Archive for Thursday, July 8, 2004

BU professor spends month traveling in Asia

Trip allows Kirk chance to experience new cultures

July 8, 2004

Mark Kirk wasn't in Tibet any seven years. But he felt fortunate for the opportunity to spend several days in the small country, in addition to other countries including Bhutan and Nepal, experiencing an entirely different culture than the one familiar to him in Baldwin.

"It was a cool experience," Kirk said of his month-long trip to Asia. "I'm going to go back again, I hope."

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Kirk, a Baker University associate professor of communication and theater arts, spent the month of May in southern Asia as part of his sabbatical visiting cultures few Americans ever have the chance to experience.

He said a colleague, knowing of the approaching sabbatical, suggested to Kirk to use the time traveling. Kirk took the suggestion and decided to travel to Asia in part because of his love of mountaineering.

"I have always been interested in mountaineering," he said. "I told myself I wanted to see (Mount) Everest before I die. So I thought, 'Why wait until I'm too old to enjoy it?'"

He said he also had a desire to travel to various religious sites found in the area.

Baker also played an important role in helping the associate professor decide on his destination.

"One thing at BU is we stress the international experience," he said. "We require students to take a class in a non-western course."

Kirk designed one of those non-western courses for Baker -- a non-western cinema class -- which only increased his interest in the subject.

He said countries like Nepal, Tibet and especially Bhutan are still in the infancy stage of movie making, which was something he wanted to experience first hand.

"I wanted to see these films in their native states," he said.

Kirk started his month-long expedition May 5, flying to Bangkok, Thailand, where he spent a few days before traveling to Bhutan.

Bhutan is a small, mountainous country sandwiched in between India and China.

"It's the most unusual of places," Kirk said. "The royal family doesn't want to ruin the country with tourism, so only 4,000 foreigners a year are allowed to enter the country. Fewer than 100,000 people have visited the country since they opened it, so I felt really privileged."

While in Bhutan, Kirk was able to meet some of the country's directors and learn more about the film industry.

"Hollywood films are kept out, but they are still wanting to make films," he said. "Bhutan's film making hasn't jumped ahead like other countries."

Though Bhutan tries to protect itself from tourists, Kirk said the native people were very friendly.

"It's such an alien culture," he said. "It's a very formal society, but also very informal. They are very conservative, but an incredibly polite society. The people are incredibly friendly."

After spending about a week and a half in Bhutan, Kirk flew to Nepal and right into a tense situation. Outbreaks of violence by rebel groups have been occurring in the country recently.

"As my plane landed in Katmandu, somebody bombed the government building not far from the airport," he said. "Some of the first sights I saw were armed troops. But after awhile you got used to it, all the armed troops and armored cars."

Though he had to change some of his plans because of the political unrest, he experienced relatively few problems.

Kirk spent several days trekking around Nepal and up and down its mountains.

During his time in the country, he also visited a local school for underprivileged deaf children.

"I didn't just want to be a tourist," he said. "I wanted to do something good."

Kirk had school supplies for the children, as well as a greeting card designed by Baldwin children that had been made during an Awesome Art class he taught earlier in the year.

From Nepal, Kirk traveled to Tibet and spent about a half a week in its capital, Lhasa, the former home of the Dali Llama.

While in Tibet, he said, he could not travel alone.

"We had to travel as a group, not as an individual," he said. "We couldn't do anything without a soldier or guard checking our papers."

Though Kirk said he tried to downplay the fact he was an American tourist, there were times traveling through the countries that he was aware he had much more than the native people ever thought of owning.

"I just felt so rich and so shallow in some cases with all of my privileges," he said.

His trip, he said, proved to be an incredible experience, and he hopes to return in the future. Not only does he hope to arrange a Baker interterm trekking expedition to Nepal, he also plans to continue analyzing film in Bhutan.

"I want to study it as it evolves over the next decade or two," he said. "I would like to return to Bhutan in the next decade."

Kirk said in the near future, he plans to put together a travel documentary and forum at Baker to share his experiences in Asia.

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