D-E International, a program facilitated by D-E 360° Summer Connections, bid “bon voyage” to students traveling this summer on three trips to three continents: an immersion into the culture, history, geology, and ecosystems of Ecuador; a trekking adventure in Norway; and a service learning project and cultural exploration in Tanzania.
The D-E International trip to the northern Andean sierra of Ecuador was exclusively for 8th graders and led by D-E Middle School Science teachers Jonathan Egan and Courtney Marro. Upon arriving in what Egan calls the “breathtakingly beautiful” landscape of the Andes Mountains, the D-E students quickly became connected to the local culture and unfamiliar surroundings in an organic and meaningful way. The students, who came to think of themselves as “El Grupo,” explored the villages and markets of the countryside, bargained at the famous Otavalo indigenous market, hiked to the summit of Fuya Fuya, a 14,000-foot extinct volcano, straddled the equator line, and visited the capital city of Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano National Park, and the tropical cloud forest.
Having learned about the history of the Inca Empire and the Spanish Conquest prior to the trip, the students were able to observe firsthand the melding and influence of the indigenous, Spanish, and Moorish cultures in the architecture, art, and customs of the people. Egan explains, “For centuries the Moors of North Africa occupied the Iberian Peninsula, much of which would later become Spain. A particularly memorable activity included the students dancing to traditional music in celebration of the Inti Raymi, the Inca festival of the sun that coincides with the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. Our students who took the African Drumming Discovery (elective course) immediately recognized similarities to the Andean folk music.”
Each day provided opportunities for students to challenge themselves, as when the group climbed to the top of the 300-foot steeple of the national basilica, La Basilica del Voto Nacional, in Quito’s old city. Egan explains, “To get there, one must first traverse a narrow wooden bridge that crosses the top of the Basilica’s interior ceiling arches, followed next by a steep ladder leading to the outside. At this point one is confronted by a pair of nearly vertical, steel stairs that are bolted to and wrap around the flying buttress supporting the steeple. They are exposed but safe with large side rails, though they appear suspended in the air high above the streets. Some students required a bit of prodding, but the first ones to go up encouraged and reassured them. All made it to the open-air platform at the top and enjoyed 360-degree views of Quito and its surrounding volcanoes.”
At the Intag Reserve in the western Andes, the group bonded amid rustic accommodations. With electricity only in the main house, the students in the evening gathered in the roundhouse, a large gazebo, to play cards by candlelight and talk, surrounded by the sounds of the isolated and pristine forest.
The following day, the group hiked down to a frigid mountain stream, where they had an impromptu team-building experience. When Roberto, their guide, began to build a dam, some students jumped into the waist-deep water to assist him. Egan says, “As each student entered the river, another was there to assist. Out of necessity and out of concern for one another, a unified team took shape as the strength of a small group is needed to fight the force of the water and to position each fallen tree. In short time a dam was constructed, and a perfect swimming hole created. Eventually everyone found their way in, at least partway.”
Other challenges included hiking to the climbing refuge at 16,000 feet just below the glacier of Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest active volcano the opportunity to try roasted cuy, or guinea pig, a staple in the Andes Mountains.
Egan notes that the students will likely cherish “the collective exhilaration of tackling the formidable; the exploration of a completely unfamiliar landscape and culture; learning leadership and cooperation; the emotional bonding; and stories and memories that last for life.”
The Setesdal Valley in southwest Norway was the site of an adventure in which 12 D-E Upper School students hiked 35 miles through the mountains, and canoed 18 miles to an extraction point seven days later. Trip leader and D-E Middle School science teacher Morgan Withrow says the group set out on the trek in the pouring rain, unsure of what lay ahead: “We came across sheep grazing on the mountainside, beautiful glacier carved valleys, and stunning lakes. We didn’t see another person on the trail until we were three days into the trek, when we happily found a Norwegian mountain hut to dry off and warm up around the wood stove.”
The hardships of the outdoor experiences were not the only challenge. The trip was facilitated by D-E International in partnership with World Challenge, which specializes in travel that is entirely student-driven. As soon as students arrived at the airport, they had to take the reins, selecting a leader of the day and supporting roles (accommodation, budget, team morale, food, transportation, navigation, etc). Says Withrow, “Roles shifted each of the 10 days allowing students to try on various hats, learning to be both a leader and a follower. And most importantly they learned new skills first hand, such as learning to read a topographic map, learning how to live off a budget, and learning to communicate ideas and frustrations successfully to their teammates.”
In fact, the first big challenge students faced was planning the menu for the trek, selecting filling but easy-to-prepare, non-refrigerated meals to eat along the way, such as noodles and beans. Then came the task of ensuring backpacks were packed correctly and team gear (tents, rope, shovel, stoves, first aid, safety equipment) was distributed.
“I was incredibly impressed and amazed by the resilience and fortitude of these young students,” says Withrow. “These students were self-sufficient for seven days, three of which were pouring rain and freezing. The terrain was mushy and full of mud. Sometimes mud puddles were five feet deep—we should know because some of us fell in! We woke up to ice on our tents one morning! We crossed streams, having to work together to move rocks to create a path to cross the river. We sang songs and chatted about life goals. We ate a family dinner each night and spoke about highlights and our favorite piece of equipment (anything that kept us dry from the elements). We relished the lack of technology and the freedom you can feel in being one with nature.”
She continues, “I think what this program teaches the best is perspective. Perspective that problems are not insurmountable, that it takes a team to problem solve the big problems, and the satisfaction of a bright sunny day after days of rain is literally one of the best feelings in the world.”
Service, cultural connection, and safaris where the key elements of the D-E International trip to Northern Tanzania near Mount Kilimanjaro, run in partnership with the Rustic Pathways organization.
Led by science teacher Dr. Danny Carragher, English teacher Diane Christian, and former Dean of Student Activities Maya Gunaseharan D-E ’05, 11 students tackled the service project of constructing a storage room and kitchen for the Ndatu village’s Makumira primary school. “Each member of the group pitched in mixing cement, shaping metal support beams, cutting wood, and carrying water,” says Carragher. “It is amazing to think that this structure will provide a safe and convenient place for the schoolchildren to eat for years to come.”
The students connected with the people and culture of the area through a wide variety of experiences, both formal and informal, including giving English lessons to the local children through interactive games, scavenger hunts, and direct classroom instruction, and having impromptu soccer matches. The group also attended a Sunday church service, visited a typical Tanzanian village home, and helped to milk the household cow. Carragher says, “We then got a cooking lesson from a woman in the village with a small roadside restaurant, who taught us how to make ugali, a local dish. We ended our Sunday taking a tour of an organic coffee plantation where we learned all about local farming techniques and the impact of the coffee trade on the region.”
Africa’s wildlife was the focus of a safari in the Tarangire National Park, where students saw zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, warthogs, and elephants. After a night of camping overlooking the Rift Valley, the group toured the Ngorongoro Crater, home to lions, flamingoes, hyenas, buffalo, hippos, and more.
The final day was spent shopping for items made by local tribes, learning about tanzanite (a beautiful local mineral), and touring the Shanga Foundation’s craft center, where local people with disabilities are trained in various artforms including weaving, jewelry making, and glass blowing.
Carragher says their experiences in Tanzania made the group feel that they were truly living the D-E credo of meeting the challenges of a changing world and making it better. He notes, “What we like so much about the Rustic Pathways trips is that the communities we serve are taught that we are not just there as helpers, we are guests in their communities and owe them so very much for letting us into their lives.”