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Impact of Travel with Mr. Collet

Carmen Bebbington, Editor

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When and where did you travel?

I don’t remember the exact dates, but it was during my spring break in March of 2009. The trip was for ten days, and I travelled to Casablanca (in Morocco) for a day because that was where we had to switch flights, and then we flew to Dakar, which is the capital of Senegal. We spent a couple of days in Dakar, and then we drove to Thiès – where we stayed for most of the trip and where we engaged in community service and service learning. And then we went back to Dakar for a day at the end of the trip before we flew back to Casablanca and then to New York.

What was your favorite memory from your time there?

It’s a little challenging to pick one, but I think the people that I met. I think the most striking thing was that people had this joy of living despite their very humble conditions. Also, how the culture was so drastically different. On the one hand, you’re put out of your comfort zone, but the learning that you get from that teaches you how to appreciate things more. What I kept with me, after this trip that was so different than what I was used to, was that when I came back I almost felt that all the European countries were the same. You know, I couldn’t see the differences between Germany, England, Switzerland, France and Spain. After traveling to Africa, these countries suddenly felt very similar, as if their cultural differences were fading away and were not as strong as they used to be.  It took me awhile to start seeing these differences again.

What were some of the things you did while you were there? 

We did lots of different things. We did the community service project which was basically to paint the walls of a school under construction. So we spent a whole day getting dirty and painting. And then the students created a mural on the premises, and we actually partnered with students from the local English club from the high school in Thiès – so it wasn’t just like us working; we actually did the work in partnership with another team. I don’t think I’d ever painted before – I’m not really a handy person – so it was pretty cool. It was also very meaningful, and that’s why I think we were so excited to do it. It was for a great reason.

We visited three different schools there – a Catholic school in Dakar, an elementary school in Dakar, and a high school in Thiès. In each place, we had the opportunity to interact with students in classes and we designed some English lessons for them. So, the American students were able to share their knowledge and engage students in fun activities and that was a lot of fun.

We also had a lot of adventures. We travelled on a horse and carriage; we fished in what they call Pirogues (which are like fishing boats). They didn’t use fishing rods, but they actually fished with the thread around their finger and put a hook on the end. I forget what it’s called, but it’s a traditional fishing technique. We also visited little villages where we met lots of people and were greeted with singing. Everywhere we went, we greeted with such joy, and we felt like rock stars. People were treating us as if we were the most important people they’ve ever seen. That was really strange, but exciting at the same time. It was very different. They were so honored to have you show interest in them and they would give it back – all the exchanges we had were so exciting.

Did you have any “culture clash” moments while you were in Senegal?

Yes, well, I guess I would say it was not using toilet paper. I mean, you know, it’s life. So that was… you know there’s basically a bucket of water because the pipes are not good enough for paper to be absorbed. I know this is in a lot of cultures too, not just Senegal, and they feel like it’s just cleaner to rinse yourself rather than just use paper which actually might be definitely more hygienic. So yeah… that was an adjustment.

Eating with your hands, for example, was another one. And sharing the same plate with everyone. Instead of everyone having their own little plates and silverware you basically have a big communal dish. And your portion of the dish is the triangle that’s in front of you. It doesn’t matter how many people are sitting around that big dish, you basically have a triangle in front of you that you visualize and that’s the food that you’re responsible for. You’re not supposed to be picking and grabbing pieces from the other side; you just basically stick to your section. The cooks, they put the meat in the middle for example and then everybody has rice and different vegetables, and then the cook will spread a bit of meat around each triangle. So it’s spread evenly, and that would be your portion. It feels weird at first, to just eat things that have sauce and stuff like that with your hands but, I mean you wash your hands before and after, and you get used to it. I remember the students finding it very fun actually, it’s almost like doing something their parents wouldn’t let them do even though they really wanted to.

I think that another thing is that people were calmer. I didn’t think people were as stressed as people in our society can be. I felt very zen there, very relaxed. I felt like I could really enjoy the things that truly mattered in life.

Do you think this travel experience has had a lasting effect on you?

Yes, I definitely think so. I mean, I think it taught me how to appreciate differences more. I learned how to slow down at times when I feel like I am running too fast; I learned how to put myself outside of my comfort zone because usually, a lot of good things come out of doing that. And when you don’t know this and you never [push yourself outside of your comfort zone], it’s difficult to go ahead and do it, but once you’ve tried it you find that positive experiences will come out of this. I think this trip encouraged me to do more of that in life in general.

It also makes me want to travel to places that are more different. I used to go to Spain every year growing up and I’ve done a lot of traveling in Europe and in the US, but this made me want to travel outside of the beaten path and engage in experiences that connect me with the community rather than staying in a resort. I’m not going to lie — I went to a lot of resorts growing up and it was nice, but it just wasn’t as meaningful. I don’t remember those kind of experiences as much as I do the experiences when I actually connected with locals. For example, a year after Senegal, I got to go to the Dominican Republic with a group of teachers, and we did some service learning there. And I felt like this is the stuff I would like to do all the time if I could, and I’m glad that I’m in a school where Mr. Taylor shares the same vision and tries to design trips for students to experience this impact.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Let me think for a moment… I mentioned it at Assembly, but I think the idea that Africa is too much of an unknown territory for most people. And there is more traveling from Europe to Africa than there is from America to Africa, and I think I would like to encourage people from the US to not be afraid to go. Of course, I’m not saying to just go blindly – you should prepare your trip, and you need to make the right connections. But there are lots of safe places to go in Africa and people, unfortunately, tend to perceive Africa through negative stereotypes which isn’t good. There are places where you want to be careful, like there are places you don’t want to go to in any country, but I think people should try at least once in their life – put it on your bucket list – to go to an African country so that you can have this kind of experience.

 

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