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Seeing the Election from Abroad

Sun, 2009-03-15 16:12 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Caulkins in audience, Barak Obama speakingArriving in London in early August, I expected to see less about the U.S. election campaign in the British media than at home in Iowa. The amount of election campaign coverage, however, seemed almost as great here as in the United States.

I should have remembered how intensely interested Europeans are in American politics. As was endlessly proclaimed in the media, what the U.S. president does has a huge impact globally. The British, who prefer leaders who can speak in complete sentences, were immediately impressed with Barack Obama, although they consistently mispronounced his first name as "Bearick."

In contrast, veteran TV presenters at first had difficulty keeping a straight face when discussing Sarah Palin, although they became increasingly sober when they realized that some (many?) Americans prefer their candidates ignorant and ideological.

As the campaign season went on, British interest intensified and became more worried. Obama was everyone's favorite here, or if not, people wouldn't admit it. Yet there was concern that if Europe was too noisy about its preference for Obama, the American electorate might vote against him for that reason.

All of the TV organizations had extensive election night coverage, with many Brits glued to their TVs until the outcome was clear, about 3:30 a.m. London time.

I found it too stomach-churning to sit in front of the TV that long and went to bed, intending to get up at 6 a.m. to get the news. About 4 a.m., I was awakened by groups of people shouting in the streets: "Obama, Obama!" It was safe to get up.

After the election was certain, I went to my neighborhood newsagent and bought a copy of The Guardian. A picture of the triumphant Obama, now president-elect, graced the front page of this and every other newspaper that day. Placing the newspaper on the counter and carefully stacking my coins next to the photo of Obama, I said to my South Asian-born newsagent, "It is a good day today!"

"It is a good day for the world!" he replied. It was, of course, a common sentiment globally.

"Now perhaps it will be possible for the U.S. to become respected again," he concluded, smiling broadly.


Originally published as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Spring 2009

On the Road to El Silencio

Mon, 2008-09-15 16:23 | By Anonymous (not verified)


The road to El Silencio is bumpy and covered with gray rocks. It is lined by dense rows of African palm sparsely interspersed with the teal and pink homes of plantation workers. Young men on tractors bob up and down towing behind them beds filled with palm fruit. After an hour on the rocks through the palm tunnel, you cross a river and the landscape opens up like a scene from Jurassic Park. (Coincidentally, as we jounced in, John Williams' score played on the radio.) A vulture scavenged over the stumpy open field to the right, and to the left small forest-green humps of mountains shaped the horizon. There was the land of El Silencio.

Over spring break, as part of a seminar called Sustainable Development in Costa Rica, we (10 students and Associate Professor of Anthropology Monty Roper) traveled to El Silencio--a small rural cooperative-based town that opens its homes and workplaces to tourists looking to experience Tico culture--to research the costs and benefits of development on the community.

While the cooperative, which effectively governs the town, relies heavily on African palm for income, it has created a diverse set of projects both to earn colones and draw tourists. Contrasting the surrounding palm monoculture, these projects include a cattle ranch, an organic garden, and an animal rescue center that houses spider monkeys and red macaws, among other species. Ideally, tourists come to be "volun-tourists" and work on one of the projects while living with families in town.

Tourists have become an everyday occurrence in El Silencio. Not only do four or five minibuses of rafters come through and get snacks at theAlbergue, but also people like us stay in town for weeks at a time, becoming fleeting parts of the community. They play volleyball with community members, go for dips in the river, and eat and watch TV with hosts.

Tourism has caused some tension in the community. According to community members we interviewed, some associates of the co-op are more agriculturalists and think they would be better off if they scrapped tourism--and the wealthy gringos who impact youth behavior--and focused more on palm. Others hold that tourism is one of the best projects for the co-op and that they should spend more to improve the rescue center, hotel, and other tourist draws.

As development in the region continues, the bumpy road from Quepos will be paved to accommodate the heavy trucks of a large cement producer--a condition to attaining rights over sand from the rivers. The paved road will mean more traffic through El Silencio, and more tourists--whether this is for better or for worse is the crux of the co-op's tension.

After two weeks of research, our class returned to Grinnell to contemplate what we saw and heard, and to assess El Silencio as if we were "development experts." We created a development diagnostic of the community, identifying current strengths and weaknesses related to various aspects of the community, and also developed recommendations for the town based on our research and broader development theory.

In completing these assignments, the tensions I observed between different development approaches remained pressing yet somewhat hard to grasp. While the objective goals of development--long-term increases in health, wealth, and education--will drive the process, the intangibles will determine its success.

Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2008