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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Hello from Sarah Messner- Onsite Director

Namaste, dear friends:

The deepest part of me salutes the deepest part of you.

In Varanasi, the region of north India that we’ll call home for six and a half months, there is a saying: अतिथिदेवो भव, Atithi Devo Bhava: A Guest is like God.

In India, guests are received with warm hospitality: steaming hot cups of chai, an abundance of food, a comfortable place to rest, and assurance that all needs are met. Varanasi is sometimes known as “Banaras,” or “Kashi,” or “The City of Light,” “Anandavana” (the “forest of bliss”), or, to a certain wise neighbor on the cremation ghats, “the City of Burning and Learning.” When you first arrive, you might be overwhelmed by the multi-sensory overload of one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi is sacred to multiple religions: to Hindus, it is the city of the god Shiva; to Buddhists, it’s situated alongside Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park (or the first “turning of the wheel of the Dharma”); and to Muslims, who comprise a third of the population of the city, Varanasi is sacred (the site of multiple historic mosques and Sufi shrines) and also the birthplace of the poet-saint Kabir. Of course, we ought not forget the Jain and Sikh communities, which also recognize the sanctity of the City of Light. We’ll also encounter other “pilgrims” such as spiritual tourists from Western countries, backpackers of all ages, and students and researchers seeking deeper insight.

Mark Twain once wrote with his characteristic wit, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Yet for all its history, Banaras is “modernizing” in its own way, and we’ll see cell phone towers and shopping malls alongside ancient temples, revered cows halting traffic for miles as they lounge in the middle of the road. Each day will reveal a new wave of seekers from throughout India and beyond, all coming to Varanasi for an experience of the sacred and inner meaning… or perhaps to turn a quick profit. We’ll share our lives with shopkeepers and teachers, students and boat wallahs and sadhus (religious practitioners) who practice their rituals alongside the sacred Ganga river. The Ganga-ji (known as the “Ganges” river) symbolizes unparalleled divinity, purity, and sanctity in Hindu mythology. It is the longest river in India, flowing for 1569 miles from the Himalayas to the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal, and we are lucky enough to see it every day. Varanasi, its inhabitants, and its pilgrims, and even its rivers and holy sites will teach us all the time.

I am so thrilled to meet each one of you in person in little more than a month. It reveals a lot that you would choose to come on this journey: it is a brave decision and a privilege to step off the well-trodden path and venture out of your known world into something so new and different. The Princeton Bridge Year Program will challenge us to think outside our preconceptions and previous experience, to engage with a worldview quite different from the one(s) in which we were raised. If there’s one thing I can assure you of, it is this: your time in India will change you.

It certainly changed me. After I graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in English and Environmental Studies, I worked for two years with Partners In Health in Rwanda, east Africa, where I helped to develop an agricultural and food security program to address chronic malnutrition utilizing sustainable, community-based methods. While in Rwanda, I also pursued a graduate certificate in Conflict Transformation Across Cultures from the School for International Training, with a special emphasis on the Rwandan genocide and psychosocial, community-led interventions. Around this time, I happened to take a short trip to Sikkim, northeast India, on a month-long journey that would change the course of my life. I emerged from several weeks of backpacking, engaging with environmental activists and religious leaders, to realize that something in me was drawn to return to India in some capacity. I returned to the U.S. to pursue a Master of Divinity at Princeton Seminary, during which time I returned to India on a grant to study climate change, agriculture, and the ways in which religious worldviews influenced community adaptation strategies to changing weather patterns. Shortly after I graduated, I joined the team at Where There Be Dragons, and have led multiple semesters in India and Nepal, as well as a number of shorter programs with Dragons, National Geographic Student Expeditions, and Putney Student Travel in India, Peru, Tanzania, and other regions. I am passionate about the ways in which experiential education can serve as a form of international diplomacy and understanding during these precarious times.

Now, back to our Bridge Year Program: these Field Notes — or the “Yak Board” — will serve as a forum for addressing your questions and beginning a dialogue as you prepare for the upcoming journey. I will be updating it periodically, as will other Dragons administrators and staff, so be sure to check in regularly. I will also be touching base with you all via email for more urgent matters, and will connect with each of you at least once by phone before we meet in person in Princeton (where among other tasks such as logistics and protocol, I’ll also be introducing you to the two best ice cream shops in town). In the future, once you arrive in India, this Yak Board will be a place where you can update others on your insights and reflections from the field as we experience a rich and meaningful time together. In the distant future, you might look back on the Archives to glean long-term insights and realizations.

If you have any questions that might require a more personal response please feel free to email me at [email protected], and I’ll do my best to respond accordingly (though to give fair warning, my response time will vary in accordance with the internet connectivity in a little village outside of Arusha, Tanzania).

The poet Kabir once wrote,

The pearl is in the oyster,
and the oyster is at the bottom of the sea.
dive deep.

No amount of advice can fully prepare you for the journey ahead: the best advice I can offer is to bring an open mind and heart, be willing to surrender your preconceptions, take a deep breath, and dive deep!

Thank you, and see you very soon-