Wednesday, May 02, 2007

3rd Quarter Watson report

I submitted this report to the Watson Foundation in early May, 2007:

Namaste, Watson people, aap kaisa hain? Greetings from New Delhi, my new home base and the final destination of my Watson year. I have been here for a little over a month now, arriving at the tail end of Delhi’s most pleasant season—a much-too-brief interval between “the hot, the wet, and the cold.” So spring has now sprung, gracing us with flowering bougainvillea and palas, but also besieging us with daytime temperatures routinely reaching 108 degrees. Fortunately, the good folks at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have offered me a place in the shade—a small desk in the corner of their basement, a fan, an internet connection, and unfettered access to their library, staff, and ongoing seminars.

I feel like a very lucky fella. Last August my eyes were new to Asia, and still fairly new to the harsh realities of the industrializing world, and truth be told I remember questioning whether this place was really where I wanted to spend nearly half of my Watson year. But those eyes must have been misplaced somewhere amidst the hustle and bustle of Beijing or Hong Kong, Hanoi or Phnom Penh; this time Delhi seems exciting, alive, magical, even in spite of the withering heat. And though all the problems I left behind remain, this time I have begun to root myself in a community of people who are facing them head-on. I have comrades and mentors in Delhi, friends that I enjoy spending time with, and an overwhelming array of opportunities to truly engage with foreign cultures. Some days I think I could stay here forever.

Quite a contrast with how I was feeling just a few months ago. I do not know what it was about Kuala Lumpur (KL), perhaps I was just spoiled by my experience in Hong Kong, but something about the city felt incredibly inhospitable to me. Maybe it was the disdain for pedestrians or the difficulty with finding reasonably-priced accommodations; or maybe it was that the city felt very segregated and insular, but within just a few weeks there I was ready to move on. One day as I was searching for housing I came across an ad for a small, inexpensive apartment in the sleepy beach town of Lumut. It seemed terribly impractical at first glance, but the more I considered it the better an option it became. I had not had much luck in terms of contacts in KL, and most of the resources I wanted access to were in print or available on-line. Besides, Lumut was only a short bus ride away from KL if things did change. But perhaps most of all, I felt myself in need of some quiet time, a chance to reflect and take some long brooding walks on the beach.

I know we are supposed to be fully immersed in our Watson year, but it was inevitable, especially for a hyper-planner like me, that as I crossed the half-way point thoughts of home and what comes next would begin creeping in. I needed an opportunity to just step back from the whole experience, to reflect upon what I had learned so far and to consider where this path might be leading. So I spent several weeks in Lumut, quietly engaged in reading, writing, and sorting through my thoughts. Of course, Malaysia was not all seclusion. I visited Putrajaya, Malaysia’s in-progress administrative capital; an experiment in hyper-modern Islamic architecture, green design, and urban planning. I also rounded off my Asian megalopolis tour by visiting Singapore, and attended the largest Hindu festival in Southeast Asia, and probably one of the largest in the world: Thaipusam at KL’s Batu Caves. And somehow I found myself adopted by the Chinese-Malay family who rented me the apartment in Lumut, but who absolutely could not conceive of why a feller would want to spend all that time alone out there. They insisted that I come visit them for a few days at Chinese New Year, and bowled me over with that Chinese notion of hospitality that I have so grown to adore.

Then when it was all said and done, I found my way onboard a freighter boat bound from Malaysia’s Port Klang to Nhava Sheva, the port of Mumbai. As I mentioned in my last report, I am no fan of air travel and have avoided it wherever I could. Given the off-limits terrain between Malaysia and India however, I had nearly resigned myself to what seemed like the inevitable. Then a friend informed me of this rather eccentric and under-utilized mode of transport, and as it turned out there happened to be a 200 meter, 24,000 horsepower container-ship headed in just the right direction at just the right time. M/V Kota Pertama was her name, and her German/Filipino crew seemed quite happy to entertain a lone human passenger amongst the thousands of containers they were hauling across the Malacca Straits and Indian Ocean. So for seven days and nights I rocked to the rhythm of the ocean, watching it change colors and demeanor like moods, communed with the wind, and tracked the movements of the sun, the moon, and the night sky like close friends. Sitting perched atop the ship’s bow for long stretches, I watched countless flying fish glide across our path, and laughed like an excited child as entire pods of dolphins played chase with the ship—streaking ahead of us like little blue torpedoes. When I wasn’t busy being enraptured, I read, wrote, and slept my fill, studied Hindi, and whiled away the evenings watching movies or drinking German beer and listening to age-old bluegrass tunes with cantankerous seamen.

Upon arrival in India I spent a few days in Mumbai, finding my land legs again and visiting the Bhaktivedanta Institute. BI is a Hare Krishna-affiliated research institute that considers itself to be at the forefront of “consciousness studies,” and particularly a consciousness-based approach to the questions of modern physics. A short train ride later and I was back “home” in Delhi. I showed up in Greater Kailash Part 1, at the ground floor of house number C-96, early one March morning, where I found the familiar Mr. Gupta and Vishnu (along with a new tenant, a Libyan computer programmer named Mohamed) waiting to greet me. Though I have very much enjoyed this incredible loop around Asia, I cannot adequately express how comforting it felt to unpack my bags for (almost) the last time. I always suspected that I had some homebody tendencies, a deep-seated, even if somewhat repressed, need for community; but these last several months have confirmed and strengthened those longings in a big way. I know now that once I am finished here in Delhi, regardless of what else I do, I am going to be headed back home to Florida to just sit still in one place again for a lengthy spell.

But for now, Delhi continues to work its magic on me. There have been some exciting developments at CSE in my absence, including the opening of a new research and advocacy unit (Natural Resource Management & Livelihoods), as well as a new educational facility (Anil Agarwal Green College), and my friends in the Environmental Education Unit have begun work on a new project which is also quite interesting to me. Called the “Green Habitat Manual,” it is an exercise in participatory, sustainability-based research which brings together students, educators, and community members in an effort to assess and track the state of their local environment. I am currently working with the project coordinator, Ashish Shah, to come up with a model set of indicators that reflect both environmental quality and human development and would be accessible at the local level. I feel very fortunate to be involved with this project, as it brings together several of my core interests. The funny thing is that the project is brand new and has only begun in the few months since I first visited CSE—quite a synchronicity! The folks here are also intrigued by my experiences throughout the rest of Asia, and have been asking me to write short articles and give brief presentations on a variety of issues facing the region. And finally, I have open access to workshops and courses that CSE organizes, like the “Towards Green Villages” workshop that I took part in a few weeks ago. This workshop was an excellent opportunity to visit some rural areas and learn more about issues of ecological poverty, grassroots management of natural resources, and participatory research. Since all of my classmates were Indian scientists and development professionals, it was also a great chance to make some contacts with people outside of Delhi, who I will hopefully get to visit in the coming months.

I generally spend a few days per week at CSE. Otherwise, I have been working under the tutelage of Dr. Irfan Habib of India’s National Institute of Science, Technology, and Development Studies. Dr. Habib is an important author on history and sociology of science here in India, and is also very well-connected to other scholars with whom I share interests. I check in with Dr. Habib regularly, at which times he usually drops some great books into my lap and informs me of interesting lectures and other opportunities. Otherwise, I have been continuing with my Hindi study, which is enjoyable despite my rather slow rate of progress.

So all in all, Delhi is shaping up to be the pinnacle of my Watson year. Having several friends who were at one time Watson fellows and hearing about their experiences, I was initially concerned that I might be feeling a bit burnt by this point in the trip. But a few weeks ago as I found myself eagerly checking the Watson website to see if my Berea friend Fred Rweru would be one of this year’s winners, I was reminded of a March morning a year prior when I had stopped by a Miami public library to check email and learned that my life was about to take a very interesting turn. After getting a few disapproving looks for breaking the library’s code of silence with a raucous “whoop, whoop!” I stepped outside to just lie in the sun and give thanks. More than a year later I remain so excited that most days I still pinch myself just to make sure this is not all a dream.

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