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Mekong
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    Could it be that I've just returned from three months of travelling through China, Laos, and Cambodia with 15 of the most amazing people I've ever met in my life? Could it be that I felt more love and gratitude in the past week than I ever have in one time? It seems far more likely that I didn't live with a wonderful host family for 17 days on an island in the Mekong. It makes more sense that that family didn't take me in and love me as their own. Did I really grow and learn more as a human in three months than ever before in my life? Its much more probable that those images of unbelievably deep gorges in China in my head are something I dreamed up.

     But no, it all happened. Far from imagining it, I experienced it. Yet, just as it all had to happen for me to experience it, it all had to end for me to be where I am now, in a position to reflect on it. This reflection is what I have been chipping away at as I spend a week in Austin, TX before returning home to frozen Massachusetts. Slowly chiseling my way through the block of memories, hoping to create a beautiful statue. If there is one thing I've believe in after this trip, it is the importance of reflection.

     For the past three months, the Mekong swept me up, allowed me to joyfully frolic down it and has now dumped me exactly when I knew it would. Today, I turn twenty years old. Half way to forty as we liked to joke about. Though I feel weird about that, maybe twenty isn't any age to be uneasy about. As much as it's weird to feel myself becoming an adult, twenty is empowering. Hell, there's plenty of 20 year old millionaires. While I don't crave to be a millionaire, I find inspiration in being reminded that I'm not too young to do great thing - as evidenced by having completed this trip.

     Being in this position, it seems obligatory to take at least a little time to reflect once again. To think about one of the biggest questions I hoped to find out on this trip. Who am I? What baggage do I carry?

     Let me start by saying that I think that all one can hope to do in regards to defining themselves is to identify who they are at this moment now. I believe there is no absolute me or you, we're in constant states of flux. Our personalities, ideals, values, humor, interests are always changing. The only constant is that consciousness. The one that’s there when you close your eyes and stop your thoughts but still know you're here. The one that has looked you back in the mirror since you were a little kid. I'd encourage all of you to close your eyes, switch off your mind and try to feel that for a second.

     Alan Watts would argue that "trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth." In other words, it can't be done. Maybe that is true, but I'd like to give it a shot. I recognize that I am not able to put words on paper which will describe the consciousness I mentioned. So, instead, I'll try to describe the rest. The baggage I carry along with that.

     Well, I am called Matt and I have just completed my 19th year of life. I am passionate about skateboarding, music, good conversation, adventure, challenges, laughing, and making others laugh. I love nature, going out in it. I love big dirty cities and zipping around in them. I value friendship - maybe too much. I value alone time, loyalty, honesty, straightforwardness, comedy, and love - to name a few.

     I have been travelling in South East Asia for the last three months and although it was challenging and it wasn't all great fun (most of it was), I valued ever second of it and am just as grateful for the opportunity as I am for pretty much anything in my life. I've seen so much, learned so much, mainly from my fellow travelers, and felt so much. Far more than I normally do in my life. As if, over and over, I ran way up and then a little down the mountain that I usually drive along the side of. And now, I am here - trying to process all of this and hopefully synthesize it into something I can use for the rest of my life.

     But, its hard. It sucks to have to say goodbye, To people and place. I find myself feeling a huge void in my life. Suddenly, my 15 closest friends are gone. I know we'll never be together again, at least like we were. I'm torn by that. I wish all of you were with me right now, exploring ideas and places. Additionally, I know that I have the real world to face now that I have left all of this. Big decisions to make and ones that stand to bring me a lot of stress. Something I'm sick of seeing in my life. Though all of you're wonderful insights have already begun to help me through that. I know going home will be weird. Back to the same rooms of the same houses, with the same people in ice cold Massachusetts. But my life is not the same. So much has happened. I've grown in ways I never knew I needed to, seen things that blew my mind, and adapted to a completely different environment. Frankly, its all a little strange here now. I went to a Whole Foods yesterday and found myself wandering around, jaw hanging to the floor in awe. There was so much stuff, so many people, so much space. It was all so clean. When I found my way out, it was with two packages of ramen and a special request from the Asian Grill: a cup of white rice doused in soy sauce.

     These are the dillemas I am now dealing with. Not, I suppose, who I am - as I had aimed to talk about. Right now, its just so easy to think about how much I miss Asia and the group already. But, I know it is important to look forward as I move on, or else I will trip. I have been making an effort to do just that.

     I'm looking forward to playing my guitar, being with me, and so much so to skateboarding as much as I possibly can. I can't wait to thank my parents for the opportunity I had this fall. I don't think I could ever thank them enough.  I'm looking forward to seeing my friends. To taking advantage of my time at home with them, going for bike rides, playing pond hockey. But most significantly, I am now looking forward to my life as a whole. To making it one of adventure, deep connections, passion, and love. I have all of you and our experiences to thank for that.

     I'm so so thankful for this fall. For myself deciding to go, for making the effort to get everything out of it. I'm so thankful for all of the things we've seen and done. All of the people, places, and things I've learned and all of you for being open, kind, fascinating, unique, funny, loving people.

     "So Matt, I'm confused, who are you again?"

     I suppose right now I'm a guy from a small island town in Massachusetts who loves exploring. Who loves Hendrix, Dylan, and Taylor Swift. Who enjoys being with people and alone. A skateboarder who also likes math, physics, and problem solving. Who likes to push himself. Who is a complex person with complex thoughts. Who is excited to see where he can take his life next and who is extremely grateful to have spent the past three months travelling from Kunming, China, to Rabbit Island, Cambodia with all of you. That is the baggage I carry.

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Unpacking my Baggage

Matt Ambrogi,Best Notes From The Field, Picture of the Week, Mekong

Description

    Could it be that I’ve just returned from three months of travelling through China, Laos, and Cambodia with 15 of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life? Could it be that I felt more love and gratitude in the past week than I ever have in one time? It seems […]

Posted On

12/19/14

Author

Matt Ambrogi

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    [post_content] => To you, my thirteen students, I dedicate this yak:

Nay, I say, you are not just students, but teachers also. Have you not taught me much about being a graceful human being; have you not showed me how to laugh with and smile at children and to see the good in everything and everyone? Now, I want to emulate you more in snatching opportunities from the well of life. Especially as we near the end of things, you are, oftener and oftener, my teacher, and I, your student.

I hope that I have mentored you well. I hope that I have inspired you, sometimes. If that has happened more than fifty percent of the time, that would be good, because it means that it was more than an accident. Know that this job is not easy— not even close— but you have made it more rewarding and more fun than I could have hoped for.

You have asked me many times how you stack up to my past groups, to my past students. I usually say something like “every group is different” or “you are at your own unique place in this journey of being human” or, I look at you blankly and ask you if you have brushed your teeth and are you ready for bed yet? These three months, I have dodged that question because I don’t want to encourage your complacency by praising you. Now, as we near the end of this journey, I can tell you that you are great and special. I don’t mean that in the new-agey-every-child-is-a-unique-flower-and-deserves-a-certificate-for-most-improved. I truly mean it. You are the type of student that a Dragons instructor can be proud of leading around China and South East Asia for three months.

I can say three months because it is almost over. We have spent such an enormous amount of time together. Thirteen weeks may not sound a lot, but it is, probably because we are together for just about every second of it. In fact, it is damn near impossible to get away from you for some alone time. Among all Dragons trips, Mekong travels the most and I praise you students for being tough travelers, for not complaining (much), for taking it in stride and with grace. Thank you. I think the moment that can best symbolize your patience and grace is the three days we seventeen people (plus two Cambodian boatmen) spent together puttering down the Mekong from Kratie to Phnom Penh on a boat the size of a bathroom back home in the States (or Canada). Do you remember how the constant roar of the diesel engine felt like it would surely rattle the boat to splinters? How we slept in hammocks shoulder to shoulder or stacked one above another, under the stars among the swarms of moths enticed to our lights? I remember one moment in which a concerned student tried to lengthen a seven-foot long landing strip which weaved between the strung-up hammocks and clothes hanging out to dry so that two students that often enjoy having a walk back and forth could have a little extra legroom. Isn’t it a miracle that we didn’t kill each other? I think that that surely makes us all divine little Buddhas.

I guess that I could pull out my phone and calculate the amount of minutes, or seconds, that we have spent together, which might make it sound like a lot of time or, it might prove that we have shared a lot of moments together, but I will not, because one thing that we have learned on this trip especially well—and particularly, in Laos— is that time is relative. Why should we put an Arabic number to the time that we have spent together? It is a lot and it is meaningful, no matter how we calculate it.

Recently you have asked me if I am ready for this course to end. I am. Three months is a long time to be away from family and friends. It is a lot of responsibility holding a group of thirteen adolescents together in challenging circumstances in developing countries. Although I have gotten to take more days off this course than previous courses (I would calculate four or five, at least), it is exhausting job, especially since this is my fifth Dragons course in a row. Sometimes, it can be a twenty-four hour/day job. In a larger sense though, it is time for this course to end because you are ready to go on to other, greater tasks. Today, the first day of December, the last day of expedition (your fourth expedition), you have proven your preparedness. That is as long we do in fact make it to Rabbit Island, of course. Fingers crossed. You can not only organize travel logistics and academic curriculum, but more importantly, you can settle conflict, build consensus, be flexible and willing to compromise, and act as leaders.

Thank you for being mature, for being willing to be vulnerable, for wanting to ask the hard questions and go deep, while at the same time, also knowing when and how to have fun. I think if one moment was to define the trip for me, it was the life stories that you students organized on Don Don. That moment—under the stars, lying together on a mat in the grass, lit by candlelight, revealing our past and our self to each other, feeling listened to with compassion and support— should represent the best that our trip had to offer. There were other moments of adventure and fun and surprise too.

Thank you for not breaking red rules. Thank you for not breaking trust. Thank you for helping to support us instructors when we were tired or fed up. Thank you for allowing us instructors time off from you guys, to go dancing, even. Thank you for being supportive and loving. Thank you for caring and not being jaded. Thank you for trusting in the process. Thank you for being fun. Thank you for being you. (Having convinced me to work this spring in India I think that it is your responsibility to write something to those, my future students, on what it is they need to know going into the experience.)

I want to thank you, too, parents. Thank you for supporting us. Thank you for trusting us. Thank you for raising great kids. We felt your love the whole way through.

There is a philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism called “Crazy Wisdom” that I want to tell you about. It teaches that we should not be afraid to be unconventional, outrageous and unexpected— to manifest our Buddha Nature— to undertake spiritual investigation, to shock ourselves out of complacency, to flee from constant occupation with our ego, to push our automaton bodies into new motion.

Chögyam Trungpa says: “…we explore further and further and further without looking for an answer. It is a process of working with ourselves, with our lives, with our psychology… [only] seeing things as they are…Then we [again] look further and further and further. We don't make a big point or an answer out of any one thing. For example, we might think that because we have discovered one particular thing that is wrong with us, that must be it, that must be the problem, that must be the answer. No. We don't fixate on that, we go further. ‘Why is that the case?’ We look further and further. We ask: ‘Why is this so? Why is there spirituality? Why is there awakening? Why is there this moment of relief? Why is there such a thing as discovering the pleasure of spirituality? Why, why, why?’ We go on deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, until we reach the point where there is no answer…. At that point we tend to give up hope of an answer, or of anything whatsoever, for that matter…. This hopelessness is the essence of crazy wisdom. It is hopeless, utterly hopeless.”

You have no idea what is coming next but you run through unknown doors with total abandon; completely trust that even if your next step is onto thin air it will change into solid substance as your foot lands. Simply, on the road to liberation one might do things that those that do not understand find confusing, questionable and maybe even offensive. Face the glare of public scrutiny and the condemnation of ego or forgo this path and instead find a slow death in the suburbs after an unhappy life frustrated by the regrets of what you should have done differently. You have one life. Stand up and live it.

Stepping into Thin Air:

“Of course one can never completely know the outcome of one’s actions but then this is the essence of Crazy Wisdom— doing it anyway and trusting that it will all be fine. If you take the wrong turn or when it feels wrong you often just have to retrace your steps a bit. There is never really any permanent harm done and you just learn where not to go. The closest word the Tibetans have for guilt is ‘something that could have been done better.’”

“Outwardly, I live for my pleasure and inwardly I do everything in the right moment.
Outwardly I am a ragged beggar and inwardly a blissful Buddha.”

Come Naked to the Moment:

Naturally there might be a lot of fear of this stepping outside your comfort zone but if you can overcome the fear by trusting the perfection of your own manifestation we often leap over years of fears, because if you do something once properly then it is done and need not be done again.

It is hard to gather my feelings together and condense them for you, brave, young human beings. I have so much love for you. I hope that we stay in touch, but even if we don’t, I am comforted knowing that you are out there in the world, struggling, smiling, growing, laughing, playing, living, working, learning, talking and loving. Have passion, be weird, fight, win, lose, make mistakes, fall in love, care about some things and not others. And, never, ever listen to what an old fart like me tells you.

The world is round and what we think of as the end is really a new beginning.

Please take your new beginning now. Grab it by the horns, wrestle it to the ground for the fun of it, then look up, laugh, and skip off into the distance to new, different things and green pastures. I’ll be laughing with you. I’ll wave my hand in goodbye, and watch for you on the flip side. Thank you.
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Mekong

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To My Students

Parker,Mekong

Description

To you, my thirteen students, I dedicate this yak: Nay, I say, you are not just students, but teachers also. Have you not taught me much about being a graceful human being; have you not showed me how to laugh with and smile at children and to see the good in everything and everyone? Now, […]

Posted On

12/9/14

Author

Parker

Category

Mekong

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    [post_content] => Greetings family and friends!

The Mekong students are through security and heading home.  Safe travels to all and may your journey's continue.

 
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Mekong

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Mekong Crew is in the Air

Hillary Sites,Mekong

Description

Greetings family and friends! The Mekong students are through security and heading home.  Safe travels to all and may your journey’s continue.  

Posted On

12/7/14

Author

Hillary Sites

Category

Mekong

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Greetings from our last day here in South East Asia.  The students will be spending this morning finishing up their course reflections, then, during the afternoon, they will go out and explore Phnom Penh for the last time.  They will make last minute purchases and commune with this region for the last time.  Tonight we have a going-away feast, a secret Buddha activity, and then a student-planned final ceremony. In our students' words, here is some of the ways that they have been impacted by the trip:   What is a misconception that you had about the Mekong Region that has been dispelled or challenged over the course of this trip? From the center of my small bedroom in the U.S.A., Asia seemed too distant to be real. I pictured magical temples, Oriental lanterns and monks draped in gold. Upon arrival, I was grounded in Asian soil and understood it to be a real place. Yes, there are temples and monks and coconut trees, too, but there are also grocery stores and passers-by and families and friends. Asia is not a mystical destination— it is a home. I’m not sure of the misconceptions I had at the beginning of this trip… I’d like to think that going on a previous Dragons course and reading the Mekong manual thoroughly erased all my tendency to assume. But I can’t accept that! That’s ridiculous! I guess one misconception about myself I had was that travelling like this would solve all of my life/philosophical questions. It totally hasn’t. I only have an answer to one of the myriad of questions I had coming in to this trip. Yet I have also felt this new thing within me which feels like what people call contentment. I may not have many solid answers, but I for sure have a more solid mindset. I’m excited and grateful for the future. Maybe this isn’t a misconception, but I never expected that the region is as diverse as it is. Villages, towns and cities are so different from each other even within Laos, then those differences are magnified from country to country. Vietiane is completely different from Phnom Penh. Koh Pdao is completely different from Don Don and China is another world completely. I didn’t expect the diversity that exists between the three cultures that we traveled in. I expected more western tourists in China and almost zero in Laos, but, instead, Laos was full of European and in Yunnan, China, Chinese, not Western tourists were the norm. I don’t think that I had many expectations for the Mekong Region going into this trip. It was just a wonderful experience to be around such a life giving river for so long. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about this region before the trip, but I’ve learned so much about the greater Mekong area— about the importance of thinking downstream, that you can find friendliness anywhere and it will always surprise you, and about how interconnected those countries and communities are in South East Asia. I guess that coming into this I thought everything would be entirely different and that life here would in no way resemble my life at home, but I was wrong. Yes, there are cultural differences and details that differ, but one thing I have come to realize over time was how much universality there is to the way that we human beings lead our lives— a family eating dinner together is still the same, as is shopping for vegetables at the market and the way that school girls giggle on their lunch break. Daily life and human values endure over borders more strongly than I had imagined they would. I also was mistaken in my thinking that it would not be ridiculously hot and humid every day. It is. I thought that the people would be unwelcoming to us as visitors in their countries, or if not unwelcoming, then ambivalent to our presence. I was shocked by how most of the locals we interacted with were interested and caring and, in the case of our homestay families, incredibly loving and kind. I was surprised by the abundance of protein other than fish. I was woefully misinformed about South East Asia’s defining characteristics. Avant de partir pour ce voyage de trois mois à travers la Chine, le Laos et le Cambodge je ne savais pas du tout à quoi m’attendre. Je crois qu’une des idées préconçues que je m’étais faite des pays que j’allais visiter était qu’il serait impossible pour moi de comprendre et de tisser des liens avec les gens que je rencontrerais , car leur réalité est si différente de la mienne. Je réalise maintenant après avoir fait d’innoubliables rencontres que cette pensée était complètement ridicule. Non seulement ai-je rencontré des gens qui m’ont donnés tellement d’amour, mais c’est à travers ces rencontres que j’ai compris qu’il ne faut pas toujours parler la même langue qu’une autre personne pour comprendre ce qu’elle dit. Je suis si heureuse d’avoir pu faire ces rencontres et d’avoir pu taire les idées préconçues que j’avais des endroits que j’ai visité.   How have you been impacted by the discussions, the itinerary, or the experiences that we have had on this trip? This trip has taught me so much. Not only did I learn a lot of new information, but I also learned a lot about patience, gratitude, and living in the moment. I was constantly challenged & surprised by our group and the amazing adventures that we had each day. Thank you to each and every member of our group and to all of the people who have played a part in making this trip so incredible. The itinerary and curriculum flowed seamlessly together to create the perfect space for learning. My perception of the world has expanded immensely, from a very ignorant perspective about the other side of the globe to one that encompasses the changing and developing regions in South East Asia. It was especially interesting to learn about ASEAN and I’m excited to see how this region develops in the future. As our trip has led us to observe the grown and development of a region, we have also organically observed the grown and development of ourselves and one another. I am EXHAUSTED right now. Wow. Only 10% of my exhaustion comes from waking up this morning at 4:00 to swim in the Cambodian ocean’s bioluminescence. The rest comes from the discussions, itinerary, and gloriously chaotic experiences we have had for the past three months. The past three months have been a whirlwind of constant external and internal change. Every day I have seen new things and what has become even clearer to me than those sights are the things that I have come to understand about my home. Seeing people smile at me here with the smallest interactions makes me realize that I need to smile more at home. Being a part of this ever constant travel has given me confidence that I could go out and plan my own, successful trip; traveling and talking with my group members has opened my eyes to where my beliefs differ from others and to the things that I feel strongest about. Being with people from such different backgrounds has taught me how my background and family have shaped me. In this process I have realized more and more the tremendous gratitude I have for my family. I think my experiences here has changed me in more ways than I am yet aware of, but I do know that it has opened my mind and inspired my curiosity. I have come to a better understanding of how land, people, community, food, weather, and infrastructure are connected. During this trip I’ve been encouraged to talk about and deal with my past more than usual. The experiences have opened my eyes to new ways of living. On Don Don Island we saw how relaxed and laid-back Laos people can be. We saw how people don’t work from 11am-3pm because it’s too darn hot to work during that time. The itinerary has worn me down a little and has made me ready to return home. Three months of hard traveling with an average of about two nights in each destination is crazy and so fast. I am going to be very grateful to be stable and living in one place for a bit. The experiences have made me very grateful for all the opportunities I have been given and the access to education I have at home. Buddhism has started to make more sense to me. It was surprising to realize how recently the Khmer Rouge period ended, how much progress has been made since then in Cambodia, and how many issues the country faces today. I was amazed by the compassion and hospitality of the Laos people. I feel that I have been impacted so immensely by this trip, yet it’s almost impossible to verbalize exactly how. I’ve learned tremendous amounts about people and relationships from the group that I’ve spent these past three months with. I’ve repeatedly had to question myself: my actions, my ideals, the way that I think, etc. I’ve had awe inspiring experiences and mundane ten-hour bus rides. Both have given me a different vantage point and perspective. I’ve had a chance to adapt to different ways of life, which is the best opportunity to question my own. I explored places, others, and myself. I feel impacted by all this, but I’ll have to wait and see how it manifests itself specifically. I was forced by our very tights living conditions as a group to learn how to deal with situations in which I disagree with group consensus or had different ideas than others. Au cours des trois derniers mois, j’ai appris beaucoup de choses sur moi même et le monde qui m’entoure. J’ai adore me réveiller à tous les matins en ayant aucune idée de ce que la journée allait m’apporter. J’ai adoré être constemment surprise par les lieux que nous avons visités. J’ai adoré rencontrer des nouvelles personnes à tous les jours. J’ai adoré toute la nourriture que j’ai mangé. J’ai adoré toutes les amities que j’ai forgé. Il est difficile pour moi de dire précisement ce qui m’a le plus impacté durant ce voyage, car il m’est impossible de trouver un évènement qui m’a marquée plus que les autres.Il n’a pas eu un moment lors de ce voyage que je n’ai pas été complètement émerveillée par le monde qui m’entourait!   What should friends and family know about you when you return home? It’s going to be very strange for me to be home. This isn’t because I don’t love any of your or home anymore, but rather, because I’m no longer traveling in South East Asia with sixteen amazing people. So, please be easy on me. I’m going to need time to process the experience. I’ll probably never be able to communicate all that has happened in the past three months of my life to you. Please know that I can’t overestimate how powerful of an experience this trip has been and, for the past three months, I’ve been with people who completely understand this. Maybe most importantly, know that I am happy to be home. That I want to share it with you; that I want to hear, in detail, about all the amazing things that have happened in your lives while I was away. I miss you guys and can’t wait to see you!! I can’t wait to show you all of my bug bites and enjoy the cold Pittsburgh weather. I am now in a more engaged, calm and empowered state of mind. I have done more than I can remember or tell you immediately, but trust that it will all come out with time. And I am so grateful to you! I would like you to know that the half-committed feeling I’ve (until recently) had towards many issues in my life, such as personal health, writing, communicating better with people I care about, choreography, and school, has risen to ¾ to a full 100% commitment level. I feel ready to push myself to be better, and express this infinite-seeming compassion I have. The number one rule to follow on a crazy trip such as this, is, as we students and instructors discussed, “Get the hell out of bed!” I’ve sort of had no choice but to do this for the past three months, and I’m expecting it will carry over to life in the U.S.. But if it doesn’t, please force me to talk to all of you, and to skate-ski and run around like nobody’s business! That I am looking forward to similarly exploring my home community in the deep way that I have been exploring the Mekong Region these past three months. I have traveled through three countries, had countless adventures, and have eaten enough rice for a lifetime. I have missed you all so much and I can’t wait to share all of my stories and pictures. That I will have the new desire to eat rice at more meals! Family: I’ve put a lot of thought into what I want to pursue for the rest of my gap year. Stay calm, please, and do not stress if my plans do not fall into place immediately. I absolutely love traveling. That I want to express to you what I’ve experienced over the past three months, but I’m still processing it, so try and be patient. I would love my family and friends to know that I have become much more introspective on this trip. I will strive for deeper conversations rather than chit chat. I can’t wait to reconnect with everyone and share my story. If they really want to know the full story of how my trip was and what I did then they should clear two or three hours of their schedule so that I can share a glimpse of the experience that I had on this trip. I have changed, but it may not be visible from the outside. I love rice with every meal. It’s not a skirt, it’s a chroma, which can do just about everything. I am very excited to be home and see everyone. Know that I LOVE YOU GUYS! I would like to tell you about the overall feel of the trip. That I’d like to enjoy more social activities with family and friends in the future. Tout le monde à la maison j’ai TELLEMENT hate de vous voir! J’ai hâte de partager avec vous tout ce que j’ai vécu et d’entendre tout ce que j’ai manqué durant mon absence. J’ai hâte de vous montrer mes photos et vidéos que j’ai pris. J’ai super hâte de manger un repas qui ne contiens pas de riz (peut-être même un poutine du St-Hub?). 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A New Beginning — In the students’ words

Mekong Fall 2014 Group,Picture of the Week, Mekong

Description

Greetings from our last day here in South East Asia.  The students will be spending this morning finishing up their course reflections, then, during the afternoon, they will go out and explore Phnom Penh for the last time.  They will make last minute purchases and commune with this region for the last time.  Tonight we have […]

Posted On

12/7/14

Author

Mekong Fall 2014 Group

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    [post_content] => To you, my thirteen students, I dedicate this yak:

Nay, I say, you are not just students, but teachers also. Have you not taught me much about being a graceful human being; have you not showed me how to laugh with and smile at children and to see the good in everything and everyone? Now, I want to emulate you more in snatching opportunities from the well of life. Especially as we near the end of things, you are, oftener and oftener, my teacher, and I, your student.

I hope that I have mentored you well. I hope that I have inspired you, sometimes. If that has happened more than fifty percent of the time, that would be good, because it means that it was more than an accident. Know that this job is not easy— not even close— but you have made it more rewarding and more fun than I could have hoped for.

You have asked me many times how you stack up to my past groups, to my past students. I usually say something like “every group is different” or “you are at your own unique place in this journey of being human” or, I look at you blankly and ask you if you have brushed your teeth and are you ready for bed yet? These three months, I have dodged that question because I don’t want to encourage your complacency by praising you. Now, as we near the end of this journey, I can tell you that you are great and special. I don’t mean that in the new-agey-every-child-is-a-unique-flower-and-deserves-a-certificate-for-most-improved. I truly mean it. You are the type of student that a Dragons instructor can be proud of leading around China and South East Asia for three months.

I can say three months because it is almost over. We have spent such an enormous amount of time together. Thirteen weeks may not sound a lot, but it is, probably because we are together for just about every second of it. In fact, it is damn near impossible to get away from you for some alone time. Among all Dragons trips, Mekong travels the most and I praise you students for being tough travelers, for not complaining (much), for taking it in stride and with grace. Thank you. I think the moment that can best symbolize your patience and grace is the three days we seventeen people (plus two Cambodian boatmen) spent together puttering down the Mekong from Kratie to Phnom Penh on a boat the size of a bathroom back home in the States (or Canada). Do you remember how the constant roar of the diesel engine felt like it would surely rattle the boat to splinters? How we slept in hammocks shoulder to shoulder or stacked one above another, under the stars among the swarms of moths enticed to our lights? I remember one moment in which a concerned student tried to lengthen a seven-foot long landing strip which weaved between the strung-up hammocks and clothes hanging out to dry so that two students that often enjoy having a walk back and forth could have a little extra legroom. Isn’t it a miracle that we didn’t kill each other? I think that that surely makes us all divine little Buddhas.

I guess that I could pull out my phone and calculate the amount of minutes, or seconds, that we have spent together, which might make it sound like a lot of time or, it might prove that we have shared a lot of moments together, but I will not, because one thing that we have learned on this trip especially well—and particularly, in Laos— is that time is relative. Why should we put an Arabic number to the time that we have spent together? It is a lot and it is meaningful, no matter how we calculate it.

Recently you have asked me if I am ready for this course to end. I am. Three months is a long time to be away from family and friends. It is a lot of responsibility holding a group of thirteen adolescents together in challenging circumstances in developing countries. Although I have gotten to take more days off this course than previous courses (I would calculate four or five, at least), it is exhausting job, especially since this is my fifth Dragons course in a row. Sometimes, it can be a twenty-four hour/day job. In a larger sense though, it is time for this course to end because you are ready to go on to other, greater tasks. Today, the first day of December, the last day of expedition (your fourth expedition), you have proven your preparedness. That is as long we do in fact make it to Rabbit Island, of course. Fingers crossed. You can not only organize travel logistics and academic curriculum, but more importantly, you can settle conflict, build consensus, be flexible and willing to compromise, and act as leaders.

Thank you for being mature, for being willing to be vulnerable, for wanting to ask the hard questions and go deep, while at the same time, also knowing when and how to have fun. I think if one moment was to define the trip for me, it was the life stories that you students organized on Don Don. That moment—under the stars, lying together on a mat in the grass, lit by candlelight, revealing our past and our self to each other, feeling listened to with compassion and support— should represent the best that our trip had to offer. There were other moments of adventure and fun and surprise too.

Thank you for not breaking red rules. Thank you for not breaking trust. Thank you for helping to support us instructors when we were tired or fed up. Thank you for allowing us instructors time off from you guys, to go dancing, even. Thank you for being supportive and loving. Thank you for caring and not being jaded. Thank you for trusting in the process. Thank you for being fun. Thank you for being you. (Having convinced me to work this spring in India I think that it is your responsibility to write something to those, my future students, on what it is they need to know going into the experience.)

I want to thank you, too, parents. Thank you for supporting us. Thank you for trusting us. Thank you for raising great kids. We felt your love the whole way through.

There is a philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism called “Crazy Wisdom” that I want to tell you about. It teaches that we should not be afraid to be unconventional, outrageous and unexpected— to manifest our Buddha Nature— to undertake spiritual investigation, to shock ourselves out of complacency, to flee from constant occupation with our ego, to push our automaton bodies into new motion.

Chögyam Trungpa says: “…we explore further and further and further without looking for an answer. It is a process of working with ourselves, with our lives, with our psychology… [only] seeing things as they are…Then we [again] look further and further and further. We don't make a big point or an answer out of any one thing. For example, we might think that because we have discovered one particular thing that is wrong with us, that must be it, that must be the problem, that must be the answer. No. We don't fixate on that, we go further. ‘Why is that the case?’ We look further and further. We ask: ‘Why is this so? Why is there spirituality? Why is there awakening? Why is there this moment of relief? Why is there such a thing as discovering the pleasure of spirituality? Why, why, why?’ We go on deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, until we reach the point where there is no answer…. At that point we tend to give up hope of an answer, or of anything whatsoever, for that matter…. This hopelessness is the essence of crazy wisdom. It is hopeless, utterly hopeless.”

You have no idea what is coming next but you run through unknown doors with total abandon; completely trust that even if your next step is onto thin air it will change into solid substance as your foot lands. Simply, on the road to liberation one might do things that those that do not understand find confusing, questionable and maybe even offensive. Face the glare of public scrutiny and the condemnation of ego or forgo this path and instead find a slow death in the suburbs after an unhappy life frustrated by the regrets of what you should have done differently. You have one life. Stand up and live it.

Stepping into Thin Air:

“Of course one can never completely know the outcome of one’s actions but then this is the essence of Crazy Wisdom— doing it anyway and trusting that it will all be fine. If you take the wrong turn or when it feels wrong you often just have to retrace your steps a bit. There is never really any permanent harm done and you just learn where not to go. The closest word the Tibetans have for guilt is ‘something that could have been done better.’”

“Outwardly, I live for my pleasure and inwardly I do everything in the right moment.
Outwardly I am a ragged beggar and inwardly a blissful Buddha.”

Come Naked to the Moment:

Naturally there might be a lot of fear of this stepping outside your comfort zone but if you can overcome the fear by trusting the perfection of your own manifestation we often leap over years of fears, because if you do something once properly then it is done and need not be done again.

It is hard to gather my feelings together and condense them for you, brave, young human beings. I have so much love for you. I hope that we stay in touch, but even if we don’t, I am comforted knowing that you are out there in the world, struggling, smiling, growing, laughing, playing, living, working, learning, talking and loving. Have passion, be weird, fight, win, lose, make mistakes, fall in love, care about some things and not others. And, never, ever listen to what an old fart like me tells you.

The world is round and what we think of as the end is really a new beginning.

Please take your new beginning now. Grab it by the horns, wrestle it to the ground for the fun of it, then look up, laugh, and skip off into the distance to new, different things and green pastures. I’ll be laughing with you. I’ll wave my hand in goodbye, and watch for you on the flip side. Thank you.
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To my students

Parker,Mekong

Description

To you, my thirteen students, I dedicate this yak: Nay, I say, you are not just students, but teachers also. Have you not taught me much about being a graceful human being; have you not showed me how to laugh with and smile at children and to see the good in everything and everyone? Now, […]

Posted On

12/5/14

Author

Parker

Category

Mekong

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    [post_date] => 2014-12-01 16:49:40
    [post_date_gmt] => 2014-12-01 23:49:40
    [post_content] => Dear Mekong semester families,

It is hard to believe that 3 months have passed since embarking on this incredible adventure in China, Laos, and Cambodia! It won’t be long and students will be boarding their plane back home. Below is a reminder of the return group flight information for eagerly awaiting families:

Returning Flight:
December 8th, 2014
DragonAir 207
Depart: Phnom Penh (PNH) 11:30am
Arrive: Hong Kong (HKG) 3:00pm

December 8th, 2014
Cathay Pacific #882
Depart: Hong Kong (HKG) 4:35pm
Arrive: Los Angeles (LAX) 1:05pm

If you have any questions or concerns about the return – and you’re calling outside of our normal office hours – please leave a message at 800-982-9203 x 130.  Should you need to reach our staff during students’ return travel days (outside of normal office hours), please call our Admin cell phone for assistance: 303-921-6078.

Many thanks,

Dragons Administration
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Mekong

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Return Group Flight Reminder

Dragons Administration,Mekong

Description

Dear Mekong semester families, It is hard to believe that 3 months have passed since embarking on this incredible adventure in China, Laos, and Cambodia! It won’t be long and students will be boarding their plane back home. Below is a reminder of the return group flight information for eagerly awaiting families: Returning Flight: December […]

Posted On

12/1/14

Author

Dragons Administration

Category

Mekong

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    [post_date] => 2014-11-30 10:05:43
    [post_date_gmt] => 2014-11-30 17:05:43
    [post_content] => Sweaty from a full morning spent visiting temples around Angkor Wat, I decided to escape the crowds. Instead of climbing the busy staircase leading up to Angkor Thom temple’s second level, I walked straight past to a less-crowded area.

Walking along the temple’s first level, I came across a couple displays detailing the several restorations carried out at the site. One section describes work done on the reclining Buddha, a large relief formed from stone blocks, and I spontaneously decided to go where I believed it was located, in the temple proper, one floor above.

I’d been there for over ten minutes, looking carefully at the temple and reading the restoration signs, when suddenly two things happened in close succession. First, as I turned from the sign and took a few steps along the walkway, I saw the reclining Buddha’s head appear out of nowhere, right where before I had only seen a stone wall! I had absolutely no idea that it was right in front of me all along.

The second thing I noticed was a uniformed tour guide – one of the many working in and around Angkor Wat – sitting alone on a fencepost. With a gently-rounded face and medium-length black hair, the tourguide appeared unremarkable, save for his one twisted tooth nestled between his otherwise perfect teeth. Strangely, I felt like I recognized him. As soon as I noticed him, bereft of ducklings (tourists) to lead, he met my glance and waved me over. Sitting to my left on the adjacent fencepost, he asked me where my tourgroup was, and I responded that I had separated from them and was exploring on my own. We started talking, first about his four years as a guide. In practiced English, he told me that it’s a tough job, working six or seven days a week climbing up and down stairs all day, especially as he’s gotten older.

When I asked him about the countries that send the most people to Angkor Wat, he responded that Vietnam is first, followed by China, and then South Korea. He looked into the distance for a moment, then turned back and told me point-blank that very little profit from tourism here reaches the Cambodian people.

I asked him if the money from admission fees is used to provide public services.

“No,” he shrugged, “it’s not, but that’s only a part of the problem. Most of those Vietnamese tourists are driven around on buses owned by Vietnamese companies, stay in guesthouses owned by Vietnamese, and eat at restaurants owned by Vietnamese. Same thing goes for Chinese and Korean tourists, and it means that much less money reaches Cambodians.”

“I didn’t know that!”

“The university students are unhappy with the current government, and this is one of the issues they want to change. They demonstrate frequently because they want wealth to be more fairly distributed within the country.”

“Do you think their protests will work?”

“I think what we really need are international observers for fair elections.” I remember noting that he sounded like a tired professor at the end of his career.

“Like the UN?”

“Yes. The UN monitored the 1993 election, and it was the only fair election we have ever had. Then, in 1997, our Prime Minister was forced out, and we’ve never had a fair election since.”

After a pause, he shifted his gaze from his lap to his surroundings. My eyes followed his and I saw his tour group walking towards us, just a few feet away. Wordlessly, he stood up, joined his charges, and resumed his tourguide patter as though he had never stopped. I found myself looking at a different man.

Looking at his group, I did a double take. I recognized a few of them! Now, finally, it all clicked. I knew that I recognized the guide; as it turned out, less than an hour beforehand I happened to ask the guide a question about the ruins in a nearby area. He gave me my answer, we parted ways, and I promptly forgot his face. He blended in with the hundreds of identically-uniformed guides.

“Can you see that over there?” he gestured to his tourists, “You should be able to see the reclining Buddha over on that wall. Look carefully, it’s hard to see at first.”

We walked our separate ways a second time, and when I looked back, searching for the Buddha, all I saw were grey stones. We all have roles that we shift between. We don’t always see the Buddha which lies hidden in a stone wall.

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Hidden Identities

Wes Kendrick,Picture of the Week, Mekong

Description

Sweaty from a full morning spent visiting temples around Angkor Wat, I decided to escape the crowds. Instead of climbing the busy staircase leading up to Angkor Thom temple’s second level, I walked straight past to a less-crowded area. Walking along the temple’s first level, I came across a couple displays detailing the several restorations […]

Posted On

11/30/14

Author

Wes Kendrick

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    [post_date] => 2014-11-30 10:02:45
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    [post_content] => Who am I to trespass here?
This ancient home of the gods—
Sweet smells suggest a spirit still dwelling
Deep in the forest. 
Moss, ferns, viney trees,
The soil here forming from the rubble.
How small the hands that wrought this massive monument?
~~~~~
Sun hot stone burns,
Quiet and shade give reprieve.
Distinct gravity.
Some things fall and some remain—
Sandstone back to sand,
All one and the same.

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Beng Melea musings

Emilie Kirk,Mekong

Description

Who am I to trespass here? This ancient home of the gods— Sweet smells suggest a spirit still dwelling Deep in the forest. Moss, ferns, viney trees, The soil here forming from the rubble. How small the hands that wrought this massive monument? ~~~~~ Sun hot stone burns, Quiet and shade give reprieve. Distinct gravity. […]

Posted On

11/30/14

Author

Emilie Kirk

Category

Mekong

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    [post_date] => 2014-11-25 14:39:21
    [post_date_gmt] => 2014-11-25 21:39:21
    [post_content] => It's hard to believe that our final X-Phase begins tomorrow, but it's true! Here is our itinerary for the next 5 nights:

11/26: X-Phase begins upon return from Beng Maelea in the afternoon. Time to explore Siem Reap and have dinner before returning to the Metta Karuna Reflection Center for the night.

11/27: Trip to the Landmine Museum to learn about landmines in Cambodia and how they have and continue to impact the lives of Cambodians. In the evening, we will be going to a temple near the Tonle Sap for a Thanksgiving meal while we watch the sun set over the Tonle Sap. We will then head to Serey Sophorn for the night.

11/28: In the morning, we will drive 40 km to the village where Wes' English teacher,who is now a Peace Corps volunteer is placed. There, we will visit the local health clinic, have time to learn about the Peace Corps, and attend a class taught by Wes' teacher. Late that afternoon, we will leave for Battambang where we will spend the night.

11/29: This is a day to explore Battambang! Potential highlights include:  walking tours to explore the colonial architecture that the small city is renowned for, a discussion about privilege led by Petal, and a final Chinese History lesson led by Parker. That evening, we will be attending the Battambang Circus!

11/30: We will make our way to Phnom Penh in the morning by local bus. There, we will have free time to explore and run any errands before we leave for our island escape on 12/1.

12/1: From Phnom Penh, we will head south to the coastal town of Kep where we will take boats to Rabbit Island (!). Our X-Phase ends when we reach the island in the late afternoon. Tears are shed when we realize that we only have one more week together.

Stay tuned for updates from our X-Phase!

The Mekong Crew

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Mekong

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X-Phase Itinerary

The Students,Mekong

Description

It’s hard to believe that our final X-Phase begins tomorrow, but it’s true! Here is our itinerary for the next 5 nights: 11/26: X-Phase begins upon return from Beng Maelea in the afternoon. Time to explore Siem Reap and have dinner before returning to the Metta Karuna Reflection Center for the night. 11/27: Trip to […]

Posted On

11/25/14

Author

The Students

Category

Mekong

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    [post_date] => 2014-11-20 09:36:41
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    [post_content] => Sky is alive tonight. Stars spread like sparks from the setting of the red sun. A wind rustles the rice. Earth holds its breath and gazes upward. These lights like the lives that surround us. Separated by unexplained space yet fixed together in a sheet of navy ether. Moving together from one edge, to the next, to perpetual rebirths that only seem to end. We people share the same air, the same space. Connected by our breaths we shine and fade together as our lives cross tangles of past moments. In this web we sit by the light of the car battery humming and listen. We listen to a man wrinkled and smiling as he tells of revolutions, coronations, and hunger. Telling of times when a single handful of rice fed five or even six people, of forgiving and forgetting, of men who forced their fellows to work until they could work no more in the name of a vision of revolution, power, and wealth that served no one, and how his happiest moment was the one he was living now. Outside the light of that car battery humming, the stars on my horizon shifted to add one more light to the sky.
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Best Notes From The Field, Mekong

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By the light of the car battery

Petal Niles,Best Notes From The Field, Mekong

Description

Sky is alive tonight. Stars spread like sparks from the setting of the red sun. A wind rustles the rice. Earth holds its breath and gazes upward. These lights like the lives that surround us. Separated by unexplained space yet fixed together in a sheet of navy ether. Moving together from one edge, to the […]

Posted On

11/20/14

Author

Petal Niles

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