It was nearly 12.
I could hear flipflops on gravel as I soaked in the final bursts of gold flashing off the top of the Wihan Luang at Wat Phra Singh.
The morning had been filled with a slow walking tour of Chiang Mai's old city temple compounds and the midday heat was intensifying. Blue sky scrolled out of sight, and a crowd of bobbing, sweaty brows and tired smiles came into view.
Chris and I had decided that this was going to be the morning that we would cut the group of student travelers loose, make them navigate their own way to the next checkpoint. They'd been glued to us since Shanghai, and we wanted them to gain some confidence moving about on their own now. The stakes were low: the old city was "pedestrian friendly" and only about 1.5km square. Plus, it was surrounded by a city wall and moat--kept the Burmese of old out, and hopefully our tenderfoots tucked in.
I have a hollow, tenor tone to my voice, so the brawny football players huddled everyone in to hear me over the tinkling bells and honking songtaew taxis.
I told everyone to partner up with a friend or two and make their way to Suan Dok, the west gate of the walled city. I then turned back toward the inner courtyard of the temple, where I'd spotted some cool areas earlier, shaded by bodhi trees. I wanted to sit for a little while before meandering back into the sizzling heat. But the students were all still standing there.
A hail of groans and muffled complaints foiled my plan to steal serenity.
what?!don't tell me you're leaving us!?
you've got to be kidding!where's the west entrance?can we follow you?
where are we supposed to eat?
you can't do this to me!
Frankly, I was surprised (and little bit flustered). I was facing west and the city wall was a mile straight ahead down Intavarorod Road. No turns or detours. No real traffic. There was practically zero chance of anyone getting lost. But that's not how many of them saw things.
I've since realized that I wasn't quite grasping the nature of their disorientation.
At the time, it was a simple question of geography to me. But to students traveling abroad, spatial orientation is only a portion of the confused matrix they find themselves in. It didn't matter how simple the directions were because by that point many of them were so tired, distracted and anxious that they had no sense of presence to begin the day with. They arrived with no stable point of departure.
I'm convinced there's something we as educators can do about this.
As institutes of higher learning continue to emphasize the attractiveness of study abroad, it would behoove us all to design simple individual and group practices that focus on increasing students' sense of awareness and presence, and ability to regulate emotion and creatively channel stress. The fact that wellness and mindfulness research centers are now popping up all across our campuses promises ready partners and supporters in this endeavor to make students more comfortable about being uncomfortable (a big part of the reason we send them overseas in the first place).
When I return to Wat Phra Singh with Centre College in 2017, I plan on doing a 5-minute listening practice with my students before sending them off down Intavarorod Road.
Sustaining attention to the flapping banners or soothing jingle of golden bells in the breeze may not ward off all complaints, but I'm betting it will heighten students' perception of the environment and their place within it.
Stealing multiple moments like this per day from lectures or racing from one site to the next will undoubtedly enhance young travelers' experiences and the fondness with which they recall their time abroad.