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Narrative Description: Design Anthropology-Bahamas Excerpt

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Excerpted from from fieldnotes taken in Exuma, Bahamas, for the class Design Anthropology, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Spring 2014
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    arwin Excerpted from from fieldnotes taken in Exuma, Bahamas, for the class Design Anthropology , Harvard Graduate School of Design, Spring 2014 Gareth and I walked into the Exuma government office building next to Peace and Plenty in Georgetown. The building is somewhat old, and contains the post office, police headquarters, and a space that looks like a bank. Each of these spaces is cordoned off by a glass door, in order to contain the air conditioning, which makes the indoor temperature 5-10 degrees cooler. We ask the receptionist at the front desk for Darwin, and Gareth explains he is from Harvard University. I know that the project has had quite a bit of contact with Darwin in the past. We are asked to wait in the “bank” waiting room where a large, elderly man is flirting with the teller behind the glass. He eventually moves aside to ask if we have business with her, and we reply no. I think he is going to politely ask us where we are from and why we’re in Exuma, like most Exumians I have crossed paths with in small, semi-confined spaces, but to my relief he did not and simply continued his conversation with the teller. By this point in the day (it was 4pm), I was quite tired from the wealth of interactions and data I had gotten as well as from the hot sun that had finally decided to give us a full show of its glory. Luckily, there is a wonderfully robust breeze coming off the sea on these islands, so you are never stuck in a conversation with the sun alone, which would be too intense. We are called in to Darwin’s office after 5 minutes or so. He is in an inner chamber, a third-degree inner chamber (through the glass door leading upstairs to the “bank” and gov offices; then through a second glass door within the upstairs area leading to the receptionist area; and finally through his opaque office door within the receptionist area leading to his office. Although by now, his office is on the outside wall of the back of the building, so it is only “inner” from the perspective of entering and flows of the building). Needless to say, by now it is quite cool. And I can understand why. Darwin is fully covered by a gray suit, with a thick white shirt peeking out centrally, the throat wrapped snuggly by a wide blue-and-yellow patterned tie (the colors of the Bahamas; In retrospect I can’t seem to confirm if these were the actual colors or I added them in my imagination). Darwin welcomes us in with a wide, slightly stiffened smile, immediately conveying the air of a politician. His demeanor appears to be a mix of well-feigned enthusiasm and annoyance at being bothered at the end of his workday. He sits at his wide, what looks like a mahogany desk (although I don’t know my species of wood to say). A black, oblong table that could seat six or seven juts out directly in front of him, making his piece of furniture the de facto head were this table to be used for a meeting. The homepage of Yahoo news is up on his computer, looking suspiciously as though he pulled it up as an artificial backdrop for our meeting. Gareth has just come to say hello and make contact with Darwin on this trip. I have come along for the introduction with the hope that I can interview Darwin or someone else in the Exuma government at a later date. Upon introducing me, Darwin produces his wide smile and asks how I am enjoying Exuma. The smile drops away, a little too quickly, when we move on to the next polite conversation   # opener. Gareth says he has just come to say hello and talk to Darwin. Darwin says he did not know Gareth was coming (to Exuma, it seems). Darwin repeats this proclamation not too much later during the initial exchange (in retrospect, it would seem that Darwin may have been unhappy about not knowing about our arrival on Exuma in advance, but I know too little to say for sure. It had seemed as though Jose was in regular contact with him.) The conversation, and the wide, but quick-to-retreat smile returns to me, and to the subject of where I am staying. I tell him I am staying at The hotel, and a few other related topics follow: there were no rooms at the Peace and Plenty, which is why we are staying outside of town, but now there seem to be rooms at the Peace and Plenty (to which he offers that it is because the music festival just ended), but in any case, we will move there on Thursday, etc. Although this is all unimportant minutiae to us, Darwin follows each revelation with a disproportionately interested or concerned “Aaaaaahhhh” (as in “I see”), sometimes repeating what we have said back to us for effect. It is unclear to me why we are stuck in this seeming mismatch of effort from each side of the conversation — with Gareth and I engaging in small talk as customary conversation opener — but small talk regarding small things that are of little to no concern, and that we would like to smoothly and unobtrusively pave the way towards the point of the conversation. Meanwhile, Darwin, through his energetic responses, seems to be taking each of these small points as an important piece of information, creating a staccato effect in the conversation from my point of view. I cannot tell if this is merely customary Bahamian politeness in conversation, or if Darwin doesn’t want to deal with us, and is not eager to get to any “point” in the conversation. From the viewpoint of American conversational style, I would interpret the latter to be the case. In other words, a person devotes unnecessary time to polite minutiae as a method of stalling the conversation, stealing time away from AND steering the conversation away from more important, but perhaps undesirable, topics. But even if that is the case, I cannot say why the topics might be undesirable. Is Darwin fed up with the Sustainable Exuma project? Is he eager to leave for another engagement? Would it be inappropriate to jump right into topics of substance during an initial meeting? Does my presence as a student, as a young woman, affect the situation? I cannot say. This pattern — of discussing frivolities like where I am staying, and how beautiful it is, what I should do, or where I should go, appears again and again throughout our meeting. Just when I think we have exhausted the topic, and that we have more important issues to discuss, Darwin will turn to me again and say that he just hopes I have a wonderful stay in Exuma, etc, etc. This kind of exclamation or well-wishing will either actively break the conversation, cutting off the previous topic or it will mark pauses or fill natural gaps in conversation. Gareth explains that several students are all over the cays, and Darwin is surprised that Gareth was able to place them (arrange their travel and stay) himself. “Smart man”, he says. Again, I can’t help but wonder if Darwin is annoyed that he was not previously informed of the matter. Gareth mentions the unique situation of Ben and Crishon at Sandals and that they will interview guests and workers there, getting an inside look at the resort. We discuss their situation briefly before the conversation is again turned around onto me, and how I should go stay at Sandals, or another expensive resort nearby it, and other possibilities that have nothing to do with my role and purpose of performing research and everything to do with enjoying a luxurious vacation. Perhaps it is difficult for Darwin to wrap his head around a young foreigner   $ being here for anything other than travel and vacationing? Or perhaps this is again customary polite talk. We do reach matters of some substance. For instance, Gareth mentions the workshops the project is holding this weekend and in three weeks' time. But again the conversation seems side-tracked by less important details. We will be holding a workshop for business owners for instance, and I believe Gareth asks Darwin if he can recommend anyone to attend or if he could let particular people know about it (my memory of the exact question is fuzzy). Before allowing further explanation, Darwin says to go through the Chamber of Commerce, that they will inform everyone. But then Gareth explains that we have contacted the Chamber, and we want only around 8 participants from around Victoria Pond. Darwin ponders the small number for a moment and seems a little stumped on how to proceed advising us. He awkwardly concludes by repeating his statement about utilizing the Chamber of Commerce to get the word out, even though Gareth has already made clear that we are already in contact with them, and we don’t necessarily want to ‘get the word out’. Gareth mentions that the US Navy has contacted him with an odd request. Twenty-four cadets are stationed somewhere not far away, and they need to complete a community service requirement as part of their training. They have offered to come to Exuma to build two chicken coops. Darwin is asked if he can think of where they might be able to use two chicken coops. Gareth and Darwin ponder various cays and locales…to no avail, in the end. One cay has a problem with snakes attacking chickens (Staniel Cay possibly? Gareth is very disturbed by the idea of snakes anywhere in Exuma through which he may pass during his travels). We talk about the snakes and chickens problem of this particular cay for a minute before Gareth finally asks, “Do you think a chicken coop would keep the chickens safe from snake attacks?” To which, Darwin shakes his head. “No. It would probably trap the chickens and make them easier prey for the snakes.” I find this conclusion hilarious given the fact that Darwin was the one to bring up the snake problem, seemingly to inform a suggestion for the US Navy project. We move on from this counterproductive example to other possible locations for chicken coops. Another cay, Darwin says, has goats and chickens. The goats often run onto the landing strip at this remote cay, making it very dangerous to land there. We discuss this intriguing problem for a minute before getting back to our srcinal topic…can they use chicken coops? No. But perhaps the navy can build some cages for the goats, Darwin jokes. Or, more seriously, a fence around the landing strip. This last statement (although I believe that the actual order of the last two statements was reversed), seems to hit on a more meaningful, serious note. It is hard to see how two chicken coops could make an impact in Exuma, and based on our conversation, difficult to determine where to allocate them. But, Darwin seemed to say, at least as I perceived it, if they really wanted to do something useful, here is a concrete project that needs to be completed and can’t under current circumstances — fencing off this problematic landing strip. But Darwin then brushed off the idea by saying that it was difficult to do because getting materials there was a hassle, especially without regular flights to the cay. All the more reason for the US Navy to do it. Finally Darwin makes the point that if we offer this small, free service to the cays, if people find out about it or we advertise it, we will have overwhelming demand. And since the US navy is only offering two, that would be a very awkward and undesirable position to be in. The conversation moves on with no resolution on the chicken coop proposal except for the implications, from all of our failed brainstorming of possible   % recipients, that perhaps the project is not a good idea. Gareth mentions that we have visited the The Organization, and that they have an interesting idea for small business/income generation in Exuma: apiculture, or beekeeping. It is easy to set up, and The Organization knows someone who can advise them on the project. To this idea, (which, having sat in on the The Organization meeting, was actually a viable business proposition for Exuma) Darwin responded with a story about how he once had to exterminate a beehive which I believe had made an electric box its home, and in the process either of walking between the hive and his car or in the process of exterminating them (I can’t remember which), the bees attacked and stung him. The moral of the story was that bees sting. And therefore, it would seem, apiculture was a bad idea, or not one that Darwin was interested in or approved of. Earlier in the meeting, Gareth introduces me, and I explain my background in international relations and public policy as a legitimizing lead in to the interest in Bahamian/Exumian politics. I say that I would be very interested in interviewing Mr. Darwin or anyone else he suggests that I contact. He smirks at the proposition. I cannot be sure what his attitude is towards the matter. Does he laugh because the politics are so complicated? I begin to feel doubts about the topic. I’m worried it is sensitive, and as someone only briefly involved in Exuma, perhaps I am not the right person to pursue the matter. What if I am seen as an annoyance or time suck given my lack of serious involvement in the project? Furthermore, I worry what Darwin and his colleagues might think about us students, foreigners, descending on these islands and approaching, in my case at least, what might be uncomfortable topics. What if I am seen as an unqualified intrusion? By the end of our meeting, however, Darwin suggests that I speak to the head councillor in Exuma, and after some not very promising exchanges on how I might meet with him, Darwin finally says, sincerely I think, that I should just stop by whenever I am ready. One of only a few rare moments of directness and honesty.

Bellow Seal Valves

Jul 25, 2017
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