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Unpacking my Baggage

Mekong, Picture of the Week, Yak of the Week
by: Matt Ambrogi

    Could it be that I’ve just returned from three months of travelling through China, Laos, and Cambodia with 15 of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life? Could it be that I felt more love and gratitude in the past week than I ever have in one time? It seems far more likely that I didn’t live with a wonderful host family for 17 days on an island in the Mekong. It makes more sense that that family didn’t take me in and love me as their own. Did I really grow and learn more as a human in three months than ever before in my life? Its much more probable that those images of unbelievably deep gorges in China in my head are something I dreamed up.

     But no, it all happened. Far from imagining it, I experienced it. Yet, just as it all had to happen for me to experience it, it all had to end for me to be where I am now, in a position to reflect on it. This reflection is what I have been chipping away at as I spend a week in Austin, TX before returning home to frozen Massachusetts. Slowly chiseling my way through the block of memories, hoping to create a beautiful statue. If there is one thing I’ve believe in after this trip, it is the importance of reflection.

     For the past three months, the Mekong swept me up, allowed me to joyfully frolic down it and has now dumped me exactly when I knew it would. Today, I turn twenty years old. Half way to forty as we liked to joke about. Though I feel weird about that, maybe twenty isn’t any age to be uneasy about. As much as it’s weird to feel myself becoming an adult, twenty is empowering. Hell, there’s plenty of 20 year old millionaires. While I don’t crave to be a millionaire, I find inspiration in being reminded that I’m not too young to do great thing – as evidenced by having completed this trip.

     Being in this position, it seems obligatory to take at least a little time to reflect once again. To think about one of the biggest questions I hoped to find out on this trip. Who am I? What baggage do I carry?

     Let me start by saying that I think that all one can hope to do in regards to defining themselves is to identify who they are at this moment now. I believe there is no absolute me or you, we’re in constant states of flux. Our personalities, ideals, values, humor, interests are always changing. The only constant is that consciousness. The one that’s there when you close your eyes and stop your thoughts but still know you’re here. The one that has looked you back in the mirror since you were a little kid. I’d encourage all of you to close your eyes, switch off your mind and try to feel that for a second.

     Alan Watts would argue that “trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” In other words, it can’t be done. Maybe that is true, but I’d like to give it a shot. I recognize that I am not able to put words on paper which will describe the consciousness I mentioned. So, instead, I’ll try to describe the rest. The baggage I carry along with that.

     Well, I am called Matt and I have just completed my 19th year of life. I am passionate about skateboarding, music, good conversation, adventure, challenges, laughing, and making others laugh. I love nature, going out in it. I love big dirty cities and zipping around in them. I value friendship – maybe too much. I value alone time, loyalty, honesty, straightforwardness, comedy, and love – to name a few.

     I have been travelling in South East Asia for the last three months and although it was challenging and it wasn’t all great fun (most of it was), I valued ever second of it and am just as grateful for the opportunity as I am for pretty much anything in my life. I’ve seen so much, learned so much, mainly from my fellow travelers, and felt so much. Far more than I normally do in my life. As if, over and over, I ran way up and then a little down the mountain that I usually drive along the side of. And now, I am here – trying to process all of this and hopefully synthesize it into something I can use for the rest of my life.

     But, its hard. It sucks to have to say goodbye, To people and place. I find myself feeling a huge void in my life. Suddenly, my 15 closest friends are gone. I know we’ll never be together again, at least like we were. I’m torn by that. I wish all of you were with me right now, exploring ideas and places. Additionally, I know that I have the real world to face now that I have left all of this. Big decisions to make and ones that stand to bring me a lot of stress. Something I’m sick of seeing in my life. Though all of you’re wonderful insights have already begun to help me through that. I know going home will be weird. Back to the same rooms of the same houses, with the same people in ice cold Massachusetts. But my life is not the same. So much has happened. I’ve grown in ways I never knew I needed to, seen things that blew my mind, and adapted to a completely different environment. Frankly, its all a little strange here now. I went to a Whole Foods yesterday and found myself wandering around, jaw hanging to the floor in awe. There was so much stuff, so many people, so much space. It was all so clean. When I found my way out, it was with two packages of ramen and a special request from the Asian Grill: a cup of white rice doused in soy sauce.

     These are the dillemas I am now dealing with. Not, I suppose, who I am – as I had aimed to talk about. Right now, its just so easy to think about how much I miss Asia and the group already. But, I know it is important to look forward as I move on, or else I will trip. I have been making an effort to do just that.

     I’m looking forward to playing my guitar, being with me, and so much so to skateboarding as much as I possibly can. I can’t wait to thank my parents for the opportunity I had this fall. I don’t think I could ever thank them enough.  I’m looking forward to seeing my friends. To taking advantage of my time at home with them, going for bike rides, playing pond hockey. But most significantly, I am now looking forward to my life as a whole. To making it one of adventure, deep connections, passion, and love. I have all of you and our experiences to thank for that.

     I’m so so thankful for this fall. For myself deciding to go, for making the effort to get everything out of it. I’m so thankful for all of the things we’ve seen and done. All of the people, places, and things I’ve learned and all of you for being open, kind, fascinating, unique, funny, loving people.

     “So Matt, I’m confused, who are you again?”

     I suppose right now I’m a guy from a small island town in Massachusetts who loves exploring. Who loves Hendrix, Dylan, and Taylor Swift. Who enjoys being with people and alone. A skateboarder who also likes math, physics, and problem solving. Who likes to push himself. Who is a complex person with complex thoughts. Who is excited to see where he can take his life next and who is extremely grateful to have spent the past three months travelling from Kunming, China, to Rabbit Island, Cambodia with all of you. That is the baggage I carry.


I Haven’t Been Able To Write

India, Yak of the Week
by: Mallory Richards

I haven’t been able to write for ten days. I’ve flipped back and forth between the three journals filled with, “and then this happened…”’s and “I could stay like this forever”s, wondering whether any of the past three months were real. Did we really trek through mountains, see the Taj Mahal, become the happiest versions of ourselves that were always there?

I’m not sad and I’m not nostalgic. I’m so joyful. So joyful that my hands have felt too swollen to write for ten days; so joyful that there is no space in my body for words. For ten days, I have unpacked stories and anecdotes from the suitcases of my inner being. For ten days, I’ve worried that if I wrote, my hands would tremble, and the moments would become words and that didn’t seem fair. It’s stopped seeming fair that the Taj Mahal became a picture, and that Varanasi is just a place we spent our time in. Vaatika is just that pizzeria with amazing apple pie; Calcutta is just the place with the silly looking taxis and a lane system on their streets.

I haven’t written, because at some point, I’d have to say, ‘I’m here and not there’, and I’m not ready for that. I’m not ready to see my friends hug their parents for the first time in three months, for the silly goodbyes in airports, and the gratitude that flew from our mouths in Delhi hotels, nesting in each other’s hearts. For ten days I’ve been playing it in reverse. Kerry is unhugging her parents, they are drifting back through the door. We are on a train going backwards to Sonapani, where we are backwards singing everything that has happened in our semester. Callouses are disappearing from Sam’s fingertips, and the queasy feeling is leaving our stomachs as we backwards drive through the mountains to the train station. We are moving backwards through our lives in Varanasi, unlearning the quickest routes to the program house, unrealizing Brynn’s true smile, and Jackson’s undeniable talent. We are unremembering, not forgetting, proper Hindi conjugations. Fireworks from Diwali are receding back into their poppers, and we are packing our things from our dressers back into our backpacks, the way we would be two months in the future. We are walking backwards over mountains; pearls of sweat inking back into our foreheads in the streets of Delhi. We are unmeeting, unembracing our parents for the last time for a while in Newark. And then we are unknowing, each other and what is to come.

I hate that we have to call it a semester, when it felt like a life, something sustainable and cultivated, tended and growing, but I loved it, and I still do.

This I Believe…

India, Yak of the Week
by: Cate Brown

This past week at transference, every student wrote a This I Believe… statement, based on the famed NPR segment that cataloged the core beliefs of select listeners. Their statements were beautiful, and a tribute to the deep questioning and the profound reflection we have all enjoyed this semester. Our last day in Delhi was hectic and internet free, but our group promised to share their pieces upon returning home. I’ve finally showered and I’m just starting to adjust to my new life as an empty-nester, so I thought I’d kick us off…

For the parents reading from home, thank you for sharing your children with us. It was a profound honor to spend the past few months with this group. I cannot thank you enough for taking the risk to support our journey — through moments of homesickness, fear,  joy, elation — I hope that we can continue to express our gratitude to you over the coming weeks. It is going to be a powerful transition.

This I Believe… 

I believe in the grace of humanity. I believe that we live each day to the fullest, and that every day has its place– the light, the dark and the tender gray. I believe in the vulnerability of twilight and the hopefulness of dawn. There is a reason the sun comes up in a perfect circle, and a reason that the moon waxes and wanes. They teach us patience– that you cannot hurry a day– and they teach us trust– we are here for you. There will be warmth and moonlight regardless.

I believe we are here to hold each other. You all have reminded me of that. I believe in loving fearlessly. Give yourself up, over and over again. I believe the heart is stronger than the mind. I want to believe I can give this much and know that I will still be whole when you are gone. That distance is not a measure of our dedication. There will be music despite everything. 

I believe in cold winter mornings and the father that always goes out to wipe off the windshield first.

I believe we all love our mothers– that somewhere in the womb we give up that choice. That birth is terrifying– it gives a reason to believe in love at first sight.

I believe every child should build forts. Blanket forts, tree forts, lego forts– that the process of imagining our world begins within. I believe in the power of play.

I believe in gratitude. I believe in saying I love you first. I believe in bagging your own groceries and in the little boys who help shovel the driveway next door without getting paid.

I believe in the power of listening. We heal when we feel heard.

I believe in running– wild and barefoot through the woods. In the fragility of dappled sunlight, in the resilience of pinecones, in the purity of alpine streams. I believe in in taking cues from blackberries. Plant yourself in a thicket and share your fruit with the bears.

I believe in taking risks. I believe in writing letters. I believe in making art. In coloring outside the lines. In playing charades with your relatives. In making your Christmas presents and leaving little traces of yourself in the imperfections.

I no longer believe that love exists between two people. You all have taught me that. I believe I have become a stronger person because of you. That I’ve learned to love more than I ever thought I could. I came here stripped bare– in a country I don’t know, with a group of people I’ve never met, speaking a language I don’t speak. I quickly realized that all I had to offer you was that which is most essentially mine– my love, my care and the promise that I was all in, regardless. What other choice did I have? Off the edge, into the unknown, heart involuntarily open– you took me in.

I believe in the grace of humanity.


Andes and Amazon A, Yak of the Week
Please Select
by: Annie Bianca Hasserjian

During this time of transference in the Sacred Valley, our group has gradually begun to slow down, to catch up with the fast-paced nature of the past month of the course, and to reflect on the past three months of our lives.  I can honestly say that the highlight of my entire trip was staying with families and trekking through Nacion Q’eros, this past week.  I experienced firsthand all of the things we talked about as a part of indigenous culture stemming from the time of the Incas, such as the nuances of a coca ceremony, the Andean concept of reciprocation called ayni, as well as the deep deep connection to the Pachamama, and the role this connection plays in everday life.  Despite the insanely beautiful, and yet harsh cold in the Andean region of Q’eros, I felt more at home, more welcome, in Yanaruma, the second pueblo we stayed in, than any other place I could have imagined.  My host family welcomed Moriah and I into their home, went out of their way to put things like spinach and oregano (goods that are considered luxuries) into our soup every meal, and they kept refilling our bowls until we literally couldn’t fit anything more into our stomachs.  I have never felt such a sense of acceptance and community before in my life, sitting there eating steaming hot soup while wearing all of my layers, or sharing coca and a cigarette with my host parents during one of several coca ceremonies we had during our short stay.  Everyone in Q’eros refers to everyone else as “brother” or “sister,” even if they don’t know the other person’s name.  During a coca ceremony, when giving three leaves in sharing coca with another person, I would say “Aypaykusunchis, Nay Nay,” if I was giving coca to a woman, and if I was sharing coca with a man, I would say “Aypaykusunchis, Turay”.  When receiving coca, I would say “Urpillaysunqullay,” followed by either “Nay Nay” or “Turay,” depending on if I was receiving coca from a woman or a man.  Don Fabian, our guide and dear friend who made our time in Q’eros possible, told me when we went out in Cusco to buy ceremonial goods, that the Quechua word for “Thank You,” “Urpillaysunqullay,” literally translates as “My heart flies out like a bird to you”.  I’m thankful he told me this before our time in Q’eros, because it solidified the sincerity of both receiving and giving thanks with those traveling in our trekking group as well as the people in the communities we visited.  It’s incredible to behold a word that encompasses such a deep and sincere appreciation, that truly conveys the root of the action of “giving thanks”.  I feel so blessed to have experienced this amount of deep appreciation, to have had my heart and spirit transformed by this different way of living and seeing during the time of Thanksgiving, because the first “Thanksgiving” was also a cultural exchange, between the English pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans.  The day after Thanksgiving, a sheep and an alpaca were slaughtered and shared with the entire community, along with potatoes, the staple food of the people in Q’eros.  It felt so special to share meat from the same animal with every single person in the community, knowing that the animal was sacrificed respectfully, and with deep deep thanks for the sustenance it would give to our bodies.  I loved sharing coca and a cigarette with people I didn’t even know, once we were done eating, and calling them “brother” and “sister,” “Turay,” and “Nay Nay”.  Also, that morning, my host parents had asked me if I would do the honor of facilitating my one-year-old host sister´s first hair-cut, a ceremony that would make me her godmother, and make me a part of their family and their community for the rest of my life.  I was shocked and deeply honored to be asked to receive this responsibility, and it was a beautiful experience to witness and perform the ceremony, which in total, with the coca ceremony leading up to the actual hair-cutting lasted about two hours.  This experience really affirmed in me the concept that everyone has the power to create their own family, that family is not constituted solely by blood relation, but also by deeper connections of the heart.  I learned from being in Q’eros that everyone in the whole world is family, and that we are all brothers and sisters, and that every time we meet someone and make a deep connection with them, no matter how different we are in lifestyle or worldview, that we are adding another member to our “family,” our “ayu”.  I learned yesterday that the Quechua word for community, “ayllu,” is the same word for family.  This means that everyone in Q’eros treats everyone in their community, their ayu, as their personal family, and it truly shows, especially when working together to complete community projects, like the construction of an Incan temple, as well as how readily they accepted all of us weird-looking foreigners, with fancy rain jackets, hiking boots, and massive backpacks.  I will never forget the smiles of my host mom, my host siblings, of Doña Patricia and Don Fabian, as well as the beautiful kindness encompassed in those smiles, and I will carry it with me always as I continue on with my life, adding more and more “Munay” (Beautiful, or Ever-Loving Kindness) people to my ayllu.


Indonesia, Yak of the Week
by: Larkin Barron

We’re deep in the rain forest of Seram, one of the larger islands in Maluku. These shores are the origin place of unique and wild tastes like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg- edible experiences so valuable that they brought the first concepts of capitalism into the world. Here men discovered, in a time long before Islam or Christianity, that they could sell the plants that grew in isolation on their land to other islands. Soon Malukans were sailing all the way to India, then further on to Rome, and then the Dutch began to sail to Maluku.

Even with all this capitalism, quote ‘civilization’ never made it past the ports of Ambon. Somehow the center of this island has remained unconquered by the cement and dust of modern man. Tribal peoples can still walk through the rainforest, accustomed and attuned to its danger and beauty. They still live in this place, surviving, loving, and dying here, free to speak their native language and to wonder the thoughts their people have wondered for thousands upon thousands of years. In other words; they are the same as us, except that their street lamps are bioluminescence in the ground, their showers are cold fresh mountain waterfalls, and their perfume is that of a thousand bright flowers clinging to the branches of a single tree, enveloped in a cloud of butterflies. Their feet are wide and their toes move like sturdy, undulating fingers, gripping earth and rock to steady the walker’s stride, just as ours would be had we never thought to imprison them in shoes and rather had let them grow tough and strong. I have never met these people, but I have heard of them from the guides of Masihulan and I see the threads of that life still present in the lives of the people here. I have also seen their place and walked through their forest, though my feet were in shoes. I have too few words in my mind to describe this rainforest well. It is simply too large, too beautiful. It speaks to me of majesty.

To this day, majesty is a concept that holds me in the heart much more than in the mind. It is so difficult to capture in these words – in the language of the mind. Maybe majesty starts with the air. It certainly has something to do with breath. There’s an indescribable quality to it, as with so many important things. It seems the experience of majesty itself reflects the unconquerable, untrammeled awe of the beheld in through the eyes of the beholder, so that the mind can mirror this raw beauty as a sensation in the heart.

I have found majesty is here, in the moment of thought upon realizing beauty, in the joy that follows, and then again waiting like the gift of a sweet welcome home each time the memory returns. I’ve found it here in the heart and mind and there in the place of its birth, as it is really only a product, and effect of a great expansive beauty. To me, it is the awe that we feel when we brush against those indescribable, big things that feel like something greater. Something so infinitely large and more important than ourselves, so strong and secure in its existence, filled with beauty and age and life.

There is nothing like waking up in a rainforest canopy. Nothing to compare it to, nothing to win over it, so few words to describe it. But even then, as the sun rose, even in that momentary experience of majesty I thought what I was seeing was somehow permanent. Of all things on earth, this existentially beautiful natural wonder deserves to be eternal. To my fleeting mind, it feels like its eternal. I wish with all my heart this were true, that it was somehow indestructible. But I know now that this great forest is like the Cuscus calling in the dawn light, followed swiftly by the gentle stirring of Cockatoos and Hornbills and Lorikeets and bees and bats and all the other beautiful, unique conscious creatures. These places are like the animals that inhabit them. They are endangered. So too, the human experience of majesty is endangered.

It makes me wonder – when this rainforest is gone, what will man do? When we cannot gawk, humbled, and stand in realization that we are so small and so strange and so much less important in all our capacities and capabilities than this – the forest – that has breathed for millions of years, watched millions of sunrises, supported billions of life forms and now is threatened with complete annihilation. Brought now to die, broken, shuddering into nonexistence because of the greed of our species. What will man do when he cannot look at the stars and wonder if there is something greater than himself? When he cannot have that question answered by the flash of a dying comet because the smoke cloud is blocking out the light? Will he forget that the stars were ever there? He was a child. He never saw them. The skies are pollution now. That’s just the way it is.

What would I do had I not woken up to the sound of the Cuscus in the moments before dawn began? If I hadn’t let my sleepy mind process the gentle stirring of the breeze and if I had not listened, gradually captivated by the quiet beginning of birdsong? Had I not been able to look out from my subtly unbalanced hammock, wrapped warmly and safely in my sarong, and watch in wonder as the light crept over the forested mountains and began to fill the bowl of air with light from horizon to horizon? As the light poured in and the day began its sweet crescendo, the birds heard the call and rose, number by number, adding their music and reminding me to wake up. Wake up, and see the light. Find rapture in the beauty of our world. This is a dawn you’ll never see again. Experience it, and hold it in your heart until tomorrow. Let the light that fills the air fill you as well. Wonder at the beauty of our forest. Wonder at the beauty of our lives. Let the pain of breathing rest, for this small moment, and open your heart to the beautiful things. You exist, and this exists, and together that existence is love and community in this one heartbeat of consciousness.

Who would I be, had I never stumbled upon majesty? Had I not been lucky enough to open my eyes and see this, this infinite world, stretching in vast leaps of light beyond me and my kind and my time and through into the infinite present, infinite future, infinite horizon? Who would I be had I not been one of the lucky ones, to stand breath taken in the experience of beauty?

Would I be willing to fight for this, our world, if I had never even realized it was there? If I never even knew this kind of feeling, this wild mass of emotions that carefully packs itself into the word majesty, that all this beauty and consciousness and light even existed? Would you?

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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!