On August 12th, 2014, I boarded a plane with a one way ticket to Bangalore, India. I had three pieces of luggage with me: a backpack with electronics and some NYC themed gifts, a cello case with a small electric cello and 2 weeks worth of clothing, and a backpacking pack stuffed with medicines and miscellaneous equipment. The ridiculousness of what I carried - specifically, the cello case - was primary in my thoughts. Would the cello case survive the plane? Would I become a target of thievery? Would people take me for silly and bourgeois? Truthfully, I was stressed to the point of tears.
Oftentimes, we channel underlying stress into smaller issues; perhaps this acts as a front to mislead both ourselves and others about the true nature of our worries. Despite my tourist visa, I am not going to India for a vacation; I will live in India for the next 11 months to perform extensive research and project management in sustainability.
My plan is as follows: I will spend a month between Bangalore and Deodurga, a small village that serves as the home base of Samuha, a local NGO. In Deodurga, I will build an economical model comparing different types of bio-energy: biogas, biomass, and electrical bio-gassification. I will then travel to Pune and Mumbai where I will finalize the model with biogas researchers and ultimately choose a technology and structural design. I will then travel to a village outside Goa, where I will participate in the construction of biogas plants with another local NGO. Finally, I will return to Deodurga to lead the construction of whichever plant the model deems most beneficial. I had planned the trip for nearly a year, courting numerous scholarships and grants, and finally I struck it lucky with an existing NSF research grant.
Why am I doing this? I suppose that there are good and bad reasons. The good: I believe that sustainability is absolutely and without question the most important problem of our generation (or, rather, century), and I want to spend my life addressing it. Climate change threatens economies, societies, and social freedoms in more ways than we know. I care about the beauty of this world, and believe in the value of all life. I also care immensely about social justice -workers rights, feminism, racism - but I know that marginalized populations are the hardest hit when societies are strained. Climate change has the power to strain our society moreso than anything else in our history.
Also, I want to see more of the world so that I better understand the small piece of the world I will ultimately call home. I have worked the past two summers at various start-ups in Silicon Valley, and while I initially loved San Francisco, I saw rapid gentrification that disturbed me in a deep, ineffable way. It was as if the liberating, entrancing city I was coming to know was sterilizing itself with a sick gusto; the grungy and wild parts that gave it its soul were turning into cultivated facades, bland and corporate. I know that I would hate it and myself if I had returned to SF after college. Same story with NYC, the city I grew up closest too. US cities, centers of money and cultural imperialism, can only give one view of the world. In sum, I feel a desire to be some sort of modern Jacob Rhys: I want to know how the other half lives.
Finally, I hope for a lot on a personal level. I want to rediscover the childhood joy in creating and discovering. Corporate internships and elite education has done much for me, but they've also degraded my feeling of ownership over my labor. I want to learn again how to define my success without a grade or a paycheck. I want to learn to be alone. I want to embrace being an outsider, so that I can better understand the troubles that outsiders in our society experience. Observe how easy it is to assume someone's lack of intelligence merely because they speak a different geographical or socioeconomic dialect than you. I want to pound into my head how erroneous this assumption is, so that I don't short change myself of intellectual opportunities down the road. Everyone has something to teach, yet it is often so hard to actually allow yourself to learn from them.
Then, there are the bad reasons for my travel. Part of what fuels my wanderlust is a feeling of dissatisfaction with each city I spend time in. It's easy to focus on a place's negatives and imagine the grass to be greener elsewhere. What is perhaps more difficult is to recognize the immaturity in this viewpoint; indeed, no place is perfect. Perhaps the secret to enjoying where you are is not truly where you are, but the ability to cultivate a careful, measured love for your place's positives coupled with an a appreciation for its negatives. And this is something I'll have to learn eventually; someone can't be a traveler their whole lives. It's somewhat telling, after all, that the word is wanderlust and not wanderlove.
Another bad reason for my travel is my own privilege. I was lucky to receive a scholarship that covered my college costs and left me without loans, I was lucky to have parents that supported my traveling, I was lucky to grow up in a country that has enough excess to support endeavors like this, and I was lucky to have exposure to new ideas that planted the desire to travel in my head in the first place. The ability to turn down a large paycheck and choose a subsistence life for a year is something available to so few people; I recognize this. I did not ask to be born into this privilege, yet I have it nonetheless.
I don't really have answers for either of these negative points I rose. For the first, the best I can do is to appeal to the scientist in me; I need more empirical data before I am able to let myself accept the negatives of the place I ultimately choose. For the second, all I can do is restrict my analysis to the people who have similar privilege to me, and hope that relative to many of them I am creating more good in the world. I subscribe to the "Spider-man criterion" of moral responsibility: with power comes responsibility. My privilege is power, and in my travels I try to advance a career that I think will ultimately help the planet.
Therefore, I think everyone who can should travel and work abroad. I also think everyone should place sustainability near the front of their priorities. Choose a bike over a car, try out vegetarianism, vote for the environmental candidate. We are all part of this world, and it behooves us to know it and care for it better. I think we should learn more restraint in our judgment of others, and should take more pride in our ability to create. Flexibility, understanding, and acceptance are key to being happy (or so I think), and I expect to gain in all of these during this year abroad.
So, that's that. This is the first article I'll write of a series of reflections I'll hope to have during my time here. It's currently August 18th, and I've spent nearly a week in Bangalore. My cello case, contrary to my earlier worries, has survived intact. My initial departure stresses have mainly abated, and I'm ready to build a biogas plant and learn how to better live. Stick with me, and I'll take you along for the ride.