The first step was linking arms. In that position, in a circle with elbows hooked into each other, it was impossible not to face the people you were standing with. At the Practicum for Experiential Peacebuilding, this exercise in reflection happened once the miles of the day were behind us, and we were sitting down to eat either in a shelter we had built together or in the warmth of a generous homestay. The gesture was simple, really; standing in a circle and stating our appreciations one by one, but the simplicity of the exercise did not reduce its power or effectiveness. We spoke: I appreciate the rain. I appreciate a warm meal. We listened: I appreciate your courage and leadership. I appreciate your vulnerability. Arms intertwined before dinner, we practiced being grateful, and practiced echoing each other in a way that amplified each experience. With each statement made on the mountain trails of Costa Rica, our community was built.
We were the newest group with Outward Bound Peacebuilding, participants committed to learning new technologies for bringing peace home. Well, that’s what we began as, individuals with the faith that a wilderness experience would give us the tools to build peace in our home countries. Twelve strangers from Iran, Ecuador, the United States, Costa Rica, Israel, and from more microcultures than we could say from our nationalities, became a unit with every step along the trail. You cannot always pinpoint the second when the barriers break down and a community is built; often, there are small cracks of light and friendship until suddenly, it splits open. Perhaps it was struggling up a hill, perhaps it was in a quiet conversation with another participant over breakfast. The offer of tea from a home country. Laughter over learning a local dance. Lifting each other’s packs, cleaning each other’s dishes. There was no singular moment that unified us, rather, it was the daily work that brought us together. Our small group became a model of how, in the face of challenge and seemingly impossible odds, we can build authentic relationships with single steps forward and daily gratitudes.
Not to say we weren’t confronting incredible experiences as a team. We rappelled down waterfalls, climbed mountains, hauled heavy equipment for days on end, and stood triumphant knowing we did something we could never accomplish on our own. We did incredible things, but the moments that stand with me are the most basic ones, such as saying thank you at the end of the day. And isn’t this how we build peace at home? In moments, not grand gestures? The Practicum gave us the stamina to make efforts at creating and sustaining peace, both in the face of grandeur and in the throes of mundane daily life. We found that peacebuilding, a seemingly untouchable ideal, is taking a single step in the right direction, against the wind, up the mountain, or through a morning commute. And at the end of each day, there is great power in reaching out to those beside you to appreciate that each gesture towards peace is sacred.
Emily Pistell is a 2014 PEP alumnus and a graduate of the Peace and Justice Studies program at Tufts University in the USA. She is currently working as a hiking guide in Nicaragua with Quetzaltrekkers and is dedicated to the intersections of the environment and peacebuilding.