I am writing this note of introduction from the costa Oaxaqueña in southern Mexico. The ocean is warm and I cannot get enough of tortillas, mole, quesillo, plátanos con crema, y todos los sabores y olores de este lugar mágico. I use the word magic, because it is one that I believe in. There is magic in air and in warm ocean water and in a late night campfire. Undoubtedly, you too will encounter something magical during our upcoming nine months in Bolivia together.
I am looking forward to meeting each of you and sharing the experience of Bridge Year. So much learning, depth, and purpose await you in Bolivia and in Tiquipaya. The yak board is a way for us to start to learn about each other and to share reflections and insights throughout the program. Soon our group of travelers will come together in Bolivia for a transformative experience that will impact the rest of your lives.
During my travels, I’ve recently been pondering several things, including the question: “What does travel mean?” Doors. Corn roasting on a street corner. A smile. Clouds. Rain. Waterfalls. Cacti. Eagles. Snakes. Parrots, pink dolphins, and giant, sacred trees. An ephemeral conversation with a taxi driver. For me travel is just that; a unique series of ephemeral moments, glimpses, and new words. There are always new words. A new word is a new way to see something you have always known, or in some rare and spectacular cases to encounter something you have never known. One of the ways I think language learning has enriched my life, is that it has helped me see that sometimes a single small word can make a difference of understanding seem huge. Those differences of understanding may lead to fear and even hatred. Language emerges and evolves through concept, thought, and time. Learning a new language helps us look into our patterns of language in our mother tongues as well as in our new language. Being in Bolivia since 2005, I have learned Spanish, although there is still so much I would love to learn about the Spanish language because it is so vast and diverse. I have also taken many of hours of Quechua classes, yet still find it a big struggle to speak coherently.
Another question that has come up for me is one of how exactly to share my story with you. There are so many parts of it that came before me. I believe that story, shared in community, has the power to heal and renew. I come from South Carolina at the convergence of the Congaree, Broad, and Saluda Rivers. A land of water, and heat, the trauma of histories both personal and ancestral live and walk in the streets of the deep South. The South and all of its complexity is very much a part of my identity.
I listened to my grandparents on nights filled with lightning bugs and bats. I sat in church pews between them, as my grandfather sang the hymnals he loved so much. I sat with my grandmother as her hands ran across mine on the keys of the piano. I flew in a plane my grandfather piloted, although I don’t really remember that first flight. I ate the delicious, fresh, homegrown, canned, preserved food they prepared, and some of what they grew: green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, pecans, squash, scuppernongs, and more. There are so many stories, it is hard to know where to begin the telling.
I have been working with Where There Be Dragons since 2013, with a significant break of two years when my Bolivian husband and I both completed Masters degrees at the School for International Training in Vermont. My degree from there is in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation. One of my favorite classes in grad school was Training for Social Action, which asked me to explore my own personal changeview, in addition to my own biases, stereotypes, and blind-spots. It offered me a love for the challenge of small-group facilitation. Each group is so unique and always offers new perspectives and questions. (Back to questions). One of the tools we used in that class was called strategic questioning. It is meant to allow a group or an individual to ask questions of someone based on a personal struggle the questioned are dealing with.
It turns out that listening and asking really heartfelt questions is not so simple. And being asked all of those questions is also not simple. It is a balance and a practice, which are two things that are challenging. I try and practice many things including yoga, meditation, hiking, surfing, gardening, guitar, writing poetry, and photography. There are so many practices, and the challenge lies in finding balance.
Story, practice, and I suppose the last element I want to talk about would be responsibility. In the face of listening to so many stories near and far, and trying to practice breathing and listening to them and truly seeing them, there is a gravity that opens in the heart and mind. It can be a gravity of anger, confusion, grief and also hope and resilience. My final question is, how do we construct our realities around the gravity of carrying so many new stories? My story continues, however many do not. The majority of people on the planet do not have the opportunities I have of mobility, of choice, nor of economy. Many do not even have the right to access basic human needs such as water and land.
Since my first travel experience abroad to China in 2001 (and probably before), I have been interested in working alongside anti-oppression efforts. I have studied and worked on lots of efforts to support queer and trans* communities, black lives matter, and the movement to end rape and sexual assault. One of my most impactful and transformative professional experiences was working at a rape crisis center in western North Carolina. While there I designed and carried out a ten day backpacking trip with eleven middle school boys with the aim to dismantle rape culture, and prevent sexual violence.
This program was an extremely big learning and growth experience. Not only did it combine some of my passions such as connection to the natural world and small-group facilitation, but it also opened my eyes to how deep my own socialization goes, and how I have the responsibility to construct my identity in a way that uplifts and supports. This is no easy task, but through travel and meeting people from all over the world from many, many different backgrounds I have gotten a glimpse into the immense responsibility I and all of us have in becoming more aware and more action oriented.
During the upcoming year in Tiquipaya, which will be my second Bridge Year program, I hope to do an IEA in carpentry and support a seed saving initiative in town. I am excited for us to come together soon to co-create a program that will transform all of our perspectives. I hope we will play music together, put our hands in the earth together, have difficult conversations together, laugh and cry together, and most importantly listen and learn new stories together.
I first came to Bolivia thirteen years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. When I left the United States I thought I would be back in two years time, leading the life of forty-hour work week and commutes. Little did I know how that travel and learning experience would shape the course of my life in ways I could have never imagined. My hope is that each of you is preparing to leave home and say goodbye in a way that acknowledges and honors the fact that you will never be the same person after Bolivia.
In the coming weeks as you do practical things like packing, and more difficult things like saying goodbye to loved ones, I would encourage each of you to post an introductory yak. I will be posting another yak in the next few days that has some more guidelines around that, and also some resources to start learning more about Bolivia.