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My Journey in Nepal
My journey in Nepal started with blue skies of Kathmandu when my Himalayan Group landed on the morning of September 16th. The medieval city of Bhaktapur was home for orientation, where we developed group norms, set personal goals, and started ethical discussions during a brief stay at a Permaculture farm and with Learning Service expert. We concluded our time in Bhaktapur with a ceremony that shocked me with its ability to create a sense of community with a group I met just four days ago.
We then settled into our urban home stays in Patan; a city known for its rich history of art and the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern ways of life in a harmonious way. Patan became home for one month during which we studied Nepali, learned about Newari cultures through celebrating Dashain Festival with our homestay families, and studied with the renowned “Mother of Ayurveda”, Sarita Shrestha. Among the honking motorcycles and peaceful courtyards, I created a family halfway across the world and was thankful for familiar constants that resonated in both my family I left behind and my new one in Patan.
In Nagarkot, I got my first glimpse of the Himalayas during a short student-led excursion. With thirteen students all trying to achieve different objectives in a four-day time slot, I learned a lot about different types of leaders and which are best for specific groups. We stayed in Dhulikhel for mid-course reflection where we revisited our goals and set new intentions for the remainder of the course.
We then embarked on our fifteen-day trek through the Himalayas to the sacred Gosaikunda Valley. We were blessed by wonderful views of the mountains and jaw-dropping sunsets that set the sky ablaze with light as we learned about the Himalayan wilderness and outdoor skills whilst also learning from the lessons and activities led by the instructors and different topics ranging from sacred spaces to climate change and human relationship with earth. As the final challenge of the trek, most of the group was able to successfully climb the Suyra peak, which at an altitude just shy of 17,000 feet, is one of the highest points in the valley. It was during this trek that I was challenged the most, both physically and mentally.
We then embarked to sacred Boudhanath before going to village home stays in the village of Ale Gaun in western Nepal. Ale Gaun is an isolated village consisting of seven houses upon a hill. And there I feel as though I truly learned what community was for the first time. It meant all the aamaas (moms) coming together everyday to prepare lunch (which was the daal bhat, the traditional rice and lentils, of course). It meant aamaa being proud of me even if I spent the day helping Natalie’s family beat rice or Jojo’s sickle grass that day. Having tea time twice a day because whenever you walk by another house, they insist you join them. Never really understanding which dog belonged to which family. I learned that you don’t need words to express love for one another.
For our second student-led trip, we spent a week in Chitwan National Park. It was strange to have the landscape be completely flat after only spending time in Nepal’s mountainous or “hilly” regions, but the views consisted of glimpses of one horned rhinos, wild boar, monkeys, wild elephants, and gharial. I was reminded of the importance of considering all the consequences of tourist attractions before partaking in certain activities through our Stand Up For Elephants visit.
From Chitwan we traveled back to the Kathmandu Valley to Namo Buddha Monastery to experience the monastic life of a Tibetan Buddhist. At the monastery we learned about meditation and the basics of Buddhism with a respected lama and reflected back on the teachings through the time. Here, I attempted to stay silent for half days and broke down into tears on the first two attempts (and consequently decided to break my silence). But the third time was the charm! Through this small but significant achievement, I learned how challenging yet illuminating it is to be alone —and undistracted— with your thoughts. I found out that sometimes learning more about yourself can make you even more frustrated and confused. And that although I’m still uncertain about many things about myself and my future, it is important to try to become comfortable with uncertainty. That gap years are opportunities to choose your own path for the first time in your life, and that can be daunting. But the beauty of uncertainty is that there are endless possibilities.
We finished our time in Nepal at the hilly town of Dhulikhel where we reflected on the journey and drew from the experience to take learning back into our lives. We celebrated the friendships created, challenges overcome and moments of growth to leave Nepal with a better understanding of ourselves in the world that we were able to experience in such a different context.
The idea of returning home felt surreal after being away for so long. As the trip came to an end, I felt torn. I missed my parents a lot, but now, I missed my host family too. I couldn’t wait to hug my friends who returned from college for holiday break, but dreaded the time I would have to hug those in my group goodbye. I was homesick for both places for the same reason. Two completely different places embody a sense of community which I hold so dear. So, with so much to look back on and so much to look forward to, we boarded our plane in Kathmandu, where we started this journey together.
Greatest Hits of Buenos Aires
I have come home from Buenos Aires with a strong desire for one thing: choripán. The delectable dish consists of grilled or smoked chorizo sausage, perfectly crunchy bread, and toppings such as gooey cheese, lettuce, and coleslaw. My favorite place to grab choripán, apart from every other street corner, was a restaurant called Chori in Palermo Soho. No writing could possibly evoke my love of this restaurant, or the gourmet smoked chorizo and interesting sandwich combinations offered on the menu. If you’re going to Buenos Aires, Chori is life changing.
The list of mouth-watering foods I tried in Buenos Aires is extensive, but some of my favorites included alfajores, a cookie filled with dulce de leche; faina, a chickpea pancake; provoleta, a round of grilled provolone cheese; and empanadas, delicious pockets of bread filled with meat, cheese, or onions. The portions in Buenos Aires were as generous as the people in the city, which is to say very generous. Of course the steak and chimichurri were continual highlights at the dinner table; I once went to a restaurant that included three different kinds of salt to season a slab of tender meat with.
Apart from the food, which could merit a whole blog post on its own, I enjoyed walking around the very sizable, very warm city. I was not prepared for the immensity of the port city, nor the variety and distinct identity of every neighborhood within it. The neighborhood I lived in, called Palermo, was a decidedly hip and vibrant neighborhood, packed to the brim with fun coffee shops, brunch spots, bars, live music venues, and trendy shops. Recoleta, a nearby neighborhood, had incredible green spaces, historic street markets, museums, posh restaurants, and stunning French-inspired architecture. Puerto Madero had beautiful modern architecture, being the newest neighborhood in the city, with a sleek bridge outlining the shape of a woman dancing tango. Each neighborhood had a different intrinsic quality that separated it from other neighborhoods. I’m not sure I could say I got to know the entirety of Buenos Aires, but I did come to know small pockets the city allowed me to see. I could spend years discovering new things on new street corners in new neighborhoods, and never tire.
Of the small nooks I was able to see, I discovered lots of beauty, diversity, and history. I loved wandering the various street markets for locally produced goods such as paintings and maté cups. I loved touring El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a theater-turned-bookstore that took my breath away. I loved touring the Zanjón, a passage of underground labyrinths on the site of the first Buenos Aires settlement in 1536. I loved visiting the cultural center in Recoleta to watch dancers practicing choreography, or attend showcases of young local artists. One of my favorite experiences was going to La Bomba de Tiempo, a Monday night percussion-only concert. I never expected to dance in the rain until two a.m. on a Monday night, but these experiences are what gap years are made of!
I would be missing a key highlight of my experience in Buenos Aires if I didn’t talk about my time as an intern for Fundación La Alameda. La Alameda is a non-profit serving the community in Floresta, a neighborhood near the outskirts of the city. The organization has evolved from their beginnings as a soup kitchen to a multi-hyphenate project fighting against child labor, sweatshops, human trafficking, and much more. Their slogan, “Ni esclavos, ni excluidos,” translates roughly to, “Neither slaves, nor people excluded.”
On my first day as an intern, I was plunged straight into the La Alameda world. I was happy that they took me seriously as a young, American intern and entrusted me to translate a document on human organ trafficking from English to Spanish. It was certainly an interesting, albeit disturbing, first day, but I was eager to help make information on such an important topic available to a wider set of people. I worked on many translation projects throughout my 6-weeks in Buenos Aires, and also researched global public policy and laws surrounding human trafficking and prostitution, and conceptualized ways to apply similar practices in Argentina. I was also able to compile a spreadsheet of information on potential hot-spots of prostitution and human trafficking in the city. The office was small and I was the only intern braving the (at times suffocating) summer heat in the city, but I enjoyed spending time with my coworkers and the daily office maté break, the national drink of Argentina.
The most memorable experience for me in Argentina had to be my trip away from the city (however much I loved it!) to Iguazú. I was nervous to travel by myself for the first time, but the wonders of the Iguazú waterfalls, a UNESCO world heritage site spanning both Argentina and Brazil, outweighed any doubts I had. The photos I had seen online could not have prepared me for the enormity or power of the cataracts, comprising around 275 waterfalls. Standing at the edge of the largest waterfall, the “Devil’s Throat,” I was completely and utterly at a loss of words. The grey mist obscured the bottom of the falls and sprayed upward, shrouding the surrounding greenery and cliffs with mystical clouds. The roar of the water surged at a speed I could not have anticipated. Looking into the milky mouth of the waterfall I felt tiny and irrelevant in comparison; a small speck observing this beast of nature. The devil’s throat is certainly a well-deserved name. Later in the day, I took a boat ride through the Iguazú river, coming so close to the waterfalls that I could taste their spray. We were able to sail directly beneath one of the smaller waterfalls, completely drenching the boat and everyone on it.
In Argentina, I explored street art; took a tango class; attended the international student organization’s “American”, but not very American, themed parties; studied Latin-American art at MALBA; went thrift shopping on rooftops; learned about Argentine politics, notably about Peronism; and had an unforgettable solo venture to Iguazú in Argentina and Brazil. All of these adventures and discoveries elapsed over the course of a short six weeks, and Buenos Aires only allowed me a narrow glimpse into the happenings of such an enormous city. I’m excited to return and uncover new treasures and revisit the old.
Wrapping Up in Spain
Back in the end of December I made what was a very difficult decision. I was going to leave Spain. I had originally planned on staying in Spain until April, but I was having more difficulty in Spain than I imagined. Of course there were incredible successes too. Every day I could feel my Spanish improving. I no longer had any trouble understanding anything that was said to me, could easily respond, and was even beginning to understand random conversations that I heard on the street. I was learning a lot at my Spanish classes at Universidad Nebrija, and having fun playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda, the local club.
Despite this I was feeling lonely, and actually a little bit trapped. I was going to school with juniors in college who traveled every weekend while I stayed in Spain to play hockey, so I was never able to make any close friendships with any of them, and the guys who I was playing hockey with were very nice to me, but it seemed like we were always a bit separated by the knowledge that I would be leaving in April. That meant that none of us ever put a lot of effort into getting that close. I also had a big logistical problem: My classes ended at two, and hockey didn’t start until eight or nine, leaving me with six to seven hours of awkward time, not enough free time to do anything I really wanted to do like travel, and too much time to spend reading at a cafe or watching Netflix every day. Basically I had a lot of free time, but it didn’t ever line up in ways that I could use very well. On top of all this I was not as comfortable living in a city as I thought I was going to be. I have lived in a tiny town in New Hampshire all my life, so Madrid was a big change.
I was completing my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish, but I really didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself as much as I should be on my gap year. So, I started looking into programs in Spanish speaking countries I that I could do. I knew that I was interested in a program because I realized that it was realistically a mistake to try to do everything on my own in Spain. Since I was on my own, I didn’t really share the same experience as anyone else, but on a program everyone is on their own so I figured it would be easier to make strong connections. Pretty soon I was drawn to NOLS Patagonia. They ran a cultural expedition through the Chilean Patagonia that promised 31 days of backpacking and cultural interactions. This sounded perfect, the outdoors, speaking Spanish with locals, getting to meet new people, it checked everything off on the list of things that I wanted. But even then I was not totally sure if I wanted to leave. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” I started to realize that I actually had grown closer with my Spanish hockey team than I had realized. The idea of telling them I was leaving was daunting. After. Several days of mulling it over I finally decided to sign up for the NOLS course, and to leave Spain in late December. Telling people that I was leaving early was certainly not the most enjoyable experience, but I knew that I wanted to make a change, so I did it anyway.
None of this is to say that I didn’t have an amazing experience in Spain, I would not trade what I learned for anything. Did I make mistakes? Of course, but the ability to speak to people that I never would have been able to before makes every mistake I made worth it 10 times over. I do want to help others learn from the mistakes I made though. If you are reading this blog and trying to plan a gap year the two biggest questions I would ask you are as follows:
What will your day to day life look like? and Who will your friends be?
I would ask you to think about these two questions hard, because these two questions are the root of where I went wrong. As I was planning my gap year I would have said I will spend my days learning Spanish and playing hockey and my friends will be my classmates and hockey teammates. But I didn’t consider how these two things would affect each other. Since I had hockey every nearly every night and every weekend it was difficult to spend time with my classmates outside of class, and since I didn’t go to school with any of my teammates it was difficult to spend time with them outside the rink. Having a game every weekend for hockey was also difficult, because while I love hockey it made traveling, which is pretty much synonymous with being in Europe, pretty difficult to arrange. So, make sure you think about these questions so that you don’t do what I did, make yourself simultaneously too busy and not busy enough.
So, reader who may be considering taking a gap year, should any of this make you reconsider? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I now want to talk about some of the many amazing things times I had living in Spain with some pictures.
Playing hockey in Spain:
Playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda was definitely one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. As anyone who has played a sport knows, communication with your teammates is key, and I had to communicate in Spanish. This forced me to get good at listening to people and being able to respond quickly. It also gave me the opportunity to travel throughout Spain with Spaniards. Every weekend that we had an away game we would leave the night before on a bus, play a game, and then have at least 6 hours to explore the city. Experiencing Spain with Spanish hockey players was probably one of the most unique experiences I had.
My Host Family:
My host family were probably the nicest people I had ever met. They were the real reason that leaving Spain was so difficult. They brought me to their summer home up north, I want to their grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. They treated me like I was their son. I will be forever grateful to them.
Classes at Universidad Nebrija:
I am actually amazed at how much I learned in 4 months. I started off with a pretty solid foundation, but wow, I honestly never imagined that I would understand Spanish as well as I do now. When I started out, speaking was easier than understanding, but now I can understand everything so speaking is definitely the harder part.
I was lucky to have three close friends from home in Europe at the same time I was there. One in Salamanca, Spain, just a few hours north of me in Madrid, one in Switzerland, and one in London. I traveled the most with the one in Salamanca, and the friends that he had made on his first semester at Colby College that he spent in Spain. We went to Barceonla (my friend in England actually came on that trip too) and Milan together. I also went to visit both friends in Switzerland and London.
So, am I glad I spent 4 months in Spain? Yes I am. Am I happy I left when I did to pursue other things? Yes I am. Would I change some things? Yes. Would I trade my experience for anything? Absolutely not!
Taking a gap year during COVID-19
While much of the world is being affected by the coronavirus, being in Israel, I feel safe, as if I’m wrapped up in a cocoon that is the Old City of Jerusalem. However, I am also feeling very detached from the world, America, and even my own home. This feeling is both literal, since I am living in a walled city seven thousand miles from my home, but also emotionally, concerned for the well being of my family and community but I am not with them.
The coronavirus didn’t feel real until recently, at the start of March, when the father of a friend from my high school class, who lives in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, was diagnosed with coronavirus. His case was the second known case in all of New York, and when I learned that he was in critical condition, the fact that the deadly virus was attacking NYC became real and was brought home to me. Shortly after he was diagnosed, his entire family, including two sons (one being my friend) and daughter, also tested as infected. As a result, my high school closed down due to coronavirus, becoming the first school in NYC to be shut down due to the virus.Having friends and cousins attending the school, I was overcome with feelings of frustration and restlessness that I was so far away from home, and even though I knew there was nothing I myself could do directly to help, I felt as though being home would soothe those feelings. The town of New Rochelle, where many of my close friends live, by itself now has more cases of coronavirus than any state in America.
Since the diagnosis in New Rochelle, the entire community has effectively been quarantined, which has completely disrupted life in the community. New York State ordered the New Rochelle community to shut down its synagogue whose services the coronavirus patient had attended the prior week. Bar mitzvahs and weddings (such as one that my sister was scheduled to attend), two of the more meaningful major life benchmarks and times of happiness in a person’s life, have been cancelled. The community is in deep fear and uncertainty, not even having its own home of worship be safe. It is frightening that at a moment when prayer and hope for healing are really needed, the synagogue is closed and the community is shattered – gathering together in common bonding is exactly what is forbidden.
I too was overcome with feelings of fright and utter sadness, but soon after I realized how lucky I am to be in Jerusalem, able to continue doing what those in New Rochelle cannot do – share community, pray together and celebrate Jewish study together. This feeling of sadness turned into a deep appreciation of my own situation; however my concern for the New Rochelle community, my own community, and the rest of the world is still very much a part of me and is constantly weighing down on me.
My Week at the US/Mexico Border with Al Otro Lado
My dad and I got out of the car as I hefted my backpack onto one shoulder and squinted up. The sky was silent and clear. The pedestrian crossing between Tijuana and San Diego awaited us ahead, the whole gray, metal body of it. There was barbed wire in rings on top of the cement gray wall, and the door–that led to a hallway, that led to another door, that led to another hallway–was a metal lattice. It interlocked and revolved, letting one person push through at a time.
The American flag stood tall, billowing, rising up over the border wall and looking on past the sloping valleys of Tijuana. It was windy in a flat way that day, and the flag flew calmly. Right behind the flag was a mall–a grey compound with a Burger King and a Panda Express. Mall of the Americas, with its flashing signs and ads for one dollar quarter pounders, is the last thing visible before crossing.
There were soldiers in white uniforms and a bright silence through customs. There was a long, zig-zagging white bridge. On the other end, I was suddenly surrounded by tacos al vapor street stands and a gentleman’s club. Ads were painted on the sides of cement walls of restaurants and homes. A TIJUANA sculpture greeted me with its tall, block letters.
I volunteered for a week with Al Otro Lado, a non-profit organization that serves asylum seekers and migrants in Tijuana. The building is four stories, shared by an anarchist collective and an organization called Food-not-Bombs, and seems more akin to an artist squat than a traditional office. The walls are adorned with vibrant murals and red drapes cover all the windows. The main entrance is dotted with stickers. I appreciate the openness to art and beauty in the building. People are welcomed in by walls varnished in different shades of turquoise and plants lining the fourth floor rooftop.
Over the course of the week, I completed intakes with asylum seekers while my dad digitized documents. People came through our doors from Eritrea, Honduras, Cameroon, Cuba, Crimea, and beyond. The stream of constant chatter was always an indistinguishable amalgam of language, with a murmuring of Turkish and soft Spanish currents floating throughout the halls.
My job as an intaker was to listen. The purpose of an intake is to distill the important information of each asylum seeker’s case into an organized document, so that lawyers can advise the client based on their claim, and so that the client can concisely explain their story to immigration officers in a compelling way. In order to best understand these stories that tended to be complex, circuitous accounts, I needed to ask 5 essential questions:
What happened that made you leave home?
Who is responsible for this?
Why were you specifically targeted?
Did you go to the police?
Would it be possible to relocate to another part of your country?
These are not easy questions to ask, nor are they easy questions to answer, especially to a stranger. All five asylum seekers I worked with had faced senseless violence and persecution, and rightfully feared for their lives. One thing they consistently reiterated was that they never expected to be in this position–uprooted from their livelihoods and families, living in overcrowded shelters in Tijuana, awaiting their court date months away in the US. A grandmother I worked with told me over and over: “tenemos mucho miedo”: we are so afraid. Her grandkids couldn’t even go to school anymore. As I translated for the lawyer advising this woman on her case, I had to explain that all that she had endured might not be reason enough for her to win asylum in court. The court requires that applicants prove that they had or would be persecuted on account of at least one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Random violence, however horrible, does not ensure protection from the United States.
I spoke with a girl a year older than me who had left her home after a gang stalked and threatened her and her family. She had just begun her first year of university. She told me about her boyfriend back home and how much she missed him. She carried a brown quilted backpack. (I’m about to start college too! I love mini backpacks too!). Despite the fact that she is traveling with her family, including her mom, dad, and two younger sisters, because she is of legal age, she may be sent to a detention center, for example, in Dilley, Texas while the rest of her family is sent to El Centro, California. As the lawyer and I explained this, she nodded wordlessly and pressed her back up against the wall. I felt very hot and suffocated then, and kept asking her, “¿entiendes?” She kept nodding yes, saying nothing.
I completed another intake with a young man who talked affectionately with his mom on the phone as I finished filling out my notes. He had been taken from his home and tortured by the police for his beliefs. He had a strong case, according to the lawyer. The only problem was that he applied for asylum in a time when US immigration policy is rapidly changing. The lawyer told him he would only be eligible for withholding of removal; while he could obtain a work permit in the United States, he could never become a permanent resident. He would also never be able to leave the United States, as this would forfeit his status. He told me he had a baby girl back home.
Most people I met at Al Otro Lado had already been through long, taxing journeys to reach the Tijuana border. But what awaits asylum seekers on the other side of the wall may be equally as harrowing. Ideally, asylum seekers should be able to present their case, go to custody, have a “credible fear” interview, and then argue their case in court.
In reality (according to my experience at the border), asylum seekers are being turned away and given a number to be called from an arbitrary list. The list is managed by a group of volunteers also applying for asylum, who receive instructions from Mexican border control, who receive instructions from Customs and Border Protection. It is impossible to predict when your number might be called–sometimes hundreds of numbers are called in one day, sometimes none–and numbers are announced at 6:30 in the morning at CBP’s discretion.
After their number is called, the hielera awaits asylum seekers. It’s a concrete room, kept at frigid temperatures, with no windows. The lights are kept on 24 hours a day. Asylum seekers are stripped of their clothing except for their base layers. They are given mylar sheets to sleep on the floor. There is little to no access to medical care, showers, or food. CBP claims that asylum seekers stay in the hielera for no more than 72 hours, but Al Otro Lado has seen their clients held there for three weeks at a time. People I spoke to during intakes described incredible hostility and disrespect from immigration officers. One client told me they threatened to deport him back to his home country if he didn’t sign a document that he could not read or understand (the document was in English, a language he doesn’t speak, and the immigration officer refused to translate it for him).
From the hielera, after completing a credible fear interview, asylum seekers are released to a detention center, or returned to Mexico under the “Migrant Protection Program”. Al Otro Lado describes detention to their clients as jail cells. There, asylum seekers face squalid conditions for months on end awaiting their court date.
If asylum seekers are returned to Mexico, they are given a notice to appear in court. These court dates can be at 3 or 4 in the morning, there is little to no access to counsel in Tijuana, and even if asylum seekers manage to obtain an asylum application form from a judge, they must complete this legal document–that is completely in English–in Mexico. Sometimes, asylum seekers are given “ghost” notices to appear in court. Although they have a document establishing a time and date for their hearing, their case number is nowhere to be found in the system. When asylum seekers show up on this time and day, they are turned away and stuck in limbo in their asylum process. This is how the CBP has tried to deter, confuse, and ultimately, outwit those seeking asylum within our borders.
I struggled to write this because we are not the worst thing that has ever happened to us. The people I’ve written about have suffered, and continue to in our broken immigration system, but they are just as wholly human and deserving of justice as anyone else. It is not sufficient to say that one person was threatened by a gang and one person was extorted, and that another’s brother was shot and left on the street. The young college student I spoke to had a boyfriend she really likes, and another woman I met let her chubby baby pull at her hair and pinch her arms. These people are not “rapists” or “bringing crime”, and they are not “invading” the United States. They are people like me, like you, who have faced insurmountable obstacles that have left them in a vulnerable position they never expected to be in. And we, as a country, have the ability to help.
If you would like to donate or get involved, you can find Al Otro Lado’s website here: