Unexpected Learnings

Sarah Casson ’11
Lanterns floating in the night sky in Chaing Mai
Photo courtesy of Sarah Casson ’11

Sarah Casson ’11 has spent her year after graduation on a study-abroad experience of her own design. She’s researching the effects of climate change on food production, but is learning that and so much more.

To date she has traveled to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia interning with nongovernment organizations and universities. Currently, she is on an archaeological dig in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Below are a few anecdotes from Casson's blog. Find more about her travels in “The Do-It-Herself Watson,” on page 42 of the special, international-themed Spring 2012 issue of The Grinnell Magazine.


I must come across as a bit odd. With my trendy turquoise Vibram five-finger [shoes] on, I am mumbling to myself the Hindi equivalent of “big cake, BIG cake, good spoon, GOOD spoon … ” More often than not, I am not the only tourist (foreign or Indian) walking around at 6 a.m. Like I said, sometimes I get looks not just because I’m white female with blond-ish hair. Sometimes it’s the mumbling to myself a constant stream of nouns and adjectives while sporting stylish footwear.


In both villages, I tried to explain what I wanted and why, but perhaps language or cultural barriers prevented me from properly getting my point understood. I may not have learned much about many people’s perspectives on agriculture, water, and livestock in relation to a variable monsoon. I have, however, learned a lot about data collection, different cultural perspectives on what is important, and that I really, truly hate being force-fed multiple servings of various dairy products.


The walk to Bina’s village, according to Mezan, was “pretty flat.” After just 10 minutes into our walk, I was questioning his definition of flat. Iowa flat (or even New York flat) is not the same concept as Himalayan foothills flat. Going to Bina’s village we probably went down 1,000 feet in elevation.


The first night I arrived [in Chiang Mai], a bunch of us went to a lantern festival. It began with about an hour and half of monks chanting as the sun set. The chanting went along with a melody of stringed instruments, giving a surreal, beautiful feel to the field where 200 people sat quietly and listened. As the chanting ended, people working the festival walked around lighting the top of the poles. Then, at the exact moment [as] everyone else, we held our white cylinder lantern (same size as everyone else) above the flame. We let the flame catch the wick on the bottom of the lantern, which filled up with hot air. Then, when we couldn’t hold it down anymore against the power of the hot air pushing up, we let go. Slowly, it floated up, joining the others to become a small yellow dot in a cloudy sky filled with slowly moving yellow starlike objects. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.


This was originally published as an article in The Grinnell Magazine, Spring 2012.

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