Monthly Archives: October 2007

New Delhi, India – First Impressions

A report received in September 2007, from a LEAPYEAR group leader after a week with her group in India – reflecting on the simultaneous experience of beauty and suffering that assails many Western travelers in India:

Varanasi has been wonderful so far.  Our first morning here we took a sunrise river trip along the banks of the Ganges River.  The rising sun cast a golden, warm light over everything as we watched the people of Varanasi engage in their daily activities that bring them to the river each day.  They bathe themselves and their children, they brush their teeth, they wash their clothes, and more than anything they seem to be connecting with their spiritual selves — praying, meditating, chanting….  It really is so very special to be able to witness.  I have been struck by the effortless way spirituality is intertwined in all parts of life here in India.  There appears to be no separation between spirituality and the individual, or community, or tasks, or nature.  Here there is divinity in all things.

And, I am still struggling with the poverty — it truly is inescapable here.  I am constantly being asked for money, and cannot avert my eyes from homeless and starving people.  It is very, very difficult for me to know what to “do”… should I look at the person, engage with them, acknowledge their suffering?  If I do that, can I do that with everyone?  And, then it gets so daunting and draining that I don’t have the energy to leave my room. Should I give them something because for me it is so easy to give, how can I have a pocket full of money and not give?  But how can I give to EVERYONE, and when I give a little, everyone follows and wants more? And do I want to be in that kind of relationship, continuing that cycle of white American savior?

And for sales-people and vendors, should I believe them as a demonstration of trust, as a way to bring possibility in the world, a way to shift the relationship of distrust…trust in human goodness, shift the prevailing belief that people are out to trick me?  But if I do that, am I just another gullible woman who doesn’t see the reality of the world?

Do I have to put up defenses to function successfully? And if I have to do that, disconnect in some way from people to function, than what possibility is there in the world?…accepting that idea would be devastatingly sad to me. I find myself going through this train of thoughts every time I walk down the street and it is starting to feel draining.  And yet what was even more draining is the way that these experiences affected my worldview…they leave me with incredibly deep and difficult questions like…  What does authentic human connection look like?  What is possibility in this environment?  Why do I have what I have? What is my obligation to end suffering if I can?  Can I?  What does it mean about the human experience and what is possible in the world if I shut off to people who are trying to connect with me?

And of course these all lead me to deeper questions about the meaning and purpose in life, my goodness and worth as a human being….  There is so, so much to think about here.

But these are all questions that are there for me all the time, India just gave me the gift of bringing them into my consciousness like a sharp stick in a small moment to trigger growth and learning… and I think that India is teaching me how to sit with the questions.  And that is what I am choosing to do now — to live with the questions and let them carve deep reservoirs of love and intrigue and growth in my heart.

The suffering of animals is also very hard for me to be with — sometimes even harder than with people.  There are cows everywhere here.  Sometimes I feel as though I am seeing more cows on the streets than people.  They are generally healthy, but the last two days I have been watching a young calf who seems to be very sick.  Today I left my guesthouse and found the calf laying down in the alley.  It was filthy — literally laying in its own excrement, and surrounded by hundreds of flies. It did not look good for the calf — I thought the swarming flies probably knew something that I didn’t.  I wanted to do something to help… but I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject with people on the street.  How could I be offering to buy food, or medicine, or a doctor for this suffering calf but not give money to the homeless women and her tiny baby begging me for money right next to the calf?  I feel so guilty for wanting to help the calf.  Perhaps I just want to feel that my gift can make a difference and that is easier to see in the short term with the calf.  The sick calf was eating away at me for a couple of days so I eventually called my contact here and asked him what might be possible.  He found the cow’s owner and learned that the calf has already been given some medicine for worms and gas. I am going to check back in tomorrow — I hope she makes it.

On a lighter note, our days here are fantastic.  We start each day with a 1.5 hour yoga class on the roof of a yoga ashram that sits right on the banks of the Ganges.  It starts just after six, so we get to see the sun rise as we practice our yoga.  Our yoga teacher is unbelievably good — the best I have ever had. Our yoga classes are followed by breakfast and then 2.5 hours of Hindi class — which is quite difficult — I find myself hoping that the teacher doesn’t call on me.  But, its pretty hard to escape getting called on because there are only 5 of us in each class.  Then there is lunch — I have lunch with a different student each day.  Next, the students go to their service internships.  Some of the students are volunteering at this wonderful orphanage and school.  The children there are warm and energetic and full of life.  They love my name because they also have a dog there named Jamie!  The students teach them English and also get some practice with their Hindi learning.  The children love to make fun of the way that we pronounce Hindi words!

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India is everything I remembered and so much more.  The vibrant pinks and oranges and blues are everywhere.  The women in their brightly-colored saris, the vendors selling fruits on the street, the signs on the buildings — everywhere there is color.  And sounds, and smells! I feel like it would be impossible for me to describe it all with words.  It is both beautiful and grotesque at the same time, bright and happy and then dark and terribly sad at the same time too.  The poverty is very difficult to be with.  Never has the world’s disparity been more evident to me than it is now. Actually, it is so hard to be with, that I sort of haven’t been with it yet, not in an authentic way. I know I will be, and I am entering slowly and lightly with all of it.

On our first day here another co-leader and I, Jane, went to the train station and tried to buy train tickets to our next destinations — and it was the most perfect first day experience for India.  The outside of the train station was swarming with people, rickshaws and taxis.  We tried to enter the station through one entrance and were stopped by a guy claiming to be an Indian government official.  He said that we could not go to the tourist office that we needed to go to another off-site office to buy our tickets because the train station office was closed for construction.  He said that he would arrange for a rickshaw to take us to the office which was now located off-site because of the construction.  We tried to ignore him and tell him that we were not interested, but he would not leave us alone, insisting that he had nothing to gain, even pulling out an official looking business card, and walking us up near the train station so that we could see the construction.  He would not give us even a moment to think or allow us to escape him for even a brief moment of peace. Jane said “don’t listen to him — this doesn’t feel right”, but I thought what if he is right and then we can’t buy our tickets today (because he told us we only had 30 minutes to get to the other office before it closed for the day) – the guy was brilliantly convincing and of course I am brilliantly gullible.  So, we fell for it and they drove us away from the train station to some private tourist office where all the people who had helped us get there would have gotten a profit.  We looked inside, saw it was not the official government of India travel office and left.  Then, we got in another rickshaw and asked to go to the Official Government Tourist office, even showing the driver where it was on the map, and got taken to another private tourist office! It is hard to know who to trust around here!  Eventually we made it back to the real train station, went upstairs to the tourist office and bought our tickets.  The lesson:  anyone who is insistent on getting you to go somewhere, or do something or wont let you think for a minute is DEFINITELY not an Indian official.  The real officials move at the pace of snails and could care less what you do.  It took me about one hour to work with a train station employee to buy my group’s tickets, and as soon as I got finished and Jane sat down to buy her group’s, the guy said “shift change” and made us wait another hour while he just sat at his desk and did nothing. It was the perfect first day Indian adventure!

Today we are in a very busy market area buying Indian clothes so that we blend in more.  There are people everywhere, cows roaming the streets, drums, horns, monkeys — probably exactly what you think of when you think of India! It is fantastic.  I just got the most incredible henna tattoos on my hands.  It was the best part of my day because I got to speak with the artist for over an hour while he did my hands.  He is also a doctor of Ayurveda, so we talked a lot about that and his family and Delhi and Indian clothes.  It was the best part of my trip so far.  I also had tea with an India woman and her baby earlier this morning.

Tonight we take an all-night train to Varanasi!

How to write a new script for my life?

A LEAPYEAR graduate reflects on the difficulties inherent in uprooting a cultural script and writing her own. She attended the 2006 India program, and for her internship worked with street children in Guatemala and let treks through the Guatemalan highlands:

How does one go about abandoning the story one was told?

For 21 years the message pounded into me more prevalent than others was “the necessity of schooling, a degree and higher education.”
“But why?” I asked
“To open up doors of opportunity, of course!”

Is that the only way to “succeed”?

To make a future for myself? …Then what? It doesn’t answer all of life’s questions. The story leaves me wanting more and doubting its “happy” ending.
Everyone assumes that this story is reading well in my life, they approach me with questions such as “how is school going?” “What are you studying?” “Do you go to SOU then?” …As if the answer “I’m not in school right now” is a concept totally foreign to them. They hastily search their minds for another question or simply wait for an explanation about why I have abandoned the path carved out for me.
Would anyone understand if I told them I’m desperately searching for a different story? A story with not JUST a happy ending? I’m trying to obtain the specks of value in the story I’ve learned, yet trying to loosen my grasping hands from that story; the one with the happy ending, the one where everything happens a certain way regardless of whether we are awake or sleeping.

Will people turn their back on me if I try to write my own story and fail? Is it possible to fail?

It’s a scary thing………..being a writer!

Jumping of the Bulls in Ethiopia

This LEAPYEAR student took the leaping part of his journey literally, getting involved with an Ethiopian rite of passage:

I’m in Ethiopia right now. I came here about two weeks ago from Eritrea. After shadow puppets and talking with NUEYS there wasn’t a lot for me to do in Asmara or Eritrea, so I found a way to head south to Ethiopia. The border between the two countries is currently closed because of the conflict they are having and have been having for a couple of years now so I flew to Yemen and then to Addis Ababa.(Eritrea used to be a part of Ethiopia until it got it’s independence in 1991 and then another border dispute happened in 2000, yadda yadda there’s a lot of politics there I won’t bore you over.) Addis, the capital of Ethiopia, is a big city compared to anything in Eritrea. It’s a definite culture shock as there is soooo much here compared to what I was living with in Eritrea. One big difference: There are FOREIGNERS! Haha.

For the last 10 days I joined a tour to the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia…home to the many diverse tribes of rural African Horn. The Ari, Hamers, Arbore, Karo, Bodi, Mursi, and a couple of others; each one different and unique and thriving off of tourism. Â It costs 12 cents to take their pictures and whatnot. They are becoming quite popular with National Geographic and with improved roads, lots of tourists are headed there too. It is both a good and a bad thing…tourism means western exposure, but the money from the photos ups the standard of living and provides AIDS research and health facilities for the locals. So it’s a bittersweet relationship.

Um, the highlight and the most amazing thing to happen to me is I joined the Hamer tribe (literally) for two days (I was only supposed to see them for a half day). They introduced me to their famous Jumping of the Bulls ceremony and of course I got involved in the only way I know how. I lived with the tribe, ate freshly killed goat, dressed up in traditional beads and cloth (yes, just one piece of cloth), lived like a local. It was amazing. The tribe was so welcoming and friendly and it was really nice to be finally a part of something instead of alone, by myself. The jumps were amazing and I am now in the process of research for my Ethnology Project. The best news is that the tribe has asked me to live with them whenever I like and are willing to build a hut for me and my family when we come. I will inevitably be coming back and helping to establish better living standards like building a well, maybe introducing solar powered electricity and whatnot…they have a list of things they want and I want to help as much as I can as well…I just have to be careful with how much I want to “influence” them.
These are amazing people. They have also offered for me to do my own Jumping of the Bulls in a couple of years. What can I say? I will definitely be coming back many times to these people. They are indescribable…

The importance of NOW

This post was was written to his group from a student who did LEAPYEAR during 2004/05. During his LEAPYEAR he traveled to India with the group, then apprenticed at a recording studio in London for his 3-month solo internship. He is now completing college at Cal State U. – Chico – his email was written on 9/27/07 and details his process of navigating life after LEAPYEAR!

I wanted to let you all know how my travels mentally and physically have been, and to let you all know that although I am often not present in writing or in person I always carry you all with my in my heart.

I don’t really know where to begin, but last semester sometime I had another small awakening and I realized how important it is for me (and anyone else with ambitions) to start NOW… ha ha .. but really I think that growing up everything seems so preparatory, like in middle school you are preparing to go to high school and then in high school you are preparing to go to college (or whatever) and it seems like it is easy to get stuck in this rhythm of always getting ready for the next step as if the current one is not exactly real itself. Like how high school is simply a gateway into college or something else… but then you get there and it’s like you are all of a sudden preparing yourself again for the the next stage. I found that for myself I was stuck in the pattern of feeling like what I was doing was just a warm up for what is next to come and within that it seemed less valid. Kinda like in sports how practice, although important, is not the game; the game is really what it is all about and practice is just to sharpen your skills and get ready for the game. But what happens when you are stuck in a rhythm of just practices?… when will the game actually come?

Cause realistically no one takes practice as seriously as the game. There is always that extra boost you get in your effort when you are actually in the game and not just practicing.

That is one of the major reasons why think the LEAPNOW program is so great because it breaks down this whole notion of “practicing” for something and it says BAM!!! you are ALIVE!! THIS IS IT, THERE NEVER WAS ANY PRACTICE, YOU JUST WERE LATE FOR THE START OF THE GAME!! BUT NOW THAT YOU ARE HERE, COME JOIN IN!! It really puts you out there and I know for myself I really did feel much more alive and like I was in my life and not just getting ready to be in it. It seems kinda odd comparing it to a GAME… but I think you get my analogy.

So… back to last year… I remembered that the time in NOW and that I can’t keep waiting for life to happen to me and I needed to happen to life. This was powerful for me and I was able to sober up and really apply myself in my classes. This time it was different though. Most of the time classes have felt like the practice, but now I was able to see things differently. Why does learning always have to feel like it’s all about getting ready to get a job or a degree? Why can’t learning be by itself, the pursuit of knowledge has turned into the pursuit of money for many people. Nowadays improving your mind seems to many people pointless unless there is some sort of motivating factor like… if I do well here, I’ll get a good job and make lots of money.

So now for me it’s not about what comes after, it’s about how much can I become absorbed into that subject, how much can I use those lessons and information for myself now, as if my mind has an appetite for knowlege and wisdom and less for consuming and deferred rewards. At the end of the semester i had managed to turn 4 failing grades into all B’s and a C. I felt great – my mind was clear. I hadn’t smoked pot in like 70 days and i just felt like I could do ANYTHING.

So summer hits and I return back to my hometown. it was like returning to the place where you had been imprisoned and tortured for 10 years of your life. A lot of those feeling returned just by being in those familiar places.

After i returned home things just went down hill… I started smoking weed again and fell back into the clouded world that I had for so long been accustomed to growing up in that town.

Fast foreward I returned to chico hoping to make another fresh start but I had no such luck. I have been in school for about a month and I have just only been sober for about a week. I am really trying to turn over ANOTHER new leaf, and I am finding a lot of comfort in some of the daily practices that we did while on retreat. I am doing stream of consciousness writing, as well as setting a couple intentions for each day. I also try and squeeze in a few sun salutations in the morning when I have time. Each day I think about how grateful I am for having these tools, I think that giving the degree of my problems with weed and depression, many people in my shoes probably would need a fair bit of external help and or intervention, but I feel that I have a strong awareness of my thoughts and emotions as well as the tools to figure out what I need to do in order to be happy and successful with what I do. It’s only been a week but it’s been a good one and it feels great to know that I did it on my own, and I hope to continue that.

Working with gauchos in Argentina

A long email that just came in (10/18/07) from a student volunteering at a large (100,000 acre) ranch in remote Patagonia – part of his solo 3-month LEAPYEAR internship. This student spent his first LEAPYEAR semester traveling with his group in Bali and India.

I rode in to the estancia on my horse Cerillo through desert hills sprinkled with thorn-scrub, a deep canyon where the condors flew high above, across a seemingly endless plateau into the mountains, and down by the Rio Trocoman onto the shelf that is the ranch. The ride must have taken 4 hours and I was miserably wet and sore, as the cloud released its icy winter rain.

The first night I was put into the darkest room in an adobe shack where I slept on sheepskins. I opened my backpack to find my books, clothes, notebooks, and letters soaked. These were my precious things, the things that connected me with the outside world. I cried harder than I´ve ever cried before until I fell sound asleep.

Shortly after this, perhaps 2 or 3 days, my contact left me alone saying he’d return in about 3 weeks. I didn´t end up seeing him until about one week ago. In between it was just me, two gauchos, and 110,000 acres of wilderness.

I enjoyed hiking the many mountains, getting intimate with my surroundings, seeing the scenery from every angle. A beautiful thing happened inside of me as I truly discovered myself, underneath my personas, my pain, my longing, my suffering. I was one with nature and entirely self-sufficient. Often I would look up at the crystal clear blue sky, the massive expanse of stars, inhale the fresh air, or listen to the wind, rooster crows, dog barks, etc…

Something burst inside of me and filled me with the purest, most natural joy, lifting me up high into the air until I was in the clouds. I sometimes found myself laughing hysterically simply because I felt great. I planted and grew many plants in a greenhouse and watering these plants tickled me inside the most, making it almost impossible to even enter the greenhouse without giggles.

He stopped, but in his eyes as he looked at the sunlit hills there was a great, wordless, grieving of love. He was whole. He was complete.

Each day I woke up and wrote my morning pages next to my little fire, drinking yerba mate. I enjoyed riding around the various pastures just talking to myself and Cerillo. Occasionally I would pass my a little adobe puesto, and a little brown wrinkly old man, a shepherd, would come out to say hello. Every couple of weeks we slaughtered a goat for our meals, as there is nothing else to eat besides potatoes, pasta, eggs, and onions.

Luckily I had a guitar (whose language of all the languages I understood the best). Sometimes Horacio and I would play together, exchanging songs. When Horacio and I worked together, since my Spanish is terrible, we would yell out the sounds of elephants, roosters, dogs, or other animals.

Of course it wasn´t all so perfect, I encountered many challenges that have been weighting my full potential down for far too long. Each day was a lesson, each minute a new opportunity to grow. I took full advantage of these endless opportunities, and expanded to this full potential of mine. I moved and danced a beautifully intimate dance with life by means of inquisitive exploration, joyful celebration, and creative participation in a 100% organic way. There´s nothing to hide behind in the vast open space of that Patagonian estancia.

“A queer paradox settled into place, for I was at once aware of the infinite possibility of so much space and of the pressing, claustrophobia of infinity.”
Nick Reding (upon arrival into Patagonia)

This is the exact feeling I wished to encounter. The feeling I have been so afraid of in the past when I looked at a sunset. It wretches my heart and tears me to pieces until I just want to lay down and surrender to all and everything. I have been too afraid to do so before this journey, too afraid to face the natural world with all of its powers beyond comprehension. I did it, I faced it, I found a purpose, I found love and life, I found myself.

About a week ago, unexpectedly, I encountered a glimpse of the outside world with the arrival of guests at Ranquilco, unappreciative ones who stayed in the previously empty luxury guest houses scattered among the property. They complained about the lack of electricity and plumbing and talked about chocolate, celebrities, modern technology and current events. This was a culture shock in itself and signified the end of my deep journey, my inner pilgrimage into the abyss of my soul, my essence, my heart. I was no longer self-sufficient. As they broke the dam of my solitude, I flooded them with words. I was a new person with these people. As unappreciative as they were, as mad as I was at them for interrupting the conversation I was having with myself, the y allowed me to test out my new self in a gentle way. They liked me and I liked me.

“Every voyager conceives his own departure, a place and moment that often differs greatly from the physical point of departure because it is the demarcation of another frontier entirely.”
Patrick Symmes

I left the ranch as I knew it the day these people arrived. A new journey already loomed ahead of me and it was time to integrate myself and what I´ve learned into the outside world, the 21st century.

“It was time to submit himself to the discipline of chance, to confront expectation with reality, to conform years of hope to some version of the actual earth.”
Patrick Symmes

So I cantered out of the mountains, said goodbye to the open space and fresh air. It was much harder than I thought, as I have already informed you all. Since I last wrote, I stayed in a nice hostel in San Martin de los Andes, a nice quiet lakeside town in the mountains that reminds me of Healdsburg, California, or perhaps one of the ski towns of Colorado. I don´t know what it was but the next day I boarded a 20-hour bus to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina. I had forgotten how large these cities are and upon arrival I was overwhelmed even more, so I caught a 6-hour bus to Rosario. This wasn´t a wise decision either, as Rosario is the 3rd largest city in Argentina. I stayed there last night in the only hotel with vacancy. It was one of those prison cell hotels with no windows. It was shabby even by India´s standards and I fell asleep to moans of people having sex. ASAP this morning I taxi´d here, the bus terminal.
Now I am waiting for a bus back down to Patagonia, to Bariloche, in the mountains next to a lake. I feel like some kind of exile, fleeing the century, searching for a past that is long gone. I have centered myself again, though, and accepted the world as it is. I simply prefer a quiet place to truly relax and ease my way into reality. Plus there´s excellent hostels there.

My bus is something like 22 hours, but I´m used to these buses by now. Theý´re quite comfortable and serve food. I´m running out of money though, traveling all over this massive country.

City Year Service after LEAPYEAR

This post is from a student who completed LEAPYEAR in May of 2007. During her LEAPYEAR, she spent the first semester traveling and working in India, and for her second semester internship she volunteered at an orphanage outside of Kathmandu (Nepal), and taught art classes to children and English to Nepali women.

Dear LEAPYEAR Staff,
Wow! I just want to say thank you again. I am currently in Boston doing the City Year program . I am in a second grade classroom every day helping the children in any way I can. City Year also runs an after school program called Starfish. It is run entirely by corps members and it teaches children that they can make a difference in their communities. I am the community outreach coordinator for my team of 6 people and I am working on getting a “Friendship Garden” going before the first frost.

Going from LEAPNOW to City Year has been an interesting transition. All I have to say is that I am so so so unbelievably grateful for my year last year and your offering to me as a human soul in this world. My gratitude brings me to tears.

I feel so alive, comfortable, awake, vibrant and confident in this world. I can do anything, infinite possibility! This year with City Year is about bringing that whole experience home and applying it to where it needs it most. A huge part of me wants to escape this country, escape the valley and dwell in the mountains where my soul could find its refuge. But I know this is not the truth. I must learn to feel that refuge in the depths of this valley.

I feel no obligation, I feel a complete freedom with my life. I am on the path of my heart.

I am always reminded of the gift of last year and I wanted to extend that incredible feeling of gratitude I have to you. I hope the current LEAPers are learning to open their hearts to the experience as I did. You have given a gift to so many young people and joy fills my heart when I think of all who have yet to experience it’s incredible power.
In eternal gratitude,

Epiphany in Cambodia

This came in today (10-15-07) from a LEAPYEAR student doing a three-month service internship in Cambodia:

I look into the world,
in which the sun is shining,
in which the stars are sparkling,
in which the stones repose.
Where living plants are growing,
where sentient beasts are living,
where man, soul gifted, gives the spirit
a dwelling place.

I look into my soul,
that lives within my being.
the world creator moves
in sunlight, and in soul light.
in wide world space without;
in soul depths here within.
to thee, creator spirit,
I will now turn my heart,
to ask that strength and blessing
to learn and work may grow
within my inmost being.
- Rudolf Steiner

I recited this verse every day at school, from middle through high school. This morning, in desperate need of worth and purpose, I faced the morning sun, and said it, for the first time ever, with intention.

It was massively powerful for me: for the first time ever, I got it.
I was crying by the begining of the second stanza. What a waste of 8 years to never take it serriously. What a waste of life. What a waste of calories. What a waste of money, time. and how much do I wish I could have realized what it meant then, the power of this intention, the posibilities of power it contains. I cried because of a waste, a spoiled child, remembering a spoiled past but i cried for the future too: The massiveness of it. How big it is, how hard. How I can’t ever beat it. How i can never win. How i can try as hard as i can, and never feel like I’ve tried hard enough.

And i cried a little for the present. because of the bliss of my realization, that right then, I felt thankful, like I felt the purest god-love kiss of an enlightenment. A little arrow pointing at me, that showed me, under a magnification of humbleness, how blessed I am. Just to feel blessed, how blessed I am.

Peace.