21 Jul 2017
Reading time ~9 minutes
The time has finally come for me to unveil the first of hopefully many more blog posts dedicated to my upcoming year of travel as a 2017-2018 Watson fellow. Where exactly Summer 2017 escaped is beyond me. It seems like just yesterday I was procrastinating on adequately planning out the course of my Watson travels. Alas, all good things must come to an end to make way for other good things, I suppose.
So, what exactly is this whole Watson business anyway? And how significant can my project possibly be to warrant this blog? The Watson Foundation’s website describes its flagship product as follows,
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner colleges.
In other words, if you happen to be a graduating senior at a qualifying college such as Amherst College (woot Mamoths!), you instantly qualify to apply for the chance to receive big bucks to pursue an international project centered on meaningful discovery and self-growth. Whatever that last part means is up to interpretation. At any rate, 40 graduating seniors from around the world, including myself, applied for this opportunity in Fall 2016 and were awarded the grant in Spring 2017. Here’s how the Foundation characterizes the sum total of our projects:
The 49th class of Watson Fellows will investigate topics ranging from pediatric cancer treatment to citizen journalism; from animation to autonomous vehicles; from immigration to island communities; from megacities to wildfire management.
In other words, pretty awesome stuff.
So with that background at hand, let’s see how my project and I might fit into the bigger picture. For my Watson year, I will explore people’s opinions and experiences of making and listening to music in Muslim majority communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Senegal, and Morocco. That means my travels will span Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and West and North Africa. My original itinerary included India and discluded Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, but the Foundation thankfully allows some leeway for on the fly travel destination tweaking. My journey will focus on the following generalized questions that could really be asked of individuals and groups in most Muslim majority communities:
- How and to what extent has music been patronized or censored by organized groups or religious doctrine? What are some ways in which individuals or other groups react to this activity? What is at stake when groups, music listeners, or musicians engage themselves in this way.
- Is it possible to develop an integrated model for the kinds of religio-cultural conventions/limitations that govern music making in Muslim majority countries writ large?
- How do relationships with and conceptions of music making (especially engagements with sacred sound) vary by a musician’s level of religious commitment (devout Muslims, secular/moderate Muslims, or atheists)?
- How does music making in Muslim minority groups differ from that of majority groups.
- How does Islamic culture blend with other religious institutions and cultural influences that also affect music making?
Tough questions. How exactly will I go about answering them, you ask? For the most part, I’ll be interviewing musicians, audience members, concert organizers, religious leaders, mosque attendees, etc. for their thoughts on the place and permissibility of music in society. I’ll also directly observe and/or participate in musical, cultural, and/or religious events. Furthermore, I hope to study music from local musicians whenever possible. Thus, my average Watson day might resemble something like the following:
- Wake up/morning stuff.
- Attend a music lesson or rehearsal.
- Attend some kind of event or meet with some individual/organization.
- Upload and lightly edit media files (video/audio). Archive and elaborate on the day’s field notes.which will give way to academic paper(s).
- Night stuff/sleep.
Aside from the new experiences and relationships I will forge, the new opinions and perspectives I will gain exposure to, and the new skills I will develop on my Watson year, I intend to produce a documentary film based on my travel experiences.
Before hopping aboard a plane with nothing save a bunch of money and some general hopes and desires, I’ve spent the past couple of months doing prep work to pave the way for my Watson year (on top of full time work as a language interpreter, oddly enough). Most of this work has entailed reading up on reference material on the topics of Islam and traditional music. Second on my list of priorities was bare bones language acquisition in Indonesian, Malaysian, Arabic, and French. I’ve also been picking up the fundamentals of documentary film making, starting with Steve Stockman’s “How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck” (highly recommend to others like myself who have no substantial experience producing film). My work with radio journalism should transfer over nicely to my tentative film production work flow. Nevertheless, filming on the ground will pose a steep learning curve. I’ve also been pretty tied up with a number of logistical items. The emails, calls, and video chats with academicians, musicians, organization leaders, and friends abroad is a constant engagement. With of all this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few pointers on the topic of pre-departure prep for those of you who may be contemplating year-long international travel.
- Visas: Get them early, get them often. Fortunately, I’m eligible for VOA’s in each of the countries I plan to visit. Once again, I’m reminded of my privilege as an American citizen.
- Vaccinations: If you live in the US. Get those shots abroad. Period. Double Period. In my estimation, it’ll be on average three-five times cheaper in most of the top Watson destinations.
- Flight tickets: Use a travel rewards card. Also, open an incognito browser connected to a VPN to fool those travel site price determination algorithms.
- Communication: Porting your number to Google Voice is likely your best best if not trying to pay exorbitant roaming rates for your typical home country phone plan. Buy sims prepaid with data in each country you visit. Stick those sims into a mobile wifi hotspot device and your good to make VOIP calls as well as all the other things that the internet may entice you to do on an average day.
- Travel insurance: Get some. Actually, you have no choice if you’re doing a Watson.
- Apps: Lock and load some hot mobile apps on all of your devices for consistency’s sake. I ended up downloading over a dozen travel-related apps that I’ve already grown attached to spanning categories such as productivity, language/commmunication, media, finance, education, news, security, and travel/navigation (downloading off-line maps in advance is highly recommended).
You might guess that packing for a year long research trip is no easy feat, and you’d be right. I’ve taken baby steps throughout Summer 2017 to settle on and obtain the list of things that I’ve now managed to pack into one 70 Liter hiking bag, one backpack, and one carry on suitcase.
I’ve demystified the numbers in the first image above in case your curious as to what exactly has gone into each of my myriad containers.
#1: Large Packing Cube
- 1 running shoes (also super cheap)
- 1 flip flops (super cheap)
- Collapsible hangers
- Duct tape
- Binder clips & rubber bands
- Microphone extension bar
- Tripod/Mic Stand (2 in 1)
- Outlet converter/adapter/expander
- Rechargeable battery station/batteries
- Spare plastic/zip top bags
#2: Medium Packing Cube (1)
- 2 quick dry tee shirts
- 2 quick dry polo shirts
- 1 long-sleeve undershirt
- 1 long-sleeve collared dress shirt
- 2 convertible, quick dry pants
- 1 long athletic pants
- 1 athletic shorts
- 1 pair of mittens
- 1 beanie
#3: 15lb Carry-On Suitcase
- Digital audio recorder
- Lavalier mic
- Attachable camcorder boom mic
- Studio headphones
- SD/microSD cards (various capacities)
- Camcorder mic stand adapter
- Zoom tripod stand adapter
- Microphone clip
- Elastic rope w/ metal hooks
#4: Small Packing Cube
- 3 moisture wicking underwear
- 3 regular underwear
- 6 pairs of moisture wicking socks
#5: Medium Packing Cube
- Sewing/clothing care kit
- First aid/medicine
- Travel towel pack (large/med)
- 17” laptop + charger
- 10” android tablet + charger
- Phone charger
- USB battery pack
- Mobile wifi hotspot device
- External hard drive
- Essential Documents (i.e. passport, travel insurance, etc.)
- School supplies 10 Envelopes
- Instant coffee & tea bags
- Water bottle & coffee thermos
- Hiker bag rain cover
- Backpack rain cover
- Travel pillow
- Playing cards
- Waist travel pouch
- Mini flashlight
- Thumb drive
- Bottle opener
- Padlocks (4) - 2 for main hiking bag, 1 for carry-on suitcase, and 1 for backpack.
I already had about half of the items that have gone into my Watson luggage prior to Summer 2017. The rest of the items cost me a grand total of about $2500. A substantial investment, but an investment nonetheless. Fingers crossed that I don’t get brutally mugged on my first day abroad.
Word of Thanks
I’ll likely have ten times as many people to thank by the end of my Watson year, but I thought I should mention a few names sooner than later for helping me get to where I am now:
- Fellowship Coordinators: Christine Overstreet and Suzanne Spencer.
- Recommenders: Margaret Sarkissian, Jason Robinson, David Schneider, Bruce Diehl.
- Professors/Instructors: Maho Ishiguro (Wesleyan University/Smith College), Theodore Levin (Columbia University), Elmira Köchümkulova (University of Central Asia), Stephen Blum (Graduate Center, CUNY), Richard Jankowsky (Tufts University), Suraya Agayeva (Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences), Zahid R. Chaudhary (Princeton Univeristy).
- Application Essay Editing: David Schneider, Christine Overstreet, Erin Brousseau, Jeni Cullen, Rebecca Ruescher, Amir Hall, Lexi Ligon, Aleks Merkovich, and Amherst College Writing Center.
- Advice/Misc: Ricky Altieri (Watson Fellow’16-‘17), Ben Walker (Watson Fellow ‘17-‘18), Aleksandra Burshetyn (Watson Fellow ‘17-‘18).
And many others whose names will undoubtedly surface in blog posts to come, the first of which will hopefully be within several weeks from now in Indonesia. Till then, I bid you all adieu.
P.S. I’d love your feedback on the quality/quantity of words on this blog. Let me know what you like and what you don’t like in the comments or a private message.