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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Instructor Introduction

Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunlit one.

The way to it, barely begun, lies ahead.

So we are grasped by what we have not grasped,

full of promise, shining in the distance.

It changes us, even if we do not reach it,

into something we barely sense, but are;

A movement beckons, answering our movement…

But we just feel the wind against us.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Hello, ni hao, sabaidee, sawadee ka, suasdey to our Dragons students,

Writing to introduce myself, so many questions about you begin to arise. I’m curious about your lives, your hopes and dreams. Who are you that Anna, Gai and I will soon welcome in Kunming? What things have lifted your gaze to the distant shores of the Mekong River on the other side of the world?

Fifteen years ago, I took my first journey into the world. I was 16 and landed in a dusty field in Alotau, Papua New Guinea with my clothes wrapped up in my SCUBA gear and instructions to look out for a large British woman with pink hair that liked wearing kaftans. My mum was worried about wild pigs, my dad reminded me to drink water.

I wonder if you are feeling a similar mix of curiosity, longing (and perhaps sheer terror) that I felt stepping into that field; grasped by something you have not grasped, longing to discover places not ventured in the world and in yourself simultaneously?

When we are home, wherever home may be, it can be extremely easy to operate within the comfort of things known. We rarely edge ourselves into positions where we experience discomfort, examine our fears, our limitations, question our habits and things that may drive us to distraction within the comfort of our familiar. Travelling is a sure-fire way of removing that illusionary privilege of conceit that we may control or exercise power over all events or circumstances, and one that must be surrendered as we grow and choose how we inhabit our vulnerability.

If your travels through the Lower Mekong Basin echo any of my experiences you’ll be hit with the intensity of bus station squat toilets; long waits for anything from ordering food (that is what you ordered right?) to waiting for transport to show up or arrive; being squished or having people in your lack of personal space. You will have no clean clothes, you will not understand what people are saying, you will have to hold your breath and tip cold water over your head whilst scrubbing off road dust with soap. At times it may feel like you have to be a special kind of invalid to survive living in the tropics! AND you will be welcomed into the homes and hearts of people you’ve just met, savour incredible flavours you’ll want to recreate, listen to the stories of elders and active community members, laugh at the cheeky joy of curious and excited kids yelling ‘foreigner!’ and be immersed in some of the most stunning landscapes and cultures with every fibre of your being.

I’m writing to you from my parent’s home on 15 acres of Australian bushland in a little place called Humbug Scrub, South Australia. Kangaroos are everywhere at this time of year, making the most of the short explosion of green grass in an otherwise quite hot and dry region. Having just returned from Laos and Cambodia via packing up my van-life in New Zealand (where I sailed from Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia) I’m enjoying some stillness and time with family and friends.

Projects in Central Laos have won my heart, occupied my mind and kept me coming back to Southeast Asia over the past 8 years. I’ve put on community puppet shows, joined expeditions looking for emerging diseases, distributed over 10,825 lao language books in the form of small libraries, rescued a pangolin, trained teachers and community outreach workers, gazed in wonder at red-shanked douc langurs and woken at dawn with gibbon song. Working with remote communities in the Annamite Ranges; one of the most significant regions for biodiversity conservation remaining in Southeast Asia, remains extremely rewarding and extremely challenging, particularly as a witness to changes at the hands of the illegal wildlife trade, changing climate, rapid infrastructure development and increasing accessibility to previously remote regions. However remote, the inextricable interconnectedness of these communities and our wider ecological community has without a doubt altered the quality and path of my life. No more so than with the reminder to lean into every experience with an open heart and embrace the world warmly and fully.

Well, that’s a little bit about me, what about you? Jump on the Yak Board and feel free to share something with us, your instructors and your fellow travellers. This is your journey- what makes you curious? How do you want to grow?

A traditional Lao belief teaches that humans possess 32 kwan (souls), each watching over or protecting a different system of the body and each vital to our health and spiritual wellbeing. The Baci ceremony, also known as su kwan (calling of the soul), is a practice deeply-rooted in the cultural psyche, conducted through a series of long chanted blessings and calls. A baci could be held for community events as diverse as a wedding, funeral, birth, leaving to or returning from travel or buying a new motorbike. The kwansor souls are called from wherever they are roaming, back to the body, restoring equilibrium.

I encourage you all to spend some time with your own practices back home to call back all the little bits of yourself and be ready to embark on this journey with your whole wonderful and authentic selves.

Anna, Gai and I are so looking forward to meeting you all and embarking on this journey together.

Pop Gan Mai!

See you Soon!

-Karlee

P.S This photo is of Sakhone (one of my colleagues in Central Laos) and I returning from a field trip down the Nam Theun river (which becomes a major tributary to the Mekong downstream as the Nam Kading river)