Matthew Ambrogi - 2014 Program Participant
Running to swim in the river at our homestay in Laos
What inspired you to apply for an international program?
First off, it wasn't an easy decision. But, for me, it was something I had to do. I was in my freshman year of college, working so hard everyday for an engineering degree, but I felt that I was missing out of an immensely valuable educational experience: traveling abroad. I knew there was more out there and I needed to see it. I had thought about taking a gap year the previous year but, for one reason or another (fear and a feeling that "no one does that"), I ended up at college. I had done some research and was really excited about my options, so I decided to act.
Why did you choose Where there be Dragons? How about your specific program?
For me, choosing to do Dragons and choosing to apply for an international program went hand in hand. I knew it would be Dragons, and really you could say Dragons was the reason I went abroad in the first place. Looking into their programs and getting in contact with some alumni and employees, I got the feeling that they did really amazing things and had the most purpose and intention put into their programs.
I trusted that going to Southeast Asia with Dragons would be a life changing experience, and it was.
I chose Mekong for a number of reasons. Southeast Asia had been calling to me for a time. It sounds funny now, but it felt mysterious; this land of jungles and temples, where the air was thick with humidity. That inspired me to look into programs in the region. When I found Mekong, it was the one. I loved the idea of following the story of this river through three diverse countries. I wanted to be on the move, and I was really excited to learn more about Buddhism and development in the area. Those may seem like completely different ends of the spectrum, but they work together great. Buddhism is a way of making sense of the world around you, and the effects of development in the area are a massive part of the reality of the world around people in Southeast Asia.
What was your favorite part about traveling and living along the Mekong River?
Along the Mekong, the air is just as often filled with humidity as it is saturated with a sense of relaxation. Laos is known as Laos People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR; we liked to say that actually stood for “Laos Please Don't Rush”. We did a three week homestay on an island on the Mekong in Laos. Our host families were primarily subsistence rice farmers, which meant that their days really just consisted of harvesting rice from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., with some long nap breaks; then coming home, eating, watching Thai TV, then going to bed.
Mine were not much more complex. We had morning meetings, discussions, and lessons; I could teach for an hour at the school on the island, swim in the river with the kids, probably swim in the river with the kids again, and not much more was on my agenda.
It was the simplest way of life I've known since I was a little kid, but it was also the most satisfying.
I think in our fast paced culture we develop a fear of slowing down, of not having much to do. Southeast Asia, among many other things, showed me that it is nothing to be afraid of, but something to be cherished. Along the Mekong, the pace and beauty of life gave me a lot of much needed time to reflect and think, but it also gave me a really fun place to do that, and an endless amount of complexities to satisfy my intellectual appetite.
What makes Where there be Dragons unique?
What makes Dragons unique is the lens they give you to look at the world. Through discussions, purposefully crafted itineraries, and experienced instructors, you get exposed to a way of thinking about a place, challenges, and yourself that you can't get otherwise. For me, this really led to a widened perspective on life.
How has your program changed the way you think of the world?
I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago, a fellow Dragons student, and we came up with a metaphor I really liked:
It’s like I had lived my whole life looking through a magnifying glass, just seeing this small subset of my life and my area of the world. What Dragons did was pull that magnifying glass away.
I now see how many more ways there are to do “this life thing” than I ever imagined. I'm both more aware of problems in the world, and more aware of opportunities. I'm a more engaged person over all.
What sets the Mekong program apart from other similar programs in Southeast Asia?
The Mekong program is unique in the adventure it provides. I once heard someone compare it to "The Hobbit" and I really liked that. You see so many amazing places, have ups, have downs, are challenged, have fun; in a lot of ways it’s years of life compressed into three months. It gives you a chance for comparisons and analysis of issues (such as international development) from different angles. It’s also just a great time, from hiking along Tiger Leaping Gorge or through the jungle in Laos to riding on a boat for three days in Cambodia.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
Dragons’ local staff is a huge part of what makes the organization outstanding. In each country we were accompanied by one local instructor who did all they could to give us insights into their home. This meant setting up homestays and teaching us the language, but it was also much more personal. I remember over dinner one night, our instructor in Cambodia really opening up and telling me all about his thoughts on the corruption in the country. That’s the type of experience that Dragons’ programs allow.
Is there anything you wish you would have done differently? Do you have any advice for future participants?
There's really nothing I would have done differently. On a program like Mekong, where you are traveling so much with the same people, the group dynamic becomes a huge part of the trip, so there’s always room to be nicer, more compassionate, and positive toward those around you. That was something I learned during the trip and would have liked to take a step further.
Besides that, I did my best to stay engaged with what we were learning about, to go do the things I knew I should even when I was tired or a little sick, and to keep an open mind. I think that's the best you can do on this program.
Describe an average day in the life of your program.
It's impossible to describe an average day in the life, everyday was different. We had two five day homestays and one seventeen day homestay, and apart from that we were on the move about every two or three days. A day could consist of nothing but hiking, could consist of visiting a temple or a local NGO, maybe we would have language lessons, we might have more free time to explore a new environment, maybe we were on a bus through the countryside all day, or at a tea house in Kunming. The things that tied the days together was the group and a consistent amount of discussions, check ins, and talks to help us learn and process.
What did you enjoy doing on your free time?
Aside from swimming, I really enjoyed time I had to explore alone. At home, I've always loved exploring the woods alone, or going off on my skateboard pushing around new parts of cities, so having a chance to transfer that exploration to Southeast Asia was amazing. I remember hiking to the top of the mountain our homestay in China was on; it was just me, a goat herder, and a view of the valley that I couldn't possibly due justice for in words. Once, I rented a bike in Battambang, Cambodia and went to explore the abandoned railroad. I loved these experiences, when it was just me and my environment, and I could really observe what was around me.
What was your accommodation like throughout your program?
As our location changed so much, so did our accommodation. We stayed in hotels, guest houses, dorms, in the jungle once, on mattresses on bamboo floors, and in really nice, spacious houses.
Buddhist temple in Cambodia
Now that you're home, how would you say traveling abroad has impacted your life?
How this program has affected my life is a story that’s still unfolding, and is something I've thought about a lot. The short answer is immensely. For one, I would have never came to India by myself this Spring, and felt comfortable planning our a three month itinerary here, had I not gone to Southeast Asia.
On a little bit more of a metaphysical level, I would just say that the program was unimaginably inspirational. I feel motivated to make the most of my life, and make it one of purpose, deep connections, and adventure in a way that I never had before. Dragons exposed me to amazing people who make things happen in their life, and have, if nothing else, inspired me to try to become one of them. I have got a glimpse at this big world and,because of that, feel more connected to it. It’s difficult for me to put into words how valuable I feel this program was for me.
Before choosing to do Dragons, I had heard a lot of people describe it as "life changing," and I was actually kind of put off by that. I thought, "What do you mean? I'm not sure I want my life to be changed, I like me." But what that meant was just a slight adjustment in direction; it meant inspiration to do things, to be a better person, a new level of awareness, and those things are life changing in a way that I'm so happy to have experienced. I look forward to the continued journey of seeing how my experiences this year continue to unfold in my life.