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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Hello from Bangkok!

Hello Mekong Fall Semester Dragons!

Welcome to our Yak Board and welcome to the Mekong! It may seem like an age away now, but in just under a month we will all be meeting for the first time in Kunming International Airport to begin our epic journey together. I personally wanted to thank you for choosing to be a part of a wonderful, motivating and empowering experience with Dragons. It takes a lot of courage to step into the unknown and it’s definitely normal, at this point, to feel a little nervous and excited. Traveling pushes us to learn and reflect about ourselves and the world in a profound way. So, for whatever reason you decided to travel, know that our journey together will be a memorable one.

In this note, I want to introduce you to the Yak Board and to share a bit about myself and your fall. This Yak Board is the main way we will communicate with you about our rough itinerary, pre-course assignments, packing list and much more! Please bookmark it. You will soon discover that this page is a great way to share, connect and build enthusiasm for the adventure that lies ahead. It will also be used throughout your course to share your experience with loved ones back home. Important notices will also be posted before your departure date, so please begin the habit of checking your board regularly (that goes for your families too).

A little about me: My name is Jessica Armstrong and I’ve been working with Dragons as a South-East Asia and China Course Director/Instructor for the past 18 months. My personal journey with this side of the world began at birth. You see, my mother is Thai and my father is Australian so I (like many others), grew up navigating two, seemingly opposite, cultures. I find a lot of joy and satisfaction guiding and teaching others about the ways of the East and West. I have travelled extensively in South East Asia and have served in the Australian version of the Peace Corps in Laos. Currently I am based in Bangkok and I am busy studying Thai language. I just completed the Wilderness First Responder course and I have been helping out at an international NGO I love called International Rivers. I am an ecologist and there’s no doubt that I am passionate about the environment. Water resource development, biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture, climate change, sustainable livelihoods, plastic pollution, water resource development… these are just a few topics that I am interested in. I’m also into meditation, mindfulness, eating tasty food and trying to be the best daughter/sister/aunty/friend/stranger I can be.

I have spent the past 18 months instructing Dragons courses in South East Asia and China, and, while I love all of the places I have been, the Mekong program truly holds a special place in my heart and I am overjoyed to be retuning with you. From China to Laos, then Thailand to Cambodia, get ready for an experience that will challenge you. Dragons courses are not laid-back trips; rather, they are thought-provoking, interactive experiences in which your participation is required. So, whatever you think you know about the Mekong, scrap it. She is a blank slate waiting to be discovered. Among the many lessons that I have learned working and travelling in this region, perhaps the most potent has been learning to live in the present. The Mekong can demand your full attention in any given moment and challenge the ways in which you view yourself and the world.

On course, you may have experiences of intense presence that some of you might like to be forewarned of.  Past students have expressed an appreciation for, shall we say, a heads up! So, with that said, be prepared for the potentiality of the following: dramatic changes in schedule, a lack of personal space, phases of too little or too much free time, being hungry, being intensely full, being more tired than you’ve ever been in your life, having to wait for transportation, being asked to do things you’re not totally psyched about, not having clean laundry, having to use squat toilets with no toilet paper, having to speak a different language, being laughed at, having sloppy diarrhea, having to take a cold bucket shower, having to drop your expectations… and more than anything and perhaps implicit in all stated above, having to be uncomfortable and hopefully learning to extract a valuable lesson in being so!

However, you can also be prepared for the inevitability of the following: feeling your heart spontaneously open to virtual strangers, seeing more smiles in a day than you can count, experiencing acts of kindness and generosity from people who have seemingly nothing, being moved to tears and laughter unexpectedly, hearing words of insight and wisdom from respected members of the community, being accepted into a family as if you were their biological child, playing silly games with the most enthusiastic and curious kids you’ve ever met, tending to family farm animals and crops, stuttering through a new language, being spellbound by chanting monks, feasting your eyes on the endless acres of bright green rice fields, meeting Nobel Prize winning humanitarians, watching monkeys play, and avoiding thousands of motorbikes in the city streets.

What lies ahead is hard to find words for. What is even more difficult is to be prepared for the journey. I imagine this note will find all of you at some stage of preparation. All I can say by way of advice goes beyond anything you can fit in your backpack. It’s important to start this journey with your loose ends tied up at home so that you can slip into the presence that awaits you.  What I ask for you to all bring is an open heart and mind.  Be ready to give up some control and let yourself flow.  My role as your Instructor is to provide a safe raft and a paddle to get you through the rapids.

In the weeks to come, if you or your folks have any questions about the course, please feel free post a Yak.  I also encourage you to introduce yourself here too. Where are you? Why did you choose to take a gap year? What interests you about the Mekong program? What’s a quirky fact about you that you’d like to share? It always takes the brave first one to get it started and then the board will take off!

I am really looking forward to getting to know you all. Get excited and stay tuned for more posts.

In loving kindness,