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Guest post from YFU Alumna and Campus Ambassador Hollie NusbaumRead More
As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. Stay tuned throughout the week as we introduce these student leaders.
“I believe in exchange because it creates a global community that fosters understanding and compassion.”
Went on exchange to: Sweden
My name is Misha, I am currently finishing up my last year of high school in Arlington, VA. I spent my sophomore year abroad in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I found a second family and another home. My exchange year has been the most significant thing I've done in my life thus far, and I have been happy to get the chance to continue my connection with YFU through volunteer work since my return to the States. It's exciting to get the opportunity to focus all efforts in an established program, so I am looking forward to being able to participate with fellow alumni to make a difference in the organization.
A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home.
Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.
Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”
I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.
Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.
Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.
Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.
Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.
There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.
One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba. That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”
Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.
Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 7 –Friday, July 17
A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.
We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.
Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.
While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.
One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!
The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.
As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!
A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.
We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.
This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):
Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services
These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.
I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.
The Day’s Takeaways:
Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 6 – Thursday, July 16
No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.
We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.
I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?
The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.
To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.
The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.
Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.
Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.
We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.
As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The Day’s Takeaways:
It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!
Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.
Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?
All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15
There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.
Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.
For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.
After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.
Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX(the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.
After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).
Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.
The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.
The Day’s Takeaways:
The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?
People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 3 – Monday, July 13
Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.
We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.
After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.
Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.
Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.
We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.
The Day’s Takeaways:
All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.
The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.
Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song. Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.
**Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.
A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillToday, the Cuban and US flags will be raised over their respective outposts in each country’s capital, marking the transition from having “interests sections” to full diplomatic embassies.
Just last week, I was privileged to join a US delegation of Youth For Understandingand Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC participants on a weeklong visit to Cuba. Our seven days in and around Havana were packed with educational, cultural and deeply meaningful encounters. I’ll be writing about my experiences all week but wanted to share one image on the day that flags will fly as a symbol of hope and promise here in Washington, DC and in Havana.
This trip marked firsts for both YFU and GMCW. For YFU, it was our first adult study tour in our nearly 65-year history. For GMCW, it was a historic invitation to be the first openly gay choral group to be invited to sing on the island. For both organizations, however, it signified something much deeper: an opportunity to break down barriers while raising intercultural understanding about LGBTQ and human rights through song and deep personal engagement.
When we arrived at our hotel – which was government run, as all hotels are in Cuba – we were greeted by a rainbow/pride flag – the sign of LGBTQ people – flying alongside the US flag. We were told it was the first time a Pride Flag had ever been flown at a government building in Cuba. To say we were floored by its presence would be an understatement, as there are actually very few Pride Flags even available in Cuba outside of their “International Day Against Homophobia.”
Flags are powerful symbols. So, too, are people who reach a hand out to one another after 50 years of bitter disagreement. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout the week, but find myself thinking today of a journey our Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, took to South Africa at a time when that country was going through renewed diplomatic relations. Ironically, she, too, took a chorus – the YFU Chorale – to spread a message of hope, love and intercultural understanding.
May our respective flags serve as a reminder that people engaging with one another’s cultures have a shot at changing the world for the better.
See below for Andrew's final dispatch describing his trek down from Mt. Everest Base Camp, through damaged villages and finally back to the United States.On behalf of Andrew and the entire YFU community, a sincere thank you for your support of Andrew and our mission to advance intercultural understanding, mutual respect and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities.
Here’s the brief update:
On Wednesday (5/6) I arrived safely in Philadelphia.
Last Wednesday (4/29), we departed Everest Base Camp.
Walking down the Khumbu Valley and through the streets of Nepal revealed even more devastation than we had seen at Base Camp. Luckily, we were able to spend two days helping Sherpa in the village of Phortse with their reconstruction efforts.
Thanks to all who made this expedition and my safe return possible, particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s and Ag Warehouse for their generous donations to YFU. May our desire to understand and support diverse communities around the world never wane.
Here’s the longer update:
Last Tuesday, our expedition prepared to depart as planned. Wednesday brought good hiking weather, so we descended ~14 miles and 3,000’ to the village of Pheriche. On our way down the valley, we camped (rather than stay in Sherpa teahouses) due to the widespread structural damage caused by the earthquake. In Pheriche I finally felt safe, and I slept harder than I had for many days.
On Thursday we moved down to the village of Phortse. We had heard that there was a 1,000+ person line at the tiny Khumbu airstrip at Lukla, and rather than rush down the Valley to join the queue, we figured it made more sense to stop in the hometown of many of our Sherpa team members to see if we could be of use. For two days, we helped community members demolish damaged structures, so that they would have a foundation for reconstruction. It felt wonderful to be able to help, and by the time we left, there were multiple families who insisted that there was nothing more that we could do until they got carpenters and electricians in.
Sunday we slept in Namche Bazaar (~12,000’), and on Monday we hiked ~12 miles down to the Lukla air strip at ~9,000’. The paths / roads were desolate compared to our hike in. Gone were the tourists, trekkers, and yak trains bearing Western luggage. The half dozen or so trekkers we did see over the 5 day descent seemed very out of place. Earthquake damage was everywhere. The worst hit buildings seemed to be the older ones, which usually had rounder stones held together by less sophisticated mortar. We saw far less damage in newer buildings, in which the masonry seemed much tighter. Our morale was high, but folks seemed to be thinking increasingly about home. By the time we landed in Katmandu early Tuesday morning, people headed straight for showers, shaves and beds. We knew that it would be more difficult for us to plug into relief efforts in Katmandu than it was in the rural villages, and so many of us flew out soon after arriving in the capital. I left just 6 hours after I arrived, and I was on a flight with dozens of Polish and British search and rescue specialists. They told me that the initial crisis had passed and that they were leaving because the next task—restoring water and power to neighborhoods that had lost it—was in the government’s hand. I was disheartened to learn that the government had created some bottlenecks by attempting to tax donated relief supplies and by demanding that all supplies go through a slow customs process before they get to the people, but I was encouraged to learn how many international crisis responders had made it to Katmandu within the first twelve hours after the earthquake. The death toll continues to climb, but it seems that the worst has passed.
On Wednesday morning, I was positively beaming as I watched the patriotic video on loop above the US Immigration Desk at Philadelphia Airport, and I told the Customs Officer I had never been so happy to pass through international arrivals. When he found out where I had been and what I had been doing, he thanked me for doing what I could to help out. I told him that I thought he—and many others—would have done the same thing. If he had seen someone struggling in the cold in a dangerous environment, I bet he would have looked for a blanket or sleeping bag to help the person cover him or herself. If he had seen a place with more injured people than medical professionals, I bet he would have tried to help people adjust their positions or fix their bandages. And if he had seen a dining room with blood-spattered walls, I bet he would have tried to help clean it before people used it again. None of it was rocket science, after all, and the necessity of action was clear. The only thing it took was being able to ask myself what I would hope someone else would do if I was the one suffering. This is something I have been trying to do ever since my exchange year from Grand Forks Central High School over to Germany at age 16, and it is something I hope more and more young people will learn to do through Youth For Understanding and its peers. And that is why I am so grateful to all of you for supporting YFU—particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s, and Ag Warehouse—the principle supporters of YFU on behalf of this expedition.
Thank you again.
Read all of Andrew's blog updates from his Everest trip:
Reblogged guest post from 2014-2015 CBYX Scholarship Recipient, LindseyOnly 99 days until my exchange year comes to an end. 99 days!
That isn’t a very long time!
And my host parents say that time will just fly faster the closer it gets to my departure date! It’s already going by pretty fast!
It feels like it was just yesterday when I flew in to the Frankfurt airport. When I met my 3-week host family. When I got to know the people in my Orientation Course.
Wasn’t it just yesterday when I hopped on that ICE train to Berlin (and sat in the completely wrong seat in the completely wrong train car) to meet my permanent host family?
Didn’t school just start? Wasn’t Christmas just a few weeks ago? When did it turn 2015? In just a few short days, am I really going to turn 17?!
I guess time goes by extremely fast when your brain has to figure out and process a lot of new things all the time.
With every new day comes a new chance for me to meet someone new, to try a new food, experience something I’ve never even dreamed of experiencing, or to settle in to the German culture. I am truly grateful towards my family, my host families, and also Youth for Understanding. Without the help of the CBYX Scholarship, I would never have had the chance to live my dreams. Because of YFU, I have become fluent in German, learned how to assimilate into another culture, gotten to try authentic German food, been able to see places that I didn’t even know existed, gotten to meet people from all over the world…and the list goes on!
So here’s to an amazing 99 days ahead of me! (and beyond!)
I hope my fellow exchange students here in Germany, in the US, and everywhere else in the world are enjoying their time too!
First update from Andrew Towne from The Khumbu Valley who is climbing Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU. Click here to read more about how Andrew became interested in climbing the world's tallest peaks.
Here's the brief update:
We are five days into the trek to Everest base camp, acclimatizing well and enjoying good weather.
The Khumbu Valley and its Sherpa people are inspiring. I've never seen such magnificent mountains and such kind, balanced, and strong people.
Here's the longer update:
It's hard to believe that I've already been in Nepal for a week. We spent our first day in Kathmandu, organizing our gear and visiting the ancient Boudhanath stupa. The next morning, we flew to Lukla, which at 9,300' is at the base of the Khumbu Valley and the head of the ~30 mile trail to Everest base camp. The airport is perched half way up the mountain, with the tail of the runway hanging off a cliff and the head of the runway going directly into the side of a mountain. They say that if the 2,000' of runway isn't enough for a plane to takeoff, pilots just glide over the edge of the cliff and hope to catch an updraft before hitting the valley floor half a mile below. We met the team of Sherpas that is helping us climb the mountain, and after getting our yak caravan organized, we walked a few miles down the trail to Phakding for the night.
On our third day we climbed to Namche Bazaar (11,286'), which is the trading center of the Khumbu Valley. I was amazed to see digital camera dealers and Mountain Hardware outfitters in a place where yaks always have the right of way. Day four took us up to Khumjung village (12,000') and our first view of Mt. Everest. On day five we moved up to Tengboche Monastery--the oldest monastery in the Khumbu, Tengboche served as base camp for Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's first ascent in 1953. One of the staff at the lodge was a teenager at the time and described to us their intrepid siege of the mountain. Today we climbed a short ridge to aid our acclimatization before attending a Buddhist meditation session at the monastery.
The entire region is incredible; I think because of its people. The Sherpa migrated to the Khumbu from Tibet between 300-600 years ago and make their home in the shadows of the world's tallest peaks. Renowned for their strength and mountaineering prowess, most Sherpa are Buddhist, which may contribute to their tolerance of so many Westerners who lack their mountain skills. The valleys are so steep that "roads" in the Khumbu are hand made trails in valleys and along mountain sides, all shared by humans, yaks and wild animals. I have a great deal of respect for the work it must take to survive at these altitudes, and I am impressed by how global the community is. Many have studied abroad and speak a foreign language. I am proud to be climbing for Youth For Understanding, so that more cultures can learn to view the world through others' eyes.
All in all, the expedition could not be off to a better start. There are 5 others on the trip who will attempt the summit, plus an additional 11 who are just trekking to base camp. We've been enjoying each other's company and playing games / comparing notes on the mountain. When I write again in a week or two, we should be at base camp!
Interview with Alex Lopez, YFU Travel DirectorCuba may be only 90 miles from Florida, but for half a century, it's been largely off-limits to most Americans. Since 2011, Americans have been allowed to go to Cuba on tours run by licensed companies like Interplanner, YFU’s Adult Study Tour provider. Recently, President Obama asked the Treasury Department to expand permissions for travel to Cuba, though general tourism on one’s own will still be forbidden. This renewed attention on Cuba has many would-be travelers wondering what the island neighbor has to offer. We talked to our own expert, YFU Travel Director and native of Cuba Alex Lopez to find out.
YFU: What do you think participants come away with after a YFU Adult Study Tour to Cuba?
Lopez: Participants will be surprised to learn that the Cuban people have a great respect and admiration for the American people. Travelers to Cuba find that Cubans can easily separate politics from culture and appreciate people for who they are.
Cuba travel does not whitewash the challenges that Cuban people face. YFU travelers will experience the real Cuba, filled with culture, creativity, art and loving people. They also get to see the reality of Cuban living standards, which are often difficult and impoverished. The program changes beliefs and attitudes and allows people to look past politics and into the heart and soul of a culture and its reality. In my 37 years in the travel industry, I have never seen a single travel experience change so many lives as a visit to Cuba does.
YFU: What would you say to tour participants about the citizens of Cuba?
Lopez: Cubans are friendly, warm, communicative, enthusiastic and hospitable people. It is uncommon to meet a Cuban who is not outgoing and fond of festivals, music and especially dancing. Most Cubans find it easy to joke around about almost anything, even hardships and difficulties.
The Cuban people have endured 53 years of a U.S. economic embargo that has severely burdened the entire population. The Cuban people have always welcomed American visitors and have been able to separate the political differences between the U.S. YFU will be a great ambassador delegation, and who knows, maybe soon we will be the first to open the way for a student exchange program between both nations helping to heal the wounds of decades of isolation.
YFU: This is a really unique opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba. What parts of the tour do you like the most?
Lopez: The island has nine United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites. They’re architectural gems that have not been discovered by Americans from this generation.
You’ll never forget your visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The collection ranges from the traditional to the modern. It’s as good as any museum in New York.
Participants will also enjoy the Cuban cuisine. It is much more inventive than just black beans and rice. Because of the embargo, they don’t always have the best ingredients, but they sure make do. Paladares, privately owned restaurants that are often run by families (sometimes out of their homes), have become popular in recent years. They are intended to give tourists a truly authentic Cuban experience.
YFU: Why should YFU alumni or anyone else travel to Cuba?
Lopez: The announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations makes this trip a historical time to visit Cuba. It is the most sensual island in the Caribbean and has been frozen in time for American visitors. Cuba is full of friendly people, amazing geography, and has 250-plus museums and 500 years of historical sites. Havana’s architecture is magnificent, and dance, culture and great cuisine are everywhere. This is a truly educational experience!
Learn how you can join Lopez, along with YFU USA's President & CEO in Cuba this summer! YFUUSA.ORG/TOURS
*Traveling under the People to People General License.
Guest post from Bobby PetriniAt the time I received my letter of acceptance to the YFU Program in spring of 2000, I couldn’t possibly think past what an amazing summer I had in store. Fast forward fifteen years later and I’ve just returned home after spending the better part of August and September traveling across Europe with my best Italian friend from high school.
Aldo, my YFU host brother, and I spent only three and a half weeks hanging out that summer in Salerno, and yet I would consider him and the members of his family my own. Since graduating college, Aldo and I have managed to travel between Europe and the States at least once a year with each other’s friends. We’ve ventured to two Coachella concerts in the Palm Desert, skied in the Colorado Rockies and visited countless cities across Europe.
From the time Aldo told me ten years ago he had taken a graduation trip to Croatia and that it was one of the most beautiful destinations he had ever visited, I knew I had to see it for myself. It was on our last trip to London for Aldo’s first American football game - my San Francisco 49ers vs the Jacksonville Jaguars – that we decided, as we near the end of our twenties, that we needed to coordinate an epic summer vacation like our original summer in Salerno. We chose The Yacht Week Croatia 2014.
It took no time at all to recruit ten friends from San Francisco for the week long adventure sailing down the Dalmatian Coast. Half of the group had already met Aldo during one of his many visits to California, and the other half were thrilled to have a European with us on our maiden voyage.
The trip began with me and two friends from the Bay Area meeting Aldo in Salerno, relaxing and visiting with Aldo’s friends and family. Returning to Salerno fifteen years later to see the friends I had made during my formative years and now introducing my Californian friends to Aldo’s family was the greatest experience. We sampled fresh pizza and mozzarella from Naples, drank Limoncello from Capri and enjoyed homemade brioche from my favorite ice cream bar that is still as popular as ever. Aldo’s parents and Nonna were just as hospitable and generous as I remember; welcoming my American friends and treating us all like their own children getting sent off to an adult summer camp.
From Italy we reconvened with the larger crew in Dubrovnik, our jumping off point in Croatia. We spent seven days with forty other boats filled with people from across the globe, sailing by day and partying by night. We explored the islands of Vis and Hvar where we visited The Blue Cave, jumped off cliffs into the Aegean Sea, toured medieval forts and castles, ate fresh lobster and sailed a regatta across the sea on our final day’s route. The trip of a lifetime for us all and one that reminded us to continue the tradition of traveling to a new destination every couple of years.