above the clouds, the universe was bright and crystal clear. The galaxies were illuminated. Below me was an abyss. A vacuum of darkness. The Sahara desert. I was in the midst of peace and quiet of the sleepy plane cabin yet I felt so rampantly and completely alive. It was one of those moments. Then the gorilla came back and rocked me back to sleep.
The sun caught up with us once again and rose over the horizon after an extended period of night. I looked down below the massive wing into South America. Mountains, lakes, large features, and unpopulated terrain. I got a glimpse of Montevideo and the plane braked and descended quickly into EZE airport. I got a flyby past Buenos Aires and landed safe and sound. The cabin erupted in applause when we landed. Is that an Italian thing to do? Or just an elderly person thing to do? Or was it because it was such a long flight. But a computer mostly did it anyways, right? Anyways, I was surprised by the applause. I didn’t clap. But thanks Mr. Pilot for taking me across the pond safely.
I got in line in passport control. Waited in line for ten minutes, sort of sleep walking. I got to the booth. Hola, como estas? I said with a big grin, proud of myself for sparking off a conversation…correctly. Nailed it. We went through the regular passport control conversation. Then he said, Have you paid your reciprocity tax? All of a sudden I got this flashback to reading about Visa requirements for Argentina. You don’t need to register for a Visa, you just need to pay your way into the country. $150 bucks. Oh man. No, silly little David forgot. Follow me, he said as he got out of his official booth and escorted me through a long corridor and into a holding cell.
The holding cell was a blank room with three chairs, one already occupied. The room was just big enough to fit a mini-cooper snugly, the plaster on the walls was chipping and revealing concrete behind. There were 9,312 grayish tiles in the room. Yes, that’s how long I waited.
When I first came into the room, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing there. My passport is a little sketchy. My picture is from when I was 15 and I have an Indian, a Chinese, and a Kenyan visa in my passport (even though I have never been to Kenya nor do I have any plans to head in that direction) so I’m sure I seem slightly odd to immigration officers. Was I going back here to get interrogated? Bring it on. But when I got into the room, there was already a guy there. He was a Brit, built like a rugby player–a tight-head prop (lineman for the football analogy)–who looked as mean as a gator. He looked like a trouble-maker so maybe in fact I was being detained for something.
But it all came clear when I sat down next to him and he said to me in a cheery british accent, mate, I’m guessing you forgot to pay the visa too ha ha he. He was all clad up in a nice suit, and he started laughing about how he got to miss out on the boring business meeting he was supposed to be present for in the city center. He got sorted out in the first five minutes I was there, but he told me that it takes a while.
I had to wait a long time to wait and get it all figured out. The whole time I was really worried that someone was going to pick up my bag and run off with it. The saving grace was that nothing in my checked bag was more valuable than the bag itself. In Italy, I put it down on the street outside of a car mechanic’s garage so half of the bag is stained a different color and reeks of gasoline. That was likely a deterrent. Good move Davie!
Into the holding pen strolls another character, Rory. Rory is a tan and long haired surfer bro who just landed from Hawaii. He pulled the smart move. Rory admitted right away to the border guards that he hadn’t paid the Visa, so he was ushered past the 10 minute line (great move) and right into the holding pen. He had a Dakine backpack with a miniature skateboard attached to it. For his whole trip he’d packed up in two small backpacks. A leather jacket hung around the straps of one of them. This guy was very clearly a boy in a man’s body. Awesome. We got to talking. He was especially free-spirited and care-free. His aura led me to believe that he was used to a certain type of lifestyle. Even the biggest ski-bums and surfers I’ve met aren’t this chilled out. Maybe he’s a celebrity, I thought. It turned out that I was, in fact, sitting next to Rory Bushfield!
Rory Bushfield is a Canadian professional skier, filmmaker, and reality star. Bushfield is a former member of Canada’s World Cup team, skiing moguls. He has also competed in slopestyle skiing before focusing on backcountry skiing and filmmaking. (wikipedia).
The detainment cell was sort of like hanging outside the principals office, waiting to get told off for pouring chocolate pudding on the blonde girl we had a crush on, hoping that this would make her fall madly in love with me.
I later found out that Rory Bushfield was the husband of Sarah Burke, the skier who tragically died last year after a half-pipe accident. He is traveling around the world, living his life to the fullest, the way he knows Burke would have wanted him to live and the way he would have wanted her to go on if he had a tragic accident himself. I have a profound respect for Rory. It was really pretty cool to get to spend time with him.
In the rush after they finally released me, I was so flabbergasted that I forgot to realize that the Argentinian border control never gave me my credit card back. It’s stuck at the Alitalia office in Ezeiza Airport.
One of the border guards, who seemed earlier like he was getting off on giving me a hard time, turned out to be my number one fan after he released me from the cell. He had read the letter from the Watson HQ explaining who I am and why I was doing so much concentrated traveling. The guard started asking me questions about how my trip was going and what I was excited about later. He helped me find my bag, which at this point was in the unclaimed baggage department, he walked with me through customs, and even waited for me when I went to the bathroom. The whole time we just chatted. It was pretty strange. He was just about my age so I didn’t think he was asking the questions in a suspicious, border guard kind of way. But I was considering whether this was some sort of cross-examination. After I got through customs he said, okay, I have to go back to work now. Nice talking to you. Buenos dias. That sealed it. I think this guy was genuinely interested.
A slew of conversations ensued after and set a great, positive first impression of Argentinians as friendly and talkative. This was extremely refreshing after the ‘mind your own business’ attitude of southern Europe. After I left the terminal to find the shuttle, there were two middle aged women who were asking me questions in Spanish. They didn’t speak any English and knew I didn’t speak much Spanish, but they were determined to have a conversation with me. With sign language, and a little bit of acting, we got somewhere. It made waiting in line for the shuttle quite pleasant. One of them told me that I looked like Prince William. Thanks. I get hit on my older women much more than girls my age. Why?!?
Yesterday, my first day, was great. I found a spanish school, took the placement test, and passed into a intermediary-beginner course. I get to start tomorrow, jumping mid-week into a course rather than needing to wait until Monday. In the afternoon, I went to a free trial of a cross-fit class. It was entirely in Spanish. I misunderstood the work-out. I thought we had to do 5 rounds of 15 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, 5 box jumps within 17 minutes, but it was really just as many rounds as possible in the 17 minutes. Oops. I went really hard at the beginning and was gassed by about the 12th minute and got pulled out. Embarrassing. First time doing cross-fit is rumored to be tough. Tougher doing in a foreign language.
My roommates are awesome. Two are from Buenos Aires, Paddy and Maria. Maria is going to be a great spanish coach. We sat down for a bit in the living room and she refused to speak or let me speak English, which really is great. Paddy and Maria are both in their early 30s but they are welcoming hosts. The living situation here is great so far.
Like many people in my generation, I’ve been playing a lot more Lou Reed and really digging in after his death. What is that about being an artist? Your recognition takes off once you hit the grave.
Here are my thoughts so far.
The most amazing this about this fellowship is that it throws you into situations you are entirely unprepared for and the challenge is to make some sort of structure for yourself out of the madness. It happens so many times in a concentrated period and allows for education, growth, self-reflection, and just awareness.
You’re thrown out onto slippery, uneven ground and look for your footing. I walked out onto the streets of Buenos Aires yesterday. The language barrier is intimidating. Toilets are whirlpooling the other way The whole place had this crazy flare. Very much a different world. I look forward to seeing how I grasp ahold of life here.
Bienvenido a Buenos Aires!
I went into Rome today, walked around for a bit. There were hoards of people around the Vatican because the Pope was talking in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I got intimidated by the crowds and retreated back to go to sleep. 3 weeks on the move and I’m beat! I could have spent a lot of time and energy digging into Rome this weekend but I think I have to weigh the costs and take advantage of an apartment to just chill out before putting this first quarter of my fellowship to bed. Still the city is built around Roman Ruins. Sooooo coool. I got some of the sights just by sitting in the bus and looking out the window.
I think I found a place to stay in Buenos Aires for November! Which is great. Also, the Bowdoin Rugby godfather, Andy Palmer connected me to the Dartmouth Rugby godfather who is posted up down in Buenos Aires. I think he’ll set me up with a club to train with. I’m getting excited to jet down to South America and get my cowboy on.
I’ve been rocking out with the agua colors recently. Really fun. I have an awesome little pocket set. They are much more fun than I had imagined. These really look better in real life. Its a bummer sending you a snapshot but just get excited to see fo real.
This is my friend Sarah Diamond. She is crushing a pastry like the champion that she is. The pastry kind of looks like a cigar, or poop. Sarah can decide and email me the title when she decides what she wants to be mouthing.
These are boat builders in Copenhagen. Completely unintentionally, the painting kind of turned out like the DVD cover of one of my all-time favorites. I knew I recognized the painting I just made from somewhere. Weird.
There’s some other stuff I’ll clean up/finish up and send your way.