SIPA Magazine

Project Bumi

By Nathaniel Maekawa MPA-DP ’22
Posted Oct 13 2022
Nathaniel Maekawa MPA-DP ’22
Photo by Nathaniel Maekawa MPA-DP ’22

In 2020, after Columbia announced that courses were online, I bought a 2008 Honda Element and studied virtually from US national parks.

When I first told my friends I spoke delicately, testing the waters. What began as restrained consciousness—“I think I’m going to study from a car … ”— cascaded into certainty—“I’ll begin in Maine and head south to follow the warmth.” My heart had made a decision, and my friends and family echoed my excitement.

Equipped with camping supplies, a generator, and a plywood bed (built by my grandpa’s and my hard work and confusion), I purchased the car, named it Bumi, and readied for departure.

I researched national parks and COVID regulations, I located camp- grounds with Wi-Fi or “good connection,” and I made a goal to live environmentally friendly. I pledged to reduce plastic consumption and to offset my travel-based emissions with donations to environmental organizations.

On September 6, “Project Bumi” began.

My campground internet crashed when visitors returned from their adventures. At night, I worked from bed in the dark of my car— lit by a lamp and my computer screen’s glow, accompanied by the generator’s hum. Plastic-free grocery shopping meant eggs, canned goods, produce, and more eggs. I snacked on banana chips from a jar. I gasped when I dropped my jar of coffee grounds, flinching as it shattered upon hitting the dirt.

As syllabuses were introduced, I was simultaneously oriented to my new life. In the eggs and shattered coffee glass, moments of awe anchored me to my goal. When classes ended, I ran into the Atlantic Ocean from a sandy cove. On Saturday at 3 a.m., I climbed Cadillac Mountain to witness the first rays of light that shine upon the continental United States.

Things made more sense as I got settled. I found a coffee shop whose Wi-Fi still reached the lawn after the shop closed. Although I felt odd while posted on the lawn furniture after hours, my concerns were eased when the owner brought me a warm tea and homemade granola bar. Securing an internet signal was a huge relief, and I worried less about the possibility of my journey and focused more on what was next. I decided that in Virginia, I would book an Airbnb for my class days and live from Bumi on nonclass days. I felt guilty. I feared that my journey’s authenticity was in question by living out of my car part-time, but I reminded myself that education was the priority. In Virginia, released from the stress of planning from which coffee shop’s lawn I could stream microeconomic videos, my mind awakened to its surroundings.

At the peak of a mountain, I stood alone. Watching the sun fall on Appalachia, I was pulled to reality by voices approaching from the forest behind me.

“What’s up, boss?” said the first man to summit. 

My eyes skirted quickly from his MAGA hat and I returned a greeting, but my gaze lingered as he pulled out his phone. Rather than pointing his camera at the sunset, he directed it at the forest. “What are you doing!” his friends exclaimed while emerging from the brush.

“I wanted to capture the look on your faces when you saw it,” he replied, his friends’ faces now beaming as they embraced the horizon’s creamsicle colors.

In this moment, I realized that living out of a car was not what defined my journey. Project Bumi was a quest to learn. As a historic presidential election approached and a pandemic re- defined normality, at the peak of a mountain, I thought about how appreciation for nature had connected me to people that are different from myself. I thought of how this innate commonality might heal division and inspire a better world.

I followed the Appalachian Mountains, crossed oil fields in west Texas, and listened on the radio to the president-elect’s victory speech before pulling off in a windstorm that rocked me to sleep. By the end of the semester, I was writing a paper from Zion National Park’s parking lot and in disbelief that my vision had come true. That night, as I looked through Bumi’s moonroof at the stars, my thoughts drifted to California.

In January, to combat COVID-19, California restricted national parks travel. To continue forward, I evolved my goals for Project Bumi.

I identified three cities to stay for extended periods: San Diego, Sacramento, and Seattle. In my life, being mixed-race Asian American was some- thing that I kept in my periphery. I struggled to engage with my identity because I didn’t know where I belonged. These three cities presented an opportunity to explore in a new way.

In San Diego, before classes I walked to a Chinese bakery to eat coconut bread like my mom used to order. I designed a Sacramento Mixed-Race Leadership Initiative for my course on development and went on runs through the city to envision my project’s logistics. In Seattle, I boarded the ferry to Bainbridge Island and retraced the path of the first Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes during World War II. In retracing their steps, I took my first steps to learn about the history embedded in my Japanese American identity.

With time, California opened its parks and friends came to visit. The silent awe of elk at Point Reyes, the sharp inhale of fresh air while over- looking Yosemite Valley, and in Washington, the smell of earth in the Hoh Rain Forest. In reflection, I realized that companionship in these humbling moments had shown me the value of sharing these experiences. My growth and appreciation for the world did not need to be journeyed alone.

After 10 months, Bumi and I had traveled to 21 national parks and covered enough mileage to circumnavigate the Earth. Looking back, I think of the wonder that I felt each day and I think of how much I learned about my country and myself. Project Bumi taught me that while what’s next is exciting, I must not forget to appreciate what is now.

About the Raphael Smith Memorial Prize

The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize is given in memory of Raphael Smith, a member of the Class of 1994 who died in a motorcycle accident while retracing his stepfather’s adventure of motorcycling from Paris to Tokyo. The prize, established by his family and friends, is awarded annually to two second-year SIPA students for travel articles that exemplify the adventurism and spirit of SIPA. The winners of this year’s contest are Nathaniel Maekawa MPA-DP ’22 and Mohammad Salhut MIA ’22.