- This is both endearing and terrifying
If you go down in the woods today
You’d better go in disguise.
Sometimes we have days where nothing goes right. Days where every new room yields a crop of freshly stubbed toes, every new hour a meeting missed and every new breath a tequila shot of misery. This was not one of those days. For on this day, I went with eleven Nepali eleven year olds for a picnic, making it the greatest day ever.
If you go down in the woods today
You’re in for a big surprise.
I’d mentioned the idea before to a, rather diminished, spring camp (as the beginning of term nears, schools’ regain the radioactivity that drives kids to gnaw their legs off rather than go). With the sunny optimism of excited children they declared that half the class would come, a figure I had cynically revised to three kids and a small dog. Because of this, rounding the corner to see the amassed armies of youth at the top was a shock, not helped by them running and screaming my name on my sight. So, after they had finished mauling me, we set off for our little day of adventure.
For ev’ry bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic.
Walking through Lakeside can be a wonderful experience – it retains the charm of a small town thanks to its fairly close knit community of merry travelers and friendly locals, and you’re greeted by smiles everywhere. After this day though, I know that the best way to walk through Lakeside is as a six foot white guy carrying biscuits, bread and peanut butter, followed by a entourage of Nepali children. Smiles became mixed with confusion. Neither local nor foreigner knew what to make of us. It was like being the pied piper of Hamlyn, and I adored it.
Actually, if anything, it was like being a grown-up. That’s certainly how I felt, as I did the necessary count every half a minute (“let’s
see…2…4, 6…8…9, 10….11, thank Christ, school students hit by buses are difficult to explain”). After so many years of being on the receiving end of this sort of responsible care, whilst busy with the matters of children such as cooties, boogers and gremlin chatter, it was very odd to be in charge. It occurred to me that despite the assurances you feel when you’re eleven, truth be told the grown-ups are only really pacifying danger with good-will and biscuits. It was great, and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve actually done some growing on my gap year instead of mere loafery.
Our picnic turned out to be quite a trek in the end though. There was a slight breakdown in teacher-student communications which put us on the wrong side of the mountain from our bus ride, turning my predicted half hour stroll into a two hour woodland romp. The kids were remarkably good about it (again, the biscuits came in very handy) and we wandered vaguely uphill through astonishing greenery. The woods made me feel very homesick for England in that rose-tinted ex-pat way – take my word for it, no forest in the UK matches up to the Nepali hillsides’.
Danger was afoot though; we met some Nepali women walking up on the way who said there were gangs of men around who might try to take our money and food. After that point, following some furious child-discussion, I was to walk in the middle of the group with a defensive ring of eleven year olds. So that was alright then.
Finally, we breached the woods to see the top of the hill, and the World Peace Pagoda where our picnic would be held. I got down to
busily making a little sandwich factory whilst kids ran, screamed, laughed and took no less than 300 photos with my camera. I got some dirty looks from dirtier hippies who were upset that actual locals were around ruining their intense Nepali cultural experience and integration, but with shrugs and smiles I politely told them they could stuff it. No number of such self-obsessed numpties could have or would have ruined my kids’ playtime, foodtime or final energy-drained resttime. After an hour it was time to go, and together we journeyed back down (the short route this time) and homewards. Only promises of printing photos for them would convince them to leave, and letting them go was hard for me too.
I console myself, not just with the photos we gave them, stuck to little “thank you and goodbye” cards we made with their nicknames on them, but with the memory. When I said before that it was the greatest day ever, I said it not as a touch of hyperbole or for the sake of joke, but as statement of fact. I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe all the stuff I’ve got to do here, I can’t believe I’m leaving here. But it is picnic day that will always be my strongest and brightest memory of this time.