Hello Mekong Semester,
I am writing to you from Madagascar, a place that is as unfamiliar to me as I assume the remote villages of China, rice paddies of Laos, and cities of Cambodia are to you. I arrived to the world’s fourth largest island a few days ago and am slowly getting to know the neighborhood I am living in by taking slow walks, practicing the few Malagsy words I know, and listening to the music and voices traveling to my ears from the roads below. In a month or so you will be in this role, the role of learning traveller in a place–many places–that is new to you. Even if you have been to the Mekong River region before, you cannot step in the same river twice, and you will notice newness, and recognize that you, yourself, are different.
Ten years ago I set off on an adventure uncannily similar to your own: I look a gap semester before my undergraduate studies and I was a student on the first ever Mekong semester. The semester was longer then, around 90 days, and it was three months that highly impacted the way I came to understand how I wanted to live in society and how I wanted to participate in my life without abandon or fear. It fills me with excitement and anticipation to think about walking on some of the same footpaths I trod along many years ago, to re-visit monasteries I sat inside, and feel the waters of the Mekong push my feet and legs.
Since that fall of 2009, I have made choices that have led me to live in many different countries and states. I originally grew up in Vermont, and while that is currently where most of my possessions reside–thanks to the kindness of my parents for allowing me to use their home as a storage unit of sorts–I am currently without a home. For many years Colorado acted as a homebase, but once I committed to working full-time as an instructor, I let go of the promise of stability that a driveway and kitchen and closets to hang my clothes provides. The past few years I have been a semester instructor for Dragons in South Asia, and during my summers leading hiking programs for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming and Alaska. I move a lot, and yes, it becomes tiring, but it also illuminates for me the very things I believe in: engaging with place through interaction and action, using my body and mind to work through challenges and discover newness, and consequently having the chance to consistently expand my knowledge of people, places, and the planet.
I know that one of the hardest parts of committing to traveling for such a long period of time is negotiating with yourself over the things you should bring. It is very true, the more intentional you are with what you bring will ultimately serve you better; your bag will be lighter, yes, but also you will find that in a world that overtly promotes consumption with discouraging frequency and normalcy, you can exist emotionally and mentally lighter with fewer items you are responsible for. I believe in this, and I hope, if you are someone who tends to bring along creature comforts, you challenge yourself to limit those. That said it is natural for us all to bring small things that provide us with comfort during travels and as a further way of introducing myself to you I wanted to share the items I bring with me when I am living out of a bag:
This fall you will run the gamut of experiences. There will be moments of exhaustion and frustration perhaps in the same daylight hours as moments of pure elation and exhilaration. You will find challenges in how to manage your time: whether to spend it alone or with members of the group or your home-stay families. You will miss your families and friends. You will find that you do not miss anyone from home. You may question why you are going to college. You may question why you took a gap year. You will eat food you love and others you wished you had not tried. You will watch sunrises and sunsets and sleep in places that right now are probably very hard to imagine. You will get in arguments and love yourself in new ways. You will befriend strangers, appreciate boredom, feel helpless, feel strong, feel alive. This fall will be many things for you, but most of all it will be what you make of it.
I recently came across this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that really resonated with me and made me think about what it is like to be immersed in the Mekong River region:
“The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms–the hazy butterflies, the carved shells, the birds, beasts, fishes, insects, snacks, and the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer–an occult relation between the very scorpions and man.
I feel the centipede in me–cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies…”
We will talk a lot about wilderness. What it is and what it isn’t, and will consider what it means to each of us in different times and spaces. I see my interactions with the wilderness, which I believe includes the presence of humans, as ones that can help me to see the world not in blocks of differences, but in nuanced similarities and curiosities. So much of this stems from engaging in conversations with folks like you, and that is something that motivates me to continue to move and travel and learn. I am already anticipating what conversations we will have and games we will play and I am looking forward to all of it.
We will be speaking by phone shortly, but in your preparation process if you have any questions–straightforward or not–please feel free to ask.
Enjoy these August (boreal summer) days.