Andes & Amazon Semester

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The Dragons Journal

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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

[post_title] => Overheard on the Yak Board (from the Bolivia Educator Course) [post_excerpt] => "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..." [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => overheard-on-the-yak-board-from-the-bolivia-educator-course [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-17 18:23:54 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-18 00:23:54 [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] => 50 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 4 [cat_ID] => 638 [category_count] => 50 [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] => 18 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 18 [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] => 28 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 10 [cat_ID] => 646 [category_count] => 28 [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_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 christina@wheretherebedragons.com. [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] => 18 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 18 [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] => 42 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 14 [cat_ID] => 651 [category_count] => 42 [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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    [post_content] => If you did not get your 2019 issue of The Dragons Journal in the mail, we've got a digital version for you!

The Dragons Journal

Community I Stories I Perspectives

The Dragons Journal is a compilation of stories and images that reflect the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of our participants, educators, and international colleagues and communities. It’s a publication of Where There Be Dragons, an experiential education organization dedicated to nurturing meaningful intercultural relationships through immersive travel.

Excerpts are below, or feel free to jump fully in....

Page Six | 6 |
 SENEGAL
-------
Princeton Bridge Year: I'm (not) Writing About My Family
BY FERNANDA ROMO, STUDENT
"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? 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."
Page Seven | 7 |
 GLOBAL
-------
Dealing with Being a Privileged Foreigner
BY DANIELA PAPI-THORNTON & CLAIRE BENNETT,
INSTRUCTORS
"Volunteers must avoid assuming that a stint as a volunteer learning from and supporting the communities in which they work enables them to truly understand the challenges faced by people in those communities. You may be able to gain awareness, get angry about the root causes of poverty, and cultivate empathy, but that umbilical cord, which acts as a safety net, means you will not be able to experience the effects of such problems in the same way. Andrea Foster, who volunteered in Guyana says, "Our economic background makes it hard for us to understand the degree of financial struggle most people in developing nations endure. Volunteers eventually come to realize how fortunate we are and usually how spoiled we are." The most important advice we have about the umbilical cord of privilege is to be aware it exists and realize others can see it, even when you cannot."
Page Twenty | 20 |
 CHINA
-------
When Things Go Wrong
BY JODY SEGAR, CHINA PROGRAM DIRECTOR
"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."
Page Twenty Four | 24 |
 NEPAL
-------
How to: Walk
BY AUSTIN SCHMIDT, STUDENT
"THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE: Some of the bridges here contribute to moments of intense stress. You take the first step onto the wooden planks, alone because the bridge can support only one person (or maybe you're just the group guinea pig). The bridge is long and narrow and hundreds of feet above a river rushing down valley. The bridge swings with every step and the wooden planks creak and seem just about ready to collapse. You grasp the side of the bridge, knuckles turning white, and walk slowly, hoping your feet don't slip off the side. You wonder how it seems that you have been on this bridge forever yet you aren't even halfway across. For a second, you look up and all the fear leaves. In its place, comes amazement of your small presence among the tallest mountains in the world."

You can read more essays from past issues of the The Dragons Journal (formerly known as The Map's Edge) or even submit a piece to be featured in our next issue by sending an email to christina@wheretherebedragons.com.

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    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_153975" align="alignnone" width="1080"] Photo by Christy Sommers, Madagascar Summer Program.[/caption]

 

ESSAY BY MICAH LeMASTERS

Follow the trade winds southwest out of Indonesia, keeping the Indian subcontinent to starboard, and you will eventually find Madagascar, adrift, at the edge of the Indian Ocean. It floats alone, a dust-red crescent moon, stretching nearly a thousand miles from north to south. Traveling from the central highlands to the coast, one is never quite sure whether the massive island is drifting slowly westward toward Mozambique or slipping slowly south and away from the great African continent. It is known for its astonishing endemic flora and fauna and, of course, as the only place on earth where lemurs live in their natural state.
If you want to travel to Madagascar to “save the lemurs” then you should have come 20 years ago.
If you know anything about Madagascar, it probably has something to do with the eponymous animated film series or, more likely, the lemurs—the most endangered primates on the planet and the principle force driving the Malagasy tourism industry. The situation for these prosimians is so dire that scientists estimate up to ninety percent of the population could face extinction within the next 20 to 25 years. If you want to travel to Madagascar to “save the lemurs” then you should have come 20 years ago. Madagascar has a single digit percentage of its original forest left and that number is shrinking by the day. Generating tourism dollars or publishing spectacular photographs may buy lemurs some time, but it won’t prevent their extinction. The challenge is much greater than a marketing campaign can solve. In order to stave off extinction, Madagascar—a country with a per capita income around $450 dollars, approximately 30 percent less than North Korea—needs to provide viable alternatives to impoverished farmers who have few options to generate a meager subsistence other than clear-cutting forest timber to sell as charcoal.
Unless significant and strong action is taken to stem the upsurge in unsustainable and illegal logging and exploitation of other natural resources, the ultimate risk may be irreversible loss of forest and biodiversity for Madagascar.
According to USAID, “The illegal export of...threatened and endangered species that are found nowhere else on earth will result in the loss of globally renowned biodiversity. Unless significant and strong action is taken to stem the upsurge in unsustainable and illegal logging and exploitation of other natural resources, the ultimate risk may be irreversible loss of forest and biodiversity for Madagascar.” Although Madagascar is listed as the seventh poorest country in the world, the travel and tourism sector contributed $1.16 billion to the economy in 2014, one-sixth of the country’s revenues. Tourism isn’t suffering from a dearth of funds, the people of Madagascar are. The problem is economic inequality. According to the World Bank, 99 percent of Madagascar’s population lives on less than four dollars a day. Poor policy has led to mass poverty, and the resultant desperation has led to the destruction of critical ecosystems.
Tourism isn’t suffering from a dearth of funds, the people of Madagascar are. The problem is economic inequality.
A small cadre of both amateur and professional scientists and intrepid explorers spend thousands of dollars to travel across continents to see the few remaining lemurs that still live free and wild in the dwindling forests of the Red Island. These people touch down in the dense, polluted air of Antananarivo clad in adventure-grade pants, floppy-brimmed hats and vests made to hold rolls of film no one has carried in years. They are whisked from the tiny airport in air-conditioned 4x4 trucks and set off on a small predictable loop that takes them to the few well-known spots where they stand a reasonable chance of seeing what they came to see.
A person traveling to Madagascar for the sole purpose of seeing a lemur runs the risk of missing an incredible number of amazing things
A person traveling to Madagascar for the sole purpose of seeing a lemur runs the risk of missing an incredible number of amazing things that can’t be found in the dwindling forests. They will miss the inviting smell of rice cakes cooking in an early morning market. They will miss the singsong of an excited seller loading unsold bread at the end of a long day or the choke and cough of an ancient taxi running out of fuel on a steep hill. They will miss the way the sun slides across a terraced rice paddy as a day quietly  ends. They will miss the warm embrace of a sincere handshake. They will miss the taste of too much sugar and condensed milk in the tiny cups of coffee sold on the back streets of Antananarivo. They will miss the heavenly taste of freshly fried bananas. They will miss long afternoons chewing sugarcane under the shade of a small tree. They will miss the loom of ancient baobabs in the distance. They will miss the warmth of burnt-rice tea. They will miss the excited laughter of children racing water carts down the dirt-and-stone roads of some forgotten highland village. They will miss the scent of saltwater and the sound of a traveler’s palm bending in the breeze. They will, almost undoubtedly, miss the actual essence of what it is to be someplace as preternatural and wondrous as Madagascar. The problem is that Madagascar’s chances to attract attention, international aid and tourism dwindle with each passing year, and each year fewer lemurs remain in their natural habitat. Sadly, most people who make it to Madagascar end up missing the real beauty of the place. And in missing the beauty, they miss an opportunity to learn about and draw attention to the conditions and factors that are perpetuating irreversible harm to the fragile ecosystems that support the last remaining lemur populations. What the tourist or scientist misses on the preordained journey is tragic because it neglects the human factor. To neglect the human factor is to ignore the agent singularly responsible for the extinction of the lemurs.
To neglect the human factor is to ignore the agent singularly responsible for the extinction of the lemurs.
Madagascar, like so many countries in the world, is infinitely more important and fantastic than we think. As Westerners, we tend to push our own values and expectations onto the places where we travel, and because of this we tend to build a very narrow and unstable idea of what a country should be and what it should offer us. Long before we board the plane, we tend to decide what an experience should look and feel like. We imagine photographs of dirt-stained farmers and coy children half-hidden behind open doorways. It is unfair and unsafe to allow a place as unique and beautiful as Madagascar to be pigeonholed as some sort of tropical bazaar or uncanny nature park. It is home to around twenty-five million of the most welcoming and compassionate people on the planet. People that will, without fail, invite you into their homes to share whatever they have (although often they have next to nothing) with you. A few months back I was traveling from the capital city of Antananarivo to Lac Aloatra, about 250 kilometers away. A friend of mine heard I was going that way and came over to ask if I would get her a couple of fish from the lake and bring them back for her. In making the request she held up her right arm, bent at the elbow like a Hula dancer, to indicate that she wanted a fish at least as big as the distance from her elbow to the tips of her fingers. I agreed to keep an eye out for some nice fish and bring them back for her. While I wasn’t crazy about the idea of hauling any number of fish 15 hours from Ambatodranzaka to Antananarivo without a cooler or ice, I did wander through a couple of fish markets just to see what was available and maybe snap a picture that could serve as a surrogate gift. I immediately noticed a lack of fish and when I asked around I quickly found that the lake had been drying up at an alarming rate and that huge parts of what used to be open, fresh water, were now just a mixture of muck and silt run-off from the deforested hillsides. My friend, who lives just a few hundred kilometers away, had no idea that what once was Madagascar’s biggest freshwater lake and the center of what was referred to as Madagascar’s “rice bowl” is but a glimmer of what it used to be. Similar stories can be told of the beautiful remnants of forest that streak down the eastern coast of the island and the bizarre and unique moonscapes of the western deserts. Madagascar’s unique beauty is slipping away and not many people seem to be noticing. If you ask a Malagasy person what is unique about their country, they will tell you about their beautiful forests and their lemurs. They are proud of those things and rightfully so. However, Madagascar is losing huge amounts of forest every year, most lemur species are near extinction and too few realize it. One of the best things that can be done for the lemurs and forests of Madagascar is to create space and opportunities for people to truly understand and appreciate all of what the island has to offer and not just the few things that we expect it to provide for us.
One of the best things that can be done for the lemurs and forests of Madagascar is to create space and opportunities for people to truly understand and appreciate all of what the island has to offer
Frankly, there is more at stake in Madagascar than the prolonged existence of the lemurs. Madagascar, like a ship caught in a storm, wildly sliding down the face of a churning wave, is jettisoning its last few precious resources in hopes of keeping her bow pointed into the wind and sea. Madagascar, an island in distress, is frantically holding on, tossing endangered species and precious hardwoods overboard in desperation, because there seems to be no other way to stay afloat.  
MICAH LeMASTERS is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar and led the first Dragons summer course in Madagascar. He graduated from IU with an MA in Education. Read more about Micah.
[post_title] => Don't Save the Lemurs. The challenge in Madagascar is much greater. [post_excerpt] => "As Westerners, we tend to push our own values and expectations onto the places where we travel, and because of this we tend to build a very narrow and unstable idea of what a country should be [...] Madagascar, like so many countries in the world, is infinitely more important and fantastic than we think." READ MORE... [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => dont-save-the-lemurs-the-challenge-in-madagascar-is-much-greater [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-10 12:48:32 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-10 19:48:32 [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] => 697 [name] => Dragons Travel Guide [slug] => dragons-travel-guide [term_group] => 0 [term_taxonomy_id] => 697 [taxonomy] => category [description] => [parent] => 0 [count] => 21 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 2 [cat_ID] => 697 [category_count] => 21 [category_description] => [cat_name] => Dragons Travel Guide [category_nicename] => dragons-travel-guide [category_parent] => 0 [link] => https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/news/category/dragons-travel-guide/ ) [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] => 18 [filter] => raw [term_order] => 7 [cat_ID] => 675 [category_count] => 18 [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/ ) ) [category_links] => Dragons Travel Guide, The Dragons Journal )
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WORDS by MOHAMED ARGUINE

IMAGES by SHINO YOSHEN

Years ago, when I was approached to lead Dragons first summer course in Morocco, I found myself considering who should join us on our trek in the High Atlas mountains. I contacted five local guides, all of whom were very fit and had years of experience. Among them was a man named Ben M’barek, and from all I had heard, I was hoping he would accept the invitation. I was looking for one of the guides to provide more than just loading his mule from one campsite to another, setting up tents, and serving food. I was hoping to find someone who would reflect the cultural traditions, ethnic diversity, and character of Morocco—someone who would embody the spirit of our mission and our values.

THE EARLY LIFE OF BEN M’BAREK

Ben M’barek was born in the village of Boutaghrar, a tiny hamlet at the northern edge of the Valley of Roses, on October 1948. His father was one of the first men in the village to immigrate to France in the late 1940s, and he ultimately married 15 women and fathered 33 children, leaving Ben to live with his mother.
Long days of solitude on the mountain slopes appealed to his restless nature. He would come back home tired and reflective, but brimming with his love for poetry and local music.
M’barek’s mother, Touda Hmad Ait El Qaseh, was as committed to her children as she was connected to nature. As a single mother, she would leave home early in the morning to help wealthy families from the village and neighbors in their fields—anyone who needed help collecting grass for their animals and irrigating their crops—for a few vegetables in return. On the best days, she would return home with a cone of sugar for the family. Ben M’barek never forgot the sacrifices his mother made and, as she grew older, he insisted that she live with him and his family. She lived with her son until 2008 when she passed, having lost her sight three years earlier. Ben M’barek never went to school, nor did any of his eight kids. He considered school a luxury reserved for fortunate families, so when he was young he worked in the fields like his mother and found side jobs on construction crews. Later on, he worked on and off as a sheep herder for fourteen years and found it to be more to his liking. Long days of solitude on the mountain slopes appealed to his restless nature. He would come back home tired and reflective, but brimming with his love for poetry and local music.

BEN M’BAREK AS AN ARTIST

Ben M’barek first discovered his passion for poetry and music at the age of seven. He found no greater joy than attending weddings in the village, particularly because he was allowed to perform ahidous, a traditional Berber folk dance from Morocco’s Middle and High Atlas Mountains. Ahidous is, in fact, the only dance or musical style performed at village weddings across the region. People sit in a large square—women on one side and men on another—leaving the center of the square open like a dance floor for anyone who wants to perform. Male drummers sit in rows singing while women repeat the lyrics, and there is a master of ceremony to manage the floor and organize the groups who wish to perform.
word of his talent had spread across the region and it was said that any wedding Ben M’barek attended was likely to be a great success and attract hundreds of people
It was during celebrations like these that Ben M’barek’s skills in poetry, dancing and drumming found a stage. Even at a young age, his remarkable range made him a complete artist in the eyes of many and he started to attract the attention of people in the village. He had a very lively imagination that enabled him to excel in a number of genres—from romance, religion and humor to history and social criticism. Before long, word of his talent had spread across the region and it was said that any wedding Ben M’barek attended was likely to be a great success and attract hundreds of people. In time, Ben M’barek became one of the most famous ahidous performers in the region of Imgoun. He and his band started to receive special invitations to weddings and local gatherings, where they became known by local authorities, who then invited them to perform at national concerts and religious celebrations. These would mark the first time M’barek accepted compensation for his music; until then he had typically refused money because he considered adihous a performance emanating from the pureness of his heart. Music and poetry were what kept him alive and young. In 1986, Hassan II, King of Morocco, made a trip to the remote southeast of the country and passed through Kelaat M’Gouna, the Valley of Roses, and Ben M’barek’s home. His visit was a major event in the region. Local authorities went from village to village searching for the best folk dancers to perform for King Hassan II. Ben M’barek was chosen as a member of a group of eight men and women and told to prepare them for the event. He entertained the king and his retinue throughout the week and the performances were very well received. Afterwards, M’Barek became even more respected among local authorities and they began requesting him for more events. Ben M’barek’s life changed dramatically, and he soon found himself performing at large gatherings and weddings across Ouarzazate province. Invitations started flowing in from other places, much further away, some even from non-Berber speaking regions like Casablanca, Marrakesh and Tangier. Although audiences could not have understood his lyrics or comprehended more than a few words of his language, they were nevertheless drawn to the authenticity and traditional movements of his dances. During these concerts, he would instruct his band to play handmade drums and ask that performers respect a traditional dress code that reflected their Berber identity. In 2009, after the death of his best friend and companion of over three decades, Ben M’barek decided to retire from ahidous. His friend’s name was Ahmed ou Daoud and, next to Ben M’barek, he was considered the second best drummer in the region. Some even considered him more talented in the genres of love and romance. Neither Ben nor Ahmed ever showed any inclination toward competition; on the contrary, they performed together in a harmonious way that was noted and respected by everyone. Whenever they performed together, the event would attract masses of people. Ahmed ou Daoud’s death left Ben M’barek in such despair that he did not perform for over a year. And it took considerable persuasion from supporters before he agreed to perform again. When he returned, he made changes to the group and brought in new performers, incorporating several young male and female dancers. He also decided to be more organized, and Ben began acting as their manager.

BEN M’BAREK AS A MOUNTAIN GUIDE

Boutaghrar, Ben M’barek’s village, is a picturesque canyon-oasis situated at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, where a maze of herders’ paths lead up toward the higher peaks. Working as a trekking guide was a source of income for some in the community, but at the time Ben M’barek had never considered doing such a job. He was blessed with knowledge of the mountain trails and a pleasant personality, but he never attended school nor did he speak any language other than Tamazight, the ancient language of the Berber. Until then, he had spent his days working in the fields, herding and performing poetry and ahidous in the evenings. He wasn’t a mountain guide.
he enjoyed the curiosity of the hikers and their interest to learn more about him
Ben M’barek was approached by a friend who was preparing to take a group of French hikers on a week-long trek through the High Atlas Mountains. Ben M’barek did not know all the little hamlets nor had he memorized the winding paths or best places to camp, but he knew the way and the trip was a life-changing experience. He felt appreciated by the tourists, physically challenged, at peace out in nature and, on a deeper level, he enjoyed the curiosity of the hikers and their interest to learn more about him. Every day after hours of trekking, Ben M’barek would take out his drum, sit on a rock and start playing whatever came to mind. He never thought his songs would attract the attention of tourists who didn’t understand a word of the Tamazight language. But they asked him what the lyrics meant and to teach them how to dance. With the help of one of the main guides, Ben M’barek explained the themes of his poetry. The guide explained that M’Barek was singing about his love for the High Atlas Mountains and that he hoped not to see what might be hiding behind them. The oxygen of his life, its meaning, flows down from the peak of the highest mountain to his soul through the drops of rain and flakes of snow—pure and white as his heart, and imbued with love for this region, which to him is heaven on earth. He also sang about his mother and how he missed her on the days when he was away from the mountains. He wondered how some people who leave Morocco for Europe or the United States deal with homesickness and being absent from their loved ones.

BEN M’BAREK AND HIS DRAGONS LOVE STORY

Dragons first Morocco course in 2007 included a five-day trek starting in Tabant in the Azilal region and to Boutaghrar, my small village at the very northern opening of the Valley of Roses winding around 4,071 meter M’goun, the third tallest mountain in Morocco. Upon the finalizing the itinerary, I called Ben M’barek hoping he would be available to accompany us on Dragons’ first trek in the High Atlas.
He knows the paths and water springs and nomadic herders.
“You’re the first person from Boutaghrar to bring a group of tourists and they aren’t even French!” he said. “I have other offers but since you reached out to me personally, and we are from the same village, I will be happy to go with you. I danced at your mother’s wedding and I know your family very well, so we’ll not talk about compensation. My team and I will help the first international guide from Boutaghrar!” Over the years, Ben M’Barek has become one of the most experienced guides in the region. He knows the paths and water springs and nomadic herders. He is also a committed educator. He has taught Dragons students Berber folk dances. He has taught them poetry. He has shared the essence of his imagination with great love, energy and ambition and became an integral part of the Dragons experience in Morocco. From 2007 through 2010, he led trips with unfailing energy, ingenuity and affection. And when Dragons reopened the Morocco summer course in 2017, Ben M’barek was ready to come back and join us again. After discussing the idea of interviewing him for an article in Dragons newsletter, Ben M’barek opened his heart and house to me, and introduced me to his family with same generosity he has always offered. It was a great honor to be welcomed into his modest home and meet his wonderful family. As lunch was being prepared, Ben M’barek introduced me to his wife, Zahra Alili, who is around 65 years old. He told me that leading Dragons trips has helped him build a better house, buy new furniture and feed his children and grandchildren. His family feels indebted to Dragons for their better life. But I assured him that it is Dragons, and myself, who are indebted to M’Barek for wisdom and hospitality he has provided us.
MOHAMED ARGUINE is a longtime Dragons instructor having worked the first Morocco summer course in 2007. After moving to the US where he received his Master’s from Brandeis in Sustainable International Development, he worked for the Peace Corps and then the United Nations Development Program both in New York City and globally. Mohamed recently led Dragons inaugural Madagascar semester program.
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