Monday, June 10, 2013

"We Can Pee in the Ocean?"

On a recent late afternoon a smattering of Singaporean school children were milling about after a leisure snorkel session. The highlights were two Reef Cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus), one Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), and lots of cold muddy river runoff that was flowing into Juara Bay, causing kids to shriek about the chilly temperature and how dirty the water was.

Some were ecstatic about watching the mind-boggling cuttlefish pulsate color changes as it hovered over coral outcrops. A few mumbled about needing a shower. And most had to take a leak.

After we had numbered off and made sure everyone was accounted for, Ania (a colleague of mine) began to tell her group what was up next. A young girl, quite shyly, then asked if there was a bathroom around she could use. Accompanying the group was a teacher from the school who loudly responded she could go in the ocean. “We can pee in the ocean?” she replied confusingly. Other children were miffed too. “Of course you can” we all said.

This is not the group I'm referring to in this blog. Unfortunately no pics exist from that outing. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.***
Lots of kids had repulsive looks of horror on their faces. More than a few seemed completely stunned, which amazingly means they had never realized in their approximately 14-year-old existence that urinating in the ocean was an option in life. A couple children looked giddy with mischievous delight. Then over half the class booked it to the water. A few folks on the fence even ran down after they realized the majority was squatting at low-tide, relieving themselves of countless gulps they'd been repeatedly told to take from their water bottles all day long.

I heard quite the variety of commentary on the entire episode. One child proudly proclaimed this was the greatest piss of their life, while another retorted this was all beyond disgusting. Everyone agreed showers were needed afterward. I couldn't help but think about how weird it is be a youth in this day and age.

It wasn't just the urinating in the ocean that got me thinking about this. It had been on my mind since the first group of 50 eighth-graders kick-started our summer season. A total of 125 kids, split into five groups, recently spent five days total engaged in our outdoor education programs. This meant jungle trekking, sea kayaking, camping, forcefully having to do without air-conditioning, jetty jumping, encountering bugs and doing more than their fair share of activities under conditions unheard of in Singapore.

Welcome to the land of sandy feet, sweat everywhere, insects fluttering about your face, cuts and bruises, mud on your palms and underneath your fingernails, biting red ants in your bellybutton and jungle detritus smeared on your clothes.

A lot of these pre-teens, young adults or kids (whatever the proper label is) had never done any of the above activities. There was a slew of fourteen-year-olds who'd never camped, swam in the ocean or even sat in dirt around a campfire. Some were totally mystified that our plan was to sprawl out on the ground, dirtying up our trousers and just hang out around burning logs.

Wyatt on the left giving our group a kayak tutorial in Juara Bay, as I look on from the right.
Numerous news items, scientific journal articles and books have been written about the continuing detachment the youngsters of successive generations have with the natural world. I'm not here to pound my fists and continue on with those critiques, nor is this an indictment of Singapore's urban culture, or for that matter, most urban environments around the globe. For me it can be a lot more simple than that. Nowadays kids might know more about rainforest biology than their counterparts decades before, without ever actually setting foot in the jungle. They have access to reams of intel compared to even my generation when we were young, all available instantly at their fingertips.

These youngsters don't have to get lost in primary forest to see a hornbill, they can YouTube 'em. In Arizona you don't even have to leave your computer anymore to see the Grand Canyon, Google Street View (or is Nature View or some other moniker) can take you down into those famous red-rock walls. More and more people witness wildlife via the epic nature documentaries constantly running on BBC and Discovery Channel. And to be fair, those programs are grandiose in the right way.

When I was young I didn't know much about the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland (U.S.A.), but that didn't deter me from catching blue crabs with raw chicken necks attached to string, swimming in gross water, chasing menacing swans and peeing all over America's largest estuary. I enjoyed being outside for the hell of it and it was a wonderful way to get into trouble. Most kids now probably know the pitiful plight of the blue crab and that harassing wildlife is wrong. I didn't. That type of behavior these days in very not-PC.

I think outdoor education's goals can become somewhat hifalutin at times, and definitely rear into hippy-dippy, touchy-feely nature schlock. It doesn't have to become that complicated. Just getting these kids out in the jungle, splashing around in a kayak or searching for the perfect marshmallow roasting stick is what it's all about.

There doesn't always need to be a higher order behind all these activities. While incorporating global and local natural history into classic outdoor education activities is why we're in Juara, sometimes you just gotta let the merriment rip. Yes, I'd be over the moon if just one kid begins to fancy reef fish or another gets into the nitty-gritty of beetles. I'd love for them to take away that geckos are a vital source in local food chains or that mangroves are super-productive ecosystems contributing to the overall health of ocean habitats, but one of the best ways to get into biology and being outside is to have fun.
You just can't beat a post-dinner Milo when camping.
But if you beat them over the head too hard with the science stick they might tune out. It's also a malleable notion: if a kid is bonkers for bats and dorking out for info on echolocation while camping his experience isn't superior to someone who just wants to kick their feet up, listen to the nocturnal jungle soundtrack and take a moment to soak up the ambiance. Or superior to the pyro who gets a chuckle out of setting their marshmallow ablaze, as long as the end result is a new-found appreciation for the outdoors and our planet's ever disappearing wild places.

Watching our group evolve over the week was a real treat. On our second day we went to a nearby waterfall; it can be a slippery trail complete with gnarly wet rocks that make the footwork slow and plodding. Some kids toppled over and got quite muddy in the process so a few asked me where they could wash their hands. I just laughed and told them to wipe it on their clothes, or if they were feeling the need for war paint, their faces. Their response: staring and awkward mumbles.

The next day at our campsite, Wyatt (a colleague who was leading the group with me) started a game of “Never Have I Ever” to encourage everyone to drink lots of water. We all took a seat on the ground, which ended up being a challenge for at least half the group. They didn't want to sit in dirt or get their clothes yucky. But they had no choice. Getting acquainted with the ground was mandatory.

Hours later near the end of the night, around the campfire, it was all smiles. They lounged, plopping gooey marshmallows in their mouths and straining their necks up in awe at stars and constellations bursting with light that they can never see in Singapore. Nobody bothered to complain, or even hesitated, about the fact that we were on the ground. And when we trekked out of camp the next morning mud was constant, but complaining and the need for napkins had vanished.

Campfire reflection time complete with an unreal looking night sky and smores.
The trail was a slog and we had the uphill route, but they motored through and for the most part were jolly: ooohing and ahhhhing at the Chameleon Anglehead Lizard (Gonocephalus chameleontinus) found lolling on a tree branch, quizzing me on jungle ecology and trying tirelessly to figure out what can be in the Land of Confusion (you can munch on apples there, but unfortunately not grapefruits).

The week long program was an assortment of little, awesome moments. Watching a tiny girl (definitely under 36kg (80lbs)) rock out during our kayak expedition and smoke her classmates on the water, easily bagging the 7km paddle. The cherry on top was when she admitted how much she enjoyed it all and that 'discovering' kayaking for her was the trip highlight. Having a group of boys confide in me that they didn't want to go back to Lagoon because camping was a blast. Fielding questions from interested kids on a variety of topics: regenerated lizard tails, diets of different sea birds and why only female mosquitoes suck blood. And of course for me, anytime a kid wants to talk snakes I get giddy. Unfortunately I never found a Reticulated Python for the girl.

Starting our kayak cruise across Juara Bay.
Then they were gone. I'm sure they quickly morphed into the rampant-paced, wired world we inhabit. Judging from the Facebook requests I received (and obviously declined) they spent no time waiting to jump back into touch-screen existence, utilizing the all-important index finger. And here I go, delving into that hifalutin jargon I mocked some paragraphs ago.

It's ludicrous to think these kids are going to completely detach from the social media dominated atmosphere we all now live in, whether we like it or not. But hopefully from time to time they do. We all should. And if they go snorkeling they now know what an alive cuttlefish looks like. Sadly, I think most Singaporeans' experience with this cephalopod is from a bag, dried and seasoned as a seafood snack. The bonus next time is they can look at it as long as they like, without having to take a bathroom break.

More photos below:
Our group getting into their kayaks before our paddle across Juara Bay. The next day we headed out on our expedition, which started with a 7km paddle to the campsite. All of the following kayak photos are just of the paddle in Juara Bay though, not from the expedition.
Alli in the safety kayak while another group snorkels.
One of our two campsites in Dungun.
Milo social hour at the camp.
The camera found some campsite trolls wandering about.

No comments:

Post a Comment