The Brochure

It was yesterday, as I found myself running around Santiago alone, trying not to get simultaneously deported and kicked out of my English teaching program, that I was hit with a vivid image of my NOLS kayaking instructor Ben looking out at a swollen, terrifying sea and proclaiming in his booming voice “Now THIS is the brochure!” Due to his Australian roots, the word sounded like “BRO-shuh,” and due to his slightly untraditional vision of the NOLS brochure, what we were looking at appeared to be a completely impossible situation.

We had spent most of the kayaking section “lily-dipping” through flat water, letting the sun tan our forearms and experiencing little resistance whatsoever from the elements. Instead of feeling like we were unwelcome trespassers in Mother Nature’s backyard, as we would later, she seemed to us a genial, nurturing hostess cradling us in her aquamarine arms.  It seemed impossible that clear skies, calm water, and bright yellow boats couldn’t be considered prime Brochure conditions, but the nicer the weather got, the more Ben seemed to call out across the water to the fleet, “WHERE’S THE DAMN BRO-SHUH?!” It was merely funny at first, one of the many amusing Ben-isms, but it became clear later why it was that Ben was inciting Mother Nature to bring it on.

It was a few weeks into the course and we found ourselves hitting our first major weather system—the clouds had been growing throughout the morning and less than a kilometer away from our destination we came around a corner and were blasted with an intense current, swelling waves and cold rain. I watched from my kayak as Ben gave a “cut it” gesture to Sally, our other instructor, and we were immediately instructed to get off the water. We pulled the boats onto a small beach in the cove we were floating in and watched while Ben paddled out into the open ocean around the corner to test the waters. Though a fiercely powerful rower, Ben was still unable to gain any ground against the strength of the water, and returned to the beach after a few minutes of effort, shaking his head at Sally. We went in shifts to the top of the leafy ridge to check the ocean on the other side of the cove, watching the whitecaps roll into shore. Finally, after what seemed like a soggy, cold eternity, we saw that the water had calmed enough for us to make a break for it.  As fast as we could, we got the kayaks into the ready position, pushed them out into the water, and hopped in. What we would face around the corner of the cove would be like nothing we’d seen thus far, nothing like what we felt prepared for.

The second we turned the corner, we ducked our heads down against the driving rain, trying to maintain our heading. Paddling became like pushing plastic through hardened concrete, and any attempt at communication between boats seemed to get lost in the wet, gray air. At some point I looked over to my left and saw Ben in his kayak, beaming at us and to himself. His Brochure had certainly arrived, though we hadn’t yet figured out why on earth that could be a good thing.

Nearly seven months after kayaking into the current in the Marlborough Sounds, I found myself speedwalking through throngs of Chilean businessmen on their way to work, starting to sweat a little and wondering if I was about to have to get on a plane back home. I’d spent the morning running in my business casual outfit first ten blocks in the wrong direction, then twenty blocks back to the Banco Estado where I had to pay my visa fine, and then to the extranjería where I would attempt to register the visa for the second time. Due to arriving in Chile over a month before my teaching assignment began and not being able to register my visa within the required thirty days, I was now experiencing the veritable roller coaster to hell that is bureaucracy. I’d spent four hours the previous Friday sitting in the extranjería waiting to file for my late-registry sanction, at which point I was told I’d have to pay a fine, but I had to do it at a particular bank, and I wouldn’t be able to do it until the next Monday because all the banks were already closed. I’d spent Monday morning trying to pay the visa fine before it got any higher and subsequently skipping the first several hours of my teaching orientation to do so. At the time, trying not to get deported seemed like a valid reason to miss a few introductions and housekeeping items. After walking 2 kilometers out of the way, then waiting twenty minutes for the bank to open, and then waiting another thirty in line, even at 9:30 the morning was off to a bit of a dismal start. As I was walking out the door to head to my orientation thirty minutes late, I read on the bank form that failure to register the visa within three days of paying the fine would result in more fines. Deciding to cut my losses with the orientation, I speed walked back to the extranjería to attempt to register for a second time. After two hours waiting in a cramped, poorly lit waiting room with Chilean daytime TV blasting at a jarring volume, I arrived at the counter to be told that I was missing important photocopies I hadn’t been told about and that they couldn’t do anything for me until I had them. Though up until that point I’d maintained a pretty positive attitude about everything that had been going on, feeling good about my ability to navigate the bank and the extranjería and a good deal of the Santiago streets in Spanish, this hit felt a lot like turning a corner and being blasted by a 3 knot current. Little did I know that the rain hadn’t even started yet—that in only a few more minutes I would arrive late to my teaching orientation and be told that failure to show up to any part of the mandatory training was grounds for dismissal from the program.

As I walked from the extranjería to the training center, I tried to practice deep breathing, tried to visualize that bright white light in, that black smoke out, and tried repeating over and over that I couldn’t control the raging storm going on around me, that I could only control my reaction to it. And that stressing and getting twisted up in knots would not change anything expect my experience of all of this, and that the decision to breathe deeply and think calmly was just as available to me. I was then reminded of another nugget of NOLS wisdom, one of the seven leadership principles that I had experienced many times on my semester in New Zealand and that I was unquestionably experiencing now. I could see the words written in the little yellow handbook we were all given on the first few days: Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity.

My first turn as Leader of the Day came near the end of our kayaking section—Ethan, my co-leader, and I had planned relay races, games and other fun activities for what we expected to be a relatively easy move on the water. Things had gone smoothly for the entire journey, until we pulled up at what was marked on our charts as a campsite. Justine and I hopped out of the boats to inspect the site, finding a place to store the boats and to set up tents and tarps. It became quickly clear that the spot was uncampable—overtaken by vegetation, hilly, and without a discernable fresh water source. We consulted the chart and found two other nearby camping options, so we rounded the boats back up and set out to try our luck at the next spot. Two more times we pulled up to a beach, hopped out of the boats, and determined that what was supposedly a previous campsite of another NOLS group was actually inhabitable. Ethan and I decided to take a beach break to figure out what the heck we were going to do, feeling the responsibility of the entire group on our shoulders. It didn’t help that it was overcast and cold, and that the morale and energy of the fleet was quickly waning.  I tried not to let the guilt and disappointment in myself that was starting to creep up on me take over as we poured over the chart, feeling as though I’d certainly failed the group as a leader. Ethan and I decided that our best option was to kayak three more nautical miles to what again was only possibly a campable spot.

When we finally arrived, everyone drained from the difficulty and the ups and downs of the day, we found ourselves engaging in what Ben referred to as “combat camping” – a fight against the encroaching tide to stay dry on the tiny sliver of beach. After setting up our tarps we all gathered in a circle to do the daily debrief, a discussion of what had gone well and what could be improved upon for the leadership of the day. I sat next to Ethan, prepared for us to get reamed out for leading the group astray not once, not twice, but three times, and waited for what our feedback would be. To my shock, the group and the instructors commended us for being able to roll with the punches, for being able to re-strategize when things didn’t go according to plan, and to deal with unexpected challenges in a calm and competent manner.

Remembering this phrase, Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity, as I walked home from orientation alone, having been pulled aside to be reprimanded for skipping and still not having sorted out the visa problems, I felt my heart rate slow, my breath even out. I imagined Ben looking at the situation I was in and saying, “Now THIS is the Bro-shuh!” I knew the reason that he’d wished to provoke the wrath of Mother Nature, the reason that a day that seemed like complete catastrophe had been reason for praise, was because the Brochure, the Uncertainty and Adversity, those are the places we grow. Those are the places where our abdominals strengthen from paddling against a forceful current, those are the places where our independence and competence soar, those are the places where we learn to keep breathing deeply as we walk even when things around us are spiraling into a tangled wreck. Navigating difficult seas, remaining calm and clear-headed in the face of uncertainty and adversity—the image of that, that is the Brochure. And though it may not look like the pretty picture we’d wanted, may we all be lucky enough to experience it, and to keep paddling right through it.