This One Time…

Ariel Vardy (Senegal ’13, University of Washington) asks “what would it look like to harness the powerful perspective I had abroad right here in my own country?” Guided by his experiences in Senegal, Ariel shares how he learned to leave his comfort zone without ever leaving Seattle.


While I was abroad, I had these powerful mantras “you only live once”, “what can I do with the (minimal) resources available?”, “what really cool things are happening in this place that I don’t know about yet?”. These Mantras lead me to my personal collection of “this one time” stories that are basic traveler’s exchange. Mine personal collection include my bread business I opened, hunting crocodiles, making a fishing rod to go fishing in the wild, honey harvesting,  my attendance to cultural rituals, learning about the local’s daily life, conversations around genital cutting, menstruation, their concepts of geography, response to death and birth and stories about my host family. While abroad, so much of our life is suspended and in flux, we have the courage, time and interest to follow the current of what is happening around us that we want to be part of. I learned how to build the adventure I wanted, because trust me, finding adventure is not a given in a place where most people either cook the national dish, tend their land, or drink tea (on an average day). Yet, our collective buzzing energy as Global Citizen Year Fellows, and our individual attitudes as travelers, manifested into an experience that matched what we brought into it.  


The mindset I had for my Global Citizen Year was a uniquely dynamic one. On the one hand, I was definitely mid-adventure. I was riding on the waves of “you only live once”, and navigating my daily, weekly, and monthly plans with an intensely curious and excited energy. On the other hand, I was living on the tail end of finding home. I was building a long-term depth to my relationships, and activities. I was planning ahead (on the scale of weeks and months) as if I had a completely independent life I was sinking into. Sometimes travelers would roll into town for the weekend and I would enjoy hearing their reflections of the place, and hear what it was like to pass through as a traveler and not a ‘local’. It felt to me like they were missing the point of the region, encapsulated in beautiful mundane moments that would fade in and out of the daily grind of work, rest, and conversing with locals in their language. 


This travel experience spoiled me. I left Global Citizen Year feeling inspired by travel, and yet holding an almost impossible definition of what good travel looked and felt like. In future trips abroad I felt like one of those travelers that was missing the local culture and beautiful daily mundane. Without a network of locals or language training, adventures felt shallow, and my sense of culture felt limited. 

A Senegalese wedding.

A fellow student of mine courses at the University of Washington was explaining how she thinks every student should be required to study abroad. I asked about how that would be affordable or equitable, and she responded, “study abroad programs do not have to be expensive, it might be enough to have a home stay in the south (international) side of town, just enough away that they leave their comfort zone and enter a new culture”. It suddenly hit me; I don’t need to buy an airplane ticket to find my Global Citizen Year mindset. I started noticing what I was saying about my experience. “so how was it? what did you learn?” I would be asked, an impossibly hard question to navigate, “good. It was eye opening to live within another culture, to see all the ways they were different than me, and all the ways we were actually the same. While I was there I learned so much about my surroundings, I felt like anything was possible and that it was all an adventure. What stopped me from manifesting that sense in Seattle, Washington? One day I heard the concept of a Staycation, and I will forever reclaim it within my Global Citizen Year conception of vacation (as cultural and interpersonal immersion).

Ariel in mid-flip.

With this switch flipped in my brain, I felt empowered to bushwhack my own path. The same way I had to turn tea drinking and lounging into adventure, so too did 500 student classes and doing the daily dishes need to become something bigger. In Senegal, I pushed boundaries, and found the edges of what was possible in my world. Similarly, I had meetings with chair of my department to ask about what opportunities could be opened up where I had not suspected. I found myself doing extremely meaningful graduate level course work with the Learning Science grad students.


Moreover, I looked more closely at the city that I lived in. I started by volunteering for organizations that took me into space I would not have otherwise known. I worked at a youth homeless shelter near my house. I also helped an alternative school for students who were not being properly served in the public school system. I mentored struggling high school students at a local school navigate the college admissions process. I joined a gospel choir (which is not paid, but also not volunteer work) for a predominantly African American church in South Seattle.


The last thing I will mention here, is that I went into a predominantly minority elementary school and taught with the Center for Philosopher for Children. From there I made connection with local artists and started finding spaces that were absolutely foreign to me. I encountered Native American spirituality, like Sweat Lodges and Vision Quests. I also encountered new age spirituality, through Healing Circles, Michael Mead rituals called Mosaic Voices and a monthly event called Dream Dance which is part dance, part religious gathering, part group meditation. I started going to Social Justice meetings with radical Seattle Native Americans, Transgender folk, and anyone else angered with the way power has been propagating. I befriended the Circus Arts Community, and was invited to spend some time on a plot of land the community owns north of Seattle. I got entangled in the Improvisation community, and found avant-garde artist spaces such as Singing Circles, Movement Jams, and Music Jams, which would involve multiple hours of unstructured improvisation.


I invited myself to forgo shame or embarrassment and study the expressive arts. To my own amusement, I found myself in nude figure drawing classes, ballet classes, and teaching a college level improvisation class. The list continues, I have hit beyond saturation to my “this one time” stories for my life in Seattle. This one time, I was invited to board a giant school bus stuffed halfway up the side of the bus in pillows, packed with flamboyantly dressed dancers traveling across western coast to create a retreat in northern California for Partner Dancers. I was literally swallowed up into an alternative cultural experience right in my home state! So much so, that some of my friends and family refused invitations to join me, as my local ‘travels’ was too far out of their comfort zone.

Ariel dancing amongst the trees.

Because of my language fluency, I could pick up the radical nuances to the way these sub cultural groups communicated, and because of my permanence, these spaces and the people occupying them became part of my community instead of just characters in my “this one time” story collection. I was not living in the alter-space of travel where time and professional life was on hold, I was learning how these cultures weaved into my primary conception of my world and myself. This distinction is important, as a lot of my learning in Senegal developed and physicalized into Hamidou Soure, the name I was given while I was with locals speaking their language. Sometimes fellows would ask me to speak in English so they could access Ariel instead of Hamidou (who was more abrasive, akin to the local culture). These four years since have been building Ariel Vardy from the same ashes Hamidou Soure was built- by exploring, questioning, immersing, finding presence, a sense of meaningfulness, and sourcing play as my greatest teacher.


I ask the question– what would it look like to harness the powerful perspective I had abroad in my own country? What walls are scalable? What culture can I connect with? Or simply, where can I find my aliveness in my very own home? 

Ariel exploring the foothills of Georgia

I have now been invited to join Teach for America in South Louisiana. This to me, is the Peace Corps of my own people. How can I live, learn and grow in conservative America? As a trained American Educator, how can I employ my current locality to have access to depth and power that I can mobilize for connection, learning, growth and change? 


My vision is to employ the almost universal travel bug into the almost viral and national intolerance bug. What might it look like to introduce play and adventure into entering local cultural spaces that are outside our comfort zone? And larger than this, my vision is to employ the mantras of travel, a sense that we only live once, that we should ask questions about what is possible, that we should connect and learn from those around us, as a way to live our lives in general. The product, for me, has been quite ecstatic.