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The Story of the Odyssey

Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to search far and wide . . . who after teaching at city high schools suffered great anguish . . . tell me about how he struggled to teach his students in a more interesting and interactive way . . . tell me about his dreams to encompass cultures and themes that go beyond the scope of the old fashioned Eurocentric textbooks....

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On the way to Ithaka, I read this poem about the island

By C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaka,
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is loft, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
- with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time
to stop at Phoenician trading centers,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you the splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

As soon as dawn appeared, fresh and rosy fingered, Jeff packed his bag with a notebook and a pen, and set off to share a vision he'd had during the night while backpacking in the desert: a vision for improving the quality of education available to students. Many things inspired this vision. He realized how much he had learned from his travels abroad, and how much he had grown through volunteer work. He thought about how uninspiring the usual curriculum was to his students. He shared his idea with some colleagues, and the idea evolved into a plan... They would develop an educational world trek on the web that they would call The Odyssey, in honor of Odysseus's epic journey.

Little did they know back then just how appropriate this name would be. For Homer's Odyssey was more than just travel; it was a series of obstacles and challenges that Odysseus and his crew had to overcome in order to reach their home, the great island of Ithaka. A journey that should have taken but a few weeks lasted years.

When I first joined the Odyssey in the fall of 1996, we were planning to start the world trek in the spring of '97. I should have known, getting involved with a project called the Odyssey, that the enormous undertaking wouldn't run quite that smoothly. The spring of '97 was pushed back to the fall...then perhaps we thought we would be ready in April of '98. April fast approached, and we still weren't ready...and on and on... As soon as we overcame one challenge another would fall in its place. Time kept passing, and the world trek kept getting pushed into the distant future.

Just as Odysseus had struggled with the giant one-eyed Cyclops, we also were tackling a beast that none of us had experienced before: starting a non-profit project.

The Route of Odysseus
Odysseus used his craft and intelligence to outwit the cannibal Cyclops, Polyphemus, who had trapped him and his crew. He gave the Cyclops copious amounts of wine, and when the beast got drunk and fell asleep, Odysseus blinded his single eye. When Polyphemus realized what had happened he cried to the other Cyclopses for help. But when they asked who was hurting him, Polyphemus told them "Nobody" because clever Odysseus had told the Cyclops his name was "Nobody!"

Starting a non-profit didn't involve outwitting a beast, but it did involve craft and intelligence. We needed to write proposals to get non-profit status and to start getting funding from foundations or individual donors. But writing proposals is a very long, difficult process, so we first had to learn to write proposals. We also needed to develop a web page and get the word out about the project. We needed to interview team members and develop curriculum. We had to contact service groups abroad and do research. Everyone we shared the idea with was excited and supportive, but they were also hesitant and doubtful because nothing like this had ever been done before. As excited as they were, no one seemed willing to take the risk to make the Odyssey a reality.

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A statue of mighty Poseidon
The Cyclops' powerful father, Poseidon, was furious that Odysseus had tricked his son, and vowed to make Odysseus' journey even harder. Offending the god of the seas while attempting to sail home doesn't make your life easy! Odysseus was doomed to spend a number of years on the difficult seas before he would reach Ithaka. I often wondered what god we had offended to make our seas so difficult...The god of conformity? The god of crushing one's dreams? Who willed it that we would have obstacle upon obstacle placed in our path?

Just as Odysseus and his comrades had to pass between the narrow passage between the cliff of Scylla and the violent whirlpool Charybdis, our Odyssey also found itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Thinking they were close to approaching their homeland, Odysseus and his crew sailed past the rocky cliff, Scylla. The rock monster snatched some of Odysseus's comrades and gobbled them up. When the ship broke up, Odysseus clung to the mast and drifted to Charybdis. Charybdis sucked down the mast, and our hero saved himself by clinging to a fig tree that grew over the whirlpool. There he waited until he saw the mast drifting again, and he cast himself on it and was carried away.

After months and months of hard work and learning, our Odyssey too seemed close to approaching its goals. We had hundreds of talented people applying to be team members and volunteering to help in many ways. Teachers were excited about the project, and we were learning about inspiring service organizations all over the world. But time was passing, and many team members and volunteers who were once excited about the trek were forced to move on to other projects. The word was out about the Odyssey, and if it didn't actually start soon, people would lose their confidence in the project. We needed to secure funding and solidify details for the trek to actually begin. But since we were all merely volunteers and still working other jobs, nobody had enough time to commit to getting everything done. That's when our own Odysseus took it upon himself to make the big sacrifice.

Jeff, a friend of ours who started The Odyssey and helps support our work from his home in California, realized the Odyssey would never take off unless he committed to it full-time, which meant leaving his job as a high school teacher. He loved his students and they loved him, but he believed so strongly in The Odyssey and how it could help many more students than he could ever teach on his own. He quit his job. Instead of returning to his classroom and sharing ideas with his favorite students, he went into an office alone to work on proposals and fundraising -- the thought of sharing ideas with students around the world kept him going.

Thanks to his hard work and commitment, our ship set sail again and carried us away. In January of this year, we finally took off and started the World Trek! We left San Francisco and headed through Mexico to Guatemala. From the land of the great Mayan Empire we traveled towards the land of the ancient Incan Empire in Peru. From South America we journeyed to the home of the Zulu, Southern Africa, and then to Western Africa, site of the legendary Songhai Empire. From West Africa we headed north through Morocco to Europe. Now, over 3,200 years after Odysseus set out on his epic journey, and over four years after Jeff embarked upon his epic idea, Jasmine and I arrived on the shores of Ithaka -- the beautiful Greek island that was Odysseus' homeland and destination throughout his own ten-year Odyssey.

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The Island of Ithaka loomed in the distance
The beginning of the world trek did not mark either the beginning or the end of this Odyssey, nor does our arrival in Ithaka. From here we will go to Egypt. There we will learn about ancient Egyptian civilizations and modern Egyptian issues concerning women and society.

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Me on a cliff side beneath the dark, stormy sky of Ithaka - Zeus wasn't happy
Our Odyssey started as a vision and grew into a reality thanks to everyone who has helped along the way. During his long journey, Odysseus lost many crew members whom he valued dearly and from whom he had learned much. Our Odyssey has also seen many volunteers and Team Members come and go over the past few years. As each volunteer grew and learned from his or her experience with Odyssey, the Odyssey grew and evolved too, gaining something new from each volunteer. Today we are sharing ideas from thousands of miles away with students and grassroots organizations and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.

When one person has a dream, it is just a dream. When many join together to see it through, that dream can become a reality. It's the action behind the dream that makes it come true.

So keep wishing upon the stars, and try not to offend any gods along the way, but by all means never stop dreaming. Who knows where your dreams could lead you!

Who was this legendary Odysseus anyway?

Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) was the king of Ithaka. He lived happily on his beautiful island in the Ionian Sea with his beautiful wife, Penelope. A man named Paris humiliated the king of Sparta by taking his wife Helen away to Troy (in present day Turkey). Odysseus was forced to join all the other great Achaean rulers (where Greece is today) to go to war against the Trojans (the people of present day Turkey).

The story of the Trojan War, which probably took place around 1250 BC, is told in Homer's epic poem The Illiad. Many Greek heroes are associated with strength and good looks; Odysseus, on the other hand, is best remembered for his intelligence and craft. After ten years of bloody war, it was Odysseus who finally devised the strategy of the Trojan Horse. The Achaeans built an enormous wooden horse and offered it to the Trojans as a peace offering. When the Trojans welcomed the beautiful horse into their walled city, Achaeans who were hiding inside the wooden horse surprised the Trojans and sacked the holy city.

After the sack of Troy, Odysseus was confronted with a difficult return home. His ten-year journey home is the subject of Homer's second great classic poem, The Odyssey. After facing great beasts, angering gods, traveling to the underworld, losing crew to foolishness and greed, and being held hostage in a cave for seven years, Odysseus was able to make it back to his home thanks to his cunning and resourcefulness. He was the only one in his crew that made it back to Ithaka.

During his long 20-year absence, the stoic Penelope patiently waited for the return of her beloved husband. She had many suitors who, convinced that Odysseus was dead, looted his property and devoured his riches. Penelope was quite the cunning one herself; she told her suitors that she would choose one of the suitors once she finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. But after weaving all day, she would secretly unravel the shroud every night to keep her suitors at bay.

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Jasmine hiking to the Fountain of Arethusa
When Odysseus finally returned to Ithaka he disguised himself as a beggar and sought the counsel of his old friend and swineherd (pig herder) Eumaeus. Odysseus received directions to the Fountain of Arethusa from the goddess Athena, but Jasmine and I were not so fortunate. We had to endure rough and poorly marked trails on the steep, rocky cliffside to find this beautiful fountain set amidst a rugged valley where Eumaeus used to bring Odysseus's pigs to drink. From Eumaeus Odysseus learned of the state of affairs in his home. On his return home, the great Odysseus killed the many suitors of Penelope with his one single bow, and for that massacre he was condemned to exile by the King Neoptolemus of Epirus.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica - Barcelona, City of Innovation: A Reflection on Our Times
Abeja - It's All Greek to Me!
Jasmine - Just Ask Jazz": How To Find The God or Goddess In You!
Monica - Displaying the Work of Antoni Gaudi
Making a Difference - We Still Need to Save the Whales

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