Student Journey Series: Alex Krengel

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Alex Krengel. Alex grew up in Seattle where he learned to love the outdoors and developed his taste for adventure. During college he worked as an EMT and become interested in health care, studying biology and getting a business degree with an emphasis in economics. He used his EMT training to travel on a number of medical missions, including a three-month trip to Laos and Vietnam following college graduation. Exposure to poor health outcomes in underdeveloped communities spurred Alex to get a Master’s of Public Health. He is now an operations consultant for Seattle Children’s, where he works on issues impacting children’s access to specialty care in the Northwest. His love for travel continues and he captures many of his memories through his photography.

Patients wrap around one of the school houses

Patients wrap around one of the school houses. Some have traveled for days and now have to wait hours.

In the back of a troop transport we bumped along a rocky mountainside road, fording four rivers that intersected our path. Outside of Santa Fe, Panama, a group of American doctors and EMTs finally reached our destination. On the only arid section of land in the middle of this lush jungle, a playfield and three concrete school houses signaled the center of a town, a spattering of huts scattered for miles under the surrounding canopy. I found myself on this adventure in this mysterious place by design, having sought a means to “help” or to “make an impact” during college. It was 2010 and my closest friends and I were to run a medical clinic for five days in the middle of—seemingly—nowhere, with the guidance of one Panamanian and two American doctors.

We set up shop, a production line churning out medical screenings. In the first morning we saw more than two hundred patients, mostly mothers and their young children. That afternoon, under the heat of the sun, the men came in from work and visited the clinic, clearly dehydrated, they complained of sore backs and chronic coughs. The next day the heat went from ninety-two to ninety-eight degrees and we scrambled to find shade for the growing procession. Unable to hide everyone from the sun, we wrapped mothers—many pregnant—and their young children around the school house, under its metal eaves. Throughout this process I engaged with many of them. Curious how far they had come, and for what, while ensuring they were feeling well.

I learned that a radio broadcast had gotten word to villages up to one hundred miles away in the weeks leading up to our arrival. Some, in broken or translated Spanish, reported traveling for an entire week on bare feet to find us and see their first ever doctor. This was a shocking revelation to me—that a lack of access to medical care could span not just swaths of sparsely populated land, but generations. In my quest to find purpose, I had chosen to sacrifice my time to provide for others something I had thought to be of value. And clearly the group of us was doing just that.

I kept on with this belief until day three, when one native woman, sapped from seven unimaginable days walking under the sun, presented her fainting infant to us. I immediately scoured the village for a minister and gathered with the doctors to pray for and nourish this mother and her child. In the following moments, which I remember vividly, I saw the fear and anguish that crept through her.

There was no shared language to communicate, but the rituals of prayer and healing that were administered soothed these fears. In one instant, there was a deep human connection forged over the life of a child, our cultural differences disintegrating to deal with what mattered most. This was juxtaposed by the current of thought that our engagement with this community as “helpers,” had actually led to the predicament we found ourselves in. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a doctor, the help we had brought, had caused something potentially devastating.

My friend Nick and I tucked into the entrance of a cave at the top of the granary ruins in Ollantaytambo.

My friend Nick and I tucked into the entrance of a cave at the top of the granary ruins in Ollantaytambo.

I began traveling as a way to challenge my understanding of the world. As a seventeen year-old, I ventured with a group of classmates to Ollantaytambo, Peru. In the middle of the Valle Sagrado we made our way around town, getting to know some of the locals. It was hard at the outset, my first time out of the country, nothing in common with my new neighbors but a second language — Spanish (Quechua is the primary language in much of the Andes). But, immersed in their culture, we learned an immense amount about their rich history. I remember speaking with the old owner of a new pizza parlor who had spent the first three-quarters of his life as a farmer but recently opened this restaurant to cater to the growing tourism coming into their small town. My friend and I, infatuated with the kitchen staff, became obsessed with the food and competed over who could eat the hotter ají (in an insurmountable feat, he also managed to put down 13 banana pancakes one morning).

While we continued to immerse ourselves, we debriefed over the contrasts of our lives to theirs. The local economy and history, belief systems, life opportunities, technology… the list grew and grew as we went around one-by-one describing the obvious things that didn’t seem like home to each of us.

These ancient Inca granaries sit precariously on a hill above Ollantaytambo, Peru. In 2005 they were the focus of my first project, a trail which future students completed only a few years ago.

These ancient Inca granaries were the focus of my first project, a trail which future students completed only a few years ago.

What struck me the most was the basic desire to enjoy life, to make friends, to have a family, to be somebody. It was easy to point to the differences in amenities or language, but what I found striking were the similarities that I was able to draw between myself and these people I was meeting. It was because of these similarities that this trip became worthwhile. I learned to widen and pivot my perspective, to deepen my empathy and experience the differences between not dissimilar people, but similar people living different lives.

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My friend Guram and I take a tour of the country of Georgia’s newest and most elaborate church, Tsminda Sameba.

Because of this trip to Peru I sought many more. To taste the food, to see the sights, but mostly to experience the culture. To me, the essence of a culture is distilled in the way its people are motivated to achieve their goals and confront life’s challenges. I see every trip as an opportunity to learn a lesson, to reflect on my life with a different perspective and to take those lessons with me when I return home. In Laos, a man who shared my name and age told his story to me and a thousand other people about losing both of his legs to unexploded ordnance dropped on his farm before his birth, during the Vietnam War. Realizing it was a matter of luck that I could have been him instead of myself, I was touched by his tenor and motivation in the face of his experience. I was reminded of the preciousness of each of our lives and, much like my experience in Panama, how our decisions to act can have both positive and negative consequences. I have come to appreciate travel as an opportunity to learn and share, not to help.

I have learned through travel that it is only through exposing myself to great difference that I learned to find comfort in the existence of similarities I share with others. I have little doubt in my mind that it is only because of my early experiences traveling that I have become the person I am today, interested in making a difference by learning about people and the issues their communities face in living healthy lives. As a result, I’ve achieved degrees in biology, business and public health and I spend my weeks finding ways to improve access to healthcare for children in the Northwest.

A man and child brazenly cross the street near Sword Lake, in a rare break in the constant swarm of motorbikes. Rush hour in Ha Noi is a real culture shock.

A man and child brazenly cross the street near Sword Lake, in a rare break in the constant swarm of motorbikes. Rush hour in Ha Noi is a real culture shock.

Travels with Olivia

 

I would like to introduce Olivia Borgmann, a summer intern at Global Weeks. Olivia just graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle and will be attending Macalester College in the fall. I feel fortunate to have her on my team this summer; she is dedicated, hard-working, organized and delightful. I met Olivia last fall when I started a consulting job with Technology Services Corps (TSC), a global service organization that works with Garfield High School students to provide computers, software and training to young people in other parts of the world. Student empowerment is a hallmark of the group, both in trip leadership and board membership. I have asked Olivia to share her experience with TSC as a leader and board member, as well as anything else she wants to share about her journey to global citizenship.

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With students at The Puente Piedra Project

If I had to name one thing in High School that had the greatest impact on shaping the direction of my life, it would be Technology Services Corps. TSC is a non-profit organization that is focused on engaging Garfield students in technology orientated service trips. To date we have installed over 500 computers at 38 schools worldwide.

I first became involved with TSC in the fall of my sophomore year of High School. TSC’s focus on student leadership coupled with the unique opportunity to exclusively work with fellow Garfield students immediately piqued my interest. I applied and was accepted onto a service trip to Guatemala.  For someone who had never been out of the country minus a few short trips across the Canadian border, the thought of traveling to a foreign country, let alone one whose language I did not speak (I had taken many years of French) was extremely daunting. It’s the same feeling that I see in kids’ eyes when I go to classes to talk about upcoming trips. Yeah this looks interesting but I could never do something like that myself. Seeing my classmates gain confidence and international perspective through involvement with TSC became one of my main motivations in working with the organization.

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             Playing with second graders at              Safe Passage 

In Guatemala we installed computer labs at two different schools.The first was located at Safe Passage, a school working to break the cycle of poverty by educating children whose parents work in the infamous Guatemala City Dump, the other a small K-2 school on the outskirts of Antigua.

I returned from Guatemala with a passion for global outreach and a strong desire to get more involved in TSC’s service work. In September of that year I was invited to join the TSC Board as a Student Advisor. Participating in monthly board meetings provided me with a behind the scenes understanding of the decision making and planning that goes into each TSC expedition. I loved the excitement and complexity of building the framework for each upcoming trip, so I decided to apply to be one of the TSC Leads for the summer trip to Peru and was selected as a Logistic Lead.

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       Teaching in the newly installed lab at          The Puente Piedra Project

I spent that winter working with my co-leads running student meetings, organizing team roles, leading fundraising efforts and communicating between team members and the Board. In July 2014 our team traveled to Lima, Peru and set up two labs in Puente Piedra. The main lab we installed was at a school partnered with the University of Washington through The Puente Piedra Project.

While I loved every minute of Guatemala, Peru was a more eye opening experience for me. We stayed in a convent called Hogar Immanuel, located in Zapallal, a sub section of Puente Piedra, the third largest slum in the world. Not only does this old convent house volunteers working at nearby schools, but it is also a girl’s orphanage (17 girls ages 4-20) and a kindergarten for children in the neighborhood. On one of the first nights that we were at the convent we were asked if we wanted to help tutor the girls living at the orphanage during their homework hour. Even though my Spanish is not the best, I jumped at this opportunity. That night I got to know some of the most loving children I have ever met. They immediately wanted to know all about why I was there, how old I was and all the places I had traveled around the world. I can’t tell you how hard it was to leave them at the end of the two weeks. To me, the experience of living right next door and constantly interacting with these girls was something I will cherish forever.

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Playing volleyball on the hill above the Convent

What sticks out to me the most when I think back to my trips is the sense of community that I felt wherever I went. On our last full day in Peru a group of us decided to trek up the giant hill behind the convent. After laboriously walking for 30 minutes up the steepest hill I have ever seen, we stumbled upon something I never would have found back home. On a narrow dusty street separated by a cleverly strung net, the hilltop neighborhood residents, young and old, were pitted against each other in a raucous, competitive game of volleyball. We were strangers, and clearly foreigners to them, yet they didn’t hesitate to invite us into the fun. I think back to that time on top of the hill a lot and how close I felt to those people regardless of the fact we had just met. Despite what little they physically had, they were some of the warmest people I have ever met: what they lacked in materialism they made up for in community.

As I sit here writing this blog post my time with TSC is coming to an end. In the fall I’ll be heading off to college to start my undergraduate experience, focusing on International Studies and Latin America. TSC has not only given me valuable leadership tools I will take with me into the future but also an understanding of what it truly means to be a global citizen. Getting involved was easily the best choice I made in my four years at Garfield and TSC will forever have a special place in my heart.

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Coming Home

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Beautiful Parcas

Beautiful Parcas

I spent the past two and a half weeks traveling. Six airport stops, the equivalent of a couple of days in the air, and several days each in four different ecosystems: the Andes mountains, Lima’s damp coast, the breezy warm moonscape of Paracas, and tropical Miami. We had rainstorms, hail, dry windy sand storms, clouds, sun, low-hanging mist and 100 degree humidity. We wore many layers of fleece in the thin mountain air, bathing suits by the pool, our lightest clothing to walk around Miami, and sweaters and scarves to deal with hotel air conditioning. Now I am home in the gray of Seattle, back in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, my go-to uniform for this time of year.

Lovely ladies in the Andies

In the Andes

What does it mean to experience so many different climates, time zones, cultural and environmental zones? How do we make sense of it all? How do we transition home? I think sometimes because world travel is so accessible, because it is possible to fly all over the globe in a matter of days, that we downplay the significance of the transitions. We forget that our bodies, adaptable as they are, need time to adjust to each place and time. We wonder why we pick up stomach issues or respiratory problems, why we’re not thinking as clearly as we might when we first return. I find myself moving more slowly than usual, resting and napping, wanting to prepare simple, healthy meals and sit in silence. I vow to honor this transition time, feel what it means to be “in-between,” use it to integrate the experiences I had, the people I met, the foods I ate and the places I saw.

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Global Educators in Miami

As I transition, I think of the people in and around Kathmandu, Nepal, as they deal with the trauma of the earthquake that shook their foundations, killed loved ones, destroyed most of their homes and forever altered their lives. I feel sad. I grieve for a place although I have never seen it, because we are all connected. I feel powerless to make things better, even as I am glad I can contribute to the relief efforts. As I return home, I am aware of many who are likely to be homeless for a very long time. I also feel the pain of what is happening in Baltimore right now, and in other parts of this country where young men are being mistreated and killed because of the color of their skin. My own disorientation because of my travels, in my lucky privileged world where I can experience a family vacation overseas and a global education conference, somehow help me feel the pain and loss of others who are experiencing terrible tragedies right now. And that is a good thing.

Mountains and Coastal Desert

IMG_7214In all of my trips to Peru, I have spent the largest portion of my time in the high Sierra, in and around the Sacred Valley of the Inca. I have stayed in a number of places in the town of Ollantaytambo, visited nearby weaving villages and ruins including Machu Picchu, Pisaq and Sachsayhuaman in Cusco many times. I have trekked over mountain passes near Salcantay and walked through remote villages, camping at the base of snow-capped peaks and attending festivals like Q’olluriti celebrating Andean life in a variety of locations. The mountains are familiar to me and I am quite content to hike for hours surrounded by their beauty, exchanging greetings with people who live in modest dwellings nearby, finding it nearly impossible to get lost here above the tree-line.

IMG_7419In recent years, since my sister moved from the mountains to the coastal city of Lima, I have also become more comfortable there, especially in the somewhat artsy-funky district of Barranco. I enjoy walking along the Malecon, looking out over the Pacific, eating in great seafood restaurants, and visiting art galleries like MATE and the Larco museum.

IMG_7566But when my husband, my brother, his wife and I decided, after our nephew’s wedding in Lima last weekend, to visit the area a few hours south of Lima known as Paracas, nothing prepared me for its desolate beauty nor contrast to both the Sierra and Lima. I knew Paracas as an important pre-Incan civilization with beautiful weavings and pottery, but when we arrived at the Bay of Paracas, I was stunned by the dramatic scenery. The coastal desert looks like a moonscape, and the barren landscape butts right up against the bay. Pelicans dive, flamingos strut, and dozens of other shore birds via for the plentiful fish. On our final day in the region, we drove through a reserve, where I was expecting lush greenery and biodiversity, but instead found a continuation of the eerie beauty of rocks, sand, and hidden coves holding rock formations and sweeping views of cliffs. To my surprise, the IMG_7553landscape began to capture my attention and pull me toward its stunning starkness.

At the end of our time, as we drove back to Lima to begin the journey home, I found myself wondering more about the people of Paracas who were conquered by the Inca: who were they? How did they survive out there amidst the rock and sand? What inspired them to create such beautiful motifs on their weavings and pots? I plan to carry that question with me on my next exploration of this fascinating country; I will not soon forget the haunting scenery.

 

Student Journey Series: Kennedy Leavens

Each month, the Student Journeys Series will feature a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They’ll write about how their lives have been shaped though their global education experiences.

My start in Peru wasn’t terribly auspicious. After a long flight, an overnight layover, a dreamlike dawn flight into the mountains and a long windy bus ride, I stepped onto the pavement in our new town — the first place I’d visited outside the United States — the town I would later call home. I promptly passed out on the sidewalk.

Needless to say, I don’t remember much about my first day of the three-week trip that my classmates and I took to Peru, led by Vicki Weeks, in 2001.

imageI remember the rest like it was yesterday. On that trip, I got hooked on the Andes. At the time, I didn’t realize I was getting hooked. I missed home and my high school boyfriend. But after we returned to the U.S., my desire to go back to the Andes grew. I daydreamed about hiking to Incan ruins on stunning mountaintops, shelling peas with women in the courtyard, and playing with kids in the plaza. The smell of eucalyptus wood smoke sent me into a reverie. I fondly recalled how my classmates and I took showers every three days and washed our own clothes in the morning sunshine, standing at the sink in the flower-filled patio of the guesthouse where we stayed (years later, I learned that we did such a terrible job washing our clothes that the women who worked at the guesthouse washed them over again after we left for the day – but my daydream was unaffected).image

To scratch my Peru itch, I ended up doing all my research projects for school on Peru. I went to college and took so many classes on Latin America studies that I ended up with a major in it. And when I graduated, as my roommates went off to medical school, law school and the D.C. NGO circuit, the only thing that really sounded interesting was going back to the Andes.

So I did.

Vicki connected me with her nephew, who lived in the town we had visited. He had been involved with a non-profit that had a project connecting women weavers to the tourist market. That project sounded pretty good to me, so I merrily headed down to volunteer. I told him I would stay four months, and then I planned to return to the U.S, get a “real job”, and start my life.

k at Entrega Douglas Hackney 2008 www.givingpicturesI didn’t realize at the time that I WAS starting my life. I fell deeper in love with the town and my life there as time went on. Four months passed, then a year. The project I’d been volunteering with folded, so my colleagues and I started a non-profit, Awamaki, to continue our work with the weavers. My second year passed, then my third. I was running Awamaki, and the project was growing quickly.

I was living my daydreams. I regularly hiked the stunning mountains in the mornings before work. I knew all the kids in the plaza. My work took me to remote villages filled with the scent of woodsmoke. I spent many, many hours washing my own clothes. I won’t even tell you how infrequently I showered. Life was good (except for the part about the clothes; that got old fast).

k meeting with womenFour years later, I was 26, managing six employees and a $200,000 budget. As Awamaki matured, I realized that I needed some real skills to run the organization. I applied to graduate school in Nonprofit Management and moved to the U.S. to go to school. After a few years of back and forth, I now live most of the year in Washington State, running Awamaki’s operations in the U.S. and working remotely with our in-country staff. Awamaki is still growing. We now work with 150 women, helping them start and run their own businesses. Their woven and knit products are in retail stores across the U.S. I am my own boss, working for a cause I’m passionate about, and visiting my town in Peru a few times per year to work with our staff, see our impact, visit with the women, and stay with dear friends. I am still glad I never got one of those “real jobs.”

That first trip started it all for me, and I carry that trip with me every day. I had some phenomenal teachers over the course of my education, but there isn’t any class or book that could have set the course of my life the way that that the experience of being in Peru did. At Awamaki, we occasionally host students that visit our projects, stay in homestays, and sometimes even lend a hand for a few days. There are a lot of criticisms of global travel programs, and I have witnessed a number of so-called “service” projects that served no one. But when I look at the students that come to visit us, with their gadgets and their loud English and their short attention spans—I know that their experience is planting seeds that will change them in ways they cannot imagine.

2001 Lakeside trip to Peru: Before

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2001 Lakeside trip to Peru: After