DIGITAL MEDIA & ADVENTURES
Written for my application for the Watson Fellowship
Personal Statement: Email received: Tue 5/27/2014 8:37 AM Hi, Katie, It's sad, a sad situation, and beyond everyone's control. With what happened in NNB [Na Nong Bong] the other day, in addition to what might be starting in the Northeast and throughout Thailand, it makes sense for you to stay put. I agree. It's too dangerous and unpredictable. At the same time, it's sad that you won't be able to tell the stories of the Northeast to the world. Yours, Dave David Streckfuss is my friend, my mentor, and an independent scholar based in Northeast Thailand. He has frequently published books and is quoted in the Bangkok Post among other reputable news sources as an expert on the Northeast. When I woke up to this email on the morning of my flight to Thailand I was crushed. This email was the end of my lingering hope that, despite a coup d’état just 3 days prior, I might still be able to return to Thailand. I knew he was right, but I missed my host brother, Fock, who liked to hold just my pinky finger as we walked to buy eggs in the morning. I missed my best friend, Pop, who’s favorite shirt said “Go Fuck Yourself” across the front and she didn’t understand what it said no matter how many times I tried to explain it to her. For months, I’d had a plan. I was going to spend my summer following my passion for video storytelling with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. With a grant funded by Dean Rusk and a fellowship with the Pulitzer Center that I had been chosen for back in March, I was going to return to Thailand. My dream was to produce a short documentary about an inspiring village called Na Nong Bong. The creative and inspiring protests, the controversial ethics of the goldmine two kilometers from their homes, and the current turbulent political situation across Thailand had come together in an incredible and relatively untold story. While I was living there last October during a semester abroad the community had come together to construct a wall that blocked mining vehicles from entering or exiting. My first experience with film was helping them produce a news bulletin about the recent accomplishments of their movement: http://youtu.be/YR_7PNJI890 Na Nong Bong had been on my mind for months, and especially the last week. In Dave’s email he references “…what happened in NNB the other day”. About a week before I was planning on leaving 300 men in masks armed with clubs, broken bottles, slingshots, and guns had descended on Na Nong Bong in the middle of the night. The assailants beat and held captive 40 members of the Na Nong Bong anti-mining group for six hours. The armed men destroyed the blockade that the villagers had built to prevent the mining company from accessing the mine and transported thirteen trucks full of ore out of the mine. It was unfortunate that the political stability of Thailand disintegrated just as I was preparing to leave the US for Thailand and precisely when the story of Na Nong Bong deserved more public attention than ever. But, as Dave said, it was “beyond everyone’s control”. “Well, where else do you want to go?” Kem Sawyer, my mentor and editor from Pulitzer Center, said just moments after I called her about Dave Streskfuss’ email. “In the whole world?” I asked, shocked. “Yeah, spend the rest of the day reading the news, and call me back at the end of the day to let me know where you want to go” she replied calmly. I felt like crying and I wasn’t sure whether it was because I had $4,000 to go wherever I wanted in the world for 6 weeks or because I was so completely overwhelmed at how quickly the plans I had worked on for months had fallen apart. Despite feeling overwhelmed I knew exactly where I wanted to go. This is the opportunity every trailblazer dreams of! Given the option to go anywhere, I began to envision of an outdoor adventure. The outdoors is where I learn. Over the years I’ve learned how to light a stove, read a map, and protect my food and myself from animals. I’ve learned how to survive in the cold, wind and rain. More importantly, I’ve learned that it’s the modern world, the world with cell phones and showers that is the harsher of the two. That world is harsh in ways that aren't as tangible as the cold, wind and rain. But the same skills I use in the outdoors to survive don't have to be left behind when I go back to my classes, my laptop, and my closet full of clothes. One of my favorite essays, “Briefing for Entry Into a More Harsh Environment” by Morgan Hite, outlines eleven things you can take home from experiences in the outdoors. Together they comprise what she calls “mental hygiene,” implying we need to take care of our minds the same ways we take care of our bodies. When I’m in the outdoors I have to be mentally organized. I live out of a backpack the whole time, and mostly know where everything is. I am thorough: I count every contour line on the map and put every little bit of trash in a bag. I am prepared: at any moment, I know where my raingear is. I take care of myself. I learn basic survival tasks. I take calculated chances in dealing with strangers, entrusting them with my life at times and often share extraordinary experiences. I build quick relationships that last a lifetime. I persevere and put my mind to challenges that never seem to end. I learn to use new tools and new techniques. And I take care of the few possessions I have. In the outdoors I live simply. I learn. I return with tan lines. I've always liked having odd tan lines. For me, tan lines are symbols of my adventures. Seeing my goggle tan in the mirror after a week of skiing makes me smile, and thinking back to the wind on my face and the views of the mountain keeps me going during the months where my best adventures are limited to nerf gun fights in the library back at school. I like it when, at the end of the summer, I have the tan lines of the shoes, shorts and T-shirt I wore. They’re a reminder that I lived simply. I’ve backpacked, mountain biked, ice-climbed, water-skied and canoed, all with only one shirt, one pair of shoes, and one pair of shorts. My tan lines are proof of that. And yet, my life cannot be one long adventure. Even the tans lines of the most amazing adventures fade with time. That doesn’t make the experience any less valuable. The outdoors is where I develop the habits I try to live by in every environment. There is a lot more to take away from my experiences than a list of helpful trekking skills. I rely on the tan lines, the pictures and long conversations with friends to remember and reflect on less tangible parts of the experience. Finding a way to value and implement the intrinsic lesson I learn… flexibility, open-mindedness, humor, determination, peace… is challenging. I wasn’t able to reconnect with Na Nong Bong and their incredibly inspiring fight against the gold mine. I was still able to follow my passion for outdoor adventure and documenting environmental justice stories. Four days after the email from Dave, I was on a my way to Patagonia, Chile. I didn’t have a little brother waiting for me in Chile to hold my pinky finger, but that hole and others were filled with new people and new experiences. I spent 6 weeks conducting interviews and collecting scenery shots all focused on the possibility of hydroelectric dams in Patagonia. Patagonia had no shortage of adventures, lessons and tan lines. I met a complete stranger from Austria named Lena. We rented a red pick-up truck together and she taught me how to drive a stick shift while we drove through the mountains of Patagonia together for 3 weeks. Lena helped translate an interview that I conducted with Carlos, a local man who was pro-dam and provided a perspective on environmental justice that I had never considered. I am the product of adventures. The tan lines may only last a few weeks, but I know that the experiences, relationships, and lessons learned will last forever.