To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield

O que é um berne?  “What is a worm?”

I turned to a man named Bruno with very blue eyes and asked this question without a hint of sarcasm. An early, necessary sidenote: for those of you who don’t know, sarcasm is my natural state. Bruno turned to me with a surprisingly equal lack of sarcasm and answered, “É quando você tem…

This was not my first mundane vocabulary question, or my last, during a four-day weekend in what’s known as the Switzerland of Brazil, Campos do Jordão, in the state of São Paulo. Apparently it is also Brazil’s highest city, meaning that during the winter it might get a dusting of snow, maybe, but probably not. It’s not yet officially winter here, but that hasn’t stopped Brazilians from reciting the Game of Thrones chant “Winter is Coming” and donning scarves and gloves. I don’t have the heart to tell them that no, it’s not coming. At least not with heaps of snow. Because this isn’t really Switzerland. It’s only fake Switzerland in Brazil, which means two things: 1. Winter sports are never going to be your thing 2. Everything is decidedly less organized.

But I didn’t go to Campos do Jordão for the nonexistent snow or even the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like architecture. I went on a wild, curious and abrupt turn of the mind. I went on a whim. I went to spend a few days expanding my comfort zone with Outward Bound Brasil. I’ve wanted to do an Outward Bound course in America for a few years, particularly because they offer free programming for eligible veterans. I haven’t made it to a course in the States yet, so when I happened upon this course in Brazil that was open to anyone, including a gringa like me, I decided to go. Not because of careful planning or a great desire to sound like the dumbest person in the room, but simply because I could. (Fact: I did sound like the dumbest person in the room, but I got over it).

As my family members and fellow military friends know, there are many choices you cannot make while serving in the military or being a part of a military family. You usually cannot choose where you live, or when your family will be together. You cannot choose your rank or your commander or your uniform. You often cannot chose if and when you go to war. You certainly cannot choose whether you come back. You simply serve, knowing that you will have to make a million other, often more difficult choices along the way. And though my season of military service is over, I try to be mindful of the ability to choose during this unparalleled season of freedom I am in right now.

So I chose to go into the woods with ten Brazilian strangers and ask them about worms. Our four-day weekend was spent largely at a cabin learning how to do things that seem totally useless in most of our everyday lives: tying knots and using a compass, finding an azimuth and navigating to a point (sans GPS, if you can believe it). These were all things I had done before but long forgotten, however for others it was an entirely new experience. The joy in seeing someone learn a new skill, not because they needed it for a job or a promotion, but just because they wanted to do something different, was joyful. We played a few of the classic team building games, and one such exercise is the trust fall, where you willingly fall backwards off of a platform and hope the strangers you met yesterday don’t drop you. 

In the military I had done countless of these exercises that are meant to help you trust yourself and the others in your new team. But now I was seeing it from the civilian side, from people who chose to spend their long holiday weekend doing something different. They weren’t attending because their ROTC program required it or because their military education demanded it. They weren’t trying to impress the commander or the first sergeant. They certainly weren’t wearing uniforms. But as a group and individually they were more dedicated to trying, to taking a risk, to falling and failing than I had seen in a long time. And they reminded me that once you get past that moment of panic, you can start learning. In the end that’s what Outward Bound is trying to teach you, to keep striving and not to yield to your panic. 

This is easy to say in the more-or-less controlled learning environment I was in. The harder task is taking this idea home and then applying it when your when language skills fall short. Like when you’re the foreigner who can’t explain herself after her debit card was literally eaten by the ATM and the bank workers are blaming you for their dysfunctional machine. Not that it has ever happened to me, of course. 

Which reminds me of another phrase I learned that weekend: Nunca se renda. Never surrender. This doesn’t have to be a William Wallace-type war cry (but that's fine, too). It can be a quiet reminder in the days when you feel like you don’t have a choice or a chance. It’s a reminder to me when my Portuguese fails me and I’m caught in another awkward situation, likely of my own doing, that I can’t talk my way out of. I used to be good at that. It used to be my job, actually. Talking in and out of situations, in and out of media interviews, in and out of the spaces between rocks and hard places. I liked the work, too. I liked telling stories, even the difficult ones. But you can’t be a storyteller if you don’t know the language. So I’m relearning…everything. That primarily means learning to embrace the discomfort zone and not being a berne about it. So, nunca se renda. And don’t be a worm.