From China to Switzerland: A Journey back into Scouting – Lauren (USA)

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A cool breeze caresses my face and I slowly begin to regain consciousness. The dew is fresh on the grass, and I can hear water trickling from the fountain near the kitchen. It’s sunrise in the Bernese Alps aPicture 1bnd things are just beginning to stir to life at Our Chalet. Here, the days are strikingly different than what I’m used to. I recently finished a job of just over 2.5 years in China, and it’s hard to accept that this place is so calm and refreshing. China, in all of its exotic wonder is a mixture of people, cars and smells. Street vendors hawk their delicious food and shop owners set their wares on the street to sell. Everyone has a cell phone and is constantly in a rush to get wherever-it-is they’re going. Sometimes you push your way onto a bus or haltingly ride your bicycle in-between cars who seem to forget they share the road. Some days you simply take refuge in Starbucks for a little peace and quiet.

Here is the exact opposite. The mountains are a calming presence, millennia worth of immovable stone there to reassure you that time can wait.  Bees lazily buzz around your morning coffee and the occasional bird soars overhead. It’s idyllic. Even on days that seem incredibly busy either leading guests to mountaintops, or cooking and cleaning bathrooms, it is still peaceful. You sometimes look out a window and ask yourself, “am I really here?”

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Yes, I am. But as Falk, our first Guider-in-charge, would ask, “why am I here?” That is a more complicated question. After so much time in China as a teacher (a job I enjoyed, but is not my passion) I was ready for a change. My educational background is in outdoor youth programs and I served as a camp director, ropes course facilitator, and outdoor program volunteer with my local council. Prior to moving abroad nearly every weekend was spent with Girl Scouts or on a ropes course. I missed fresh air while in big Chinese cities, but in an intangible way that  realize how much until I had the opportunity to be an adventure guide for some local schools in Guangdong province.  I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in a long time and I immediately knew I needed to come back to my roots.

So, my Chalet journey began. After discovering the volunteer program right before the application deadline, I sPicture 3pent a hectic few weeks frantically contacting Our Chalet, GSUSA, and my references and writing an application. I’d about given up hope when, in the middle of a family visit I received an e-mail: they wanted to interview me to be a volunteer! About a week later I sat in my Guangzhou apartment at midnight answering questions. I felt confident, capable and as though this was going to begin a new chapter, and be the beginning of my return to where I belong.

And, it has been. Over a few months I left my job and apartment, said goodbye to my students, and shipped most belongings back to my parents.Picture 4 In spite of the difficulty of finishing these tasks and parting with friends I never questioned whether this was the right path. Now that I have been at Chalet for two months, I feel at home, home with scouting, with young women, and with such a diverse and wonderful staff team. Yes, we’re different. Our staff members come from 10 different nations and we speak 10 languages between us. Our guests often come from countries which are not represented by the staff team. Sometimes things are lost in translation and there are misunderstandings. Sometimes there’s laughter in our differences, sometimes frustration and sometimes joy.

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But out here, in a place with adventure and “peace for the soul,” there is the Guiding and Scouting sisterhood. I feel it in our hikes and in duties before dinner. I feel it on International Night and at pinning ceremonies. Most importantly I feel it in the daily interactions with my fellow Vollies, with long-term staff, and with guests. As Falk said, “we have all made the same promise.” We are not so different after all.

I can honestly say that here, after nearly three years, 7 countries, and countless adventures, I feel at home. Beneath the roof of Chalet, I havefound happiness knowing that I am part of this family and will carry this experience with me into the chapter of my story.Picture 6

Lauren Reichstein
Summer 2015 Our Chalet Assistant

GUEST : Swiss Challenge Event

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The mountains rise before you on the trip from Zurich. At first they are green hills behind the industry paralleling the railway lines that pull you farther and farther from your old reality. But by the time you’ve changed trains in Bern and hopped a bus to Adelboden in Fruitigen, they are giants–towers of rock and trees and meadow that soar overhead. At that moment, the planes, trains and automobiles it takes to get here become worth it.

“It’s so beautiful it looks fake,” one of our American Girl Scouts exclaimed as she swiveled around in Our Chalet’s yard, gazing at the mountains on all sides.Adelboden

No matter how many times I bring girls to Our Chalet, the reaction is always the same. I first made the trip in 1987, with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. The girls had decided when they were Junior Scouts that they wanted to travel to England and Switzerland,  and they spent years planning their adventure. I returned in 1997 with another troop, and again in October 2014 with a group of adult Scouts.

Front DoorNow I’m back, this time with my granddaughter–following in her mother’s footsteps–and 11 other girls, and four other adults who are having those familiar reactions to the scenery, the activities, and the adventure of a lifetime. Everyday has been “the best day ever.”

Francy's group

After gazing at the mountains and the valley around Our Chalet for a few minutes, we were greeted by the warm staff and taken to our rooms. The girls settled into “the attic”–the same room my daughter’s troop had stayed in almost 30 years ago–and the adults divided into comfortable spaces among the guest floors. The dinner bell called us to a spaghetti dinner and we eased into our new home.

The next day founIMG_5769d us learning campfire and orienteering skills on the Chalet grounds, as well as tips and challenges for living sustainably. The day also included a session on the WAGGGS “Free to Be Me” initiative. A barbecue lunch introduced us to local sausages and chocolate, and in the evening we learned how small our world truly is: as each group staying at Our Chalet presented itself through skits and songs, we realized every corner of our home state was represented by other guests. But we learned how big it is too, as we shared laughs with Girl Guides from Denmark and Canada, and Scouts from other states in the U.S., trading swaps and extra “knickers,” the colorful scarves Girl Guides wear when traveling abroad. The Chalet is truly a place to make new friends.

We ventured off the ChaAdventure Parklet grounds the next day with a trip to the local adventure park, where both girls and adults were pushed out of their comfort zones by zip lines and ropes courses and a sky-high rock wall that tested their climbing skills. Their faces could hardly contain their wide smiles, and they bounced their way down the trail to home, overcome by excitement. It was another best day ever.

The town of Thun waited for us the next day, after a funicular ride up the face of Niessen Mountain and a boat trip across Lake Thun. Most of the girls toured medieval Oberhofen Castle and had fun in the dress-up room there, trying on hats and emailing pictures of themselves back home.

The only disappointment of the week came that night, when the overnight hike to Bunderspitz was cancelled due to weather.

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But maybe it was for the best. We were tired! Free day couldn’t have come at a better point in the program. So the next day we headed to Adelboden for a leisurely lunch and some shopping. By the time we climbed the hill to the town’s Main Street, Dorfstrasse, we were ready to eat–so much for rest.
BakeryMore  shopping awaited the next day, after a hike to the Trummer Holzschnitzere woodcarver, on which we learned the term “Swiss flat.” In Switzerland, even the flat road is never flat. At his shop, we filled our packs with the hand-carved Girl Scout and Girl Guide souvenirs in which he specializes. Next door, we rejuvenated for the climb back with lemon cake and chocolate milk.Hiking

On the way home we put those packs down to try our hand at abseiling. As we lowered ourselves 30 meters into the Cholern Gorge above a crystal green-blue river that thundered through the rock, the beauty of this place again took hold. Another best day ever.

By now those packs were pretty full, but we managed to make some room in them the following day, when we headed to Interlaken to watch how that delicious Swiss chocolate is made. There might not be much left in Switzerland, because so much White Water Raftingis going home with us. But that afternoon we burned off some of that sugar with a trip down the Lutschine River in a rubber raft. Our guide bellowed commands: “paddle forward!!” while we strained to keep the boat moving in the right direction among the rocks and rapids. “Get down!!” our guide called. We obeyed, as we bumped and splashed our way into Lake Brienz, where we jumped in and played in the blue abyss. There we met up with the group that headed to Trummelbach Falls, to see the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings.”

More adventure awaited the our last full day when we hiked to Elsiegenalp. Some took the high road, and some took the low road, but we all arrived in the same placeMore Francy group. Bathing suits in our packs, we looked forward to a refreshing swim in a real alpine lake, but Mother Nature, who had been treating us to 90-degree weather all week, had other plans. Our alpine lake had evaporated to an alpine puddle. We settled for a dip in a man-made lake. And those of us who went on to the peak of Elsighorn were rewarded with a sense of accomplishment in the 1,000-meter gain in altitude as well as views of snow covered peaks and the surrounding towns.

That night the tears mingled with songs at the closing campfire as the last best day ever — and the best week ever — came to a close. More trains, planes and automobiles would take us back to our old reality the next day, but memories of Our Chalet will be with us for at least the next 30 years.Campfire End

Francy Shreve
July 2015