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The Global Citizen

The Global Citizen

During her four months in Central America with The Traveling School, 16-year-old Ruthy Bondurant learned the kinds of cultural lessons only firsthand experience can teach.

By Nancy Wang | Photos by Anthony Jinson

When 16-year-old Ruthy Bondurant started preparing for a semester with The Traveling School, she wasn’t worried about sleeping in tents or navigating rugged terrain. She wasn’t even concerned about missing out on driving or the goings-on at school. “I was just scared about being disconnected from my family and my dogs,” she says.

As it turned out, Marshall, Maize and Poppy were just fine, and Ruthy found herself connecting with people and places in ways she never could have imagined. Over the next four months, she would see the night sea glimmering like millions of twinkling lights; stand beneath a massive tree that was believed to connect the heavens, earth and the underworld; and learn to value a way of life far different from her own.

Far from your conventional high school, The Traveling School took Ruthy and 10 other high school girls on a grand adventure through Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The all-girl program, which blends academics with travel, creates classrooms from the cultures, landscapes and communities it visits.

“It was really interesting to learn about the histories of places I’ve never heard about before, even though we learned so much history in school at home,” Ruthy says. The experience has inspired her to explore other countries and cultures. “It was an interesting eye-opener.”

She also developed outdoor skills through activities such as whitewater rafting, surfing and scuba diving. After getting scuba certified, Ruthy and her classmates observed dolphins, sharks and lion fish in their natural environment. During a night dive along the coast of Nicaragua, they witnessed a magical phenomenon called “string of pearls,” in which tiny crustaceans emit luminescent chemicals that light up the sea. Near Antigua, Guatemala, they took a two-hour hike to the top of Pacaya, an active volcano that first erupted 23,000 years ago, and roasted marshmallows in its heat.

Adventure and voluntourism

One of Ruthy’s favorite adventures was a trek that took three days and wound through Guatemala’s volcanic mountains from Xela to Lake Atitlan, which has been called the most beautiful lake in the world. The last day she got up at 4 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the lake and snap some photos.

In Playa Gigante, Nicaragua, the group lived in tents for a week and participated in Project Wave of Optimism, which was started by former Peace Corps volunteers. Its mission, to facilitate community-driven projects in Latin American surf-travel destinations, made a big impression on Ruthy.

“It’s called voluntourism,” she says. “It’s kind of an abstract form of volunteering, being there to help out and have a cultural exchange. It’s not like we’re going to go in and say, ‘OK, we’re going to build this building, put up this school or teach this certain thing.’ It’s going in and really communicating with the community, having lots of meetings and finding out what they really want.”

Ruthy and her classmates engaged with members of the community through activities such as making bread with a woman in town and hiking with one of the dads who hosted them on their property. Home stays, Ruthy’s favorite form of lodging while at TTS, offered additional opportunities for cultural exchange. The girls also camped, but they generally stayed in hostels.

“We were part of the backpacking culture,” she says. They’d meet students traveling during a gap year between high school and college, as well as older travelers.

“We met backpackers who said they wished they could have done what we were doing in high school,” she says.

Each of the girls carried packs that were at least 70 liters (about 18.5 gallons), quite a load for Ruthy’s slight build. “We had to carry our own complaints about male enhancement pill vigrx giant textbooks around every day,” she says. “I was in all the classes, so I had seven textbooks.” In addition, each girl was expected, occasionally, to carry heavy bags full of gear. Nevertheless they managed and seemed to come away stronger — in every sense of the word.

Bridging different worlds

“I was very impressed with The Traveling School,” says Ruthy’s mom, Holly. “The teachers have to have this immense travel and outdoor experience, plus be educators. You could tell they were physically fit people and that they were going to take care of Ruth.”

It wasn’t until Ruthy headed for the airport that reality hit her. “I was sending my daughter to Central America,” Holly says. “I cried and cried.”

The tables had turned. In 2010, Holly, a local pediatrician, traveled to Haiti for a week on a medical mission for earthquake victims. In a Columbia Daily Tribune article, she says that her family had to be on board with her desire to make the trip. The story also mentions how difficult it was for Holly and the other members of her medical team to get back to their routine once they returned home.

“There was this numb feeling after I got back,” Holly says. “Gosh, why am I here when those people live like that? What is my home? The Traveling School leadership hopes the girls will come back and discover they belong somewhere between the first world and the impoverished areas where they spent most of their time.”

Holly credits Columbia Independent School, where Ruthy will be a junior, for encouraging her daughter to travel. Spanish teacher Karen Davis, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Guatemala, helped her with the language, and the school’s Global Studies focus offered support.

Katie Tesoro, international program coordinator at CIS, says their curriculum is designed to encourage students to become global citizens. “I’ve already had students approach me about possibilities for next year,” she says. “We will be working closely to make sure that those students who have a curiosity and passion to develop themselves as global citizens will be given every opportunity to do so. We love that they can come back and share these unique and wonderful experiences with the rest of the community.”

Ruthy’s experiences have certainly broadened her understanding of getting an education. Although many of the young people in the areas where she traveled didn’t go to school past sixth grade, they had learned practical skills.

“We talked a lot about the different kinds of education based on what’s important,” she says. “What you need to be educated depends on where you are. Success here might mean having a good job and a nice car. In their culture you have to know how to farm and maybe build a house. Those are the kinds of skills you have to gain just to survive there.”

Returning home

Ruthy returned to Columbia in May, and for the first time in more than four months, she had reunited with her family, cellphone, computer and dogs. She could take a shower whenever she wanted rather than waiting two or three days, and her home was air conditioned. But something had changed. She felt more culture shock after coming home than she did when she first arrived in Central America.

“It was weird at the end,” she says of the bonds she had made with her classmates. “We had been living together for so long, it was weird to say, ‘Oh, I should probably get your phone number.’”

Before Ruthy and her classmates returned home, their teachers had counseled them on how to come back. They explained that not all students would want to know every detail of their journey and suggested the girls come up with one sentence that would sum it up.

Ruthy had hers: “It can’t be explained in one sentence.”

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