Day in, day out, at the climbing wall.
My daily routine is as mundane as the weather is erratic. Camp has been in session for two weeks now, two weeks of the same daily process, without weekends. In two weeks I have had two days off, and two work days in which I didn’t teach rock climbing. All other days followed this pattern: Wake up at 7:45. Leave hotel at 8. Breakfast at 8:15. Meeting at 8:45. Classes (teaching rock climbing) from 9-10, 10-11, 11-12. Lunch at 12:30. Classes from 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 5-6. Dinner at 6:50.
Each group of kids is different, which ironically makes my routine even more mundane. During one three-week session I will only get the same kids twice, so there is nothing to build up on in the lessons as the day progresses– Only a repeat of the same introductory schpeel.
For the last 10 days, rain and cold have gripped the camp. Temperatures have dropped to almost freezing, and it’s “snowing upstairs,” in the mountains just a few hundred feet above us. (the words of a French local).
Clouds descend and snake through the valley like wispy white serpents. In a mystical scene, the vapor envelops the lake in milky white. The lake appears alive, breathes thick steam. I run along the muddy lakeside and watch dim gray silhouettes of camp rowboats emerge from nothingness, the campers’ orange lifejackets piercing the fog. Mist ribbons strangle mountain bases and above them, blue crags pierce jaggedly above the clouds.
The rain is unusual for this time of year, a curse, ghosts streaming into our Alpean wonderland from darker places. Dark skies haunt us. The routine becomes dreamlike, waterlogged; I shuffle from one group to the next in a foggy deja-vu. We sluggishly slosh from hour to hour, day to puddly day. We drown in cloud, in water particles that saturate our rain jackets and our souls.
Groups of campers wash over me like crashing surf, one wave after the next, some more energetic and violent, some like soft tides. I stand at my beach pummeled in sun, rain, and wind as the tide moves in and out. I sit, a barnacle on my rock, on the shore of the island that is ISCM campus. I know only my isolated beach, my solitary rock. Campers come to me like crew of sailers, their ships docked at my beach. They pile out of their vessel and tell of their adventures. On a particular day they may have played soccer and badminton, gone swimming, done the high ropes course, gone hiking, gone to town, and maybe visited a distant cities. They tell me these things, and I, the barnacle, listen with awe, anchored to my rock, rusting to my vertical coffin. I am but a decoration, a stationary figure, a cog in the machine.
There is a strange contrast between the structure and control of the camp and the variable weather. At camp, every activity is micromanaged at the atomic level: how we eat, dress, walk, talk, wear our hair. How we hold our silverware. The weather is the one thing they cannot control.
Dinner is a tightly choreographed dance. One seat at each round table is given a stack of plates, for appetizers and then the main dish. That person passes out the plates To the right and the left simultaneously, and these are passed along symmetrically until the ring is enclosed at their opposite side. You do not receive your dinner plant until the appetizer has been removed. You do not stand up to go to the salad bar until the main dish has been served. If you are late you do not eat.
But the weather– the weather is uncontrollable. And it’s always surprising. When the rain comes pouring down, I expect to see the administrators pull the switch to turn it off. But they’re helpless. They can make it rain with their monstrous sprinkler systems that stay running unnecessarily throughout the downpour; they can manicure their green lawns to meticulous manicured neatness; they can prune their perfect flower beds and channel pristine Alp stream water to their thirsty lips and cultivate cow udders for the creamiest of milks and cheeses. But they can’t stop the rain.
Of course the Swiss try to control much more than nature. They also love to impose bureaucracy to fix trivial things. There are myriad nonsensical Swiss laws to raise an eyebrow and laugh at. For example, a man may not stand up while peeing after 10 pm. Nor can you flush the toilet after that hour. You can’t mow the law on a Sunday because it’s too loud, nor can you hang your clothes to dry on a Sunday, most likely because it is unaesthetic for the casual Sunday stroller or the pedestrian churchgoer. None of these laws surprise me in the least after spending some time in Switzerland.
When it is “quite definitely raining”, we are instructed to go to our “rainy day place.” Each specialist has their own “rainy day place” and they have to go to that particular place. Mine is the lounge. In the lounge, we play mafia, truth or dare, ten fingers, or whatever the kids feel like playing at the time. The lounge can be a nice break from my cookie cutter of a lesson plan: 5 mins introductions, 15 mins bouldering around the climbing wall, 5 minutes putting on harnesses, 25 minutes top-rope climbing, harnesses off. The lounge gets old too, but it gives me the opportunity to learn a little bit about the kids and their lives at home.
Mostly, it’s hard for me to distinguish these wealthy kids from everyday kids you’d find in Madison or Seattle. I mean, kids are kids. The most prominent tip-off would be the brand names of their gym clothes, but frankly I’m blind to logos and designer brands. When I did start paying attention I noticed that they wear Armani shirts, Ralf Lauren polos, top-of-the-line nike runners, Prada and Gucci sweats, and if they are feeling casual, head-to-toe Abercrombie & Fitch. Some kids are particularly trendy. One fad right now seems to be these t-shirts with celebrities’ faces on the front, with hipster mustaches. Apparently these T’s cost a hundred bucks and are found in a string of Parisian boutiques. In the oil rich middle east, kids are tending to embrace the 90’s with scrunchies and plastic chokers. The Russians wear matching tracksuits.
Most kids this session are from Russia (Moscow), Lebanon (Beirut) and the UAE (Dubai). There are also a handful of Western Europeans: Italians, Spanish, Swiss, French, and Germans. Of course the demographic changes from session to session. Next session is supposed to be very Asian. Despite my PC upbringing, it’s hard not to develop stereotypes of nationalities when the kids consistently reinforce trends. The Russians are generally more competitive and stoic, for example, and the Lebanese more goofy and mischievous. Italians are generally open, friendly, and less shy. The French are delicate and proud. There’s a certain attitude and look, body structure and face shape, fashion sense and demeanor: I can usually guess half the nationalities in a group before the kids speak.
Some of these kids are “important.” One day I had the daughter of a famous Lebanese politician, and the next I had the son of the owner of Futbol Club Barcelona. An hour later I had Woody Allen’s niece; she’d just made an appearance in his latest film. He wouldn’t be picking her up from camp, though, because he’s busy finding the site of his next film.
When you’re as rich as these kids are (this is one of the top 5 most expensive summer camps in the world), something has to be up. Russia is full of the mafia; middle eastern places such as Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are rolling in more oil money than they know what to do with. They are in the middle of a gold rush; a mining boom. Dubai is an extravagant and ultimately ephermeal boom town with nothing to anchor it to the past and a prescribed death certificate rolled up neatly inside the last local oil deposit.
All of these countries are tax havens for the rich: the government is so rich in oil dough they have no reason to tax their countrymen. Many of these kids’ families moved from Europe to the Middle East clearly to protect their gold stores from high income tax.
One tricky way to pull information out of these kids is by playing “Ten Fingers” or “Never Have I Ever.” (One person announces something they haven’t done, and if you’ve done it, you put one finger down). Through this game Ive discovered the obvious: Being rich allows you to do a lot of really cool shit. These kids have done it all: Been on safari, traveled the world, swam with sharks, stayed in all inclusive resorts, gone on cruises, flown in helicopters and in private planes and in first class. They’ve been to the Eifel Tower, the Empire State Building, Beverly Hills, and the Taj Mahal.
But having done these thing doesn’t necessarily make them more interesting people, unless they actively learned from each experience. Who wouldn’t want to go on a posh safari in Kenya and go home to a resort-spa overlooking the savannah? Such activities can become as meaningless as watching the same on TV if one does not appreciate it a deeper level, a level of understanding impossible for a little kid dragged around by their parents.
The best, though, is hearing about a kid’s home country through their own words and own perspective.
“Jordan is like everywhere else in the world,” a thin, curly haired girl from Jordan tells me in the lounge. We sit on shiny red leather couches around a glass coffee table. It is raining.
“Israelis make it look different on TV by only showing the poor people. Israelis hate Arabs and want to make us look bad.”
What is the food like, I ask?
“Food? Arabic food. There’s like Mansaf Its the traditional food in Jordan. It’s a big plate with lamb sauce and rice. And the desert…. Everyone loves the dessert. All foreigners like Arabic food.”
She wants to live in London because there dis ore to do, and so that she can wear what she wants.
“When I wear shorts in Jordan everyone starts staring and whistling and taking pictures. In London I can wear whatever I want.”
At the moment, she’s wearing an Abercrombie sweatshirt and skinny sans, with a delicate golden cross necklace around her neck. She’s Christian, part of a small minority in a Muslim country. She lives in Amman, the capital. She drew me a map of the situation. The country of Jordan, a rectangle, with Amman in the middle.
“Here in Aman are rich people I mean, people who can afford things like maids and drivers. All around are the poor.”
She lives 15 minutes from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the face of the earth, she says. She thinks Petra is boring, but she likes the Dead Sea. I ask her why.
“Because there are no fish.”
But is Jordan dangerous?
“All the people go to Jordan. Anyone can go to Jordan. Anyone from around the world. Like the Iraquis and the Saudis and workers, and you never know who anyone is. My mom won’t let me go to the mall on Thursdays. The holidays start on Friday, so on Thursday all the people like the Bedouins go to the mall and make trouble.”
So what do you like about Jordan?
“The only thing I like about Jordan is you can be spoiled. It’s not expensive to get a maid and a driver. Ive never done the dishes in my life, Ive never made a bed, I can’t iron, and I washed the floor for the first time in my life when I came to camp.”
Do you like that lifestyle, then?
“Yes. Because I’m lazy.”
I asked a group of girls from Rome and Corsica, an island between France and Italy, what they wanted to do when they grow up. Four of them immediately said, “business-economics.”
“I want to be a business woman in the US!”
And why business?
“Because I want to be rich!”
Why do you want to be rich?
“So I can buy whatever I want!” They said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and I was a total idiot.
“I want to marry a rich man. I want to take all his money and also keep all mine, just in case!”
“I want to be able to travel everywhere!”
“I want to be like my dad!”
“I want a yacht!”
The group, which was half Italians and half middle easterners, broke into an exchange about domestic help.
“Everyone in Beirut has a maid and a driver. The maids live with you in the house with their own rom. They are not Lebanese; they are mostly Phillipino or Southeast Asian. The drivers are Lebanese. They live separately and have families. Our families help theirs pay for food and school.”
“In Italy the maids come and go, more like nannies. They cook and clean, and stay when my parents are gone.”
Do you like that?
“Of course, I think it’s better. I like having someone in the house so I’m not alone all the time.”
Where do your parents go?
“To work, or out to dinner.”
“I lived in the US once, and my mom hated it, because it was hard to find a maid.”
Why did she need a maid?
“My mom cannot cook.”
“Yes my mom cannot cook either. It would be weird in the US but not in Lebanon.”
“Of course! My mom does not cook either.”
The golf specialist, a Canadian PE teacher living in Kuwait, gave me some perpective from his end.
Kuwait is a miniscule country sandwiched between Aaudi Arabia and Iraq, population 4 million. Kuwait is all desert, and one of the smallest countries in the world in terms of land area. Plants don’t grow in Kuwait; the only local produce is grown in greenhouses. For most of history, Kuwait had near-zero natural resources. Until they discovered oil. The US-British Kuwait oil company discovered the reserves in the 30’s, but delayed exploitation until after World War 2, only beginning use in 1951. One year later, Kuwait became the largest oil exporter in the Persian Gulf region.
Kuwait nationalized the oil company in the 70’s, and now Kuwait is the riches country in the world per capita.
Oil is their only natural resource. Kuwait holds an estimate of ten percent of the world’s oil reserves and the oil industry makes up 75 percent of the country’s revenue. In Kuwait you can fill a tank for six bucks. Oil is cheaper than coffee. And you can only get premium.
You can be a teacher Kuwait and be a millionaire. And that’s why my coworker is there; to live the lifestyle he wants, while being a teacher.
In Kuwait you don’t pay taxes. You also don’t have debt. One day the King, “Emir”, said, “show me evidence of your debt.” And he wiped everyone’s records clean by paying off the companies they owed. The millions of dollars are nothing to the Kuwaiti government. They are rich enough in liquid gold.
People living in the city generally have it pretty good, and then there are the migrant workers who come from Southeast Asia to do construction. They live in sites, ghettos, outside of the city. According to old Islamic law, if someone works for you, you literally own them. You are allowed to ake their passport so that they can’t go home. You can change your mind about their salary if you feel like it; propose 100 a day and then pay 30. That’s chill. The workers get paid significantly less than Kuwaitis, like 30 a day, but it’s still more than they would earn at home: The Kuwaiti dinar is 3.5 times stronger than the US dollar. It’s the highest valued currency in the world.
Dubai is similar. The kids don’t seem to realize that while they have everything they could want, there is a whole separate clas sof impoverished workers. Of course, Dubai is an enigma unto itself, an incomprehensible future-scape devoid of nature and history. Every kid from Dubai says they love it, though. I ask why; they say “because everythign is new.” Or “because there’s so much to do.”
Today was our first sunny day in about a week and a half of straight rain. One girl from Dubai says, “I miss the rain.” Because at home, it’s 120 degrees outside. She told me that there is a law in Dubai that states at certain temperatures, you are not allowed outside. So how do you get anywhere?
“First you have to turn on the car early, like ten minutes before you want to leave. Then you get inside while it’s in the garage. Then you drive to where you want to go.”
So does anyone get exercise in Dubai?
“You can go to the gym. Or to the indoor ski resort. But people are lazy in Dubai.”
I asked her where the water comes from.
“I don’t know, they just deliver it in jugs.”
Actually, the water comes mostly from desalination plants, an extremely expensive operation. Expensive, not not too expensive for Dubai. Well, until their oil runs out. And then? A water war, probably. Or the reverse: the city’s freshwater reserves only hold two days worth of water at a time. They’re held in floating tanks at sea, so an act of terrorism against these or the desalination plant, or an oil spill in the Gulf, could rid Dubai of water and bring the boomtown to a standstill.
At least in Switzerland it seems people are working for their wealth, albeit rigidly.