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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Where There be the Mekong: A Look Into Our Fall Tentative Itinerary

Hello Mekong Crew!

We wanted to share with you our tentative itinerary for this upcoming fall. The word “tentative” emerged in the English language in the 1580’s, stemming from Medieval Latin’s tentativus, which means “trying” or “testing” and Latin’s tentatus, which is “to feel” or “to try.” As you have undoubtedly learned by now, at Dragons we believe in the power of learning through immersion, through experiences that open us up to try new things, to feel into the moments, to test our preconceived boundaries and set new ones. Thus, we are sharing this with you with the understanding that so much more will arise that we will experience and dive into.

We have developed the structure of this itinerary to allow for you all to be introduced to the Mekong River region through interaction and integration. As you read through the progression of our travels south, you may note that some plans have a certain vagueness to them. That is on purpose, as we want to leave space and time open to adjust our schedules to what is happening in the moment in the places we are visiting. We cannot predict the births of home-stay siblings or local celebrations. We do not yet know what you, as students, will want to pursue and gain during this expedition, and how you will choose to plan our days together. We want to witness and partake in those occasions, and so while we have certain set dates, so much of our flow will be dynamic and responsive.

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China: 17. September – first week October

Weeks One, Two, and Three:

Our group will meet in Kunming, a city of small proportions by Chinese standards with a population of over 6.5 million people. Just outside of China’s capital city we will spend a few days in a quiet, comfortable environment for our Orientation. During this time we will take a closer look at our itinerary, begin to introduce ourselves to one another through reflective and active manners, examine goals for the fall, and get over jet lag. From this we travel to our home-stay in Bucan, a Tibetan village located in the hills. You will stay with one or two other students in homes for a handful of nights, and spend your days split between time with the group and your families. We will have daily meetings for Mandarin language lessons, learning about Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese history, and also checking in with one another. With your families you can expect to play with home-stay siblings, spend time in the fields, and try your hand at cooking.

From this home-stay we will depart for our trek to Yubeng, a high-altitude mountain village at the foot of the Meili Snow Mountain Range. On the way we get our first look at the muddy brown churning waters of the Mekong, or Langcang as it is referred to as in China. We will live in this Tibetan village for a week and explore the various paths that lead to waterfalls and deeper into the mountain sides.

Week Four:

Our final week in China will be spent resting and reflecting from our trek as well as planning and managing a mini “X-phase.” At this point on course you will have developed a sense of awareness about the structure of our itinerary and curriculum, and have started to form as a group. Additionally, you will have had the chance to learn and practice skills that help you to navigate cultures and communication across a language barrier. Our group’s personality and interests, paired with your own individual curiosities and passions, will help dictate how we spend our days. We will reflect upon our time in China and prepare for crossing into Laos and what that has in store for us.

 

Laos: First week in October – First week in November

Weeks Five and Six:

Borders are political boundaries drawn on maps, however they literally and symbolically create separation of cultures and landscapes. Laos People Democratic Republic, or Laos PDR, is also informally referred to as “Laos: People Don’t Rush,” in reference to the slower pace of life in this country. Just as the Mekong widens and slows, so too does the way of life in this country of 6.8 million.

We will spend our first week in Laos living in and exploring a village where we will stay together as a group, but have day outings to learn basket weaving, hike to blue lagoons to swim, and begin studies of the Lao language. We will find ourselves in a different type of landscape, having left behind the high mountains and highlands of terraced tea hills to junglescapes. We will have a chance to visit temples and engage in further discussions about Buddhism, religion, and socio-economic impacts of tourism on this region.

Our group will travel then overland by bus to Vientiane, the political capital of Laos. Situated on a crook of the Mekong River, Vientiane holds an important history of the Secret War in Laos and during our time there we will visit NGO’s working to continue to provide support for victims of this war. We will meet with guest speakers to discuss ecological issues and projects happening in the country and examine our own home-countries’ histories and how they are intertwined with the one of this small nation.

Weeks Six and Seven:

From the bustling capital city we will take a bus to Thakek where we will then hop onto our island home-stay on Baan Don Dohn. A Catholic community, the livelihoods of the people come almost entirely from the land and its bounty: farming rice, fishing, and weaving baskets from bamboo. As we settle into solo home-stays, we will adjust our pace and lives to the timing of island, rising with our families to help with chores, spending evenings fishing with siblings and parents, taking short naps in the heat of the day. We will re-learn the importance of boredom and the need for patience. Time will pass unannounced and at the end of our stay on Baan Don Dohn you will be amazed with the language you have picked up and the reflections you have made about what brought you to this island in the middle of the Mekong River in Laos.

Thailand: First week of November – Second week of November

Weeks Eight and Nine:

While we will only spend two weeks in Thailand, it is an important visit to make, as we will have the opportunity to be involved in Independent Study Projects, speak more in depth about political control over the Mekong river, and come to understand just how many people rely on the River Khong. We will be based at the community of Baan Ta Mui, where we will live all together in a large house and spend time during the days involved in various projects and connecting with community members.

Cambodia: Second week of November – 6. December

Weeks Nine and Ten:

Our fourth and final country we visit is Cambodia, and we begin our time there with an extended expedition phase. This week-long experience will allow for you to draw upon all the skills you have learned and practiced in the previous two months to develop an itinerary that is engaging, dynamic, economical, and sustainable. You will work together as a group of twelve to establish roles which allows for each person to have agency and ownership in this experience. You will be provided with guidelines, but the majority of this week’s itinerary and curriculum will be up to you.

After our X-Phase we will visit Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. There we will take a look at the tragic truths of this country’s recent history, all the while experiencing the youthful dynamism and creative energy that is defining the unwritten future of this place. We will visit with various NGO’s focused on the arts and children’s projects, and will learn about women’s rights and women’s health initiatives.

Week Eleven:

Finally, we will move into our fourth and final home-stay in a small village. At this point you will have familiarity with living in others’ spaces, and will be accustomed to practicing language and engaging in routines. The pace of the course will be slowing down and you will find yourself balancing spending time alone and time with the group, wanting to savor the long days while also thinking forward to what is coming next.

Week Twelve:

The last week of this course will be focused on integration. We will be considering how the previous eleven weeks’ worth of conversations and conflicts, walks and writing, language learning and learning service contribute to our lives in nuanced and grand ways. Spending our days away from the noises of a city, we will find ourselves in a setting similar to one of Orientation: where were come together as a group for long meals, fun and meaningful activities, nights of star gazing and mornings of bird watching. This will be a time to reflect upon the challenges we faced and adversity we overcame, and to celebrate the work each of us put in to make this a meaningful, complex course. We will honor and appreciate one another, as well as our broader Dragons community and the communities we will be visiting after course.

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As was mentioned before, this itinerary is bound to change and shift, and expand and contract and we appreciate your willingness to accept those changes as they arise. What is a given is that this program will be delightfully rich and will expose each of us to new ways of thinking and ways to experience the world. We look forward to beginning that journey in just a few short weeks.