GoViral 2018 – Almaty, Kazakhstan

GoViral was a whirlwind: a three-day festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan (June 15-18, 2018) focused on innovation of all stripes.


listening is my jam

This is only the second year that the festival has been up and running, and I was floored by what the US Consulate General in Kazakhstan has been able to pull off. It was an honor to be a part of that magic––not just the official events, but all the side conversations that happened as a result of lots of people with ideas and passions gathering together.


door to the US Maker Space in Almaty

I gave a talk in the opening ceremony about poetry, and the unraveling of my 4-year journey so far (video here).


ye olde opening slide, complete with cardboard aesthetic (am I predictable? yes)

In preparing for the keynote I realized that I don’t know if I’m still a poet. Poetry is the place I come from, the soil I grew up in, but not necessarily where I’m going.

As I do this project for longer––going on 4 years this September (if you count the beginning as the NYC People’s Climate March), or 5 years come August (if you count the beginning as my bicycle journey down the Mississippi River)––I find myself transitioning out of poems and into multimedia forms that let each storyteller speak in their own voice, rather than having my words reinterpret theirs.

Audio / image / creative nonfiction: the 1,001 Stories project continues to take on a shape and form of its own.

Poetry will always be a homeland I return to. For now: here’s to movement & play.


fun fact: I did a whole lot of dancing backstage to calm nerves before delivering this talk

After the opening ceremony I presented on three panels alongside some superstar activists and writers from Central Asia & beyond.

Art communities and creative industries changing modern cities: with Aida Sulova, Asya Tulesova, and Anisa Sabiri. Moderated by Galina Koretskaya.

Seeing other people’s worlds: travel writing that goes deeper than the surface: with Tynan and Jeff Miller. Moderated by Anuar Nurpeisov.

How to use storytelling for social change: with Denis Bihus, Mary Mitchell, and Lara Stolman. Moderated by Madi Mambetov.

(All presentations were dubbed in Russian & will be uploaded in English in the coming weeks).


Big thanks to my Harvard classmate Didar KM for inviting me to be a part of the festival.

(Fun fact: we took Deborah Foster‘s class “The Art of Storytelling” together freshman year, the course that made me decide to study Folklore & Mythology in the first place. Best decision I ever made).

If you haven’t already, go check out Didar’s comics: Abai Cartoons. Seriously awesome stuff.

Other things that were wonderful / that I don’t want to forget:

A) Dancing backstage with the best volunteer anyone could dream of working with (Yekaterina Kolessina!)


caught in a rare moment of stillness (most of the time we were dancing / discussing politics)

B) climbing the big mountain that overlooks Almaty with Anuar Nurpeisov and Ben Yu. We saw a sideways rainbow, and miraculously did not fall.

and C) making a whole lot of audio recordings on water and climate change in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: 29, to be exact.


For ten days before the festival I journeyed to Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan alongside translator Qanat and photographer Sardar. We listened to stories about everything from cotton farming in the USSR to the Aral Sea to the legend of Issykul Lake’s formation and what it’s like being a woman who runs a bottled water business (and how a lack of infrastructure maintenance has necessitated bottled water consumption in the first place).

One of these stories, told by a storyteller who grew up in Afghanistan, ripped me open & reaffirmed my conviction that we need to create more spaces to talk about water. Water is life, and a lack of access to clean water can be deadly. More on that in the future.

The sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing, always a learning experience magic of translation A.K.A. linguistic triangulation. (Step one: listen. Step two: listen again) 

We translated the cardboard sign into Russian…


there’s a spelling error hidden somewhere in here –– we fixed it later

… with materials provided by a friendly fruit seller in Balkhash:


that’s journey photographer Sardar shaping the cardboard sign in-progress

The stories I recorded in Central Asia will be available eventually on the 1,001 stories map. Stay tuned for updates!


Yours truly. Photo by Sardar.

This was my first time documenting stories while accompanied by three dudes (translator, photographer, driver). It changed parts of the trip, but not the whole thing.

If nothing else, it was a relief to be able to bring up Rebecca Solnit‘s book “Men Explain Things to Me” in the confined space of a bumpy van ride, and not be attacked for being a feminist. Referencing that book on a van ride from Laos to Cambodia two years ago brought about physical violence. (Again, more on that later, perchance –– that’s the subject of another thing).


toilet block on the way to Balkhash. ladies to the left.

Lake Balkhash itself was stunning, and also a site of great ecological complexity / layered histories. Half the lake is salt, half is fresh, and the shores are filled with great people to talk to.


@ a place where lines blur

Sardar shot material for a 20 minute film about my journey to document human stories on water and climate change, feat. music by Kazakh composer Kuat Shildebayev.

Cultural Curator Timur Nusimbekov, creator of Adamdar, edited the film, and did a whole lot of organizing backstage to make all of this come together (planning events in Balkhash, Bishkek, and Almaty). Timur, you rock.

I’ll post the link here when it goes live.

UPDATE: the film will be shown in Kazakhstan at the Almaty Indie Film Festival!

Photo by Sardar

In the process of recording material in Balkhash, I realized how little I know about the Soviet Union, and all that has happened after.

I asked lots of questions. (Stories are doors. I like doorways).


Also: let’s talk for a second about architecture. Soviet buildings stick around long after the USSR itself has crumbled. Balkhash city was built about 80 years ago, and the bones of the town are still strongly reminiscent of that era.


From Balkhash we zoomed to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for an action-packed weekend. I gave two talks at Chicken Star, hands down the finest chicken/coffee/art establishment I have ever stepped inside.


Seriously –– I love this place. Not for the chicken (although I hear that it is indeed quite good), but for the community.

If you ever find yourself in Bishkek, Chicken Star is not to be missed.

The founder, Chihoon Jeong, is the kind of person who can intuit what kind of drink you need before you even know that you need it. What a gift.


talks on talks –– taste the joy?

Kyrgyzstan at sunset is its own kind of gorgeous.


Like any responsible story collector, I did my best to see things from different perspectives.


handstands are fun

In sum: it was a blur of a two weeks…


moments before being eaten by a cloud, on the way up to Big Almaty Peak

… filled w/ beauty of a distinctly Central Asian variety:


water is life (Almaty, KZ)

For now: the journeys continue.


upwards & downwards & upwards again

Big thanks to the storytellers who talked to me about water / climate & the GoViral event organizers who pulled off the near-impossible feat of gathering so many fascinating people from around the world in one place.


If you have the opportunity to attend or speak at this festival: go. You won’t regret it.


until soon –– over & out


Mango Season

Devorah is one inch shorter and three years older than me, and I could be her if not for an accident of birth.

“How did you meet Isoa?” I ask. We are in Labasa town on a characteristically hot November afternoon sharing a plate of French fries with barbeque sauce.

“I was seventeen and at secondary and he was twenty-two and at university in Suva,” she sighs, a far-off stare in her eyes.

“I got pregnant and my parents said it wouldn’t look good to have a baby out of wedlock.” Her father is a preacher at the Methodist church.

“So here I am, three kids later.” She shrugs and sops up some of the barbeque sauce with her French fry.

Devorah dreams of going back to Suva. “Everything is better there,” she smiles. “I would live with my family.”


We walk through light rain, veering off of the main road and through a path that bisects a sugar cane farm studded with bleating goats. My shirt starts to soak through to the skin.

Johnny, age two, and Isimeli, who just graduated from kindergarten, are in tow.

“The rain is good for the mangos,” Devorah explains. “We had three months of no rain and everything turned brown. No fruit. But now the rain brings bounty.”

Devorah points to an overgrown mango grove just off the path. We slide through a slick patch of mud and up the small hill to gather fruit there. Johnny and Isimeli throw sticks up at the branches to see what falls. We take the easy fruit first. Then Devorah scales a branch and tosses mangos down to me, one by one. The fruit we have gathered overfills and threatens to tear two plastic bags.

“Try one!” she says, jubilant. “Take a drink.”

The mango is unlike anything I have ever tasted before––leathery green skin hides gooey sweetness. The orange pulp makes a mess of the front of my shirt. I reach for a second, and a third.

“This kind of mango is good,” Devorah says, taking a bite and ripping the skin with her teeth, “because the seed is small and the flesh is soft and sweet.”

I didn’t know that there was more than one variety of mango. This fact hits me like a mango on the head. Of course there are different kinds. I feel very small (and very full of fruit). I will never know the world in its juicy whole.

This is why I travel––for the moments of being overwhelmed, for the sweetness of learning. To be humbled by this planet I call home.

Our conversation turns to plans for tomorrow night––earlier in the day we ran into Devorah’s cousin who invited me to go out dancing in town.

“Come with us!” I plead. “I know you’re a good dancer.”

Devorah laughs. “I would love to, but I’m not free!” She gestures to the kids. Isimeli is throwing rocks against a tree and Johnny has gotten his flip flop stuck in a patch of mud.


Before bedtime I used to ask my mother: “How did I get to be your child?”

“You chose me,” she said, never missing a beat. “You were floating out there somewhere and had your choice of so many mothers, so many lives. And I feel lucky that you chose me.” She punctuated that last sentence with a hug.

Though I doubt I had any agency in the process (or, goodness, did I?) one thing is for certain: if I were born female and Fijian, there is no way I would be living out the trip that I am on.

Financial matters aside (thank you, Harvard funding gods), there is the matter of gender and culture. More than once, a patriarchal figure has lectured me over a plate of cassava and curry: “I just don’t like the idea of you, a girl, being out there all alone. Anything could happen. I wouldn’t let my daughter do what you’re doing. It is not suitable for Fijian women.”

I travel not only for myself, but for all the women who are unable to do so.



It’s not even dark out and the fireworks have started.

I hear what I cannot see: the pop, and hiss, and crackle of light almost touching the clouds.

This morning at sunrise I got off a plane at the international airport in Nadi from Los Angeles, disoriented but glad to be alive… and in motion. Never mind that the fatigue of time travel had me passed out and motionless for the better part of two days. But cripes, I skipped a whole day! Wednesday October 22nd did not exist.


I’m staying at my friend Aaron’s apartment in Martintar. He’s a photographer and licensed commercial pilot––we met through a mutual friend, Margot, who spent eight months in Fiji last year. I am so grateful to have a connection to get me started.

Story collecting is slow (~1 recording/day), but I’m giving myself permission to sleep and write and figure out things like phone and internet and where the heck I’m going to go, all of which take time. It was easier to improvise in the states. Now I feel untethered, drifting. I’m afraid of making cultural mistakes, but doing my best not to let that fear guide me, or prevent me from having the kind of conversations that this trip is based on.

“Never touch another person’s hair,” Aaron tells me over daal and chicken. “The head is a sacred space.”

Nadi has a very particular smell: toasted spices, warm, damp earth, and salt. The smell was there as soon as I stepped off the plane and onto the jet bridge. The scent does nothing but intensify throughout the day, baking to a steamy crisp of wholeness.


By mid-afternoon, our downstairs neighbors deliver fried peas and sesame sticks and oblong donut holes and what tastes like a ball of fried rice pudding with cardamom and raisins. Aaron and I split each treat with a knife. I let the sugar melt into my body, though even that can barely keep me awake for more than half an hour at a time.

The sun arches towards the west, piece by piece. Fireworks explode, jubilant in different parts of the city. Tall, proud booms echo off of the mountains and cityscape.

Aaron’s place is right next to the airport. The planes come, harsh and exciting overhead, churning the air around them. The light lengthens to blue.

Laughter wafts up from the first floor. “Flight attendants live down there,” Aaron says, sensing the direction of my listening. Glasses clink. A radio plays “Bang Bang” by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj.

“Nadi is a passing-through town,” Aaron explains. “No one stays here for long.”

Yellow-beaked myrah birds sing their own song.

Aaron refills the empty Absolut handle of vodka with water boiled from the kettle. “The water in Suva is safe to drink,” he tells me, “but we must boil first. If you drank from the tap, it would be okay. But boiled is best.” His voice has a cadence unlike any I have heard––perfect iambic pentameter. He is always smiling, even when talking about coups and murder.

Between my dry throat and the general heat of the city, we refill the 1.75 liter handle several times throughout the day.

I watch through the bathroom window as a woman in a sari on a second-floor apartment a few buildings away lights an oil lamp, or diya, and places it at the edge of the porch. A man looks on from an outdoor couch under the balcony. It is almost dark. Fireworks go off in every which direction. A rooster hoots. I feel for every dog in the city tonight, how fearful all those booms and bursts must be.

“People tie up their dogs in the centermost room of the house so that they don’t run away. Some still do.” Aaron explains between bites of take-out: kung pao chicken and Chinese cabbage. All of the Indian places are understandably closed.

Aaron shows me how to set up a tripod for my point and shoot and decrease the shutter speed and F-stop to capture the essence of the moving, exploding light.


“You smell that?” Aaron takes a deep breath.

The whole of the neighborhood is thick with firework residue. A thick haze of it sits over the rooftops.


I nod.

I fall asleep face-down in his guest room with my clothes still on, fireworks exploding in every direction. The light follows me into sleep, where my mind struggles to make sense of two places at once.



Interview with Story Collector Monica Niki Elenbaas

Do you have a story about Hurricane Katrina to share? 

August 29th, 2014 marked the 9th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


In reaction to the fact that she heard almost nothing in the news about the anniversary, Niki was inspired to collect stories. Her work focuses on people who volunteered in the aftermath of the hurricane, as well as those who were helped. Niki’s goal is to ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary next year.

Here’s to storytelling as a form of activism and memory.


What is motivating you to collect stories about Katrina?

I have held a variety of roles—from small to national—leading volunteerism. And I have a very personal connection to what happened during Katrina because of family members. I feel like the national attention of the 10th anniversary provides an excellent time to gain attention for the win:win:win of volunteerism.

What is your own Katrina story?

My brother-in-law and his wife prepared for Katrina as best they could, by “buttoning up” their home and her dental practice. When we talked with them on Sunday, we were concerned that they planned to stay slightly inland from Pass Christian (at her parent’s house). When the storm finally arrived, I was glued to television and the internet while the rest of the world went on, not realizing the magnitude of what was going on.

It took two days before we were sure they were fine. It took a month before we could fly into New Orleans and then drive through roadblocks and devastated (and yet uncleared) area after area to get to Pass Christian to help them with recovery. Even typing this now makes my anxiety level rise in a disconcerting way.

America went on with professional sports and stupid television and news of terrorism. By the time I was back home (after a week of helping with recovery), no one cared. I couldn’t sleep. I was so anxious over the fact that our country had moved on.

We have been back about a dozen times since the storm. People outside of the area think the disaster was in New Orleans, and they think recovery is in the past. We know better.

How do you see Katrina as linked to issues of water and climate change?

I see Katrina, as well as issues of water and climate change, as all related to the damage created by our culture of greed.

What do you hope for the future?

I hope that the best keeps coming out. Countless Americans have given their time and energy to disaster recovery, and their work goes largely unsung. I hope that we stop glorifying terrible role models like Justin Bieber or the latest NFL abuser in favor of our best heroes.

What is the power of storytelling in creating this future?

Each of us needs to tell and tell and tell.

If someone wants to share a story with you, how can they be in touch?




nikiAs past national director for volunteer service and learning for the YMCA, Monica Niki Elenbaas has seen over and over how service benefits both the giver and received. Personally, helping family with recovery after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast led to a life-changing experience with the clean-up. Nearly a decade later, the recovery is far from over and that the storm’s continuing impact reveals a great deal about the best and worst of our country. Niki is collecting stories about people who volunteered in Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those who were helped, to help ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary in 2015.