This week's fig is a big one: Take my kids camping.
This is big for me for several reasons. First, my husband is gone, so taking my kids camping will be a single-mom thing to do, and single-mom stuff has always scared me. I don't know why it is, but the thought of wrangling both my kids in the middle of the wilderness sounds exhausting and wrought with potential pitfalls, such as my child falling in a lake and floating off because I was concentrating on trying to somehow secure shelter.
I have been camping twice in my life. Well, there was Outdoor School in elementary school, but we stayed in cabins and it wasn't by choice, so I'm not going to count it. Incidentally, I only remember being really cold (it was in Oregon) and hating that experience, which may be why I've never had a love-affair with the whole camping idea to begin with.
So, my first real camping experience was in China. I took a horse-trekking excursion through northern Sichuan, from a charming little town up in the mountains called Songpan. When I say it was charming I'm not being facetious. It was one of those cities displayed in glossy photos in travel magazines. It was at one-time a walled-city, and the crumbling remnants of that wall still remain today. When you arrive in Songpan, you invariably arrive in the early evening, after a 10 hour bus ride from Chengdu, when the sky is hovering just between blue and gray and the air is crisp. I was there in October, when I had a break from school to celebrate Chinese National Day (think July 4th for us Americans). The Chinese take an entire week off for this event, and it was sort of the perfect time to travel: not too hot - not too cold.
Songpan is a little bit like stepping back in time. I say a little bit because the Communists have gotten their hands on the place, so there are the ubiquitous white-tiled buildings and other dodgy, gray, Communist structures. Usually, foreigners are forced to stay in hotels pre-approved by the Party itself (I'm sure there are some kick-backs involved in this process), but because my travel buddy and I spoke Chinese and a twinge of local dialect, we were allowed to stay at a cheaper guest house rather than the concrete, white-tiled slab the other tourists were directed toward. We stayed one night in the guest house before departing early the next morning on our trek. I recall only one thing about this guest house, and that was the bathroom. It was a squat toilet, of course, but it was porcelain and was flushable, so it wasn't altogether bad. Well, it wasn't bad until the next morning. Apparently, the water is turned off during the night, so all the offerings build up over night and greet you when you first go in for a morning wash. It was really awful.
The trek lasted a few days and nights, and our group consisted of myself, another PCV (Erin) and a few Japanese tourists. We were a motley crew, to be sure. Erin and I were all geared up in North Face fleeces, zip-off pants and hiking boots. The Japanese were decked out in brightly colored designer jeans, shoes and shirts, and it felt good to finally be an American tourist somewhere and not be the utterly ridiculous ones.
We rode our horses several hours each day. It was a slow pace. The horses were in no hurry, likely because they were old, worn and had little incentive to trudge along carrying loads of gear and a 130 pound foreigner. Still, we rode along, often at the very edge of steep drop-offs, and I feared more than once that my horse would simply dump me off the side of the mountain. He never did. At one point, while I was kneeling on the edge of an incline to take a photo, my horse did nudge me with his nose, and I sort of toppled down the incline and landed a few feet below, having grabbed hold of a small, frail tree trunk. Erin thought that was very funny.
Each afternoon we arrived at a pre-designated camp site and our guides made camp. When I say pre-designated I only mean that they meant to stop there. I don't mean there were any amenities. None, actually. There were no toilets. No running water. No trash cans. There was only a patch of clearing for our tents and supplies. And when I say tents, what I mean to say are long white pieces of cloth held up with sticks. There were no zippers. There was nothing on the ground other than the bare dirt and a few dirty blankets that had spent the day underneath our saddles. Oh, and our saddles? Those were our pillows. Right, so you got inside your tent, and there was a hairy, dirty blanket on the ground, and at the head of that was your horse saddle. Homey.
It was so cold that Erin and I couldn't sleep and huddled together for warmth - and this was with our polar North Face fleece jackets and special Smart Wool socks.
When we had to go potty in the middle of the night, we had to call out to our guide, who would come shuffling over from his neck of the woods. Incidentally, we had a very charming and good looking guide who was Muslim and one of China's many minority. I had a mild crush on him that was based, I'm sure, on some primal part of me that found a man in Communist-Army issued green tennis shoes and high-water pants attractive. He was so sweet about those midnight potty breaks. Well, we'd call him over, and he'd come and take us off into the woods. Erin had one of those REI headlamp things, and he got a big kick out of that. He thought it was the best thing ever..........and when we left Songpan, Erin gave it to him. I mean, he must have been the shit among the trekking guides after that.
So, the trip was a success because I did it and enjoyed it and didn't complain about lack of sanitation. At the end of the trip, our guide took us home with him that last night, and we ate a meal with his family. They lived in a fabulous home made of wood (again, everything in China is white tile, so wood was very bohemian), and they lived off this dirt road just as you made your way into town.
There were clumps of corn hanging to dry upside-down off the rafters of the second story, and the sky was so big behind that house, dark as it was in the night and filled with stars. We rarely saw stars in China, what with the pollution, so it really struck me there, just after nightfall, as our guide led us through the streets to his home. I should also mention that during our camping trip I'd gotten my only pair of pants thoroughly soaked at a hot springs, and though I left them dangling from the side of my horse for the remainder of the trip, they never dried. So, as I made my way to this Muslim family's home, I wore my fleece, my huge hiking boots and a pair of skin-tight silk underwear that I'd unfortunately bought one size too small.
As I said, he was Muslim, and his mother wore the headscarf, and they didn't eat meat. We ate dofu noodles, which were heavily spiced with Sichuan red peppers, and it was wonderful. We sat in their home, on a sofa, a TV blaring in the background, children running in and out, peeking at us from behind their mother's legs. We talked as much as we could, our Chinese being fairly limited at the time. There is a lot that can be said with a few words, a big bowl of steaming noodles and some smiles. I'm not sure how it happened, but I ended up wearing the Muslim hijab, and I have a grainy black-and-white photograph of me with it on, a weary smile on my face. I remember that picture being taken and not wanting to smile too big for fear I'd offend this woman and she'd think I was mocking her religion.
Anyway, that was my first camping experience. I went to Songpan again, with my Chinese boyfriend, and it was much less exciting because the Chinese don't get such a big kick out of nature and camping and trudging around a quaint little city with a crumbling old wall and some charming wooden houses.
I camped once in the States, just after I'd gotten home from China, with my mother's new husband. We went white-water rafting down an Oregon river, with a huge group of other rafters, and the difference between Oregon camping and Songpan camping is like the difference between a backpackers hostel in South East Asia and the Paris Ritz. My mom's husband was all about the fancy camping, with swank tents, a 2 burner stove, plenty of wine and excellent food. In fact, everyone on this trip camped this way, so the evenings were spent drinking wine around a camp fire, eating grilled shrimp and chatting with cute boys whose parents had dragged them along as well. I loved it, but I'm well aware that I loved it because I didn't have to lift a tiny finger other than to hoist myself on and off the raft each day and, of course, my wine glass at night. And yes, we used wine glasses.
So, I've camped. It's just that the thought of doing it with my kids has somehow always overwhelmed me so much that I've talked about it and thought about it and yet never done it. It always just seems like so much work.
This week, however, friends invited us to camp with them near our home. It's only a 45 minute drive for us, so it's not a long haul. When my friend suggested it, my first instinct was an internal groan. I was suddenly very tired. But then I said to myself: hey, this is life. this is having kids. get on with it.
We are meeting them at a campground and they have a pop-up trailer, and they have an 18-month old daughter. So, we'll be all crazy parents and kids together, and I'm thinking it may wear me out but it may well be fabulous and at least my kids will know the joys of dirt and food cooked over a fire instead of gelato at the mall.
Wish us luck...........