Travel Tales (Fall 2011)

A Little Background
by Marion Weeks

The original Sturgis Soundings was a collection of book reviews written by Sturgis students and faculty.  Gretchen Buntschuh, former Lead Teacher of the English Department and Assistant Director of Sturgis, was the one who dreamed up the idea. Sturgis Soundings published three issues (2008-2010). The final issue, entitled All Time Favorite Books, was a tribute to Gretchen,  published just before she passed away in February 2010. Afterwards, I did not have the heart to continue the publication without her.

However, I knew Gretchen would want the publication to carry on. That certainty led me to consider various alternatives and eventually  to recreate Sturgis Soundings as a WordPress magazine. In October 2011, I met with Steven Martin (English, West) to invite him to become a member of our Editorial Board.  At the end of our meeting, I told him about the history of the publication and gave him copies of old issues. After reading them, he wrote me a note saying, “I found it very illuminating to see what Sturgis is through the lens of literature.  I feel that a similar course of action can be taken for the new magazine, but should include, in addition to books, what work of art, film, trip, person, and the like had an influential impact in one’s life.”

So that’s how we decided to expand the original concept, call it Cultural Soundings, and take it on the road, so to speak.  Thanks for the inspiration, Steve.  For our first issue we asked the Sturgis community to describe a memorable travel moment and how it influenced them or changed their perspective.  Here are their travel tales:

Mark Blake (Special Educator, East)

Earlier this fall, when Marion Weeks asked people to share a  travel experience that impacted them profoundly, my mind took off in a thousand directions.  What an outstanding way for our community to share a moment or experience that has profoundly influenced us.  However, the more I started thinking about my travels, the more I realized that for me this was not about any one particular trip, but about an experience that continues to influence me even today.

Years ago as a senior in high school, I was traveling the back roads of Vermont with my father when we stumbled upon a small college – Green Mountain College.  At the time I was feeling a bit discouraged and frustrated trying to find a school I could call home for the next four years.  I was not much different than any other kid then or now, as I experienced the pressure  to make one of the biggest decisions of my life.  School didn’t always come easy for me, and I knew if I chose a college where I was a “number,” then I might have  a great time, but would probably be home by Christmas Break trying to explain to my parents again why I did not “work to my potential.”  My argument might have been “Well…If you had only let me attend culinary arts school…” but those were different times.  Back then, there was no Food Network with Chef Bobby Flay or Chef Michael Simon.

It was a rather lousy and overcast day, the leaves had already turned and we were heading home when we turned down Main Street of the small Vermont town.  We were both immediately awestruck.  What were these beautiful Georgian style brick buildings with white pillars doing in the middle of all this farm land?  My family had traveled up that way hundreds of times to enjoy the outdoors, but we always cut back across the state to head south.  After pulling into the circular driveway of Green Mountain College, we headed into the Admissions building to see if we could have a tour and learn more.  That is when everything changed for me and I found my second home.

Everyone was very friendly.  I wasn’t treated like a time slot appointment. Even though we were just dropping in, the staff took the time to show us around.  As we left, I scheduled an admissions interview and headed home with renewed motivation and direction.  The next four years shaped who I was to become as a professional, created life long relationships, and altered my perception of education.  Though I have enjoyed many wonderful trips and shared moments with friends and family that brighten my most melancholy days, it was attending Green Mountain College that shaped me into an educator and life long learner.

When I told Marion my idea of writing about this remarkable trip that shaped my life,  she looked at me rather inquisitively and nodded her head with a smile.  She encouraged me to tell this story because so many people including students, parents and teachers can relate to the pressures of college shopping.

Teaching has provided me with the opportunity to continue what started off as a lousy day in November among the mountains of Vermont.  The experience altered my perception of education, and in time, how to educate.  Almost twenty years later, I have the amazing opportunity of teaching here at Sturgis which is very similar to the community atmosphere of Green Mountain College.  The difference is that now I have a family and I am also fortunate enough to hear from past students about the places where they are traveling, their accomplishments, and what is shaping their lives.

The long walk toward Victory Monument is designed to give visitors a sense of the enormous sacrifices made by Soviet citizens and soldiers during World War II. (Photo by Ted Jameson)

Jeffrey Hyer  (History East)

The Soviet Union and later Russia’s use of its space in Moscow is quite impressive. From the Kremlin, to its Exhibition Park, to its Great Patriotic War Museum, the designers of the latter were geniuses in using space to evoke emotions.  I remember several years ago visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The use of space in stretching out the 58,000-plus names on the black granite was impressive. It certainly evoked a strong emotional reaction to the deaths in that conflict. Yet, the Soviet Union lost 30 million people in World War II. The results were horrific. As it prepared to honor the dead on the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Russian government built an impressive memorial that is hard to top. It is breathtaking. I visited it in the summer of 2010.

The designers laid out the park to slowly draw visitors first toward Victory Monument, a large obelisk commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany, and then the museum by having you walk a broad parkway only open to pedestrian traffic. Each step evokes a feeling of time and a sense of the commitment necessary to defeat a highly determined enemy. As one gets closer to the obelisk, large stone monuments on either side recall victories or defeats against the Germany in chronological order. Upon arriving at the monument I stood beneath a large bronze equestrian statue of St. George the Victorious piercing a dragon with a spear that stands on the granite platform. St George has killed the dragon (Nazi Germany). St. George slaying the dragon is also the symbol of the city of Moscow. The long walk is designed to have the visitor yield to the Soviet victory. Only then can one enter the museum.

The museum is the best I have ever visited. Every exhibit, every corner, and every richly decorated wall convey a strong sense of duty to honor the enormous burden shouldered by the Soviet Union during their fight against Nazi Germany. It is impressive. The Russian people have honored their moral responsibility to provide the historical truth of their sacrifices during the conflict. It feels more of a sacred temple to Soviet history than just a museum showing objects and attempting to tell a story. There is a solemnity about it which causes one to whisper and walk slowly and respectfully.

Orange Trees in Seville

Patrick O’Kane   (Spanish East and Director of Athletics)

Nothing can compare to the smell of the orange trees in Seville in the springtime.  While not edible, these trees that line the streets of this southern spanish city infuse every experience and every conversation with an air of sweetness and excitement.  When I first arrived in Seville in late January of 1994, this smell was my first impression of life abroad.  This impression imbedded itself into my mind as I walked daily to and from class through the gypsy neighborhoods of La Triana and Los Remedios.

I have seen many sites since that Spring.  The Great Pyramids, Paris, Rome, The Alps, The Great Wall of China….  However, that smell of oranges, coupled with the view of La Giralda and La Torre de Oro along the Guadalquivir River, remains the strongest, most comforting reminder of my life abroad.  I knew then, as I walked the streets of Seville in 1994, that I had caught the travel bug and things would never be the same.

Ben Porter, with one of the Long Neck Tribe Members, Thailand

Ben Porter (Class of 2010)

I traveled to Thailand in February of 2011 with my class from Norway. It has been the most memorable trip of my life.

I visited a clinic in northern Thailand called the Mae Tao Clinic. This Clinic helps Burmese and Thai people who are not able to go to a hospital because they are either illegally in the country or could not afford to go to a hospital. The Clinic has volunteer doctors from the UK, USA, and other European countries assisting patients and babies. It is a non-profit Clinic that receives donations from programs and organizations all over the world. I took a tour of the clinic and a building where casts and prosthetic body parts are made. I noticed a whiteboard which listed names of about 30 patients who all had one common injury: land mines. These patients fled from Burma trying to find a new life in Thailand. It was emotionally heartbreaking to learn about how many people are killed trying to flee from Burma, a militaristic country.

The Thai government uses the Long Neck Tribe as a tourist attraction in Thailand. What is not known is that the Long Neck Tribe are slaves in Thailand. This tribe fled from Burma, however they were captured in Thailand and now tourists pay to see them. I was one of the people that paid. It was with a feeling of disgust I realized I was supporting this type of social behavior. The Long Neck Tribe makes money from tourists by weaving handmade scarves. I purchased five of these scarves for more than what they were worth. It was the only way the feeling of guilt would go away. The tribe was mostly women with husbands who worked on the houses made of bamboo. During the monsoons in Thailand, these houses become damaged. They wear long, golden, neck rings. It is a beautiful symbol of them. I picked up one of the rings to find they weigh a lot.

My two encounters in Thailand have allowed me to see social issues and human right issues that I did not know existed. It has opened a new perspective for me and opened new doors for me. I plan to help out at the Clinic one day and I want to start a donation program for the Long Neck Tribe. My compassion, understanding, and views on the world have become more sensitive after what I encountered.

My next traveling journey is back to Norway where I will join the Norwegian Air Force!

Best of Luck Students!

Jacob Stapledon and Rebecca at the Delaware Water Gap on the Appalachian Trail

Jacob Stapledon (Class of 2003)

After moving to the Berkshires in 2006, Becky and I began saving money. Becky and I  both worked good paying jobs, lived in a nice house, and had gotten very comfortable in where we  were living, going out regularly with friends for dinner, etc. During that time I had gotten quite over-weight and had started to have some minor health problems I had not expected to have at my age. Becky and I had been discussing what to do with our savings for quite a while, and had almost settled on buying a house. However one day I decided to go for a hike and ended up on one of the local section of the Appalachian Trail where I spoke to a thru-hiker who was passing through named Vegas. Talking to him for only 15 minutes got the AT seed planted in my mind. After a year of research, planning and preparing, in 2009 Becky and I began hiking in early June north from Georgia towards Massachusetts.

I could go into great detail of any number of things that happened over the four months we were hiking: the worst thunder/lightning storm I have ever been in, my friend almost falling on a rattlesnake, sitting two feet from a copperhead eating lunch, wild ponies, a man who taught us how to make possum stew, how great a two pound cheeseburger is after you’ve hiked 22 miles (or a pint of B&J ice cream), the generosity of those who understand the struggle in the hike and who open their homes to you although you have only met, that black bears aren’t as intimidating as people make them out to be (most of the time), the smell of not showering for 8 days. I could spend an equal amount of time talking about the experiences of our travel as it took us to take it. However, I can’t and so I will say this: spending so much time doing something I loved ,being with someone I loved, challenging myself every day, made me the happiest I have ever been in my life. If you can apply most of that into your everyday life, your each-and-every day will be the happiest in your life.

I also grew a beard, a full head of hair, lost 70 pounds and gained a wife. That was pretty awesome too.

Alicia Watts, Egypt

Alicia Fenney Watts (Class of 2003; English East)

My future husband and I had just arrived in Egypt for a 6-day vacation. Equipped with months of research from travel books, blogs and long discussions with those who know from experience, we felt prepared for anything. Heeding this advice when we arrived at Cairo airport, we refused transportation service from inside the airport and exited the front in search of an independent taxi driver. A few minutes later we were greeted by a friendly “yes man” and were swept away to his waiting cab. It wasn’t until we tried to converse with him en route that we discovered he didn’t speak English and had no idea where our hotel was.

No warning about driving conditions could have prepared us for the hour and a half ride from Cairo to Giza. The highways have lanes and speed limits but the drivers don’t use them. The cars have lights but they aren’t turned on, even in the dead of night (flashing headlines are a form of communication on the road, we learned later). And the noise and vivacity of the streets themselves, even expressways, is unreal.

Half way through a thrilling late night adventure, our driver unexpectedly pulled to the breakdown lane, which was, oddly enough, a makeshift bus stop. As highway cars whizzed by our left, people bee-lining for a small cramped bus swarmed past our car to the right. When our driver unexpectedly leapt from our car and disappeared into the crowd, my future husband looked to me for reassurance. I tried to keep my composure as a million possibilities and impossibilities raced through my mind: we could be mugged, our luggage stolen, murdered and dumped in a ditch… we couldn’t leave the car; we didn’t know where we were and would have to dodge traffic or jump a barrier into what looked like the projects of Cairo. And then what? The twenty minutes we spent waiting for our driver to return were the most frightening of my life. We had planned for everything, except total abandonment on a crowded highway breakdown lane!

The relief we felt when he returned and began driving was overwhelming but was quickly squashed by the realization that this could happen again. With a few very clear directives and some clarification through his broken English we arrived, eventually, at our hotel. Needless to say, we made arrangements through our hotel for all future ground transportation.

Marion Weeks, Republique du Niger, 1983

Marion Weeks  (Community Outreach Coordinator)

When we boarded the bus in Niamey for Maradi, we thought we were home free. After all, it was only 335 miles and should have been a piece of cake. I was one of 55 newly minted Peace Corps Volunteers in July 1981 heading to a three-month training program in Niger, West Africa. We were already road weary from traveling the better part of a long day from Philadelphia to Paris to Niamey. In typical Western fashion, we were more than ready to arrive at our destination.

After four hours on the bus,  a volunteer asked one of our Nigerien trainers if we were halfway there. We were told with a kind chuckle, “Oh, we have barely started.”

One of the many things we had no clue about at that point was how often a Nigerien bus driver might like to stop and take a break. First there were the military checkpoints complete with machine guns. Then there were the prayer stops. And finally, there were  stops in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. As our bus moved in slow motion across the barren landscape, we began to feel like we were hardly moving at all.

When daylight started to fade,  I entered a dream–like state where it seemed like we were now moving backwards in time. We drove slowly past small villages and simple mud dwellings that looked as though they were built centuries ago. Could we have crossed an extraordinary time zone into the ancient past?  That’s when it finally hit me that Peace Corps would take me to a place and time my average American experiences could not prepare me to expect.

During the long night ride, we stopped at roadside stands beautifully lit with kerosene lamps where women dressed in brightly colored pagnes africaines sold coffee sweetened with condensed milk and bowls of  beans and rice. The women bantered back and forth in Hausa, gesturing and laughing in high spirits. Although they  sat on dilapidated benches by the side of an extremely dusty road, they seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Thus began my introduction to the magical powers of African nights. As a young American who had never seen a desert, I had no idea what a blessing it could be when the sun goes down.  At sundown, Nigeriens emerge from hot dwellings to cook and visit outdoors.  As evening progresses, daily rituals of pounding millet and cooking start to wind down, radios are turned off and villages slowly become silent. People settle to sleep under gorgeous night skies where stars shine without competition from electrical lights. During our slow bus introduction to Niger, I never realized that I too would sleep outdoors most nights for the next two years – except during Harmattan – when dust storms blow down from the Sahara.

Looking back on those first days as a Peace Corps volunteer, my most clear-cut memory is the seemingly endless fourteen-hour bus ride that kindly introduced me to the value of moving slowly and the wonders of African nights.

Miranda White (Class of 2007)

I studied abroad in Japan during the fall semester 2009, so I’ve definitely got some travel tales to tell! There’s this one city, Nara, where the species of deer that live there has always been sacred. It used to be that if you killed one of the Nara deer, you got the death penalty! The deer’s sacred status was revoked after World War 2, but the Japanese just went and declared them a national treasure, so they’re still protected.

As a result, though, they’re totally fearless! One of the highlights of Nara is that you can buy deer cookies from street vendors, which are set up literally one a block around the parks and temples. At first I thought it was totally awesome, like some kind of free range petting zoo. But I think the deer and the vendors have some kind of bargain — the deer leave the vendors alone, and seem pretty peaceful and friendly, but the moment you have those cookies in your hand, you get swarmed. Which was cute and amusing at first, but then I made the mistake of turning my back on one to try and feed others behind me… and I got head-butted! They were so pushy! I couldn’t get away until all the cookies were gone.

I saw two Japanese school girls taking pictures of my plight on their cell phones and laughing. I guess I can’t really blame them.

I don’t know if you’ll have space to put it in, but I’ll attach a picture of the deer in Nara. As the picture shows, they cleverly hover around the vendor, looking cute, luring in unsuspecting tourists with a peaceful facade.

Julia Woiszwillo on a Buying Trip to High Point, North Carolina

Julia Woiszwillo  (Class of 2003)

In 2010, I spent six months in London studying at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. It was one of the best times in my life. I met some of the most interesting and dynamic people from all over the globe. Although I was attending school and learning more about the expansive art world, I took so much more away from the experience. I learned that regardless of where you are from; whether it be Cape Cod or Jarkarta, Indonesia, we all want to be the best that we can be and are all looking to further enrich our lives.

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