Monday, February 6, 2012

The Week the Children Went

Once a year the kids' Middle School offers an amazing adventure to its students, aptly named "Week Without Walls".  Some of us affectionately call it, for reasons that will become apparent, "Week Without Kids".  Each class, from Grades 6 through 8, experiences some pretty outstanding field trips, and the kids are encouraged to reach beyond their limitations, and take risks.  Our family is lucky to have two Middle Schoolers this year, in Grades 6 and 8.  Sixth Grade stays in-country, while Seventh and Eighth Grades travel by air to their destinations, with classes being split in half to travel to two separate destinations.  Because parent volunteers were not required as travel chaperones, the following account is based on hearsay, third-hand information, and conjecture.  It may also include a small extrapolation of the "It was great" description I received.

A large sign in the Grade 6 Commons is displayed with the title "What Are You Willing to Risk?".  Entries include, but are not limited to:  "I will sleep in a tent even though I'm not comfortable with that" and "I will have fun in a group without my close friends."  One Sixth Grader writes:  "I will risk writing something on a public board in a school hallway."  Clearly, he gets his sense of humour from his father.

Grade 8 boards a plane at 1:50 am, headed for Kuala Lumpur. After a five-hour lay-over, the group makes its connection to Kota Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo.  Upon disembarking, the 70 students giddily exclaim that the 40 minutes of sleep they got en route was more than adequate.  Seventy-two-hundred kilometers away, parents in Doha simultaneously hit the snooze button for the third time and feel a fleeting pang of pity for the seven Travel Leader teachers.  The poor saps.

Tents at Camp Bongkud
Eighth Graders arrive at Camp Bongkud, and tour the work sites.  The group is treated to a cultural performance put on by school children in the village.  Tents are assigned and blankets distributed.  A cursory inspection of the bathrooms results in about half the kids declaring, "I'm good, thanks—I went on the plane."  Evidently, there's something about a hole in the ground with two foot markers on either side that causes performance anxiety.

Sixth Graders begin their adventure.  Doha temperatures are unusually cold, and these desert kids have to endure 12C in the morning.  Action-packed day at the camel racetrack, the Emir's equestrian facility, and the falcon souq.  Mom happily reports no new pets in the backpack at the end of the day.

Eighth Graders begin their work in earnest.  Camps International in Bongkud helps the local village in development projects, such as a new women's centre, a community centre, and a water tower.  The group mixes cement and moves a mountain of rocks.  Reportedly, the cold, light trickle of the shower at the end of the day is totally worth every minute of the hour's wait.

Sixth Grade takes a bus trip to Al Khor Island as part of their environmental service.  The island is home to a large mangrove forest.  After a beach clean-up, the kids take part in an island walk/scavenger hunt, which involves voluntarily wading in the cold water.  Mud facials ensue.

The early morning climb
The Eighth Grade team makes a 5:30 am climb to the top of Golden Hill, for an amazing view of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.  After returning to camp for breakfast, the group finishes all of their projects, and then some.  In addition to completing all of the cement work, the students build a bamboo shelter for single mothers to grow vegetables, and level ground for a children's centre.  They cap the day off with an evening of skits performed by both teachers and kids, the details of which I'm not privy to.  I guess what happens on Borneo stays on Borneo.

The Sixth Grade group spends their day at a local school, painting walls, creating audio recordings of children's books, and making bookmarks.  Lunch follows at Chili's Restaurant.  By one account, records are set tying ribbons to bookmarks.

Eighth graders visit the Ranau War Memorial, in honour of the 2,700 Australian and British soldiers who were marched to their deaths by their captors in World War II.  Shopping at the local market follows, and then an attempt is made to visit the nearby hot springs. The springs are too crowded due to Chinese New Year, so the group returns to camp, swims in the river, and plays badminton and cards.  In the evening, they host the local community to perform a dance and sing a Malaysian song.  The performance goes well, and so the group is ultimately spared being voted off the island.

View of Doha from Banana Island
Today will go down in history as "WWW Sixth Grade Extravaganza".  The day begins with a dhow boat trip out to Banana Island, followed by a traditional Arabic lunch on deck, with swimming in the Gulf.  They return to shore, then school, where the fun continues:  colossal sleepover at school in tents on the baseball field, tie-dyeing, pizza dinner, ice-cream sundae bar, movie and popcorn, Karaoke, more swimming, ping-pong, campfire and s'mores.  Whew.  I'm tired just writing it.

The Borneo group begins their long trek back.  After a bus ride and one flight, several hours are spent at the airport in K.L. awaiting their delayed second flight of the day.  Students stampede at the first sighting in seven days of food that is neither chicken nor rice nor good for them.  Travel group leaders begin to silently long for the return of Walls.

After 25 hours in transit from the camp, the Grade 8 group is delivered back to their sleepy but smiling parents at 3:15 am at the Doha airport.  The choice between a bowl of homemade soup and a hot shower proves difficult, but is resolved by following the old adage, "When in doubt, follow your gut."

The threat of having to take part in the Polar Bear Swim in the school pool for anyone out of their tent before 7:00 am keeps most Sixth Graders sound asleep until 7:30.  Breakfast is served by parent volunteers, and the kids are picked up at 10:00 am in order to return home for the "sleep" portion of the sleepover.

Both kids slept away the well-deserved day off school before heading into the weekend.  They returned to school on Sunday with a few yawns, a new outlook on their world, and a few new friends.  And hopefully, an appreciation for the dynamic and adventurous school that they are lucky to attend.