When Cultures Collide: A Snapshot into the Encompass Program

Dispatches from the Road, Featured, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on March 29, 2010 at 10:00 am

In Mid-February, Lost Girl Deputy Editor Patty Hodapp had quite the adventure in Scotland. Acting as a delegate for the USA, she met with other young adults from Indonesia, Israel, Palestine, and the UK to talk politics, religion, culture…and to get her hands a little dirty, and her feet a little wet. Literally. Through a charity called Encompass, she spent a challenging week at Loch Eli in the Scottish Highlands. There, she roughed the wilderness of outdoor adventure sports by day, and participated in discussion sessions by night. Every activity was designed to break down stereotypes and build cultural understanding. She came away from Encompass with a fresh outlook–not only did she conquer her fear of heights, but she also realized just how vital it is to seek understanding of different cultures…indeed, in some cases, it can mean the difference between life and death.

*******

By Patty Hodapp
LG Deputy Editor

I have a thick pile of neon yellow post-it notes resting on my computer. On each post-it is a phrase. “Rich”. “Friendly”. “Pro-Israel”. “Live in a bubble”. “Think they are the best”. These words describe America, according to the delegates from Indonesia, Israel, Palestine and Britain before we started Encompass…

Leyla and I were late. Very late. We sat on the Piccadilly line as it crawled closer to Heathrow Airport. At each station, the tube lingered tauntingly as the doors swung open and shut. Mind the Gap, Mind the Gap, Mind the Gap.

Finally, the tube ground to a halt and we hustled off the train to the waiting Encompass assembly. The Palestinians’ flight was delayed in Frankfurt so were in the clear. While we waited, Helene, one of the Encompass coordinators, gave us sheets of paper listing the names of each country represented at Encompass. Under each country’s name were five blank lines. She told us to write words we associated with the other countries. The comments were anonymous and later we’d see the feedback about our own nations.

For Israel and Palestine I wrote words like Jew, Muslim, Arab, conflict, Jerusalem. For the UK, I wrote words like fish & chips, the queen, London, posh. And, I’m embarrassed to say for Indonesia, I put a big question mark.

A few days later, in Scotland, we did a workshop about perceptions, first impressions, and stereotypes. We went back to our first impressions of each other at Heathrow. Helene translated the words onto post-it notes and gave each nation their stack of stereotypes. The three other Americans and I sat down to read ours:

Very beautiful young girls

Live in a dream

Did not treat all the people equally

They are American, they think they are the best

Strong country, super power

Blond

Barack Obama

Free

Liberalism

Cute

Do not understand what is happening in the Middle East

Good environment

Heavy

Confident

Creative

Probably know about what’s going on in the Middle East because of the war

Looking forward to presenting them with conversation

Not shy

Rich

Friendly

At first I wasn’t sure what to think. A huge part of me was desensitized to the negative words because I’d heard them all before in other conversations with Europeans. To my frustration, I mostly find myself trying to convince them that America is not all about Girls-Gone-Wild, people who can’t point to France on a map, or obese children stuffing McDonald’s french fries down their triple-chin throat.

When the other four nations read their post-its, they also expressed similar frustrations of being labeled and shoved into a box that didn’t fit.

***

When we de-boarded the bus in Scotland to learn we’d be jumping into the highland lake “for fun” to kick off Encompass, I was ready to re-board for London.

I spent our orientation afternoon secretly half-hoping the outdoor instructors were joking. They’d never make us jump in a lake in the middle of February… right?

Just before dinnertime our instructor grabbed a bag of old shoes, told us to grab a pair and change for the “jog and dip”. I snagged a pair of worn out pink and white Adidas, trudged to my room and shivered out of my big sweater into running shorts and a poly-pro thermal shirt-my last ditch effort for warmth. We made a little huddle on the driveway as we waited.

“I don’t want to do thiiiiiis,” one of the girls whined.

Goosebumps covered my legs. My frosty breath lingered around my purple lips. I can’t believe this is happening.

“Right, ready to go?” our instructor said. He started jogging down the driveway and one by one, our miserable little huddle followed.

We ran across train tracks to the pier and pulled soaking, salty life vests on our shivering bodies. We tiptoed down the pier to the floating dock. Crap. This is actually happening.

Our little huddle waited for someone brave enough to jump first…no one volunteered. With each second we got colder, my toes were numb. Finally, two people stepped forward.

They jumped and I heard yelling. I didn’t think twice. One of the British guys grabbed my hand. We took two steps back, three running steps off the dock, and launched ourselves into the salty swirling dark mass of water.

Ice ripped down my veins and I froze underwater in a black, dark death-world. Then, adrenaline kicked in and I swam. I swam for my life. GET OUT, GET OUT.  As I pierced the surface of the water I heard a shrill screaming sound. It was me. I kicked so hard toward the shore that my shoes came off. But I didn’t stop. I scrambled up the slippery, seaweed concrete. Rocks cut into my feet. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

Someone helped me pull my life vest off. Someone rescued my shoes.  And I was off, running to the hot shower. Up the steep driveway, my muscles were sluggish, my shoes were soggy, my wet hair slapped my face. But I didn’t care. I was alive.

Then two days later, we climbed a tree. WE CLIMBED A TREE. I’m absolutely terrified of heights. Our harnesses were strung together so if one person fell off the branches, the other people would catch their weight. It rained earlier that day and my gloves were soaked. I climbed the ladder at the base and gingerly stepped forward.

First branch, so far, so good. Second branch, okay, I got this. Third branch, yoga breathing, don’t look down. Fourth branch. I am going to die. I clung to the trunk, the ground spiraled away. I balanced on a three-inch branch, kissing the wet bark, pinching tears from my eyes. I wasn’t moving and since the team was tied together, everyone’s climbing progress depended on me to keep climbing. There was no going back. I absolutely had to climb up the tree.

Then, Francis, one of the British boys, who was two branches higher turned back to pull me ahead. His strong grip grabbed my wrist and he started a calm running commentary in a low voice. You can do it, nice and easy. That’s it, just a little step here, brilliant, well done. Somehow, through my panicky breaths, Francis talked me into un-gluing my body from the tree and moving just one more branch. Then just one more. Then, another. Before I knew it, to the cheers of my teammates waiting on the ground, I was climbing. And so was everyone else.

**

Three weeks ago, I sat at the feet of a Palestinian and two Israelis on a northbound bus to the Scottish highlands. It was 2 a.m. and the four of us huddled over the Political World Map application on my iPod. We talked dates, wars, battles, and rehashed boundaries since Israel became a nation in 1948. At one point I looked up and eight other people from our group had joined us, leaning in to catch a glimpse of the tiny map on my iPod.

The conversation was timid-we only met each other six hours before at Heathrow. We were just a group of strangers on a bus headed for Scotland.

I was one of 23 students total on the bus: four Americans, four Indonesians, seven Britons, four Israelis, and four Palestinians. Five nations, 23 personalities, one common purpose.

The tragic death of Daniel Braden in October, 2002 brought us all together. Daniel was killed in a terrorist bombing at a popular western nightclub in Bali. In his parents’ desire to understand the mindset of terrorism-bred fear, they set up a charity called Encompass. Encompass promotes understanding between people of diverse cultural backgrounds. Through discussion and outdoor adventure sports, the Braden family hoped to shatter prejudices that stop communication and form bonds that encourage it.

Each of us was selected to represent our respective nations on the Encompass Journey of Understanding. During a week at the Outward Bound Center, Loch Eli, Scotland, the 23 of us were forced to operate as a team-we ate together, lived together, talked and shouted together. People who grew up as enemies became friends. We hit reached our breaking points. Physical, mental, and emotional limits stretched and buckled under stress. But we picked each other up, kept each other going. The 23 of us came to Scotland mere strangers, and we left Scotland close friends.

**

We said tearful goodbyes nearly three weeks ago and the icy plunge into London life has worn off. As the ticking clock wedges time between today and my fond memories of Encompass, I marinate in what I learned. With the program finished, I face the biggest challenge yet-to ensure Encompass is not over.

Encompass is not only a charity. It’s not just a week in Scotland to make friends and learn about other cultures. It is a way of living, breathing, existing. It means forever questioning, actively seeking to understand the other, despite the chasm of difference. Until there is a desire to understand, we will live divided in a world that aches to be communal.

If I could toss these post-it note stereotypes for a new list, I’d ditch my native language in favor of Hebrew. “Neshama Sheli” (spelled phonetically) means “my soul”. It is used to get someone’s attention or express love and friendship. In conversation, you can call someone “Neshama”, most crudely translated as “babe” or “darling”. Or literally, my Israeli friend said it means a glimpse into the other’s humanity.

One day during lunch, Lahav, from Israel, was talking about the green line, the political divide which separates Palestinian territories from Israel. Lahav drew maps and lines all over the white board. My back was pressed up against the burning radiator so I started to move away when Tomer, also from Israel, came to sit beside me.

Israeli’s have a much more intimate sense of personal space than Americans. So when I say Tomer sat beside me, I mean our bodies overlapped. My left arm and leg were squished under his right arm and leg. When he listened to Lahav, he cocked his head so his hair brushed my hair. His lunch was half spread out on my lap and his boot touched my boot.

He leaned in so close I could see the pores on his face and said, “The conflict… is complicated.” I glanced back at Lahav’s map, littered with green border strokes. “Yes, yes it is,” I stumbled, not sure what else to say.

We continued to eat in silence. I began to sweat-partly because of the radiator, partly because Tomer was so close, and partly because of the growing tension as two Palestinian girls stared at the whiteboard. Rarely, if ever, do young adults from Israel and Palestine get to talk about the conflict. This was a big first for all of us.

I nervously chewed my apple and nudged Tomer. I was dying to ask him something, but couldn’t find delicate words. So I blurted it out, spraying apple all over his jacket. “Do you think there will ever be peace in the Middle East?”

He gazed back through huge brown eyes. His forehead contracted in troubled thought under the rim of his blue Jimi Hendrix headband. Five long seconds passed.  He stroked his chin, not breaking his gaze once, he pushed his face toward me, touched his forehead to mine and whispered, “I wish.”

Neshama Sheli.

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    2 Comments

  • i read a lot just about that in the last few month and i consider it might be true. Eventhough i think everyone is responsible for himself. Just my two cents…