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Working for the Great Man

Working as Geography Research Assistant — “Chaya’s grandfather is a famous geographer,” I told a couple of guest to Chaya’s family home in Bangor. “What, did he win a Noble Peace Prize or something?” one of the guest jested with a sarcastic sort of giggle. “Yeah, he did,” I replied, “it is hanging on the [...]

Working as Geography Research Assistant

“Chaya’s grandfather is a famous geographer,” I told a couple of guest to Chaya’s family home in Bangor.

“What, did he win a Noble Peace Prize or something?” one of the guest jested with a sarcastic sort of giggle.

“Yeah, he did,” I replied, “it is hanging on the wall right over there.”

And there, hanging out on the wall above our dining room table as indiscreetly as any other wall ornament was Chaya’s grandfather’s Noble Peace Prize. We oogled at it.

Robert Kates, The Great Man

Robert Kates, The Great Man

Chaya’s grandfather worked 15 years as a steal worker in Gary, Indiana before attending college. It is said that he only wanted to become a school teacher so that he could have his summers free to go camping. He ended up contributing to the award of a Nobel Prize, winning a National Medal of Science, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

He clearly overshot his mark, though it is my impression that he was still able to accomplish his goal of having time to camp.

His name is Robert Kates, though he is obsessionally referred to as “The Great Man.” A title which is in no way a misnomer.

He is one of the most renown geographers in the world, and I first met him at his home in Trenton, Maine during Thanksgiving of 2008. We baked a turkey together.

It was an interesting encounter. For all of his scientific prowess and for all of my so-called worldly experience, neither of us knew how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. So we bobbled the slippy slimy fowl back and forth as if it were some odd sort of edible rugby ball, grappled around inside of it looking for innards and other special surprises, and then eventually just tossed the damn thing into the sink.

We soon gave up on our exploratory venture into the dead bird and resolved to reading the baking directions that were printed on its package. Like a couple of men demasculated by having to resort to the perilously belittling task of reading instructions, we tucked our tails between out legs and somehow managed to get the neck and innards sack out of the turkey and get the ugly thing into the oven.

While the turkey roasted we sat around his dining room table, which looked right out upon the ocean and Bar Harbor a short distance beyond. We ate tangerines, toasted sweet bread, and drank coffee. “Tenzies,” is apparently what it is called when you have a social breakfast at ten AM with Chaya’s grandparents. I did not previously know this, though I felt honored to have a spot at the Thanksgiving day “tenzies” table with The Great Man and his wife.

Professor Kates was tall, wore a large smile, and seemed to delight in simply irony and big talk about a big planet. I resorted to my usually conversational default and asked a lot of questions while keeping my ears open wide.

This was no mistake, as my ears were quickly filled to capacity. I listened to tales about how he and his family lived in Tanzania at the apex of its independence and were honored guest in China  before Nixon, how he conducted groundbreaking work on climate change, developed disaster response strategies, and was the long term editor of Environment Magazine.

His words danced as he told me stories of his days of working in Africa, traveling across Europe with his entire family on $5 a day, investigating the outcome of the Managua earthquake and various other disaster sites around the world, and other stories that stretched across the planet from end to end.

The professor’s wife, Ellie, held the tales together by throwing in vital pieces of background information about these journeys that she was always very much a part of.

“Where in the world do you want to return to most?” I asked the Professor.

“It is more like where do I still want to go!” was his reply. At 80+ years old, Professor Kates was obviously not finished traveling yet.

“I think I would like to go to South America.”

The journey continues.

The next summer (2009) I returned to Maine from traveling in the Middle East with Chaya.

“Would you be interested in a job as a research assistant?” Professor Kates asked me.

I quickly replied in the affirmative before I even knew what being a research assistant would consist of.

I was soon to find out.

Professor Kates wanted to compile his life’s work into a single online pdf library. It became my job to track down the hundreds of works that he published, organize them, and get everything ready to be assembled into this giant collection.

As I dug into the project I felt as though I was in the middle of a once great Mayan city of that was now covered in trees and vines and had fallen to ruins. I was standing before a giant pile of precious rumble that was once a pyramid, and it was my job to reconstruct it. Some of the pieces were before me, some of them were missing, and some of them no longer were where they should have been. So I dug into the job by picking up each brick, analyzing its features, and putting it back into proper position in the great pyramid of The Great Man’s work.

It soon began to take shape as I recorded which bricks of the pyramid were good, which were unusable, and which precious pieces were still missing in the abyss of the long buried city: I tracked down the various digital copies of his work and had scans made of the elements of the collection that were not yet digitalized. As each pdf file — each brick — of Kates’ work was located I plugged it into place, and the ancient pyramid began to again take shape.

Now the pyramid stands tall. Most of the pdfs have been put into position, and the reconstruction is almost ready for visitors.

RW Kates.org

Robert Kates Wiki


Rudiments of pay and travel fund savings

I was paid $18 an hour for this work, which is standard pay for a university research assistant, and I made around $800 in total from the project.

How to make money for travel project

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Filed under: Geography, Maine

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3215 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Johor Bahru, MalaysiaMap

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