Reflecting on the 2016 Catlin Gabel Global Trips

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This March, Catlin Gabel students travelled across the globe, exploring different countries through the lens of multicultural leadership and education. The trips spanned three continents: North America, Asia, and Africa. Twelve students went to Nicaragua, fifteen students went to Japan, and ten students went to Rwanda and Uganda. All of the trips featured a homestay experience with a local family, some sightseeing (to memorials, museums, temples, etc.), service work or donation drops, and on two of the three trips, a visit with local officials or the U.S. Embassy in that country.

Despite concerns about the Zika virus, Catlin Gabel students, armed with insect repellent and long-sleeved shirts, travelled to Nicaragua. They visited the capital, Managua, as well as León, Granada, and La Concepción. During their stay, students learned about the history of Nicaragua, performed service work, and practiced Spanish with homestays.

In order to learn about Nicaragua’s past, the students visited the Museum of the Revolution in León, which is the “First Capital of the Revolution,” and they received tours in Spanish from former revolutionaries. The museum is in a house that sits within the central square of León, and offered the group a great view from the roof.  

Students on the Nicaragua trip after playing and losing a tough game of soccer to a local team. (Photo: Enrique Escalona/Nicaragua Trip Photos)
Students on the Nicaragua trip after playing and losing a tough game of soccer to a local team. (Photo: Enrique Escalona/Nicaragua Trip Photos)

As one member of the group, Ari Bluffstone ’17, noted, “The Sandinista museum was really cool, and meeting those guys [former Sandinista rebels], and seeing how passionate they were about what they did, and even today they feel so proud of what they did and what their companions did, I thought that was special. And seeing pictures of them during the war was very meaningful.”

The students on this trip also engaged in service projects, all of which involved elementary school and preschool-aged kids. Catlin Gabel students worked at the Panama School, the Ruben Dario school, and the Centro Cultural de Karen. The students volunteering at the Centro Cultural de Karen, played games with the kids, assisted with art projects, and donated art supplies and books. Bluffstone shared that his favorite memory was “being at the Centro Cultural de Karen en la Concepción with the little kids, and we were picking them up from under their arms…and we would fly them around, and they would look at you with this crazy look of delight.”

Another important component of this trip was the homestay experience. For a week, students lived with locals. The students spoke in Spanish with their host families, ate with their hosts, and often played with the younger members of their host households. A member of the group also revealed a surprise from their time in the homestay: “I was surprised by our homestay mom. I thought that she would only be doing it for the money, but it seemed like there was definitely an aspect that she wanted a companion and someone to take care of, because she was a bit older and her husband was out a lot and her kids were in Costa Rica. So that was surprising.”

Catlin Gabel students also travelled to China this year. Despite the air pollution in China, students enjoyed their visits to temples, schools, and, of course, the Great Wall. Students visited Beijing, and different cities in the province of Yunnan, including Yuanyang and Lijiang.

To first acknowledge the pollution, Ricky King ’17 noted that “in Beijing the pollution was really bad, especially the day we got there. In the airport we would look out the windows and not be able to see anything, and it just felt like the airport was all that existed.”

Catlin Gabel students on the China trip also stayed in homestays, where they experienced life in multigenerational households. King commented on her favorite meal, and the extensive number of in-house host family members that made it possible explaining,“the best thing that I ate was these dumplings that I made with my host family. We came home from school (my host sister wasn’t in school but I was), and I came home to her entire family making these dumplings by taking the dough part. And the grandpa was boiling them, and it was really cute because it was her aunt, her parents, her grandparents, and her, all in this tiny apartment making dumplings. And they showed me how to fold it and you fold it and pinch it up and boil it. Then that night for dinner we at fifty gazillion of them.”

The group also enjoyed visiting the sites, including the Great Wall of China and numerous temples. Sage Yamamoto ’17 shared that his favorite moment from the trip was “getting to the top of the Great Wall” even though “there was a lot of steps and a lot of climbing.”

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Catlin Gabel students on the China trip during their visit to the Great Wall of China. (Photo: China 2016 Trip Blog)

“We went to this temple on a hill, and there was no air there because it was really elevated. It was hard to breathe. We saw this tree that looked really cool, and this guy said that it was 600 years old, and it’s called the 10,000 blossoms tree, and then a member of the group got to hang out with a monk.” This temple is quite well known for its giant tree called the “Ten-thousand-flower Camellia.

The students on this trip also ventured into the more rural areas of China, and this change of scenery was surprising and in sharp contrast to time spent in the big city of Beijing. Yamamoto describes this transition, recalling images from a walk the group took around a rural area: “We went pretty far South, and the rural parts of China were kind of beaten up, and there were a lot of old men smoking and playing cards.”

One thought that Yamamoto brought back with him was that the extent of “gender equality actually seemed in some ways a lot similar [to America] because the men were working as hard as the women, and…they both work equally, and share the workload for the family.” King shared that this experience has connected her with this country: “now if I hear China I associate that with a real image, person, or place.”

In an exploration of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Catlin Gabel students ventured into  Rwanda and Uganda. They pursued a greater understanding of how the past continues to affect these countries, and worked to gain insight into the thoughts of locals regarding the future of their countries. This comment from one of the group members, Katie McClannan ’18, helps to preface this trip reflection: “A lot of the experiences that were more uncomfortable were more beneficial to me, and I am glad that I had them.”

Ian Hoyt ’17 stated that his favorite moment from the trip was when the group talked to an ex-Senator of Rwanda: “the ex-senator has a crazy life story and has been super involved in government, and he was fascinating to listen to. We only talked to him for an hour and a half, but I could have sat there for six more hours, and it would have been enthralling.”

After meeting with lots of different ministries and commissions, both McClanan and Hoyt feel like they have brought back a new perspective on the definition of democracy. Hoyt shared his new thoughts on the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and his style of government. He thought that his experience in Rwanda and Uganda would show him “the reality of why authoritarian governments can be bad, but it reaffirmed that authoritarian governments, if done right, can be amazing.”

McClanan explained that the visits to the genocide memorials were “the most emotionally taxing” experiences of the trip. “In research about the Rwandan genocide, I felt very distanced from what happened, but being in a site, that isn’t immaculately kept up, it was more emotionally real.”

Students on the Rwanda and Uganda trip while meeting with the Minister of Reconciliation in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Rwanda/Uganda Trip Blog)
Students on the Rwanda and Uganda trip while meeting with the Minister of Reconciliation in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Rwanda/Uganda Trip Blog)

McClanan and Hoyt also agreed that the most uncomfortable moment for the group occurred at a vocational school in Uganda. During a get-to-know-you activity between the Catlin Gabel students and the local students, McClanan describes the Ugandan students as being “very fascinated by the fact that same-sex marriage was legal, because it is just viewed by the majority of people in rural Uganda as a complete abomination…They weren’t being aggressive, but…they seemed to view us poorly because of our acceptance of homosexuality. It was definitely a culture shock, coming from a place like Catlin Gabel where many people are liberal, and most people support same-sex marriage.” Hoyt also commented on the same event, recounting how “their viewpoints and our viewpoints were seeing past each other.”

Although Hoyt found his homestay experience in Rwanda to be valuable, he also thought that “it felt intentionally muted.” He had hoped to experience what these local families experience everyday, but instead, he “was receiving special treatment.”

“We fetched water from the well, but we had these dinky little tiny jerry cans, not the huge jerry cans that the five-year-olds carry, that are twice their size. And we ate super well, despite the fact that we knew that they didn’t have that everyday. And the families allowed us to have more spacious accommodations than they did.”

McClanan also made mention of an interesting moment that happened while shadowing students at a vocational academy in Bududa, Uganda. It was the day before Easter, so the students at the school “got a special treat to watch a movie, but the thing is they watched Frozen. And it was so interesting because how would that interest young Ugandan children? It is a movie about a bunch of white people in a palace being cold. It is not applicable at all to them.”

Every trip seems to have been a valuable experience for Catlin students. Nearly forty students experienced an international adventure, and every single traveler tried something new and uncomfortable. Since new and uncomfortable situations tend to give rise to the best stories and cultural insight, everyone should continue to question their peers about their trips.