WWU student’s next venture: Study Tibetan refugees

Heather Gargett already has visited 18 countries, five continents.

Written By Michelle Nolan, For the Bellingham Herald

TRAVELING WOMAN: Heather Gargett, 18, a Bellingham resident and WWU student, has traveled in Europe, Africa, Central America and Asia, and leaves today to study in a small village in northern India. She takes after her father and grandfather, both of whom traveled extensively.

Gargett is shown here in Roatan, Honduras last March. PHOTO COURTESY OF CELESTE GARGETT

It takes a remarkable 18-year-old to refer to “continents I need.”

That’s how Western Washington University student Heather Gargett of Bellingham talks about South America , Antarctica and Australia , the only continents she has yet to visit.

There’s no doubt in her mind that she’ll fulfill those travel “needs” eventually. But today,she leaves for a different adventure: the study of Tibetan refugees in the Himalayan village of Ladakh , in far northern India .

It’s her sixth international journey is as many years. In fact, she’d already visited 18 countries and five continents by the time she turned 18.

For her latest trip, she’s going to Ladakh with other college students through the Institute for Village Studies in Friday Harbor . She says Ladakh, which was closed to foreigners until the mid 1970s and is not far from the disputed territory of Kashmir , offers unparalleled opportunities for a student majoring in cultural anthropology and ethnography.

“We can’t go into Tibet itself, but this will give me a wonderful chance to study the effects of tourism and the Western world on the traditional culture and art of the Tibetan refugees,” she said.

Turbulent area

She’s well aware that she’ll be in a turbulent part of the world.

“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I probably should be, but I’m not.”

Perhaps it’s her genes. Her father, information manager John Gargett, has visited in 42 countries in a long and varied career that includes doing humanitarian relief for the United Nations.

“And my grandfather (George Gargett of Bellingham ) is one of the few people who has visited every county in the United States ,” said Heather, the daughter of St. Joseph Hospital nurse Monica Gargett.

A willowy dancer who moves with the natural grace of an athlete, Heather is an accomplished scuba diver and formerly was a kick-boxer. She was a straight-A student at Sehome High School and Whatcom Community College in the Running Start program before enrolling at Western spring quarter.

Finding a variety of ways to travel, she has waltzed through large parts of Europe , Africa , Central America and Asia since she was 13.

Inspired by Jamaica

“What really inspired me was my trip to Jamaica when I was 3 and dad worked for the U.N.,” she said. “I have vivid memories of oranges, warm water and geckos.”

She recalls several moves around the United States until she was about 10, when she entered Larrabee Elementary School . When she was 13, she stayed with family friends during a three-week trip to Japan .

“That was a turning point in my life,” she said. “I decided I didn’t want to be a ditzy girl.”

Instead, she got serious about traveling

At 14, she toured Mediterranean countries in the People to People program for student ambassadors. At 15, she went to Switzerland as a Rotary exchange student. At 16, she worked at a hospital in Kenya for about a month through the World Medical Mission.

She spent last Christmas in Belize and Guatemala . In March, she went on a scuba diving trip to Honduras after working three part-time jobs to pay for it.

“It feels better that way,” she said of earning money for travel. “You appreciate it more.”

Michelle Nolan is a freelance writer. For questions or story ideas, contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@ bellinghamherald.com or 715-2264 .

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