Stories from the Field
Alumni Spotlight: Britney Vongdara
April 23, 2018
Year traveled: 2016
On Assignment project theme: Anthropology & Local Cultures
Names of trip leaders: Sarah Messner, Federico Pardo
Name of expert: Sandesh Kadur
Describe the most memorable experience from your trip.
Inside a cozy dim-lit room nestled within a Himalayan valley, an unlikely crowd of people from all over the world gathered for a late-night dance party. Our language and cultural barriers seemed to vanish into thin air as upbeat Ladakhi music filled the room instead. The adrenaline from jamming to the music coupled with a genuine and pure connection to the people in the room made my heart swell with overwhelming excitement to be alive.
Describe something you did on your program that you thought you would never do.
There were countless moments on the trip when I would sit back and think to myself, “I can’t believe this is my life right now.” The most surreal moment would have to be when I was only a few feet away from the Dalai Lama as he went around blessing the different monasteries of Leh.
How would you describe the community you traveled with—students, leaders, and your expert?
There was always a collaborative energy behind our shared desire to learn about the culture of India and about each other. I’ll never forget our late-night pool parties at different palaces, belting out David Bowie songs on long road trips, and playing hide-and-seek in the Amber Fort of Jaipur. Every night we would come together to reflect on our shared learning experiences and connect them with personal stories from home.
When I returned from India, I had a deep sense of curiosity that I now direct into painting. In addition, I used what I learned from my photography leader Federico and my trip expert Sandesh to create an art film. Most of my work has been shown in local galleries, and I continue to satisfy my desire to create.
Did traveling with National Geographic help better prepare you for college and/or your career? If so, how?
Before my trip in India, I had spent my entire life planning to attend a university in my home state of Nebraska. Other possibilities just never crossed my mind. However, I gained confidence when my trip leader Sarah showed genuine interest in my future, and my peers who had been accepted into top schools inspired me as well. Now, I am so grateful (and still cannot believe) that I will be attending Harvard University in the fall.
What do you think makes National Geographic Student Expeditions special?
The trips are unique because they allow you to garner a real sense for a country through homestays and interviews with the fascinating people you encounter. It is not only a tour of landmarks and scenic vistas; it is immersion in a new culture.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park
July 11, 2017
Our day started off with wildlife. We left our palace early in the morning and headed to Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. As a former hunting spot of the Maharajas, there are around 360 species of birds found in this park. Some biked throughout the forest and some saved their energy and used the push of a rickshaw. Accompanied by a local ornithologist, we spotted a large variety of birds and also monkeys with cute little offspring, several reptiles, deer, and turtles. We were very lucky to see an endangered species—black-necked stork—standing in the field by a water stream. Surrounded by animals, it was a beautiful start to our day.
The Taj Mahal
July 10, 2017
Today, we explored the incredible Taj Mahal.
We first visited “Mehtab Bagh” or Moonlight Garden–a large open garden complex behind the Taj, to get a different perspective. Originally created as an ideal viewing area for the mausoleum wonder of the world, legend has it that Shah Jahan, the Mughal ruler who erected the Taj, wished to build an identical structure for himself, except in black marble. This was accredited to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s diary, but is widely considered a myth.
We entered the main compound at 5 am the next morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed. The students walked around to find new, interesting angles of the Taj, so as not to only get the generic shots. We ran into some pretty fierce wildlife as well, including feisty squirrels and a couple of sparrows.
We returned to our hotel for breakfast and journeyed on to Bharatpur, a city in Rajasthan, where we would stay at a heritage hotel and visit Keoladeo National Park, a famous bird sanctuary.
Our Time in the Mountains
July 5, 2017
In the past week, we spent some amazing time in the mountains of Ladakh. Surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, we hiked around and explored the dry environment of this famous northern region of India. We tested our strength in a long hike we took from one village to another, reaching an elevation of 13,500 feet at the Spongo La crossing. We sure slept well that night! Here are some pictures from our time in the mountains.
Elephant Conservation in India
July 5, 2017
Before we departed for Ladakh we met our National Geographic Expert Sandesh Kadur, an Indian filmmaker, photographer, and Nat Geo Explorer who joined our group for our time in Ladakh. He became an amazing companion to us all, as well as a teacher, mentor, friend, inspiration—and, on his last day with us, also a DJ for our long bus ride! After six great days with Sandesh it became difficult for us all to say our goodbyes. He departed for his next adventure but his spirit and enthusiasm remained with us. We miss you, Sandesh!
The next morning, we headed to the airport for our return flight to Delhi. There was some sadness among our students as they were saying goodbyes to their new friends from SECMOL. We took a last glance at the Himalayas. His Holiness the Dalai Lama just arrived to town for his birthday and even though we didn’t get a chance to see him it was exciting to be in the same place as him—being stuck in traffic never felt so good once we found out it was caused by the presence of His Holiness!
The following day, we drove from New Delhi to Agra. A big change from the dryness of Ladakh. We visited Wildlife SOS, a conservation nonprofit focused on rescuing and rehabilitating abused animals.
The Elephant Conservation and Care Center rescues elephants from captivity and those in distress. Full of vegetation, large fields, and trees to scratch themselves on, the land resembles the natural habitat for elephants.
We heard emotional stories of the previous treatment of these beautiful creatures, including forceful bearing of heavy loads, walking on hot pavement, and cruel punishment. Now, they have access to veterinary care, nutritious diets, frequent baths, and a happy environment.
Next stop, a little old building called the Taj Mahal!
Interview with Student Alum Nina M.
November 9, 2016
Describe your most memorable experience from your trip.
Part of our time in India was spent in Ladakh at The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). On one of the first days there, we paired up with students from SECMOL and we went on a scavenger hunt in Leh. Spending time with each other off campus made the interaction more candid. And I think what made this experience so memorable is that we were able to explore the town not only with local students, but through their eyes.
Alyssa’s Adventures, Q&A from Three Expeditions!
April 27, 2016
What made you choose these four Student Expeditions trips?
I first chose Ecuador because it seemed like something that was most familiar. I’m Mexican-American, so the fact that I could understand and speak the native language of the country made me feel more comfortable and close to home. Also, the opportunity to visit the Galapagos and get an up-close experience with the amazing nature there through learning about animal conservation really excited me.
Michelle’s College Essay, India Expedition
February 9, 2015
The flash of red closes in on me. I dart a pole, and slide around on the rugs covering the earthen ground. As I begin growing farther and farther from the energetic girl reaching to tag me, I fall to the ground. Laughter breaks out. I hear whispers in a foreign language and I smile as I jump up. My turn to chase. This time, I must catch the boy in the blue shirt and grey scarf. He jolts as I lay my eyes on him and sprints around the hall. I move my feet faster and faster in an attempt to take a well-deserved break from running. My hands are only inches away, yet he manages to contort his body so my eager swipe misses him entirely. We dance around a pole. I am always just a little too far for a successful tag. He runs to the left, and I follow. In a final push I leap forward, touching him with only my fingertips. Smiles surround me, and I realize the immensity of such a seemingly small game.
Adventures in Agra and Rajasthan
August 14, 2014
After our magical week in the Himalaya, the group wondered if Agra and Rajasthan would live up to the stories we had heard of its rich, varied and colorful culture. Although expectations were high, the serenely beautiful Taj Mahal did not disappoint.