Andes & Amazon Semester

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The Dragons Journal

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    [post_date] => 2020-03-06 09:47:50
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Overheard on the Yak Board (Guatemala Independent Spring Experience

Guatemala homestay independent spring experience ISE If you had happened to be walking down 4th avenue in San Miguel Escobar last Saturday around noon, you would have seen me and my Spanish teacher Blanca carrying a massive, scalding frying pan in a Guatemalan swaddling cloth woven for newborn babies. This strange event was only one of many misadventures that day. As my time in Guatemala began to come to an end, I wanted to cook a thank-you lunch for my host family, my instructor and his family, Biz and Nell, and my Spanish teacher. I settled on an overly-ambitious menu of avogolemono (a Greek chicken soup), a massive Greek bread, two salads, and strawberries with cream. I wanted to share a few of my favorite foods, like the Greek cuisine I eat with my grandmother at Christmas, the strawberries I associate with summers in New Hampshire, and the obligatory kale salad I must like as a Brooklynite. Guatemala homestay independent spring experience ISE The adventure began on Thursday, when Biz, Nell, and I went to Antigua to buy ingredients. Our first stop was La Bodegona, a massive grocery store that caters to locals and tourists alike, resulting in an overwhelming maze of food. We found three separate pasta aisles, went on a several-minutes long quest for powdered sugar, and even stumbled into a whole separate building dedicated to clothing, which felt a little like stepping into another dimension. After La Bodegona, with our iPhone translators at the ready, we crossed the street to the municipal market where we spent an equal amount of time finding our way to the vegetable section as we did actually shopping. On Friday, I spent the whole morning cooking the soup, and prepping the other dishes for lunch the following day. My grandmother helped me start the wood stove for the soup, and then watched in horror as I put my chickens directly into boiling water without washing them. She efficiently helped me rescue the birds and run them under the tap, and although a crisis was averted, she and my host mother asked me if I had washed just about everything else every time I added it to a dish. Whoops! Guatemala homestay independent spring experience ISE Guatemala homestay independent spring experience ISE A few minutes after chicken-gate, I ran into soup crisis number 2. In Greek, the name of the dish means egg-lemon soup, and although fresh eggs abound here, it turns out there’s not a lemon to be found in all of Antigua. As I later learned, lemons require cooler temperatures than limes, and are thus not well suited to tropical, warm countries like Guatemala. Fortunately, my instructor Juancho brought me an alternative citrus fruit he grows at home, and combined with lime, I used that to replace the lemons. Satisfied with my soup, I put it in the fridge, and called it a day. On Saturday, I woke up very early to start the bread dough. Guessing roughly how much yeast to add in absence of the rapid-rise packets I’m used to, I got the dough rising right about when the rest of the family woke up. The mornings here are quite chilly, and as a result, I was having a hard time getting my bread to rise. I tried putting it various parts of our patio and kitchen, boiled water to heat the bowl, and finally settled on an elaborate system of heating and cooling the dough on our stove, around the boiling coffee, beans, eggs, and tortillas my host grandmother was preparing for breakfast. Eventually, I was satisfied with the dough, and enlisted the help of my host sisters to braid it.
The lunch ended up being a huge success. The food (against all odds) turned out well, but the best part about the meal was spending it with all of the people who have made my two months here magical. I’m so sad that I only have one more week in Guatemala, but the lunch reminded me that the connections I’ve made here will last a lifetime.
Once the bread was set, my host sister and I carried it down the street to my Spanish teacher’s house to bake. The oven in my kitchen doesn’t work, so Blanca generously volunteered hers. When we arrived, however, we discovered that the massive frying pan we were using for the bread didn’t fit into her oven. Fortunately, she had a larger oven in a different part of the house, and her husband kindly dragged it to the kitchen and connected it to the gas. Unfortunately, however, this oven only had two markings to measure temperature, a plus sign and a minus sign. I took a guess and selected plus, and then told Blanca I would return in an hour. I guessed wrong. 20 minutes later, Blanca texted me a photo of some very crispy looking bread, and asked me if this was what I was going for. I sprinted down the street (my host sister led the way on her bike) and found my bread several shades darker than it should have been. Fortunately, with some scraping, we managed to salvage the bread, and the inside was just as tasty as usual. The final challenge, however, was getting the bread back to my house. Blanca volunteered her baby swaddle, and that’s how I found myself on fourth avenue with a piping-hot Greek holiday bread. Guatemala homestay independent spring experience ISE Meanwhile, a situation was developing at home. Before picking up my bread, I had put the soup on the stove to heat up. As I was walking home, my host mother called me to say that the soup smelled horrible, and had separated overnight. Disappointed, I was resigned to cooking spaghetti as a last-minute replacement, but my host mother would hear none of it. “We’re going to remake the soup!” she declared confidently, even though we had less than an hour until our guests were going to arrive. I tried to reason with her, but she had already fired up the wood stove and enlisted her mother to help us. “¡Manos a la obra!” she declared, and went into a frenzy of buying replacement chickens, helping me chop ingredients, and heaping wood into the stove to speed up the cooking. One second I would see her at the woodpile, and the next she would be stirring the soup side-by-side with my host grandmother who was picking apart chicken carcasses like it was an Olympic sport. And, about 45 minutes later, just as our guests were walking in the door, we had a fully-completed soup! The lunch ended up being a huge success. The food (against all odds) turned out well, but the best part about the meal was spending it with all of the people who have made my two months here magical. I’m so sad that I only have one more week in Guatemala, but the lunch reminded me that the connections I’ve made here will last a lifetime.  

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[post_title] => FEATURED INDEPENDENT SPRING EXPERIENCE REFLECTION: “SUNDAY LUNCH” [post_excerpt] => Guatemala ISE student, Zoe Davidson, reflects on the time she cooked a meal for her homestay family and everything seemed to go wrong. But in the end, "the best part about the meal was spending it with all of the people who have made my two months here magical. I’m so sad that I only have one more week in Guatemala, but the lunch reminded me that the connections I’ve made here will last a lifetime." [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => featured-independent-spring-experience-refection-sunday-lunch [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-03-09 14:20:33 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-03-09 20:20:33 [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] => 638 [name] => From the Field [slug] => from_the_field [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 638 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [parent] => 0 [count] => 62 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 4 [cat_ID] => 638 [category_count] => 62 [category_description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [cat_name] => From the Field [category_nicename] => from_the_field [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/from_the_field/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 675 [name] => The Dragons Journal [slug] => thedragonsjournal [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 675 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [parent] => 0 [count] => 21 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 21 [category_description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [cat_name] => The Dragons Journal [category_nicename] => thedragonsjournal [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/thedragonsjournal/ ) [2] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 646 [name] => Alumni Spotlight [slug] => alumni_spotlight [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 646 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [parent] => 0 [count] => 42 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 10 [cat_ID] => 646 [category_count] => 42 [category_description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [cat_name] => Alumni Spotlight [category_nicename] => alumni_spotlight [category_parent] => 0 ) ) [category_links] => From the Field, The Dragons Journal ... )
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    [post_date] => 2019-09-12 12:45:55
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    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_155381" align="alignnone" width="4512"] PHOTO: Fernanda and her homestay mom, Ouleye; dad, Ibou; and brothers, Sidikh, Rassoul, and baby Mame Cheikh.[/caption]

WORDS by FERNANDA ROMO

SENEGAL PRINCETON BRIDGE YEAR PROGRAM ALUMNI

Mungi dox literally translates to, “it walks.” In conversation, however, one might use it to mean “it’s going,” “it’s fine,” or “it works.” When I set out to write this piece, with the prompt of mungi dox in mind, I immediately thought about my family. After all, I’m living in a homestay with a total of nineteen people (I think), including three married couples and twelve kids of various ages. This is naturally bound to be a bit chaotic and might seem like a headache for people more habituated to smaller “nuclear family” living arrangements. For this reason, writing about how my household functions, how everyone pitches in, and how living in these big families actually works was sure to be a crowd pleaser. Wouldn’t everyone love to hear the conclusions I’d drawn about African family structures from my experience living with the Mbayes?
“Wouldn’t everyone love to hear the conclusions I’d drawn about African family structures from my experience living with the Mbayes? Regrettably, as appealing as that piece might sound, I’m not writing it.”
Regrettably, as appealing as that piece might sound, I’m not writing it. Mainly, because I can’t. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that the chances of me being able to provide a fair analysis of this family’s dynamics are about as high as those of snowfall in Dakar. The mere idea of scrutinizing the way these people behave within their family, just to arrive to the conclusion that it surprisingly “works,” feels foolish at best and condescending at worst. However, my impending erroneousness is not the only thing holding me back from writing about the people in Senegal who are so dear to me. For a long time I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why I felt a tinge of discomfort every time I thought about turning the people I consider family into the subjects of my writing, especially when said writing is directed to Western audiences. I remember once, I considered blogging about Mame Maty, my instructor Babacar’s 10-year-old daughter, who I love like crazy and who is definitely one of the people closest to my heart here. I ended up deciding against it, because something about it wasn’t sitting right with me. And even though I didn’t entirely understand why, one thought kept popping up in my mind: she’s my friend. That’s also what I feel today when trying to make myself produce some insightful conclusions or lessons gathered from analyzing my homestay family. I don’t want to “report back” on what Senegalese families are like, both because it’s not possible to do so accurately, and because these people are, first of all, my family. Not subjects of study, not sources of all-encompassing revelations, but people who treat me like a daughter, a sister, a friend. And just as I wouldn’t write up a couple pages about my best friend back in Mexico and send it to an audience of people who she will never meet and who will form their entire perception of who she is based on my words, I don’t particularly feel inclined to do that here. And maybe that’s a good thing. After all, I think the main reason why the Bridge Year Program works, and is so incredibly meaningful, is because of relationships. The moments when I have felt that my time here has the greatest value have all been centered around having strong bonds, familiarity, and overall friendship with people. It’s really beautiful to think about how my Senegalese family and I genuinely care about each other, and how our lives have been enriched as a result. So I guess if you asked me, “Does it work to put a random toubab1 in the middle of a household in Dakar, Senegal, and have her be a part of this family for a few months?” I’d say yeah, mungi dox.

FERNANDA ROMO left her home in Mexico in 2017 to travel to Senegal for nine months as part of Dragons Princeton Bridge Year Program. She is currently a student at Princeton University, where she spends her days looking at pictures of her time in Dakar at 3am, facetiming her five dogs, and going on rants about the fake Mexican food in the dining halls.

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[post_title] => I’m (not) Writing About My Family - An Essay by Fernanda Romo [post_excerpt] => "Wouldn’t everyone love to hear the conclusions I’d drawn about African family structures from my experience living with the Mbayes? Regrettably, as appealing as that piece might sound, I’m not writing it.” [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => im-not-writing-about-my-family-an-essay-by-fernanda-romo [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-10-17 09:16:15 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-10-17 15:16:15 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw [categories] => Array ( [0] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 638 [name] => From the Field [slug] => from_the_field [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 638 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [parent] => 0 [count] => 62 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 4 [cat_ID] => 638 [category_count] => 62 [category_description] => Featured Yaks, Reflections, Quotes, Photo Spreads and Videos from the Four Corners. [cat_name] => From the Field [category_nicename] => from_the_field [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/from_the_field/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 675 [name] => The Dragons Journal [slug] => thedragonsjournal [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 675 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [parent] => 0 [count] => 21 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 21 [category_description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [cat_name] => The Dragons Journal [category_nicename] => thedragonsjournal [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/thedragonsjournal/ ) [2] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 646 [name] => Alumni Spotlight [slug] => alumni_spotlight [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 646 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [parent] => 0 [count] => 42 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 10 [cat_ID] => 646 [category_count] => 42 [category_description] => Featured Student Alumni and their projects/organizations/visions. [cat_name] => Alumni Spotlight [category_nicename] => alumni_spotlight [category_parent] => 0 ) ) [category_links] => From the Field, The Dragons Journal ... )
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Twenty-two years ago I walked into a small town in southwestern China near dusk and realized I was in trouble. I had the equivalent of just a few dollars left in my wallet and the only bank in town was closed (there weren’t any ATMs). I had no place to stay for the night, no ticket onward, and knew no one in the area. Like most people at that time, I didn’t have a cell phone—even if I had, I’m not sure who I would have called. I stood on the steps of the (closed) bank, one of the larger buildings in town, and watched the warm, late spring sun sinking lower in the sky, considering my options and feeling angry with myself. I was also exhausted and hungry after walking all day. This wasn’t my first brush with the consequences of failing to think ahead (nor would it be my last!) but in a completely unfamiliar place, in a country then still very new to me, with Chinese language skills that might be generously described as “intermediate”, traveling solo… I was feeling both stuck and stupid. The days and weeks leading up to this moment had been some of the happiest and most exciting of my life. I’d taken a year off from college and worked all fall so that I could join a study program in China in the spring. This kind of travel, which was never in the cards for my family growing up, was something I’d always dreamed of. To explain why, I have to tell another story first… WHEN I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD... The town where I grew up sponsored a group of Cambodian refugees who had fled the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge. One of these refugees, a boy a couple of years older than me, named Kiri, became my friend, and something like an idol. Kiri’s life experiences were different from mine in pretty much every way. I grew up in small college towns in New England where life was mostly quiet and peaceful. Kiri’s family had all been killed in the chaos that enveloped Cambodia at that time and he fled with other children through the jungle, arriving eventually in a refugee camp before coming to the US. Kiri’s childhood experiences left him with scars I couldn’t see, but had some sense of, even as a kid. His experiences also left him with great survival skills—including what, to my seven-year old ears, was a knockout sense of humor. Kiri was still learning English, and one day when he was over at my house, he discovered the power of the phrase, “never mind.” From that moment on, every time Kiri and I needed a boost of extra entertainment as we played upstairs, Kiri would call to my mother downstairs. “Hey, Susan?” “Yes, Kiri?” my mom would answer knowingly. “Never mind!” (cue cascade of two boys laughing). My mom was very patient. Kiri also had concrete survival skills as a result of the time he spent escaping war in the wilderness. One day, Kiri came with my family for a walk in the woods and he and I went down to a stream below the path. I watched him pull a live fish, about six inches long, out of the stream with his bare hands. From that moment on, I did everything I could to emulate Kiri. Kiri had a habit of carrying photos around with him inside his t-shirt, “close to the heart.” One was of his parents. Another was of a tank. After he showed me the photos, I asked my parents for some photos to put inside my t-shirt. Through Kiri, I got to know other kids and families in the Cambodian refugee community in our town. Although I wouldn’t have been able to explain it quite this way at the time, I began to fall in love with people and things that were different from those I knew. I began to wonder about life in places far away from home. I began to dream about seeing the world. So, many years later, when Chinese was introduced as a language option at my high school (a rare opportunity at a public high school in 1991), I jumped at the opportunity. I loved languages, but even more so, I loved the idea of being able to communicate with people whose lives and cultures were profoundly different from mine. Eventually, in the spring of my junior year in college, I landed in China’s Yunnan Province—a place that felt to me like a wonderland: more than 30 different ethnic groups, biodiversity with ecosystems ranging from snowy mountains higher than any I’d ever seen to dense tropical rainforests, a long list of religious traditions, foods as familiar as fried potatoes and as unfamiliar as roasted cicadas. I was in paradise. The culmination of my semester was a month-long “independent project.” Working with my program advisor, I set out to follow the Mekong River along its entire path through Yunnan, from the Tibetan region of Kham in the northwestern corner of the province, downstream and south through ethnically Hui, Lisu, Pumi, Yi, Naxi, Bai, Wa, Dai (and the list goes on) areas to Xishuangbanna, bordering Myanmar and Laos. Carrying letters of introduction that I hoped would allow me to enter many counties then closed to foreign travelers, and cartons of cigarettes needed to win over skeptical local officials, I set out with the goal of covering as much of the route as I could by foot—a goal I soon realized was totally unrealistic given the distance I had to cover and the month I had available. Walking is still my favorite mode of transport. It’s the only way to move from one place to another slowly enough to really see things. It’s also the only way to move that leaves you with no choice but to stop and talk with people along the way. I discovered quickly how friendly, hospitable, and curious the people of rural Yunnan were, often stopping to offer me rides, and inviting me into their homes for meals. In the Meili Snow Mountains of northwestern Yunnan, a family pulled me into their shack near the road to offer me a small piece of fried fat and a plastic cup of orange soda—the most luxurious things they had to offer. In another town, I asked a girl on the street how to get to the post office. She looked at the items I wanted to mail back to my advisor’s home in Kunming and told me I’d need to have a container to mail them in. She then brought me back to her family’s home for lunch, found an empty grain sack, and carefully packed all of my things in it. I repeated all of the ways I knew to say “thank you” as she stitched up the sack and walked with me to the post office. When we arrived, she helped me navigate the maze of counters, fees, forms, and surly officers with red stamps that run the engine of the world’s oldest bureaucracy. Again and again, I was stunned by the level of hospitality and generosity I was shown. WHICH BRINGS ME BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THIS STORY... As I arrived in a small town, at the end of a long day’s walk with no money, not even enough for a meal, and no place to stay. As I stood there on the steps of the bank, a man walked over to me. “Hello, can I help you with something?” he asked, “Are you lost?” Startled out of my own thoughts of how foolish I’d been, I explained I was looking for a bank. “This is the only bank around. It’s closed now.” “Too bad,” I said, then, thinking of another priority, “Can you recommend any very cheap places to eat nearby?” The stranger asked me more questions and I eventually began to explain my predicament, but before I had even finished, he opened his wallet and pulled out 100 kuai—at the time equal to about twelve US dollars, and more than enough for a room and a meal. He insisted I take the money. “Chinese people are hospitable,” he said, “and you are our guest from another country. I know you would help me if I were a visitor to your country.” I wondered if that last part was true. I hoped so. I wasn’t sure. Unfortunately, I didn’t think too many foreign young men in small towns in the US were approached by strangers offering assistance and cash. Then, the stranger spoke a Chinese phrase that was, by then, starting to become familiar to me. “It’s what I should do,” he said. I was tired, stress had been building, and I was choked up as he handed me the 100 kuai bill. I asked him to write down his address and promised (though he said it wasn’t necessary) to send him the money he’d given me once I could get to a bank. I thanked him profusely. I imagined how much better things might be for people everywhere if we all did what we should do. WHAT’S THE MORAL OF THIS STORY? I suppose the obvious answer might be: plan in advance and be prepared. Yawn. You’ve heard that before. If I hadn’t set out to “walk the Mekong in a month” (I mean, come on, really, kid?) I might not have been gifted the realization of my own incompetence and lack of knowledge, or the truth of my reliance on others. I never would have met that stranger who showed me such pure generosity, or been faced with the uncomfortable question: Would this ever happen where I’m from? If I hadn’t overshot in what I thought I could do, I wouldn’t have felt what I did in the moment that stranger said, “It’s what I should do.” And that’s a moment that I have always remembered. I remembered it through what turned into eleven years of living in China, and a lifetime of involvement with China and with Chinese people. I remember it, sometimes, when I send groups of students to the high mountains and deep river valleys of Yunnan Province, and to live with homestay families in villages just a short distance away from that small town and the steps of its only bank (no doubt, there are many banks and ATMs there by now!). These days, it’s my job to help those students and their instructors prepare, and plan, and manage budgets, and risk, and logistics. But it’s my wish that they’ll truly challenge themselves, and that sometimes things will go wrong, and that when things do go wrong, they may learn something powerful and unexpected. AND WITH THAT IN MIND... I want to turn this story back in a circle. It has been many, many years since I lost touch with my friend Kiri. My family moved away from that town in New England when I was seven years old. As I wrote out this story, I had the inclination to do something that wasn’t an option back then: I Googled Kiri. Kiri is not his real name. His real name is unique enough that on my first search, to my astonishment, I found a news story about him. It turns out life got complicated for Kiri as he got older and he became involved in criminal activities. His actions weren’t violent, but drug-related crimes led to years in jail. As a result of changing policies and more hostile attitudes towards immigration in the US, Kiri was deported. After growing up, marrying, and having children in this country, he was sent back to the country from which he had originally fled as a refugee. I felt tears come to my eyes as I read about Kiri being separated from his children in the US, and sent back to a place where he had no living family members, a place now as unfamiliar to him as the US had been when he first arrived. Because of what I learned, the process of writing this story down took a different turn for me. Since I learned about Kiri’s deportation, I’ve been trying to get more information, and to contact Kiri, trying to find out if there’s anything I can do to help. In short, I’m trying to return some of the favors the world has granted me and to figure out what I should do.

  JODY SEGAR is China Programs Director at Where There Be Dragons. He wants readers to know that he did get around to mailing that stranger’s money back, plus extra. (PHOTOS: Northwestern Yunnan, 1996)    
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[caption id="attachment_155057" align="aligncenter" width="555"] Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Andes & Amazon Semester.[/caption]

Overheard on the Yak Board (Bolivia Educator Course):

“The trip challenged my life, my choices, and cemented my commitment to teach my students and make relevant their own dependence on this world of ours, help them realize their privilege, and help them feel empowered to take action for the health of our environment. During my trip to Bolivia, climate change and its effects was not an abstract idea people talked about, it was a lived reality that people had to respond and adapt to. Bolivians are living with the effects of climate change now. They are well aware of how their lives are constantly changing to adapt to new weather patterns. My host “mom”, Rosa told me of smaller crop sizes, and lower yields which directly impact her ability to provide for her son. Pablo, a glaciologist shared his research with us and told us about glacier melts and retreats, and the fact that some communities that depend on the glaciers for their water will fail to survive if the melting rates continue. I learned that a country that relies on mining so heavily as Bolivia does, has irrevocable impact both socially and environmentally. With such tangible evidence of the impact of climate change on real people’s lives, it was hard not to be despairing. I learned that societies are complex and inextricably linked to the place they live in, and how we go about caring for our little piece of the world matters.”

- WORDS by MARIA ELENA DERRIEN, in her essay, Here Are My Thoughts

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    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_154948" align="alignnone" width="1318"] Photo by CHELSEA FERRELL, BHUTAN: A farm and house built in traditional Bhutanese architecture located outside of the UWICER environmental institute and research station outside Jakar, Bhutan.[/caption]

 

WORDS & IMAGE CHELSEA FERRELL, INSTRUCTOR

LOCATION: BHUTAN

If you say you’re going to Bhutan, be prepared for a wide range of reactions. From the skeptical bank-teller (“Hold on, let me make sure that’s a country before I authorize your credit card.”) to the confused listener (“Oh, that’s in Africa, right?”) to the awestruck fan (“Isn’t that the happiest country in the world?!”). While you can’t anticipate others’ reactions, one thing is certain: Once introduced to the country, the people, and the concepts of Bhutan, your perspective won’t be the same.
By virtue of merely being in the country, you are incorporated into the community and your presence alone makes you a valued member.
In June 2018, after months of planning and relationship building, Dragons launched its inaugural summer program in Bhutan. For someone familiar with the country, it’s impossible to miss the many ways Bhutan and Dragons are alike. Both are small. (Bhutan only has a population of 750,000 people!) They are both decidedly independent and not afraid to be different. And both Bhutan and Dragons are loyal to their principles, regardless of the climate among peers. While many countries focus solely on capitalism and generating wealth, Bhutan uses Buddhist ethics in its governance and economic policies. As one of the world’s newer democracies, Bhutan is often cited as an example of a country that is doing development differently. Bhutan has managed to adapt to modern life even while preserving its heritage and remaining faithful to core values. But my favorite similarity between Bhutan and Dragons is the informal, dependable, tight-knit communities entwined throughout each. Bhutan often feels like a neighborhood block party that might take place on a street in the US suburbs. You meet people you’ve never seen but somehow, they seem to know all about you. By virtue of merely being in the country, you are incorporated into the community and your presence alone makes you a valued member. I’ve felt this same way about the Dragons community. No matter where I go in the world, I can be sure of one thing: I’ll likely run into a Dragons instructor, student, or alum.

CHALLENGING DEFINITIONS OF HAPPINESS

My personal journey in understanding happiness in a Bhutanese context began in 2012, when, as a graduate student of Social Anthropology and Tibetan language, I spent a month traversing the country. At that point in my life, I’d lived in several countries and was slipping towards the feeling like I had nothing new to learn or experience in another culture.
The remoteness of the country and the lack of Western ideologies enforced a need to unplug...
A few days in Bhutan, however, was enough to jerk me out of the cocoon that I’d formed around myself. The remoteness of the country and the lack of Western ideologies enforced a need to unplug and naturally created an environment that led me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew.

Bhutan called into question some of the core assumptions in the West so fundamental to our thinking that many of us no longer recognize them as value tradeoffs, such as, “bigger is better” and “nature should be commodified.” My time in Bhutan also led to a recognition of the values of silence, slowness, and a lack of instantaneous gratification. It led me to see the value of technology should not be blindly assumed, but evaluated in this context.

BUILDING THE PROGRAM IN BHUTAN

In planning the Dragons program in Bhutan, we incorporated Bhutanese and Dragons ideals not only into program themes, but into the methodology of how we set up the program. During each step of program development, we were conscious of our impact, securing local input through joint brainstorming sessions and attempts to find service activities that would provide value to the communities with whom we worked.
Our FOI allowed us to explore the factors that contribute to happiness, including the use and value of natural space, community life, and the ways that happiness is embedded in and practiced through spiritual philosophies and traditions.
Seeking an alternative way to chart the country’s progress, Bhutan became famous for coining the idea of Gross National Happiness as an alternative measurement to Gross National Product. The country is especially unique because of its variety of public policies related to environmental conservation and cultural preservation. The Focus of Inquiry (FOI) for each trip is designed to look at themes that will be woven through all program activities and experiences. As we formed the program, we also discussed possible program themes, both with one another and with Bhutanese friends and former colleagues. These conversations often circled back to the idea of happiness because with Bhutanese and Buddhist lens, happiness is often viewed differently than it is in the US. Our FOI allowed us to explore the factors that contribute to happiness, including the use and value of natural space, community life, and the ways that happiness is embedded in and practiced through spiritual philosophies and traditions. The FOI was designed to encourage students to look closely at their own lives and experiences, and to explore their tacit assumptions about happiness.

COMMUNITY IS EVERYTHING

In Bhutan, connections stretch out like long games of telephone, particularly as families move between regions with seasonal change. Visualizing how community connections are fostered is best illustrated by picturing a road trip across Bhutan during the summer. Monsoon rains, landslides, and mud on the national highway might cause roadblocks that can last anywhere from hours to days. In the West, this time might be written off as “wasted,” a detriment to productivity. However, in Bhutan, these roadblocks often become social gatherings, a time to meet new people and sip hot butter tea together while watching bulldozers lift massive stones and level out dirt. What seems an annoyance can morph into the best part of the trip. Bhutan is remarkable in this way: It’s a country so small and unplugged that social interactions naturally arise from an unavoidably interwoven community.
What seems an annoyance can morph into the best part of the trip.
With all this in mind, what could be more fitting than Dragons offering a program in a country whose name in the native language literally translates to the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”?

MAYBE THE BEST WAY TO SUM IT ALL UP IS WITH QUOTES FROM THE SUMMER 2018 BHUTAN PROGRAM YAK BOARD:

“Life is very different here. The day starts just before 6:00am in the morning. Everyone works together to make breakfast. It is very much unlike the United States. Back home we usually wake up, eat, and go about our day on our own. Here, they all eat together and get along extremely well. There is a sense that even when they are not talking, they are having a conversation." –Jake Zivkovic, Student

“Bhutan is a small country, but it contains such a vast wealth of history and culture—its diverse peoples, geography, religious traditions, and cuisine are all so colorful and full of spice! Traveling in places like this is difficult, surreal, heavenly, overwhelming, and everything in between all at once.” –Nick Gredin, Instructor

“Some of the first icebreakers my homestay brother had in store for us: ‘Have you been following the World Cup?’ and ‘What is your favorite soccer league team?’ When I went to play later with the Bhutanese teenagers and young adults, they seemed to be shocked when I could barely dribble without tripping over myself.” –Jack Holmgren, Student

“I’m convinced of how special this country is and would like to proclaim myself as Bhutan’s official biggest fan. Why am I so confident about that statement? Almost anybody would feel the same if they could come smell the air and listen to the birds. As I sit in the back of the farmhouse where we are taking residency, I can’t help but stop writing to look at the vast rice fields and clouds gently rolling over the mountains.[...] This may be the quietest place I’ve ever experienced...” –Raif Wexler, Student

“Every meal that we have had at our homestay has concluded the same way; with our homestay mother and grandmother commenting on how little we eat. While attempting to plop more food on our plates, they say that if we don’t eat we will get thin and also point out that we don’t want an empty stomach because that will make us miss our parents.” –Delaney Bashaw, Student

CHELSEA FERRELL works in Global Operations at Tufts University. She received her MA in Social Anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and her BA in Political Science from Swarthmore College. She has led academic and service programs in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Colorado and presented at national and regional conferences on topics of Himalayan Studies and University Risk Management. She believes that intercultural community experiences are powerful sites of personal transformation.
 

P.S. Head over to see the itinerary and details of our new Gap Year Bhutan Semester!

(This essay was featured in the 2019 issue of The Dragons Journal. We encourage you to visit our archive of issues and essays or even submit a piece for publication in the next issue!)
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THE DRAGONS JOURNAL

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

The Dragons Journal Mission & Description: The Dragons Journal is a compilation of stories, ideas, and experiences of our participants, alum, educators and international colleagues, and communities. It is a publication of Where There Be Dragons, an experiential education organization dedicated to nurturing meaningful intercultural relations through immersive travel. The Dragons Journal has a circulation of about 12k copies and is mailed out to alum, schools, counselors, new participants, and more. Content is often recirculated by blog and social media. The Journal is also tied directly into Dragons values of exploring the full spectrum of human experiences, amplifying marginalized perspectives,  and planting the seeds of a more just, compassionate, and equitable society and future. Example: Here's a digital version of the 2019 issue. What We’re Seeking:  In each publication we try to represent all of Dragons programming (Student, Adult, Educator/Partnership), a range of regional areas, and a diversity of voices. We invite anyone from within Dragons community (alumni, staff, participants, community hosts, admin, etc.)  to submit all forms of literary essays and sub-genres of creative nonfiction. This includes:
  • personal essays
  • Interviews
  • co-authored essays
  • lyrical essays
  • flash (super short) essays
  • research-based essays
  • literary journalism
  • travelogues
  • poems  & lyrics
  • photo essays
  • true stories
  • experimental forms:  lists, step-by-steps, re-definitions, and hermit crab essays
  • Submission or nomination of Yaks also encouraged!
What We’re Especially Seeking: Co-authored pieces that demonstrate a collaborative approach to sharing multiple perspectives;  stories that feature voices and perspectives not often heard or that don’t normally have access to being heard; value-based essays. Examples:
  • A collaborative essay that tackles one issue/subject from the perspective of student, hosting community member, instructor and/or other.
  • A student interview of her homestay sister and/or vice versa.
  • A homestay mother conversation with a student’s mother at home.  
  • A photo essay documenting the day of an NGO worker or ISP mentor.
  • An essay written on any subject in tandem between  instructors of different citizenships.
  • ANYTHING! We’re simply encourage creative thinking and collaboration!
Submission Guidelines: The Dragons Journal typically features 1-pg and 2-pages essays between roughly 600-1500 words.  We sometimes publish one longer essay of up to 2,500 words. Typically the editorial process involves cutting copy, so it’s okay to submit essays between 600-3,000 words. If selected for publication, there will be an editorial revision process and a request for a writer byline and supplemental hi-resolution photos (if existing). The Dragons Journal Committee will finalize the selection for each print issue. Timeline: Essays submitted by June 1st  will get priority consideration for publication in the next year’s issue. But we accept submissions all year long and might also publish essays on Dragons Blog, via our Social Channels, or elsewhere. How to Submit:  Questions, proposals, nominations, and submissions can be emailed to [email protected]. [post_title] => The Dragons Journal: CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS [post_excerpt] => We invite anyone from within Dragons community (alumni, staff, participants, community hosts, admin, etc.) to submit all forms of literary essays and sub-genres of creative nonfiction... [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => the-dragons-journal-call-for-submissions [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-11 12:11:21 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-11 18:11:21 [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] => 675 [name] => The Dragons Journal [slug] => thedragonsjournal [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 675 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [parent] => 0 [count] => 21 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 21 [category_description] => Archives of The Dragons Journal (formerly known as the Map's Edge Newsletter). [cat_name] => The Dragons Journal [category_nicename] => thedragonsjournal [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/thedragonsjournal/ ) [1] => WP_Term Object ( [term_id] => 651 [name] => Announcements [slug] => announcements [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 651 [taxonomy] => category [description] => Announcements on: New Programs, Surveys, Jobs/Internships, Contests, & Behind-the-Scenes Activity. [parent] => 0 [count] => 56 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 14 [cat_ID] => 651 [category_count] => 56 [category_description] => Announcements on: New Programs, Surveys, Jobs/Internships, Contests, & Behind-the-Scenes Activity. [cat_name] => Announcements [category_nicename] => announcements [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/announcements/ ) ) [category_links] => The Dragons Journal, Announcements )
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