Camping is Not for Everyone – and That is Okay!

What our station wagon looked like when we went camping, grandparents in tow

What our station wagon looked like when we went camping, grandparents in tow

I’ve been in the field of outdoor recreation and education for over five years, and an outdoor enthusiast for much longer. As a child of South Asian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s, I was born into a family that embraced all that was Americana from the get-go.

You’ve never met a group of Hindus who celebrated Christmas with as much consumerist fervor as ours. You’ve never met a bunch of vegetarians who embraced the McDonald’s sausage McMuffin with such gusto. And you’ve probably never yet met a family who assimilated so quickly to the American outdoor culture, albeit with their own South Indian flare.

The memories of my earliest outdoor experiences can be distilled to these snapshots: sitting in the garage with my dad poring over maps and food lists planning my extended families’ annual summer National Park visit; the moms returning from Costco with a moving van’s equivalent of bulk food and supplies for a family of 20; caravanning a thousand miles with a rented camper and our row of station wagons from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to a National Park, stopping at McDonalds and Taco Bells along the way as we listened to classic Bollywood tunes and chatted with the other vehicles

Raju Rajagopal, circla 1970, visiting Yosemite National Park

Raju Rajagopal, circla 1970, visiting Yosemite National Park

in our caravan on our handy dandy Walkie Talkies; arriving at our group campsite and setting up a home base, complete with an extra large kids’ tent; scents of South Indian cooking wafting from the camper as a grandma (there was at least one grandma on every trip) made a full five-course dinner; the stares of neighboring campers ogling our family as we conversed emphatically in Tanglish (Tamil and English) around the fire; many failed attempts at fishing; one ambitious attempt to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with absolutely no preparation (and which ended in our parents nibbling on carrots and chapstick on the way up because they ran out of food).

Raju and Geetha Rajagopal, circa 1974? Paving the way for the next generation of Indian immigrants to visit Yosemite.

Raju and Geetha Rajagopal, circa 1974? Paving the way for the next generation of Indian immigrants to visit Yosemite.

There is more . . . but here’s my point: it didn’t take this Indian girl long to fall in love with the outdoors.

Two decades later, I joined the National Outdoor Leadership School as its diversity and inclusion manager and dedicated myself to persuading people of color everywhere that outdoor adventure was for them. I was convinced people of color weren’t participating in outdoor adventure (at least the way I interpreted it), that it was because they just didn’t realize how cool and amazing it was, and that I could easily break down cultural barriers such as histories of oppression, lack of access, and fear of wilderness with words and money. All it would take was spin and some scholarship dollars and the people of color would stream in. Right? Wrong.

Taking the family to visit Avenue of the Giants.

Taking the family to visit Avenue of the Giants.

Five years later, I am questioning my motives and remembering that my own experience as a young girl of color in the outdoors wasn’t backpacking quietly in remote wilderness cooking dehydrated potatoes and not bathing for 30 days. My own experience was with my family: eating well, camping in relative comfort, being loud and boisterous, and then going home a few days later.

Geetha Rajagopal and Subha Rangaswami showing their all-cotton high-tech outerwear in front of a lightweight tent from K-mart

Geetha Rajagopal and Subha Rangaswami showing their all-cotton high-tech outerwear in front of a lightweight tent from K-mart

So why has it been so easy for me to slip into cultural amnesia, forgetting my own cultural connection to nature and jumping on the bandwagon of the predominantly White outdoor zealots waving our granola flags and ranting, “Outdoor education must mirror the mosaic that is America! Everyone should want to climb mountains! Everyone should want to poop in a hole in the ground in the woods!”

Clearly, I’ve stopped drinking the Kool-Aid and realized that maybe we just need to be okay with the fact that hard-core outdoor adventure isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.

Seasoned hiker Geetha Rajagopal leading the pack down a trail in King's Canyon

Seasoned hiker Geetha Rajagopal leading the pack down a trail in King’s Canyon

It’s one thing to want to make people of color aware of a world of possibilities, to put outdoor adventure on their radar, or even to work to create an inclusive culture in the outdoors that is welcoming to everyone. But it’s quite another thing to presume that of all their choices, people will somehow feel compelled to leave the comfort of a roof over their heads to “rough it” in the woods. Camping, like stamp collecting or painting or driving fast cars or dancing, is not for everybody. And. That. Is. Okay.

Me and the gang. I'm their leader. Always.

Me and the gang. I’m their leader. Always.

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Et tu Brutus? Bring it on!

Damp earthy smells waft up as Frankie and I run our three-mile loop through red rock country in the Wyoming countryside. The Wind Rivers Range looms before dusted in white and socked in by shapeshifting clouds, and every breath feels like I’m inhaling droplets of sagebrush and aging cow patties.

“Frankie, we ain’t in autumn any more,” I say to my dog, snickering to myself at my wit. As if she would appreciate the Wizard of Oz reference.

With the arrival of winter storm Brutus (the first named winter storm in Wyoming) this weekend is predicted to be colder, gloomier, and wetter than today, I wonder how I can motivate to keep my dog, my son, and myself off our inviting warm couch watching movies.

So here are six things I am promising to do this weekend that you can all hold me to:

(1) Wake up early—this is a no-brainer, as Kieran will wake up at 6:45 a.m. on the dot even without an alarm, and Jamie is not here to be the morning person.

(2) Help Brandy move—My friends Brian and Mandy are moving Saturday, and they need help. As an inherently lazy person, I want to say “no” but as a selfish person I realize that moving will keep me active on an otherwise poopy weather day. So I’m going to help them move!

(3) Cook big breakfasts—it would be easy to head to the Middle Fork for brunch, but cooking will keep me moving and is more affordable. Plus it will fuel us.

(4) Go on at least one hike a day with Kieran and the dog, and bring a warm drink—even if it’s just a mile of walking, we’re getting out. Kieran loves “kids tea,” a concoction of tepid water, sugar, and chamomile. I’ll bring something hotter (and stronger).

(5) Read a book to Kieran—To avoid the boob tube, I’ll need to find a good read. I just finished reading him Lewis Carroll’s Christmas Story and he loved it. Maybe we’ll move onto another classic: Treasure Island maybe?

(6) Clean the house—With Jamie in the field my cleanliness standards have plummeted. It isn’t that bad, but even dishes in the sink are unacceptable to my more domestic and better half. So in preparation for his arrival in 11 days (who’s counting) I’m going to start the cleaning process.

Et tu Brutus? Well, you can bring it on!

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The Five Families and the Law of Inertia

My bros walking the groom up to the aisle

In September I went to my cousin Ash’s wedding in California—a typical East-meets-West affair with a full-on Hindu ceremony on one evening followed by a traditional white dress wedding the next day. Jamie, Kieran and I zipped out for three days to celebrate with family and see old friends.

“So? How is your survival school?” some family friends asked. “Great!” I responded curtly (why is it so hard for me to explain to people what I do?).

East . . .

“So? Are you coming to Vik and Sid’s wedding?” was the next question. In my group of ten cousins, I was the first to get married, followed by my cousin Anirudh. And now, three more are getting married in quick succession with events that span the globe: Ash in California. Vik in Chennai. And Sid in London. Yes folks, it’s a grand wedding-palooza of a year for my family.

. . . meets West

“I am not sure we can make it.” I respond sheepishly. How can I possibly explain over the happy din of Ash’s celebration why Jamie, Kieran, and I can’t come to such an important family event as another cousin’s wedding? It’s not like I can just say, “Sorry, Jamie and I plan our entire lives one year ahead of time to the day so unless you notify us of your celebration over a year ahead, we just can’t join you in your life-changing event. Oh, and by the way, can you—like—plan it in a location that is affordable for us? Cuz we make just a few dollars over the minimum wage . . . even though we were educated in order to escape that whole ‘minimum-wage’ thing.”

Wooow! How horrible, self-indulgent, and totally elitist does that sound?

So it seems that the price I am paying for following my dream of living a spartan outdoorsy lifestyle in the Rockies is to slowly become estranged from my extended family. Which kind of sucks, to be honest.

I think this particular bout of blues is due to our recent spate of watching wedding-themed movies where extended families gather to celebrate their “family-hood” in their family “cottages” (usually, gorgeous architectural marvels on several acres of paradise). It started with Father of the Bride and then My Best Friend’s Wedding and then we went international with My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Monsoon Wedding. And I felt a pang of envy at these families that got together so often with food and frivolity abounding. And then I realized I was getting jealous of fictional characters in a film, and I had to reach deep to figure out why I was being so utterly ridiculous.

Then it dawned on me that these films are actually about my family, but one generation ago.

The Five Families

It was an era when they had to stick with each other to survive in a new country. Four Indian brothers and a sister lived in each other’s houses or less than a mile away from each other for 15 years as they tried to make their way in the U.S., raise children, and eventually find the success they dreamed of when they left India. And those five families found ways to celebrate their love for each other not just once a year—but more like once a week. We would get together for everybody’s birthdays, Hindu Gods’ birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries (yeah, we did celebrate those too), official holidays (no Christian family could top our Christmasses), and Monday night football. Our parents would come up with any excuse to get together. Lord Ganesha’s birthday? Time to make sweets. Appendectomy? Bring on the party! Hysterectomy? You might not be able to eat, but you bet we will!

Today, as we—their progeny—make our own paths in our adult lives, we must find a way to tap into that magical magnetic force that once pulsed through this family in order to stay a family. Otherwise, I fear, we will just float away living our separate lives. Remember learning about the law of inertia in school? Well, my family’s inertia might take us to far-flung places away from each other. Happy, hopefully. But without that extended family to share in it. Unless we fight the inertia, my extended family will keep scattering away from each other like stars.

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Siiiinging on the Trail! Just Siiiinging on the Trail!

What a glooooorious feeling! ‘Tho we’re craaaaawling like snails!

(picture me singing while hiking very slowly with my family and two llamas on a five-day trip last month)

Folks who read my Llamaneering post have asked, “how did you do it?”

I’d like to say I am Supermom. Alas, that is not the case. Even Supermom couldn’t have been patient through 20 miles of slow ambling at 1 mile per hour with a 5-year-old and two llamas. Nor could Superdad. Nor could Superfriends Sarah and Sylvia Carl (who accompanied us for a couple of days).

No, our success was almost entirely due to one thing: singing on the trail. Continuously. The same songs. Over and over and over.

Remember the shampoo directions: Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Here are the hiking with your kid directions: Sing. Hear kid butcher the words. Repeat.

So it started simply with the Coniferous Tree Song that my friend Thea taught me. This one is sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Firs are flat and frie-endly,
And pines they come in packets!
And if you fall into a Spruce
I hope you’re wearing your jacket!

Kieran contributed this Kermit this Frog classic:

Then we moved on to a song that Sarah taught Kieran.

Random. Yet hilarious. Until you have to sing it for eight hours straight.

Jamie was fond of singing “Frog Went A-Courtin’” and “The Fox Went Out on a Moonlit Night.” Both more serious but fun nonetheless.

Sylvia taught Kieran her version of  “Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.” (Which, for the record, is way crueler than my version. Instead of “itsy bitsy birdie feet” she says “chopped up baby Parakeet.” Eeew!)

And I sang songs that I made up for students on my NOLS course, like this C&C Music Factory original (translations in brackets for non-NOLS folks)

Pump up the Fuel
Pump it Up
While the Drom [Dromedary] is filling
and the beans are ‘drating [rehydrating]

Pump it up,
Yeah, I am waiting
Pump it up
A little more
Get the party going in the MSR [that the stove brand we use in the backcountry)
See cuz that’s where the party’s at
And you find out and you do that

I want
A place to bake
Get your Frybake [that’s the pan we use] off the stove now

Bake my cake
Bake my cake
Bake my cake

And then there was this other doozie of a song, which went over well both with NOLS students after three weeks of not bathing and my son after three days of playing in dirt. Picture Mary Poppins when she tries to get the kids to have their medicine.

Just a dollop of Bronners
Makes the Poopybutt go away
The Poopybutt go awa-ay
The Poopybutt go away
Just a dollop of Bronners
Makes the Poopybutt go away
So grab your Drom
And Get Out There!

Nothing like time on your hands to get creative with lyrics and tunes. So next time you want to get your kid to hike on his or her own: sing, hear them butcher the song, repeat.

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Snapshots of a Childhood in Chennai

Cousins on the front porch of our family home in Nungambakkam (I’m holding my cousin Vish)

These are the days. I am more care-free than ever. I am five. Frolicking. Always running, never walking (I realize now why. Six year olds don’t have a walking speed—they just run from Point A to Point B).

So I’m running—mostly alone—through dirty streets. Going next door to the servants’ quarters for a Fanta (orange soda), to get my hands decorated with maridhani (henna), to watch the neighbor kill a chicken (that was traumatizing), to listen to the staccato yells of couples fighting.

Then I’m running across the street to Latha’s house, which smells wonderful and floral—kind of like a Hello Kitty store. Latha is a young lady then, a friend of my mother’s. I eat lunch there and play with her dad, who flies me over his head like superman. No taboos in those days about older men playing with young girls.

Then I fly to the upstairs flat where Atthai Patti (my grant aunt) lives. She has a huge framed Batik print of my favorite Hindu god, Ganesha. I want it. I linger while she cooks something sweet and coconut-y for me. Then Uncle Thatha (my grand uncle) tells me a story.

Then back down the staircase and out the . . . door? Is there even a door? I remember an opening. The door is never closed, really. There is always a constant flow of traffic. The milkman leaving a giant stainless steel carafe of milk. The vendors selling fruit, vegetables. Servants coming and going. Family coming and going. Always people coming and going. Nobody knows how to sit still.

Me in Thatha’s Arms

Except for kollu patti (my great grandmother). Snapshots of kollu patti (my great-grandmother) sitting on a rocking chair next to the door of her room. But my images of her blend in with images of her son, my thatha (grandfather). Son eventually replaces mother. Son occupies that same chair after she moves on, methodically folding paan (betel nut) into tobacco leaves and chewing it slowly. “Hmm?” he nods and gestures to me from his throne. I’m watching a small TV. that sits above a white idol of the Lord Krishna encased in a glass-doored cupboard as if it is a museum piece. “Chm-Chm. Chmmmm-Chmmmm Chmm-Chmmm, Chm. CHM!” thatha nods and gestures forcefully. His mouth is too full of paan to articulate clear words or sentences. But I understand perfectly what he is saying. He is asking me why I haven’t eaten yet. He’s mad. How do I understand that tobacco talk? No idea.

I run to the back of the house, past the Aayah (old wrinkled servant who is cleaning the dining area), and into the kitchen, which feels like a sauna. I steal some raw coconut from the corpulent cook and escape before her hands catch me.

Kollu thatha and patti’s 6th Wedding Anniversary Celebration (with me picking my nose)

Now I’m six. More kids in the house now. Babies everywhere. My brother, my cousins. We wear our cotton gingham uniforms and head to the old Victorian mansion that is Harrington House School. Privately run in true British fashion. Morning assemblies involve lots of hymns and gospels about our Lord Jesus. On to lots of classes. PE involved just running amok. Then back home. Who brought me home?

Evenings patti (my grandma) or thatha or amma (my mom) hand feed me. Literally. They lovingly place balls of rice in my own hand, which I pop into my mouth like gumballs, waiting for more. They sing a rhyme while feeding me, and as always, the rhyme miraculously ends on the last bite. How do they do that?

Deepavali. My favorite time of year in India. Small flames in brass vallakus (oil lamps) flicker everywhere. Freshly pressed clothes. Pressed by my thatha, the king of freshly pressed clothes. All right angles and creases. Not a wrinkle in sight. And stiff with starch. Kind of itchy.

Tray after tray of food. Vatthal, which is made of my favorite stuff in the world. Rice flour and . . . I have no idea what. But there is green chilli in there and I can eat the dough raw. Earlier that week we patted the dough into shapes and pressed them into spirals and swirls and sun dried them on white cotton blankets on the terrace for the day. Then someone (the cook?) deep fried them.

Sudhi, Anirudh, and I on the Rocking Chair

Deepavali night. Loud sounds, music blaring on radios with that quintessential Indian sound. You know, the sound that is so bad that it is good? Sharp but static-y. Tamil movie songs. Horns honking. Amma (my mom) loves fireworks. Especially the loud ones that sound like machine guns. I hate those. I like the quite hissing fireworks that shoot cool colorful fountains into the sky.

Then night. Thatha, amma, and I spread out the pillows and blankets to create a “cozyland” under the fans in the great room. The room feels huge, cavernous. But I’m looking at photos now and it wasn’t that big. Was I just that small?

The fans make that sound that ancient fans in perpetually movement make—a rhythmic whine followed by a soft “whoosh” sound as the fan oscillates. The tube lights flicker to the same rhythm as the fans. Pallis (geckos) skirt around the lights, where small insects chill out in the flicker having their own dance party. The walls reflect that hospital-white light so that the turquoise paint looks glaringly bright.

We turn out the lights. I lie down in cozyland next to the people I love. A village is raising me, but at night I don’t think about the village. As the village members slumber in their own quarters, I lie there in cozyland next to my amma, sleeping the best night of sleep I can remember.

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Pooped Out Zombie Singing the Boob Tube Blues

Caution: this is going to sound like the rant of a privileged mom. And it is. Sorry. I’ll make up for it later.

I need a vacation from my vacation. After a whirlwind weekend wedding in California, we returned to smoky, dry Wyoming on Sunday feeling pooped out, and now we’ve spent the day at home with a sniffling son and the boob-tube babysitter feeling like zombies. (Pooped out zombies. That’s a funny image.)

I don’t know why we jet set all over the place with Kieran in tow thinking we’re going to come home feeling well-rested. We’ve flown with him to Malaysia, India (twice, once with just me), back and forth to California a zillion times, up and down California a few times, and Italy. We’ve carted him across the highways of the West too many times to count. We’ve hiked and camped with him as long as I can remember (including a 16 hour drive to Indian Creek to go climbing when he was running 103 degree temperature—we got only two days of climbing in and the nights were frigid).

Each time, we start packing the day before brimming with excitement. “We’re on vacay! Get out the sunglasses and the matching velour loungewear. It’s going to be chillaxin’!” Okay, I don’t actually say that (or have a velour sweatsuit) but that’s what’s going through my mind, each time.

Each time, we come home completely worn out wondering why for the love of all that is good and homey did we do that to ourselves.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the day on my couch with Kieran on my lap working on Excel spreadsheets while he has watched movie after movie, but I’ve got a serious case of the boob tube blues.

So enough whining, let’s be constructive about this post. Friends and followers, right now I’m asking myself how to travel with Kieran and still feel like I’ve had a vacation. The closest thing we got to it was Italy, where we joined my parents for a week on the Riviera Coast. Jamie and I would climb during the day while my parents took Kieran to the park, and then we would meet up on the beach or on the piazza in the evening for drinks and dinner. Relaxing for us? Totally. Relaxing for my parents? Not so much.

So I’m open to ideas. I want the ultimate active family vacation. I’m not talking backcountry travel here. I’m talking a destination: some fun outdoors (preferably climbing), scrumptious food, sweet libations, good company, a kid-friendly atmosphere, generally affordable (hah hah), and some serious chillaxin’.

Got ideas?

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Llamaneering: Take Two

One evening about a year ago, I sat on my sofa crying to my computer and channeling my misery into a melancholy blog about cancelling my family llama packing vacation. I was depressed, but on the upside, the blog was well received, with versions published on both the Deuter Backpacks blog and National Geographic Adventure’s Beyond the Edge blog. I guess my disappointment jumped off the screen—with words like “crushed,” “brooding,” “reality,” “the blues”—and resonated with parent readers.

Here is the less gloomy sequel to that blog.

We ended up postponing  our llama trip by a year to this August, a week before Kieran started Kindergarten. Perfect timing, right? Right.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a tent completely NOT looking forward to my llama trip. I was in the Wind River Range nearly a month into a NOLS course. I had an absolute blast, but all I wanted to do was come home to my family and have a nice cold coconut water and some fresh fruit on my front porch. I did NOT want to return to civilization and take my first shower in a month only to turn back around and return to the wilderness.

I almost told Jamie to cancel the trip. “It’s going to be different, you’ll see,” said my friend and co-instructor Thea. “You’ll have good food, wine, and you’ll be with your family, not with us!” Home is where the heart is, blah blah blah. Whatever. Just give me my front porch and a cocktail, ok?

As usual, Thea was right.

Llamaneering—that’s what we now call it. I don’t think words can do the experience justice, but I’ll try.

Picture an old ornery man who will whine about everything but begrudgingly give in after about five minutes of complaining. Imagine he is a former mountaineering superstar whom you know can easily bound uphill as fast as lightning, but actually ambles very slowly at no more than a mile an hour, every once in a while tripping over his feet in the pretense of being a decrepit bumbling  geezer.

You still with me? Here’s the best part. Now picture him covered in a wooly coat and carrying 75 pounds of fresh veggies, wine, beer, and luxury camping gear for you. And guess what? He doesn’t require any upkeep. No nightly check-ups, no medications. You just need to tie him up to a tree every night. And food? He’ll eat anything, from the bark of dead pine trees to juniper berries to dried up twigs. Leave him by a tree for too long and he’ll strip the thing clean. He’s a hungry old geezer.

Ok, bear with me for a few more seconds. Now imagine two of these old hornery men, one creatively named “Sheep” because of his white wool, and the other named “Rapid Fire” (is it because of the way he spits? I wouldn’t know, thankfully.)

Those were our llamas. And we loved them.

Llamaneering was better than I dreamed it would be.I could say we saw crystalline lakes, dramatic cliffs, and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. But I think two cowboys who rode right by our camp one day with cold beers in hand said it better.

Dusty: “God damn, this is f***ing beautiful” (spit)

Lefty: “Whadya expect? We’re in God’s country!”

So needless to say, we had some great entertainment, perfect weather, nightly readings of Barry Lopez’s children’s book, Crow and Weasel, and discovered that our kid is perfectly at home in the backcountry. More importantly, he decided to hike the whole dang 20 miles. And I got to carry an awesome child carrier, with nothing but my water bottle in it.

I think this is going to be an annual thing.

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