So you want to do fieldwork...
Yeah, me too. Sometimes. And there’s a million books out there on how to go about it from people far more experienced than I (total field time logged as of this writing: 7 months). While I certainly haven’t read all of them – I think I’ve read a total of three, so far, which by my calculation is roughly 0.000004% of the total, though I like to think they’re the good ones – one thing they tend to have in common is that they tell you how to do field linguistics: how to work with speakers, how to look at your data, what recording equipment and software to use, how to write grants and be ethical and preserve your data and use best practices. What they tend not to cover, or to cover less, is you, and the fact that you’re going to live in a strange place for an extended period of time and ask people dumb questions about everyday things. (Bowern 2015 has a good couple of pages on it, actually.) The reality in most cases is that you’re moving to a foreign country, where things are different and hard and hopefully wonderful as well, and while you’re there you happen to be trying to figure out what on earth is going on with this language some people speak. (Or possibly figuring out what on earth is going on with some bird or rock formation or something else entirely; hopefully this post will be relevant to you to. The concept’s the same, anyway.) So, with the understanding that my experience is limited and probably totally location-specific, here’s what I have to add on the topic.
I. Physical health
1) Pack antibiotics.
That’s my most important piece of advice, so if you’re pressed for time you can stop reading now. Seriously. I had four long trips to Indonesia in grad school, and every time the travel clinic at Yale sent me over with a few courses of antibiotics, and every time I’ve finished them. And I don’t take those things unless I really have to. And don’t say ‘oh, but I’ll avoid the street food and peel all my fruit and be just fine’, because a) I’ve eaten plenty of delicious, delicious street food and been fine, b) I’ve eaten nothing but tourist-friendly sterile whatever and gotten horribly ill, and c) where exactly do you plan to get your thrice-boiled, fresh-off-the-burner meals when you’re out living in a village and pooping in the river, anyway? (No, I haven’t had to do that – yet – but I certainly know people/linguists who have.) Also everything you touch will be covered with germs, and you can only break out the hand sanitizer so many times a day.
My situation out here is that my landlady cooks and leaves the food out on the table with a plastic cover to keep the flies off, and when you’re hungry you come eat it. Usually things get finished within 24 hours – there’s between 6 and 10 people living in the house most of the time – and if not they’re usually tossed by the end of the second day, but 2-day-old room-temp smoked fish is certainly a dinner possibility. (Yes, there’s a refrigerator, but it barely gets used and it’s kind of gross in there.) And there’s dogs in the kitchen (puppies!), and ants in the sugar, and cicaks (little house lizards) everywhere. Sometimes if she hasn’t had time to cook yet and there’s no leftovers, Ibu will go and buy nasi kuning from a stall out on the road and bring it back wrapped in paper for breakfast. (Nasi kuning, yellow coconut rice with sambal, carrots, lightly pickled cucumbers, fried onion slivers, and usually some fried noodles and either a piece of meat or a deep-fried hardboiled egg on top, is one of the most delicious breakfasts I know.) Drinking water comes out of a bottle. So I eat what’s there, and usually I’m fine, and once in a while I get sick, and when I do I’m glad to have the drugs. Also I suggest bringing two kinds, at least your first time out, since different things work better in different places, and for different people. My first summer when I discovered that Cipro gives me hives and a seriously runny nose I was pretty thrilled to have a bottle of azithromycin as backup.
2) When I wrote the first draft of this post a few years ago (!!!) I put down that you should be a walking pharmacy. I actually don’t think that’s true anymore. There’s a few things I definitely bring with me, but it turns out you can get all sorts of stuff at the corner Apotek in Indonesia, usually for a fraction of the price you’d pay in the US. That includes things that here you’d normally need a prescription for. Malaria meds, for instance: I still bring my prophylactic Malarone with me, but for about $3 I bought a treatment course of meds at the supermarket to bring back to the US with me, after hearing another linguist talk about the time he came down with it in the States after coming home from a field trip, and while he knew exactly what he had, the doctors here wouldn’t treat him until they had a confirmed diagnosis, which took days and days. So now I’ve got some Indonesian Primoquine in my drawer in Philadelphia, just in case. (I’ll replace it next time I go over, since expired stuff is no good.)
That said, I do bring some things with me. Serious antibiotic ointment: check. Everybody says that little cuts and scrapes can get badly infected in the tropics. I haven’t had that happened, but back in Java a few summers ago I slipped on a muddy hill while hiking (full post here) and sliced my right ankle and elbow open on a sharp rock. I wiped it of with some water and an alcohol wipe (always carry a few of those in your bag), then finished the hike out through ankle-deep mud. I had rather a cleaning job when we got to the end. Then the next day one of the Indonesian students felt bad for me limping along and gave me a ride home from school. I swung my leg down on the right to get off, and on the way down pressed my shin against the tailpipe, which after the drive was searing hot. Apparently it’s so obvious and important that you never dismount a motorbike on the right side that nobody thought to tell us. So here I was with a deep cut and a big open burn wound on the same leg. My host family gave me a tube of antibiotic cream containing placenta extract to keep it from scarring, which in all honesty grossed me the hell out. Not that I didn’t use it anyway. (Lesson #3: you can get some weird-ass drugs abroad.) This was a situation in which my prescription-strength antibiotic ointment came in handy.
Secondarily: pain killer of your choice, a few sizes of band-aids, antihistamines (off-brand zyrtec for during the day, benadryl for an allergic reaction or if I can’t sleep), cortisone cream for bug bites, antifungal cream (you never know what you’re gonna step in), tweezers, a thermometer (it’s good to know when you really do have a fever), lots of Dramamine, and alcohol wipes or wet-naps. Liquid hand sanitizer lives in my bag, since there’s no sink in the university bathrooms. (Like I said about bringing antibiotics…) And of course malaria pills, of course. I talked to one linguist out here who doesn’t bother, and she’s gotten malaria twice, though pretty mildly both times. I go for daily malarone, since it doesn’t cause nervous breakdowns, won’t kill you if you go diving, and has relatively mild side effects – mostly mild achiness, malaise, and a general feeling of blah, though it can be hard to blame that necessarily on the drugs. The downside is the pricetag - $750 for my 4-month supply on one trip – but that’s what grants are for.
If you’re somewhere more remote, or where the selection isn’t as good, then my walking pharmacy advice may still hold. At various times I’ve been happy to have access to cough medicine, antacids, and larger bandages. Know your site, and what can be gotten there, and prep accordingly.
And while we’re on the subject of drugs, get every vaccination your grant/insurance/university will pay for. I got vaccinated for hepatitis A, B, and C, tetanus, Japanese encephalitis, swine flu, regular flu, typhoid, and rabies, so now it’s no biggie if I go to Bali and get bit by a monkey, or more likely by one of the less-friendly semi-stray dogs around town. And I actually know someone who got typhoid. So get your shots.
3) Mosquitoes are responsible for half the deaths in human history. Kill them.
Seriously. I read that in the New Yorker, so it must be true. In this part of the world they carry malaria, dengue, chikungunye, encephalitis, and a handful of other viruses and parasites that’ll kill/maim/blind you, plus mosquito bites are awful. I’m also one of the lucky ones who a) seems to be totally irresistible to the little beasts and b) reacts emphatically to a bite. I’d never packed a mosquito net before semester-long trip, and I realize now that was dumb. I get roughly half the bites as before, and nothing’s buzzing in my ear as I’m trying to fall asleep. Clearly I’m not the first, since there’s a hook in the ceiling of my room right above the bed. Also: chemicals, specifically neurotoxins. The local mosquito repellents here are cigarette smoke (thanks but no), and kayu putih (eucalyptus) oil, which makes you smell like a giant cough drop and doesn’t work so well anyway. (It’s also billed as an aid for colds, flatulence, and nausea, make of that what you will.) Before I left I sprayed the net and some of my clothes with permetherin to keep the bugs away. Day to day I’m alternating between DEET, picaridin, and IR3535, mostly just in the evenings when the bugs are the worst. I can’t really say which works best, but the picaridin smells the worst when you spray it, and the IR3535 has spf 30. Not that they’re foolproof – I’ve gone outside in Laos doused in DEET and been immediately swarmed by mosquitoes. But it helps. Sunscreen is also recommended.
4) BYO deodorant and tampons
It can be difficult to impossible to find these, depending on local mores and the number of expats around. If nothing else, fieldwork (in tropical climes) will teach you great forbearance when it comes to BO.
5) Umbrellas are for sunny days.
And long boat trips. Think of them as portable shade, or the only thing standing between you and both severe sunburn and massive heatstroke when your motorboat breaks down out on the water at midday. Hands free light, in the form of a headlamp, is also wonderfully useful. Bring extra batteries.
6) Don’t bring…
Shampoo, lotion, soap, conditioner, q-tips, toothpaste, mouthwash. At least in Manokwari, I can get all of that cheaper here, and mostly the same brands I use at home. I’m close enough to the weight limit for my luggage as is without dragging big bottles of shampoo around. (Also v. useful: a portable luggage scale.) Though no promises for wherever you’re going, or if you use something more esoteric than Herbal Essences or Dove.
Staying happy/sane is up there with not catching malaria. If you’re miserable, your work will be crap, and also you’ll be miserable. Try to avoid that.
7) Pack a loaded Kindle and ipod.
This would be #2 on the importance scale. My first trip I packed a stack of paperbacks, which weighed down my luggage and ran out in the middle of my stay. Here I was with two weeks left in Manokwari and two more around Southeast Asia, and no English language bookstores within a thousand miles, milking the last hundred pages of my spy novel for all they’re worth. Luckily a British linguist, to whom I will be forever grateful, had moved in next door and was willing to trade my John le Carre for Game of Thrones, which she’d just finished. So I went home, finished my book in under an hour, and exchanged it for that doorstop, which held me over until the Surabaya airport, where I bought the sequel (which held me over until the next airport and book three). The following year I asked for a Kindle for Christmas, packed it full of cheap/free/out of print/on sale/daily deal books and a subscription to the New Yorker, and can not only keep up with my magazine but download more books whenever I get low. No, the 3G whispernet whatever doesn’t work, but when I go online I can download them to my laptop and transfer them over via usb. And my whole library weighs about a pound instead of five or ten for a semester’s worth of reading material. The battery life’s pretty exceptional, though if internet’s going to be a problem you’ll want to make sure you put on all the books you’ll need in advance, and sorry about the magazines. And you’ll need far more books than usual; thanks to a lack of Facebook and an inability to do anything at all intellectually taxing after an afternoon of elicitation I tear through books at unprecedented speed, getting (re)acquainted with Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and the short stories of George RR Martin. A battery-powered reading light is a must, both to read after dark and as an emergency flashlight if you have to get up in the middle of the night and have a terror of running into a spider before you make it to the light switch. Bring a few cheap, light paperbacks as well that you can take places where expensive electronics are a bad idea, like the beach, and leave behind when you’re done.
The ipod I’ve found less necessary with sufficient reading material, but it kept me sane when I was stuck in the house in muddy, drizzly Bintuni with no electricity and nothing to do but wait. And I like to listen to podcasts on my way in to the university in the mornings.
7) The little things make all the difference.
You’re going to a strange place. You’ll have culture shock. You’ll miss people and things and have strange overpowering cravings for macaroni and cheese. (One month into my second fieldtrip and I already knew that the moment I got on the shuttle home from the airport I’d be calling up Modern Apizza and ordering a small pepperoni for takeout.) This bullet point breaks down into two main points. One: bring things from home that will help keep you happy. For me, that meant pictures of family and friends to tape to my wardrobe, three bars of Lindt 85% dark chocolate, a tube of vanilla-chai lip balm, three colors of nail polish, and as many Twinings Earl Grey and English Breakfast teabags as I could fit in a ziplock baggie. Any of the above can be a nice pick-me-up over the course of a day, though I rationed the chocolate and tea. No, I don’t share. Last year in Cambodia I spent a dollar on a bamboo folding fan, and it’s probably the best dollar I’ve ever spent – it’s amazing what a little breeze can do in the heat. Long linen skirts are your friend; jeans are not. And if you’re somewhere with crocodile-free beaches, bring a snorkel.
Two: treat yourself while you’re in the field. On a small scale, I go to the supermarket roughly weekly to pick up a few things even though I get three meals a day served at home. I don’t get a lot of fresh fruit in the field – the bananas tend to be fried and the papayas soaked in sugar syrup as part of es buah – so I’ll get a bag of apples or oranges, and maybe a starfruit or a dragonfruit if they’ve got them. And I’m lucky that the supermarket has a pretty good selection, so I can get a pack of cheese bread, some crackers, coconut cookies, and a packet of Javanese ginger-honey drink. When my good tea runs out I can pay an exorbitant amount ($5.50) for a box of Twinings darjeeling. Occasionally, I’m told, they might even carry Nutella. I keep myself in toilet paper, since that’s one local custom I haven’t gotten used to. And now and again if I pass a stand I’ll spend a dollar and get a bag of fried bananas and sambal for the office, since those really are delicious.
Also: people may think you’re nuts for walking anywhere. Do it anyway, and buy an avocado or a wicker plate from the lady at the side of the road. Splurge on a motorcycle taxi downtown ($0.80) and hit up the Papuan souvenir shop or the market. Go to the beach. Everyone else gets a fall break, so I booked myself a week of diving out in Raja Ampat in early November, by which point lord knows I needed it. One night a monthe or two into my long trip I went out for drinks (chocolate avocado shake for her, soursop juice for me) with F, a German researcher in town to renew her visa, and it felt absolutely luxurious. We got mani-pedis and creambaths. These things are worth it.
8) Make friends with your host family. They’ll take you to the beach.
Rather than holing up in your room working, come out and watch tv and chat. Play with the baby. In addition to the beach, they’ll drive you to the tailor, give you cassowary claws and bootleg movies, take you to try coto makassar, and teach you how to use the gas rings when you want to make spaghetti. Share the spaghetti. My landlady and I bonded over cooking – I hang around the kitchen asking questions and end up with her recipes, and she gets an appreciative audience. Always pay your rent on time.
9) If at all possible, live in a house with a baby.
Preferably one aged between 6 months and a year. You’re new and different and they will be captivated by you, and it’s hard not to smile when there’s a chubby little face beaming at you every time you walk in the room. And since they’re not yours, you never need to worry about changing diapers.
10) Go somewhere where you like the food.
There are probably thousands of undocumented languages (birds/geological formations/storytelling traditions/etc) in the world; surely you can find one with the features you’re interested in in a place you’ll like to be. I came to Manokwari because as a kid at sleepaway camp I read a book about sailing through the Pacific, and I like islands, and just before I started grad school I came across an Indonesian/Malay cookbook and liked it, and Yale happens to teach Indonesian. The linguist I asked for advice on picking a fieldsite said Manokwari’s a great place with lots of languages, pretty beaches, and sure you can get a visa. I liked the name Wandamen and it had dual and trial pronouns and infixation and not too much written about it, and Ibu Marice, my main language consultant, had a son who was finishing his senior thesis on the language when I arrived. So: a long string of coincidences, and I liked the food. If you hate the cold don’t go to Alaska, if you hate yams and papeda don’t go to the Papuan highlands, and if you don’t like rice stay the hell out of Asia. No need to make things any harder on yourself than they’re going to be anyway. If you can find a landlady who’s an excellent cook (like mine), that helps too.
11) For god’s sake, don’t work all the time.
It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again. Yes, you’ve got a ton of data and it’s accumulating faster than you could ever process it even with your student assistant helping. I don’t care, take a break, have a life, go for a run (if you’re in a climate where it won’t give you heatstroke), everything from the paragraph above about going to the beach. Actually that’s not just advice for fieldwork, that’s advice for grad school. Also life.
12) You will live without internet.
For the first week it’s tough, and after that it’s refreshing. There’s a lot of pressure off when you’ve got a vacation message up saying you’ve got limited internet access and you might not reply to emails for a while. Usually I go online when I get to the university in the mornings, when the connection seems to be fastest, and that’s it for the day. For weekends and anything pressing later on I’ve got a usb modem with a cell phone sim card in it, which may or may not be able to connect at any given moment, and might be going at 3 or 300 kbits/second (usually 30-70, with dips down towards zero), and in any case I only get 300MB of data for 2 weeks for $5 (or 1.3 gigs per month for $14 if I ever find somewhere that’s not out of that package). Have you ever looked to see how much data you use in a month? Suffice it to say I’m not uploading photos on that card. But it means I can keep in touch outside of university business hours, even if it does sometimes crap out on me in the middle of an email. And if that happens, well, more time to go read a book.
13) Sometimes it will suck.
Either because of the weather, or because you’re sick, or because sometimes it just does. Take a break, eat some chocolate, call home, rant on your blog, take the day off, spend the afternoon listening to your favorite band from high school on your ipod, plan a vacation, go to the spa, go to the beach. It will get better, and even if it doesn’t, you will go home.
I don’t have much to add here, since like I said above it’s been covered a million times and anyway this post is about linguists, not linguistics. But these I think bear mentioning.
14) Come prepared to your sessions, but not too prepared.
If you have nothing, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. If you stick unswervingly to the script, you’ll miss the best stuff. 90% of the interesting bits I’ve come up with on this trip appeared by chance when I was asking about something else, or because Ibu went off topic, or when we were just chatting. Invite serendipity, and pay attention so you’ll know when it shows up.
You are ridiculous. You probably look ridiculous, so have ridiculous habits, and you most definitely ask ridiculous questions, either on purpose (recent gems from my work include asking for translations of ‘I bit the dog’, ‘I open my wings’, and ‘I want to turn into a frog’), because you’re trying something out (‘Can you put this prefix here?’), or because you thought something was a valid construction and it wasn’t. If you take yourself too seriously you’re a goner. Embrace it, ask about turning into a frog, have a good laugh, and move on to sentences about the dog biting you instead of vice versa. Plus if your consultant’s enjoying herself you’ll a) get more data out of her and b) maybe even get invited out to her home village, which will be be a data bonanza. Take opportunities. Say yes to things. It’s an adventure - enjoy yourself.