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Welcome to Na'ankuse!

Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth.     

--Bryant McGill

Corné, the volunteer coordinator, greeted us. He was maybe in his mid-30s, very tan, and had one of those ponytail Mohawks. He was all smiles and effusive in a way that reminded me of Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island. (For those of you under 40, Google it.)

“Welcome to Na’ankuse!!!” he said, as we climbed out of the van.

“Everyone grab your bags,” he said. “Except Elizabeth. After the tour, they’ll take you up to Bush Camp, where you’ll be staying.”

My mind didn’t know which to grab onto first: being called Elizabeth or the fact that I was being shipped off to somewhere else. Choosing the latter, my mind raced. Is it because I’m older? Am I not cool enough to stay down here? Why would they isolate me? This is going to be bad!

We followed Corné, as he showed us the grounds. At first glance, it wasn’t impressive. Lots of one-story, concrete buildings, more bonsai tree lookalikes, and several shipping containers clustered near a bunch of pickup trucks. As we approached the pool and meal area, I could see many of the volunteers gathered around a table, smoking and relaxing.

“Corné!” one of them called out. “Can we guess where these guys are from?”

He was young, for sure. His thick, blonde hair, rosy cheeks and perfect white teeth all screamed privileged to me. Plus, he had an obnoxious vibe. I disliked him immediately and pegged him as a ringleader for sure.

“Not now, Simon. I’m doing my tour,” Corné answered in a singsong voice that was one part flirty and another part patronizing.

The girl seated next to Simon whispered something in his ear, and the two of them burst into laughter.

Corné ignored them and focused his attention on me.

“Elizabeth,” he’d said, dangling a key close to my face. “This is your key. You know it’s very important not to lose, yes?”

It all felt so high school to me. And Corné, I couldn’t quite figure him out. He had this overly friendly way about him that didn’t seem very authentic. It also annoyed me how he talked to us like we were 10.

I tend to snap into judgment mode when I’m uncomfortable. It grounds me in a weird way, giving my active mind a false sense of security by way of putting people into categories that make sense to me. It's not one of my better assets, but I’m usually right, which doesn’t really make the case for not doing it in the first place.

I resisted the urge to tell Corné I was a homeowner and to go fuck himself. Instead, I filed him under the growing “dislike” category in my mind.

Once the tour was complete, Carmella, Sara and Sam all went to find their rooms. I felt a little sad that I’d made a connection with Sam and was now being shipped off to another part of the property. Clutching the pamphlet Corné had given all of us (“Study this. You will be tested on it tomorrow.”), I made my way back to the van that would take me to Bush Camp.

On the way, I met Hedda from Sweden and Eeva from Finland. They had just arrived, and would also be staying at Bush Camp. None of us had a clue as to why we weren’t staying with the rest of the volunteers, so it was nice to share my wonder with them.

The van dropped them at their tent first, and then it was onto mine. When I initially booked the trip, there were two accommodation options: shared, dorm-like rooms with shared bathrooms or a tent. I hated the idea of sharing my space with anyone and was glad I thought to ask about having my own tent. Of course I had to pay a little extra, but it was worth it to me. I knew this trip was going to present a lot of uncomfortable situations. I needed an oasis to come home to each day where I could process it all.

I was at the end of the road in Tent #14 called “Impala.” At first glance, it looked like a small cabin complete with tin roof and wooden floor. But as I got closer I noticed the rest of the “structure” was heavy nylon with Velcro flaps as windows. There was a front door and a small platform in the front with a chair that served as a porch.

Inside the tent were three beds – all singles. Between two of the beds was a small nightstand with a lantern. There were no dressers or closets, but there was electricity, a pleasant surprise. Did I mention paying extra for my own accommodations also included an “ensuite bathroom?” I was super curious as to how that would play out, so I dropped my bag and went straight for the bathroom door opposite the entrance.

It was “ensuite” for sure – connected to the tent and also only mine to use. It had all the trappings of a bathroom: toilet, sink, shower – well, more a like a pipe with a spout attached. What it didn’t have was a ceiling. But it was private and clean, so I breathed a small sigh of relief and went back inside.

We had the afternoon off, so it was about relaxing and unpacking, and getting settled into my 300 square foot room. Before I did anything, though, I stepped out onto my porch and took it all in.

Damn, it felt good. There was nothing but open space in front of me and the sounds, which I’d later come to identify as the chorus of the wilderness. It had been a long journey, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I just knew that I was really glad to be there.

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