In the mid of March 2018, thirty adventurous youngsters from 6 European countries (Greece, Norway, Spain, Hungary, Lithuania and UK) managed to find their way to gather at the remote, isolated and remarkably scenic National Park of Snowdonia in Wales, United Kingdom.
It was an adventure we awaited and planned so long in advance. Already in November 2017 group leaders met to discuss the upcoming frame of youth exchanges and even went on a road trip to select the place. The meeting was fruitful – it has driven us to the heart of Wales, where first phase of the project Step in Their Shoes took place.
Day 1, Tuesday, 13th March 2018
Erasmus Plus funded youth exchange Step In Their Shoes #1 Hiking in Wales started not in Wales, but in Greece, Norway, Spain, Hungary, Lithuania and UK. From those far away places 30 adventurous youngsters had to somehow get their light or heavy luggages into the Birmingham. We picked a coach and on the road to Wales. First day started with the adventure on a very narrow road to reach hostel – surprisingly driver decided to go last few miles with the bus despite it had centimeters of free space between rocks on one side and river on the other side.
Day 2, Wednesday, 14th March 2018
Waking up in the National Park of Snowdonia, right at the hear of the Welsh nature, felt extremely good, as did walking by the river to the common room, where we had a wake up class of light Pilates exercises with Algirdas. Next we moved on to the nice breakfast of muesli, fruits, bread and jam, which Lithuanian team was kind enough to prepare for us. And then onto the real project!
The first activity of the day was the introduction of the people behind the Step In Their Shoes exchange, and the presentation of the organisation hosting the project, and the project itself. Along with getting informed about the goals and tools used throughout the exchange, we also had the opportunity to find out more about the actions of Abroadship.org and also the John Muir Trust Award, which we received in the end of the project in a form of certificate. Plus, we had a brief introduction of the owner of the venue, and also learned that we are staying in one of the oldest hostels in the world!
Later we had a fruit break and a little walk around the grounds and as soon as we got back, Raminta presented us with a variety of tasks to fulfil in the next hours, such as were:
- counting all the building’s windows
- creating a song and play related to the project topics
- singing national anthem of UK
- writing our fears and hopes for the project and creating agreement of rules for participants to follow.
The next hour we rushed around to accomplish these tasks, which was at the same time educational and fun.
After the break, we made a circle and let everyone in the group know our name, followed by a little gesture or movement. Then we split to groups of four and briefly answered some questions about personal lives and preferences, such as, what would consist in a perfect day for us, and where would we go on holiday if we had all the money in the world. The point of this exercise was obviously to get closer and start to know each other better.
After delicious vegetarian (by the way, all project was fully vegetarian experience) meal, Andreas cooked for us, we presented the results of the previous task to the group, and I am glad to say, we managed to fulfil every single one of them. Then Gintare informed us of the schedule for the following days, and then we split into the reflection groups, which will work with throughout the exchange. We had a brief top 10 game with the reflection groups, and then each team was allocated cleaning duties for every morning of the project. Last before the snack break, we played a chair game, where people would call out characteristics and those that met them had to rush to exchange seats. Anyone, who felt behind and did not get a seat on time, was applauded bu the group after proclaiming that he/she failed, in a gesture of support and encouragement, aiming to make it feel okay even after failure.
The activity to come was by far the most fun of the afternoon, as it included a lot of physical activity and closeness. After walking around the room, touching each other and trying to feel one another’s presence, we moved into dancing holding uncooked spaghetti. Then we got into pairs and while the one stood still, the other danced around him/her touching the partner with his/her body and feeling connected. And since we had all warmed up and got into the mood for dancing, we continued with a proper dancing activity, first in pairs and then in trios, where one person would lead and the other(s) with his/her palm. This activity was meant to put us in both the position of leading and being led, while at the same time offered a fair ground for improvisation and creativity. At the end of the session, the trios danced in front of the whole room and I must say we witnessed a fair share of good moves, which got a fair round of applause.
After this full day of getting together, getting involved and active, what be better than some stretching and meditation? Viktorija led us all to an open space close to the hostel, where in the mist of twilight we performed some relaxed yoga exercises, which offered the opportunity to stretch our limbs. For closure, we moved back to the common room again and under the instructions of Viktorija, we relaxed and meditated. It was the proper finale of the full day of activities.
After dinner, most people felt too tired to have a proper welcome evening. A bunch of brave ones though climbed up the path close to the hostel into the light, with the wind cooling around us. Being in a forest by night, with the dark trees dancing in the wing and the starry sky above was a truly magical activity. One that became even more surreal, when we stumbled upon an abandoned chapel dated back to 1883, overgrown by nature and trees now .. and cemetery at its backyard. It is fair to say we were quite freaked out at that point, but went on exploring nonetheless. Some of the gravestones were 100 years old and crooked, other looked shiny and new, meaning that the cemetery is still being used, however, abandoned its chapel and it was one of the strongest and unique experiences of life, and the climax of that night. Cant wait to see what else this project stores for us.
Day 3, Thursday, March 15th
This day began with the Hungarian team on the kitchen duty and another rejuvenating session of Pilates with our dear Algirdas.
After breakfast, the whole group gathered outside, where we had a brief question game, grouped in our reflection teams. This time the question was, which was the top 10 countries that received the refugees in 2016. Afterwards Gintare led outdoor energises to lift the spirits and motivate people. Such were the Whiskey Mixed Game, another where the members of the group formed a human chain and performed some tasks and last but not least an exercise on a group communication, where everyone had to sit on the ground on a different time and without a verbal communication.
Right after that, we moved indoors and Gintare presented the badge reward system, which will utilize throughout and offer the end of the exchange. This is a system of grading for non formal education among other things and certificates issued are recognized by the EY and can be shared on social media for “Step In Their Shoes” we will be able to apply for a variety of them, from First Time Youth Exchanger and Nature Lover, to Yoga and Pilates.
After a snack break, Marijonas led us to the open space, where we had yoga the previous afternoon, where we enacted a role playing activity. We were given different identities of people and after standing in a line we had to take a step each time we felt a situation would affect us or not. Eventually the group was scattered all over the fields with the most socially secure, rich and privileged people in front and those facing social and financial difficulties falling far behind them. We reflected on the reality, discussing how different financial situations affect people in various ways and effect of stereotypes in the matter.
What came next was an activity called Abigails story. In an amazing scenario involving fiver people we had to grade their actions and attitudes on a moral scale of 1 to 5. This activity actually created a lot of tension among the members of the working groups, since a lot of people had a very strong opinion on the issues that arose in the story. Eventually though, we all agreed that there is not one solution or truth, and concluded that it is alright to disagree, as long as we do it respectfully.
These activities were followed by lunch and then we devoted the rest of the afternoon to an activity led by Justinas called Forum Theater or Theater of the Oppressed. After warming up a little bit and listening to the instructions, the national groups took some time to create a small play about a current social issue and their respective countries. Then this play would be presented to the whole group twice, once with each country’s members and once with different actors )or more like spect-actors), who could intervene in the play and take one of the character’s role.
Needless to say, this was an extremely interesting session, which everyone like and participated actively in. Many interesting, yet difficult issues arose. At a glare, countries discussed the following topics:
- Spain referred to the issues of the racism towards immigrants, especially on the department of education, which leads to young people eventually dropping out of a school.
- Hungary discussed the topic of “brain drainage”, since currently many young Hungarians leave the country after completing their university education, in pursuit of better opportunities abroad.
- Norwegian participants created a play discussing the much debated issue of sexual harassment in the workplace
- UK participants referred to the division BREXI has brought on country and the racism towards immigrants it has resulted to.
- Greece enacted three brief scenarios of people losing their jobs or working for meagre wages due to the financial situation in the country.
The session was really demanding both mentally and physically, but everyone felt really well afterwards, since interesting opinions were discussed and important topics were brought to our attention. It was quite a rewarding educational experience. Next we dined in out respective reflection groups, where we discussed the day’s experiences and afterwards prepared for the Intercultural Night.
Intercultural Nights are always a lot of fun, but highly informative too, and this one was no exception. Each country’s participants prepared different snacks from their countries, which they presented to the group and urged fellow participants to taste. This way we had the opportunity to try Marmite from the UK, sausage from Hungary, Norwegian cheese and Spanish Choriza and of course not to forget the two infamous Greek liqueurs Ouzo and Tsipouro. But the intercultural exchange went further still, the participants could also dance traditional folk dances from Lithuania and Greece, and answered questions to a quiz about the UK and Hungary. All in all, it was a good night with loads of food, drink and laughter, everyone enjoyed to the max.
Day 4, Friday, March 16th
Friday began with the Lithuanians in the kitchen helping Andres and our now typical Pilates sessions with Algirdas. After breakfast we had a brief energiser called the Watermellon, and then we began preparations for the day, cause it was the time to have our first proper hike as a team.
First, Marijonas gave us all the necessary instructions, such as which gear to bring, what to be careful and while hiking and generally filled us in all the necessary information. Then followed one of the best sessions of the project so far the accountability buddies exercise. First, we were asked to find someone we felt comfortable with. This person would be a our hiking partner and we would have to look out for each other throughout the hike. But then came really interesting part – we were asked not only to complement ur body, but take few minutes with everyone in the room and tell them something positive, describe their qualities to them and our feelings towards them. It might sound simple, but it was far from that, personally I consider it one of the best experiences of life. To have all these people you know for three days come to you and tell you amazing things such as that they admire your spirit and intelligence or your look was equally shocking and touching, not to mention an amazing confidence boost. You could literally fell the positive vibes throughout the exercise and many people became emotional. At the reflection that followed everyone agreed that we need more of this in our lives, since it is amazing to see the impact you may have on people and at the same time you discover your own qualities and stop judging yourself too harshly. The exercise brought the group together closer than ever and worked wonders in improving everyone’s mood and boosting morale.
After this amazing positive experience, we had a little bit of free time to prepare food for the hike and get dressed and then the big moment arrived. We all gathered excitedly outside the main building, paired with our buddies. Bilal was alloced navigation duties and we were on our way.
Hiking began smoothly, since we had to walk downhill from the hostel and on some fields with farms. There was some light rain as we were crossing these fields looking at the horses and sheep, while simultaneously playing the speed dating, game, which helped members of the group come a little bit closer still. As the times passed the scenery changed and we found ourselves walking through the Welsh marshes. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking.
After approximately one hour and a half of walking, we arrived to a picnic spot, where we stopped to rest and eat. There, the facilitators presented us with a new challenge. They put up a rope between the trees, some 1.2 meters from the ground and we had to find a way to transfer every person of the team over it, without touching the rope at all. This proved to be way more demanding than everyone imagined. We struggled for a long time to figure out a way, but kept touching the rope. Eventually we managed to get Rowan across, but nobody else could do it. The arguing let do a lot of tension and frustration, and the facilitators had to gather us up to discuss the issue a little bit. Eventually we managed to find some common group, people that up to that time were positive got more actively involved, others, who had roles before, stepped back a little and member by member the whole group managed to jump over.
The exhilaration was such after succeeding that we had an impromptu party night then and there, next to the water and the sandy ground. Most people climbed on a few low walls and danced. Everyone was happy and positive.
With spirits lifted, we moved on. Our instruction for this second part of our journey was not to speak with each other, but reflect on our own thoughts. If somebody broke character, the whole group had to go back 50 meters. For the most part everyone managed to stay silent as we walked through the forests, low vegetation and many fields. One exception was when we accidentally almost trespassed on private property so the owners showed us a different way around it. After going through some more moors and marshes and witnessing a double rainbow over the hills, it was me who forgot the instructions and spoke, resulting to the whole group going back. Very awkward moment to say the least. Then a little later we had to go back again, because Aleix broke character. Eventually, after a light rain we approached the channel and as soon as we arrived on the beach, we were allowed to speak again.
Silence brings different dynamics: we collected garbage on the way, we very inside ourselves, fixing the backpack and our inner world emotions.
We discussed a little bit more about how we felt during this silent part of the hike, and most people expressed positive thoughts about it, saying that it gave them the opportunity to process their experience of the project so far and focus on themselves and their thoughts. We had small break by the channel and then started on our way back.
The hike back to the hostel was quite challenging. When we started hiking, the rain got really heavy, our clothes soaked with water and the path was muddy and slippery. Add darkness to the mix, with a pinch of exhaustion and there you have it: two and a half hours of struggle through the wet Welsh fields. For this part of the hike we paired with our accountability buddies and although tired we had the opportunity to discuss a lot of interesting and deep matters. The last 20 minutes were probably the most difficult, since we were all completely exhausted by that time, with our entire bodies hurting, craving some warm food and good sleep, 8 hours and 15 minutes later, having walked approximately 22 km in total.
Needless to say, we could not even dream of having social activity other than having dinner and getting to bed. And that is exactly what we did.
Day 5, Saturday, March 17th
Yesterday was too hard core to go with Pilates, thus we turned to an easier method – morning yoga.
After breakfast, we were guessing, which top 10 countries are least corrupt in the world.
We reflected on the hike by staring into each other eyes, discussing challenging and exciting parts of the hike, explaining for the whole group with Dixit cards the moments of importance.
Later we had a workshop with Montse about mental health and dived into the empathy definition. Can you indeed judge and be empathetic at the same time? Can you develop your empathy? What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Sympathy is when you care about other feelings and empathy is when you feel what other feel. Empathetic listening is part of the non-violent communication.
Nina then started a debate of Culture and Refugees. Migrant vs Refugees. Culture. Walls. Social Media – what impact does it have? Historical mistakes and how reality changes over night.
As a last session, we discussed, what the healthy diet is. Nutrients. We had to find a meal plan. We listened to Gintare’s hospital story.
We had evening yoga and meditation.
We concluded the day with outstanding movie Alone Through Iran (https://www.alonethroughiran.com), which presented a real story of Kristina, who during two months challenged herself and her own fears for the unknown and her own prejudices about what a muslim country means for a lone woman running 1144 miles in Iran, becoming the first woman ever to run across Iran.
Day 6, Sunday, March 18th
One day is Autumn, another Winter. Find the differences.
This day started with Greeks being in the kitchen and welcoming everyone with a wonderful breakfast.
After returning again to Pilates in the morning, we discussed about Erasmus+. Still with winter in our heads.
Next came, Open Space, when all participants could show initiative and offer workshops to other participants and trainers. Wonderful chance to try facilitation and receive a feedback. Participants came up with three ideas: visiting local villages to know more about the history of the place, contemporary dance workshops and Acro Yoga.
Then we turned to Preparation for the Night Hike Session.
Finally A Night Hike – Simulation of Refugees fleeting across Turkey and European border happened. It was one of the magic and most magnificent simulations – we stayed till 1am and most people really felt what is it like to cross the border, be blind, be without money, with lots of money, being mute, being pregnant, run, stand near the lake, feel the wind and snow, be interrogated, questioned, abandoned and reunited.
Day 7, Monday, March 19th
This day started much later due to lengthy night activities yesterday. We started not with a breakfast, but brunch, something between breakfast and lunch. Andreas made sure to please us with a lovely range of menu.
We had a reflection of the night hike. What was the idea behind? In what Shoes did you Step In? We have drawn a timeline, where we visually depicted our mood swifts.
Winter ends one day, Spring starts another day.
Due to a high need of another hike, we all jointly decide that we want to reach the top of the region – Cader Idris mountain. It was a lovely moment with beautiful weather to experience this outstanding viewpoint. Something magical.
Falling from happiness and exhaustion at the same time.
Finally, the magic Cader Idris, the top of the mountain.
Day 8, Tuesday, March 20th
We started the day with morning Pilates.
We went for a breakfast.
A Circle of Creativity gave us opportunity to plan our actions for the future.
We evaluated our actions according to Youthpass competences, John Muir Challenge questions.
We listened about Erasmus+ and the process of evaluation.
Finally, we concluded with a final ceremony to wrap thing up an self congratulate on the finalising the programme.
Day 9, Wednesday, March 21th
The time runs so fast. It is strange that all is finished. So many new friendships, new experiences and new perspectives in the future.
What Abroadship’ers Say?
Georgios (Greece): “For me these 8 days was something extraordinary and I am really grateful that I was given the chance to participate in this project. I did sessions that had never done before (pilates, yoga, non formal education, non verbal communication) and I am feeling that something has changed inside me. I somehow see some things differently and I react to situations differently than before this program. The coordinators were doing as much as possible to make us feel comfortable, part of the group and give us the most from their sessions.”
Fanny (Hungary): “Abroadship.org helped me to live my dreams because I could spent it in Wales. The atmosphere, the people, the food from our amazing chef was a whole new experience and I am very happy to applied for it. I really recommend youth exchanges and trainings for the young people because you can learn a lot about yourself and the topics as well and these organisations like Abroadship.org can help you to reach your goals”
Meile (UK): “Watching the sunset from the top of Cadair Idris with bunch of new people was absolutely priceless and everyone should do it a least once in their lifetime. Thanks to @abroadship and #erasmusplus for the opportunity of a lifetime!”
Johanna (Norway) “Grown up healthy in a loving family, caucasian, in a safe wealthy country with liberty as a woman and every opportunity in the world, i have grown perhaps a little bit too comfortable. In this privileged bubble it’s easy to forget, how few are actually granted this reality. Learning in school, and seeing on the news can spark interest and somewhat give a picture of the big world, but I believe that meeting people, experiencing and learning is what really creates understanding, connection and empathy for people in need. I’d like to physically get an idea about what it is like to be a refugee. I strongly wish to learn more about other cultures. I am eager to get to know people from other parts of the world to share thoughts on the world, first hand experiences from people who have had it tough, and discuss the worldly issues of the past, today and the future. Being able to not only talk to, but work, and live with people from other cultures and experiences seems a very valuable experience”
Laurynas (Lithuania) “Youth Exchange Step In Their Shoes was more than 47 km I hiked. I believe the most important hike in our lives is the hike from our mind to our heart and with this project, I feel, that I got a few steps closer in completing this hike. Thank you for all the inspiring sessions, the chance to feel other cultures first-hand, to remove prejudices and for inspiring life-long friendships across the globe”
Pablo (Spain) “This kind of intercultural experience offers to me the possibility of meet different people and have a proper conversation or work through different dynamics the things for what I’m interested. Also its a good opportunity for improving my language and social skills and discovering the Snowdonia national Park.”
Article assembled by Revekka Maria Manolopoulou and Justinas Brikys from Abroadship.org
More about the project you can find here: http://abroadship.org/youth-exchange-step-shoes-1-hiking-wales-wales/
Questions about the project at firstname.lastname@example.org
Further opportunities are available at Abroadship.org