Last Sunday, I found myself sitting at the feet of a Palestinian and two Israelis on a northbound bus to the Scottish highlands. Or rather, I was folded between seats sitting on the coach floor. It was 2 a.m. and the four of us huddled over my iPod that rested on the seat in front of me. On the touch screen, I pulled up my political world map application and we talked dates, wars, battles, and rehashed boundaries since Israel became a nation in 1948. At one point I looked up and eight other students from our group had joined us, all trying to get a glimpse of the tiny map on my iPod.
Soon a history lesson about the conflict in the Middle East turned into a rolling discussion about the origins of Islam. We were all timid and shy because we just met each other six hours before so the conversation was fairly mellow, and people shifted back to their seats to sleep. None of us knew what challenges and rewards lay ahead… we were just a group of strangers on a bus.
I was one of 23 students total on the bus: four from the US, four from Indonesia, seven from the UK, four from Israel and four from Palestine. Though we traveled from five different nations with drastically diverse backgrounds, we all came for one common purpose—to reach across cultural barriers to break down preconceived prejudices.
It was the tragic death of Daniel Braden in October, 2002 that brought us all together. Daniel was killed in the Bali bombing, and in his parents’ need to understand why this terrorist killed their son and many others by blowing up a nightclub, they set up a charity called ENCOMPASS. The charity is based on the idea that by promoting the understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds through education, travel and fellowship, hopefully the prejudices and fears that stop communication of different groups would be broken apart.
Each of us was selected from a pool of applicants to represent our nation on the ENCOMPASS Journey of Understanding. We spent a week at the Outward Bound Center, Loch Eli, Scotland, where we combined team-building outdoor adventure sports during the day with discussion sessions at night. During the week among other things, we jumped in the freezing lake, climbed a mountain, scaled a tree, jumped off a high pole to a trapeze, vaulted over a wall and built a rope bridge. We discussed identity, challenged perceptions of culture, race, religion, gender, political and economic views.
In every single aspect of life, we were forced to operate as a team—we ate together, slept together, talked and shouted together. People who grew up as enemies became friends. Some discussions were heated, some were calm. People were pushed to their breaking points… physical, mental, and emotional limits stretched and buckled under the stress. But we picked each other up, kept each other going. We danced, we laughed, we sang, we joked and we played cards. I don’t think I’ve dished out so many hugs in my entire life.
On the bus ride home, I realized that we became more than just a group of friends. What had started as a group of 23 strangers had solidified into one, unified family. As a team we endured a week of frustration, anguish, physical exhaustion, lack of sleep, challenging discussions, laughing, crying and conquering fears.
The ENCOMPASS program is not set up to send off a bunch of students for a week in Scotland to show them how similar they are and how achievable world peace is. That is simply too naïve. In fact, its aim is quite the opposite. We are all very different, and the ENCOMPASS program exposes and celebrates those differences, and teaches us to talk across them.
We said our goodbyes on Monday and the icy plunge back into London life is wearing off. So to show you my memories from the week I’m starting a new mini series. I could write about what it was like to witness the heated discussion over the conflict in the Middle East or our discussion about the western perception of Islam. I could write about jumping into a freezing salt water lake or figuring out what identity really means. I could write about all of the little things I learned just by living with a girl from Palestine and a girl from Indonesia for the week. It’s a totally different kind of travel. One blog post wouldn’t even scratch the surface of my experience this week let alone do it justice…
I can say that without a doubt, I had one of the most challenging, most rewarding weeks of my life. I will be eternally grateful to the Braden family, the students on the trip, the mediators and the Outward Bound counselors for this truly life-altering experience.