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Ho Chi Minh Homestay

Here’s some recent work. Some are unfinished:

artINDO?HCMC (click the link)

The thatched roof ceiling usually covered with geckos hanging out near the warm lights slowly caved in as if collapsing in a slow motion time-lapse. As it caved the thatches of dried palm turned to green scales. I was startled to realize that the morphing architecture was in fact a gigantic fifteen foot Komodo dragon sliding down from its perch on the roof where it was hanging with the acrobatic agility of a reptile a fraction of its size. The dragon was focused elsewhere until I caught its eye. It started stalking me around the complex, slowly at first. I tried to evade it by running around corners and behind walls but it had me on its radar. It was clearly interested in eating me for dinner and began to accelerate its chase. I knew I wasn’t going to outrun it so I stepped forward with an umbrella to try to poke it where it was weakest: right in the eyeball. The umbrella simply would not penetrate the Komodo’s armored scales. But the dragon was too good at kung fu and took my wrist in its powerful gums which, to my luck, were toothless! But the danger was still imminent, the dragon was sucking my bruised and deformed arm into its body like I was liquid through a straw. 

Luckily, my Dad showed up with a shotgun he found inside the branches of a christmas tree, gave me an Indiana Jones-like wink, then shot the Dragon dead twice in the head.Thanks Dad!

That’s how strange my dream was last night before I woke up to watch the Argentina-Netherlands world cup game at 3:30 yesterday morning.

I probably would not have woken up for that game had I not bet on it. Vietnam is a big betting country and the night before I had made a bet with the neighborhood barber: I pay him 5 dollars if the Dutch win; I get a free haircut if Argentina takes the cake.


Back to the dream. I’d love to hear any dream interpretations some of you might have. But I think it’s  just a reflection on how awesomely odd my life has become since I moved into a Vietnamese household yesterday. 

The house reminds me of the old woman that lives in the shoe with all her children. Like most houses in Ho Chi Minh, this one is extremely narrow, only about 12 feet across, but it’s almost 8 stories high. There are family members, neighborhood kids, and a few animals scattered about the place. I have no idea who is who.

There is a chicken that is staying fresh in the room off the living room. It’s a real big talker. Probably yelling “Freedom” over and over again in the style of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, but he says it so much that it loses dramatic effect. I’ll tell it to talk to my friend Stanton for some acting advice. 

My host speaks mediocre english that’s pretty hard to understand. I hope she doesn’t read this. For example: She told me that there was an excellent spot to sit and draw houses on the riverbank from the Ritz.

“So its at the Ritz?!” I asked, a couple of times, then double checked a time or two more, perplexed that there was a luxury hotel chain here in District 8 of Ho Chi Minh. 

Man, I must have looked like such an idiot wandering around the streets asking local vendors, who didn’t even understand me, where the Ritz was. Completely out of cards, I crossed over a bridge and got this amazing visual of stilt houses built along the river bank with Ho Chi Minh’s modern skyscrapers emerging in the background. Oh. She said the bridge. 

The rest of them don’t speak a word of english.

I arrived in time for lunch yesterday, cooked by my host’s sister in law. The sister in law lives in a room in the house with her husband, who looks like he could be anywhere between my age and my brothers age (a 14 year gap). Since I’ve moved in he has not put on a shirt or shoes. He wears nothing but fancy suit pants without a belt and is sure to be found in front of the TV, usually sleeping.They have a 6 year old daughter who I’ve been tasked with teaching colors and facial features to. It will probably be the most significant english conversation I’ll have in the next two weeks so I’m looking forward to it. (She says Pink like bbbBBBink and Blue, LooOOO. She can’t pronunce a B sound unless shes trying to make a P sound, which she can’t pronounce). Within 30 seconds of meeting the daughter she was climbing over me like I was a jungle gym. 

The father’s father died in the Vietnam War, I think. I haven’t really tred into those waters yet. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate. The father is 63 and has pictures of himself posing as an adolescent soldier in his army helmet. After taking me out for drinks one night, he put on his helmet and posed in front of the picture. He then went on to show me his portrait gallery in the living room. Ché hangs next to Nelson Mandela next to Putin next to Bill Clinton giving a copy of his autobiography to Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. Any of my government major friends want to give me an analysis of this man’s political views? The next night, he dressed me up in a bomber jacket, a beret, and aviators and had me stand in front of Ché while he took a picture. He digs my beard.

Who I thought was the father’s father’s wife is actually the fathers wife, but looks as though she could be the grandmother of the host. ( It’s really confusing. It’s impossible to tell who belongs to who and who’s with who, etc). So for the sake of clarity we’ll call her the matriarch of the family. The matriarch gave me a warm two handed hand shake when I arrived. Later on at lunch, she asked where I was from. I heard the english speaking host speak the Vietnamese word for America. She gave me a piercing 3 second look, as if she was de-coding my morals with her years of wisdom, then she returned her complete and utter concentration to happily slurping up the rest of her bowl of soup that had occupied all of her attention before hand.

They’ve turned to use alcohol rather than language to connect to me. The first time I met  the father he handed me a hefty slug of Regal Chivas whiskey. Nice to meet you too. He was wearing nothing but camouflage. Camo cargo shorts, a camo t-shirt that read, “DEATH” in big bold letters. Underneath it says, “was our business” and on the back, “and business was good.” Because anything else would simply clash with the well-coordinated wardrobe, he has a camo baseball hat to cap it off.

He’s steadily become a little more sharp. He rocked a Hawaiian print  swimsuit, then after put on trendy jeans with a v-neck sweater. 

In the afternoon, I went out drawing and exploring the city’s waterways that separate district 8 from district 4 and district 1. I came back to my room after a couple of hours exploring to shower, then grabbed Catch 22 and came downstairs to read. The father showed up, laughed at me and mimed shooting me with an invisible blow gun that he made by curling up his fingers into his thumb in a circle and blowing into to. He then waved at me by making a shoo-ing action with his wrist. So I followed him.

I was pretty worried for a second. What the was he doing with that blow gun symbol? Does he want to go smoke something with me? Shit, opium? 

We left the small alleys of the local neighborhood and went out onto the main road. We came to a small stand at the corner where we he showed me a glass case with all sorts of fish skins and street cuisine only identifiable by their potent stench of an object that should never have left the sea. He grumbled at me for my approval and I nodded and gave him a thumbs up, thinking please, no!

So we plopped down into small plastic armchairs that were only a foot from the ground, right in front of the main road to watch the nauseating flow of relentless motorcycle traffic made more dizzying by our saltwater snack. Hundreds of scooters and motorbikes would pass each minute like a infinitely long school of fish. 

He ordered us beer, 333. He ‘cheers’ed me each time he wanted me to drink, which was just about every 15 seconds. Then would pick up my can to size up how much I drank in each gulp. Science! After each beer, he’d forcefully jam a ‘Pine Prime Gold’ Korean cigarette into his cigarette holder then shove that into his mouth. Once he thought he lost the holder and abruptly stood up to check the many pockets of his camo cargo shorts, underneath his hat, and around his friend’s neighboring table. I pointed at the ash tray where it was lying right where he left it.

I think my detective work and my willingness to eat some of the salty slab of fish skin he ordered was where I earned his approval. 

After that, he’d occasionally break our conversational silence observing the evening street life and pat me on the back or jab my ribs with his elbow and break into a contagious laughter.

After a few beers, he started to teach me some crude Vietnamese words. The language is extremely tonal; there are 6 different accents you can put on each vowel. I really believe that I was saying the same thing. But my butchered pronunciation really agitated him. He’d shake his head disgustedly then, in an attempt to get me to understand, would mumble the proper way of saying in sets of six examples, each time louder and each time closer to my ear drum. 

One of his friends picked up the bar tab as a welcoming gift and we went to the next spot. The father led me down the street–waddling because of his baggy cargo shorts and tripping over his sandals that are two sizes too big for him–to his friend’s barber shop. We had some more beer with the barber who is approaching 70, speaks pretty good english, fought in the war, and lost his wife a couple years ago so lives alone in a big house with a yappy dog. This is where I made my world cup bet.

(It’s was great talking to that Ho Chi Minh barber shop owner. I went back the day after to say hi and brag about the Argentinian net-minder’s beast mode saves. I told him the bet was off because penalties aren’t a clean way of winning a game. He agreed but said I could come for a free haircut anytime.)

The beer made us brethren, and we returned to the house. The father was stumbling around at this point, but still crossed the busy road as swiftly and safely as a mine-sweeper crosses a mine-field. He picked up some thinly sliced beef from the butcher then got home, rolled out a mat on the floor of the living room and was snoring within 3 seconds. When I got up for the game the next morning, he was still there. He woke up, made me noodles with egg and the thinly sliced beef, then went right back to sleep, only to wake for the penalty shootout, as if he already knew the decided outcome. 

Yesterday, my host took me around the city on the back of her scooter. The roads are mayhem. Scooters drive in every direction at any time and there are millions upon millions of them. The city is more pleasant, cooler, and breezier than most Asian cities I’ve been too. I think thats party because the Vietnamese have decided to leave trees around in the city. There’s shade, greenery, and oxygen. After Dhaka, Varanasi, and Jakarta I’ve realized what a difference trees make. On the run into the center, I picked up some painting supplies and got a linen suit tailor fitted. 

I was dropped off on a bridge to paint a scene. I sat down on a big pipe that dominated one half of the sidewalk and started to sketch. A homeless guy came up to me and started prodding me for money. He looked at what I was doing then started to give me advice on where to put my lines. Once he even tried to take the pen out of my hands to do it himself. I told him to stop. So he shifted his position from director into assistant. He held things for me so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind, gave me occasional approving sounds, and washed the brushes I wasn’t using. He got really into the creative process. It was awesome. At the end I reached into my wallet to give him a bit of money, to reciprocate for his service. It was the equivalent of 75 US cents, enough to get him a meal. (The street food here may be the best so far. It is. so. good). But he rejected the compensation. I’m not sure what that says, but it may say that he enjoyed the experience as much as I did. There are bigger things than dollar bills.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

If we survive today, then we can start thinking about tomorrow.

That’s a saying in Bangladesh Mostafizur Rahman Jewel, my brilliant local guide told me.

Bangladesh is a muslim country, 97% muslim. Names are often common and can be generally used to identify the social class and occupation of the name bearer. Jewel, the name he goes by is his nickname, given to him by his mother. 

When we first met in the lobby of my hotel, Jewel asked how I’d like to get around the city. I nonchalantly replied, “I’m up for absolutely anything” and refereed to my multiple escapades in auto rickshaws and rotting taxis in India. “Anything?” He questioned. “Just about anything?” I rebutted not sure what exactly he was suggesting.  “You’d go on the back of my motorcycle?” he asked. “Is it safe?” I knew that it was a question that would not be fruitfully answered.

So before I knew it I was trusting my life with a stranger I’d known for a little less than 180 seconds. I was holding onto the bike’s rear wheel handle with a ferocious death grip as we engaged in a high stakes game of Tetris as the bike weaved in between an array of vehicles. The buses stood out like whale sharks among minnows. Windows were cracked; chassis were dented. For four days, I rode around Dhaka, a city famous for having the worst traffic in the world on a motorcycle. Each time I did not once think about tomorrow. 

Dhaka city has 400,000 Compressed Natural Gas auto-rickshaws and even more cycle rickshaws. The average person drives around on a motorcycle. If you can afford a car, you can afford a driver to chauffer you. The range of vehicle types  and disorganization of the roadways creates unthinkable congestion and leads to some of the most atrocious traffic in South Asia. 

It takes over an hour to go less than 6km. On a good day. 

The motorcycle has serious advantages shaving travel time off of a trip. Jewel could slide past the queues on the far left or the far right. The center is far too maze like to be navigable or time effective. Once or twice, we’d be up on the sidewalk to slide past, honking at pedestrians as if they weren’t supposed to be there. 

On the bike, you’re out and exposed to the experience of the city in a way you can’t be in a car.  You have to fight to suck in breathes out of the in the hot, exhaust-filled air. Beggars are tapping you on your elbow rather than on your window. I’d look down at the hard tarmac rushing by and think about how quickly it’d rip all my skin off.

When people would ask me to compare what Dhaka was like in comparison to other Indian cities I would say it feels similar everything is multiplied by three. There are bigger more people, more traffic, more bone chilling sights of poverty. Besides that, everyone is more curious about you and friendlier.

Dhaka is a city of about 18 million people. But its population is expected to almost double by mid century. There is a natural population push from sea level rise. Bangladesh is predicted to lose 30% of its land in the southern region as that will force a migration of the 4 millions inhabitants of the tide country seeking refuge in the city. Additionally, Dhaka has a magnetic pull that draws low skilled laborers from all corners of Bangladesh and further afield looking for more job security than they can find in rural areas. The city’s garment factories, rickshaws, and boat ferries offer workers to flow between employment opportunities. Whereas if crops fail in the village, that same man or woman is out of poker chips. 

Climate Change Photographer, Din Muhammad Shibley, captions one of his photographs of Dhaka: A deathtrap for 30 million.

Shibley has come up with a creative solution to document climate change, effects in the natural world that are slow-onset and not conducive to being recorded with photography or even videography. So, Shibley has identified individuals living in volatile regions of Bangladesh and has recorded photos of the lives of the same people over the past decade. He has shot their rebuilt homes, their empty pens after cyclones have swept livestock away, their arid fields because the rains have yet to come. Shibley is telling stories of those effected. He, too, is interested in the impact that climate change  has on individual human lives.

I looked over Shibley’s shoulder as he showed me his portfolio. We look at a portrait of one Bangladeshi man, but the concept represents hundreds of thousands, or millions.  One image that was particularly striking showed a flash flood that hit the center of Dhaka in 2008. Cycle rickshaws were pushing through the waist high water. The image looked venetian but instead of Gondolas.

I met Shibley my first morning. That afternoon, we hopped back on the bike and went out to the western fringe of the city. The western fringe is dominated by industrial areas. Hundreds of brick kilns pierce the sky, piles of coal and cement-sand dwell in stark contrast to each other, the country’s largest cattle market sits conveniently next to the country’s biggest tannery.

We’d zip by groups of doti-wearing workers as they called after me, “Hey, Hey!! Where from? What country??” in an familiar showing of the Bangladeshi extreme friendliness.

We weaved through the mud alleys of the cattle farm then stopped along a port area of the inky black Buriganga. There were a series of barges docked on the side of the river. Each barge was stained black from coal, imported from Northern India then brought down on the river from the northern region of Bangladesh. I walked across the rickety bamboo gangplank. It was no wider than 2 feet and wobbled like a trampoline as I stepped across. Here, humans labor like ants.

Along the river, workers were reinforcing the embankment, making concrete blocks with limited equipment, relying almost entirely on cheap manual labor. The men building the embankment would sleep on top of it at night in bamboo rivers. 

Men were bathing in the stained, polluted river. Once steam shovel was pulling sediment out of the bottom of the river, other more permanent dredging equipment was laying along the far bank. The river systems here, part of the largest delta in the world, deposit so much delta that the dredgers need to constantly work to maintain the waterway and keep it passable for the shipments coming in and going out.  

It was May Day. A parade came rumbling through the area trying to rally the workers along the river to join in on the protest to increase minimum wage.100 taka ($1.20) a day is minimum wage at Garment factories that produce clothes for global brands we enjoy in the western world like H&M, American Eagle, Gap and many others.. But many workers in Bangladesh make much less than that.

I was lucky to have a Bowdoin friend, born and raised in Dhaka, to meet up with in the evenings and get his insight on the city. Farhan was in the class of 2010, a senior when I was a freshman. He was roommates with my rugby captain, so we first met as I was embarrassedly running around his apartment complex scandalously underdressed during ‘optional team building.’  Funnily enough, that same rugby captain’s ex-girlfriend was also in Dhaka on a business trip so we had a miniature Bowdoin reunion, all stemming out of Pine Street apartment ‘A.’ 

I can’t tell you how fantastic it was to have a friendly face greet me at the Dhaka airport after 3 months of wandering solo through India. 

I spent my second day in Dhaka with Farhan and Ilse, touring old Dhaka, the 350 year old Armenien Church, and an uncompleted Mughal outpost. That evening I went to an architecture opening about green architecture in Bangladesh at a chic art gallery called the Bengal Art Lounge. 

The day was a model of what became a trend of my Dhaka trip. I’d spend the day exploring out in the heat, filth, and squaller of the unique localities of Dhaka then by night hot,I’d attend nice dinners, art galleries, and dip my feet into the Bangladesh ‘high society.’ It really complicated and fluffed up the narrative of my five days. 

Day 3: 

It took about an hour and a half to get from the Northern district of Dhaka where I was staying to the main river terminal. We passed through some tremendous sights: a neighborhood with a rickshaw hub, where rickshaw wallahs come at 4 or 5 in the morning to rent out a rickshaw each day to make a living. Imagine 3 new york city blocks replaced with wooden stables, but filled with metal carriages fixed behind impressively loose-chained bicycles that were painted with scenes from Bollywood movies—often violent ones. We passed the biggest electrical market in Bangladesh. There were hundreds of thousands of wires leeching like ivy across the raggedy brick buildings. I looked up into the grey sky in the hopes that a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike and blow us to bits. 

There are many times during Dhaka road trips were your very close, face to face with people on the Dhaka roads. People sit on the top of buses, in the back of pickups, women are side saddled on motorcycles. Lots of grins were exchanged. They clearly got a kick out of a whiteman braving the traffic without the guard of aluminum doors and glass windows and I was enjoying their creativity—total stupidity—of where they were chose to seat themselves on vehicles. We stopped for a train to pass. There were four adolescent kids standing up on the roof leaning into the wind with their arms and legs stretched out as the train hurtled by at a significant tick. Other boys were seated on the roof, clutching onto their small loose bags that held their belongings. 

We finally got to the river. As each minute passes after one hour on the back of a motorcyle, the ride gets less and less comfortable, but the statistical chance of an accident also multiplies so I was more than happy to hop off. 

We crossed over the river by bridge and left the Dhaka city for the ‘outskirts’ (nothing had changed except the riverside road was sandy rather than paved). The buildings along the river edge were ten story apartment complexes which were saturated with non-export quality garment factories and powered by generators floating on the black river. 

Using Jewel’s help, I was able to get a couple of amazing vantage points like the roof of a building (thankfully it did not collapse–there is a huge problem of building collapse in Dhaka. Due to squatter’s rights, where property becomes yours if you live in that location for 15 years, buildings happen to fall down after 13 or 14 years of migrant workers moving in. Those who aren’t killed are forced to move on and find elsewhere to go). We got up on top of a ferry boat, out on the water. 

I was invited into a garment shop. The Bangladeshis are so generous and accommodating to guests—they believe guests are sent from god—that the supervisor of the garment shop was about to send a boy out to buy me a coke (equivalent to 3 days of his wages) until Jewel was able to stop him. 

We took a ferry ride on the river and luckily didn’t get hit by anything or fall into the polluted river. The wooden taxi boat, powered by a driver with a single paddle took us across the river to a ship recycling yard where men were breaking down gigantic freighters with hammer and torch and using the pieces to build new ferries. In Bangladesh, labor is cheap; the place is built with by hand with limited equipment—gigantic infrastructure is built with hammer and man power. At one shed in the yard, men were melting down recycled pieces of metal and recasting it into propeller molds carved into the sandy soil. The site was absolutely incredible. 

The pictures of the river don’t do it justice. Pictures can’t describe the heat, the deafening noise, the horrible air quality, your heart beating in your throat, or the sweat soaking your brow. Everything was moving in the river, with method, but without organization. Larger motorboats were so overloaded, water would spill onto the surface. They would barrel through the lanes of wooden water taxis with little regard. Gigantic ferries are docked to each other like a pile of leaves. It was madness. 

For lunch, we went into the crowded congested streets of old Dhaka for a country-famous Biryani dish adorned with a fantastically delicious onion sauce. The establishment has been passed down from father to son over the past 400 years. They make two dishes only–both are top notch. 

In the afternoon, we returned back to the Northern neighborhoods, between Banani and Gulshan to visit a slum. The Slum is essentially on an island and the slum dwellers cross the waterbody everyday by boat you can see the boats—a dotted line—on google maps. The women go to households right across the water to provide domestic help, the men go pull rickshaws, collect recyclables, or do other lowest-tier-of-society jobs. The sight at the foot of the slum is one of extreme contrast. On one side of the water you see tin shacks–a shanty town that is home to 200,000. On the other you see high quality apartment buildings, some of the most expensive apartments in the world, even more than in New York City because of the severe demand for space in Dhaka. 

In the Slum, I was immediately greeted by about forty of the happiest most cheerful kids I’ve ever met. There were jumping and smiling, grabbing my calves and waving to kindly greet me. All around the place I was greeted by ‘Hi!’s’ and big smiles. These people with nothing are happy; people in wealthy societies suffer from clinical depression. I felt welcomed and comfortable there. The people mostly lived on dirt floors, up to ten families lived in a space about the same size as my Hanover, NH bedroom. There was some construction going on, one triangular-roofed house was built on stilts on top another triangular roofed house. UNDP clinics and USAID sanitation bathrooms were set up around the slum. The only open space, the ‘playground’ was a trash-filled sandy patch, the brim was lined with feces from bathroom sites.

Most of my time in India, I was traveling with a huge translation barrier.  My experience was dumbed down to only what I saw, smelled, and heard but couldn’t understand as language. Traveling with Jewel changed that. As I was walking around the slum, returning the kids Hi’s, one woman directed her thoughts, slightly aggressively at me. I asked Jewel what she said. He thought for a moment of the best way to translate it and said, “You can say Hi, but that does nothing to change our circumstances. How else can you actually help us?” 

It immediately made me realize how stupid and foolish I was to feel so nicely greeted by all the hellos and kindness. I had nothing to offer these people and knew of no system to help them. Over the past couple of days, I’ve thought about what that woman said. 

Just exposing myself to the way over 3 billion people in the world really live while I’m young is important. While I don’t have the means or position to do anything about it now, it’s better to learn about these lives than be ignorant of them.

At the end of the day between the river and the slum I felt an emotional toll. I was exhausted. I went to bed recalling the events, sights, and occasional horrors of the day. I saw toddlers walking unaccompanied on the sides of major highways, a man with a broken back walking ape-like on his hands and knees begging at red lights, young kids swimming in the river to collect recyclables—drowning is the number 1 cause of child mortality in Bangladesh—families sleeping-stone cold-on the ferry docks and in the ferries themselves seemingly with no place to go. 

The next afternoon, I met up with one of Farhan’s friends, Ashish who is working for his father to start up a new boutique hotel that is currently under construction in Gulshan. From the 12th floor of the hotel, I was able to get a great view of the slum and sat down to paint.


On my last day, I met with an architect who works for Urbana, a firm based in Dhaka that designed a cyclone shelter. They don’t have a donor yet to build their design, but it was cool to learn about their research that went into their design. During a cyclone the main dangers are wind, flooding and livestock safety. Most shelters are only needed for a few years every other year, or perhaps only once in a decade so they need a function that doubles as a school or a mosque. Imagine the Guggenheim museum in New York but octagonal and half the size. That’s a little bit what the shelter looked like. The structure itself embodied a cyclone. 

In the afternoon I met with a government official who works for the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, jointly funded between the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations Development Program. He told me a little bit about the country’s plans for disaster preparedness in both the coastal regions and up north were there are a lot of droughts. 

After my meetings, I got a private tour of the National Parliament building, a Louie Khan designed structure modeled off the lotus, the national flower of Bangladesh. It’s a magnificent structure that looks both historic and futuristic. It could either be a renovated medieval castle or designed by aliens. It’s built within a reflective pool that mirrors the geometries of the building. Inside, there are spectacular spaces in between the outer-shell offices and the center. My favorite part of the parliament house was the library. There were hundreds of thousands of spectacular artifacts. Laws and codes from all parts of India. 

I flew out that evening. Before I left, Farhan said that I had seen more in Dhaka that many see in a year. I even went to some places that many of his friends have never been or will never go in their lifetimes. 

The flight left the Dhaka airport at midnight and arrived at 3am Dhaka time, really a hellish flight as far as timing goes. But the flight itself was spectacular. There was a 20 minute low ascent over southern Bangladesh, I saw the lights of Chittagong and thin trails of lights outlining the costal fringe of the Sundarban. We bumped through some weather as we got up over the Bay of Bengal. We broke through the clouds and into the heavens–a spectacular moonless sky lit up by the constellations and the milky way at its brightest. The plane followed the coast of Burma into Malaysia. Out over the left wing I saw the lights of Bangkok. Orange clouds hovered over the city and vicious cast bolts of lightning down into it. 

We began our descent into Singapore as the sun just broke the horizon. The clouds were pinkish. I saw the organization of the boats in the harbor neatly lined up, the elegant glass facades of the skyscrapers. I could see the cleanliness from the air.

It took a little while to get off the plane. It wasn’t even that filled up, but many of the passengers in my cabin were trying to steal the blankets. I heard a couple of rounds of “you can’t take that.” I didn’t know what was happening until the guy in front of me had a tan blanket snatched out of a shopping bag with the stewardess saying “you can’t take that.” 

I read the notice on my entry card, “drug trafficking punishable by death” and swallowed my adams apple as my bag got scanned upon leaving the airport. I feared that Dhaka airport crew put some drugs in my bag to play some sort of sick joke. 

On the ground, I was struck by the lack of traffic, the Lamborghinis, the quietness. The 12 hours spent traveling to the Dhaka airport, flying to Singapore, taking the clean efficient metro into the city, and walking the final well swept blocks to my hostel was one of the most shocking experiences of the year. From the bottom 1% to the top 1% in a flash. 


Dr. Asish Ghosh: Harvesting Environmentalism

One overhead fan beats back the thick humid heat of the Kolkata morning that seeps through the open door. The lights stay off to keep the place cool but leave the office feeling cave-like. A cave sounds a touch too primitive to describe the office of the founder of the Society for Environment and Development, a network of professors and professionals—spanning across multiple disciplines—that try to convert climate and sustainability ‘talk’ into some much needed ‘action’ in India. 

So let’s call it a lair. Remnants of a life’s work overflow out of trophy cabinets, off of shelves, and reshape pin boards to into complex geometries. The desk is unconventional for this day and age. A worn mechanical pencil sharpener perches off of the side. There’s no computer next to the topography of paper stacks, but a elegantly arched wooden smoker’s pipe. The sole piece of technology besides the light fixtures is a Samsung phone that rings constantly. Hindi, Bengali, and English regularly spoken through each end of the line.

Behind the desk sits now 76-year old Dr. Asish Kumar Ghosh in an off-yellow, cushioned armchair. The high-backed armchair looks throne-like in contrast to the small stature of the scientist and professor. From his  chair he addresses his audience directly, with a gleam in his eye that’s mirrored by the white of his neatly trimmed monopoly-man mustache that frequently twirls up in a delightful grin. 

Across the room is a painting of flowers. The composition shows a cross section of soil—the greens, whites, and browns in the painting evoke the aesthetic of the West Bengali rice paddies. The design looks like it borrowed equally from the influences of islamic architecture and from a collection of child’s kindergarten paintings. The painting is a relevant symbol, for Dr. Ghosh is in the business of spreading seeds. 

We sat down for what I at intended to be a conversation that turned quickly—and fine by me—into a lecture. Seeds were the topic of conversation for the day. I was happy to have Dr. Ghosh, or Sir as all of his employees and students call him, impart his wisdom onto me. He’s one of India’s pioneer environmentalists and a household name amongst the environmentally conscious nationwide. And there began what reminded me almost exactly of a one-on-one class with a Bowdoin College professor.

Unlike Dr. Ghosh, I do not hold a PhD in Agricultural Science so I apologize for any misuse or bastardization of technical terms—terms which I’m going to try to avoid using anyways. 

Over the past couple of millennium that humans have settled in the Bengal region of South Asia and farmed, 6,000 differentiated varieties of rice have developed. Each of those 6,000 species were selected for their resiliency in a particular sub-ecosystem, altitude, or terrain. Some could withstand droughts, others monsoons, a few grew even in the brackish water in the tidal delta region. And that was just rice in Bengal. Zoom out across India, and you would have found thousands upon thousands of specific sub-species of rice, wheat, and millet with unique properties that farmers had passed on from father to son through the generations. 

The decades after World War Two were marked by hunger, famine, and food crisis in India. In the late 1960s, the Green Revolution swept South Asia and combatted food shortages by farming with ‘miracle crops’ and heavy uses of fertilizer, pesticide, and industrial irrigation techniques. Crop yields soared and brought an India in crisis to food security. India is still an exporter of food today, even with its unwieldy population growth—India’s 1.2 billion people are targeted to reach 1.5 billion people by mid-century. Despite the broad successes of the Green Revolution, it didn’t come without its drawbacks and unintended consequences. 

For example, there is a train line that runs south from Punjab to Gujarat that has been dubbed something akin to ‘The Cancer Express.’ Because of the use of a certain fertilizer in Punjab, there is a high incidence of cancer in those agricultural districts that has been irrefutably linked to that chemical use in farms there. Farmers from Punjab take the train to Gujarat for treatment. The same fertilizer is banned in the United States, but the food grown in India with it is probably still exported stateside.

Additionally, although there is excess food production—storage containers fill up regularly and leave waste outside to rot—the poorest of the poor still go hungry in India. It is cheaper to let the food sit and rot outside of storage units than to distribute it among the neediest of the 37% of Indians who live below the poverty line. 

And finally, as Indian farmers adopted western farming practices, they lost touch with their traditional knowledge, especially about the diversity of their seed stores. With no concept of a need to preserve those seeds, they abandoned their heritage of knowledge of seeds developed over time.

In an attempt to achieve short term food security, Indian agriculture lost long term resiliency and their diversity of subspecies that can withstand a wide spectrum of climate conditions.

Climate change changes the weather in sporadic and unpredictable intervals. The environment could be hotter, colder, wetter, drier, or as sea levels rise, saltier. It’s a broad depth of adaptable, resilient crop types that needed in the climate change era in addition to one ‘supercrop.’ 

Dr. Ghosh has seen this agricultural transformation occur in his lifetime. In the late 60s, he was studying for multiple PhDs in Madison, Wisconsin as a Fulbright Scholar. (Before leaving, he needed to take an oath at the US embassy swearing that he wasn’t a communist. In Madison, he was featured on the front page of a newspaper participating in an anti-Vietnam War rally. The picture got back to the embassy and he got in a bit of a pickle.) Although Ghosh was offered plenty of opportunities to stay on in the United States and start a career, he knew he had to return to India, indebted to serve the country and the citizenry of India who’s tax money funded his undergraduate education. And that’s exactly what he did. 

In one of his most recent projects, Ghosh led the Center for Environment and Development to rediscover some of India’s lost seeds that could succeed in the coastal regions of West Bengal where salt water intrusion is ruining agricultural yields.  

One particular region that seeing some of the swiftest environmental changes is the agricultural belt on the fringes of the Sundarban mangrove forest where salty seas are rising to the level of—or even above—farmland. Earthen embankments are the only wall of defense. 

While young technical academics may wiz through technology databases and infiltrate google for answers, Ghosh’s file cabinets contain information not on Google, and he was able to identify the locations of tiny samples of six species of long lost salt-resistant seeds. Some were in the archives of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and the rest were in villages in the remotest Sundarban islands. Of the six, four were replicated into sufficient quantities by scientists. The most promising could handle soil salinity of up to 7mS/cm, a measure of conductivity. 

Next, Ghosh reintroduced those seeds back to villages. He told me that the village farmers seemed to realize how special these new—but old—seeds were. A song was written about them and they were called the miracle seeds! After each crop cycle, farmers took a bundle of the seeds to store away among their most important possessions. Since the project, the seeds have been protected year after year and the stewardship of these plants was taken on board by the villages themselves.

Dr. Ghosh has made the human-inhabited Sundarban region more resilient. For free. 

“Asish’s job is over.” he said to me. He helped the villages rediscover their traditional expertise then left. He’s hoping to reintroduce these seeds to the whole coastal agricultural belt bordering the Sundarban, that’s 220km of West Bengal coastline.

Ghosh’s new project is to study how climate change and sea level rise will impact human migration out of delta areas in Africa and Asia. “It’s going to be the world’s largest migration of humans,” he told me, “all in predominantly muslim areas.”

Soon, he’s traveling to the Odisha on the middle east coast of India for the delta migrations project, but he told me he’s going to take the seeds with him in his back pocket and try to get it started there too. 

Dr. Ghosh has developed a demeanor with students that he must have adopted during his years in Wisconsin. He spent over two hours lecturing me, with an intermission for Darjeeling tea.  Ghosh clearly shows that he takes an interest in the ambitions of young people. He often remarks on the successes of his old students and boasts about the feats of the most accomplished. 

His students are his other bag of seeds. They seem to be everywhere; a growing force of environmentalists. 

Later on that afternoon, I walked six blocks north to another office building to see one of those students, Dr. Anurag Danda who is now the Head of Climate Change Adaptation & Sundarbans Landscape for the World Wildlife Fund India. 

Dr. Danda wore a patterned short-sleeved shirt that would have been a huge hit among the trendiest canal lanes of Amsterdam. He even spoke english with an accent as if he were native Dutch. But Danda was born and raised in the Indian state of Maharashtra—even though he identifies as a West Bengali now (That’s like an LA person becoming a New York person). His intriguing dialect was adopted while studying in the Netherlands for his PhD. His thesis was on water management and adaptation to climate stresses in the Sundarbans. He literally took lessons from the Dutch and modified them into an in depth analysis of the Indian mangrove delta–but he did that two decades before the rest of us. 

In Kolkata, he told me, there is a lot of climate talk, but little to no action. As an organization without access to big sources of funding, the WWF office mostly directs it’s energy closing the loop between the science, the villages and the politicians. They crosscheck recorded climate patterns and see if they are observed by the villagers themselves, who are for the most part absent minded to the formal academic concepts of ‘climate change.’ But if the villagers say, “oh my, we do see the soil getting drier!” that verifies that changes in the data are mirrored by empirical evidence in the real world. 

In addition to their work in the Sundarban, WWF India’s other climate adaptation project works to improve the health of the Ramganga tributary of the Ganges. 

Politicians will not get interested in climate adaptation projects unless there are hefty price tags and whispers of gigantic sums of money transferred between bank accounts, I was told. Politicians won’t be interested in anything short of large-scale hard infrastructure adaptation projects. But something like a multi-billion dollar flood gate project doesn’t match the geographical nature of the area here. The Sundarban mangrove is Kolkata’s front line, a geo-engineering project by Gaea her wonderful self. 

The most vulnerable, all 4.5 million of them, live on inhabited mangrove islands just inland of the protected nature reserve. The adaptation investment that is needed is not a Bay of Bengal Wide concrete wall, but reinforcements of the hundreds of kilometers of earthen embankments which hold back not only the freshwater flowing south in the rivers but also the saltwater of the high tides that the Bay brings. Behind the embankments are villages, agricultural land, and 4.5 million lives. 

On May 29th, 2009 Cyclone Aila destroyed 900km of such embankments as 125 kilometer an hour winds and 40 foot waves barraged unapologetically through. Salt water flowed out onto so much agricultural land and ruined the soil to such a degree that growing rice in 2010 was impossible. (The next season Ghosh came down with his salt resistant seeds). 

The Sundarban dikes are earthen soil embankments, significantly less high-tech than the concrete dikes that stitch the Netherlands landscape together. The Dutch have doubts about the longevity and efficiency of their professionally engineered dikes. And here in India with the bonus threats of earthquakes and cyclones, villages rely on farmer-constructed earthen walls. The thoughts give me flashbacks to being back on the beach as a kid, no matter how much sand I’d add to my sand castle’s walls, the rising tide and rolling waves would always win. Just, the stakes are a bit higher.

After Aila, many of the dikes were left unrepaired. There was a question of ownership and a good reason for confusion.

Ashoka was a king who ruled the Indian subcontinent before Christ. In his time the Zamindari system started. A landlord would build an embankment around an island and lease out the land for economic extraction—farming, honey collection, fishing—as long as taxes were paid to the landlord. It was in the Zamindar’s private interest to maintain the structure of the embankments. A similar system existed until 1947, India’s independence. 

Since then, the upkeep of the Sundarban dikes has been passed around from department to bureaucratic department. The department of agriculture developed an adequate maintenance system, but then an amendment to the constitution gave the duties to another bureau so the office with the good system no longer has the funding. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle where the pieces are tossed between three scrambled up boxes. And each box is locked. A Bengal tiger swallowed the keys. 

So who is responsible to rebuild? The tide people are waiting, expecting the government to show up.

At the same time that it is unfair to place the burden on impecunious people who lost a year’s supply of crop yield, homes, livelihoods and loved ones to strap up and re-build, it’s those very people who have chosen to live in a volatile landscape. Maybe it’s the premium people need to pay for living on vulnerable areas of the coast. 

And I think paying a premium is exactly right for those who own vacation homes on Cape Cod or Long Island in precarious landscapes, but for people such as these who have been forced to come to the Sundarbans to find refuge from religious, political, or social persecution—because they have no where else to go—the question of who pays becomes a little bit more twisted. 

It’s easy to say: the cost of living here is too high and all ‘tide people,’ as they’re referred to in Amitav Ghosh’s novel about the Sundarban’s The Hungry Tide, must move to the interior of the country. But there is another, often overlooked human element involved—the deep attachment and association to what people call to home. In the Sundarban, the people have just as many roots into the mud as the mangroves themselves, and no matter how hard the waves crash, they want to stay. 

This passage from The Hungry Tide puts it well: 

“Once we lived in Bangladesh, in Khulna jill: we’re tide country people, from the Sundarban’s edge. When the war broke out, our village was burned to ash; we crossed the border, there was nowhere else to go. We were met by the police and taken away; in buses they drove us to a settlement camp. We’d never seen such a place, such a dry emptiness; the earth was so red it seemed to be stained with blood. For those who lived there, that dust was as good as gold; they loved it just as we love our tide country mud. But no matter how we tried, we couldn’t settle there: rivers ran in our heads, the tides were in our blood.” p.175

This fictional paragraph was verified by an economic experiment. Dr. Ghosh told me that a micro-finance, small loans bank, similar to Grameen Bank, offered to give families a significant amount of money—more money than the many of the village woman the loan was offered to had ever held in their entire lives—to move inland. In a notable quantity of cases, the loan was declined. They wanted to stay. 

In a place where natural disasters are seen as an act of god rather than an effect of a climate system,  a place where Bon Bibi, the forest goddess, is worshiped for luck and fortune, there may be more involved than climate scientists in Europe think. It’s not just about packing home and moving. They may go down with the ship.

I asked Dr. Danda about whose duty it is to pay for the costs of climate change. He is optimistic that climate change is an opportunity for nations to work together. Climate change in Danda’s view is the first time all nations can work together against an outside adversary.

“We’ve never been attacked by extra-terrestrials,” he said, then began to pipe up, “but climate change is by and large a threat to humanity itself.” It’s a reason for nations to cooperate; a call to arms to fight for the common good of mankind. 

So, in Danda’s mind, the payment question comes from the very top. But he also thinks it comes from the very bottom, from the personal and household level. It’s in the private interest of individuals and households to pay for their own defenses. Choose to build in a risky location you should have to pay for it.

“If your house is on fire? Who’s job is it to get the fire out? It’s the same as any other disaster. Sea level rise is just complicated because it is slow onset. Well, slow onset that becomes like a fast onset disaster very quickly.”

At the end of the conversation, Dr. Danda told me he fears for the world his granddaughters are going to be born into. But he doesn’t have a doomsday attitude. He seems to be exactly the right type of bright minded person needed to be head of Climate Adaptation in India. He’s currently stocking up on more tools at the Dutch armory as he is working at TU Delft in the Netherlands for his second PhD now.  

The Sundarbans

The Sundarban is the largest estruine forest in the world. It’s the mouth of the Ganges river; the planet’s biggest delta. The Sundarbans cover 10,000 square kilometers of jungle, the majority of which is mangrove. It forms the apex of the Bay of Bengal’s triangle between the east coast of India and the west coast of Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia. The forest is shared between India and Bangladesh, but two thirds of the forest lie across India’s border.

Screenshot 2014-04-07 09.40.50
The red line roughly follows the border between India and Bangladesh. I marked Kolkata and Dhaka with red dots.

The Sundarbans reserve is visited by thousands of tourists every year because it is a sanctuary for the Royal Bengal Tiger.  There are only about two hundred big, mean, salt-water drinking felines. Territorial and solitary, tigers keep their space from one another. That means that on average, there is one tiger in every 50 square kilometers. The chances of sightings are minimal.

I went down for another reason, although seeing a tiger would have been a welcome bonus. In addition to being a ecological and bio-diverse wonder, the Sundarbans have a crucial importance protecting two of the worlds fastest growing, most populated, and poorest cities in the world.

Even though Kokata and Dhaka are over 100 kilometers from the Bay of Bengal, the Sundarban forest acts as a cyclone buffer. The mangroves are a protective shield, mother-earth’s storm surge barrier.  The forest cuts storms off from their energy source, warm ocean water, and tames their intensity before they hit landfall on the doorsteps of these south asian megacities. Cyclones need to pass through the mangrove jungle before they reach the urban one.

Officially, Kolkata is only 5 meters above sea level, which makes for a negligible gradient as the land slopes 120 kilometers towards the sea. Water looms all on sides. It flows down from the Himalayas in great rivers, ebbs and flows upstream from the Bay of Bengal, and for a couple months every year falls from the sky in the Moonsoon’s deluge.

Even after fighting its way through the banded web of the Sundarban mangroves, cyclones have hit the area recently, and with devastating results. Kolkata has been lucky in recent years as cyclones have veered easterly into Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh.

But more devastating outcomes loom ahead, especially as sea levels rise and drown parts of the mangrove. The loss of the Sundarbans threatens the habitat of the already endangered Bengal tiger and it threatens the livelihoods of over four million people that make their living on the fringes of the Sundarban (making bricks, fishing for shrimp, farming rice, or collecting honey (with masks on the back of their heads to confuse the tigers who always attack from behind). But the rising sea also has an effect much further down river as it hacks down the natural shield that protects two urban centers and over 200 million people.

Sometimes the natural world comes up with the best solutions for things.  Inventors often adapt mechanisms observed in the natural world into machines.

The Sundarbans is far more effective than any designed storm surge barrier and would save Indians and Bangladeshis, many of whom can’t even feed themselves regularly, the task of funding a multi-billion dollar project to protect their homes.

The Dutch, who are ahead of the curve, are trying to emulate the natural process of the Sundarbans by pumping the seabed of the North Sea into fortifying sand dunes.

In India, they are accelerating the degradation of the mangroves with chemical pollution and rerouting rivers which off-sets the salinity balance and kills the species of mangroves.


Before I came to India, I heard and read how utterly shocking roads are in rural India. Adam Smith, a British director who I met in London described the roads as a ‘symphony’ as he waved and interlocked his arms mentioning the array of animals, vehicles, and human traffic that intertwine into a functional chaos.

I read George Black’s essay about traveling on the roads in Bangladesh which read: “By the end of the first day, it’s already become an ingrained reflex: brace for impact as yet another suicidal rickshaw, luridly painted with pictures of birds, animals, and Bollywood stars, swerves suddenly into our path. Our driver bangs on the horn, shimmies to the right, avoids an onrushing bus by a matter of inches, then calmly resumes his navigation of the demented streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I relax my death grip on the dashboard and exhale.”

Hearing those impressions for the first time, I smiled at the humor, reading through it as hyperbole.

But then I was there, immersed in it and thought, ‘Yes. Yes. You were exactly right.’

Before departing for the Sundarbans, my biggest fear was getting dragged off by a tiger in the middle of the night or drowned by a crocodile. If the animals didn’t get me, I feared the Dacoits, the armed pirates, (a tourist craft was robbed under moonlight by masked robbers in mid-february). I left all my valuables, except my passport, in Kolkata.

I was only a couple kilometers out of the city when I realized that my fears were not in line with the real dangers. If I was going to be hurt it would be on the trip down between the city and the boat dock.

Outside of Kolkata, heading south, the landscape is characterized by primitive mud walls protecting small conglomerations of palm-thatched houses, acres of paddies, and frequent brick kiln chimneys, emanating smoke,  that tower impressively high above the squalor, poverty, yet complete brilliance of a place where humans have built communities on landscapes where humans are simply not supposed to live.

The landscape looks iconically dutch, but without well-engineered dikes, cute windmills, or bike paths set apart from the roadway. Water is everywhere.

The roads are infested with bikes, scooters, and motorcyles, but dominated by big trucks that speed down the cluttered roadway with the same force that a 12-wheeler would barrel through the uninhabited desert in Nevada.

The bus I was on would scape by goods carriers loaded with pumpkins or coconuts. It rolled onto the siding of the thin road to miss a rickshaw so overloaded with plastic tubing that the loaded machines width was five times longer than the tuk tuk itself.

You see a car carrying an excess of a dozen people, you see trucks carrying a small village, families pile into rickshaws that could barely fit three people my size. Boys hang onto the backs of trucks, men sit cross-legged on roofs, legs hang perilously off the sides of cargo-bedded three wheeled motorcycles. Life is valued differently here.

I was sitting in the front row of the bus. Thick paned glass separated me from the cockpit where a driver and his co-pilot navigated the roads–that make New York City look like rural Maine, with lackadaisical confidence.

It was one of those situations that happen all too frequently in India, where you are tossed into an unpredictable situation and realize that it is all so far out of your hands. Might as well enjoy the ride.


I stepped off the boat and into the heat. The air was hard to breath. It was like stepping into a sauna, where the heat is so strong that it envelops you into invisible pressure that is persistently trying to knock you off into sleep. Even the dark skinned indians walked around with umbrellas to guard them against the intensity of the sun.

Before getting on the tourist craft, the boat wanted a xeroxed copy of my passport and visa. The man asked for my passport, I handed it to him. Then he asked for my visa, I showed him the page. Then he asked for my passport. I pointed at it. He was confused and didn’t realize that they were both in the same blue book. I didn’t feel great leaving my identity, my most valuable possession, and my ticket out, left at the hands of a 5 foot short jittery man as he disappeared into the cracks of the village so I followed him, keeping my eyes on my passport the whole time, and giggling to myself about how ridiculous it must have looked to have this tiny man chased through the back-alleys, canal sides, and markets of this compact and hectic fringe town by a white man, drenched with sweat almost double his size.

Passports got sorted.

The cruise set off.

We passed through settlements above, where people subside off of honey collecting, shrimp farming, and live in mud thatched houses, many of which had solar panels on the roofs and satellite dishes on the sides. But the villages were primitive and far more interesting than any of the wildlife we saw (some birds, mud skippers, crabs, a couple of lizards, deer, a wild boar, and the fin of a dolphin). There was a troupe of young IT engineers at TATA, one of the biggest Indian multinationals, that reveled at the sight of deer. Understandable for people that live in the thick of a city like this.

For me, the wildlife touring was significantly less interesting that watching the settlements on the fringes of the wildlife sanctuary and national park. But the day cruise that followed was peaceful and highlighted by sunset and sunrise in one of the remotest and wildest places I’d ever been. I slept that night, outside my cabin could have been the set of the heart of darkness but I rested pretty soundly with malaria-pill enhanced dreams and was happy that I slept through the night without being awoken by a masked robber.

A Problem of Plenty.


Open this .pdf for my post with pictures. I think posting pictures through a .pdf document solves the problem of slow uploads. I’ll make some .pdf photo albums for you guys to look at. Here’s the original post so that you don’t need to download it:


Bombay is a city of 20 million people and it’s steadily growing.

“People migrate to Mumbai from all over India—and even other parts of the world—because of the opportunities here”, Dr. Pasnaris told me. “There are resources and potential jobs.” It’s the business center of the country, people flock here with dreams of economic prosperity.

Dr. Anjali Pasnaris is the Associate Director of The Energy and Resources Institute, a major Indian environmental research institute that investigates resources, climate trends, and population. TERI has started it’s own university and developed a rating system to accredit green buildings that the Indian government has adopted as the official rating system.

Dr. Pasnaris’ personal research interests focus on water: sanitation and filtration systems, flood mapping, and the monsoon. She invited me to visit her office in Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai).

Mumbai has a good supply of fresh water, she told me. It just comes all at once. It rains 33% of the time here, but it all comes in four months in a row. During the monsoon, enough water accumulates here to sustain the city for the other 8 months–the dry, and swelteringly hot, season. Migrants from all corners of India flock to the nation’s economic center in hopes of finding work on the countless construction projects, sell produce at the enormous bazaars, or seek other enterprises. Even though the prospect of work isn’t guaranteed, at least there will be water. That’s a major draw.

I’m watching this relentless growth from my apartment in Agripada, the muslim quarter of central Mumbai. In the past 10 days, a string of shelters has popped up on the street outside. New ones are added each day. Men haul plastic road barriers from the city’s construction sites into position to lay three walls. A few have flimsy roofs–assorted plastic sewn together, or a blue tarp if they’re lucky–that lap around like an inadequately rigged sailboat.They are empty inside, beside a couple of pots and pans and rags.

But as I walk down the street and around the corner they gain floors, sturdier walls, electricity. It’s like a walkable timelapse! Oil barrels are burned, and flattened to make sturdier walls. Bricks are laid; second stories are added. The end result is a patchwork, a collage of recycled goods and colors. The city’s future families builds their homes out of the used and decrepit material of the city’s past. Eventually, the roadside slums tap into electricity cables. Walking by, I peer into one of these hand crafted domestic residences, beyond the outer layer of repurposed trash and the waste cluttered doorstep into an immaculately clean interior with refrigerators, kettles steaming, and televisions glaring. A working home. The string of homes becomes a vibrant community, a bordered settlement of Mumbai’s migrants in front of the apartments behind.

Women chop vegetables and do laundry sitting on the road. Kids clamor on ladders and peer out from second story stoops. Cricket balls are slapped around within the air pockets of the city carrying on around them. Inches from the child’s cricketer’s bare feet, taxis rush by. Goats and chickens mull in the cracks and crevasses, scavenging for scraps. More often than not the animals mistake plastic for food. Groups gather around houses for three reasons: fights, weddings, or deaths.

I asked my hostess, Soraya, if anyone was upset about these families squatting here. “Where else would they go?” she responded. Nobody, at least in her neighborhood, is pushing to get them to go anywhere quickly. Imagine that response in the West. 

Driving around the city, I see these roadside slums all over the place. But there are others even less fortunate. At night, after the roads declog from 9am-9pm bumper to bumper traffic, the city eerily descends from a loud bustling jungle into a quiet and sleepy city. The night reveals where masses take refuge: sleeping on the train station platforms, on the highway breakdown lanes, within oceanfront jetties and wave breakers. Individuals sleep on storefronts, doorsteps, up against trees. It’s staggering to drive through the city at night and see the hundreds of thousands, perhaps million homeless. With the morning light, the city returns to its usual bustle masking the refuge-camp-like nature of Mumbai at night.

It makes life in the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, look pleasant.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In Bombay, no space is left unoccupied, no footprint of the city goes unused. There are farms in between railroad tracks; stores and markets that take over roads. If there is any space freed up, the next day it will be reinvented. Since the beginning of the city’s history, Mumbai has wrestled to open up space. Bombay began as seven islands. It became the peninsula it’s recognized as today when land was reclaimed from the ocean.

Every square inch is used up. There are three ways to develop: East, into Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), West, to Thane, or UP!

Dr. Parasnis is especially critical of all of the high-rise building projects that multiply the city’s surface area, though. By multiplying square-footage, these projects are multiplying the amount of people that are living here, and consequently multiplying the demand on resources and also the amount of waste that needs to deal with.

We need to be critical of calling this growth ‘development,’ Parasnis said. At the moment they are just building projects. Development suggests progress. Dr. Parasnis prefers a practical approach, she hopes that Mumbai will think about sustainable city-making, rather than blindly stacking floors higher and higher in pursuit of short term profits.

I know very little about the real estate and development market here. But what I have heard is that builders unions hold an disproportionate amount of power in the city. They have a heavy backing from construction workers and have power up top from corrupted government officials. A lot of black money is dispersed into construction projects and often times, buildings are put up without construction permits and ignore safety standards. But money is one of the most important things here in Mumbai. Smart long term planning can’t weigh up.

In Navi Mumbai, projects are being constructed on top of reclaimed mangrove land. Mangroves are natural buffers from high tides and waves, habitats for biodiversity, and naturally cleanse wastewater. The mangroves provide important ecosystem services, but the return on investment from building above that land seems MORE is more valuable to the short-sighted project managers.

This is nothing new, though. Since the start of the urbanization of Bombay, human settlement has changed the character of the landscape, changed the way the water normally flowed. The ecology of the terrain was paved over with concrete. And for that, Parasnis argued, we can’t consider damage from monsoons to be a climate change problem, it’s a problem that humans have created. We’ve manicured the landscape and the water pools up in certain areas, usually where the lowest rung of society have built their homes.

I got to get a feel for Navi Mumbai when I was visiting TERI’s office. The city is spacious, quiet, peaceful. Compared to Mumbai, it’s strikingly clean. Navi Mumbai has an eery feeling to it, though. It’s like it’s an empty house; ready and waiting to be filled up to the brim and splashing out the sides like the density of Bombay.

Navi Mumbai is particularly low-lying. The western edge of it lies below sea level and filling in the mangroves exacerbates the vulnerability of the area. The city has a series of holding pools that fill up with water during high tides to store temporarily then release during low tide. They’re urban flood plains. But that’s the limit of the city of Mumbai’s defense against the sea.

To Parasnis, though, climate change and the impacts of sea level rise is small beans.

She told me that in the research she has done, she doesn’t see any evidence of sea level rise being a problem here. Her conclusion disagrees with that of the UN, the WorldBank, and climate scientists from major universities, and my own personal opinion. But I kept that to myself.

The point she was trying to make was more subtle, I think. With all the challenges that Mumbai is facing up to, the slow, gradual rise of the sea isn’t a pressing issue.

Think about it like this. When a child is hungry, his main concern is finding food to eat. But a child that has food all the time finds other issues to be meddled by. What sports should he play, which girls should he like, etc. Sea level rise, in Dr. Parasnis’s eyes is a problem of plenty.

But it can’t be played that simply. It’s not that easy to cast sea level rise off as a problem for the privileged. It’s a problem. That will make every other problem Mumbai already faces much worse down the line.

The Netherlands is a rich country. Its entire population is half the size of this city and the nation has the resources, energy, and expertise in the field of climate change resilience. But they need to be. The Netherlands wouldn’t be a country if they didn’t. Sea level rise isn’t an issue only because they are rich. For them it’s a matter of defending their land and maintaining their identity.

“If a tsunami hits, there is nothing Mumbai could do about a 50 foot wave crashing into it. The city is on a fault-line, there could be an earthquake,” Dr. Parasnis said, “if something like that happens, the city is completely unpreppared.” Sea level rise, and storms, fall under that category of disasters in Parasnis’s opinion.

Yes, there is nothing Mumbai could do against an earthquake or 50 ft tsunami. And in this regard, a place like Mumbai is much more vulnerable geologic hotspot than Rotterdam. The Netherlands simply doesn’t have gigantic risks on their portfolio of potential disasters.

But sea level rise can’t be likened to a completely spontaneous disaster. It’s something predictable. It’s a slow onset disaster.

Even though Mumbai has so many social, political, and economic woes to address, it doesn’t mean that these issues of sea level rise can be ignored. In the same way that we need to build our future cities based on predictions of population growth, resource, and energy requirements, we also need to build incorporating predictions about the state of nature. Climate change, too, should be addressed within the framework of sustainable growth.

I moved on, and asked her about her research on wastewater treatment. I thought she’d be interested in the ideas Chicago’s UrbanLab has to treat wastewater using natural ecosystem functions to clean water. The main problem that U.S. markets have with the technology is that its making our waste visible. Americans tend to ignore our waste. Once it’s flushed down the toilet or tossed in the trash, it’s happily gone. But in India, waste is everywhere. There is a cultural tradition of re-use and many of the poorer neighborhoods living in close contact with human waste anyways, so I think a water-purifying living machine could really work here.

Our conservation turned towards the culture of trash. Garbage is littered everywhere. Plastics clog the streets, there are mountains of garbage in random corners, and the train tracks barely surface above a sea of waste. In India, it’s the tragedy of the commons, people take immaculate care of their own space, but shared area is thrown to the wayside.

Dr. Parasnis, explained that in the Indian cultural tradition, there is a huge importance of recycling. Cotton is used and re-purposed until it is grated into dust. Food waste is composted and burned as fuel. With globalization, though, there has been an introduction of new materials: plastics, polyesters, and more and nobody knows how to deal with it, so it’s tossed outside onto the sidewalk.

Indian traditions of sustainability extend beyond just household waste. Sustainability is part of cultural identity. Many families are vegetarian for all but 2 or 3 meals. They know that otherwise, there are too many demands and stresses on food supply. Fishing villages don’t fish during the monsoon when fish are breeding because they know they need to restock the populations to have food for the rest of the year.

Villages and communities figure out how to manage their habitat and use it’s resources that it sustains the generations over time. People from one area get to know their landscape well and become stewards of it. It’s necessary for their longterm survival.

This is all changing as people move rapidly into cities in India and all over the world, though. I think there is hope, though. Even in Mumbai, people of similar geographic and religious backgrounds live and group together. If any change is going to happen, it would need to percolate up through the roots. Decentralized. Nothing will happen top down.

Urbanization is a new thing and sustainable urbanism is a problem we should now address.

One final point that Dr. Parasnis mentioned is that Indians in general are happy and they stay happy. Perhaps that is their most important adaptation. That’s resiliency. They stay content and happy sharing food with family, walking the streets with friends, or just idling next to the company of peers.

At the end of my time at TERI, a biodiversity researcher named Yatish took me out to show me the holding pools along Navi Mumbai’s western coast. We talked more about the rapidly developing city, the building unions, the pursuit of power, money, and profit. We both agreed that many who are deep in this rat race to make it big have their time perspectives completely askew. Many will throw long-term sustainability completely by the wayside in order to make money on a housing development in the longterm.

“The best part of the pools”, Yatish said, “is that they stink. Nobody wants to build their home around here except the mangroves and the birds.”

I hoped on the hour train ride home. North through Navi Mumbai, west over the Vashi Creek, and South to Mumbai’s northern suburb of Bandra. The train ride is easily the best tour of Mumbai that you can get. It’s practically free. The doors are wide open, the warm breeze flows powerfully through the cars. You can hang out of the doors as the city zips by. You see trackside farms, cricket fields, neighborhoods, tents, people walking along the tracks like they are sidewalks. You see the city in the fullest of it’s complexities, layers, and beautiful disorganization.

I thought about what Parasnis said, about everyone staying happy.  The sun was setting and a thick orange haze was lowering its way over the city. I saw kid leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone over a trash and waste filled creek, bubbling with toxicity. On the bridge above him, two old men, with their arms on each others shoulders sat laughing with huge teeth exposing grins. At their feet a family of goats milled about. The train slowed as we approached a station and I braced myself against the wall of the train to prepare for the surge of crowds shoving on and off, each man eyeing surprised to see such a foreign body riding public transportation. On the ride home, I felt especially content, just clattering through this city of 20 million people, just another one of the masses.

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,


El Calafate–El Chalten

“Booked into the Calafate Hostel. I was looking for a dorm room to stay in. Somehow I got stuck in a double with a lone German–a 40 year old man, boozed up and reeking of cigarettes. His first observation once I met him was that I didn’t have a tent. How did he know such a thing? Was he ruffling through my bag after his 8th beer? He then proceeded to give me an airline safety demonstration of his tent, taking it out from under his bed and showing it to me. He explained how it fits 2 and suggested that since I was alone, I should join him on his hiking trip. I haven’t been back to my room since.”

He continued drinking then snored all night like a huffalump. I was up at 6am and out of the room. I sprung out of bed. Usually I’m terrible at waking up, but I was excited to get as far away from this man as possible.

“Calafate looks like a western frontier town. It had one tree lined high street, the rest just looked like cubes that were arbitrarily thrown onto the plain, the way lego bricks tumble out of a box onto the floor. Except this wasn’t a very big lego box. Just a small one. The flat-topped mountains in the background look like they were designed for the woman who will be coming around the mountain when she comes. Yee-haw.”

The first thing I did when I arrived in Calafate was visit a bird sanctuary. It was really windy and pretty cold. But there were flamingos and other really unique birds flopping around. I was surprised to learn that flamingos set up shop in the Patagonian plains. I’ve always thought of them as residing exclusively in Lakes of Africa. A pleasant surprise, surely.

The next day I did a day long tour of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Glacier is an extension off the second largest ice sheet on the planet, second only after Antarctica. Perito Moreno is the most popular of the 47 glaciers that extend off of the Patagonic Continental Ice sheet. PM is incredibly accessible and is so staggeringly large and expansive that an impressive tourism infrastructure has profited off it. Off of the continental sheet, 13 glaciers melt into giant lakes towards the Patagonian desert. The tens of thousands of year-old ice melts into a beautiful turquoise blue and flows into small streams and rivers which cut the desert and eventually flow out into the Atlantic.

The ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.

The park is about an hour and a half from Calafate. I took a bus to a ferry dock, got an up-front and personal look at the glacier on boat, returned to the designed walkways on the cliffs facing the expansive glacier, then returned back to town. Half of the walkways were shut down because the glacier had been calving and massive blocks off ice were tumbling dangerously close to where spectators could hypothetically stand. There were opportunities to walk on top of the ice, but in no means was that cheap, so I passed it off.

That afternoon, I caught a bus to El Chalten. Chalten is dubbed the hiking capital of Argentina. I got there on a three hour bus ride around two of the large glacial lakes. The bus ride was from 7:30 to 10:30, but the sun was hung low in the sky for the whole ride. I arrived in Chalten late that night, spent a night in a hostel, very relieved to see that the German man was not my roommate. I stayed at the Rancho Grande hostel. There, I ran into about four different groups of people I had met at different stages throughout my time in Argentina. The most rewarding encounter was with two Middlebury girls I met out at a bar in BA. They just got off a 3 day trip and gave me their left-overs–a gift box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal, peanut butter!!!, a slew of delicious energy bars, powdered coffee, and toilet paper. They have no idea how happy these gifts made me. Really happy. I got up the next day and rented a tent and a stove, ready to go and spend the night at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia. Heres what I wrote at my campsite, reflecting on the previous two days:

“I’m sitting on a sandy patch of land in Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Its 6pm but the sun is still high in the sky here in the deep south of Patagonia. Mount Fitz Roy is a kilometer from me, towering up in the sky as the tallest mountain in Patagonia. It is marvelous to be sitting here in a cozy patch of soft sand with the warmth of the sun and a cool breeze. Like all of my hiking days in the Andes, today was spectacular. I hiked with Victor, my seat mate on the tour from El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier. Victor is a great, unabashed guy from Barcelona. We traded off, taking turns practicing Spanish/English as we hiked up to the spectacular lakes at the foot of the Fitz. As he left my campsite to hike back to Chalten he said, ‘Thanks for making my travels better.'”

“Perito Moreno was amazing. I kept it simple by taking an hour long boat ride and walking the ready prepared trail. No glaciar walking…too expensive. The glacier is staggering. Not only are the 60 meter faces, but the whole thing extends into the horizon, through a valley that the glacier itself carved through a string of mountains. Every once in a while, you’d hear a massive rumbling, louder than if there was a thunder-strike right above you. You’d look out over the ice expecting to see a significant chunk of the glacier falling into the lake triggering a tidal surge. I’d look out wide-eyed expecting to see the beginning of the world end, but be disappointed by barely noticing boulder sized chunks, which looked like pebbles in contrast to the sheer size of the glacier. Just the pebbles falling off the top would cause the ground to shake. The ice was very much alive: cracking, crumbling, and even roaring at unknown and unpredicted intervals. ”

“The bus between Calafate and Chalten was a gorgeous ride through the desert. Alpaca were hopping over fences and running off into the sun, there were turquoise rivers cutting the sandy desert, the sun was piercing through the window of the bus refusing to set. I’m at the bottom of the world, and I feel it.”

That night camping out alone was brilliant. I got to sit out, listen to the wind and watched the clouds that just hung over Fitz Roy. I cooked myself a pasta dinner and watched the mountain. That evening, clouds beheaded the top of Fitz, but couldn’t ever pass over it. The mountain was an impenetrable barrier.

Image 6
A day in the life: solo hiking. Campsite. Peanut Butter & Glaciers. Books. Relief. Built a home. Sweet smells of home.

The next day, I got up early and went on a hike through the wilderness to find a hanging glacier hugging a rocky ridge. I climbed up a mountain to observe it only to find a raw, wind-swept terrain. I couldn’t stand up without getting knocked over, so I had to lodge myself up against a rock behind me so that I didn’t fall off the mountain. Brilliant stuff. I was the only person up there, an eerily isolating feeling. I was staring down a natural force that outdates dinosaurs. The thought was sickening and in that isolation, my imagination started taking control. I pictured an earthquake ripping up the mountain beneath me and sending me into a molten magma crevasse, I thought the giant rocks would get set into motion by the wind and flatten me like a looney toon, then I worried that the glacier would slip off its millenium-old perch and add me to its records of time. I wasn’t ready for that–yet–so I went back down to camp to pack up and hit the road.

After returning my gear, I found a place that made a banana, avocado, and honey milkshake. My favorite thing.

That evening, I took the bus back to Calafate, booked a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile, then found a hostel for the night. Here are my notes from the bus back. I asked for a seat right up front so I could watch the desert.

  • Condor drags carcass of road kill off the road, fearless of the bus hurtling towards it.
  • Desert. Fences. Nothing but a road.
  • Dead alpaca caught on a barbed wire fence. Head and hind legs intact with fur, ribs are exposed, eaten from the inside out. Preyed on by the desert.
  • Sandy plain, snow capped mountains in the mist.

In Calafate, there was a street dog that I was particularly fond of. This dog was a bundle of energy. He wouldn’t ever stop doing what it loved to do. His favorite activity, in the whole wide world was to wait on the street until a car came by. The dog would run next to the car, barking at it. The dog would then get a step on the car and stick its head out in front of the bumper and try to bite the tire. Right before the dog would get smushed, he would dip out and run back to the starting position. Time after time after time. I stood on the curb and watched this pup do this over fifteen times in a row. It was homeless, but knew how to have a damn good time. Fearless.

At this point in my trip, I only had 60 pesos (6 dollars) and 50 US dollars in cash to get my through Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego. I knew that was going to turn out to be a problem, but not something to worry about for now. I was heading to Chile, a country without the same currency controls so I would be able to use my debit card, rather than just rely on cash that I had exchanged a world away in Buenos Aires.


I was by myself  in the drizzling rain in front of Hamburg’s state house eating a döner kabab for dinner. The people watching was supreme. Just about as good as it gets. The World Wildlife Foundation had a fundraiser for panda’s. They had about 1,600 plastic terrier sized panda bears strewn all across the plaza. They were selling them in order to raise money for conservation. I saw couples awkwardly taking pictures of each other, but in order to get the whole state house in the picture frame, you would need to back up about 20 yards. So I’d see men or women just standing there with a half-smile, awkardly shifting their weight from one leg to the other, while the other would back up and take a shot. Then they’d switch. That happened about eight times. It was magic. There were some asian solo travelers who would creep around, scanning to make sure nobody was looking and flick off a Ben-Bruce style selfie (peace sign included, though).

The clock struck 7pm.

I had one of those google map moments in my head where I zoomed out from where I was sitting to see the cityscape of Hamburg, then Europe, then roll across the Atlantic to Maine then down onto Brunswick, then right to the Bowdoin Rugby field where the boys were kicking off at that exact moment against the University of Maine Farmington.

Saturdays with the Bowdoin Rugby Team were my fondest memories of Bowdoin. Envisioning them taking the field put shivers down my spine.

I realized how far away I was–in more ways than just geographic distance–but at the same time I felt very content to be where I was, with my kebab, and with my thoughts and an awesome gothic statehouse to engage with.

Today was a day that I felt the magic of traveling, discovering new places, popping into unknown places, and finding unexpectedly brilliant results. The magic comes from the unplanned.

I only had one full day in Hamburg, so I really wanted to learn as much as possible about what the city is doing in terms of climate adaptation and flood resiliency. I’d been told by various people in the Netherlands and by an architect back in the United States that Hamburg is on the forefront of integrating coastal defenses into urban design. I didn’t really know where to start looking, but I knew, from my experiences in the Netherlands, to walk towards the water then start looking there.

I had a faint conception of what to look for. I’d heard of elevated promenades, watertight garage doors, and a large-scale riverfront development project. Google led me towards the ‘Hafen City’ development project and signposts on the street led me to the ‘Hafen City information center.’

Hafen City is the largest development project in Europe. Hamburg is trying to revitalize the city center and replace old warehouses, factories, and dock space with a mix of offices, residential apartments, and shopping. The centerpiece of the project will include an aquarium and a big symphony orchestra concert hall.

The inner city of Hamburg has struggled since the World War II when 50% of the city was bombed and destroyed. In the 80s, 0.8% of Hamburg’s workforce lived outside of the city and commuted in. Most of the residents of the city center were on social welfare benefits. It was not a pleasant place to be.

Hamburg is located on the Elbe River, but the city has never has been integrated into the waterfront. The riverfront of the city ended with large red brick industrial warehouses that were built out of the riverbanks.

Citizens of Hamburg thought of the city limits as the warehouses, they never interacted with the river, even though the River was brought Hamburg’s economy to life in the first place. Hamburg is the second biggest port in Europe. (After Rotterdam).

The Hafen City development project extends the city beyond the thick curtain of the red brick industrial warehouses. The developers of Hafen City are charged with the project of making a new city center. How do you make a place from scratch. They seem to have very successful projects to bring art and culture to the new development. The impressive concert hall (I only saw the model) should also really help. The developers are integrating a new waterfront into the urban fabric in a way that has never been done in 150 years of Hamburg’s history.

Building in the river comes with risk, however, even though the city is miles inland from the North Sea, the Elbe River has huge tidal swings and storm surges travel up the river. The tides swing about 8m each way. The most recent floods in Hamburg were in 2007. Hafen City has built up with flood defense in mind. It is built on three different levels, and there is a public promenade up on the 1st floor, one floor above street level, so that people can move around if the water slips onto the streets. Offices have 1st flood entrances and can seal their ground floor entrances water tight to prevent damage from occurring.

What I found interesting was that the city split the cost of flood protection with the private property owners in each place. The paid for the civil engineering to build the two separate levels, while the private property owners pay for the rest of it, watertight seals and proper foundations and so on. It’s a project that can handle water. So bring it on.

I was pretty impressed with myself for learning all this in one day, one morning at that. Here’s how I did it:

As soon as I walked into the Hafen City information center, I saw a sign welcoming the Danish Society of Architects for their presentation ‘Hafen City: Sustainable Development for Europe’s Coastal Cities.’ I thought I came from Copenhagen so I’m almost Danish and I like to draw pictures of buildings, so I’m almost an architect. I saw the big group gathered around the small models of the islands. Almost five minutes after I walked in, someone in a suit gathered them all and directed them towards a room. I slipped in the back and sat down. I didn’t say a word, scribbled some notes in my moleskin notebook and blended right in. I slipped out before the last question was asked and nobody noticed.

In the afternoon I went to the Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum. I had a blast drawing cartoons of painted portraits. I’ll post them up later. Some are pretty funny. Lots of things in Hamburg are called ‘Hamburger ____.’ I’m not going to lie, I went into one of them and asked if I could get a hamburger there. The guy looked at me for a couple puzzled seconds thinking this idiotic American and told me this was not a burger joint, it was a museum of artifacts collected by Hamburg’s sailors over the past 300 years. Many europeans think Americans are all fat and stupid. I am responsible for converting one more.

Some city’s are quite dreary with all the common global brand chains. Traveling makes me reminisce and dream about what traveling might have been like 30 years ago when places seemed so much more ‘authentic.’

Ben and Jerry’s is all over the Netherlands. To me B&Js is a mark of true Vermont. It’s a symbol of the states and represents northern New England the place I identify with. The ice cream is all over the Netherlands because Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company owns a majority stake of the ice cream.

7/11s are on every other street corner in Sweden.

McDonalds has continued its quest to take over the world and Burger King is following close behind.
It’s quite a dreary sight walking out of a city’s central station and into the downtown and find nothing unique or definitive about the place you walk into. Global branding takes its toll on the character of these cities.

It takes time to dig deeper and discover what makes a place what it is. I felt pretty happy once I wandered off the beaten path and found the old red brick buildings by the waterfront. The bricks were beautifully stained over a century and a half of weathering and in contrast of the green copper roofs they were really quite brilliant. So much nicer to wander through than alleys of fast food chains.

Thats just the reality of our time: Information. Digital connectivity. Global brands. iPhones. In another 50 years someone will be traveling, or teleporting around the world on reminisce on my era of traveling. As Woody Allen points out in Midnight in Paris, it’s easy to romanticize about a bygone era. Just find the meat of what you have in front of you.

Speaking of Paris. I’ll be there next weekend to see Sarah Diamond, who I haven’t seen since Milton and maybe meet up with my dude Stanton Plummer Cambridge.

I’m hopping on a bus to Berlin tomorrow.

Adapt or drown: Water Management in the Province of North Holland

“My father was born in that windmill,” Jos said as he briefly took his hand off the stick shift and pointed across the boggy landscape of the province of North Holland. Now unused, windmills across the Netherlands are reminders of the country’s rich history of land reclamation. Roughly one third of the country lies below sea level; the water was pumped out to create land for agriculture, livestock, towns, and cities. I heard those familiar words, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

Essentially, the Dutch build bathtubs by raising the sides of the tub with dikes and levees then pump the water out to create a polder. The windmills were the original pumps. Since the 1700s, they have been replaced by coal-fired and steam plants, and now they are completely powered by electricity. The windmills, although they are no longer functional, are a reminder of how long the Dutch have been at work creating the landscape they take for granted today.

Jos Besteman is the director of legal affairs for the Hollands Noorderkwatier Hoogheemraadschap, one of twenty-five water boards in the Netherlands. A Water Board is a public office in charge of preventing floods, keeping the land dry, and treating wastewater. If your affair falls under any context of ‘water management,’ then water board is in charge.

The water boards were some of the earliest democratic institutions in the world, developed in the Netherlands in the 13th century by councils of farmers and landowners who shared common interests in protecting their land from water. Since then, the original 1,500 water boards have consolidated into 25. The province of North Holland is one of the largest boards. Much of the province used to be a patchwork of lakes, so the Hollands Noorderkwatier Hoogheemraadschap has a lot to monitor.

It is an unusual form of governance, and likely unrepeatable in other part of the world. The boards were established even before the formation of the modern country. If one was set up in another part of the world, there is no simple way to answer the question: who should pay for a specific water defense? It would be difficult to assign the boundaries of a New York City water board and even more troublesome to convince all residents to the benefits of paying a water-management tax. Already in the Netherlands, the public is discontent about the premium they have to pay for flood defense. “We need a storm,” one of Jos’s colleagues told me, “people need to be convinced that this is actually something worth paying for.”

In fact, water management is so engrained into the Dutch landscape that most of the Netherlands doesn’t even consider the benefits the thousands of kilometers of dikes, pumping stations, and storm barriers provide them with. Water is the Dutch condition, but it is so transparent that most cannot even see what it actually does. The Dutch don’t even think about water.

“The local football fields here actually shift, depending on how much water is saturated in the ground below them. The players have no idea.”

Jos Besteman drove me out to the ‘weak point’ of the coastal flood defenses a 30 foot tall dike along the beach. The dike grows out of the landscape like a significant rumple in an otherwise completely flat carpet.  The curved hump of compounded clay breaks the force of currents, wind, and waves. It is much stronger than a flat concrete wall would be. The dike stretched for over 60km and is a primary defense from the North Sea.

At first impression, I couldn’t understand why the massive structure, recently renovated in 2007 was the weak point of the defense. It came clearer once I climbed on top of it. To my right was the whitewater of the North Sea and to my left a small farming village, seemingly playing Russian roulette with the forces of nature. “So a little water spilling over the top would be bad, but the real disaster occurs if part of the dike caved in,” I hypothesized.

“The town has relocated about 5 times in its history,” I was told. “The ruins of the old town are lying right there under the sea.”

“When’s the next move?”

“At this point, there is no where to go. These people will stay and fight the water, or be swept away with it.” For now, the town needs to rely on the computer systems, geologic modeling, knowledge and insight of the water board and the good faith in the firm protection of the dike. It’s not just the proximal towns relying on this construction though.

“The whole system of dikes and levees is so connected throughout the country. Everything affects something else. Engineered constructions in North Holland are what keep Amsterdam, 80km to the south protected from the sea.”

I thought of the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, and other Dutch masters, the churches, museums, and bridges whose longevity is dependent on the storm defense I was standing on. Then I thought about the masses living in Amsterdam—the commotion in Centraal Station, the buzz of the cyclists alongside the canals, and the stoned teenage tourists wandering through the city corridors, all completely oblivious to this impressive structure. It is just one impressive piece of the network that keeps the country dry.

Yet still, this dike is a concern for the water board. It was the weak point of the whole coastal defense. The dike was built as a substitute for sand dunes in the only stretch of coast where sand dunes do not exist naturally. When I first noticed the sand dunes in the hazy horizon, I finally understood why there were perceived shortcomings of the dike defense.

In contrast to the expansive fields that could be likened to the plains of the Midwest, the dunes looked mountainous. During my six weeks in the Netherlands, I have become well adjusted to living on or below sea level, and playing rugby on the unofficial lowest rugby pitch in the world. My knees began to shake as I climbed the 52-meter dunes, the tallest topography of North Holland. The dunes stretch inland 5km from the coast. “This is the safest place in the Netherlands,” Jos told me, “this is where I’d come if the dikes break.”

“You wouldn’t retreat to Switzerland?” I asked, thinking what I would do in the situation.

Jos smiled, as if I had asked a silly childish question. He thought for a second then softly remarked, “My family can be traced back 500 years to tribes that lived on this land. They say my great-great-great-great-way-back-great grandfather was one of the initial investors on one of the earliest polders (reclaimed land). My cousins are farmers here. I am one of my only friends who haven’t left this area. I married a girl whose family has been on this land for 200 years and mine has been around for 500.”

Jos had grown up in this region, commuted to the University of Amsterdam to study and never left. He told me, “If you ask anybody working at the waterschap why they are working here, the vast majority will answer ‘because I love this land and I want to work to protect it.’”

For the Dutch, protecting their land from the looming threats of the water is a source of national pride and personal pride. It is their country, the land, and their history at stake. The idea is engrained into the motto of the Royal Family, “Je Maintiendrai.”

I will maintain.

Image 1
Jos explains a map from the 17th century. The dark green areas are fields reclaimed from lakes. The stretch of coast under Jos’s elbow to the right are the sand dunes. The white rectangle above his left shoulder is the dune-less stretch where there is a man-made dike discussed above.
photo 1
The water board’s coat of arms.

Here Jos Besteman explains the evacuation strategy of North Holland: