Part Two: You Become a Different Person
The first thing you learn is that things rarely go according to plan. When obstacles arise, Watson Fellows become masters of snap judgment, and after a year of course-correcting and adapting, an inner transformation takes place.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a special edition of Arches magazine that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Watson Fellowship, in which we explore the travels, stories, and reflections of Puget Sound’s fellows. For the best viewing experience, download the autumn Arches PDF.
Greg Groggel ’06
Greg Groggel stood at a pay phone in the center of Mexico City. Twenty million lives hummed in the heat around him. He knew no one, and he was already sick from the water. Checking in with his mother for the first time since leaving on his Watson year a few days before, he admitted, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Greg’s project centered on investigating the legacy of the Olympics on cities around the world, and Mexico City was the first stop. Munich would follow, then Sarajevo, Sydney, Seoul, and Beijing. Despite his careful planning, at that moment, he was overwhelmed.
Greg fell in love with the Olympics as a kid. At age 9, he watched the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games on TV with wide eyes. South Africa competed for the first time since suspending its apartheid policy. Germany sent a single, unified team after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The USA men’s basketball “Dream Team” won gold. The games “opened my eyes to a bigger world,” Greg says. Four years later, his mother drove him from Nebraska to Atlanta so he could see the Olympics in person.
“It became something I just gravitated to,” Greg says. In 2004, he got a summer job at the Athens Games. While driving athletes to and from Olympic Village, where scores of flags from all over the world flew out dorm windows, he wondered: After it was all over, what would happen to this place?
That’s what Greg wanted to know about Mexico City, long after the 1968 Summer Olympics. But when he landed there to launch his Watson project, he realized: “I don’t know anything. I need to reset.” So he started from the beginning, by examining the city’s Olympic bid documents to understand what the city had promised as an Olympic host, and then focused on assessing whether the city had delivered on its promises.
Greg used the same approach in each of the six cities. By visiting the former Olympic sites, conducting research, and meeting with Olympic officials, he got a nuanced understanding of what the games meant to each locale.
He met with South Korea’s bid president to understand the country’s goal of using the games to promote peace across the Korean peninsula. In Beijing, despite not having credentials, contacts, or language skills, Greg gained access to the Olympic Park—still under construction for the 2008 Olympics—by befriending a local guard and bribing him with cigarettes. Touring the wildly ambitious Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube aquatics center, Greg realized that the city’s hopes for the games went beyond helping China enter the global stage; the Olympics would transform how the Chinese people saw themselves.
The Olympics continue to captivate Greg, who lives in Madrid and directs original programming for the new Olympic Channel. And the Watson experience continues to guide him. Whenever he feels daunted by a challenge in his life, he thinks: “I can handle this. I can survive.”
Matthew Swarner Muir ’00
The nurses at the clinic were in the middle of a Christmas party. They gave him pain pills and said to come back in an hour if necessary. Matthew Muir had just landed in Quito, Ecuador, after a long stint in the Amazon rainforest. He’d been living in a tent for weeks, washing in rivers, eating local wild foods—including primates, turtles, and rodents—and drinking chicha, the local fermented beverage made from a slurry of pre-chewed grain. His guts screamed. When he returned to the clinic, the only doctor on duty—a gynecologist—diagnosed pancreatitis. In the middle of his Watson year, he was bedridden with an IV in his arm.
For his project, Matthew had embarked on a search for the bush dog, a South American wild dog about the size of a small terrier, with a caramel-colored coat. The animal is so elusive that no scientist had been able to carry out an in-depth study on the species. In the fall of 2000, Matthew set out to find the dog in Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Ecuador, traveling throughout tropical forests and playing the dog’s call on a recorder.
Months went by with no dog. He interviewed local elders from indigenous communities in the area about their experiences. Most had never seen a bush dog. “It was pretty wild that there was a species out there that wasn’t just elusive to biologists and Western science but to traditional ecological knowledge, as well,” he says. The general belief among the region’s subsistence communities was that the dogs were hunters of the spirits.
Matthew was hospitalized for more than a week in Quito. And although full recovery took another six months, there was half of his Watson year still to come and a bush dog to find, so back out in the field he went. At the end of his fellowship, Matthew still hadn’t found a bush dog. But he had gained extensive experience in the field while working with research teams along the way—netting bats, trapping rodents, and tracking other wild canines.
The health scare in Quito was “part of the challenges that I learned to roll with,” Matthew reflected. “I think it served me well in my travels,” he added. With demanding fieldwork under his belt, he was able to get hired by research teams in South America and Botswana, where he assisted with a study on African wild dogs, work that eventually became his Ph.D. project.
Today, Matthew works for the international affairs office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says it’s his dream job, helping international wildlife conservation projects all over the world through funding and technical support. He and his wife have two young sons and have moved to Alaska, where he grew up. Matthew is excited to be raising his children among remote, wild places, where they might even see a wild dog—a wolf—of their own.
Haley Andres ’14
Zanzibar looked like paradise: fresh mangos, avocados, and fish. Azure seas lapping at white sand. A dynamic mashup of cultures representing native and colonial influences. But Haley Andres knew otherwise. She was working at an addiction treatment home for men on this small island off Tanzania, which is a key stopover point for heroin making its way from Afghanistan to Europe. About 7 percent of the population was addicted to heroin.
In the blinding heat of the courtyard outside the cement-block facility, Haley had helped the men paint an inspirational mural and the words “Just For Today: Try.” For about a month, she’d been leading art workshops with the men, for whom the sessions were “a real break from this 24-hour burden of being an addict and needing to recover,” she says.
Then one of her local colleagues mentioned her impending departure. “You’re going to leave soon,” he told her. “We’ve had other people come through before.”
His words knocked Haley off balance. “I had been speaking with people about the most challenging and intimate things, but I was always going to be an outsider,” she says. Had her time and effort made an impact, or was she just another volunteer passing through? Halfway through her Watson year, she felt like giving up.
Haley had approached her Watson year from a deeply personal place. After experiencing an assault and finding solace through painting, she wanted to examine the relationship between trauma and artistic practice, and to take a global look at what, in the U.S., is commonly known as “art therapy.”
The fellowship took her to Bolivia, Japan, Thailand, Australia, Zanzibar, and the U.K. In Bolivia, she worked with an NGO teaching circus skills to kids growing up in devastating poverty and art therapists helping families who had suffered domestic violence. In England, she investigated the nation’s push to incorporate the arts into treatment at hospitals and psychiatric clinics. In Japan, she learned from artists working in the wake of the 2011 tsunami.
What she saw across the world was that for people who have experienced trauma, making art could have different impacts. “It can be private and personal, but it can also be a source of community and power,” she says.
But in Zanzibar, Haley began to wonder about the assumptions underlying what she was doing, and about the ethics of art therapy. Was it sustainable for local communities to have outsiders deliver such programs? Was professional training required for this work? To whom did the art that was the product of these sessions belong?
For the second half of her Watson year, Haley shied away from working directly with people who had experienced trauma. Instead, she spent more time observing the way local communities and caregivers approached therapy, and questioning her own ideas. “It’s certainly humbling,” she says, reflecting on that time.
Today, while these questions still simmer within her, Haley works for The Posse Foundation, where part of her work involves counseling college students on how to apply for Watson Fellowships. She is honest when she talks to them about her own Watson year, which raised more questions than it delivered answers, including about who she is. She tells the students: “It’s OK to not know.”
Scott Warren ’05
Scott Warren had boarded a microbus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the first leg of his monthlong expedition down the headwaters of the Blue Nile, one of the two main tributaries of the Nile, amid a landscape so rugged that it had kept explorers at bay for hundreds of years. As the bus neared the capital city’s large, open-air market, Scott heard the clatter of gunfire and saw smoke filling the streets. In the aftermath of Ethiopia’s contentious election, a riot had erupted. Protesters were throwing rocks. The police were shooting civilians. Scott dashed off the bus and, with help from a local friend, found his way back on foot to the hotel where he’d been staying.
Scott grew up on rivers. When he was 8, his father took a leave of absence from his job as an attorney in Colorado Springs, and the family rafted the Rio Grande, Smith, Green, and San Juan rivers. The summer before his first year at Puget Sound, Scott rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. So it was natural that his Watson project was an exploration of some of the world’s major rivers and the dramatic canyons and lands around them: Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, China’s Nujiang River, Colca Canyon in Peru, and Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He was entranced by the big country sliced by these rivers and the ways that local people used the landscapes.
The crown jewel of his Watson year would be a major expedition down the Blue Nile, which offered towering waterfalls and a dramatic gorge. Scott planned the route, secured pack animals, and lined up a staff of eight, including cooks, guides, and local liaisons.
Then the postelection violence broke out. Scott’s Ethiopian friends cautioned him that the violence could spill into rural areas, and as a white Westerner with resources, he was a likely target. Reluctantly, Scott abandoned the trip and left Ethiopia a week later, heading to the Vikos Gorge in Greece, one of the deepest in the world.
He was safe, but a profound loneliness took hold of him, as well as an uncomfortable sense of privilege at being able to leave the violence so easily behind him. “I really bottomed out after that,” he says.
In the months that followed, while Scott continued to explore big, wild landscapes around the world, he sought to integrate himself more into local communities, cherishing friendships that made him feel more connected to the places he was exploring.
In Peru, he volunteered at a small school and befriended the family who ran it. They ended up seeking his help in their effort to immigrate to the U.S., where they moved to Scott’s hometown in Colorado and connected with his parents, who helped them find housing and work.
Today, Scott lives in Denver, where he is the research director for the Alterra Mountain Company, one of the largest ski resort companies in the world. He still visits with his Peruvian friends from time to time. “When I think about the thing I’m most proud of during my Watson year, it’s making that connection,” he says.
Jess Sotelo ’01
It was dusk when Jess Sotelo realized that the barracks were full of drunk men. She was at the end of a six-hour jeep ride to a small village at the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. She’d planned to stay in the former workers’ housing as she figured out a way to approach a Huaorani community deep in the jungle—a subsistence culture so remote that it had only recently been in contact with Western media and academics. Now she didn’t feel safe.
Jess grew up in rural Alaska. She had never been outside the U.S. before her Watson Fellowship took her on a quest to explore how belief systems affect people’s responses to different modes of medical care, from folk medicine to allopathic treatment. Starting in Mexico, she shadowed nurses as they taught basic sanitation practices to residents of rural villages. In Guatemala, she worked with a Mayan priest who delivered traditional medicine to his community.
But it was the Huaorani, a culture she’d only read about, that most intrigued her. As the light quickly leaked from the Amazon sky, a Huaorani family who had been riding in the same jeep invited her to stay with them in their remote village. “Which is safer?” Jess wondered. She had to make a snap decision. “I really didn’t have anything, and no one knew where I was,” she says. But she grabbed her backpack and joined the family on their two-day canoe voyage home.
Jess ended up spending three and a half months with the Huaorani, where many people in the community spoke only the indigenous language. The tallest person in the village, at 5 feet, 4 inches, she slept in a small, elevated hut on a poncho, wrapped in a mosquito net. Like the Huaorani, she drank rainwater, ate wild foods from the jungle, and helped the women make cord out of grass. “‘Help,’” she explains, “meant them being kind enough to teach me.”
During those months, the questions that had inspired Jess’s Watson project became less important than just experiencing life with the Huaorani. “I’m so grateful that they took such good care of me,” she says.
Today, Jess is an emergency room doctor in Anchorage, where she deploys the same toxin found on the spear tips of the Huaorani to anesthetize patients before intubation. Her Watson Fellowship helped her become sympathetic to the cultural backgrounds and beliefs each patient brings to their own medical care, like when her Samoan patients arrive at the hospital with a huge group of family members as support. And her Watson year made Jess—formerly goal-oriented and achievement-driven—more comfortable with venturing into the unknown. “You become a different person,” she says.
By Miranda Weiss
Photos courtesy of the subjects
Published Oct. 26, 2018