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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

A warm welcome

Greetings Fellow Adventurers!

Welcome to the 2018 Mekong Fall Program Yak Board! In just over a month, you will arrive in Kunming and begin a sojourn that will change your life in unforeseen ways. This journey will present challenges and rewards far beyond your imagination. It is an exciting prospect and one that I’m sure you are all a bit nervous about. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to leave behind what is familiar and to venture out into the unknown. For that, you already have the respect of your instructors and the communities you will be living amongst and working with.

In this note, I want to introduce you to the Yak Board page and to share a bit about your Fall and myself. As we get closer to the start of your program, I want to invite you all to introduce yourselves on the Yak Board and use it as a place to post any questions you have. 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. Your instructors will introduce themselves too, and important notices will be posted over the next weeks, so please begin the habit of checking your board regularly (you can subscribe to receive updates).

A little about me: Traveling around and living in South East Asia and China on and off for the past 12 years has shaped my identity. My ancestry is here and I, like many others, have been blessed knowing how to navigate two seemingly opposing cultures and worlds. As an ecologist, humanitarian and educator, I have witnessed the Mekong River change with my own eyes. The participants of this program will see for themselves, life along the Mekong is not what it once was, and we stand witness to the challenges people and communities face trying to adapt to the current environment. And, among the many lessons that I have learned in my professional and personal life in Asia, perhaps the most potent has been learning to live in the present. Asia can demand your full attention in any given moment and challenge the ways in which you view yourself and the world.

On course, you will all have experiences of this intense presence, some that 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, not having a toilet or having to use a dirty toilet, having to speak a different language, being laughed at, having sloppy diarrhoea, once again… Not having a toilet! Having to take a cold, bucket shower or having no shower, hiking until your thighs burn and your lungs are ready to burst, eating unappetising food, 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, holding farm animals, stuttering through a new language, being spellbound by chanting monks, learning new skills from your ISP mentor, feasting your eyes on high, snowy peaks, filling your belly with copious amounts of delicious homemade food, and meeting activists who risk their lives to fight for their human rights.

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 sojourn 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 and that of your leaders is to provide a safe raft and a paddle to get you through the rapids.

Your instructors will be checking this Yak Board regularly, so again, this is the appropriate place to ask all of your pre-course questions. We look forward to hearing from all of you by way of an introduction.

I hope that this note finds you all healthy, happy and enjoying the summer.

With gratitude,

Jessica Armstrong.

South East Asia Program Director.

[email protected]