Tuesday, November 17, 2009

true confessions of an unhappy camper

This past Saturday morning, a few hours before I set off on a long-weekend camping trip with 75 Pre-University students and a few UAC-CP staff, I stood outside in my pajama pants whining to Hugh. "I just know that I'm going to regret singing up for this whole camping thing by the time I wake up tomorrow morning," I told him.

In fact, I was wrong. I didn't regret it the next morning; I regretted it much sooner--about twenty minutes after leaving Carmen Pampa I had become one unhappy camper. One of 75+ people packed, standing up under the midday sun in the back of a giant camion, I was contemplating ways I could politely excuse myself from the commitment I had made to my co-worker and camping trip coordinator, Carlos Fernandez. By the time we finally arrived to Coroico, I had a text message from an all-knowing Hugh: "Having fun yet?" Absolutely not, I thought.

Me climbing into the camion where we waited about 20 minutes before actually leaving.

Even though my name means "princess" in Hebrew, I generally like to think that I'm not a high maintenance person. Gringo friends who have visited me here in Bolivia would agree--my definition of "roughing it" is often a bit more liberal. But this past weekend, despite slightly more than three years of life in Bolivia, I received a zap of culture shock.

Part of the reason I was annoyed was that I felt the entire outing was very unorganized. "I don't know any of the details," I told Hugh, before he graciously took time out of his busy morning to drive me and my supplies to the upper campus. I've worked in non-profit programming and education long enough that I come to expect certain pre-activity requisites: schedules, objectives, goals, and...details! "Nobody has told me what the plan is!" I said. "And does this really surprise you?" Hugh asked. He had a point there. No. It didn't surprise me. ...but, still, it annoyed me!

Without tents/sufficient camping equipment for everyone, some students had to build their own tents of plastic and tree branches.

I had also been fooled by the word "camping." When I think of camping, I call to mind words like: quiet, relaxation, solitude, mother nature, hiking, reading, s'mores, etc. Bolivians, I quickly learned (particularly in groups of 80), have a different idea of camping. What I had assumed would be a weekend of reflection, reading, and nature hikes turned into a pseudo Survivor-esque reality show of student groups competing to build the most exquisite of campsites that would have done Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Skipper proud.

Within a couple hours of our arrival to the campsite, students (split into seven teams) transformed a flat, grassy knoll into a type of Gypsy-looking camp. "These are true campo kids," Fr. Freddy said proudly as we watched students, in ant-like fashion, scramble to build tables and camp stoves out of rock and lash branches together to make tents and clothes lines. It's true--our students from the rural area are amazingly innovative, creative, and adaptable.

Students in "my" group built a traditional underground oven to cook Sunday's lunch: chicken, yuca, potatoes, and plantains.

Of course the low-impact camper in me was concerned with other things, though. What about the bathroom situation? What are we doing with the organic and inorganic waste? Should we really be digging up all this earth? Why are you moving all these rocks around? Can't we make just one fire pit instead of seven? My inquiries were received with looks of confusion; I was left feeling like the queen of prissiness.

My bad attitude was called out by my good friend and UAC-CP graduate turned UAC-CP staff member Carlos Vergara. "Sarita, why are you looking like that?" he asked in his impeccable English, as I sat along the river (apparently scowling) as I watched students frolic in the swift current (I wasn't keen on entering--I had seen too many pieces of garbage float by). Carlos, who is my ever-so-trusty cultural beacon, had no sympathy for my displeasure. "Sarita, this is what we do for camping. You have another idea of relax, but that is not what my people do. This is what we love!"

Group of students eats breakfast--hot chocolate and a piece of bread--before starting the day.

Carlos had a point. The students loved it--that I could not argue. Despite the fact that I was the only one whose tent survived the rain and wind storm on Saturday night, all the students were loving the experience. Working together, they took turns hunting for firewood, cooking, and washing dishes. Free time was spent playing games, swimming, and preparing for Sunday evening's talent show. "I wish we could stay another night," Olga, a beautiful and timid young woman from Potosi, told me over breakfast. "Don't you want to stay?" she asked me. I didn't have the heart to tell her.

Truthfully, I wanted nothing more than to go home. The 50 percent of me that Myers Briggs has identified as introverted, needed to be set free from the big group. Which is why this morning (day three) as I started to watch the clouds roll in and feel the rain begin to fall, I decided to start packing up my things. And then, by some grand miracle, my phone rang. It was Sr. Jean and UAC-CP driver Javier Tintaya coming back with visitors from La Paz. They would be passing by Pacallo--would I like a ride back to Carmen Pampa they asked. Yes!

Within twenty minutes of that phone call, I was seated in the front seat of the SUV telling the backseat gringo contingent all about my weekend (making it clear that my dissatisfaction was an exception to the rule and acknowledging my straight up bad attitude). Sr. Jean, perhaps used to my more positive spin on things, laughed. "I can't wait to see how you blog about this one!" she said.

Alas! The true confessions of an unhappy camper...very happy to be back in Carmen Pampa.

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