Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Travel Adventures & Self-Reflection

I had mixed emotions going into my vacation. I was ready for a break and was looking forward to focusing on myself and my own needs after the long days of travel and the transition to India. The recently diagnosed tendonitis in my shoulder was preventing me from most physical activity, including my tried and true stress relievers of running and yoga. My mind was cluttered and my body tired. But I was also sad to leave the group in Palampur, worried I would miss an important moment or significant breakthrough for the students. I had been with these 19 individuals for over two months now and had not gone a day without being in their presence. Our TBB selected family had grown close and more often than not my days revolved around the students, their needs  and the program. Ten days was a long time to be away and I found comfort in each hug and the well wishes from the group. I had this feeling of uncertainty and sadness as my tuktuk drove away from the IDEX house.

I have never enjoyed  crowded, chaotic transport terminals regardless of the country. As the sun set and the platform got dark, I wandered between parked buses inquiring if I had found the right vehicle.  I would show my faded ticket and ask “Delhi?” hoping someone would take pity and guide me to my seat.  I eventually found an English speaking, fellow searcher and together we determined that our bus had not yet arrived but when it did it would not pull into a slip but rather idle in front. So just before 7pm, I ran to what I could only hope was the correct bus, found my seat and settled in for the 12 hour trip south to New Delhi. As the dark, narrow road snakes its way down the foothills of the Himalayas you can’t help but wonder about how many accidents have occurred or how many cows have been hit. I was grateful for my deeply reclining seat and quickly allowed myself to be calmed by the sway of the bus and the cool air.

We arrived at the Dehli metro and bus terminal just after 5am and the dark, hazy city was just waking up and starting its day. By chance I had been seated by a French woman who has lived into India for the past 25 years and we had spoken briefly during a midnight break. She inquired where I was headed and helped me get to the metro part of the station. Together we boarded a yellow line train and headed into the city. I felt like a small child being prepared to fly unaccompanied to visit family on the other side of the country. She showed me the route map, reminded me of my stop and explained where to go once outside. As we approached my stop I gave her one last wave and offered my thanks before venturing off on my own.

My first task, and last act of duty before flying to Goa, was to take all of our passports and a pile of paperwork to the Thailand Visa Application Center so it could be processed while I was gone. The plan was to pick everything back up on my way back Delhi the following week. The process was long but relatively smooth and I left to find my hotel feeling confident that all would be fine. Unfortunately I had neglected to make a copy of my passport and Indian visa before submitting it and had to frantically call my co-leaders in hopes that our partner organization would be able to find and email me the copies they made so I could check into my hotel. If I hadn’t been confident in our PL team before, their words of support and quick action would have done the job.  I got into my room, bathed and settled down to read or watch a movie quietly hoping that I would have smooth sailing from there. But what would an Emily travel story be without a speed bump or two?

I have determined that the problem is domestic travel regardless of the country. While living on the east coast I had multiple flights delayed, connections missed and spent the night in half a dozen airports. My bags rarely made it back to Wilmington when I did and once, according to the flight tag, my suitcase went through Kazakhstan. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I received an email telling me to call a given number to rebook my flight to Goa the next morning. According to the email and the news stories I found, a plane landing in Surat had hit a buffalo (think water buffalo not bison) and the airport had been closed indefinitely. I can only assume that the plane I would have used the next morning was to come to Delhi through Surat and could not be diverted around. With the help of the amazing concierge at Hotel Star, I was rebooked on a flight the following afternoon and returned to my room to get some sleep. I knew I could now sleep in but woke around 7am to an email informing me that my flight, due to leave at 1:05pm, would now depart at 3:00. Par for the course at this point, I acknowledged the email and went back to sleep.

Agonda Beach
From here my luck improved. I arrived in Goa as the sun was setting, met my prearranged taxi and made the two hour trip out to Agonda Beach. Goa has strong Portuguese influences as it was a Portuguese province for nearly 450 years until it was annexed by India in 1961. Even in the dark, as we wove through rush hour traffic on the narrow roads, I could see that influence in the architecture of the homes and buildings and the number of Catholic churches, schools and hospitals. We eventually got through these more populated areas and entered into the thick, green jungle that seemed the separate the beaches from the city. I was welcomed at Fusion by Sylvia, one of the owners, and shown to my new beach hut home. It was a simple, stilted bamboo structure with a single room containing a full bed and two small bedside tables. Front and back porches provided more sitting space and the attached, outdoor bathroom was stone-floored and roomy.  I ventured out for a late dinner and a celebratory beer before turning in for the night. Setting up and crawling into my mosquito net was reminiscent of the countless nights in The Dombe where I meticulously tucked in the edges of my net to prevent any midnight arachnid companions. I slept like a rock and woke around 8 o’clock as the hut was beginning to get warm. And here starts the routine I settled into for the next five days: reading or Skyping in bed, breakfast at the Fusion restaurant, walking the 200m to the beach, finding  a more quiet spot to set up my towel or settling into a lounge chair, getting some sun or going for a swim, reading, daydreaming, meditating, walking and eventually going back to my hut to clean up for dinner.

My hut
Once I let myself relax and not think about what the students were doing back in Palampur, I found that blissful state of having no responsibilities and no obligations. I could not emerge from my hut until 10am if I didn’t want to or skip lunch to explore huge boulders while the tide was out. I could spend an hour just floating in the warm, salty Indian Ocean or I could stay under an umbrella and read for hours at a time. I could have three mango ice cream bars while walking through town just for the hell of it and consider it lunch because the idea of sitting down in the stifling heat seemed outrageous. I could sit peacefully and meditate on a shaded rock listening to the waves lap against the rocks and crabs scurry across barnacles closed up tight to prevent dessication. I could go hours without speaking to anyone, smiling at those who passed acknowledging their presence but not fully engaging. I was finding a way to untangle the mess of thoughts and emotions in my head, to release the tension in my shoulders and lower back and to better my ability to think about absolutely nothing.

cows on the beach
The days slipped by slowly and soon it was time to think about repacking my few belongings and preparing to head back to Delhi. I went for one last swim Thursday morning, one last chapter read in the sun, said my goodbyes to new friends and set off for the Goa airport. My return trip was uneventful, my hotel air conditioned and cozy and my sleep peaceful. I was in a completely different head space now and my time in Delhi was dramatically more simple. I remembered the metro route to the Visa Application Center and spent just 20 minutes there collecting and organizing the passports compared to the nearly 2 ½ stressful hours I spent on the front end. I relaxed in Delhi’s Central Park amongst young, Indian couples flirting in the shade, groups of young men horsing around on the hill and wandering tourists. I walked through a street market, dodged the Delhi traffic and enjoyed a cold coke on the corner before going back underground to make my way to the bus station. I found a corner in the terrace of the terminal to wait the three hours until my bus left and read and wrote a couple emails. And then , at 7:20pm, I boarded my bus to return to Palampur. I felt some of those responsibilities and obligations begin to sneak back into the front of my brain but I simply acknowledged them and let them go. Before I knew it I would be back at the IDEX house worrying about seminars, accounting and students’ GI issues but for another 12 hours I could simply be present for myself and sleep as my bus snaked its ways back up towards the towering Himalayas.

I'm Alive - Kenny Chesney & Dave Matthews 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why are you a part of TBB?

I wrote this during our TBB staff training back in August to the prompt of "Why are you a part of TBB?"...

I’m here because I care about students. I’m here because I want students to be challenged, allowed to explore and encouraged to think critically. I’m here because Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB) facilitates an experience that I wish I had had and now I want as many students as possible to have the opportunity.

I always enjoyed school, learning and growing, but I never thought of myself as a teacher. A big part was probably my fear of public speaking, of getting up in front of a group and allowing myself to be vulnerable. But graduate school threw me into that role and I was suddenly a teacher and a facilitator – and I actually enjoyed it. I loved the interaction with students and delighted in seeing the light bulb go on when they truly grasped a new concept. Transitioning to the Don Lee Center and trying my hand in true experiential education was a game changer. Now I could pass on some knowledge without standing in front lecturing. Getting students personally involved in their education creates a more worthwhile experience for everyone. Teaching in Mozambique was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only was I forced in front of a group but I was expected to lecture in a brand new language. My open teaching style fell flat as students had never experienced it before and had never been challenged to think critically or ask questions. I struggled and I fought and I cried but I grew as an educator and as a student. ThinkImpact finally gave me the opportunity to facilitate, to discuss and to encourage students to think in new ways and really take control of their own learning. TBB does all that and more. Seek questions, not necessarily answers. Leap outside your comfort zone as a student, as a young person, as a human. Experience the lesson first hand. Learn how to process difficult and emotional situations. Figure out how you can change the world. And have fun doing it.

That is why I am here. That is why I am a part of TBB.

Starting Again

Everyone enjoyed South Africa. We climbed beautiful rocky cliffs, swam in crystal blue waters, witnessed National Geographic type moments in nature and pushed ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically. After my time in Mozambique I feel a deep connection to Southern Africa and it was good to return. I feel comfortable there – like part of me was coming home. But comfort was also a problem. Life in “White Plett” was not all that different from life in the states and it brought out some character traits that most students had hope to leave behind in high school. So as we approached the end of October everyone was ready to go.
But India is another world. The excitement of new sites and food mingled with the uneasiness of culture shock and the strains of a complex language barrier. Our group, recently divided by social cliques and dirty looks, was bonding over curry and roti, awkward public toilets and exhaustion. The long days of travel allowed for conversations with different members of the group and forced the students to reach out for support. India is the fresh start we were all looking for.
My "Mento" Group
Placed at the foot of the Himalayas, Palampur is vastly different from Plettenberg Bay and it lends itself quite easily to meditation and self-reflection. We are being pushed to reexamine our idea of education and look deeper at the relationship between student and teacher. Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” implores us to consider education as both a tool for liberation and for oppression. Are students treated like independent critical thinkers or as empty receptacles waiting to be filled with someone else’s knowledge? As teachers are we bringing new, relatable ideas to the table for discussion or are we simply telling students what is important so as to maintain the status quo?
These are big questions that few of us ask. But they are important questions that need to be considered. As a lifelong learner who fell into teaching, I am forming my own thoughts right alongside the students. Even as I fill the role of teacher, educator, facilitator, I am encouraged to also be a student. To expand my own world and grow in ways I didn’t know possible. This experience will change me as much as it will change the students. We are being pushed and pulled in so many directions but have a strong support system to turn to when we are stretched further than feels comfortable. Not many people can say they have both the huge growth opportunities and the built in security net to catch them. It’s quite unique actually and I am immensely grateful to be taking part in the experience. 

the view from my balcony in Palampur

Starting Again - Ryan Montbleau

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

(I Believe in) Travellin' Light

Four years ago I was preparing to leave for Mozambique and start a new adventure with The Peace Corps. The experiences I had during my two years in that country have forever shaped me and greatly influenced the choices I have made since returning to the States. While working with ThinkImpact in Rwanda last summer, I learned of an organization that facilitated global gap year programs for recent high school graduates. I had the pleasure of interacting with a newly hired Program Leader and two graduates of the program and was inspired by their stories to apply as a leader for the next year. Thinking Beyond Borders is a smallish non-profit organization that seeks to create and inspire agents of social change and build higher order empathy. These are terms I am still digesting myself, but the more I learned about the organization, the people involved and their mission the more enthusiastic I got. Amazingly enough, I was hired to serve as a Program Leader for the 2014-2015 Global Gap Year East program and I am now off and running.  Along with my two amazing co-leaders and 17 inspiring students, I will spend the next 7ish months traveling around the world looking into the many facets of international development through our experiences in six different countries, selected work projects and a thorough curriculum of discussions and readings. We are currently focused on public health in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa and will move to northern India in a month to look at education. In December we will head to rural Thailand to experience a unit on sustainable agriculture and in the new year we will complete our final
Global Gap Year Programs Map
international section on natural resources and the environment in Ecuador. We’ll spend our final month together in Washington D.C. and Virginia examining other international development organizations (IMF, World Bank, Peace Corps, etc) and processing our experiences and looking at our own personal growth.  Mixed in there will be four Enrichment Weeks to further explore the cultures, history and sites in these and two additional countries (Cambodia and Peru).  That’s six countries in eight months. Six very different countries, a multitude of cultures and languages and an endless number of adventures and learning opportunities.

fellow PLs