Back to
Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Confessions of a Dragons Instructor

“The ethnosphere, a notion perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts, beliefs, myths and intuitions made manifest today by the myriad cultures of the world. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all that we are and all that we have created as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species”

-Wade Davis,
Light at the Edge of the World

On my Bolivia course this past summer, one of my students posed the question “Why should we care about diversity?” (thank you Rebecca!). Initially, I had a kneejerk reaction to the query, thinking about the myriad and strikingly apparent reasons why diversity is something that we inherently want to value. But the more I considered Rebecca’s sincere and honest inquiry, I found myself increasingly tongue-tied. My efforts to produce an eloquent and comprehensive response to what seemed a self-evident human truism tugged at the very core of my being and values as an individual and as an educator. Rebecca’s question has remained ever-present in my mind these past months, and I have come to realize that it speaks to the fundamental nature of the work that we do as educators.

Over the past four years, I have spent approximately 610 days in the field as an instructor with Dragons. That works out to be just over 40% of my life in that period, not counting the additional days and weeks that I’ve spent preparing for courses, pouring over paperwork, doing administrative work at the office in Boulder, scouting new program areas, staffing instructors, liaising with potential students and families, outreaching with our local contacts, and participating in Dragons orientations and trainings. I think I can safely speak for our wide community of instructors and administrators when I say that we do this work for reasons that drive us spiritually, emotionally, and intuitively as human beings. We work long hours, late nights, we get sick and exhausted, we travel and sweat and sometimes pull off feats of theatrical and improvisational educational acrobatics in rugged cross-cultural settings. And we love what we do.

Over the course my years as an instructor, my work with Dragons has poured over into other elements of my life, influencing my relationships and community, driving my schedule, and molding in significant ways the manner in which I perceive and interact with the world around me. My husband would say that I live and breath Dragons and, in that regard, I am very much not alone. There are many of us, some much more devoted than I, who are dedicating their professional lives to living against the grain, jumping from course to course and continent to continent, traversing cultural and conventional boundaries and redefining, every single day, the potential of experiential education and meaningful cross-cultural engagement to touch and (hopefully!) transform the lives of young people.

Every single one of us is engaged in this work because we believe that it has the power to break down prejudice, to connect the sometimes seemingly disconnected threads of our planet, to redefine the contours of our human relationships and global interactions in ways that are more compassionate, meaningful, and productive for humanity and the planet that cradles us. I know that for me personally, my early travels left a profound mark on my identity and life trajectory, and contributed in countless ways to the path that led me to my home in Bolivia. As instructors, we do not claim to change lives, but we believe that placing young people in situations of inter-cultural dialogue, reflection, and exposure to the planet’s mind-numbing diversity – and vulnerability – can do just that. We are motivated by living a life of intention, constant exploration, boundless curiosity, and a profound respect for difference. As instructors, educators, mentors, guides, teachers, friends, and cultural translators we work ceaselessly, improvise daily, and demand incredible resiliency from ourselves and from our students.

The work of an instructor with Dragons is an incredible leap of faith. Each student arrives to our programs with different life experiences, perspectives, expectations, world-views and ways of absorbing and making sense of new experiences. Over the course of our programs, we consciously and intentionally challenge those world-views and push our students out of their fields of physical, mental and emotional comfort. In return, we hope the places and experiences they encounter will plant a small seed of understanding that may in some way influence their future attitudes, decisions, and interactions with the world around them. On a basic and aspirational level, the seeds that I would like to scatter into this world have one elemental goal: respect for diversity, both human and natural, and the right of all beings to dance, to dream, to flourish in ways that cherish the magical and dizzying colors and variations of our planet.

More often than not, we have no idea if those seeds will ever take root, if the experience will stay alive and resonate out into the world or be swallowed by other forces beyond our reach. It is impossible to measure the impact of our work, to quantify our accomplishments, and at times, the meaning of this journey may only manifest months or years down the line. But that leap of faith keeps us going in forests and villages, on buses and riverboats and across mountains and deserts around the globe. It is a daunting and sometimes terrifying task. We seek to build moral characters while knowing full well that we are flawed and fallible individuals ourselves. We teach to and probe some of the fundamental questions around human nature and difference. We challenge conventions around privilege and prejudice, legacies of violence and oppression, and our role and responsibility as engaged human beings in a fragile and complex natural and socio-economic landscape. And we ask ourselves, at every turn, how we can be better teachers and educators and more compassionate human beings. It is a constant dance of perpetual planning, experimentation, big questions, and the winds of spontaneity. Was I patient enough? Did I ask the right questions? Are my students being awakened by the beauty and tragedy at every turn?

These themes were thrown into stark relief this past week during our excursion into the Amazon, a place where the myth of our isolated human experience is lifted at every turn. There is perhaps nowhere on the planet where you are more immersed in diversity and fragility, where the minute interconnectedness of our natural biosphere washes over us, where the delicate threads that make up the texture and brilliance and intricate quilt of our world wrap around us in a suffocating and at once liberating embrace. The Amazon rainforest is the apothecary of our world, the source of so many of our remedies and resources, while also posing exhilarating threats. It is a place where the fate of the planet and our place within it stands on a precarious and unfathomable precipice. As young people in the face of unprecedented challenges, it is our lives in this ultimately miniscule moment in time that may determine the winds of that scale.

The healers of the Amazon forest claim to be intermediaries between our species and the secrets of the animal and plant world. They unlock the healing properties of the forest while reminding us of our beautiful and fragile condition as humans. Traditionally, those healers have navigated and in some ways maintained that intricate and invisible balance – between humans and the natural world, and between the spiritual and physical realms of being. If you ask an Amazonian healer how they learned of the healing properties of the forest, he or she will tell you that the plants spoke to them, that ultimately we are an integral part of the forest and it will speak to us if we only know how to listen.

On one of our last days in the jungle, the sky opened up and we were relieved, for a time, from the oppressive heat and insects. A group of us found ourselves out on an excursion to a nearby lake, and we were swallowed up by a torrent unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Engulfed by the depths of the tropical rainforest, we were humbled and overwhelmed by this majestic force of nature. We stripped off the layers that were nominally protecting us from the insects, and allowed the water to wash over us. I was struck by the sensation of feeling like a tiny, insignificant drop of rain on this infinite and multi-chromatic planet. I think that all of us that day also felt connected, awakened, involved in something beautiful and fleeting and altogether significant. It was a moment that cannot be planned or scripted, when forces beyond our control come together overwhelmingly to remind us to be grateful, to dance in the joy of a magical and unrepeateable moment, to revel in the abundance and diversity around us. A moment when feeling small also means feeling a part of something greater.

As the strength of the storm diminished and the rain settled into a steady rhythm, the six of us trudged through the jungle soaked to the bone, knee deep in water, but also with a bounce to our step. Nothing significant was said, but we all knew in our silence that something special had passed between us. And I realized that those magical, unplanned, irresistible moments are the real joys and lessons in this life, the seeds that we hope to plant but sometimes just fall over us like water from the sky. We were cleansed, invigorated, exhilarated by the storm, by the majesty of the jungle, and by our utter gratitude at being here, together, on this altogether mundane and extraordinary day in the Amazon. Nature spoke, and for an ephemeral moment in space and time, we listened.