For now, I think this is the last entry in my online Watson journal. Thank you for following me across continents and through the ups and downs of the past year. It truly meant so much just to know that I had a network of interested friends listening from afar. Even though I’m finished with my year, I will always welcome questions or further interest in discussing any aspect of my experience– the organizations I worked with, the countries I went to, my challenges and triumphs, the Watson, and my thoughts on why crafts and women’s craft organizations are important. Feel free to contact me anytime. I’m still more than eager to have good conversations about these topics, with friends old and new.
The next step for me is moving back east at the beginning of October, where I will start a job with the Fair Trade Federation in Wilmington, DE. I’m so excited for this opportunity to extend the interests that fueled my Watson exploration in a new context. In some ways, this will be a return to familiarity, living in the same area where I went to college; in other ways, of course, I’m entering uncharted territory. I hope to remember the Watson spirit of constant adventure even as I start the 9-to-5.
Without further ado, here’s my final report.
Dear Watson Headquarters,
It’s strange and nice to be writing to you for the first time with a picture of you in my mind that’s based on actually encountering you in person. Having spoken face-to-face, however, doesn’t make it easier to sum up my experiences in this final Watson report. I often feel like I learned too many things last year and haven’t learned how to express them yet.
Maybe I can start with numbers: during the 365 days of my Watson journey, I traveled on 27 ½ flights (the midair u-turn and emergency landing fiasco in Ethiopia counts as half a flight), passing through 11 countries outside of the U.S. I enjoyed the hospitality of 20 homes where I slept on beds and couches and floors. I learned words in 10 languages: Spanish, K’iche, Arabic, Siwi, Luganda, Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese, Balinese, Mongolian and Kazakh. I went through 4 cameras and 4 journals. I got parasites/food poisoning 0 times (Triumph! I have the best stomach ever.) I spent $5,682.60 on plane tickets and will give $3,874 back unspent.
The world’s too small for walls.” -Berlin Wall graffiti
“People are just people/They shouldn’t make you nervous.” - Regina Spektor
In the past month I’ve been struggling to develop a pithy message that I can deliver to people who ask me how my year was. I don’t think that saying I discovered a new faith in humanity quite sums it up. It’s more like I discovered that I can connect meaningfully with people who are different from me in nearly every regard. Along with that recognition, which struck me over and over and delighted me each time, I let go of a fear of people that is all too often built into our understanding of the world and our place in it.
My Watson adventures started in Guatemala, where I first began to understand the enormous role that serendipity would play in my life this year. I stumbled across Oxlajuj B’atz’, an educational organization that embraced me as a member of their equipo, listening to my voice at staff meetings and incorporating my interests and skills into their education projects with Mayan women’s artisan groups. I spent time fighting to understand the shackles of dependency and fear– made worse by aid attempts– that hold women down in the blustery village of Xeabaj II. I found hope in the passion and buoyant resolve of my co-workers at OB. I loved the colors of Guatemalan textiles and the fierce pride and love that inspires women to wear huipiles that take months to make by hand.
In Egypt, I split my time between the chaos of the metropolis and the relative peace of the desert oases. I was overwhelmed by gratitude (and sometimes just overwhelmed) at being welcomed into homes in Siwa where I could interact with women in the indoor environments where they shed their full-body coverings and come into their own. I danced at weddings and joked in Siwi about embroidering my own wedding gown. I discovered, during the fledgling days of the revolution, a sense of solidarity with the Egyptian people that defined global citizenship for me in a new and exciting way. People most often ask about my experiences during the revolution, but the quieter moments made just as much of an impression on me: hiking to the top of windswept dunes, drinking tea, smoking hookah and reading at a cafe in Cairo, scuba-diving among the proliferation of underwater life in the Red Sea, or hunting for perfect basket-making palm fronds in the date gardens outside Siwa.
In Uganda, I studied baskets and barkcloth and natural dyes, enjoying the creation of crafts that are essentially harvested from the land. I delighted in the bold colors of Kampala and the feeling of my bare toes wriggling in the dark earth of the garden. I spent a lot of time riding minibus-taxis around the city and getting stuck in traffic jams. I danced and played ultimate and finished a triathlon and made amazing friends. I met with artists, activists, children, single mothers, businesspeople and academics, all of whom believed that crafts could be a key to their own empowerment and to solving Uganda’s development challenges.
Fair trade in the archipelago: Indonesia
Helping out with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia’s project of documenting artisan stories allowed me to visit batik artists and plant-fiber weavers in Java, cashew growers and backstrap-loom weavers in Sulawesi, potters in Lombok and woodcarvers in Bali. Rather than growing roots in Indonesia, I traveled extensively, met many people, and listened to many stories. Even going to seven islands and seeing places that few tourists see, though, I experienced only a tiny portion of the many worlds encompassed by the vast Indonesian archipelago.
Despite the short period of time I spent in each location, I met people who are etched indelibly in my memory. Tia, the amazingly dynamic leader of a village on Makassar Island in Buton, Sulawesi, was one such unforgettable individual. “Before, women didn’t go to trainings outside our homes– or if we did go, we followed the 4 d’s: datang (come), duduk (sit), denar (listen), diam (silence).” Tia helped the women of her village, who are skilled weavers, to organize a successful cooperative and community education projects, and emerged as a forceful leader whose ideas are changing the way women contribute to and participate in their community.
One place where I did feel a sense of rootedness and of home was in the house of Nani Lestari, the 24-year-old leader of the Berkah Lestari cooperative in the Javanese villageof Imogiri. Nani, despite her youth, is a master batik artist who can reproduce traditional masterpieces as well as designs of her own imagination. Nani taught me that to be a fine batik artist, you must find a quiet place that will allow you to make lines that are straight and true. At the cooperative I made a batik piece with a combination of motifs: traditional sido asih and a contemporary take on parang, the motif of kings.
My time with the Berkah Lestari cooperative included many hours spent listening to giggling and gossip and tinny American pop music playing from cell-phone speakers with the young apprentices. There were other hours, though, in which we were quiet with our tjantings (wax pens), in which I found the inner and outer peace to draw straight, even wax lines and rows of evenly spaced tiny dots. Like moments I experienced earlier in Guatemala, Egypt, and Uganda, I found the practice of batik meditative. The patience and attention needed for crafting, for me, provide the space for creative expression.
Working with successful, well-developed fair trade companies like Apikri and Mitra Bali gave me the chance to reflect on best practices that truly help to overturn exploitative dynamics within trade. Thinking critically about the interviews that I conducted with artisans along with my own observation of fair trade in practice, I developed a set of best practices. These included: building networks for communication and material transactions; recognizing that sometimes craft production is not enough; institutionalizing systems of ensuring accountability to one’s principles. Working with larger companies in Indonesia allowed me the chance to zoom out from individual craftswomen’s experiences and think about systems that would support economic security for many individuals.
I don’t regret my approach to getting to know Indonesia, but I learned that traveling to many places is sometimes not as meaningful as working to understand and feel a part of one community. Leaving Indonesia for Mongolia felt significantly less painful than other uprootings, and in some ways I missed that sweet sorrow of parting.
Every hour is adventure hour: Mongolia
My 31 days in Mongolialeft me no time to do anything except seize the day. I wanted Mongolia to be a culmination, like a final exam testing my ability to make connections and go adventuring and live a big bold life. Sometimes, especially in the first days while I was trying to make sense of the Cyrillic alphabet and the border between actual tradition and tradition manufactured for tourists, I felt a certain panic that I wouldn’t be able to live up to my lofty expectations. By this point in my year, however, I was good at talking myself down from these panic moments and coaching myself into excitement and patience. My mantra became Every hour is adventure hour. Adventure came in all shapes and sizes: petting a roaming yak, hiking along a precipitous slope, paying for a taxi in chocolate, learning Mongolian vodka toasts around a campfire, drinking a bowl of melted sheep fat.
I decided to approach Mongolia with a different strategy for connecting with craftswomen, too: instead of attempting to explain my interest in grassroots development and women’s cooperatives, I introduced myself as an artist interested in textile traditions. This approach worked surprisingly well, and I was thrilled with how many craft techniques I was able to learn and how many goals I accomplished in a short time.
That is not to say my time in Mongolia was without challenges; I spent much of the first week dealing with the shattering of my pre-conceived notions. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar with a fantasy in my mind about women’s cooperatives among nomadic families. I imagined women making traditional felt slippers in a fire-warmed ger during the hours before going to sleep, supplementing their families’ income as herders and bringing financial stability while supporting the survival of the nomadic lifestyle itself. In reality, nomad craft cooperatives do not exist (as far as I know, anyway) and slippers are not traditional inMongolia. Traditional felt is for utilitarian purposes like making the walls and floors of a ger, and therefore is not particularly well suited for making trendy hair clips for foreign tourists. Craft cooperatives sprang up in newly sedentary communities when nomadic families gave up their herding and moved to urban areas in pursuit of opportunity and a respite from living constantly at the mercy of the harsh Mongolian seasons. Seeking a better and easier life, many instead find vast ger districts on the fringes of the city, where jobs, social services, and infrastructure are hard to come by. Even as Mongolians continue to flock to towns and cities, they often lament the loss of their deep connection to the land.
With funding and training from Scandinavian NGOs and artists, Mongolia started to develop contemporary feltcraft in the last twenty-five years. My instructor in the art of contemporary feltmaking was a woman named Bayanduuren, whose studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet apartment block that has ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Working with sheep wool, my first experience with animal fibers, was rewarding in an unexpected way. Bayanduuren told me that the wool of a dead sheep is useless. To make felt you need energy, she said; you need to connect with the life inside the fibers. Bayanduuren believes that in order to be a good felt maker, you have to give something of yourself: the heat of your hands and the will of your heart. After I finished my first felt piece, a scarf, she paid me this compliment: “Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker.”
Switching gears after my contemporary felt lessons, I left the capital and ventured into the countryside, to a little town called Altanbulag where I worked side by side with women (and two men!) learning felt quilting and eating mutton noodle soup every day for every meal. Last, I flew on an exorbitantly expensive plane to Bayan-Ulgii, the far western aimag of Mongolia, which is a stronghold of Kazakh culture. Embroiderers in Bayan-Ulgii export many of their finished products back toKazakhstan, where demand for traditional products is high but few craftswomen remain who can produce the old designs. Like in Ulaanbaatar, the recent influx of herding families moving to town seeking opportunity means there are plenty of women skilled at embroidery and looking for employment.
I learned traditional Kazakh embroidery from a woman named Ina, who also hosted me in her family’s beautifully decorated ger– which might now be my favorite room in the world. Living with Ina, her husband Kaderbek, and their family for a week gave me the opportunity to try delicacies like sheep’s head, slurp my way through many a greasy meal of buuz (meat dumplings), drink bowls of airag (the cold, creamy, refreshing, bubbly, sour fermented horse milk that is a Mongolian specialty), bathe in a Kazakh sauna, and see golden hunting eagles in the yards of gers, as commonplace as dogs.
Before arriving in Mongolia, I heard horror stories about the public transit that, of course, made me eager to test my mettle on a long-haul bus trip. The bus ride to Khuvsgul (billed at 20 to 24 hours) was as harrowing/exciting as promised. It started out comfortably, actually: with individual seats, a functional AC/heating system, and a TV playing kung fu movies. Just after dark, the TV started playing Mongolian karaoke. Unlike the karaoke that I’m accustomed to, in which one person screeches out a pop ballad, there was no microphone and no stage. Everyone sang together, blending their voices to create a sound more like hymn-singing than karaoke. Every Mongolian on the bus seemed to know these songs, from my seatmate, a superfashionable teenager, to the grandfather across the aisle.
Our first flat tire came on a bathroom break in the middle of the midnight steppe, when we heard the loud pop of a blown-out tire. After a few confused minutes of milling around in the darkness, we were ushered into a tiny roadside cafe. The cafe was built of logs, with artificial flower bouquets planted in not-artificial wall sconces made of bracket fungus, two little sets of antlers on either side of the quilt-insulated door… the lightbulb on its electric cord was strung through the snarling mouth of a taxidermied boar’s head mounted above the door. We drank cups of salty milk tea dipped from a vat heating on the wood stove, and tried to sleep with our heads on the tables. The next day, after the third flat tire, the bus just gave up and quit functioning altogether. 48 hours after departing UB, we finally arrived at our destination by the lake. I enjoyed my five days of hiking at Khuvsgul Nuur all the more for the many hours I spent waiting to arrive.
I spent most of my year in places renowned for their hospitality, but Mongolia set a new bar for generosity and graciousness. In the Mongolian countryside, personal possession is sometimes nearly irrelevant. If a traveler stops at a ger, he or she is offered food and tea without question. Sharing is understood not just as a courtesy but as a means of survival, the glue holding a nomadic society together. I was fascinated by this totally different approach to community, ownership, and survival. Mongolia is becoming influenced more and more by capitalism and westernization, but I’m still intrigued by the ramifications of this hospitality for the country’s future development.
Mongoliaand its nomads felt like the perfect place and way to finish this year: footloose and independent, with food and shelter in my pack and a whole lot of open horizon before me; hiking along a sparsely populated path with only the meh-eh-eh-ing goats for company. I also fell in love with the Mongolian landscape. The clarity of the air after months in steamy Indonesia was a blessing, and like Mongolians, I tried to develop my own sense of connection to the land. I felt nomadic, and I felt at home in that feeling.
I came into this year unsure what I was going to learn about crafts and community and the women who connect these two ideas through their everyday livelihoods. I wanted to learn muscle memory and technical dexterity and best practices and hope. I wanted to learn what kind of contributions I could make to women’s craft initiatives, and what kind of belonging I would feel as a outsider wanting to learn skills associated with a specific place and tradition. Looking back, I am still amazed and gratified at the generosity of craftswomen in every country I visited, and their willingness to patiently instruct me. Their grace in accepting my hesitant communication, my uneven stitches, and my botched formalities has touched me deeply.
Some friendships are born of conversation, but some are born of silence, of hours of amiable companionship with busy hands. I also love the hours I spent in silent uncomprehension, content to occupy the space of community without having the language skills to enter into community’s conversation. I discovered that I am pretty good at hanging out with mothers and grandmothers, women much older than I who hold the dying secrets of craft tradition in their minds. I am less good (despite much practice) at sitting endlessly on hard floors, a task that women around the world seem to have mastered effortlessly.
In imagining my project, I saw craft production as a vehicle for other kinds of connection. I discovered the truth in that idea: with busy hands, women are still free to use their minds and their voices, often in collective, sharing stories, gossip, advice, and dreams. The hours of sitting on hard floors working with my hands created a space in which I got to be part of that sharing.
Every time I wrote a quarterly report, I also wrote a letter to myself and mailed it to the US. Opening those letters when I got home brought back a flood of memory and uncertainty, the thrilling and daunting promise of the unknown that characterized my thoughts about the future during much of my fellowship. They also include some truths that I hope I am able to hold on to as I leave the extraordinarily nourishing context of my Watson year. Including:
The next adventure is as close as I will it to be.
Live up to my opportunities.
Every place has its own beauty.
My tendency to smile a lot is one of my best attributes.
It was wonderful to discover that my interest in craftswomen, and the contexts in which they work, could in fact span a year of exploration and grow constantly over the course of that year. I was thrilled by finding answers to my questions and by the steady stream of new questions and desire for greater understanding that filled my mind. At one point I wrote in my journal, “It’s a great feeling to know that I was right to dream in that direction… It makes me want to keep thinking up crazy dreams and finding ways to happen them. It makes me believe in passion, not only in its existence but in the necessity of it, its integral part of this life I’m living and the life I truly want.” Days that, individually, sometimes seemed mundane, useless, frustrating, and wrong-headed, took on meaning because they were strung together by passion.
I came back to the place I call home after a year in which I felt at home in many different places. Over the course of the year I felt a complicated relationship with the United States and my role as a representative. My experience in disadvantaged communities made me so grateful for the opportunities I have been granted, especially as a woman. Yet I was often uncomfortable with the culture associated with the idea of America. I confronted bizarre ideas about my home country, from the imaginations of people who know Americafrom TV: Your country is completely paved and skyscrapered, right? A place where there are no dirt roads, a place without poverty. Your bodies are all soft and white. You would never have potholes like this in America. Do you have rivers in your country? Do you have farms?
Answering these questions made me think hard about the places I inhabited this year and their relation to the place that I call home. I realize now that most of us in the US are so disconnected from the actual processes and struggles that ensure our survival: we are cushioned by our affluence to such an extent that we are removed from the realities of producing our basic needs. To be free of the fear of not having enough to survive is a wonderful thing. To be free of the knowledge that our survival costs something, that our existence comes only by the work of human hands and the use of finite resources, is a very dangerous thing. Humility is more important than I ever imagined– a value that we often devalue, unwisely.
Somehow, my education in crafts also taught me that a banana or a t-shirt or a gas-powered flame should not be assumed and are not guaranteed. Perhaps the value of my education in basketry and weaving and batik, these slow, tedious, humble, painstaking processes, is the recognition that enormous effort goes into my sustenance and survival. Even when I do buy shirts off the rack at Target and plastic-wrapped food at a supersized grocery store, I want to carry the knowledge of that effort and make decisions informed by knowing.
“Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.” - Dear Sugar
Meeting the other Watson fellows, talking with them into the early morning hours and dancing exuberantly with them in conga lines helped me piece together bits of the what-the-past-year-means puzzle. It helps me to know that my Watson experiences will continue to pay dividends and will continue to unfold. I’m sure that there are some experiences and lessons from this year that I won’t understand for many years to come. It helps to know that the spirit of the Watson will come to me in moments of future deliberation.
Most of all, I am so grateful for this experience and feel so lucky to have lived this dream for twelve months of my life.
Gracias. Shukran. Weebale nyo. Terima kasih. Bayarlaa. Thank you.