“Would you like to buy a candle?”
Almost every time I step onto the ghat, I am approached by a child carrying baskets filled with small diyas [candles] that people can light and place into the Ganga. Oftentimes, a firm “nahiin [no]” will send them flying to a more cooperative foreigner. But then there are those stubborn kids who, no matter how hard you try, will not leave you in peace. Sometimes, the impulse to rudely push them away with a firm “Jao [go]!” is terribly tempting. But I don’t want to do that. After all, they are just children, and many of them are forced to sell candles because their families need the money to buy food and keep warm, especially as the air gets colder and colder—
—outside of Banaras lies the village where Bantu-ji, the husband of Dolly-ji (our on-site coordinator), grew up. Our group, along with Dolly-ji and her kids, visited on a warm sunny day in late November, before the weather chilled and the foggy days began. We spent the morning playing games on the roof of Bantu-ji’s family home, eating sweets, and receiving impromptu dance lessons from Shiv, Dolly-ji’s precocious 8-year-old son. After lunch, we set out to see the fields around the village, where we stopped under the shade of a large tree.
Anandi, Dolly-ji’s daughter, immediately scrambled up the tree, followed by Chase, Evelyn, and Jenny. I followed more hesitantly. While the others clambered up to branches 10 feet off the ground, I settled comfortably into a nook about halfway down. Any attempts to go higher resulted in me shaking uncontrollably.
A little while later, Shiv, who had been playing with some puppies, ran up to us. “Let me up!” he yelled. We gestured at him to climb up, but he was unable to pull himself up the trunk of the tree. After a few failed attempts, he looked around and spotted a low-hanging branch that meandered its way back to the trunk. He climbed onto it and was ready to walk over to us—when he looked down.
He froze. I could see him gazing at the ground, which must have suddenly seemed impossibly far down. When the girls called to him, all he could do was shake his head.
“Here, I can help you,” said Alex. He joined Shiv on the branch. “Hold my hand. We’ll go together.”
“No, I can’t!” Shiv cried fearfully. “I’m going to fall—
—down by the intersection right by Dolly-ji’s house is where the dhobis [washerpeople] live and work. I love spending my afternoons after work sitting at their ironing table, chatting with the family. While I enjoy talking with everybody at the dhobis, I am closest to the son, Manish, and one of the daughters, Guria, who are both slightly older than me. The two share a common laugh; it is loud and bright, and it has the frequency of a woodpecker striking a hole into a tree.
One day, I was sitting with Manish, Guria, and one of their elder sisters, chatting, when Guria suddenly asked me:
“Kyaa aap ki bahin hai [do you have sisters]?”
“Nahiin,” I replied. “Sirf ek bhai [only one brother].”
Guria looked affronted. “How can you say you have no sisters?” she cried in English. “Am I not your sister?” She cracked a grin.
I laughed. “Oh! Zarur! Maaf keejiye! [Of course! Sorry!]”
The elder sister, who had been listening and pouring chai, smirked and joked, “Paagal bahin [crazy sister]!”
And the glorious woodpecker laugh burst out of Manish and Guri—
—a loud crash interrupted our Hindi class. It was mid-November, and I had been feeling out of sorts for a few days. Caleb was leaving class early when he accidentally knocked over our bikes. While a few of the others hurried outside to pick everything back up, I stayed in my seat, stomach queasy.
When Hindi finally ended, I briskly walked out, eager to return home before I felt any worse. But, as I pedaled out of the alleyway from Guru-ji’s house, I heard a clunk. My pedal suddenly stopped moving; it was blocked by the bike frame, which had bent out of shape from the fall.
For a few minutes, the other group members attempted to help fix the problem. However, after it was evident that there was nothing we could do, I told the others that I would just walk home and have my bike fixed tomorrow. Everybody biked off, and as I resigned myself to a long walk home, a man, who had seen all of the trouble, came up to me and told me that he could fix my bike. I followed him, not knowing where we were going at—
—all people find sanctity in different places. Everybody needs something to believe in. Many people look for God in a church, or a temple, or a mosque. Some look for God in themselves, while others look to nature.
So what do I find sacred?
I see God in people, in the interactions that connect human beings to each other. My God resides in the comfort of a scared child, in the banter between friends, in the kindness of strangers. I believe in the God in small things, and I believe that sanctity can be found every—
—warily, I walked with the man a bit down the road towards the river. We entered a little enclosure where the man lived. His house was a simple shanty, a low shelter made from mud, tin, and the remnants of a brick wall. The man’s family was eating dinner by lamplight inside the shelter, while two girls ran around the yard playing tag.
The man disappeared into the shanty and soon emerged with a box of tools. Silently, he gestured at me to sit down and began tinkering away at my bike. I was too shy to speak. After a few minutes, he stood up, and with a smile of satisfaction, spun the pedal around in a full rotation.
When I wheeled my bike back onto the road, I attempted to give him some money for his help. He firmly refused. So I asked him his name.
“Dhanyavaad [thank you], Ashok-ji.” I bowed in thanks.
As I rode away, I marveled at the (in the words of Arundhati Roy, in her book The God of Small Things) “queer compassion of the very poor for the relatively well—
—offered a cup of chai, I sat a bit longer at the dhobis’. As the steam from our cups wafted into the winter air, Manish, Guria, and I chattered away, bantering and sharing stories.
In a moment of whimsy, I blew on my chai, fogging up my glasses. “Dekho [look],” I said to Manish. He turned around and smiled. Then he blew on his chai, fogging up his glasses. We held back giggles, and together, we turned towards the sisters—our sisters—and peered at them through our cloudy lenses.
“Hum sub log paagal hai [we are all crazy]” I joked, and we shook with laugh—
—turning on the branch, Shiv finally grasped Alex’s hand. Panic still covered his face. The two slowly inched their way towards us. Every so often, Shiv would stop, unwilling to continue, but we all gently coaxed him into moving again. Finally, after what must have seemed to him like an eternity, he reached me, and I sat him down and held him tight so he wouldn’t fall off. He smiled up at me.
Evelyn and Jenny cheered. Anandi handed Shiv a stick of sugarcane. Chase cried, “Good job—
—shivering in the December air, Jenny and I unlocked our bikes at Assi Ghat. Night had fallen, and after a full day of volunteering at Tulsi Kunj (the World Literacy Canada community library), creating decorations and teaching my computer class, I was more than ready to return to the warmth of home. As we were heading out, though, a girl holding a basket of candles came up to us.
“Namaste, sir!” she cried. I peered at her more carefully in the darkness. I knew this girl; she had been in my class earlier that day.
“Namaste, Maharma! Tum kaisi ho [how are you]?” I asked.
“Thik hai [alright]!” she cheerfully replied.
For a few more seconds, we smiled at each other. It was a sacred smile, a simple reminder of the human connection between the two of us. Then, remembering herself, she reached into her basket and asked,
“Would you like to buy a candle?”
Are you ready for your first assignment? Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be as bad as you might think. All Dragons programs are based on the principles and philosophy of experiential education – the idea that powerful learning and understanding can be derived from properly preparing for and reflecting on our real world experiences. The instructors decided that just as the lessons and learning throughout our program will be derived from a wide variety of different activities and forms of “hands-on learning,” so too will many of our activities throughout the course of the semester.
What does this mean? Well, it means we want to empower you to look at your surroundings in new ways through new means. Our semester in particular will be relying on different visual media (photography, drawing, videography and whatever else you may wish to deploy). If we recall the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we can begin to see images as a way for us to see the world through new perspectives and perhaps even from another’s eyes. Images make up much of the world that we experience on a daily basis and we want to already start preparing you to be more observant and aware of what is around you and how seamlessly we are trained to not only see but understand and interpret our life-worlds through images.
So, what does this mean? It means that many of your assignments will be visual and creative in nature. It does not mean that you have to be a good photographer or even have an exceptionally large or expensive camera; instead, we are interested in seeing how you can reflect on and interpret the images the world presents/bombards you with. Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers for any of what we will ask you to do – we just want to see the thought that you have put into this process. For your first assignment we would like you to take one or two photographs in response to one of the following prompts:
- Take a photo that shows how you, your hometown, community, or place is “different.”
- Take a photo that shows “development” in whatever way you think of that word.
- Take a photo that shows “spirituality.”
- Take a photo of an aspect of “global citizenship” or someone doing something that embodies “global citizenship.”
Remember that these prompts are intentionally open ended so that you can interpret both the question and produce your response in an infinite number of ways. You only need to take one image but you can take more if you want. When you are done, post one of them to the yak board with a caption explaining your photo in relation to the prompt (max. 150 words). You can do this on any camera, smart phone, etc. This should all be done before you leave for LA and we will be discussing your responses in the first couple days of the program. I know that many of you will be busy getting ready over the next two to three weeks but keep in mind that preparing yourself mentally for this experience is just as important as bringing the items on your packing list (something which you should also do). If for some reason you have any questions about the assignment or will have problems in completing it – let us know over email.
Until then, happy shooting!
All the best,
Your Instructor Team
PS – Look for our photos as well
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 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 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.