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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

An Open Hearted Himalayan Adventure with UVM

            Above the Clouds is an adventure travel company that specializes in the offering custom itineraries and experiences in the alpine regions of the world. Born out of a love for the Himalayas and the desire to share the magic found there with folks from around the world, we specialize in creating unique and once-in-a-lifetime experiences for some of the most discerning travelers out there.
            After graduating from UVM and working for Above the Clouds, it became clear that there was a potential for collaboration that could offer students the opportunity to not only learn about Nepal, but from Nepal.  Beginning in 2012, in conjunction with our office, UVM began offering the 6-credit study abroad course: Nepal: Changing Communities - Trekking the once Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang.  This summer, 14 amazing undergraduate students took part in the class’ 4th departure and it was an incredible experience to be a part of.
            After two-weeks on campus in a classroom orientation, the group of 14 students and 2 instructors traveled together from Burlington, VT across the planet. After 5 flights, a few pit stops and lay overs, we arrived in the once restricted zone of Mustang.  Mustang is a high altitude desert situated north of Himalayan range. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist area that is geographically on the Tibetan Plateau but politically a part of Nepal. The juxtaposition of the region and the challenging landscape has left it culturally unique, far less frequently visited than most of the rest of Nepal and a very special place to experience. 
            With some time for acclimatization underneath our belts, together with our Nepali guides, teaching partners and staff - we took off north en route of our two-week trek into the mountains. Following the trail north, we traveled from village to village and along a route that took the students up and over passes of 14,000ft! Along the journey, the students visited monasteries, experienced a puja (prayer/blessing) done in the groups’ honor, spent overnights in nunneries, explored centuries old caves, made new friends, learned new ways to speak and think and even met the American Ambassador to Nepal! 
            I’ve had the good fortune of doing this trek many times before and knowing that each time it is a very different experience. This summer the trek was really made by the high quality of the students and their complete willingness to immerse themselves into Nepal, Mustang, the trek, each other and all that the experience had to offer them.
            This particular group of students was superb! Ranging from 18 to 22 years of age, their experience in the mountains and traveling was across the board - but together they embraced every moment in Nepal and gave back to the staff, our hosts and the many strangers we met along the way with kindness, generosity, curiosity and a sense of equality that was very impressive.
            In the digital age we all live in today, the world has truly become smaller. With the internet, social media and the exponentially growing diasporas of the world, the wonder of far flung places and distant lands does not hold the same mysteries it once did. However, traveling with these students taught me that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were able to relate to many of the people we met along the way in a person-to-person way that was very human. When our group of UVM students met groups of local students, they would find songs they both knew, famous soccer players they all thought were “the best” and dreams of the future that they all shared. The ability to connect on a human level allowed a far deeper access to the UVM students into the rest of the lives of the people that call Mustang home. 
            Watching our group of UVMer’s connect, sing and laugh with the many locals who graciously invited us into their communities was wonderful. As the strangers quickly turned into new friends, the many cultural discrepancies between them, like family structure, clothing, food, religion, educational access or gender relations became conversation points between interested equals rather than contentious subjects mired in judgment or hierarchy.
            No matter the twists and turns of the path, the challenging ups and downs of the trail, the difficult weather pushing us off itinerary or the unexpected surprises along the way - this group of young explorers taught me so much about adventure on this trek. I had always thought it was having an open mind that made a journey the most it could be, but this summer - high in the Himalayas with a group of UVM students trekking through the roof of the world - I learned it is just as important to have an open heart. 
Lisa Kumari Conlon
Above the Clouds












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