where there be dragons

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Fall 2014 Semester

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Princeton Bridge Year




What is China?

China, Survey of Development Issues, Yak of the Week
by: Sam Belkowitz

I woke up early on sunday morning (2 weeks ago) to go to an indoor food market with my MaMa. Though the anticipation that I was feeling for a for a full 11v11 soccer game I would play later that day with some fellow students was laying heavily on my mind I managed to push it aside for a few minutes. When my host mother and I arrived to the market it immediately reminded me of every other market I had seen up until that point. It was loud, crowded, and definitely nothing like your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Although there were some whole foods (as in freshly killed pigs, and soon to be freshly killed fish). Although on the surface this market appeared totally chaotic I soon realized that below the superficial grit there was much more, a method to the madness. We first went to my MaMa’s favorite vegetable vendor, and I learned a few new words for vegetables I had never seen before, which I then forgot about seven seconds later. Next we moved on to buy some pork off of a pig carcas so fresh that its feet were hanging off of the table. MaMa told the butcher what she wanted to cook, he chose the appropriate cut.We then continued to a new stand, the man there ground up some of the pork that we had just bought. The smell of vegetables, grime, meat, fruit, and fish filled the air. MaMa and I moved along to the next phase of our journey. As the smell of fish grew stronger I figured out what was going to happen next. We walked up to a booth with two small tiled, constantly oxygenated fish tanks. As my mother chose the fish we would have for dinner later that night I watched who I can only imagine to be the fish lady’s 6 year old son washing some unknown thing in a metal bowl. Our two fish were chosen, beaten  over the head, then scaled and bagged. We walked home with our lunch and dinner.

My time in the traditional market had come to an end, the next thing on my agenda for the day was a soccer game. I walked 35 minutes, across seas of scooters, to a 2 year old subway that led to an expensive, incredibly clean shopping center. From there I hopped into an Audi and traveked 30 km to a multi-fielded sports complex in a brand new neighborhood with a dealership for every luxury car one can imagine. I played a full game of soccer on a beautiful grass field, and only then, after the game, did I go to lunch (my biggest mistake of this trip). The rest of my day involved eating a lot of food, wandering through the city, and hoping my legs would feel less exhausted before my Sanda (Chinese Kickboxing) class a few days later.

When I first arrived in China a little over a month ago the I-Team asked me to answer the question “What is China?” I had no clue then, and I still don’t; however I have learned some things in my travels. What I know now is that whatever China is, it’s rugged, mystifying, beautiful, chaotic, crowded, dirty, clean, organized, developed, and never ceases to contradict itself. I’m constantly interested by what I see, hear, and try to understand with my slowly developing understanding of the language. On that day I truly realized that I can never answer the question “What is China?” with words. The answer lies in the Hutongs of Beijing, the ally in Yinchuan where I played soccer with a gang of kids, the narrow streets of a small Tibetan village where I ran from a gang of kids (they knew Monkey Style), the rooftop porch in Xining where I could look over an entire city at night, the massive shopping centers of Chengdu, and the park I walk through every morning on my way to the program house in Kunming. “What is China?” is not a question, its a guide telling us to slow down and to open up, to allow ourselves to absorb the world around us in the hopes of coming to understand it just a little more through every little experience. As Thom Yorke once said in my favorite song, The Tourist, “Hey man, slow down, slow down.”

Something More

Focus of Inquiry, Himalaya B, The Best Notes From The Field, Yak of the Week
by: Scott Diekema
“Now, scholars can be very useful and necessary in their own dull and unamusing way. They provide a lot of information. It’s just that there is Something More, and that Something More is what life is really all about.”
- Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

I struggle with this quote. During my last four years at a New England boarding school, I was fully thrust into the world of academia. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that immersion, so Benjamin Hoff’s harsh words cut deep. At the same time, however, Hoff’s message really resonates with me, for even at my high school graduation, I felt like there was something missing – something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. That missing piece is ultimately what led me to Nepal. I’ve carried it in the back of my mind through the last month and a half, but when we arrived in Balanchaur, the site of our rural village homestay, it all made sense.

Allow me to set the scene. Balanchaur sits stoically atop the hills of the Himalayas, surrounded by rice fields and dense forests. Rising above Balanchaur are the mighty snowcapped “himals” (Nepali word for mountain). Manaslu, a mountain rising to 8163 meters, feels as though it is within an arm’s reach. My words really can’t do the setting justice and unfortunately I don’t have enough service to upload a photo, so just imagine a landscape that would accompany the dictionary definition of picturesque.

The village itself is home to about 400 people, all of the Gurung ethnic group. Their ancestors came from the higher forests and settled in these open fields an estimated 300 years ago. Since then primary and secondary schools have been built and a limited supply of electricity has reached the village, but the Gurung people still carry on lives as subsistence farmers.

Our daily schedule in Balanchaur is simple, and that has made has our stay here so meaningful. Aside from an afternoon lesson with our instructors, we spend our time with our host families, immersing ourselves in their culture. From helping my aama around the house to learning new dance moves from my sisters at nightly village-wide parties, I’ve gotten an authentic taste of village life.

My most notable experience in Balanchaur, however, has been sitting in on a shamanistic house cleansing. After a series of bad omens, the village chief worried there was an evil spirit at work in his home and called a local shaman for assistance. To conduct a house cleansing, a shaman enters a trance that allows him or her to travel freely through the three spirit realms and locate the source of negative energy. It may sound like a joke on paper, but witnessing the shamanistic ritual firsthand has proved to me that it is quite the opposite. As I sat there in that room, surrounded by hopeful villagers and a shaman shaking into a trance, I felt an energy that could not be replicated by books, or any other medium for that matter. In that moment, I understand what Benjamin Hoff meant by Something More, for it was right before my eyes.

You could study Shamanism in an academic setting, as many do, and be able to pick apart each ritual object and its significance, but that information alone won’t get to the root of the topic; it won’t lend a complete understanding. The essence of Shamanism only becomes clear when you sit inches from the shaman as he or she moves into the trance, and you engage all the senses to experience that shift in energy. That physical moment transcends academia.

After giving that house cleansing more thought, I have come to realize that it is merely the tip of the iceberg, for I could define so many of my experiences in Nepal as Something More. For example, approaching Buddhism from a scholarly perspective pales in comparison to our experience at Kopan Monastery, where we felt the power of prayer as hundreds of monks chanted mantras in the gompa for an early morning puja. Additionally, no matter how much I were to study the caste system, when my host grandparents in Patan considered me of a lower caste and therefore refused to eat meals with me, the emotions I felt could not have been replicated in a classroom. It is experiences like these that I yearned for when I came to Nepal, and I have been lucky enough to find them.

I took a gap year because I am on a quest for Something More. Even so, scholarship has been a vital component of my path and will continue to be, so I do not mean to belittle its importance. I would just like to recognize that high scholarship ought not to be an end goal, for there is an essence that it cannot capture. I have found that essence in the streets of Kathmandu, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and the Himalayan countryside. After spending the majority of my life thus far in a classroom, I can see that our journey through Nepal, in the words of Benjamin Hoff, is what life is really all about.

Stepping Up vs Stepping Back

Himalaya C, Picture of the Week, The Best Notes From The Field, Yak of the Week
by: Claire Bennett

One of the hardest things about being an instructor is knowing when to step back.

When a group of students first land in Nepal – nervous, wide-eyed, intrepid – in many ways the role you have to fill is easy. Intense also, exhausting often, but what to do and how to do it is in many ways laid out. At Dragons we call this the “Skill Building Phase,” where we lay down the foundations of the program and give students the tools and knowledge to be successful. As an instructor in this phase, I find myself teaching, leading, directing, giving answers, explaining how things work, finding out and passing on information. If something has to be done, myself or my co-instructors are ready to step in and do it.

Progressing on from this can be much more tricky. If students are ready, we can quickly begin passing over ownership and direction of the program to the students themselves. Instead of directing and teaching, we ask questions, set challenges, provide support. Instead of standing at the front with the message: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this,”  I increasingly find myself standing at the back emanating the silent mantra: “Don’t worry, we know you’ve got this.”

This is what we call the “Practicing Phase.” And the thing is, for instructors, this can be really, really hard. I feel nerves fluttering in my stomach: What if they’re not ready? What if they slip up? What if, after everything, it would just be better for me to step back in and just do it myself?

I’ve lead quite a few Dragons trips now, and if there’s one thing I can say about this Himalaya C group it is that they are always up for a challenge. We formally moved into the Practicing Phase when we came to Patan several weeks ago, and from the first day, when we announced that from now on it was the students’ responsibility to plan and cook breakfast every morning, to keep the program house clean, to welcome visitors, to give input to curriculum design, to run morning meetings, and even to facilitate and lead our weekly excursions within the valley – the group has stepped up and taken on that responsibility with grace and humor. On our first morning in Patan we had an incredible breakfast of fried squash and eggs, with fruit salad and yogurt. And ever since then, the bar has inched higher.

We are moving towards the end of our time in Patan, and with that, we are moving towards the end of the Practicing Phase. Very soon, we will move into what is known as the “Expedition Phase” – where the students will be responsible for leading and running the trip themselves. Will this be challenging? Well, yes. Even the planning stages for Expedition has been fraught with both expected and unexpected challenges. Might things go wrong or just outright fail? Well, yes. Of course these are real possibilities. This is both the inherent beauty and inherent risk of the Expedition Phase. When things go wrong, as instructors, I confess to a fleeting sense of validation: “Aha! They DO still need me after all!” which is closely followed by a slight deflation when the students figure out what they need to do, and then go about resolving the problem more smoothly and succinctly than ever I could have done. Which is, of course, inevitably, followed by a glimmering, glowing sense of pride in a remarkable achievement that may have been unthinkable just a few weeks prior.

I often wonder if the family and friends who avidly follow this yak board for news of their loved ones ever feel this way. Trapped between the hope that these young students we have sent out into the world still need us and will look back for support, and the hope that they can independently flourish away from us, on their own path, and exceed even our highest possible expectations.

Today I think I had a glimpse of what our Expedition Phase is going to look like.

We are in the middle of a important and beautiful festival here in Nepal, that of Tihar, festival of light. We had asked our two “gurus of the week”, Lily and Charlotte, to plan a group satsang (literally “community of truth”) – rituals that up until now we instructors had been planning and leading. The satsangs have been time for us to come together, to unite, to express gratitude, to share our individual and collective truths. We have had satsangs where we have made commitments to ourselves and to each other, where we have explored the intricate nature of our values and beliefs, and where we have cracked open a little of our own raw, imperfect, authentic selves and allowed ourselves to become vulnerable with each other.

And yet, the satsang that we had today on the roof of the program house, in the early morning mist of the Kathmandu valley, was easily the most meaningful and the most beautiful so far. As an instructor, it was a challenge to do nothing – to be a participant only as the students took the lead. All I could do was close my eyes with the rest of the group and reflect on how far we have come, how amazing this course has already been, and how much pride and gratitude I felt. I leave you with some pictures of the rangoli we created and the invisible bonds we deepened.

We are barely past the midway point of this course. I can’t wait to see where this group will take us, and what we can achieve in the time we have left.

Tana Toraja

Indonesia, Introduction to Philosophy/Comparative Religion, Yak of the Week
by: Ashley Fox

For a moment consider what it is like to live in the presence of a loved one who is “sleeping” ( a person who has already passed away). To care for their physical and spiritual needs each day. To take six months, a year, two years to morn, settle unresolved conflicts  and come to peace death.  To say goodbye through elaborate funeral ceremony, in which a community comes together and animals are sacrificed to carry the soul from this world to the second life.

This ( very simplified) is a natural progression of life and death in Tana Toraja, a region located in the high lands of Sulawesi.   Over our time in Tana Toraja, a three day funeral ceremony took place, the ceremonial events combining “adat” ( tradition) and ” agamat” ( religion).

The first day of  the ceremony we set out early, dressed in dark sarongs. In front, four men from the village carried a live pig, which our group purchased for the receiving family.  The funeral ceremony was not far and I was grounded by the beauty of the rice patties. Two main events took place this day, fist the animal sacrifices: one water buffalo accompanied by twenty to thirty pigs. The offerings are not for show, and the animals are loved and beautifully cared for until their death. In Torajan culture, the offering allow  the human’s soul to travel to the second life and they believe God sent man and water buffalo to earth first, thus just as they entered life as on, water buffalo and man  leave this world as one, guiding each other along the way.  Following the offerings, meat is distributed among attending families and is used to feed the guests.  The ceremony is not only a chance for the community to unite and celebrate the dead, but it is also an opportunity for the deceased, through the offerings,  to give back to its community.

The same day, in the evening, we returned to participate and observe the chanting portion of the ceremony. Songs and dance tell the life story of the dead- their birth up to their death. In a large circle men and women locked pinkies and began to chant, the sound was strong and united. Everyone swayed and moved together. The chants were grounding and standing in the circle, I could feel the power behind each chant, the power from the community.

The second day, more buffalo( this time three) and pigs were sacrificed.  And on the final day, the church service and actual burial took place. We did not participate in the final day of the ceremony.

It was difficult to watch the sacrifices and witness the moment when the animals falter between life and death. Although the sacrifices are difficult to see, it is  beautiful to observe the villages, near and far, come together to celebrate the life of a loved one. The value of family and support exemplified through the funeral ceremony is incredible. And it is beautiful that there is time to spend with your loved one before death, time fore the family and community to feel settled and truly say goodbye.

I will always be thankful for  our time in Toraja, for the people who shared their tradition and for the love of the community.

Sending my love to all at home.



Princeton Bridge Year Senegal 2014-15, Yak of the Week
by: Jamie O'Leary

Every day on my walk to the program house, I greet the same elderly woman. Teeth line half of her mouth and a purple splotch spreads over the bottom half of her face. Each morning she smiles at me from behind her stand of carrots and extends a shaking hand. The morning after Tabaski, a holiday on which people give gifts, she asked me, “Where is my present?” “What?” I asked, surprised. “Where is my present?” she repeated. “I don’t have one! Tomorrow,” I answered, and went on my way.

The next day, I passed the woman again. “Where is my present?” she called with bright, expectant eyes. “I forgot!” I told her. “Tomorrow.” A few feet down the alley was a beignet shack, where a woman was frying fresh balls of dough. I remembered how Emmy wanted to try beignets from every vendor, so I asked for two. The women held up two fingers to make sure I was saying the word I meant. I nodded in agreement and paid the ten cents they cost. With a blank stare, the woman handed me three beignets wrapped in newspaper. I was taken aback, and thanked the woman profusely. Then, I had an idea – I tore a scrap of newspaper, wrapped up a beignet, and brought it to the old woman hunched over her carrots. “Here is your present!” She gasped and peered up at me, and then joy seeped onto her face. “Thank you! Thank you!” Her words of thanks followed me through the narrow alley long after I walked away, and the next day she thanked me all over again. When I delivered Emmy her gift, her reaction was almost identical.

Later that day, Sebastian and I went to the post office downtown to pick up a package from my mom. After a painstaking process, we slid into a cab and began ripping open precious bags of American candy. In Senegal it is customary to share with everyone, so I offered the driver a Snickers. “For me?” he asked. “Thank you!” A few minutes later, I offered him a Tootsie Pop. He looked back at me, incredulous. “Another one? Thank you!” When we reached Yoff he asked where we lived, then happily agreed to drive us to our respective homes on opposite sides of town. When Sebastian got out the driver called after him in tentative English, “You are good people!” I directed the driver to the front of the narrow road that leads to my house, but he insisted on driving me all the way to my door. I handed him one more piece of candy with his money and he grinned and shook my hand.

These reactions to the small gifts I gave make me appreciate more the daily gifts I receive: when my 2-year-old nephew offers me some of his french fries, when a stranger takes time to talk to me, or when my siblings teach me a new word. And in these small, beautiful moments, I am reminded of the enormous gifts that make my life here possible: the support of my family, the hard work and kindness of the instructors, the love and patience of my host family, and the guidance and generosity of Princeton and the Bridge Year office. Every day at unexpected times, I feel that mixture of surprise and joy that I saw in the woman and the cab driver; when I have a funny Wolof conversation, play with a child, or learn something new, I am awed by what a remarkable gift it is to be here. Like the woman and the cab driver, the only way I know to express my gratitude is to say thank you over and over, and promise that I will make the most of every gift I’ve been given.

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Welcome to Yak Yak, Dragons’ student travel blog. The thoughtful reflections, inspiring text, and open-hearted wisdom of Dragons’ students are among the most moving student travel writings to be found on the web. In an age of media overload and cryptic tweets, these writings stand out as contemplative, often profound, and once in a while magical insights into students’ overseas travel experiences. Yak Yak consists of over 11,000 posts that have been uploaded since 2007, when the word "blog" was a scarcely known term. The history of our work and the soul of Dragons lives in these pages. Enjoy!