Born in: Eugene, Oregon (but raised in Plains, Montana, a town of 1,200)
Countries, states, cities lived in: Washington (Yakima, Tacoma, Spokane): 1989-95; Alaska (Anchorage): 1995-97; Bolivia (Bañado de la Cruz & Santa Cruz): 1997; 1998 – 2002; Washington (Seattle): 2002-03; Massachusetts (Cambridge): 2003-05; Guatemala (Guatemala City): 2004; California (Duarte): 2006-10; Colombia (Bogotá): 2010 – present.
Cyberspace coordinates: Staying for Tea | Good Principles and Practice of Community-based International Development (blog); @AaronAusland (Twitter handle); Aaron Ausland at Huffington Post (column)
*My passport is only three years old, but multiple entries to about 40 countries filled it right up and I’ve had to add more pages. By the end of this year, I will have slept somewhere other than home about 190 of the 365 nights.
What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My late first wife and I wanted to make a difference in the world and were particularly passionate about issues of justice, peace, and poverty. After graduating from university, we decided that maybe the best place to match our greatest gifts with the world’s greatest needs was in the public policy arena. We thought it would be good to represent a view on behalf of the marginalized — those uninvited to the table where policy decisions are made that nevertheless affect their lives in profound ways. In particular, we were thinking of illiterate poor persons living in underdeveloped countries ruled by bad or incompetent leaders and subjected to all the crap that comes with weak institutions of governance.
But we realized it would be pretty lame to run off to graduate school straight out of undergrad and then find some job in a policy think tank or as a Congressional aide in the hopes of working our way up to having a place at the table with a mind to represent these unrepresented views when we really hadn’t a clue what they were.
So we made a three-year commitment with the Mennonite Central Committee to go live and serve in a Bolivian village with people who fit this description.
We were young, hopeful, idealistic, earnest, and naïve. I can say that I’m not so young anymore.
Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I have a brother who served in Iraq for a couple of years, but he now lives about a hundred meters from our dad’s house in Yakima, Washington. I’m really the only one in my family who has chosen a lifestyle for which the question “Where are you from?” generates a confusing jumble of explanation rather than a simple city-state combo.
Unless you count my son, Thiago. He’s six and is definitely more “displaced” than me. He literally speaks of living in two different “worlds.” In one “world” he speaks Spanish, has a home and school in Colombia, where his sister was born, and has family in Bolivia (his mother is Bolivian). In the other world” — where he says he is really from — he speaks English and has friends in California and a large family on my side including a whole set from my late first wife. Yesterday he told his mother: “My brain is confused, I don’t know where I should live. All my friends are in California, but my cousins are in Bolivia, and I go to school in Colombia and have friends there, too.” Poor little nomad.
Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
For me the question was “How the hell did a small town boy from Montana end up here?” Physically, at that moment, “here” was a stainless steel operating table in a dark and empty hospital room in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. But more profoundly, “here” was a situation so far from my expectations, I was literally struggling to connect the dots and figure out how I had gotten myself there. I was 25 years old. Somewhere in a ravine a hundred miles away lay the broken body of my wife. A few hours earlier, the public bus in which we were riding had missed a turn on the narrow, winding road that passes through the Andean foothills and tumbled 1,000 feet into the dark.
She and I had gone to Bolivia with a long-term vision of our lives together, and now I was here, in a foreign land, alone, the slate of the future wiped clean. It was so profoundly disorientating, I just kept coming back to the question: “How did I get here?” Maybe it was a way to push off the searing emotional pain that would come with facing into my new reality, but the question wouldn’t go away. What sequence of events and decisions led me here? Did I make a mistake?
I remembered scenes from my idyllic boyhood in small-town Montana when my whole world was contained in a 100- mile radius and a handful of friends and family members. How had the world gotten so big, so uncertain, so complicated? And what was I doing wandering around in it like a lost child? How had I gotten here?
Much later, I would decide that I hadn’t made any mistakes. My first wife and I had made decisions based on a set of values that we held in earnest and I continue to hold. The fact that those decisions led to tragedy does not diminish the certainty of those values — it just means that those who hold them are not exempt from catastrophic loss that come to all who live.
I know you were probably hoping for a funny anecdote about crazy food or wacky cultural misunderstanding, but this is my one true displacement story.
Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Nowadays, I feel a sort of indifference about the whole location thing, to be honest. Whether I’m living in Cambridge attending the Kennedy School of Government, or setting up a new home in Colombia, or sitting where I am at this moment at an outdoor bar in a hotel in Bamako, Mali, I feel neither particularly at home nor particularly displaced. Feeling at home has a lot less to do with place than it used to, and it’s often unpredictable. I can feel more at home in Albania when I have a good macchiato and an Internet connection to video Skype with my children than I might in a hotel in Atlanta after a missed flight, with a dead computer battery. I can feel more at home when I’m sharing a beer with a fellow expat I’ve just met in rural Cambodia than I might sharing a beer with an old friend I grew up with who never left Montana.
I’ve experienced profound moments in my adopted homelands — from becoming a widower, to getting married, to rejoicing at the birth of my daughter, to undergoing major medical treatment. In each of these, it was the people who surrounded me that made me feel at home, and the uniqueness of the event that made me feel displaced. The location or culture has ceased to hold much power over my perception of self at particular moments.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’ll bring my wife from Bolivia, my son from the USA, and my daughter from Colombia. They are certainly a curious bunch, but I can’t live without them.
You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Well, the cuisines of places like India, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Mexico are always worth sharing. The rich complexities that have come from centuries of experimentation with combinations of local flavors as well as some exotic additions from old trade routes are heritage gifts to the world. But, I’m sure someone will bring a few dishes from these parts into the Displaced Nation, so maybe I’ll bring some less likely ones such as the rich Malian sauce made in part from the boiled fruit of the baobab tree; the surprisingly filling chicken hearts strung on a kabob, flavored with soy sauce and charcoal smoke, sold on the streets of Bolivia; or maybe a lesser known dish from Mexico — the corn smut omelet made with cuitlacoche, a purplish fungus that grows on corn; or maybe I’ll just bring the beer…
You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
I think I’ll pass on this one. Pole sana (so sorry!) as we say in Swahili. Actually, maybe that’s a good one. Pole (pronounced POH-lay) doesn’t have an exact English equivalent — it’s used to say you empathize and understand someone’s problems, without the connotation of inferiority that “I pity you” might have.
This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you cherish?
I’ve never really had a specific role model for philanthropic displacement. That said, I’ve always been impressed with people who make long-term commitments to live among the people they wish to serve and voluntarily forego access to comforts and safety they might otherwise enjoy.
There are some famous examples like Mother Theresa, but the ones that have had the biggest personal impact on me are unknowns — volunteers and professionals I’ve met and worked with along the way. Such people taught me how to live with a kitchen stocked with just 12 items — that’s counting the spices. They taught me how to bring my water up from the river in the morning and hang it in a tree from a bucket painted black so that the sun would heat the water throughout the day, in preparation for a warm evening bucket shower. I learned how to capture rain water, how to build dry latrines, how to trust local medicinal practices, how to enjoy silence, how to walk the equivalent of a marathon a day to visit local families, how to sit and unhurriedly share tea over conversations that circle around rather than cut to the chase, how to embrace simplicity as a virtue… I also forgot how to complain and remembered to be grateful in the midst of scarcity.
Most of my role models didn’t do anything spectacular — they didn’t invent microfinance or the treadle pump, they didn’t negotiate peace accords or write a best seller. But the way they displaced themselves so thoroughly, the way they embraced their local communities with such authenticity — this had a big impact on how the communities valued their presence and their contribution, and on me.
Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
No, not really. It’s not that I think voluntourism is unequivocally a bad thing, but I just don’t think you can expect people to gain a very accurate understanding of complex problems under such circumstances. In fact, I think it’s more likely to leave them with a distorted understanding. There is a saying I picked up somewhere that goes something like this:
Travel to a new place for three weeks and you can write a book, travel for three months and you can write an article, travel for three years and you’ll likely have nothing to say.
There’s just something about a short and intense exposure that seems to set very strong ideas into the minds of those who’ve experienced it. But their ideas are biased by the specificity, narrowness, and brevity of that experience.
For example, someone who has had a high-impact experience volunteering in an orphanage for a week may feel they know more about the issue than people who haven’t had that experience. In fact, they may actually know less due to the biases they have picked up. It’s like believing you know something about the average person in a country from a single observation.
Sometimes, people know just enough to be dangerous; they mistake their shallow knowledge for an actual understanding of some enormously complex problem, and they act on it in ways that are ultimately irresponsible.
The truth is, the problems facing our planet are complex and we should all be grateful for the specialists who have dedicated their lives to understanding and addressing them. Doing something serious about addressing these problems will require professionals, not hobbyists; lifers, not tourists.
Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to pass through as a tourist, but with regards to your question here, we need to guard against self-deception. I’ve taken a few tours of a number of hydro-electric projects across the Western USA. I think they are really interesting. But, I know better than to believe I know the first thing about harnessing the power of water to generate electricity while balancing the ecological, economic, legal, social and political interests of farmers, consumers, industry, and the environment.
Likewise, you can’t take a two-day tour of an urban slum in Kenya and think you understand poverty, urban migration, economic development, or whatever other angle one might give such a tour.
For a broader scope of my thoughts on voluntourism, I encourage you to see my blog posts:
Readers — yay or nay for letting Aaron Ausland into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Aaron — find amusing.)
img: Aaron Ausland in Mexico City (he’s the suit!). While on a lunch break from her work conducting a month-long operations audit of an NGO office, Aaron happened upon a lucha libre wrestling match putting on an outdoor show, and decided it would be amusing to pose with the star luchadore.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, when we get to find out whether she’s recovered from eating her mother-in-law’s undercooked Thanksgiving turkey. (Not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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