Lost and Found on an International Vision Quest

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Ten days. Seventy-five participants. One mission: to travel from Vienna, Austria, to Istanbul, Turkey, via any route, using any form of transportation except air travel, while racking up race points along the way. This is the basic formula for Culture Quest, a groundbreaking Lauder Institute course that combines experiential learning with a fast-paced, multi-country romp. This year’s iteration, themed after the Orient Express, took place in May. Culture Quest participants were eager to embrace the challenge—or better yet, challenges.

While plotting the route of her team, “Off the Grid,” second-year student Katie Littlefield recalls looking at the map and thinking, “It’s not a matter of if things are going to go wrong, but when and where.”

Language barriers were an obvious impediment to all the teams. Bulgaria posed a particular challenge. Fellow second-year Lauder student and Off the Gridder Wallrick Williams recalls a famous subway map in the capital Sofia designed for tourists, but written entirely in Cyrillic.

“No one would be able to read that,” he says. “Pretty much all of the languages that we knew didn’t help us.”

Nicholas Majka, WG’13, G’13, tried to talk to people, but many didn’t speak English, or any other dialect he knew.

“Maybe the Croatian I learned yesterday isn’t useful in Slovenia today. There was a lot of charades and pointing,” he recalls.

Transportation also posed a challenge. Team “Variety Pack” rode an overnight train from Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, to Sofia, only to learn that in the middle of the night, the train was scheduled to split in two, with each half traveling to a different city, as second-year Lauder student Meghana Mudiyam tells it.

“We asked a million people to make sure we were in the right half,” she says (which they managed to do).

Transportation safety was sometimes a cause for concern too. On second-year Karan Raturi’s first overnight train, he was given a steel chain by the conductor to tie shut the sliding door. “They told us we needed to watch out for Hungarian bandits that might show up while you’re asleep,” Raturi says. Instead of worrying though, his team enjoyed the thrill, playing pranks on each other throughout the night.

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By Paul Richards, C’10, Originally Published October 24th, 2013 in Wharton Magazine.