In my office this afternoon, about 2/3 of my colleagues gathered in the conference center to watch a live feed of Trump announcing that he was withdrawing the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. I watched the first 10 minutes or so and then went back to my desk, as I’d heard enough bullshit by that point.
One of the first projects I worked on at WRI was an infographic explaining IPCC climate models and what they meant for the health of the planet; the takeaway is that we’re locked into a global 2˚ increase no matter what we do, but it’s most likely going to be 4˚ and we’ll keep getting hotter unless dramatic change is made. The Paris Agreement was the beginning of that dramatic change, and this shitstain just torpedoed it in the name of…coal? Business? I don’t even know what the fuck he was talking about because all of his talking points were half-science.
WRI was intimately involved in the Paris Agreement, from helping write the language of the actual document to shepherding individual countries through the talks to writing the actual protocol that countries use to measure greenhouse gases. We did excellent work there and it sucks to see this administration dismantle it to make a small bunch of xenophobic billionaires happy.
Here’s the slightly shortened version of my Paraguay video. I’m not 100% happy with the voiceover; I think they could have found someone with better enunciation. Maybe I can get them to re-record it…
Look what I did:
So with the exception of about 30 seconds of B-roll we had to buy, and another 15 seconds we borrowed from some other organizations, everything in here is stuff I shot in Paraguay. I’ve spent the last two weeks assembling, rewriting, reassembling, compositing, coloring, and editing, and I’m really happy with the results here.
Next week I’ll be producing a second version in English with subtitles to post on WRI’s site.
The new semester is underway, and I’ve got a crop of 16 students. They’re all new to me save two, which is a nice change, and after our fourth class I’m relatively happy with them so far. I’m teaching a slight variation on last semester’s syllabus, having tweaked the timing, assignments, and deliverables a bit based on what I learned in the last class. These students are all graduating in the spring, so I’ll be one of their last waypoints before they reach the outside world. It feels good to be teaching again, and I’ve added a couple of workshop/discussions to the schedule that should help them beyond the assignments we’re covering.
We have some friends who own a digital printing shop in Columbia, and over the break I went down to tour the shop and talk to them about taking on student work. It’s not the most glamorous work, and is realistically a money-loser for them in the short term, but the students have all been limited by what their campus print shop can and cannot do. My aim is to widen their horizons so that they realize there’s more than one place to produce their work. I’m also developing a workshop around the art of ordering a print job, so that they know what to ask for, what the language means, and what questions the print shop will ask them when they call.
Strangely, it sounds like I might not be teaching next semester due to scheduling issues at the school. I don’t know if they’re going to sort things out or not (I have been told on the sly that they will) but my hope is that they do.
I took a pair of Anker bluetooth headphones with me to Paraguay, and I really like them. They are actually wired together but don’t tether to my phone itself, which makes commuting easy–I constantly spend time untangling headphone cables around my messenger bag, so having something that’s up and out of the way while I’m transferring from car to train to office is wonderful. They are also the first noise-canceling headphones that actually stay in my ears during normal usage. I put them in on the plane ride and shut out the entire cabin around me; the only thing I had to worry about was clearing the air pressure in my ears.
After two months of searching, we hired a production manager at work to help keep my team on track and relieve some of the management pressure from me and my senior designer. She’s a transplant from Southern California who worked in the magazine industry for three years, so she brings a wealth of good experience to our team. We’re sorting out the logistics of equipment and seating this week, and she’s been invited to about 100 meetings over the next three weeks to talk with our internal clients and begin to understand how the organization works.
I was never trained as a manager, so this experience is a new one for me. My style to this point has been very laid back, mirroring my personality, but I’m seeing that I’ve got to step up more and become more proactive about a lot of things. Having come from a tense environment of micromanagement, I never wanted to do that to anyone else. What I have to do now is find a happy medium between being more assertive with my team and our clients and not being a domineering tyrant.
The second contractor I had come in for the bathroom ghosted me. I’ve left him two messages but haven’t heard anything back since he came to look things over. Meanwhile I’ve got the estimate the first guy sent us to review, to see where I can cut some costs. Maybe with some tough negotiation we can bring the price down to a reasonable amount. I do know he quoted on 7 very expensive windows when we’re going to reduce the number to 5, and we don’t need top of the line models, which will save thousands. There may also be some prep work I can do to cut costs as well–when the porch was enclosed, the builders put in a thick wall below the windows and a thinner wall above the sills, making a waist-high shelf around the room. I want to shim out the walls to a consistent depth all the way around for ease of finishing and added insulation value, which I can probably handle myself.
When I hit the hotel bed early Monday morning after traveling over 18 hours, it felt glorious. I left under cover of darkness on Sunday to catch my flight at Dulles, where I boarded a Copa Airlines Airbus to Panama. I was alone on the first leg of my journey, as my colleagues were all coming in from other places. In Panama I met up with Colin, one of my contacts from the International Development Bank, and Liza, a colleague from WRI I’d only talked to on the phone. We made introductions and boarded for Paraguay.
We landed a little before midnight local time. After a bumpy taxi ride to our hotel, we checked in and got settled in our rooms. I set up my gear for charging, organized my clothes and shooting rigs, and got to bed a little after 1.
Our first day started early. We went to the IDB offices in Paraguay to meet the rest of our team and film interviews with a couple of local bank representatives. I had to set up and shoot quickly, and worked with the available light I had inside the building–which, thankfully, was very photogenic and filled with lots of indirect light. Then we took them outside and filmed some interviews in the shade, which looked lovely but did little to combat the dry heat. It’s summer in Paraguay so the local temperatures were around 90˚, which made me glad I wasn’t wearing a tie.
After a quick lunch, we taxi’d over to the offices of the Sudameris Bank in the old colonial district of Ascención to film a senior bank official. Here the local architecture was against me. Many of the taller buildings have heat-dispersing shutters built on their sun-facing sides, which work well for keeping the building cool but suck for filming against, and block 50% of the outside light. All of the available offices on that floor were dark and full of shadows, so I started setting up for the worst case scenario until one of our colleagues asked if we could get onto the roof. We followed a guard up a flight of stairs and out onto a terrace, where a large portion was shaded by a raised helicopter platform overhead. The only drawback I saw was that the building’s machinery was all sitting in the open, which made sound recording impossible. Guillermo quietly asked if they would shut the A/C and air handlers off, and in 5 minutes we had silence. I framed the shot, set up the sound, and we got two interviews filmed with the skyline of Ascención in the background. I also took the opportunity to shoot some footage of the streets and Ox while we were up there.
From there we split up taxis and headed back to the hotel, where a change of clothes and splash of clean water made a huge difference. In the courtyard we had some freshly squeezed lemonade, prepared strategy for Tuesday, and ate dinner–which was excellent for a small boutique hotel.
Tuesday morning I was able to sleep in for a few extra hours, as our first interview was scheduled for 11AM. We traveled to another bank and were escorted to a spacious, airy office where my colleagues made their pitch and I got set up for the shoot. This office was on a north-facing side, so we had clear views from floor-to-ceiling windows to shoot against. Then we walked to the roof and shot a bunch of B-roll footage of the city.
After that, I tagged along with two of my colleagues as they went to meet with a representative of the WWF to introduce the project we’re working on. We met her at her house in a quiet neighborhood, where she hosted us in her garden. Surrounded by walls covered in greenery, and centered around a large, lush tree, the patio was beautiful, quiet, and the perfect setting to talk about saving the forest.
That evening we taxi’d to a restaurant recommended by another colleague. This began with a little drama. When our driver walked back to converse with the second (arguing about where the location actually was) our car began to slowly roll forward. Trapped behind the driver’s seat, I was unable to do much, but Luis, on the other side of the back seat (we were sitting three abreast) jumped forward to pull the emergency brake–which didn’t work. Then he leapt forward into the driver’s seat to push the brake down, but couldn’t reach it…while we picked up speed down a hill towards a shiny new sedan. The cab driver finally noticed and rushed back to hit the brake just before a collusion.
Our destination was called the Hotel Brooklyn, where the entrance was decorated as a speakeasy and the maitre’d gave us an introduction to the concept while we stood in a faux secret elevator. Then he pulled aside a curtain to a room decorated like a secret nightclub. Here I attempted to decipher a sushi menu written in Spanish. Deciding that raw fish might not be the best idea (and noting that most of the available rolls included cream cheese) I opted for a steak with risotto. The conversation and my companions were fantastic, and we stayed until midnight while valentine couples filled each available table, including (I was told) the current Miss Paraguay.
Wednesday morning was another early one, and I was to be picked up by the father of one of my colleagues for a tour of Ascención for some B-roll footage. Reinaldo could not have been a more pleasant companion, and he took me north out of the city proper to find some vantage points of the river, which is the main commercial artery of Paraguay. We ducked down some side roads, then some side side roads, until finally we were on dirt tracks heading through dusty residential areas toward the river.
Paraguay reminds me a lot of sections of Mexico City, in that there are brand-new buildings next to older structures that are half-maintained and fronted by crumbling sidewalks. I get the feeling that the climate takes a toll on man-made structures, so everything needs constant upkeep, and sometimes that’s done and sometimes it isn’t. The area we drove through was no different; there were sections of concrete block and tin-roofed shacks next to walled, garden-filled houses with electricity and newer cars in the drive. Reinaldo got us to the edge of the river and we hiked out to a pier, where an older man stood smoking and watching the boats pass by. I shot some footage of what I could see but got stymied by a fogged lens from the temperature differential between A/C and outside. We said our good-byes and headed further south to the bridge over the river which separates the north from the south. Stopping to shoot again, we hiked up to the apex and shot Ascención in the distance through slow-moving motor traffic.
Reinaldo offered to see if we could get into a slaughterhouse up the road, so we drove north and parked in the shade. He tried talking his way in, based on the fact that his farm is part of the larger co-operative that owns the operation, and because he’s kind of a big deal in the Paraguayan banking system. The guards were unmoved, and a skeptical representative came out to politely decline our request, so we jumped back in and headed into the city.
Along the whole route, I peppered Reinaldo with questions about himself and Paraguay, and he seemed delighted to answer my questions. His story is pretty common for the country; as the descendant of Ukranian immigrants directly after the Second World War, he grew up in the Chaco on land his parents carved out of wilderness. He was educated in Paraguay and went to the Netherlands to go to college (during the height of the dictatorship that gripped the country for 35 years), where he met his wife, and they returned home to raise their family when the country returned to democracy.
Our time up, he returned me to the IDB offices where I thanked him profusely for his time, and I got set up for our next interview, with the head of the IDB in Paraguay. We shot a couple more interviews while we were there, and then headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner.
This evening, dinner was at another hip restaurant, this one focused on a hippie surfing vibe. We gathered around a huge table, ordered drinks, and laughed over the events of our trip. Much of our group was leaving the next day, so it was great to catch up one last time before splitting up.
Thursday morning we met our driver, Callixto, from the WWF, who showed us a map over breakfast and then bundled us into a shiny snorkeled 4Runner for our trip northward. We picked up Nick, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current WWF employee, and headed out of the city. Over the bridge and up into the Chaco, we drove for 160 kilometers until we hit a small intersection marked by a roadside stand. Turning off to the west, our journey took us another 60km over dirt roads out into the wilderness. Here the previous day’s rainfall had made the road muddy in places, and apparently Chaco mud becomes impassable quickly. We’d waited a few hours before leaving to allow the roads to dry out, but Callixto had to do some careful driving through axle-deep stretches every few kilometers.
The Chaco itself is beautiful country; completely flat, hectares of palm trees rise from lush grass that covers the land. The forest is not forest as we know it in the Northeast; it’s a mixture of tall grass, brush, palm, and deciduous trees on both dry and wet ground.
We stopped abruptly at the entrance to a ranch and navigated the road to the main buildings through increasingly deeper pits of mud. I found myself wishing I’d shipped the Scout down for the opportunity to drive through some of this stuff; as it was, our air-conditioned 4Runner made its way through with few problems. Reaching the ranch, we were greeted by the owner, his friend, and the foreman, who hydrated us while I broke out the drone and assembled it for flight.
All the literature I’d read claimed there would be no problem switching hemispheres, and I was able to get clear signal with the handheld GPS I’d borrowed with the drone. But no amount of time or fussing with the drone itself would get it to acquire satellites. I’ll explain: The drone is equipped with an on-board GPS system that it uses to identify its location. If it senses any problems–it’s out of range, the batteries are dying–it will take over control and return itself to the spot where it landed as a fail-safe. So flying without satellites is for the expert pilot in the best of cases. A wind sock posted at the edge of the field I was in showed there was a southwesterly breeze at 20′, so I figured it would be stronger the higher I got.
I took it up for a brief test flight with no satellite connection, and it immediately turned north. No amount of input could get it to turn around, and it continued heading into the wind away from me. I got it turned in the general direction of the cattle pen but worried it would spook the livestock–which it did–turned it away from a pond, and crash-landed it in some high grass. Had it been mine, or the company’s, I would have taken it back up to try and get decent footage, but I didn’t want to lose or break it on Eric. I called him on Colin’s phone and talked through it with him, but we had no answers. So it got packed back up and we went to Plan B.
Edit: Doing some sleuthing, I pulled the GPS coordinates from the handheld I brought and plugged them into Google Maps. Doing some more sleuthing, I think I found the approximate location of our ranch, which was here–about 30 miles’ difference. So I think something is very fishy with GPS in the southern hemisphere.
Our hosts then took us up a road to see a field being cleaned of brush, and we left there to see another example up the path. About two kilometers in, we got stuck up to the axles in mud that was half earth, half manure. Our hosts reversed back to our location to try and pull us out but got themselves stuck as well. So we waited for the bulldozer we’d just filmed to come and pull us out. It was at this point the reality of just how far we were from ANYTHING became clear. I recalled a story we’d been told about what the Mennonites in that area do when someone has been bitten by a rattlesnake; because medical care is so distant to everything, and the roads so primitive, the solution to buy time is to USE A TASER ON THE VICTIM. From what we were told, the shock to the system does something to slow down the reaction to the venom, long enough for medical aid to be reached. (Later on we were told that a a car battery works well in a pinch).
Eduardo the tractor driver pulled us out without much fuss, and we backtracked to reach some different fields. Somewhere around here my strategy of wearing shorts was revealed as the mistake it was; the mosquitoes in the Chaco are legion, and they are hungry. Colin shared his bug repellent with us, but every half-hour required a re-application due to sweat and movement. Regardless, I was there to work, and so continued to shoot with clouds of mosquitoes covering my body. This included a boggy walk through marshland to see a stand of mostly forest, something that was neither photogenic nor worth the wet shoes and thousand bites I suffered walking to and from the spot. Each time we got in the truck we had to spend five minutes killing the swarms of mosquitoes that followed us in; I was glad I wore a dark shirt because I continually smashed engorged bugs, leaving splotches of blood on my skin. (one of our colleagues, native to Paraguay, looked at Colin’s sneakers the night before we left, shook his head, and said quietly, “These shoes are not for the Chaco.”)
At lunchtime we returned to the main house and shot a bunch of footage of the cattle in their pen awaiting vaccination; Even though I’ve seen this in person before it always takes my breath away at the size and power of healthy cattle. These cattle are truly free-range: the size of the fields in Paraguay stagger belief, and the grass they feed on grows so well on its own, there is no need for fertilizer or chemicals of any kind.
We also met the vaqueros’ horses, waiting patiently under a tree, and a small herd of semi-feral cattle dogs.
Lunch was served in the main house, which could have doubled for the lounge of a boutique hotel. Under vaulted ceilings held up with hand-hewn beams, they had prepared a meal of Picañha, which I was told was the best cut of meat, with a tomato, egg, and onion salad and sopa paraguaya, a cheesy cornbread. They sliced the meat with the sharpest Bowie knife I’ve ever held). Sated, we packed up and headed for two final fields, one of flat, seeded grazing grass, and the second with tall wide-leaved grass also used for feed. This last field was the one we’d tried to get to when we got stuck, so we had to find another way in. This required a bumpy ride in a wagon towed by a tractor (Piloted by the estimable Eduardo) over four kilometers of half-cleared dirt path. I have a suspicion that anything not used regularly in the Chaco gets overgrown immediately, because we spent most of the ride ducking low branches and hanging on as the wagon bobbled over uneven track and waded through marshy bog.
Our forward progress kept the mosquitoes at bay but as soon as we stopped they came at us in swarms. I quickly climbed atop the tractor roof and started shooting, which was helpful because they didn’t follow me that high. Once we had what we needed, Eduardo turned us around (there was a heart-stopping moment where the tractor lost purchase and he spun the wheels in the muck; Colin turned to me, laughing under his breath, and said, “Can you imagine us getting stuck, trying to shoot the last footage of the day, with all those mosquitos between here and the trucks?”) Thankfully Eduardo was on top of it, got us turned around, and we headed back to the road. The mosquitoes had followed our trail, though, and they were ten times the number we’d dealt with coming in.
After a long and painful ride back, we cheered Eduardo as we got to the trucks, said our thanks to our hosts, took some selfies, and headed for home under a low sun.
I was humbled by the gracious nature of everyone I met in country, visible in simple things like driving habits; there is no road rage in what I experienced in multiple cars on multiple days. This also became clear as we drove our way back over the hardpack and through an area of recent rainfall, where we came upon a grizzled old man working over a tiny compact, stuck in a section of mud. Callixto backed up so they could hitch to his bumper, put the 4Runner in low gear, and we pulled them through the muck for a couple of kilometers until they could get their engine started again. Saying our goodbyes as the shadows got longer, we left them to make it home.
Before the sun went down completely, we came upon a surprise in the roadway: a South American rattlesnake stretched out in the sun. It sat and pretended it didn’t see us, but had to be moved in order for us to get past. We got as close as we dared to shoot some pictures, and then scared it into the brush with some carefully thrown clods of dirt. It wound up on itself, gave us a rattle, and retreated backwards into the grass, keeping us visible. Colin then pointed out that we’d been tramping through brush, bog, field, and forest all afternoon, and never knew if we’d been close to something that dangerous the whole time. I for one was glad we didn’t have to test out the car battery theory, as I don’t think Callixto had a taser in his WWF field pack.
The sun went down pretty quickly, and Callixto got us off the dirt road as the last light was leaving; we stopped at a gas station for water and snacks, and then hightailed it down the highway for our hotel. Colin and I got back at about 10, and we got cleaned up before heading around the corner for some mediocre pizza and cold beer.
Friday my wake-up call came at 4:30 local time (2:30 EST) and a man in the creakiest, noisiest taxi in Paraguay got me to the Departure gate in 20 minutes. I sailed through customs and security, and boarded a packed flight to leave. My layover in Panama was about 7 hours, so I camped out next to a working power outlet and fought the airport’s wifi to tell Jen I was OK. About this time my mosquito bites started acting up (they hadn’t itched at all when the fuckers were biting me) and my sunburn compounded the issue, so it was with great relief that I was able to doze on the plane once we got in the air. Landing in Dulles after midnight, recovering my luggage, and getting to my shuttle was easy, but after having lugged my shit from DC to Paraguay to the Chaco and back again, I wound up leaving my phone on the floor of the shuttle. All things considered, though, if that’s all that went wrong, I’ll take it.
Since I got back from Mexico last year, people have been asking me if I’ve got travel lined up for work, and up until last week I was telling them no. Then I was suddenly offered the chance to fly to Paraguay to shoot a bunch of interviews with finance and bank officials who are investing in forest restoration and protection. A little less than half of the country is forested, and they’ve lost 12.7% of their total forest cover since 1990. My job is to film these financiers explaining how a web tool we’ve produced helps them make sustainable business decisions for their companies. What could I say? I started packing and reorganizing schedules to make the trip.
I know nothing about Paraguay itself other than what I’ve been able to read online. The last couple of weeks have been chaotic for multiple reasons, so I haven’t been able to prepare the way I want to, but I’ll have some handlers in country who are going to take me 2 hours into the Chaco to shoot B-roll of deforestation. Then I had an idea and contacted my neighbor to see if I could rent his drone for the price of a couple of new batteries, and he was happy to oblige. On Saturday we got a couple of test flights in to familiarize with the controls and assembly process; from all I took in the drone itself is almost idiot-proof; it finds its position via GPS and is happiest when it connects to at least 7 satellites. If it gets low on batteries, loses contact with the controller, or has any other positioning problems, it will take control of itself and fly its way back to the place where it took off. So all I have to do is make sure I recalibrate the compass and then not crash it into a tree.
The flight was more than a full day of travel; I was out the front door at 5:50 and did not hit my hotel bed until 12:30 (1:30AM local time). Sitting way back in Coach, I got used to the close quarters quickly. On my second leg I was seated directly in front of the rest rooms, and was joined by a pair of young Paraguayan men who were returning from a two-year hitch as volunteers on an ocean-going ship run by a Christian mission. They told me of their adventures, answered my many questions about the trip, their family history in Paraguay (descendants of German immigrants) and told me about the country. I did not think to have them pose for a shot with Ox, but should have. Leaving Customs with my WRI group, I spotted a family of familiar faces (tall, blonde, Germanic) waiting outside the gate, and played a hunch. When I asked them if they were waiting for Gabriel, they brightened up and said, “Yes!” I told them he was on his way out, and to say thanks again from Bill on the plane.
There’s a slim chance I’ll get some time in Ascención itself before I leave, but from what I understand it’s not wise to walk around alone after dark. The only free time I’ll get is in the evenings but there won’t be the kind of time to do full reconnaissance via foot like I did in London and Mexico City.
I’m taking a somewhat stripped-down kit with me compared to the load I brought to England; a lot of the redundant gear I didn’t use got left behind at the office. The interviews themselves should be easy to set up and break down, environment permitting–I have no idea what locations they’ll have me working at, or what the lighting situation will be, but we made the first one work with as much natural indoor light as possible, and then shot some beautiful interview footage outside.
I subscribe to many podcasts for my commute, one of which is NPR’s Marketplace. I’ve listened to this show for over 10 years now, actually, because it came on during my car commute back in the day. Imagine my surprise when one of the experts I work with at WRI, Joe Thwaites, was interviewed yesterday for a segment on Trump’s plans to cut payments into the International Climate Fund.
— NetSquared DC (@net2dc) October 25, 2016
I’m proud to say the video I shot, illustrated, and produced for the New Climate Economy is live (as is NCE’s new report, the Sustainable Infrastructure Imperative). This is the one they flew me to London for, where I set up an interview studio both in our hotel and at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. In the time between shooting the video and the release of the report, we reshot WRI’s president here in DC to sub in some changes in the original text, reordered the 4 elements at the end, and added new illustration to reflect changes in the language. It was a huge undertaking but so much fun to produce, and I’m thrilled with the results.