Photo by Ryan Gasper, Student.

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    [post_content] => While we're not fully out of the pandemic quite yet, we are still able to find meaningful ways to travel. How do we ensure that we are running safe, meaningful, and responsible travel programs in the current climate? Read on to find out how and why we've returned to travel and where we go from here.

[caption id="attachment_158289" align="aligncenter" width="638"] Mario and Celestino, community leaders in the Parque de la Papa community in Peru.[/caption]

Para nosotros es como nuestros hijos y bueno hermano, tú nos enviaste tus hijos para cuidar y para compartir nuestra cultura de parque de la papa y nuestros ancestros de todo lo que vivencias de nuestra comunidad. Las puertas están abiertas y cuando usted puede enviarnos los hijos, estamos a la espera. 

For us, it's like our own children and well, brother, you sent us your children to care for and to share in our culture from Parque de la Papa, from our ancestors, and all the ways of life here in our community. Our doors are open and when you can send us your children, we are eagerly waiting. – Mario, Parque de la Papa, Perú.

**********

On a Sunday afternoon in July 2021, my phone beeped with a video message from Luis Reyes, our Latin America Program Director, who was visiting a Dragons student group in the Peruvian Andes. Like a nervous parent answering a call in the middle of the night, I held my breath until I could be sure all was well. As soon as I opened this message though, two familiar faces reassuringly greeted me. 

Mario and Celestino, longstanding homestay parents and community leaders in Parque de la Papa, were dressed in their technicolored traditional ponchos and chullos (beaded hats). It had been a year and a half since Dragons students had been able to visit their community and even longer since I’d been there in-person. 

After so many months of navigating mercurial pandemic conditions, of meticulously mapping a responsible return to international travel, of thinking through the myriad ethical and safety questions, the sincerity and simplicity of Mario and Celestino’s message finally brought it all home: we can travel again. And, we can do it with integrity.

While no one needs a detailed play-by-play of the pandemic, we can all stand to learn from the unique challenges of the past two years and what they can teach us about creating safe, responsible, engaging, and original travel experiences in this new global reality. What I hope to offer to you is two fold:
  1. How did we get here? Let’s briefly revisit the sudden shutdown and incremental reopening of international travel so we can better understand what the future holds.
  2. How can we travel again with integrity? As an organization, Dragons has tried to intentionally learn from our successes and failures over the past three decades. Let us share some of what we’ve learned firsthand over this pandemic.  

How did we get here?

In February 2020, Dragons had student groups traveling in 14 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As COVID-19 rapidly escalated from a regional epidemic to a global pandemic, we worked around the clock to safely bring our students home as international borders and flights shut down with unprecedented haste. If you, or anyone you know was involved with international travel during that time, I offer you a heartfelt handshake and hug! Those were stressful times to navigate and perhaps a story for another day! By the end of March 2020, we had officially entered a new global reality in which once easily passable international borders had hardened into a seemingly ever-growing wall of COVID travel restrictions. By May, the US State Department would change the entire basis of its travel advisory system due to COVID concerns, essentially throwing 80% of countries into an alarming red “Do Not Travel” category. The cliché that the ‘only certainty is uncertainty’ had never felt so true. As the pandemic tragically surged at home in the US, remote work and virtual learning became the new norm. An emergent mental health epidemic swept across the nation, particularly affecting our youth, with dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles. The Dragons mission to “cultivate meaningful connections through immersive and responsible travel” felt impossible to embody amidst a global pandemic. The virtual classroom was embraced out of necessity. While it's nothing short of a technological miracle, in the long run, we all know that screens can never substitute for real face-to-face human connection, especially when it comes to travel and experiential learning.

How can we travel again with integrity?

Dragons spent the summer months of 2020 collaborating with other travel providers and educational institutions to develop program protocols in-line with public health guidance. With the unpredictability of international travel, as well as the ethical responsibility to the places we visit, Dragons first focused our energies on developing US domestic programming rather than rushing to return to travel abroad. Over Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, Dragons was able to safely bring together student groups for our new Rio Grande and Colorado River Basin Gap Semesters In order to return to in-person programming at a time when nearly all school campuses still remained closed, we took extensive precautions to prevent the transmission of COVID while allowing for genuine community engagement and values based education. To highlight a few of the risk mitigation tools we initially implemented:
  • Students kept a daily health log prior to arrival, submitted a pre-travel PCR test, and agreed to adhere to our COVID Participant Agreement that outlined our expectations and best practices for prevention.
  • We offered pre-travel webinars openly sharing the risks, protocols, and need for adaptability under changing circumstances.
  • We designed COVID conscious itineraries to mitigate exposure risks by prioritizing outdoor spaces, minimizing time in urban areas, and considering COVID risks for each activity. 
  • Once together, student groups went through a multi-day “Pod Formation” phase before undergoing additional PCR testing and finally being able to relax protocols amongst group members.  
  • Throughout the program, our instructors were trained to uphold our detailed COVID In-Field Protocols & Management Manual, which in addition to common sense safety measures outlined a plethora of contingency plans.
For Dragons, the innovation of these US domestic programs were an unexpected silver lining in the ongoing pandemic thunderstorm. At a time when experiential education seemed like only a remote possibility, we were able to safely bring together students, turn off our screens, and dive into an immersive travel experience.

Returning to International Student Travel

A successful return to travel closer to home was also an important step for honing our COVID safety practices for the reopening of international student travel, which would happen in July 2021. As public health guidance and global travel restrictions evolved, we were able to adapt our extensive domestic travel protocols and response plans to the international context. For example, we added regular in-field testing throughout the program, extensive COVID safety briefings for local community contacts and host families, and protocols specific to each cultural context.  We also went through a rigorous country-by-country assessment for each of our destinations, developing a COVID Country Risk Assessment Matrix that accounted for the following key considerations:
  • COVID case numbers, testing capacities, vaccination rates, and trends 
  • Travel restrictions and COVID specific entry requirements such as arrival testing, quarantine measures, etc. 
  • Availability and access to general medical care as impacted by potential increases in hospitalizations 
  • Local restrictions and community norms related to social distancing, mask wearing, perceptions of foreigners, and public health practices
  • Activity limitations and modifications to program components such as homestays, transportation, independent time, etc. 
Drawing on a variety of resources--both objective metrics and more informal conversations with people on the ground--we grouped our travel destinations into Red, Yellow, and Green tiers. Importantly, we continued to revisit those assessments as travel start dates approached, and due to changing conditions in certain regions, even had to downgrade or cancel some programs based on new or unpredictable information. Having solid evaluative criteria and the adaptability to respond to regional circumstances have proven key to a safe and responsible return to international travel. 

Planning on Traveling Without the Support of Dragons?

The above is a very brief summary of how Dragons navigated a return to travel during the pandemic. You may now be asking, what questions should I be asking for my own independent travels? Here are some questions you should ask before departing on an international trip of your own. There is a lot to consider, but here are a 4 important questions and to get you started:

1. What are the current travel restrictions and COVID conditions in my desired destination?

In addition to the country specific factors outlined above, be sure to consider how often those restrictions and conditions have changed; knowing the history of how a country has closed borders or mandated lockdowns in the past is an important indicator of what could happen in the future. Limiting unpredictability as much as you can is very helpful!

2.   What risks do I pose to the people and places I plan to visit?

We require vaccination for all of our travelers and believe that perhaps even more significant than the risk of you contracting COVID is the possibility that you contribute to community transmission, particularly amongst vulnerable populations. Remember to always consider how you are mitigating your risk to others, not just to yourself, and travel accordingly.

3.  Are travelers welcomed right now in the places I want to go?

Some communities may be welcoming of visitors, while others are fearful of foreigners right now. It is important that you tune into local perceptions of travelers and receive informed consent before entering a community as a guest, especially outside of well-trodden tourist zones.

4.  What are my contingency plans should the unexpected happen on my trip?

Whether it be needing to quarantine abroad because of a positive COVID test or change your itinerary on the fly due to travel restrictions, we’ve learned to not only expect the unexpected, but to be well prepared for it too. Make sure you’ve thought through the possible scenarios and have at least a rough plan of what you’d do should things go wrong.

In Conclusion

Based on our most recent country assessments, we are able to now bring Dragons students to Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, Senegal, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Morocco, and Indonesia. We've come along way since 2020! You can read more about how our recent Dragons trips have gone in the words of students and instructors on our Yak Board. While we’re not fully out of the pandemic just yet, we are continuing to monitor program destinations based on the criteria outlined above and informed by a multitude of information channels. We’re excited to return to the communities that we’ve known so well for decades and once again introduce our travelers to the people and places we hold close to our hearts. 

***

Aaron Slosberg has been working with Where There Be Dragons since 2008 and is the current Director of Programming. 

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Women in the Sacred Valley: A 10 Day Adventure for Women  

Journey into the collective wisdom of the ancient and modern people of Peru with an incredible group of like-minded women. We have all witnessed major change and turmoil over the past two years. As I have been looking for ways to help others with these changes, I often look to my own travel experiences that have expanded my perspective. My previous trips to Africa and Nepal have helped me to gather my courage and skills to come closer to the edge of my own discomfort and joy. Each time I've traveled it has been with the intention of finding ways to bridge differences and learn more about how other people experience their lives. This style of travel has helped me grow tremendously and learn how to be more compassionate with myself and those around me. If you’re looking for a group travel experience with women that similarly awakens your senses, expands your compassion and shifts you from being a tourist to a traveler, consider joining us in Peru. Join me as a mindfulness guide and facilitator along with the skilled guides of Where There Be Dragons, for 11 days as Women in the Sacred Valley of Peru. We will explore the culture, visit thriving markets, immerse ourselves in the local communities and develop meaningful connections with the people we meet. We will travel amongst locals meeting community leaders and citizens and artists. We will tread lightly old Incan trails to deepen the experience with our bodies and souls. And we will explore the ancient remnants of a past civilization that still runs deep in the culture of this land

Summer Travel Abroad Peru Where There Be Dragons

Why Travel with a Group?

Being with a group has also been a key factor in the impact of my travel experiences. Being with others allows for reflection, sharing of the experiences, resonance to our inner wisdom, and connection. But there’s more to the impact of being with a group—it’s the opportunity to witness myself and others deeply. In this witnessing I have learned we can grow in our capacity for holding others - what I call a compassionate container.   Witnessing means sensing without judgment. It’s empathetically being open to whatever arises and responding compassionately in a way that creates deeper mutual exchange.   When I am held by others and witnessed in this way, I feel whole and healed, even if I’m not. I feel ok just the way I am at that moment. Imagine how this kind of deep witnessing can bring more healing and growth to you!  This trip is intended to help you tap into your greater self and build your compassion through connection to a different culture and different peoples. If this resonates with you, explore our Adult Program in Peru here. Our next program departs June 3rd - 13th. More about Donna Daniell Donna is a visionary healer, systems thinker, and trauma therapist who since college dreamed of helping women wake up in their lives. As a family therapist in private practice for 27 years in Boulder, CO, she has offered yoga, women’s groups and mindfulness training in her practice. Read more... [post_title] => Meaningful Travel in Peru for Adults [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => meaningful-travel-in-peru-for-adults [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-12-03 10:42:08 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-12-03 17:42:08 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 788 [name] => Adult Travel [slug] => adult-travel [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 788 [taxonomy] => category [description] => [parent] => 0 [count] => 1 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 0 [cat_ID] => 788 [category_count] => 1 [category_description] => [cat_name] => Adult Travel [category_nicename] => adult-travel [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/adult-travel/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 700 [name] => For Parents [slug] => for_parents [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 700 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [parent] => 0 [count] => 33 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 6 [cat_ID] => 700 [category_count] => 33 [category_description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [cat_name] => For Parents [category_nicename] => for_parents [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/for_parents/ ) ) [category_links] => Adult Travel, For Parents )
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ARE YOU CONSIDERING A GAP YEAR?

If you're between the ages of 17-22 and are weighing the pros and cons of taking a break between high school and college, we've developed a free Gap Year Guide & Starter Kit to help you understand whether a Gap Year is right for you. Download for Free  

HOW WILL THE DRAGONS GAP YEAR GUIDE & STARTER KIT HELP ME?

If your Gap Year ambitions include gaining experience in wilderness exploration, language study, community engagement, activism, and/or cultural immersion, this guide highlights how a custom-crafted Dragons semester in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, can support your educational goals. It’s also equipped with statistics, guiding questions, student testimonials, links to resources, and interactive activities that will help you determine if taking time off the typical academic path will better prepare you for your future.  

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INTERACTIVE PLANNING ACTIVITIES?

Download the PDF to engage with the following interactive features:
  • Guiding Questions
  • Links to relevant blogs and resources
  • Goal Setting Visioning Activity
  • Average Perfect Day + Best Day Ever (Ad Lib)
  • Timeline Activity
  • How to Choose a Dragons Program
 
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Building Sustainable Relationships With Land & Water in the Western United States

Catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dragons is excited to facilitate new low-impact domestic programs closer to home. Our Colorado River Basin Semester continues to advance our mission to offer immersive and responsible travel by exploring the history, culture, and environments of the North American West. Taking health risks into account, we are initially prioritizing programs that remain in-line with public health recommendations and which do not pose a greater risk to vulnerable populations. Coming September 1st, 2020, 10 Gap Year students will travel slowly by foot, train, and boat to connect the Colorado River's ecosystems from alpine peaks to desert canyons. Participants will backpack to the source of the Colorado River. Get their hands dirty studying permaculture and sustainability on local farms. Float through the desert canyons of Utah and sleep under a blanket of endless stars. Forge lasting friendships and connect to landscapes that will call you back for many years to come.

Program Highlights:

[caption id="attachment_157040" align="alignleft" width="356"]domestic gap year program where there be dragons colorado utah Photo by Tim Hare, Instructor.[/caption]
  • Engage with movements for food justice and food sovereignty
  • Meet with scientists, activists, ranching families, Native American communities, and recreational groups to gain a deeper understanding of the demands on land and water
  • Study permaculture with sustainable farmers and learn about practical solutions for climate change
  • Develop a complex understanding of the human history and a deeper connection with the natural environment in the high mountains and winding desert canyons
  • 2-week backpacking expedition along the Continental Divide including possible summits of 13,000 and 14,000+ foot peaks
  • Float the red rock canyons of the Colorado River Basin while you learn about complicated demands on this precious resource and how water has carved the magnificent natural beauty of the Southwest
  • Study controversial land use issues and natural resource extraction practices in the Bears Ears National monument and other public lands
  • Learn how communities of the Southwest carve out their existence amidst the greatest drought in centuries and strike a delicate balance in a competition for scarce natural resources
 

Learn more about the semester on the program page. 

 
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    [post_content] => Dragons Director of Admissions, Eva Vanek, was quoted by a reporter from The Hechinger Report about the recent spike in Gap Year interest. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Dragons Gap Year COVID PBS

 

"When the coronavirus first hit in March, many students who had been planning on taking a gap year decided college might be a safer option, said Eva Vanek, admissions director at a gap year provider called Where There Be Dragons.
'Now, in the last few weeks, that conversation is definitely shifting, where we’re hearing from a lot of students who are in particular nervous that they’re going to have to start their freshman year online,' Vanek said.
  Even some students already enrolled in college are considering taking a gap year in the middle of it, an indication of how many doubt that their campuses will return to normal in the fall and want to avoid another semester or two of learning online."  

READ THE FULL ARTICLE ONLINE AT THE NEW YORK TIMES.

 
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[post_title] => DRAGONS FEATURED ON PBS NEWSHOUR: WILL COVID-19 FEARS LEAD TO THE BIGGEST GAP YEAR EVER? [post_excerpt] => Dragons Director of Admissions, Eva Vanek, was quoted by a reporter from The Hechinger Report about the recent spike in Gap Year interest. When the coronavirus first hit in March, many students who had been planning on taking a gap year decided college might be a safer option, said Eva Vanek, admissions director at a gap year provider called Where There Be Dragons. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => dragons-quoted-on-pbs-newshour-will-covid-19-fears-lead-to-biggest-gap-year-ever [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2022-04-23 16:52:12 [post_modified_gmt] => 2022-04-23 22:52:12 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 700 [name] => For Parents [slug] => for_parents [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 700 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [parent] => 0 [count] => 33 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 6 [cat_ID] => 700 [category_count] => 33 [category_description] => Blog posts specifically curated for parents wishing to know more about Dragons culture, programs, company, and community. [cat_name] => For Parents [category_nicename] => for_parents [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/for_parents/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 641 [name] => About Dragons [slug] => about_dragons [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 641 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Press, Essays from Admin, and Behind-the-Scenes HQ. [parent] => 0 [count] => 43 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 10 [cat_ID] => 641 [category_count] => 43 [category_description] => Press, Essays from Admin, and Behind-the-Scenes HQ. [cat_name] => About Dragons [category_nicename] => about_dragons [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/about_dragons/ ) [2] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 654 [name] => Mixed Media [slug] => mixed_media [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 654 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [parent] => 0 [count] => 18 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 13 [cat_ID] => 654 [category_count] => 18 [category_description] => Featured Photography, Videos, Podcasts, Photo Contest Winners, Films & Art [cat_name] => Mixed Media [category_nicename] => mixed_media [category_parent] => 0 ) ) [category_links] => For Parents, About Dragons ... )
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    [ID] => 156690
    [post_author] => 1530
    [post_date] => 2020-05-05 12:46:54
    [post_date_gmt] => 2020-05-05 18:46:54
    [post_content] => 

Did you catch this episode of Dragons podcast featuring a mother and daughter who have both been on a Dragons course in Nepal?

Bub Vernon (Dragons Indonesia Semester Alumni) and this mother-daughter duo discuss:

  • Seva goes to Nepal for a Dragons semester. Years later, her mother goes on a Dragons Program for adults.

  • The differences & similarities in Dragons experiences for a student & adult.

  • What “immersion” really involves and looks like.

  • The nature of time and depth of relationships built on programs.

  • The difference between “going on vacation” and building relationships with people who have lives and culture different from your own.

  • Favorite moments & mishaps.

LISTEN NOW ON APPLE PODCASTSSPOTIFY, AND MORE.

 
PS. WANT DRAGONS BLOG UPDATES SENT DIRECTLY TO YOUR INBOX? ONE EMAIL A WEEK. NOTHING MARKETY. UNSUBSCRIBE ANY TIME. SUBSCRIBE TO DRAGONS BLOG AND STAY CONNECTED TO THE COMMUNITY. ❤️
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