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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Instructor Introduction – Jeff Wagner

Dear Fellow Traveler,

Imagine yourself sitting on the banks of a might river, your toes dipped into the water. Upstream, lost in the mist loom the sheer icy peaks of the Himalaya. Downstream, past dams and rice fields, fishing boats and muddy waters, lies the Pacific Ocean. These waters have known the bare feet of Buddhist monks, the boots of military invaders, and all kinds of traders and fisherfolk and travelers for hundreds of years. As you continue to walk through villages in those valleys, you hear a mix of languages you’ve never heard before. “Sawaadee kaa! Sabai dii mai? Gin khao riang?” You see traditions unlike anything you’ve learned about in school. You pass people dressed in brightly-colored garments of the hill tribes: rebels that have been evading the ruling empires for centuries. You hear murmurs of a hidden history in this landscape: the history that the modern world is built on. A history of global power struggles, of uprising and conflict. The story of one of the world’s greatest rivers, the people who would tap it for power of one kind or another, and the people who live from it.  And you begin to hear talk of hope and of work to create a future worth living in: of honoring the Earth that gives life to us all, combining new and traditional knowledge to create a society that’s stable and sustainable. People invite you to sing songs with them, to share your story as they tell you theirs, to grieve the past and dream a new future.

My name is Jeff, and I’m honored to be your instructor on our journey through Southeast Asia this semester. When I began traveling outside the United States in 2011, West Africa was the first landscape that captured my heart, followed quickly by the Himalaya and Southeast Asia. As I explored them, I began to meet activists, villagers, spiritual teachers, artists, and all kinds of other people who claim unique places in our global community. That first year, I lived in a high mountain valley that held a lake like a bright blue jewel in the middle. Every morning across the lake, the Muslim call to prayer from the masjid echoed through the continual ringing of bells from little Hindu mandirs and chanting from beneath the prayer flags of the Tibetan Buddhist gompa. As I stepped outside of the world that I knew, I found not just another world, but dozens of unique and complementary worlds living side-by-side, each of which held a reality that was vibrant, full of life, and far more complex and interesting than I thought was possible growing up in the suburban United States. As I abandoned the well-trod tourist paths, I began to meet people who were eager to share their homes, their cultures, their languages, and their stories with me.

I’ve been a nomad for the past eight years; as the seasons changed, I’ve always found a way to pack up and move. During the winters, I’ve helped to run in a small community of educators and activists at a wolf sanctuary in southern Colorado. There, I lived in tipis, built solar-heated and solar-powered buildings, and enjoyed a simple, communal life in the mountains. We took care of captive wolves that hadn’t worked out as pets and educated people about sustainable living, ecology, and why wolves shouldn’t be in cages. The past seven years I’ve spent my summers leading backpacking trips for NOLS in the big wilderness of the American West. There’s something in the last few years that called me back to the farther reaches of the globe though, to places full of wonder, constant change, and people who are seeking the answers to the big questions in life. This will be my ninth course with Dragons, and I’m happy to have you along for the journey.

Right now, I’m sitting at a seed-saving farm in northern Thailand where I’ve been working with a wise man who teaches so beautifully how to live simply in our busy world. As we have been planting vegetables and packing seeds to mail all over Asia, we’ve talked about the concept of home in our modern world and what we learn from leaving home. It’s a big step, and my heart always feels some sadness in leaving. But then there’s the excitement of packing: the realization that life will become simpler when I’m living out of my tiny backpack. How little can I bring? What is truly essential for my happiness? Why do I even own anything more? There’s the new landscapes and new people. There’s the explosion of new thoughts and ideas, of optimism for the future, of seeing truly what this world is, where it is going, and what my place in it might be tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

I’ve spent my life trying to answer some of those big questions: How can we best live in the world? How can we inspire development that is good for generations to come? What does a truly happy society look like? What does it mean to be alive at a time when so much is changing? For me, those answers lie all over the world. They’re in the remote villages, in the cities, on the winding mountain roads and quiet forest trails. As we travel Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and China, from the urban chaos of Phnom Penh and Kunming to the secluded jungle hills of Laos and Himalayan gorges of Yunnan, I know that we’ll come a little closer to understanding the answers.

I heard once that the best journeys answer questions which at the beginning, we didn’t even think to ask. Traveling to Southeast Asia is a bold leap, and I’m glad to be embarking on that journey with you this semester. I hope the Mekong River can offer us all something wonderful, whether or not we know we’re looking for it. The world offers itself to those who seek to know it.

Until we meet in Cambodia, I’ll leave you with a poem.

Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End? by Mary Oliver

Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.

It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.

The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.

The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.

But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white

feet of the trees

whose mouths open.

Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?

Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly, across Asia, then Europe,

until at last, now, they shine

in your own yard?

Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.

When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking

outward, to the mountains so solidly there

in a white-capped ring, or was he looking

to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea

that was also there,

beautiful as a thumb

curved and touching the finger, tenderly,

little love-ring,

as he whirled,

oh jug of breath,

in the garden of dust?


Looking forward so much to meeting you all.