Judging by the number of, “how do you afford to travel the way you do” questions in my inbox, I probably have not made it very clear what I actually “do” for a living.
I, with enormous enthusiasm and passion, seasonally lead what are called “service-learning” and “experiential education” semester abroad programs. These programs usually entail guiding a small group of 17-21 year-olds for a three-month learning excursion through one or more countries. The semesters are far from “tours” and are usually deep learning adventures that include intensive language study, living in homestays with local families, volunteer service work, environmental conservation work, in-depth cultural study, and some challenging outdoor excursions and long-distance trekking. The programs and people I work with are of the highest integrity with the most impressive of missions.
My super exciting news is that I’ve recently joined the team of WhereThereBeDragons and will be departing this week to lead their Spring 2005 Himalaya Studies Semester through India, Nepal and Tibet. *!!!*
How’s this for a mission:
“Through expertly guided and incomparably honest introductions to the cultural and physical landscapes of developing Asia and Latin America, and through Experiential Education that stresses empowerment of the student, Dragons strives to cultivate cultural awareness and sensitivity, opportunities for personal growth through physical and emotional challenges, and a commitment to the communities through which we travel, providing young adults with a richer understanding of themselves, and of the social and physical worlds around them.” – Where There Be Dragons Website
And so it is this “work” that perfectly facilitates the execution of my own personal mission statement, “to tirelessly seek and share inspiration.”
I recently sent out a letter of introduction to my new semester students and decided to post it here also as it’s quite appropriate for all those that share my journeys with me…
To: The Students of Dragon’s Himalaya Studies Spring Semester 2005
“Namaste” is the Hindi greeting of “hello” and literally translates to, “I recognize the divine in you.” Beautiful way of introduction, yes? And perfectly befitting for my introduction to you, as I’m certain there is something both mysterious and divine that has called us each individually to join in this shared adventure together.
I’m sure a few of you are starting to get nervous with anticipation. (Hold onto that feeling by the way, it’s an essential and fleeting part of the fun.) And I just want to congratulate you on your courage for already taking the first steps of our travels. I know you haven’t gotten on the plane yet, but just making the decision to step into an unknown world, with eyes and mind open, ready and willing to challenge, define, and redefine your personal reality, takes enormous bravery! I know, from a few years experience leading experiential semester programs abroad, that an itinerary like ours draws the most unique, passionate and adventurous of individuals together.
“When you throw a stone into the water, it finds the quickest way to the bottom of the water. It is the same when Siddhartha has an aim, a goal. Siddhartha does nothing; he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he goes through the affairs of the world like the stone through the water, without doing anything, without bestirring himself; he is drawn and lets himself fall.” — “Siddhartha”, Hermann Hesse (On the list of suggested reading.)
You’ve already been drawn to and cast your stone, and self, into this adventure. And Siddhartha’s advice is sound; The less we try to take with us (physically and mentally), the smoother the ride. With unattached bodies and minds we’ll fall most gracefully into this experience.
Now I’d like to tell you a little about my own life path, which has had its own graceful and blundering moments, so that you may see how its led to a convergence with yours.
After I completed and received my degree from Santa Clara University in the Silicon Valley, I moved to San Diego, found a job in an office tower and put nothing less than every drop of my passion into it. I worked 80-hour weeks, slept under my desk on weekends, and quickly became one of the highest paid employees in the company. But after two years of this life, I sat up from my computer one day and realized this; I had a successful job with prestige, an apartment by the beach, a nice car, a pretty boyfriend, and an income greater than that of my parents combined…and it wasn’t enough. Or rather it was enough. It was too much. I was grasping at the wrong dream, desperately clenching onto the airy and materialistic notions of a magazine dream, instead of picking myself up and pursuing my own.
And that’s how I learned that sometimes we spend a lot of lives learning not what we want to do, but what we do not want to do. And that’s okay. It’s not important how many mistakes we make, only that we learn from those we do.
So where was I to go? I had no idea. But on an intuitive whim, I caught a clue as to where I could go to find MY dream. So I sold everything I owned, strapped on a backpack and left the country…
I spent the next four years travelling over six continents and through forty-something countries: working with the children living in the squatter community in the dumpster of Guatemala, building houses for Habitat for Humanity in Fijian villages, strolling the beaches of Costa Rica at midnight keeping the eggs of Leatherback turtles safe from poachers, fighting off Lantana from overtaking the native plant species of Eastern Australia, giving daily massages to the crippled limbs of those left at the Mother Teresa House of the Destitute, preparing the gardens for feeding an orphanage in India, teaching English to refugee monks who escaped from Tibet, and, most recently, planting trees in a reforestation effort in Coastal Ecuador.
Over the course of those years, attending the prestigious “University of Life,” I found my path and my passion in “service learning” and in what Dragons calls in its mission statement, “experiential education,” which simply means — using the world as our living classroom and our real experiences and interactions within it as the lesson plan.
So having found my own life-driving inspiration abroad, I quickly realized that the only thing that matched my excitement in making my own reality-quaking revelations was watching, guiding, and sharing that process of “travel-induced-enlightenments” with others — specifically, with young, enthusiastic and inspired people like you!
I’ve now lead three experiential semesters abroad: one through the South Pacific (Australia, New Zealand and Fiji), one through Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica) and one, just last spring, through Northern India. And each of these semesters (and more specifically, each of the students) has re-confirmed that this is, indeed, exactly where I love to put my life energy.
You know that feeling when you look up into the night sky and fall dizzy in questions of our place in that space? We’ll I’ve personally decided to dedicate my life to seeking and understanding that mystery of being. I don’t fancy finding answers. I find my fancy in the questions themselves. And I want to reassure you, that unlike the formal classroom, this journey is much more about the questions (yours, mine, ours) than the answers. The most important thing you can remember to bring with you on this trip is your Wonder.
A whole new world is about to open up to you, and along with it, an entire spectrum of emotions and experiences. There will be times when you’ll be nervous, and times when you’ll be thrilled, times when you’ll be freezing cold, and times when you’ll be melting hot, times when you’ll be in awe, and times when you’ll be in disgust, times when you’ll be homesick, and times when you’ll forget where you came from, times when you’ll be angry, and times when you’ll practice compassion, times when you’ll feel lonely, and times when you’ll feel you’re part of a new family, times when you’ll be exhausted, and times when you’ve never felt so alive.
As Buddhism prescribes, it’s best not to go with our first inclination to label these experiences as “good” or “bad” but simply recognize each experience for what it is — an experience. For ironically enough, it’s rarely the memory of a comfortable couch that we treasure, but exactly those experiences that push us out of zones of comfort and put us on cold and sharp mental and physical ledges, that transform our lives and perception of it.
“When you’re wandering, you bump into experiences and people. Nothing is routine. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything is standing out on its own, because everything is a possibility, everything is a clue, everything is talking to you.” – Joseph Campbell
And so, along with your headlamps, journals and hats, please remember to bring your open mind, curiosity and rhetorical questions. And remember;
“When you step off the edge of the unknown, you will either find solid ground, or learn to fly.”
I’m eager and excited to meet each of you!
Your Himalaya Studies Spring ’05 Semester Guide,