During a yoga class yesterday, my teacher encouraged us to embrace the “parivartana” or change, as our bodies wobbled together trying to hold wheel pose for 12 breaths.
Embrace the parivartana. Embrace change.
Change has been on my mind a lot lately as I watch the unusually wet spring make way for a very green Colorado. I think of changes for people across California in a drought, about the first rain of the year in Yosemite Valley. I think about change in my own life, change across the world as friends-turned-family in Nepal continue to remain strong through struggle. I think about change in our glaciers, change in seasons, change in everything.
With change, comes opportunity.
And I am truly excited to embark on this opportunity with you and experience a variety of change as we speak with Tibetan refugees, learn about educational reform in Leh, and study the effects of artificial glaciers on villages.
Before I get too daydreamy about our upcoming summer, let me introduce myself a little bit more! My name is Sara, and I am one of three of your instructors for the semester. I am a teacher by trade and an outdoorswoman by passion. I was raised by two incredibly loving and hardworking parents along the icy shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. The first several years of my life were spent with dirty fingernails, a fierce imagination, and an almost obsessive desire to overturn rocks and logs to see the unseen.
These days, when I’m not preparing to head to Ladakh, I can be found in the classroom teaching science in Boulder, Colorado.
Outside of my professional life, I try to spend as many moments outdoors as time will allow. I feel most myself when trail running, biking, climbing, swimming, and trying to undo the damage these activities provide with my limited-flexibility but fully spiritual yoga practice. I devour books, love a good pun, enjoy quiet moments with nature, and almost always have a smile and a nature fact on hand.
That’s enough about me! Let’s talk about you. You are a brave and awesome person for deciding to embark on this journey. You likely are a bubbling mixture of nerves and an excitement for something you may not quite be able to articulate or even understand beyond the fact that you suspect you are about to plunge headfirst into a new worldview buoyed by your own self-discovery. Isn’t that amazing? Your life is about to change!
I encourage you in your last few days before departure to reach out. If you are nervous and fretful about your packing list, talk to us. We have seen many a hiking boot, quick-dry set of underwear, etc., and will happily discuss anything and offer to-take or not-to-take advice. If you feel nervous, share these nerves with those around you and write them down in your trip journal. If you feel completely and overwhelmingly clueless about where you are headed, spend a few minutes to check out the news and current events in northern India, specifically Ladakh and Dharamasala.
Most importantly, take care of yourself. Do what makes you feel like yourself in these moments. Fully immerse yourself in the moments you have at home, or wherever this summer finds you. Memorize the sunsets, take a long walk to a new vantage point, engage your neighbors in meaningful dialogue. The openness and learning of your new chapter doesn’t start in India- indeed, it began when you decided to embark on this journey months or weeks ago. Start cultivating the wonder and gratefulness in your daily moments now, and you will be ready to face whatever comes your way in the Himalayas.
And finally, I encourage you to think of your goals. Who do you want to be, and what will it take to get you there? How can your actions and thoughts right now help you reach these goals? How will your semester abroad help you in this journey?
Thank yourself for taking this risk and making sacrifices to be a part of this amazing group. Thank you for embracing what makes you you and your willingness to fill your cup, your mind, your soul with everything these next 6 weeks will ask of you. I cannot wait to meet you, learn your stories, and see you grow.
Feel free to contact me with any questions, worries, or excitements in the coming days! And embrace the parivartana that is coming your way.
The sun hangs noon over the farm and the fields empty of their workers. The men flock to the shade alone and in groups of two, silent, the promise of homemade tortillas and something to nourish their near-empty stomachs waiting beneath the lines of trees.
I walk down the cobblestone path and into the relentless sun of the unpaved road, my flip flops kicking up dust with every unbalanced step. I notice the shadows like threatened animals skirting the edges of the waist high shrubbery, hanging beneath the eaves of the yellow church, making sandcastle patterns on the cement far below the red roof tiles.
My own shadow pools about my feet when I pause in the square between the church, the comedor and the kitchen, eyeing the porch’s wooden chairs.
I listen to the creaking and thumping of the screen door as each fellow Dragon makes their way to lunch while reclining blissfully in the shade of the porch against the abode wall.
The men gather in the shade once more around 3pm. They stand in their rain boots and lean languidly against the white fencing, their slim muscles stretching and taught from a long work day, their tongues clicking quickly in their native language. No one moves. Beyond them in the field pockmarked by green puffs of grass the sprinkler system chugs on, launching water droplets this way and that from sunrise till sunset and through the heat of noon.
I observe this all but am not struck by anything ‘worth Yakking about’. Through requesting a final Yak about how this trip is going, what special events have occurred, it as if someone has asked me to describe to them the view from my bedroom window, or my daily routine; something that changes with every moment but which I find myself so nonchalantly accustomed to.
I’m accustomed to the familiar ache in my muscles after a pickup futbol game with the workers whose own muscles are never too tired for a match before walking home. I’m used to knotting the grass between my fingers as I lean back to look at the sky the color of a ripened peach, listening to the grunts and shouts of the men who continue the game.
I’m accustomed to our groups constant movement and the smell of my Dr. Bronner’s lavender soap in our latest accommodation’s bubbly sink bowl, doing emergency laundry. I’m used to carrying my home on my back and unpacking and packing so methodically it could be meditation. The bumpy roads on which our microbuses climb no longer phase me and instead lull me into a state of pensiveness during which I only have the capacity to stare out the window and absorb the mirage of images flashing before me.
I’m accustomed to the river of stars that fill the heavens after sunset. The river of stars under which I’ve danced and said goodbye, observed lightning flashing from a distant storm and hid beneath my homestay sister’s thick woolen blanket, talked, and sat in a silent mesmerization as they flowed above us.
I’m used to latrines and pilas and no running water and I’m frightened of how quickly I may forget the privilege of a warm shower on a cold morning when it becomes so readily available to me.
I’m accustomed to this lifestyle of change but I have to remind myself that this impending goodbye, this plane flight home, is just another day. Another day in a long sequence of days, some of which I was fortunate enough to spend surrounded by the most inspiring group of fellow young women I have ever known. Another day of travel, only this time to somewhere more permanent, more familiar. Another day in which every moment contains a small surprise if I remember to look for them. Another day with opportunities for growth, sadness, and unlimited joy.
So here I am looking for something to Yak about, sitting on the porch of our cabaña, a breeze blowing between my bare toes. Mango carvings stain the bench beside me as I lick the sweet juices from my fingers, discovering by taste an invisible cut. I close my notebook and set down my pen, looking out across the working farmlands, a taste of blood and paradise fresh on my tongue.
It has been a true journey these last three months!
Here are some final thoughts from the students in anonymous fashion:
1. What is a misconception that you had about India that has been dispelled or challenged over the course of this trip?
I believed that Kashmir was just a desert full of goats and men with AK-47s that Led Zeppelin wrote a song about, not one of the most amazing, beautiful, and geographically, culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse places that I have ever been to.
One misconception that I had about India was that there was a consistent culture that would be the same or similar in all regions of the countries. I was surprised by the diversity from region to region. Even the religion and gods were different. I learned that India as a cohesive identity was fairly new, and that country supports many languages, customs, and beliefs.
I honestly didn’t have many expectations coming to India on this journey. Mostly, I had general knowledge about stuff, but nothing too specific.
Before I came on this trip, I thought the caste system was horrible and everyone wanted to get rid of these old ways. What I found out was that many people would rather keep it. The system gives people stable guidelines to live by socially and economically.
Before coming to India, I thought that the caste system was going to dominate Indian society. However, I learned during my time here that that was not necessarily true. In cities, especially, more and more rights and opportunities have been created for the people from each caste. Although entirely equal rights have not been established, the transition to a more just social environmental is definitely happening.
2. How have you been impacted by the discussions, the itinerary, or the experiences that we have had on this trip?
I feel like I have learned a lot about myself and about how to better deal with different situations. I have become more interested and curious about the world and different cultures. I feel that this experience and the things that I have learned during this experience have made me more interested in exploring the world and have made me so much more open minded.
I feel so much less certain of my understanding of pretty much everything.
This trip has created a space for me to ask all the big questions in life and I have begun to learn about self-awareness, leadership, and global citizenship. I’ve stopped to ask myself how I impact my community and the world. How do I impact others? How does my self-dialogue impact my own experiences?
I have loved our discussions and how meaningful they have been. I love all the quotes that have been read to us.
I’ve learned a lot over these past three months. I’ve learned about Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I’ve learned about our environment and what I can do to lead a more sustainable life. I’ve learned how to be a better leader, how to ask for help, and how to question things that I don’t understand. Most importantly though, I’ve learned a lot about myself— my motivations, values, and what inspires me. I was challenged a lot over this trip, but the lessons that came from it are what made this such a special experience.
I have been impacted in lots of ways. I’m really still figuring out just how I was affected.
I think that my time in India has made me consider my impact on the people around me. I found through talks on environmental issues and service to be really insightful. I now want to be more intentional about my actions.
Everything that I have experienced on this trip has made me question what I believe in and what I value. I have thought and discussed deeply some of life’s biggest questions. Although I now have a broader view on the world, I have come to know myself and my values much more.
3. What should friends and family know about me when I return home?
Friends and family should expect me to be a little confused about my role in American society. I’m used to something different now and the adjustment could be frustrating and maybe lonely. Be patient with me. You should also know that I am excited for the future. I’ve learned what gives my life meaning: deep connection, constant curiosity, personal growth, and new adventures.
I feel that I have gone through a lot of changes and I am still trying to work through and process all of them. Please have patience with me.
I miss you all a ton. I’ve had an amazing time on this trip and I can’t express how thankful I am for supporting me with this decision. One thing you should know though, I’ve changed a bit. I now think a bit differently. I enjoy having deep, meaningful conversation. I care a lot about the environment. I have new views and opinions. So please try to be patient with me and I will certainly be patient with you. I am still your same old son/brother/friend that likes to laugh, talk about sports, go to mass, and most importantly I will forever love you no matter what.
They should know that I want to talk about a lot of deeper subjects like spirituality, social issues, environmentalism, etc.
That I am tired. But I need lots of adventure and inspiration.
You should know that I love them all so much. I am now even more full of curiosity, adventure, love, passion and I thirst for knowledge much more than before. I have a much wider range of interests than I ever thought I would have. I aspire to travel to many new places. You all should know that I love life so much!
Let me tell you, we are going to have a LONG talk when I get back.
Oh boy, do I have a lot to tell you!
I was weary to the bone. I could not get myself warm enough or get enough sleep. My thirst for water was never quenched and I was never hungry at the right times. I could smell myself, even outside, and it was easy to feel the clumps of grease in my hair. My lips were dry and cracked and I was chafing in all the wrong places. My knees ached and both of my shins were splintered. My feet were cold and peeling and my cuticles were a disaster. Yet somehow, none of that discomfort mattered.
I nearly chose to go on a different program, simply because of the trek. I knew that the trek would take a physical and mental toll on me. I also knew that I would be the slowest and probably the most anxious. I was so afraid and rightfully so, I think. I wound up being the slowest by far and I was anxious about every aspect of the trek. It turns out that the trek was one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging things I’ve ever done and I make no apologies for having trouble with it. It was so hard and so excruciatingly painful at times, yet I am so thrilled I did not let my fear of trekking stop me from doing so.
All my life, I’ve struggled with self doubt. On rare occasions, I believe in who I am, but most days, I wish I could be someone else. Perseverance and the understanding that oftentimes the journey matters more than the destination are not things that come naturally to me. I constantly focus on where I’m going instead of where I am. On the trek, however, something magical happened. I finally realized an inherent beauty in the journey. It finally hit me that wherever I’m going does not always matter as much as where I am. The destination matters less than what I do along the way.
I remember the first two days of the trek. There was about six inches of snow on the ground and our feet were so cold, we were putting them on each others stomachs to warm them up. It was so beautiful though, the snow. It covered our campsite like a blanket, glistening in the faint morning light.
I remember how much I struggled those first few days, not believing that my legs could climb up those hills. I watched everyone walk in front of me (except for whoever was carrying the med bag that day) with the knowledge that I was not physically capable of walking as fast as they were walking. I wanted the walk to be over, or, at the very least, for it to be downhill.
I remember crying in front of the entire group one morning and learning that I do, in fact, wear my heart on my sleeve. I was so tired of being an anxious person. I wanted to forget about the medicine and the years of therapy that started when I was eight years old. I wanted to be like “everybody else”. As I told Jeff this, through enormous sobs, he said to me, “Julia, there is no everybody else.” And, boy was he right. I learned that day that it is not me and then everybody else; it is instead all of us, lost and confused, together.
I remember how hard the hike was for me, the day that I cried. Rebecca was a champion, offering me moral support the entire last part of the hike. When we at last arrived at the supposed campsite, we learned that we still had a half hour left to go because there was no water where we were. I remember thinking that that was impossible, that we had to have arrived and that I could not possibly keep going. By that point, my entire body was almost numb. It was hailing and I felt myself starting to shut down, but miraculously, I did keep going. I know now that the only reason I reached our campsite was because I told myself I could—and strangely enough, that last half hour was the best part of the day.
I remember looking up and seeing the summit. I could actually see the pass we were about to cross, finally. Maeve was behind me with the med bag the entire time, supporting and encouraging me. “We’re almost there!” I kept hearing, and “You can do it, Julia!” Suddenly, I was there. I was up and over the pass. I was gasping for breath because of the altitude and my legs felt like they were on fire, but I was there. I had done what I thought I was never going to be able to do. That day happens to be one of the best days of my life. I’m not sure how to describe how beautiful it was there or how good I felt about the journey that day. Once we had climbed as high as we were planning on climbing, we went even higher to release biodegradable Tibetan prayer flags into the air. While releasing the flags into bursts of wind, we thought of well wishes to go along with them. I don’t even remember what I was thinking. I only remember that I sent happiness into the wind that day.
I remember throwing my arms into the air and feeling the cool wind on my face. I turned around and around, taking in the stunning snow capped peaks, knowing that I would probably never have the same opportunity again. I smiled and shouted something in Ladakhi, filled with an overwhelming joy which, truthfully, is the feeling I live for. I may be making it sound like the destination mattered more, but I can tell you that it didn’t. The struggle of the journey was fundamentally more important to me. I was so happy when I made it because it turned out to be so difficult to get there. I learned so much more about who I am on the way there than at the top. What I learned at the top, however, is that, as we talked about at dinner one night, it would not have been the same had I been able to drive or fly there.
It was such an incredible experience because I had to struggle. I know now that I am made of so much more than I can imagine. During the journey, I learned that I can persevere. I learned that I can lean on other people without necessarily getting hurt. I learned that I am worth something. I do not have to justify my existence and I have the right to exist without apologizing for everything I do. I have the obligation to support others as they have supported me. If I could put how the trek changed my life into a perfect sentence, I would, but I can’t. I’m not sure I can even comprehend how it changed my life right now, but I can say that it was a single step. It was the beginning of the rest of my life and the first step in a journey of thousands of step. I will remember it for the rest of my life as the first time ever that I understood what it means for a journey to be even more beautiful than the destination because of what is learned along the way. It was a single step in the right direction. It was my single step towards happiness.