HKS Spring Break Trekkers’ Perspectives

Over the course of 10 days, hundreds of students sought out exotic locations on what is now aptly termed “student-led treks.” These trips ranged from politically charged regions to relaxing beachfront destinations.

All places served to inspire, inform and integrate students with local culture, food, and of course, government perspectives. The following are stories shared by just a few of the participants.

Morocco Trek: A Holistic Experience
By Stephanie Sobek

Walking through the winding alleyways of the medina in Fez felt like taking a trip through time.  This ancient Moroccan city came alive, with its historical traditions still a part of daily life.  It quickly became apparent that the 2013 Morocco Spring Trek truly was “A Journey into a Land of Tradition and Modernity.”

The Trek was composed of twenty-three students representing thirteen different nationalities.  One of the greatest aspects of the trek was that it provided a holistic view of the country.  Traveling from Marrakech, through the Atlas Mountains, to the Sahara Desert, Fez, Rabat and Casablanca, the group witnessed a wide range of landscapes and lifestyles, from bustling commercial centers, to serene agricultural oases.  Each stop provided insight into the rich history and culture of Morocco.  The group visited ancient Kasbahs, mosques and madrasas and had the opportunity to camp in the Sahara Desert with local Berbers. Morocco

Beyond these cultural and historical aspects, the trek also provided the group with the opportunity to meet and engage with critical political and economic leaders within the country.  In Rabat, we had the great privilege to meet with André Azoulay, the Counselor of King Mohammed VI, to discuss various political issues ranging from how the Arab Spring has affected Morocco to Jewish-Muslim relations.  We also met with leaders of OCP, the largest company in Morocco, and with Harvard alums at BCG Casablanca and Attijariwafa Bank.  These meetings, as well as the personal connections we made with local Moroccans, provided critical insights into both the challenges and triumphs of the country.  Overall, the Trek was an amazing experience that instilled a new admiration for Morocco in the hearts of all those who participated.

China Trek: The New Chinese Dream
By Parisa Roshan, MPP’14

For Spring Break, a delegation of 23 MPPs, MPA-IDs and Mid-Careers from the Kennedy School traveled to the Far East for the 2013 China Trek. The timing of the Trek proved to be fortuitous; Xi Jinping took office as the new President of the People’s Republic of China just as the delegation arrived in country, and in his inaugural address he described his vision of “The Chinese Dream.” Comparisons between the Chinese and American Dreams emerged consistently throughout the Trek’s many meetings. Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing

The Trek included a series of conversations with government officials as well as visits to media agencies, high schools and universities, and major corporations – with stops in Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing. The Trek helped students develop insights into China’s infrastructural development and rapid economic growth in recent decades.

Colombia Trek: El único riesgo es te quieras quedar
By Mark Asuncion, HKS MC/MPA ’13

The HKS Trek to Colombia was an incredible experience of contrasts. The trip began in Cartagena de Indias, where Fermina Daza’s opulent villa from ‘the time of cholera’ contrasted with the earthen floors in the impoverished township of Mazanillo. It progressed to Medellín, a city that once owned the title of ‘Murder Capital of the World’. It now officially owns the title, ‘Most Innovative City in the World’. The trek ended in the capital, Santa Fe de Bogotá, where self-congratulatory efforts to build sidewalks, a bus-rapid-transit system and parks somehow did not reach the slums of Cazucá.

Like the cities visited, the politicians we met were equally contrasting. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s fiery, sometimes jarring, expressiveness differed from the dignified aura of former President Álvaro Uribe. The Governor of Antioquia (and former mayor of Medellín), Sergio Fajardo, portrayed an academic, grassroots approach to governing, while his predecessor and current Mayor of Medellín, Aníbal Gaviria, exuded a more traditional, technocratic style of management. Though very different in presentation, they all shared a passion and commitment to improve their daily lives of Colombia’s citizens.

These contrasts highlighted the most visible aspect of Colombia: progress. Arguably, no other country in the world has experienced so much progress over the last 20 years. Once paralyzed by narco-terror of the drug cartels, bombings and political kidnappings by the FARC, and the murderous “social cleansing” of the paramilitary groups, Colombia has now become the third-largest economy in Latin America, the greatest exporter of military expertise to the region, and perhaps the best example of democratic governance.

Yes, problems still exist. Its income-inequality is the highest in Latin America, urban crime has increased over the past five years and a major cocaine laboratory was discovered (and dismantled) just a week before the trek. Yet there is a strong, underlying sense of confidence that these problems can be overcome. Hope now exists in a country once all but devoid of it. Colombia is a truly remarkable story of progress.

It was a great privilege to visit such a beautiful and inspiring country, and one that is moving forward so rapidly. It lived up to its claim: “El único riesgo es te quieras quedar.” Viva Colombia!

Palestine Trek: Breathtaking Beaches and a Brutal Occupation
By Sami Jitan, partner and Asma Jaber, MPP’13

Between March 16 and March 25, forty-eight Harvard Students embarked on a student led excursion through one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful places in the world – the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, known as Israel to some and Palestine to others. For most of the trekkers, this was the first time they had ever set foot in the Holy Land. Palestine trek

For my Palestinian fiancé and me, this trek to our homeland would allow us to experience what would otherwise be difficult for exiles.

Over the course of 10 days, the group visited East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and Jericho. We also visited Yaffa (Jaffa), Haifa, Nazareth and unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Nakab (Negev). We crossed paths with history as our time in Palestine coincided with President Barack Obama’s vacuous visit to Tel Aviv and Ramallah. President Obama’s four-hour visit to the presidential palace in Ramallah underscored his apathy toward understanding the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli control.
Debate ensued very early among students as to what to call the brutal situation in the land where Jews gave themselves power and privilege over Palestinians. What term(s) should we adopt to describe what we saw: “occupation,” “apartheid” or “settler colonialism”?

In nine days, we paid our respects to countless holy sites. We listened to stories of resilience while breaking bread with those who risked their lives for their land and dignity.  Some of us spent more time than we would have liked being strip searched at the airport.  Overall we moved away from the false dichotomy of pro- vs. anti-Palestine or Israel and toward experiential understanding that no newscast or Ivy League tome could conjure: the feeling of justice in abstentia – a transformative feeling that only being in the land of historic Palestine could conjure.

“Whether I was in the West Bank or Israel, I felt that I was never too far from a profound and unfortunate contradiction – a striking example was that the site of Jesus’ baptism is now surrounded by a minefield.  It was also humbling to learn that the city of Jerusalem is built on the rubble of 17 prior civilizations, which is a reminder that history is long and that all things must pass.” – Eric Jenkins-Sahlin, Staff at the Carr Center for Human Rights

Israel Trek: A Country that was First an Idea
By Marina Linhart, MPP ‘13

I am in awe of Israel. One of the speakers we met on the first day of the trek purported that, ‘Israel was first an idea before it became a country.’ That phrase stuck in my mind as we traveled north to the Golan Heights looking into war-torn Syria, as we walked in the footsteps of Jesus along the Sea of Galilee, as we crossed through checkpoints to visit Ramallah, as we debated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with members of Parliament, as we visited the Holocaust Museum, as we stood on the rooftops in the old town in Jerusalem, and as we climbed to the top of the Fortress Masada. Israeltrek

Israel was first an idea.  It was created from the determination of a people who transformed marshlands and desert into fields for cattle and agriculture. Today, ideas drive the Israeli economy that thrives on innovation.

Over the course of the week, we met with members of Parliament, a Supreme Court Justice, the PLO spokesperson, the Minister of Labor for the Palestinian Authority, young Israelis and alumni, journalists, policy advisors and ideologues.  We discussed Iran, Syria, settlements and the Palestinian conflict until we were blue in the face. Everyone seemed to present three sides to the coin, leaving me more entangled in the challenges facing Israel than when I started. Yet that made the Israeli story even more impressive. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges the country and its people face on a daily basis, life goes on. I guess if you can create a country out of an idea, nothing is impossible.

I didn’t get much sleep during the trip, but I came away inspired. Israel renewed my hope that ideas really can change the world. And I cannot thank Jessica Brandt, Shimon Levy, Oded Gilutz and Yaniv Rivlin enough for making that experience possible.

Japan Trek: Seeing with your feet
By Leighton Walter, MC/MPA’13

Over the last week, the members of the HKS 2013 spring treks have been exchanging stories about what they did. For those of us who went to Japan, it included the Tsukiji wholesale fish market (at 4 a.m.), visits to the Meiji Jingu shrine and national assembly, a tour of the control center of the country’s Shinkansen “bullet train” network, an audience with the country’s minister of agriculture, and an HKS Japan reunion – and that was the first day. We were giddy, energized, and exhausted for a solid week, and often simultaneously.Japan

What sticks with me are the contrasts. All big cities have theirs – the wealth and squalor of some, the endless sprawl and sudden density of others – but in both Tokyo and the countryside we visited, contrast was everywhere: A traditional tile-roofed izakaya (Japan’s equivalent of an English pub, French brasserie or American bar) behind which loomed a glassy tower. A web of highway, metro and pedestrian overpasses shading a narrow street that somehow managed to retain its life and intimacy. Massive seawalls dividing baseball fields (on the river side) from rice patties (far more important). A country that has the most reliable high-speed rail network on earth, yet where they still count the coins from parking meters by hand. “High-tech Japan,” someone noted with an affectionate measure of irony.

Moreover, such extremes are very much at home with each other. In Shanghai, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before the next crop of towers wipes out what’s left of the city’s history. In Japan, you get the sense it will all last forever, even if it was built yesterday. And details not only matter, they’re taken seriously. Toward the end of the trip, I started noticing lines of yellow tiles on major Tokyo streets, not unlike the Freedom Trail in Boston. Yet these were everywhere, even on subway platforms, and their ubiquity, consistency and careful design hinted at a larger purpose.

“They’re for the seeing-impaired,” I was told, and the simple logic of this citywide system became clear: Ridges in the direction of the sidewalk meant “all clear,” and their spacing is wide enough to exert telling pressure on the soles of the feet. When you get to an intersection, the lines become big dots, “You have a choice,” they say. Before the edge of a subway platform, the dots become smaller ones: “Stop.” The system isn’t perfect or complete, but it’s there, even in some shopping centers and hotel complexes. Genius.Japan (2)

Yet such considered thought and careful execution never deadened the thrum of life in ancient gardens and shrines as well as temples of a more recent sort. Karaoke bars never seemed to lack for clients, in spite dolorous talk of Japan’s “lost decade” and the still-painful wounds from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The public-policy challenges are everywhere, but given Japan’s ability to reconcile the modern with the traditional, the massive with the minuscule, and even make a city of 13 million people literally readable, there’s a good measure of hope.

Korea Trek: Dancing Gangnam with the Mayor of Seoul
By Kevin Rowe, MPP ‘14

During the March 16-24 Spring Break, 17 students from HKS and other Harvard graduate schools traveled to Seoul for the 2013 Korea Trek, organized by Warren Choi, Han Lee, Jamie Lee, Jane Lee and Kyu Sin, all from the MPP’14 class.

The students were welcomed throughout the week by Seoul’s mayor, advisors to the President, senior policymakers from the Ministry of Defense, a Member of the National Assembly, reporters and executives from major media, officials from top Korean companies Samsung and Hyundai and, yes, KPop stars.Korea

A week of non-stop meetings, visits and tours offered an immersive introduction to the history, politics, and culture of the Korean Peninsula, not to mention other important issues such as karaoke and Soju bombs, how to eat live octopus and the current season of Korea’s Dancing with the Stars.

Aside from the wide-ranging discussions with Korea’s political and business leaders, trip highlights included briefly stepping across the border into North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone; watching Ben Pittman MPP’14 and Miriam Al-Ali MPP’13 dance Gangnam Style with the Mayor of Seoul before the Korean news media; and bumping into Harvard President Drew Faust for drinks and dinner (she brought along a few hundred of Korea’s Harvard Alumni too). A group of undergraduate volunteers from Seoul National University assisted with the trip and helped ensure that trekkers met the no-sleep, neon Gangnam District of 1.5 billion YouTube viewer fame by night.

By the end of the week, all participants were exhausted and unanimously agreed that months of planning by the organizers had resulted in a most memorable, fun and enriching introduction to South Korea.

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