Unfamiliar Territory: Stories about journeys to new places

In this week's episode, we're presenting stories about venturing into unfamiliar territory, whether it's an isolated community in Alaska or the Costa Rican island of Chira.

Part 1: Journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross finds common ground with an Alaskan community struggling with the effects of climate change.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross is the environment and climate correspondent for VICE News Tonight — the Emmy award-winning nightly newscast from VICE Media and HBO. Prior to joining VICE, she was a science reporter at The Verge, where she was granted the 2015 Herb Lampert Science in Society Emerging Journalist award for her coverage of a radical 1950s scientist who suggested memory could be stored outside the brain. Duhaime-Ross has previously written for Scientific American, Nature Medicine, The Atlantic, and Quartz. Originally from Canada, she has a bachelor's in zoology and a master’s in science, health, and environmental reporting.

Part 2: Costa Rican ecologist Marco Quesada sees a new side of his country when he travels to Chira Island for a conservation project. 

Marco Quesada earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology from Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). His M.Sc. work on marine plankton ecology was complemented at Portland University (U.S.). He completed additional graduate studies on microzooplankton taxonomy at the Université de la Rochelle in France. In 2011, he obtained a Ph.D. from the Department of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. His dissertation on stakeholder participation in fisheries management was based on fieldwork in coastal fishing communities in Costa Rica and Kodiak, Alaska. During his work with Conservation International, he has had the chance to visit and work in numerous coastal communities, particularly in Latin America, as well as engaged in fisheries policy-making processes in Costa Rica and the Latin American region. Marco teaches university graduate courses at both Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR) and the Costa Rica-based United Nations University for Peace and is a member of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Stakeholder Council. He has worked with CI in Costa Rica since 2005 and is currently the Director Conservation International in Costa Rica.

Note: This June, The Story Collider is celebrating Pride Month by highlighting stories about the intersection of science and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues. Each of our five episodes this month will include one of these stories, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram this month as we also share highlights from our back catalog as well.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Arielle Duhaime-Ross

I had been working as a correspondent for VICE News Tonight for about four months when I realized I was in trouble.  I was on a shoot and I had just come out of a women’s bathroom at a rest stop in Peru and a man started yelling at me.  He was yelling at me because he said I had just come out of the wrong bathroom.  In other words, he thought I was a man, and it felt like a punch in the gut. 

Now, I’m well aware that I reside firmly in the gender nonconforming part of the gender spectrum, but I live in Brooklyn.  And in Brooklyn, I benefit from a certain degree of wokeness and that signature New York I've-Seen-Just-About-Everything-And-Nothing-Can-Faze-Me attitude.  So aside from the occasional weird looks I get when I hold my wife’s hand in public, Brooklyn has been pretty good to me.  Brooklyn gets me. 

But then I got this job working as a climate change correspondent for VICE News Tonight and suddenly I was spending a lot of time outside Brooklyn.  That was amazing because the mere existence of my job meant that nightly news was finally going to take climate change coverage seriously, and that mattered to me. 

But as I learned really quickly, traveling this much also meant that I would get called ‘sir’ multiple times a day and not always as a sign of respect.  It happened a lot in women’s bathrooms, which was tough, because when women reacted to me they weren’t just reacting out of hate, they were also reacting out of fear because they felt like I was an intruder.  As a feminist, there's something particularly painful about having that effect on women. 

I also ended up having very strange discussions with male TSA officers where I had to explain that, “No, you cannot pat me down,” and, “I would like to speak to a woman, thank you very much”.  And each time I would have to witness this emotional journey that would flash across their faces that would go from confusion to embarrassment, if I was lucky, but sometimes that second emotion would be amusement or disgust. 

One time, I spent more than half a day interviewing a woman and she used he/him pronouns for me the whole time.  I was mortified.  But I didn’t correct her until the end of the shoot because I didn’t want to screw with the flow of the interview.  I wanted to make sure she felt comfortable.  It was exhausting, especially because, that day, my job didn’t just require that I ask the right questions or that I be charismatic.  It also required that I build a wall inside myself just so I could get through the day. 

All these micro-aggressions were adding up for me but I didn’t know how much until that rest stop in Peru, because when that man yelled at me, I cracked.  I yelled back.  I don't remember what I yelled but I know I swore at him briefly, in English, and I think I scared the crap out of him. 

I didn’t stick around, though, to experience the rest of his emotional journey.  I turned around and went into the van with the rest of my crew who had no idea what had just happened.  As we drove off, I sat there quietly, heart pumping out of my chest while tears fell from my eyes. 

I ended up telling them shortly thereafter, the rest of my crew, and I apologized.  They were very supportive but I felt like I had put them at risk.  Because when you work so often in foreign countries, all it takes is a single interaction with a cop to derail an entire shoot that costs thousands of dollars.  I felt like I should have known better. 

So after coming back to New York and taking some time to kind of just take stock of what had just happened, I made a pact with myself.  I decided that I wouldn’t let society screw with me or my team’s ability to do our job.  I would find a way to cope. 

About a year later, I went to Alaska for the first time.  As a climate change reporter, going to Alaska is sort of like going to ground zero, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned.  So much of what scientists say will happen in the rest of the country in the coming years is already happening in Alaska. 

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.  The temperatures there are so startling that a government algorithm by the National Centers for Environmental Information recently discarded data from a weather station in Alaska because it thought the temperatures it had recorded were wrong.  They weren’t.  Things are just heating up so fast there that a government algorithm will look at those temperatures and think they're junk.  So getting a chance to see those changes first hand was a big deal for me. 

Arielle Duhaime-Ross shares her story at The Story Collider's 8th Anniversary Fundraiser. Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross shares her story at The Story Collider's 8th Anniversary Fundraiser. Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

On this particular trip, I was going to Newtok, which is a small village on the western coast of Alaska.  I should mention Newtok isn’t a tourism destination and I knew going in that the people there, the 400 or so native Alaskans who live there are extremely isolated and poor. 

For about seventy years now, gigantic, very large families have been cramming themselves into tiny wooden homes devoid of running water.  Americans live in a village devoid of running water.  This has forced them to use something called the Honey Bucket System which involves peeing and shitting into buckets and then throwing the waste in the nearby river. 

There is one building in the village, though, that does have running water.  It’s the school and it’s the center of community life there.  On our trip, the village had decided that we would be able to stay in that school for four nights. 

My crew and I all knew this was an immense privilege.  We felt really grateful, but I was worried.  I was worried because staying in the school meant that I would have to use the women’s public bathrooms and the locker room showers.  I didn’t voice any of my concerns, though, because honestly, they seemed like pretty small potatoes compared to what Newtok had been going through. 

See, Newtok was founded in the 1950s after the federal government built the school there in that location to comply with a law requiring educational facilities for native children.  That had a huge impact on the native communities in that area because they’ve been nomadic up until that point.  It changed their culture but the location at least seemed adequate.  That didn’t last. 

Newtok is located about ten feet above sea level and surrounded by water.  For decades now, the permafrost upon which Newtok was built has been melting and then eroding because of climate change.  All told, Newtok has lost nearly a mile of coastline since its founding and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the houses closest to the shoreline will start falling into the water within the year, so I wasn’t about to talk about my shower issues. 

We flew into Newtok on a Tuesday afternoon on a tiny plane.  We didn’t start filming right away, though, because honestly, it didn’t seem appropriate.  We were about to spend a lot of time filming at people’s homes and we wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable with us.  We wanted to get to know them and build trust. 

So we met with the village elders and then with the school principal, who is this big, burly man with an unmistakable love for teaching, and it went really well.  Our group felt welcomed and the people of Newtok seemed at ease with us. 

And then it happened.  The school principal walked up to me after we dropped off our gear in the school’s tiny library and he asked me a question.  He asked me if I had any interest in playing in the women’s pickup basketball game that was taking place that night. 

To this day, thinking of that question makes my heart swell.  It was so natural for him to ask me that question but, in that moment, it really meant something to me.  It meant that a man in power saw me.  He saw me. 

That night, I entered the basketball court and played with abandon.  When I scored, the villagers who had come to see the game cheered.  And when I accidentally passed the ball to the other team, they laughed.  It felt great.  Needless to say that the locker room showers didn’t seem all that scary after that. 

Word gets around really quickly in Newtok and I had developed a reputation that worked for me.  I was the tall, female basketball player and everybody knew it, except for this one boy.  He must have been eight or nine and when he came up to me the first words out of his mouth after ‘hi’ were, “Are you a boy or a girl?” 

Given everything that had just happened on the basketball court, his question came across as really endearing.  So I crouched down next to him and explained that I am, in fact, a woman and I just happen to have short hair.  He was fine with that answer because, for the next few days, every single time he saw me, he would yell out, “Hey, girl,” for everyone to hear.  It made me laugh every time. 

Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

If you were wondering why Newtok was so accepting, allow me to offer a hypothesis.  Largely, the people of Newtok are native Alaskans.  In my experience, the indigenous communities are far more accepting of me than most other communities perhaps because many recognize a third gender or people who are two-spirit.  But I think it’s more than that. 

By and large, the people who misgender me are white.  White people seem to have trouble parsing my features.  They have trouble figuring me out.  So yes, in addition to homophobia, I believe that being misgendered is one of the ways that I experience racism on a regular basis. 

Regardless, though, being accepted in Newtok wasn’t just a nice thing for me.  It meant that while I was conducting interviews, I didn’t have to worry about how I was being perceived, which also let me focus on doing my job. 

On our second night in Newtok there was a heavy storm.  The people there were worried.  They told us so.  But I figured as long as everybody was warm and inside, it will be fine.  But in Newtok, a storm isn’t just a storm. 

Most people think of erosion as something that happens gradually over time.  I used to be one of those people.  I used to think that erosion was measured in decades, maybe even centuries, but the morning after the storm I learned otherwise.  Because when I walked over to the shoreline, I was shocked.  In less than 24 hours, the storm had eaten away at the shore and giant fissures had formed along the shoreline so that chunks of soil the size of cars were now threatening to fall into the water below. 

It was especially startling because of all the signs of human life on the shore that day.  I remember being really struck by a broken down snowmobile on one of the chunks of soil that was hanging on by a thread. 

And there was nothing mysterious about this.  Warmer temperatures were to blame.  The soil under Newtok should have been frozen.  It should have been able to withstand the storm but, instead, as the waves came in, it was crumbling.  It made me feel sick especially when I looked back at the houses that were just about eighty feet away.  It really kind of sunk in for me in that moment that all it would take for people’s homes and entire lives to come crashing down would be just a couple more storms like that. 

The next day the chunks of soil were gone, and the snowmobile was poking out of the water near the shore.  All told, my crew and I witnessed something that I never thought would have been possible.  We witnessed the loss of ten feet of land in just three days. 

By the end of this century as many as 13 million Americans will be displaced because of flooding, rising sea levels and erosion.  I knew that statistic before going to Newtok but when I came back I could feel it in my bones.  I let myself feel the full weight of it because I think it served a purpose.  Being able to see the dire situation that Newtok is in right now allowed me to face the daunting task that humanity has ahead of it, allowed me to stare it down and I think that makes me a better climate change journalist. 

My feelings do nothing for Newtok, though.  Newtok is facing an eminent threat right now and they’ve had a lot of trouble getting any kind of help from state and federal officials.  But Newtok isn’t waiting around for the world to change.  They're already building a new village in a different location, in a much higher elevation.  They don’t have nearly enough money to complete it, but the three or four homes that they have built there will have running water by the time they're done. 

As for me, I figured out some things too.  These days, whenever I walk into a women’s bathroom, I make a point of greeting every single woman I see there with the highest pitch ‘hi’ I can muster.  It’s not great bathroom etiquette but it seems to work.  And until people realize that the gender of the person peeing next to you really doesn’t matter, I’m going to do it, because that’s a heck of a lot more fun than the alternative, and it makes me giggle. 

Thank you.


Part 2: Marco Quesada

Mangroves are not the first place you consider when you're planning a vacation.  Mangroves are very hot, muddy, they're wet, smelly, and full of mosquitoes.  As a biologist who grew up in the tropics, I am used to mangroves.  I have visited them numerous times as a student and also as a professional. 

The mangroves of one part of the country made a good impression on me, the mangroves from the Island of Chira.  I first went to Chira about eight years ago.  I was actually looking for coastal fishing communities to apply a survey on.  I heard of the Island of Chira and its communities, but I have never been there. 

Costa Rica is a small country and this is the largest island in the country.  I had never had the chance to visit it.  It is interesting because Costa Rica, even though it’s pretty tiny, the capital is in the center of the country and the coastal areas are pretty much undeveloped.  Not until recently with tourism, actually.

But when I went there, it impressed me immediately as a very rural place, very authentic.  It’s a place that does not have banks.  There are no restaurants, there are no signs in English saying “For Sale,” and that was important to me.  I immediately fell attracted to the Island of Chira and its mangroves. 

Mangroves cut right through it and surrounded the island.  To get to Chira, you have to take a boat from the coast, about half an hour.  A small boat, usually crowded.  You get to a mangrove area, actually, where a small, old, yellow school bus is waiting for all the passengers of the boat to jump into this small bus and it will just cruise slowly through the gravel roads, dusty, and across the grasslands where there's scattered cattle and the small communities. 

It is really a place that brought me back to when I was a child.  When I was a child, not very often actually, very rarely, we will go down from the capital to the coast on a family vacation.  That’s a little bit of what I remember of what used to be the coastal areas of Costa Rica.  Rural, very little developed. 

Shortly after, sure enough, I started working in Chira.  We deployed from Conservation International a project on fisheries and eventually we moved into a project on mangroves. 

So I am there in Chira at 4:00 a.m. one day two years ago.  We woke up at that time because we wanted to go work in a mangrove replantation project that we had developed together with a group of brave women that volunteered their time to work in this.  We woke up very early in the morning because you don’t want to be in the mangrove at 8:00 when it is already very hot. 

We dressed accordingly.  As we say it in Spanish, I’m very sweet to mosquitoes.  I don't like them very much but… so long-sleeve shirt, long pants and knee-high socks for the rubber boots, and we were off. 

It was me, the Marine Program Coordinator of Costa Rica, Anna, and two consultants.  We were walking down the hill from the lodge across the gravel roads in the middle of the night.  You have to walk about two miles to get to the coastal area and, sure enough, the women were there just waiting for us.  Some of them were wearing lipstick and earrings, which really impressed me and stroked me a sense of pride of their project. 

They really know the mangroves well because they got their mollusks’ shells, mollusk actually, from there every now and then.  Many of them single mothers, they have to find a way to live, and they were there just happy and proud to show us their project.  They had actually been raising mangrove plants for several weeks now in their mangrove nursery and they had cleaned an area. 

So we walked through them and they guided us.  The morning was starting to crack and we had some light already.  We got to the mangrove nursery and the first task was to move a couple of hundred of these plants into the degraded mangrove area. 

So here we were, twenty-something women and three guys just ready to work.  We lined up in two front-facing lines and we started passing the plants from one hand to the other.  200 plants, we moved them 100 feet.  200 plants, we moved them 100 feet again.  And so we went into the mangrove and into the morning. 

Of course it started getting warm and I started getting a little bit of a back pain.  I was sweating.  I had gotten off my long-sleeve shirt and tied it around my waist.  I was thirsty, because you're moving muddy things.  You cannot just step out of the line to have a drink.  You're all full of mud so you're expected to work.  I was very tempted to complain, but I could see that everybody was happy and were working happily and with pride so I swallowed my complaint for a while.

But eventually I gave up.  I complained because even though we had been working for hours, you couldn’t even see into the mangrove.  I couldn’t even see where we were heading.  You couldn’t see the area that was degraded.  So I muttered a complaint and that started a joke that everybody was laughing about and went over and over several times that morning. 

Marco Quesada shares his story in Washington, DC, in November 2017, after a three-day Story Collider workshop.

Marco Quesada shares his story in Washington, DC, in November 2017, after a three-day Story Collider workshop.

One of the women said, “This is the Island of Chira where women work and men cry.” 

It was great, but it was also an important joke.  Of course it was not the first time.  I would have complained that more and so I came back several times.  We finally got to the place that needed replantation and we grabbed shovels.  If you have ever put a shovel into a mangrove area where the sediment is very fine and compact and wet, it’s really hard because it makes a vacuum.  Digging each hole was a fight but we finally did it at 10:30, 11:00 a.m. 

We called the day was already too warm.  So I left.  That was my only day at work.  And I left with a lot of humbleness and respect for the work they were doing. 

I come from a very small country and when you come from a very small country you feel like you know everybody.  You feel connected very easily culturally to people around you.  There's nowhere in Costa Rica that will take more than one day to get to.  It’s really easy to move around. 

But Chira just felt so different.  Clearly, that day, I was seen as a foreigner by these women and I was a foreigner to the mangroves also, a place where I have been in multiple times. 

I also work in a big NGO that works all over the world and has headquarters actually very close to here and I am always seen the field guy.  I come from the field.  But that day in Chira, two years ago, it’s shown me how important it is to be connected with the people that work and live in these areas, to be grounded by these visits, to continually be open to learning. 

And especially important is that these people often do not have time to even think of complaining.  All they have time of is to keep moving and keep working every day.  Thank you.