Up for It

By Chris Dunker ('08)

Justin Lana (’08) may have some of the best stories in the world. From his exchange with a man on a camel in the Sahara to his daily bicycle commute down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” in Bolivia, Lana has this knack for traveling from one incredible story to the next.

More than thrills, Lana’s journeys give him valuable perspective on his world and those he shares it with. “The more places I go, and the more people I talk to, the more curious and interested I become in seeking out that next fascinating city or visiting another place so different from any of the others I’ve visited in the past,” Lana said.

Lana’s first real experience abroad, to Ghana on Africa’s Ivory Coast, was a “blind jump”: the product of a work-study opportunity through NWU at the Lighthouse, an after school program for at risk youth.

“Most of the youth that used the tutoring, meals, and sense of community at the house were refugees,” Lana said.

His daily interaction with young refugees sparked a desire in Lana to see firsthand the circumstances that brought so many African youth to the U.S. In the spring of 2006, Lana took the leap and travelled to Ghana—the home country of several of the kids Lana met at the Lighthouse—through Nebraska Wesleyan’s study abroad program. The opportunity NWU provided him to travel to Ghana “meant everything and has completely changed the way I view the world,” Lana said.

“I had no clue what to expect when I left. It was a huge jump and an exhilarating, yet trying four months for me.” Those four months helped Lana develop a new view of the world—teaching him to let go of his assumptions and allow experience to define his new reality.

“As I spent more time in the country and interacted with more and more people, the differences I noticed so easily at first got pushed aside, and I began seeing things not so much for their differences as for their similarities,” Lana said. “When you can get to this point, you know you’re starting to truly understand a place.”

After that spring and summer, Lana looked for a way to get back to Ghana. He applied for and won a Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Grant, which he used to document the tangled history of tribalism and the transfer of land in Ghana by chieftains using oral histories and agreements.

“My two trips to Ghana really highlight the support that NWU gives students to go abroad,” he said. “Before I left, my professors helped me choose a class schedule in Ghana that would allow me to learn about the country and help me bring maximum credits back to NWU.”

Upon graduation, Lana was hungry for a different international experience. In the fall of 2008, Lana entered the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program to teach English to Japanese students.

Adjusting to life in Japan posed an entirely new set of challenges. Gone were the poverty and health issues that push the life expectancy of the average Ghanaian down to 60.1 years. (In Japan, by contrast, life expectancy is a full 22 years longer.)

That’s not to say that acclimating to Japan was any easier. “Unlike in English-speaking Ghana, Japan’s language brought on a different form of struggle,” Lana said. Without any training in Japanese, Lana—an animated talker—got by on his ability to gesticulate his meaning and read other people.

“English teaching in Asia is a great way to spend a year or more abroad, get started on those student loans, and travel even more throughout the region. It’s something I’d recommend to new graduates who want to get out of their comfort zone for a bit, see a different part of the world, and work on their teaching and leadership skills,” Lana said.

“I have so much respect for people who speak more than one language,” he said, adding that nearly everywhere he’s traveled he’s encountered people who speak English as a second language. “I’ve been in the middle of the Sahara Desert, 100 miles from the nearest phone line, hours from a hospital, and lo and behold, had some man ride up to me on camelback and want to say hello—in English.”

With a more developed view of wildly different places, Lana’s urge to experience more and more of the world took him to Bolivia, where he was hired as a mountain bike tour guide on the “World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

He found the job on the Internet and came into the position with no mountain biking experience. “Once again, it was a great way to learn a fun, new skill, experience South America, and, most importantly, work on my Spanish,” Lana explained.

Every day, Lana takes a dozen or so bikers- usually world travelers in their own right- down a 21-mile road in the lush jungle of the Yungus Valley, beginning at 4,700 feet of elevation and ending at 1,100 feet. Last year, three people died on the trek, falling over the steep cliffs that line the narrow road. And in early April, another woman died on “Death Road.”

“Most days go off without much more than a few flat tires and broken chains, but the road didn’t get its name because it’s easy,” he said. One of his members rode over the edge of the cliff, Lana said, breaking a leg and an arm, but escaping with his life.

While it may seem extreme or even unnecessary, taking the daily plunge down “Death Road” gives Lana the opportunity to hold true to his maxim: put your assumptions about people and places aside, and live by experience.

After the Bolivian mountain biking season is complete, Lana plans to return to the U.S. and work toward a master’s degree in public health at Tulane, Emory, North Carolina or Boston University.

Wherever he goes, the stories will certainly follow.