The official three-month mark of the fellowship portion of my journey has come and gone, but with that came the task to write my first quarterly report for the Watson Foundation. The Fellowship office asks us to think of our reports as “long letters home.” I just submitted this a couple of days ago, but perhaps you’ll find it interesting and a slight change from my usual handwritten/illustrated blog posts (although I’ve included a piece I made in April that reminds me of the fluidity of traveling and of life).
While my other posts tend to focus on certain specific events, this is a much broader summary of where I’ve been mentally, physically and emotionally so far since I started this trip!
Hope you enjoy 🙂
To the Watson Fellowship Office,
I’m writing to you from a room in Newtown, a creative and gay-friendly suburb of Sydney. I just spent a couple of hours separating what I really need versus what I can probably part with, after learning that the carry on baggage limit for Jetstar (the budget airline in Australia) is a mere 10 kilograms!! Of course, I had to stubbornly refuse to pay for the check-in luggage (70 AUD if you can believe it) so I’m leaving nearly half of my clothes with a girl who has let me stay with her for the past week. My small but heavy electronics are going in the pockets of my jacket…in any case, I’m sure I have a lot of more meaningful things I can talk about in this letter than how I’m working the budget airline system.
It’s quite awkward to be typing this. Let me explain. During my first couple of weeks of the Watson, I had my camera and laptop stolen. Then when I resigned to purchasing a used iPhone, that was stolen as well after a month of owning it! In any case, a good friend recommended that I should just illustrate and hand write my blog posts and scan them on the way and so I haven’t had to type anything at length for nearly 3 months! Three really great things came out of having most of my electronics stolen. One is that I’ve really enjoyed using a different format to keep people updated on my travels and findings and people seem to really appreciate the journals. The second is that my bag is much lighter and I don’t have to worry about things being stolen anymore. And finally the third is that I am SO glad I had to get travel insurance and that even though claims take some time to be filed, it is so worth it when you’re unlucky like me and nearly all of your electronics get stolen within the first few months of your travels!
I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate this, but not having a way to connect to the internet had me in a slight state of shock. Being in South American countries where not owning a laptop or smartphone was the norm for most people (it still catches me off guard to see so many iPhones in Australia) made me taste my privilege and really have to check myself and my feelings as a world traveler. Another part of these intense feelings had to do with having to use money in a way I’ve never used before. The Watson fund feels like a pack of gum sometimes. It’s a strange comparison I know, but there are these moments when I notice that a few of the pieces are gone already or where I’m thinking about saving a piece for later, so that I’ll have more to chew and enjoy. I’ve always been so frugal that having this fund to budget with and to use in the way I see fit is both empowering and debilitating. I feel like I’m constantly changing my own rules as to how I live with this fund.
One thing I’ve noticed quite clearly is my sense of self as the environments around me change so quickly. With stolen items, worn out and discarded clothes, new friends and new beds, the only constant is what’s inside of me. My highs and my lows are felt so much stronger and it seems much easier to decipher what’s me and what’s just superficial.
Well, how about I jump into some specifics here. My first stop was Quito, Ecuador. Quito was just supposed to be five days of rest before I continued on my long bus journey from Bogota to Buenos Aires, but I found myself in the middle of the queer scene, loved it and stayed on for a whole month. I was still working on the past tense for some of the trickier Spanish verbs, but that didn’t seem to stop a queer activist, Eli Vasquez, from inviting me to be on her Cuerpos Distintos radio show to talk about my project. I believe I asked her at one point during the show, ‘How do you say ‘to do’ in the past tense?’ and it makes me cringe to listen to it now. But it’s a great example of the kinds of opportunities I was given in Quito and the positive energy the place had that compelled me to stay longer.
Eli also started a home called Casa Trans (Trans House) with her partner Ana Almeida, which hosted queer events several days of the week. On the first night that I met them, they asked me if I could do a performance there since I was an artist. Six days after agreeing, I performed two pieces–one was a piece on masturbation, and the other was of me cutting someone’s hair with an exaggerated drag queen persona. The response was really positive and as if things weren’t already going well, they offered a room in the house for me to stay in until I left as an artist in residence!
I also learned about the different tensions that existed within the Quito gay community as well, and had to remain extremely neutral so that folks knew I wasn’t picking favorites. As in most gay activist communities, the larger mainstream organizations that helped with pride parades were oppositional to the underground and subculture queer groups. Academia was another oppositional force that underground activists tended to dislike.
In any case, I felt extremely fortunate to have joined the queer community in Quito because they welcomed me with open arms. I certainly felt anxious at first to see whether they might accept me into their community or not but they were thrilled that I was interested in what they were doing. Making a zine about their art and activism definitely helped them realize that I wanted to give back to them and help promote their work internationally.
I was in Lima, Peru for just a week after some long bus rides down from Quito (as well as a two day excursion on a Northern Peru beach) but was overwhelmed by the amount of exciting events happening in the queer communities. Having performed in Quito and knowing about South American queer culture definitely gave me a leg up when I was introducing myself to the key organizations and folks in the activist community and before I knew it I was on the program to do my performance at a big lesbian party. So the night before I left Lima, I performed and then ended up staying at the party dancing with everyone until the morning when folks finally started to leave. Leading up to that final day though, I spent some quality time in a feminist library, Flora Tristan, with queer activists, went to a lesbian meeting/workshop at MHOL where I met some 15 year old out Peruvian girls, and talked to the owner of a Taiwanese bubble tea store about the fabulous gay club that was right around the corner from his store. I also visited a fantastic Japanese restaurant that made me feel like I was in Japan!
I couldn’t visit Peru without visiting Machu Picchu, and yes it was absolutely worth the detour! It included getting lost with a new friend from Lima on the Inca Trail because we didn’t have a guide, but our efforts were well rewarded when on the morning of our climb to the sites, the misty clouds gave way to the immense landscape and architecture. My friend and I had packed some tomatoes, avocados, salt and bread and we made the most beautiful sandwiches in a nook at the top while looking out at the mountains. It was an extremely spiritual morning.
My bus ride from Cusco to Buenos Aires was the longest leg of my trip and in retrospect (over fifty hours), I should have spent more time in places along the way. I was so worried about not having enough time in Buenos Aires, which had been so talked up by people I met in the other countries, that I skipped over some real gems. Then again, by that point I just needed to settle down for a bit. Buenos Aires was an intense city much larger than Quito, and thus finding a gay community that I could feel at home with was much more difficult.
My first impression of the gay scene was that it was highly commercial, and it wasn’t until I had met up with several people that I found independent artists who weren’t making their art or doing their activism for the gay tourism industry. What I realized a little too late into the game was that I really enjoyed visiting regional or smaller cities much more than the big, polluted and overcrowded capitals or bigger cities. When I visited La Plata, a city an hour and a half south of Buenos Aires for a lesbian festival, I immediately felt the sense of community that was lacking in Buenos Aires. Actually, it wasn’t so much that there was no sense of community in Buenos Aires, but that there were so many of them that you didn’t feel like it was cohesive or could easily come together.
It’s already been a month since I arrived in Australia but it seems worlds away from South America. The 16 hour flight helped as do the English speakers, but I feel like I’m able to digest what I’ve experienced up until now in this comfortable and fashionable country! And to let me know that I’m paying for the conveniences and cleanliness, prices are literally ten times what they were in South America, even in Argentina where I thought things were expensive. But I’ve befriended some off-the-grid types who have been feeding me with community garden vegetables and fruit, telling me about the student concession transportation tickets and bicycle co-ops around town.
I ended up staying in Newcastle, which is a couple hours north of Sydney for over three weeks after my first couchsurfing host recommended that I go to a big art festival there the day after I arrived. With all of my luggage still in Sydney, I wore my Newcastle couchsurfing host’s clothes day after day while queer and art-related events happened all the time, and the gorgeous beaches, parks and gardens beckoned me. It was a much needed rest, but also a great time for me to utilize the University of Newcastle campus computers to finish my Argentina zine. I felt so at home with the queer community in Newcastle that when I saw a $95 a week home for rent with a house of queer vegans, I nearly dropped my plans to leave so I could live there permanently!
Alas, I left and have been in Sydney for the past week meeting incredible people who are from all walks of life. Something that I started doing more proactively in Australia was to seek out opportunities that I know will make me happy. Some examples are 1) visiting studios (of artists whose work I really admire–whether they’re queer or not 2) playing volleyball with club teams and climbing indoor walls (AKA staying fit with sports I enjoy) 3) talking to and befriending street artists 4) finding vegan and vegetarian places to meet other vegans and vegetarians who enjoy cooking and proposing a vegan cook-a-thon in their kitchens 5) entering an environment that I wouldn’t normally enter 6) taking cooking classes
Just the other day I went to a Hare Krishna chanting session and $10 all-you-can-eat vegetarian dinner (so number 4 AND 5) and had an extremely rewarding and intense experience. The chanting was like nothing I had experienced before and made me want to see more in India, but then a devotee told me that I was queer because I just didn’t know myself yet. That came as such a shock after being surrounded by people who were so open and proud of their queer identities, but incredibly grounding in the way I contextualize my project in the world.
Today, I had lunch with Min-fuh Teh, a good college friend’s brother who works for ACON, the biggest Australian health promotion organization with its central focus on HIV/AIDS, as well as editor of a magazine about gay asians in Australia called A-MEN. After relaying the story about the Hare Krishna man, Min-fuh told me about a ‘spiral dynamics,’ which basically comes down to the idea that we shouldn’t reject our past actions and that our human history is like a spiral. And when interacting with someone who doesn’t hold the same views as you do, it’s good to be conscious of this spiral as well so that you can meet them at their level, which again, isn’t necessarily higher or lower than your level. And as Min-fuh quoted in A-MEN magazine,
‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.
Quatrain #158, Open Secret
I love the idea of creating an open field that is far away from the right or wrong, the black or white, the good or bad, even the gray matter. It’s just a place for experiences and stories.
When I was living in Japan ten years ago, I heard a story about an elderly person and a child having a conversation about the world. The story went like this:
Elderly person: What do you think is the largest place in the world?
Child: Our city!
Elderly person: No, try again, bigger!
Child: Our country?
Elderly person: Nope, try again, even bigger!
Child: How about the ocean?
Elderly person: Still bigger.
Child: I know! Outer space! That has to be the biggest!
Elderly person: Good guessing but actually the largest place in the world is your mind.
I love this story so much and have been coming back to it over and over again recently because I feel like my mind is expanding so much every day. And when I meet new and interesting (or challenging) people on the road, our minds converge to make an even greater space.
I have been blogging, journaling and making zines along the way which certainly helps make the journey feel more tangible and like it’s actually happening. But there are still so many moments where I pinch my arm to see if I’m Really getting to travel the world looking for queer artists and activists. That I’m Really getting to expand my mind at what feels like an exponential rate. Really, I think that I need to end this letter with the biggest thank you I can possibly give you for granting me this opportunity. Thank you.
P.S. I’m headed to Melbourne tomorrow and then Singapore at the end of November!