I have always lived with the subconscious belief (that bubbles to the surface daily) that my body’s purpose was basic: to carry my mind and maybe to be aesthetically pleasing. I believed that my body held no strength, no real power or control – those attributes belonged to my mind, and they did not reside in my tangible world. My body is merely a vehicle. I discredited my body over and over, despite achieving a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, being on the varsity rowing team in high school, and generally being healthy and strong. I convinced myself that my body had no business calling itself athletic or even capable. I shied away from shows of physical activity as much as possible, afraid of putting myself in danger of failure in front of others, further compounding my embarrassment and convincing myself of my lack of ability.
That first hike that we completed as a group – climbing up to the Great Wall of China to spend an incredible evening watching the best sunset of my life, basking under the full moon, and seeing a gorgeous shooting star – began to break down an internal wall that I had built as a defense against failure. I broke down that lack of belief in myself and my ability.
I cried in uncontrollable bursts of sobs full of anxiety and embarrassment, my legs shook, and I went slowly, sometimes pushing myself along on my backside.
I breathed, I spoke to myself quietly of my ability in order to inspire perseverance, and I held on to the words and company of Parker and Sarah to get me up and down the mountain. My body was slightly weakened by a cold, but that wasn’t it; my mind had allowed thoughts of inadequacy to creep in, telling me that my body was not made for this, that I should not be here. Step by step, encouragement by encouragement, I went along, and I finished. In the immediate aftermath of the hike, my mind was reeling and I could not reflect or find any serious growth in the experience. I could not take serious pride in the accomplishment. With a few weeks between me and the hike, with other physical experiences under my belt since then, I can say I have grown, I have begun to chip away at my mental block.
Over this trip, being okay with being dirty, sweaty, unwashed, exhausted, have made me understand my body so much better, to know that for all my fears of inadequacy and shortcoming, below my facade of make up and clothes and words, underneath my germophobia and need to feel clean, there lies a strong, capable body. A beautifully powerful body, that hurts and aches and sometimes smells a bit weird. But most importantly, a body that does not define its limits without testing them, and never ever gives up without a fight.
I still have challenges to go, and I write this with the hope that it will inspire me to push myself to overcome an unfounded fear.
As we wrap up our course on the beautiful shores of Lake Atitlan we asked our students to answer two prompts relating to their experience thus far and their thoughts on returning home.
Prompt #1: What is something you haven taken away from this experience in Guatemala?
Prompt #2: What do you want your friends and family to know before you arrive home?
Guatemala has given me so many things, new perspectives, diarrhea, incredible foods and immerse knowledge of a new culture. Unfortunately, many of these things will inevitably fall away, making it important to hold on tightly to the aspects that can really instigate the change in myself and the world around me. The one thing that is the most important to bring home with me is the changed understanding of human connection. People, such as Dona Katarina and Roberto, are willing to share their heartbreaking stories because that is how connections become strong and real. It is through these connections, forged through sharing that understanding can finally be initiated. I want to bring this home because, to me, human connection is one of the most lacking and important aspects in our society. But all it takes is one person, a person that could easily be me, to take a step forward and be the instigator of understanding.
I want my family and friends to know how much I appreciate and love them. I am so lucky to have the opportunities and life that I have and they are a huge part of that. I know that it will be impossible for them to completely understand this amazing experience, but I want them to try. Asking questions about my month long adventure will help me be able to capture snap shots and moments to try to portray to you all that I have learned. This experience has been great, but I also want you to know that it was hard and somethings may be hard to explain, but I want to try. Also, I will need my space to process the extreme change in culture. Sleep and space are the two things that initially will be most important. Then we can dive into the exchange of experiences that happened while I was gone. Once again, thank you to my family and friends because without your encouragement for me to share and your eagerness to listen the experience does not become truly real, because only when I attempt to share the knowledge I have gained from my trip does it live outside of me and help me make a difference in the world.
From this trip I have taken away a new sense of gratitude. I am not only thankful for the incredible support of my friends and family but also everything that I am so lucky to have in my life. I have loved being a part of this vibrant, different culture but I am so grateful for comforts of home. Working on the farm gave me a new appreciation for food, the system gave me a new appreciation for clean water and how much I have at my fingertips, getting sick gave me an appreciation for my health, and so much more. This trip has opened my eyes and given me a new perspective.
On this trip in Guatemala I have learned a lot about what friendship really means. I would never have thought this trip would change my view on friendship. I thought I already knew everything about friendship. This trip has showed me that things you never thought would change are able to change in just a few weeks. So when I come home I want my family and friend to know that I will come back as a more open, honest and friendly person.
I feel a little selfish talking about what I’ve received from Guatemala. I am so lucky because I was given the privilege of hearing stories and experiencing the lives (to the best of my ability) of the extraordinary people here. It was really a gift to be in Guatemala, so I feel selfish to keep on taking things. Apart from what I previously said, Guatemala has given me a strong sense of appreciation. I don’t want that to be considered as solely for my things at home. To further explain, I have gained an appreciation for three things. Primarily, I learned to open my mind and heart. I have been able to look outside myself and really feel and attain the knowledge that has be shared with me. Secondly, I learned to accept the people, lives and culture that is not my own. It has been very hard for me to step outside my comfort zone. Often times I was shoved out of my comfortable states, but I have been able to fully accept where I am. Once I finally realized that I needed to branch away from myself and previously conceived ideas of what is good or nice I had the most life changing experience. Lastly, I will be taking a new found appreciation for cultures, people and places all around the world. I have been limiting myself to my own culture. Generally when you only allow yourself to have one view or opinion of a given thing you will never see the gifts of other places. I will be forever grateful for all the things I learned in Guatemala.
It will be very difficult to try to explain this trip to the people I will be returning to. This experience was my own and it has changed me in ways I didn’t think it could. I wish the people in my life could all have been given this opportunity. Of course I will be sharing my own stories along with the adventures of everyone in this group, but it will never impact the people I hope it could. My family and friends will probably never be able to fully grasp what we have all done. I can’t wait to share my stories and new knowledge.
There’s something about pushing through things that is so empowering, about taking the pain of the moment and holding on to in for later while ignoring it in that moment. Sometimes work needs to be done and sometimes its harsh, painful work, but somebody’s got to do it, and if it’s me, I am not weak or delicate or incapable. I have had blisters burst as I swung a machete. I have held my weight in chicken poop fertilizer up a hill and down. I have swung a hoe for hours, developing and raising blisters which sting with each swing, feeling my back ache with each swing up and ribs creak with each swing down. Especially on the milpa in Cotzal, I have learned I have endurance; I’ve seen it this entire trip. I know I can bare pains. I have no excuses anymore. This isn’t to say I will seek it out, but when I struggle during difficult, necessary jobs, I cannot back out because I have the strength to do it, and I have the strength to not crumble. I am strong. My spirit can be headstrong and determined and if I want to achieve something, I can set my mind to it and do it.
I miss my home. I am three days away from seeing home and its comforts again. I want to see my dogs and my living room. I miss my parents. I know that once I’m home I’m going to miss Guatemala and everyone that was there, and I know that being home may not feel like being home for a while, but I feel ready to see my family and talk to them. I can’t wait to annoy them with my ceaseless talking and hear what my sister has done. I feel like going home to my family will feel natural, save for the reverse culture shock. Sandal-less showers sounds crazy; potable water is a scary idea; cars, wifi and TV sound like fantasies. But I’ll be fine with my family. I don’t feel ready for friends. I’m ready to see them and be with them, but I feel hesitant to talk. It may change when I’m actually there, but I want to stay quiet and listen for a bit, content to bash in their presence. I don’t want a lot of attention unless I express an interest or suggest involvement because I want time to reflect while knowing I still below with the people I trust.
Guatemala is a soup and as common sense we always eat the noodles first. In those noodles you will find the most amazing parts of Guatemala. Amongst the things I tasted in those noodles, I would like to take home the joy these people have. Now I am grateful for what I have and for my strength to persevere through difficult time.
I wish everyone could experience this soup and know how delicious it is, and how different it is from all the other soups in the world, even though it may not seem like it when you feel like there are only veggies left in the bowl. But then you find those little pieces of noodles underneath them, and everything seems better again.
Coming home I feel that I am a new person, not all new just changed. I feel like I have a new view on the world. I want to work hard now, because I’ve seen what I can do. I am now ready to live life to its fullest, ready to learn, ready to crave my hunger for adventure. Not only now do I want to do these things but I feel like I am prepared to. I have the drive to do the things that I really want more than ever before.
I want my family and friends to know that my appreciation for them has grown so much and that I have a lot of things to tell them when I get home. I also want them to know that I have so much motivation to succeed that at time it may seem that I have become introverted because of the time I’ll be spending alone working on things I want to learn and making myself better. If this happens remind me to take time for you guys because I may become distracted from you by school or trumpet or just the search for knowledge and adventure.
I feel as though I have taken away so many things from Guatemala, its unreal. I have changed so much over the past month. I will take away the joy I see from every person walking down the street and every home on the street. The stories I have heard about the perseverance and determination of the people has taught me to push through myself. I have found, in myself, a new sense of gratitude for my surroundings. I have learned that being thankful for everything in Guatemala helps to make the experience so much better. My mindset changed completely when I talked to Ashley and she told me to not be a prisoner in Guatemala but to take in the beauty and appreciate the experience I have gained here. I have become a new person, with a new outlook on life and a new appreciation of the world around me.
When I get back to Houston and back to my home and life, I feel I might need time to really think about what I have experienced in Guatemala and reflect on it. My time here has been the hardest thing I have ever done but it has always been one of the best, most enlightening experiences I have ever completed. I, when I get home, would love to share my experiences with my friends and family, the funny ones, the inspiring ones, the bad ones, but some of them I don’t know if I will be able to explain and share with them. Knowing that I am going back to my home, which has kept going without me, is hard because I don’t really know what I am going back to. If my friends and family ask questions, I will try my best to answer fully but some things I have experienced here are unexplainable. I really just want my family to know that this experience has changed me forever.
Parents, family, friends and loved ones, your Dragon is coming home! These 4 long weeks of limited communication must have been challenging for you. Only occasionally getting a quickly written email or yak. Never truly getting the full picture. When you meet your Dragons student at the airport you’re going to have a month’s worth of questions and love to share with them. Please do ask them questions and shower them with love but also realize that their trip isn’t done. The deepest learning on a Dragons course isn’t only in the remote communities like Cotzal or in the company of the many guest speakers we’ve been blessed to be with. It also comes when students return home. In the days, weeks and years to follow your Dragons student will be processing this experience. They will need your help with this process. Ask them deep questions that go beyond “what was the food like?” But also sometimes just give them space and time to process this experience. Thank you for letting us steal away your son, daughter or friend/loved one for this life changing month. Let them know we are proud of all their hard work and let them know that we are always here for them.
Ashley, Annie and Zack
There is a reason we dread the long row land-bound. Number one being that the land reminds us of those who have immobilized us, stopped us from living on the sea, stopped us from living our free way of life; two being that every time we go to the land we are judged and disrespected, we face the condescension from people who don’t understand us or respect us. Welcoming a student into our home makes me uneasy, fearful of the prejudice I experience from those on our land. Regardless of my fear, I welcome the outsider as warmly as I can, hoping to make my home feel like home to them. From first looks, the students are quite a spectacle. They travel around in small groups like little schools of fish, they carry around colorful bags on their backs that they carry around like turtle shells, and they communicate in ways I can’t understand.
Though little communication is possible, I warm up to my homestay student. What lacks in words, is made up in smiles and laughs. We may not be able to share a language, but we can share joy. I am able to take my homestay student fishing with me, something that I do every day, the practice that has shaped my way of life. The student fiddles with the nets, awkwardly stepping into the boat, almost tipping it over, while I step in with ease. I let them watch me as I dive deep into the depths, coming back up with a fish I’ve speared. They react with awe, smiles on their faces, impressed with the feat I have just done. The fact that my everyday life impresses these young people, instills pride within me, filling me with the accomplished feeling from the admiration of others.
The girl continues her homestay, but treating me with a subtle respect; interested in what i’m doing, watching me as I carve out my new boat, or as I play with my children, or even just taking time to sit with me in silence. I not only feel treated like a human, but I feel treated with respect.
My daughter has helped open my eyes to the good kinds of people from the land. I now realize, that not everyone from the land looks down on my way of life, but that some can even admire how I live. I now look forward for future students to come. No longer is she an outsider, she is my daughter.
-From the perspective of a Bajau
Goes the poet that “nothing gold can stay”… that beauty cannot last forever, because you get used to staring at that beautiful thing and then one day you realize that it is not beautiful but in actuality quite average. Just like the nighttime stars at Manthiancani. I remember staring at the blankets upon blankets of stars for minutes on end while my host sisters laughed at me for having such a fascination in the sky, which to her is of the most average and elementary parts of her life. I wish only that I knew more than survival-phrase Pulaar so that I could tell them that “the stars are not like this in America.” I know that, like them, I could get used to these stars very easily. I know how easily time could make me take the abundance of stars for granted.
But what is forgotten about the ordinary turning average is that before it turns ordinary, it becomes even more extraordinary. The longer that you stare at the stars, the more that come out. The same went with Manthiancani as an environment and way of life. The longer that we stayed, the more grand that it became.
This morning, we packed our bags and drove away from our six night homestay in a small, rural village in southern Senegal. The week all began last Wednesday when our minibus turned off of the main road and into Manthiancani. Like a church bell, our rumbling engine announced our presence and within the minute our car was surrounded by what seemed to be the entire village. Their eagerness was the most warm of welcomes and Manthiancani was already a sky of a thousand stars. And like the night sky, the longer that we stayed, the more stars that came out.
Stars when I ate bisaap and steaming rice by hand for dinner.
Stars when the little girls of the compound taught me to dance the Senegalese way by starlight.
Stars when I spent the entire day watching the ladies weave their hair for Korité.
Stars when Eliza and Annie joined in the men’s evening community soccer game.
Stars when the whole village gathered to sing and dance and eat in our honor.
Stars upon stars upon stars.
Perhaps if we had stayed much longer we would have become accustomed to the night sky, and though stars would keep emerging, we would stop noticing. Goes the poet that “nothing gold can stay”. And although I was sad to leave my Manthiancani family, I cannot complain about the images and memories of peace, joy and a million stars that I am taking with me.
I have a very “happy” life. I was born into a beautiful, loving family, regularly enjoy upper-middle class comforts, and spend my free time on California beaches with friends who truly care about me. Yet I was still searching for “happiness”. What exactly is happiness? A few weeks ago I’d say it’s the 3:00 pm relief of my 8-hour shift ending, when I had a good hair day, buying new clothes, going to parties and concerts and taking Instagram-worthy pictures that got over 50 likes. Adelaide calls moments like these “champagne moments”. My life, one champagne moment after another, chasing the high of the exciting, glamorous events- acting as fuel for a few days until my tank would run low and I’d need to cash out on something new to feel happy. When asked what my goal for the trip was, I said to that I wanted to figure out how to be happy, to have the joyous feeling that champagne moments gave me without the crash that follows. I came to India chasing something I never felt I had, but so, so desperately wanted. Something I have chased so relentlessly my entire life, trying everything, experiencing the pain of failure and emptiness despite all my efforts.
There is a saying that goes: “How precious a sunny day is after a few weeks of rain.” What I have found is that the opposite is also true (especially for us Californians) that the first rain after so many days of drought is just as beautiful. The water moments. The simple things that make you lose yourself in a joy that comes from a place deep in the stomach. So what is happiness? Today, I will tell you that happiness is a warm bucket shower after days of sitting in your own sweat. It’s the giggling of a tiny living room barely holding all my little Nepali cousins and siblings, learning to dance and having my hair braided. Happiness is the being moved to tears during a monastary lecture, despite my stiff back and aching neck, because the monk tells me that the negativity and pollution I’ve harbored in my mind for so long is not mine to carry. It’s the bumpy ride in the back of a truck to the Lepcha village, waking up to the majesty of the Himalayas being revealed from their viel of mist, a view so elusive yet so breathtaking, bonding with my non-English speaking aamaa by cooking with her (ok, I just cut the ginger) and her laughing at my butchering of the Nepali language.