Goodbye!

With the final entry below, I’ll close out the blog for the year. Thank you all for reading! I have loved keeping a blog, and I’m glad that everyone enjoyed following it too.

Here’s a part of a Rumi poem that I love, and that I think serves as an adequate ending for the blog:

There is a candle in your heart,
ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul,
ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?

-Rumi

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why a Gap Year: How Baghwati, Gitwa, and Mamtschi Live Within Me

The pages of my gap year journal run rich with afternoons in Buenos Aires cafes with cortados and sparkling water, savanna runs through cactus-like trees along red dirt paths in Kenya, and colorful Nepalese scenes of saris, long skirts, and prayer flags. Why am I unable to leaf back through those pages without a smile spreading across my face? There’s the pure thrill and joy of travelling that makes me smile. However, these travels also occurred at a special time in my life. I took a gap year and traveled in a time that Bill Meyer, an MA teacher, would call a liminal space, a time in which one sits at the threshold of a new phase of life. At the thresholds of both adulthood and of college, not only do I have much freedom and few responsibilities, but I also am open to learning and forming. This is the time when I create my own values and culture, and each new moment of my gap year – the cafes, the runs, the color – defines what I take across the threshold.

Over the past year, I have felt like an actress, playing the part of the people who live in the places where I traveled and lived. I adapted to the rhythms of countless different households in the three different cultures, and emulated those who I admired in each country. A Nepalese trekking guide, an industrious Kenyan secondary school student, and an Argentinean grandmother living in el campo each invited me into their lives, showed me how to be them, and taught me lessons from their culture. I will bring these three women with me, along with an understanding of their cultures, as I move through life.

Baghwati, a small, enthusiastic trekking guide working with an all-women’s company, led Ellen and I on a journey to the Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas. We arrived on the first day of trekking wearing “lungi,” the long skirts worn by the women who live in the high Himalayan villages even while walking long distances, determined to become a part of Nepalese culture. Baghwati assisted us in our quest, by teaching us Nepali phrases such as “khushi bhaye nilo acas!” (Yipee! The sky is blue!), and “mitho cha” (it’s delicious!). We ate with our fingers, mimicking Baghwati as she swirled her rice around in her lentil sauce until forming a ball, then flicked it into her mouth with her thumb, a much more involved way to eat a meal. On the few mornings, and one rare night, when the sky cleared to give us a view of the snowy giants that towered above us even when the fog concealed them during the day, the three of us stood outside in awe of the surrounding Himalayan peaks. The mountains provided sights so ephemeral and unique that we had to take advantage of every clear moment, no matter how early or how late in the day. Even the Nepalese, who spend much of their lives looking at these mountains, have not lost a sense of reverence for them. Veneration flows throughout the culture, exemplified by the common greeting “Namaste,” of which my favorite translation is “The God in me speaks to the God in you.” The culture’s sense of appreciation lives within me now, and is something that I applied to help savor every special person, place, and experience of my gap year.

Gitwa attends Daraja Academy, an entirely free secondary school in Kenya for girls who otherwise would not get a chance to go to school, where I spent October and November of my gap year. When Gitwa’s father died, her mother remarried a man who sent Gitwa away to live with her illiterate and impoverished grandmother. She found her way to Daraja, and now is one of the smartest girls on campus as well as the “campus preacher.” Gesticulating forcefully, she would give powerful speeches about her analysis of passages of the bible, completely unafraid to open up and share her perspective with the rest of the school. “Do you want to be like that flower?” she demanded of the rest of the school one morning, after describing a flower that changed color throughout the day and demanding consistency and hard work of her classmates. She opened up to me, sharing her joy as we made bricks and plastered the adobe Shamba (garden) Shed that became my main project at Daraja. I tried to embody the hard work, joy, and love that the Daraja girls put into everything they do in my project there. If girls that have had pasts so difficult that reading about them sent me to bed in tears can exude so much love – they seem to love infinitely, towards each other, the volunteers, and their teachers – and work so earnestly, then I, with the most fortunate past imaginable, can too. When I think of Gitwa’s eyes filled with wisdom and face always smiling, I feel warmth in my core and the capacity to love, work, and to be wise.

Mamtschi, my Argentinean great grandmother, is the final role that I played, though I never met her in person. Mamtschi ruled as the matriarch of El Fortín, the sheep farm where my grandma grew up in Patagonia, for thirty years alone. During my last month in Argentina, Mamtschi shared her wisdom and her spirit with me through the stories that I collected from my aunts and cousins in Buenos Aires for a family history book. On El Fortín, Mamtschi cooked rich meals laden with heavy cream, homemade butter, and lamb, she loved to laugh at things like pigs chasing her grandchildren through the yard, and she managed to always maintain elegance with corsets and long skirts. She made friends with everyone around her, regardless of social status or background. I like to think that these relationships enabled her solitude throughout three quarters of the year, and allowed her to be someplace where she did not feel as comfortable at first – she grew up as a city girl – since I found almost exactly the same thing while I was in Argentina. I arrived at the farm I was to work on for almost two months and joined a couple’s home improvement project instead of working on a productive farm. However, through taking advantage of Argentina’s community-based culture, I found happiness at the farm that I never expected. Invite-all-your-friends barbeques called asados, circles of drinking máte tea from communal straws, and public transportation conversations taught me how much I needed relationships to survive in my independent lifestyle. Through my family history project in Buenos Aires, instead of finding community with random strangers in Patagonia, I bonded with my own family. Similarly, Mamtschi loved her family above all else and did everything she could to make their summers on El Fortín amazing. Mamtschi taught me the more subtle lesson of being able to thrive someplace I did not initially feel comfortable, and the more direct lesson of the importance of strong relationships, especially with family, to set me free in my independent life.

Now, for inspiration, I can think back to the lessons and strengths empowered by these three women: Baghwati’s respect and appreciation for nature, Gitwa’s loving and industrious attitude, and Mamtschi’s love for everyone around her, from her random neighbors to her family. However, what I take away from these three women collectively is more simple and more powerful: incredible strength. Baghwati is one of the only female trekking guides on a Himalayan trail. Gitwa overcame a difficult past and found a bright and bold voice to praise education and hard work. Mamtschi, the family matriarch, united the entire family each summer and withstood long, snowy winters alone in Patagonia. These women gave me the strength that I needed in order to survive alone for a year, without the friends, family, and home that I was accustomed to. I navigated foreign public transportation systems, learned to love spending afternoons alone in cafes, and entirely took care of myself for the first time in my life.

By letting me into their lives, each in their own way, these women also gave me the power of carrying their cultures and their personalities inside of me throughout my own life. The fact that I have an understanding of these three cultures gives me a unique perspective on the world, and furthermore, my own culture and values now reflect those that I have experienced. I cross the threshold and leave my liminal space with these three women within me, and I plan to use their perspective and strength to effect change in the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gap Year Check-In #3: Communcal Forks in Argentina

The past three months that I have spent in Argentina have been my first months of truly travelling alone, without Ellen and my fellow trekkers from Nepal or the loving Daraja volunteers and students. I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, then ventured south to WWOOF for a month and a half in a tiny town called Cholila after spending days in El Bolson and Bariloche. Most recently, I completed a Wilderness First Responder course through NOLS in Santiago, Chile, and I met up with my family in Buenos Aires for two weeks of vacation with them. The beginning of this stint in Argentina – my time in Buenos Aires, and the first part of my time in Cholila – challenged me more than any other part of my year so far. It hit me that I had truly left my childhood home behind, and that I was the only person worrying about me. At first, I tried to resolve my frustration alone, and appreciate the amazing experience I was having in such a beautiful part of the world. However, I came to realize that the times when I felt most grateful and at peace were the times when I connected with a person or a group of people. The culture of Argentina taught me the importance of sharing the beautiful things in the world with the people around us, be they strangers or be they closest friends.

I began my months of finding connection and community in Argentina with the discovery of my new favorite travelling companion: hostels. My hostel in Bariloche had a cozy common room with flowing, sketched murals on the walls and a patio surrounded by rose bushes that looked out over the lake. Around ten at night, the patio and the common room would fill with travelers eating, talking, and finding buddies for activities they wanted to do the next day. I ended up spending my entire days in Bariloche biking, hiking, and eating with friends from the hostel, and even went on a three-day trek with one American from the hostel who was studying abroad in Chile. I only have stayed in hostels since, and in each place I look forward to settling in to the common room conversations at night and trading stories of adventures with fellow travelers. I met a girl from Indonesia who got deported from the United States (the immigration officers read her diary and discovered that she had been illegally working as a waitress!) and now wants to start a healthy food education program in Santiago, Chile; a Scottish man in a kilt hitchhiking from the southernmost point in Argentina to Alaska; a man who had graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and a couple who grew up in my town; and a man from London who had spontaneously quit his office job and had absolutely no idea where he was going next. These people became my friends, my fuel for travelling ideas, and my inspiration as I travelled through Argentina and Chile.

My grandma grew up in Argentina, and my desire to see where she grew up and to spend time with my Argentinean relatives guided my journey here. I stayed with my aunt Fabiola and my cousin Veronica with her two daughters (my nieces) for my first two weeks in Buenos Aires. Although my family here is much more distant than much of my family in the United States, I connected them much more. My aunts did everything for me while I was here: hosted asados, offered their houses, showed me around the city, and even, in the case of Veronica and Claudia, one of my aunts, took me in to their laboratories to see what sort of work they were doing (not only are there lots of women on this side of my family, but there are lots of women scientists!). Claudia took me to see the room of rats that she used for her breast cancer experiments, and explained her research as we walked between the rows of rat cages. She studies the influence of progesterone in causing breast cancer and researches possible related treatments. Besides science, we all connected about other hereditary traits in our family, such as a tendency towards clumsiness and forgetfulness, a nearly-obsessive love of cats, and an affinity for painting and photography.

Although I left my real family behind in Buenos Aires, I found family in Cholila with the couple that owned the farm. After we finished the work for the day, Laura (the owner of the farm) and I would dive into some cooking venture or craft. Laura taught me how to crochet triangular elf hats, which I adopted as my long-bus-ride activity. We also cooked jellies and jams, delicious dinners, and my favorite: pan casero, or homemade bread. Laura would take down the jars of various seeds and grains from the high wooden shelf in the kitchen, and we would choose which ones we wanted to throw into our bread on that certain day and adjust the amounts of salt and other spices, so that every loaf turned out different. We would find the warmest place in the house for the bread to rise, then the whole house would fill with the smell of baking bread and with the anticipation of the loaves of bread that we would eat within 24 hours of their baking. Laura’s mother-in-law and her other friends also stepped into mother roles for me, teaching me how to cook other things, how to identify Patagonian plants, and how to make creams with plant- or flower-infused oils and beeswax, and making jokes about how I was now ready to be married when I picked up quickly the things the had taught me.

Dario, Laura’s husband, in turn, did what any good Argentinean father would do and taught me how to make a good mate. Mate is a sort of strong green tea that everyone drinks in Argentina, and without knowing what you are doing when you make mate, you can send a whole slew of hidden messages to the people with whom you are taking mate. A “washed” mate – or a mate that has lost its flavor because the server used boiling water – means that you do not care much about the people who you are serving to; serving mate with your left hand, in traditional circles, might mean you are politically inclined to the left; saying that there is no yerba (the tea leaves used to make mate) signifies romantic interest. Argentineans, while serving mate, traditionally fill a hollowed gourd (the mate) with yerba, fill a thermos with not-too-hot water, and fill the gourd with water and pass it to someone in the circle, who drinks the tea through a straw with a filter on the bottom (the bombilla) and passes the mate back to the server en route to the next person in the circle. I participated in mate circles with random guests of the hostel that Dario and Laura owned, some Buenos Aires university students who I met next to the lake in Cholila, and with Dario’s entire family – Argentineans offer mate to whoever happens to be in the area. Perhaps because it implies sharing germs through the bombilla, you seem to be friends instantly with the other people in the mate circle. You might be talking and telling stories, and then as the mate starts getting less and less flavorful you are exchanging emails and inviting each other over for dinner or to stay. The fact that Argentineans make time in their day to sit outside or go to the plaza and share mate with friends or strangers is incredible to me, and it’s a habit I will certainly bring home.

For a more formal gathering than a mate circle, Argentineans opt for an asado, or a grill of meats and vegetables over a fire outdoors. An asado starts around nine at night, when all the men invited create a fire, throw a complete bag of charcoal over it, and wait until the the flames die down to put the grill over the embers. Then the slow process of cooking the meat begins, with chorizos, lamb, and beef laid out over the parrilla. I always sneak on a couple of rounds of squash, red peppers stuffed with egg and cheese, and eggplants to fuel my vegetarian diet. Everyone sits around drinking and chatting or preparing salads until the meat is ready, which could be around midnight. Then, instead of using dishes, forks circulate around and people take turns stabbing things off the grill or taking bites of the salads out of the bowls. Again, the communal germ exchange seems to form some bond between the guests of the asado, and everyone talks, plays music, and grazes on whatever food is leftover until the early hours of the morning. Even when people get too tired to talk, they are content to just sit around watching the fire, the meat, or the stars until the wine and the meat finally sends everyone to their beds or sleeping bags.

Often, the guests of an asado do not even know each other. The asado host tends to invite anyone they happen to think of or see in the days leading up to the asado, so it turns into a big, random group that somehow gets along wonderfully. One day while rock climbing in Cholila, I met Gabriela, another girl a little bit older than me, and within an hour of meeting her, she invited me to her birthday asado in a town two hours north of Cholila. I stayed at her house for the weekend, and helped prepare the asado. In turn, I invited her to go rock climbing in Cholila a different weekend, and on my way back north, she came to say goodbye to me as I stopped over in El Bolson. Although we met completely randomly, we will stay in touch and probably see each other again in the future.

On our second Cholila rock climbing excursion, we went to a place called Leleque, some rocks in the desert about 45 minutes out of the town. Similar to an asado, Dario and Laura invited all of their friends within a two-hour radius that liked to climb to spend the weekend in Cholila. Our motley group contained nine-year-old girls, people from Chile and myself from the United States, experienced climbers, and people who had never climbed before. Each time I climbed, some portion of this group served as my team of cheerleaders yelling up encouragement and advice from below. When at one point I got stuck and wanted to come down, about five people from below yelled up, “Va bién! Va bién!” and I finished the climb. We climbed from 8:30 in the morning until 9 at night, and then all went home to eat an asado – again, forming some unprecedented bond within such a random group. The beautiful place and the climbing community made the day at Leleque one of my favorite days of my gap year so far.

I left the community I found in Cholila of climbers, musicians, and random friends, and found a new community in Chile in my Wilderness First Responder course. The other students were tourism guides, ski patrol, park rangers, and other people who just loved being in the wilderness like me, although everyone else was Chilean. We had class from eight in the morning until six at night, and as soon as we finished eating, we started studying together in the dome where we had classes until often past midnight. We invented ailments and injuries and practiced scenarios, practiced CPR on the dolls, and perused our notes. When we were not in classes, we told first aid stories during almost every meal. Even when we had an asado on our one free day during the course, we made jokes about chorizos with second-degree burns (due to the blisters) and the onions that fell through the grates and had experienced the necessary Mechanism Of Injury to have injured their spinal column. Everyone’s willingness to spend every moment focused on wilderness medicine allowed us to both learn much more material more fully and to bond as a group as well.

In the United States, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and on individual identity. Thus, when I felt frustrated at the beginning of the year, I looked for a solution within myself, only to frustrate myself more. However, here I have seen that being self-reliant and living or travelling alone depends entirely upon the relationships you have in the world. Paradoxically, there is no such thing as pure independence, because independence comes from knowing you have strong enough relationships to be strong by yourself. The only thing that allows me to be as independent as I am this year – and in my greater life, too – is the fact that I have family and friends and even random traveling friends who love me, and I know that I am not really alone. I am privileged to have shared stories, homemade bread, mate, asados, desert rock climbing sites, and a wilderness medicine course with the people I have, because none of those experiences would mean much without the people. Furthermore, in Argentina, those people do not have to be close friends or family; the most random group of people can get together for an asado or an excursion and find a way to have fun. We miss out in the United States by living in a bubble and letting in only ourselves and our close friends. We often do not take the chance to talk to strangers on buses or to invite people over who we only have met once. So, when I bring back the culture of mate and of asados to the United States, I will bring back the culture of community that comes along with it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gap Year Check-In #2: A Shamba Shed and a Seconday School

December 30, 2010

One has a baby; she was raped during the election violence of 2008. One ran away from home for five months from her abusive guardians, having to repeat a year of school. One has lost four out of her six close family members in the past year. Yet these girls have the incredible fortune to be at Daraja Academy, a free secondary school in Kenya started by a couple who live near me in California. This school has changed the lives of the students in the most drastic way: most of them would otherwise be at home, possibly married or even pregnant, and now they have the chance to get a full education and go on to having a successful job. Daraja Academy provided the perfect opportunity to work on one of my gap year goals: to learn how to most effectively affect change in the world. With the help of everyone in the Daraja community, I built a shed out of adobe bricks for the Daraja shamba (garden), and this project – which became my main focus during my two months there – served as a smaller case study of how to make change in a community. So, by experiencing the creation of change through the Shamba Shed project and through Daraja Academy, I got some ideas on the best ways to go about impacting the world that I will remember as I become a Morehead-Cain Scholar and continue life beyond.

Although I enjoyed working on the Shamba Shed every day, the best and most rewarding days by far were those when the Daraja girls and other members of the community would help with the project. We kicked off the project by celebrating 10.10.10, recognized worldwide as a day for climate change activism and work, by hosting an adobe brickmaking festival at Daraja. By the end of the Shamba Shed project, we joked that not a single person on the Daraja campus had avoided getting muddy by working with adobe: the students, the volunteers, the group of Danish students, the teachers, the children of teachers, the administrators, and even the cooks. When we finally celebrated the completion of the structure with a final plastering day and a big carrot cake, everyone on campus reveled in the success of the project. Ruth, a Daraja cook, even dressed up nicely for the day.

By spending so much time with Ruth and the other people in the kitchen, I gained respect for how much of an effect Daraja has on the entire area around the school, not just on the students. Jenni and Jason, the two founders, are the only non-Kenyan staff (except for the volunteers and the volunteer coordinator). Teachers, administrators, and all other staff members come from all over Kenya – even very locally. The two men who we employed to help build the Shamba Shed are from the Kikuyu tribal town nearby, as is Alice, the gardener. Alice’s connection with Daraja allowed her to use the students to help build a community chicken coop for a group of women in her village. When I would run around Daraja and stop and talk to people (with my limited Swahili) along the way, everyone knew of Daraja and regarded it fondly. The presence of this school employs many people, and even without Jenni and Jason, it would be a completely self-sufficient institution within the local area.

While in Kenya, I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a story of missionaries coming in and trying – mostly ineffectively, or at least with much contention with the community – to change the beliefs and culture of an area. Over and over, through literature, history, and through personal experience, the necessity to work with and within a culture in order to create change has become clear to me. Certainly, an outsider in a community can be a catalyst, as I might have been with the shed, or as Jenni and Jason might have been with Daraja, but working with the community to make change, and ultimately making it more of their project, is far more effective than barging in without an understanding of the culture.

Perhaps the most challenging part of my months in Africa was feeling as if I were not doing enough. It’s hard to be in a place that needs so much compared to American standards, with girls who have been so neglected in their lives, and know what to do. My working on the shed every day, mostly with only the two hired men, sometimes made me feel as if I were not spending enough time with the girls, and not working enough for the school. One day, however, I stood knee deep in an adobe mix in the four-foot deep holding pit, and Ruth, one of the Daraja cooks, squatted next to me to talk to me. “It’s amazing what you’re doing,” she said, “Not only what you are building, but that you are showing all the women that we can do anything.” I proved to the girls, and to everyone else at Daraja, that even an 18-year-old-girl can lead construction on a shed, or do anything else, with the help of their community. The Daraja girls have a class called WISH, where they learn to be Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope. Though my work my not have been directly with the girls at all times, I was exemplifying being a woman of WISH for them. The power of leading by example often takes a back seat to active leadership or teaching, but I hope that by being an example for the girls, I made as much, if not more, of an effect that I would have by assuming a more active role.

Jenni and Jason, in a similar way, treat the girls like they would like them to treat each other, and anyone else who they meet. One of the first things that someone visiting Daraja Academy will experience is a hug from almost every single girl on campus. This is not a characteristic exhibited by all Kenyans, but rather an environment created by Jenni and Jason. They give hugs to all the girls, each other, and even the other staff members. Though it may be a small gesture, it contributes to how cared for and loved the girls feel at Daraja, and makes a difference on campus.

My second lesson about changemaking is that it need not always be active; leading by example holds power too. I discovered that the Daraja girls, and all Kenyans, hold America as the ideal in their eyes. Each change and each development in Africa seems to be headed towards the goal of being like the United States. If we want to cause a global change, therefore, countries seen as role models must be the first to make steps towards that change. I used to think that a good way to combat climate change would be to start with the developing countries, and to direct their development in a more environmentally conscious direction. However, after teaching a couple of seminars to the girls about climate change, I noticed that though they had some interest in it, the more pertinent goal for them was to improve their quality of life (with America as the symbol of a good quality of life, of course). We cannot tell people in Africa, per say, to keep building with mud and sticks, when they see how nice our houses are when they are built with wood and concrete. We must be moving in that direction before we ask them to do the same.

Daraja Academy could not have been a more perfect place to discover my final lesson on changemaking: the incredible power of education. One of my favorite moments at Daraja happened after a long afternoon of brickmaking with about ten of the girls who came down to help during their sports period. “This is so cool,” Alice A., one of the students, said to me, talking about construction with adobe bricks, “I’m going to show this to my family at home.” The Shamba Shed, thus, served not only as a useful structure but also as an educational tool. It demonstrated a new way of natural building to the girls, which is completely feasible all over Kenya and possibly even a career option.

Before Daraja, these girls had no opportunities. None of them would be in secondary school, most would be at home, and most would never have a change to use their brilliance and their joy to have a positive impact on their country and the world. They are all smart – many capable of going to American universities – and deserve to have the opportunity that education gives them. Daraja has only been around for two years, so it wont have a graduating class until 2012, but I can’t wait to see what some of the girls do after Daraja. Leila wants to be a pilot for Emirates Airlines, Maureen wants to be a journalist, and Esther wants to start her own school like Daraja Academy to, as she wrote, “change other peoples’ lives just the way [hers] has been changed.” I believe that they can all accomplish those dreams, when there would not have been a chance without education.

It is remarkable to see the impact of education on a larger scale, too, across all of Kenya. When Alice, the gardener, grew up in the rural town next to Daraja, school was one and a half hours away – running. Of course, the kids could not make it to school with any shortage of food in the family, or with any injuries. Now, there are at least two schools within a 30 minutes walk. Everywhere you go in Kenya, from the coast to the Maasai village near the Safari preserve, to these tiny rural villages next to Daraja, you see children in brightly colored school uniforms walking to and from school, shouting “HOW ARE YOU! OWAHYU!” when they see a mzungu (white person). Seeing how primary education has transformed Kenya and taken such a presence in the country inspires me. It will be exciting to see how this generation of educated children grows up and what sort of changes come in the country, and beyond that, what changes will come when all children go to secondary school. It’s a hopeful prospect.

On my final night at Daraja Academy, I read the girls’ stories about life before Daraja, which they wrote during a volunteer’s workshop in the summer. “There is a pattern which everybody has to follow, a pattern of joy and peace, a pattern of tears and sorrow, a pattern in which you bring change to what you have because you are the source of energy required to attain all that is best,” Lillian wrote. “All in all, God lifted out love that now I can sing and stand out amazingly with no fear and I can speak in front of people with my futuristic voice that glitters and shines at the daytime,” said Benny. Anastacia wrote a quote that makes me cry every time I read it: “I will live to be remembered.” I certainly learned about making change – through education, leading by example, and through working with the community – but that’s not enough. More importantly, these girls have given me the inspiration to do so. I, like Esther, want to change peoples’ lives the way the lives of the Daraja girls have been changed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gap Year Check-In #1: The Wanderlust Begins

October 1, 2010

Dear Foundation,

I regret informing you that I will not be returning to Carolina next year; I love traveling too much. No, that’s a joke. I’m sure that I will be excited again about going to school in eleven months. If anything, my past three weeks in Nepal have made me even more excited to be a Scholar and to have three adventurous summers involving international travel to plan. This type of traveling is new for me; I am used to hopping around from place to place with my family on a rigid agenda and not having a chance to sink into the culture of a place. Now, however, I spent about two weeks trekking in the Himalayas, bracketed by a couple of days in Kathmandu on either end. In this short time frame, I have fallen in love with traveling. Whenever I have previously traveled in groups or with my family, I have enjoyed it, even loved it, but I had no idea it was such a passion for me. Here are my best arguments for why foreign travel is important, and why I love it, particularly in Nepal:

1. The Novelty of a New Place.

As soon as I ventured out of Thamel, the tourist district in Kathmandu, with a new French friend, Kathmandu became unlike any place I have ever been. We walked through neighborhoods and past little shops, over bridges and along hectic city streets. To cross streets, we had to pick our way around speeding motorcycles, cars honking either angrily, gratefully, or for the fun of it, and bikes towing produce or kerosene. All have no regard for the center divide of the road, or for the pedestrians trying to weave a way through it all. Cows, chickens, and dogs meandered along the sides of the roads, picking through copious amounts of trash piled in front of buildings to find a morning meal. However, the trash piles and vehicle smog in Kathmandu are juxtaposed with clean, pressed women’s saris and beautiful religious centers. We happened upon public cremations taking place behind one of the main temples. Underneath strands of prayer flags, men hoisted bodies swaddled in orange fabric onto platforms, and set them aflame. We joined other Nepali bystanders on a bridge watching the event. As the wind shifted directions and blew smoke from burning human flesh towards us, everyone around lifted a scarf or a corner of a shirt to their faces. Nothing about the ceremony was hidden or softened; everyone who watched confronted the images of death directly. Everything about Kathmandu, unlike the United States, seems to be so out in the open. You see stark juxtapositions of life with death, hectic streets with areas of religious calm, and clean appearances with trash on the streets. The city has this raw, alive quality, and the novelty of this amazed me.

2. A New Cultural Lens.
During our trek, Ellen Currin and I made attempts at being a part of Nepali culture instead of just observing it from afar. We hiked in lungi, or long skirts, for about half the time, since almost all of the women in mountain villages wear lungi. The people we came across loved this; especially two women at the guest house we stayed at our first night: “Lungi! Lungi!” they called, “You are like real Nepali!” Everywhere we went, no matter how pitiful, our attempts at Nepali culture were appreciated and received with excitement. Our incredible guide, Bhagwati, taught us key Nepali phrases and words that we utilized whenever possible. “Mito sa,” we would tell whoever brought us our food, “It’s delicious.” We had the local lentil, curry, and rice dish, Dal Bhat, at least once a day, and ate lots of fried Tibetan bread. We often ate meals with only our hands, perfecting the technique of forming balls out of the dal-soaked rice and flicking them onto our tongues with our thumbs. These little changes of habit prompted the Nepali guides to open up to us much more than to the other trekkers, even the ones that they were guiding. They taught us Nepali card games and would convince us to play much past our early trekking bedtime, taught us the words and dance moves to Nepali songs, and always smiled at us in the guest houses and on the trails. Of course, I cannot claim to be a Nepali woman now, or to understand their perspective completely, but my interactions with Nepali culture gave me a better idea of their lives. I will always have the lens of Nepali culture to look through when I make decisions in the future. Moreover, some of the pieces of Nepali culture that I have picked up will stay with me as more than a lens.

3. Incorporating Foreign Culture into My Own.
I initially tried out a lot of these things – the dal bhat, the lungis, eating with my hands – as experiments. A lot of them resonate with me, however, and I would like to make them part of my own culture. Back in Pokhara, we took a cooking class with some women that we met trekking, and I will definitely be cooking dal bhat for my family and friends at home. I found my lungi practical and comfortable, and I have not taken it off since trekking. And though I did not get a chance to explore religion here as much as I would have liked, I am taking with me a new interest in Hinduism and Buddhism – from only the few stupas that I visited – that I can explore later. I have been reading Eat, Pray, Love (a perfect gap year book), in which Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “What a large number of factors constitute a single human being! How very many layers we operate on, and how very many influences we receive from our minds, or bodies, our histories, our families, our cities, our souls, and our lunches!” Nepal has added another layer, or influence, to me. As I pick up little snippets of culture from the places to which I travel, my own culture becomes more interesting and complex.

4. Defining Myself Out of Context.
Here, I was not known as a runner or an Eco-Council girl, a Marin Academy student, a resident of Mill Valley. I was just myself, picked up and placed in an entirely new situation. The parts of me that are less superficial and context-based became more apparent. I got lost in the city and loved it. I enjoyed both trekking quickly and getting to the guest houses early, and taking my time to look at the mountains. I talked to anyone who I happened to come across. In the absence of context, my identity resolves more around my personality, especially based off my interactions with other people.

5. The Other Travelers.
We met a slew of interesting people also trekking in the guest houses at night. The guest house dining halls often had communal tables for all guests to sit around, so we struck up conversation or played games with whoever we happened to sit near. One night, we played the “World Championships” of Yahtzee, with representatives hailing from Australia, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Nepal, the Czech Republic, the United States, and Slovakia. Together, we laughed about Yahtzee, a group of 245 Koreans who were also trekking, France, and the World Cup. One night, I played Nepali Call-Break with the eight male guides, and the next, I played Nepali Dumbal with eight female guides. Through my environmental journalism project, I heard about environmental awareness in Nepal and other countries. A man from Australia had written a mini-thesis on environmentalism and development, and we discussed whether an environmental movement had a place in a city like Kathmandu. Four women from Sweden, Germany, Australia, and Quebec compared and contrasted the government’s attitude towards the environment between their countries and the United States. Not only do I have a better understanding of all of their countries now (especially in relation to the environment) but I also have friends and contacts all over the world, now.

6. Because it’s Awesome.
Then, there are the parts of traveling that do not have so much of an educational benefit; they are just incredible experiences. Being at the base camp of the tenth highest mountain in the world, Annapurna, for example, fits in there. We arrived at the base camp in the afternoon in the clouds. When Ellen and I had almost fallen asleep, Bhagwati knocked on the door to tell us that it was clear outside. We rushed outside to see Annapurna South and Machhapuchhre, two of the highest Himalayas, staring at each other across the valley, with us nestled at the base camp right in between. The nighttime’s grayscale wash over everything made shapes stand out more vividly. The mountains towered over us, jutting up into the starry sky. After only fifteen minutes, the clouds rolled in rapidly, and as if the curtains had closed on a show, we had no evidence of the existence of the mountains. We tried anxiously to fall asleep like children on Christmas Eve and woke up early to watch the sunrise. We walked up to a ridge decorated with intersecting prayer flags and watched the mountains and the dusky blue sky brighten slowly. The mountains cut further up into the turquoise dome of the sky than anything I have ever seen, drawing craggy lines to divide blue from white. We took pictures and then just watched, in utter awe at being in the Himalayas.

I am sad to have fallen in love with Nepal when I have to leave tonight, but thrilled to have fallen in love with traveling because it makes me so excited for Kenya and all else to come. I am convinced that for these six reasons and more, traveling is one of the most worthwhile things a person can do. So, for not the last time, thank you for allowing this opportunity to travel. And thank you in advance for all of the others that you provide in the future. I am off to Kenya, and I will be updating my blog (ayearofadventure.wordpress.com) from there. Otherwise, I will check in again in December!

Sincerely,
Cora Went

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Final Postings

Chances are, nobody is really checking this anymore, since I am home and you might as well just talk to me! But, just in case, I wanted to put some reflections that I wrote up on here just to tie the year together and end up the blog. There are four reflections: three check-ins that I wrote after each section of my year for the program I am in at UNC, and then one final reflection.

So, if you happened upon these still, enjoy! I’ll try to post one a day for the next four days.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Home, and Photos

Oh home, yes I am ho-o-ome!

On the one hand, I was so happy to be with my family in Argentina, and I felt like I could have stayed there investigating family history and exploring the rest of the country forever. However, I had been traveling for a long time, and it is so nice to be back in the Bay Area. I love seeing my family, and can’t wait to see all my friends that are still spread across the country and across the world.

I just updated the flickr site to include Argentina pictures, so here’s the link! (Don’t spend too long looking at them if you’re planning to come over and see photos too…)

http://flic.kr/s/aHsjuNxzCL

I’m working on writing one more thing – a summary essay of sorts – that I will post sometime in the next week or two. Any questions? Requests for anything else I should write about?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments