I am writing about one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I will never forget what we did today. Upon being accepted into the program, I circled this date on the itinerary expecting it to be memorable, but this far exceeded my expectations. Having a hearty meal at the hotel restaurant, we headed out to the DMZ. This is something that I love teaching about every year, that the content alone is so rich that it holds the attention of the students with no gimmicks or frills needed. It's a fascinating case study of human culture and government. Not knowing exactly what we'd be seeing as the DMZ is technically a gigantic miles wide area along the entire Korean border, I came equipped with all my camera equipment I could carry. Having to inform our guides that I had a large lens I was hoping to bring, they had to get special permission to make sure it was appropriate. Once we left Seoul, we saw a countryside that had rice fields, forest, and a mountainous backdrop. Climbing in elevation towards the DMZ, we reached the first United Nations checkpoint. A guide came aboard our bus dressed in military fatigues, who was from the United States. Here he gave us an overview of the tensions between both sides, his role as a member of the United Nations military presence sworn to protect the border, and give us a guide to what we were seeing along the road. Beside a bridge we crossed were large pillars with black boxes on the side. We asked what the purpose of them was. He said they were explosives in case the border was breached by the North Koreans and they had to destroy the bridge. Barbed wire surrounded the area with guard towers almost every 100 yards. It definitely was a secure area. I would always tell my students that Bill Clinton, who had seen the world, said the DMZ was the scariest place on earth. Many people would agree knowing the high levels of tension in the area. In the DMZ, there were people actually living in the area. These people didn't have to pay taxes and lived a relatively peaceful life, albeit in one of the most contentious places in the world. Arriving at our first stopping point, the JSA (Joint Security Area) we headed through the conference area to hear a seminar on the United Nations and JSA responsibilities from a female United Nations officer dressed in fatigues. Following this we walked through the mini museum, which was up-to-date with a recent issue where a North Korean guard crossed the border to South Korea only 8 months ago. Hearing about the stories I never heard about before regarding issues at the border, like where there was an ax murder for cutting down a tree in the DMZ, I really understood how fierce this area could be. After the 30 minute visit, we walked out of the JSA building where tanks and light armored vehicles lined the road, but also next to a Buddhist temple. We continued on the bus, further through the DMZ to another building that looked like any other office building. Told to depart and head into the building in a double-file line, I was thinking that this was protocol as to avoid bumping into people. Entering through the large class doors, there was a set of stairs leading where we gathered as we waited in line. As we walked slowly up the stairs to the second floor, you could see it led out to a large set of windows and doors. Seemly we started in the walkout basement of sorts of the building as the floor we were walking to appeared to be the main floor. As we creeped up the stairs, my eyes light with bewilderment as I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing. There before me were the legendary blue buildings that I had read about frequently, seen in videos, and shared with students. This was the same location where only two months prior the South and North Korean leaders had met for the first time in 65 years. I had analyzed this location with my students in Google Earth and through virtual reality previously. Blinded by unrelenting excitement, I knew I couldn't hold back on trying to secure a good spot to take pictures and soak in what I was experiencing. Any time I have left the country, I always weigh the benefits and instantly I knew that this had paid off as this would be a truly memorable experience. Snapping pictures like my life depended on it, I was grateful I brought my zoom with me because I was able to get a clear view of the notorious North Korean guards overlooking.
About to take off to South Korea. What a crazy world I’m living in where I have been afforded opportunities to travel internationally and study abroad. My grandma was over last week, asking me several times, could I have imagined when I was young that I’d be able to visit the places I have? I told her that until I was selected for TOP in 2015, I never dreamed of traveling internationally. This has been a whirlwind of non-stop adventure. In the past 365 days I’ve been to Indonesia, Petoskey, Washington DC, Bahrain, New York City, Washington DC again, Germany, Utah, and now South Korea. I think at how amazing it is to be able to document these experiences. Most indebted am I to my wife who has constantly supported me on these experiences. Without batting an eye, she’s constantly approved me leaving for an extended amount of time. With an 18 month old at home, it’s harder to leave, but I believe these experiences are worth it. Luckily through technology I am able to keep in touch with home. The plane just took off to South Korea, and I’m looking forward to what this week brings.
Excited to announce that I'll be attending South Korea this summer! Learning in South Korea is an amazing opportunity full of wonder for myself. I'm continually intrigued by this small but mighty country. I have so many questions and thoughts racing through my head as I begin to prepare for this experience. Looking at past trips from the Korean War Digital History South Korea trip, I'm hopeful we'll be able to share some of the same amazing experiences. They went to a Buddhist temple, visited Korean War monuments and spoke with veterans, and visited the DMZ. When telling my 6th graders, it spoke volumes to me when they said, "Make sure you tell us next year"! Their excitement stemming from the interesting South and North Korean relationship is something I can't wait to explore as well.
Check out the full length video, documenting the amazing experiences that I had in Indonesia.
Click here to read from student perspectives about the 2018 study abroad to Germany.
I found out this week that I'll be traveling with Rochester Community Schools to Germany in February! I am thrilled to be able to join the program where we will travel with several RCS students and staff. Joining me will be principal Mooney, Mr. Phelps, Mrs. Robinson, and Mrs. Herzig, all current or former Van Hoosen staff members in the district, as well as RCS parents and students. The itinerary looks amazing (and thankfully very different from my 2015 study abroad. Below is a map of all the places we will be visiting.
Here is a travel itinerary of all the places we will be visiting in Germany in February. Looks like some amazing places!
Here is a blog from my roommate and TEACH Bahrain fellow Joshua Brown from California. Read about his insights into our experience in Bahrain. Click here.
Pictures from Bahrain.
Culture! This was today’s agenda, so we were starting Bahrain off with a bang. After settling in last night into the hotel, I was fortunate to fight off sleeping on the plane as I was able to sleep perfectly last night. After having a hearty egg and sausage breakfast at the hotel, we headed out by shuttle through Bahrain to our first destination. Traveling through the capital city Manama, it was reminiscent of Jakarta, Indonesia sans the traffic. The buildings were towering, modern skyscrapers, with contemporary designs. Our tour guide joined us and explained the history and culture of Bahrain. I was blown away that a large stretch of where we were traveling through was part of the sea until Bahrain reclaimed the land, i.e. placed land where there was once sea. It’s amazing to the vast extent they were able to add to their island. It’s true with the lack of space on the small island that eventually the only place you can go is outward. There are so many questions about this practice; is it legal internationally? How do they do it? Are they worried about rising sea levels? Why didn’t they develop the barren land to the south. Making it to the main cultural center we were visiting, Shaikh Ebrahim Center, the roads narrowed and the traffic was much more congested. Disembarking at several historical sites which were home to the royal family, we learned about the rich history. The Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Bahrainians all stemmed from the same royal family. Seeing many people in the narrow streets in traditional clothing; women wearing burqas and hijabs, and men with their long cloth hats, I never once felt like how I was dressed drew any extra attention. After going to one building, we visited a historical printing press room and a children’s library. The children’s library was impressive as it was tiny, but served the purpose of helping local kids with literacy. The tiny nooks where these buildings were, exemplified how to make the most out of the limited space. Through forward thinking development, we saw how some architecture projects are trying to introduce green plant life to the sides of buildings, since there is no space to build greenery on the flat land. When we finished touring the local area, we went to a coffee shop, which was extremely modern with their Swedish inspired seating. Patterned rock candy decorated the ceiling as it hung above our heads. It almost was a coffee museum as there were placards throughout regarding the rich history of coffee in Bahrain. The coffee was served with dates, a traditional fruit of the area. The coffee had a taste very unique, with coriander (I believe). After leaving, they sprinkled our hands with rose water. The group we are traveling with has been gelling wonderfully throughout the time together. The ten of us, 8 teachers and our two leads from the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce were constantly sharing different thoughts regarding global education. Making our way to the Qal’at Al-Bahrain fort, I was now heading towards my favorite place on the agenda. A UNESCO Historical Site, the building was composed of weathered sandstone bricks. The area was under the sea for hundred of years and was only recently recovered. Looking out at the sea as we walked up the ramp leading towards the fort, it was so surreal to be with fellow TOP 2015 alumni Lou again. Taking pictures throughout, we learned about the history of the temple. We took several detours into the small caves pits, eventually coming to one which was lit with gold lights on the floor, illuminating the room. Heading back with the group, we went out to a traditional Bahrainian restaurant. They served food from throughout the world and I wondered what traditional Bahrainian food is like. It apparently is more akin to Indian food. I had a rice meal called chicken biranyi. Finishing our meal, we finished the day off at the largest museum in Bahrain, the National Bahrainian museum. It was apparent that most of these places were seldom traveled when we went, even though it was a weekend. The museum was mostly empty, but was impressive due to its massive size. Reading the history of Bahrain, it was clear how much they celebrated their rich culture. Their history as a country of exporting pearls for so long is one of the major takeaways. Heading back to the hotel, I was pleasantly pleased with the first day’s activities.
About Matthew Cottone
Experience the World! This is my creed I bring to my classroom and my life. I'm a World Studies teacher at Van Hoosen Middle School and I have a passion for learning and experiencing the world.