The Maasai warrior was confused. We were standing on the beach in Zanzibar, and I was explaining that, yes, I am married. And, yes, I have children, and, yes I am here in Africa by myself.
It seems that wherever I travel I run into the problem of how to best explain the concept of American summer camp. I try to explain the habits of my own tribe — Northeast American Jews, to be precise — and I tell the African warriors that we send our children to the mountains for the summer. But I encounter the same confused stares from the Maasai as I do from the Australians (there are always Australians), the Europeans, and just about everyone else I encounter.
Yes, I am a 44-year-old suburban mother of two kids. But, like my kids, I also live #10for2 —a popular tween hashtag used for countdowns to the start of camp.
This is the second summer that both of my children, Zelda (11) and Spencer (9), are spending seven weeks at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen, a brother-sister camp in a remote part of New Hampshire. We send them there to get offline, to forge friendships, to succeed and fail on their own merits, and to learn how to handle those failures and revel in those successes on their own. We send them to a camp where they feel comfortable enough to take risks and build up their emotional grit so that they may make it through middle school (and beyond) in one piece.
Last summer, while the kids were at camp, I took a three-week trip through Mongolia. My profession as a photographer lets me justify these adventures as work — but they would be justified no matter my line of work, or lack thereof. This summer took me on an overland trip through Tanzania and Zanzibar. Middle age doesn’t seem so “middle-agey” when you’re flying into Ulaanbaatar by yourself. I am aware of the privilege that allows me to do these things but I travel on a shoestring and am sure that even if my resources did not allow for it, I would do anything possible to make these summer adventures happen.
We force our children outside of their comfort zone all the time, but we rarely ask it of ourselves. We leave such growth at the door to adulthood, and instead focus on exercise classes and how insanely busy we make ourselves. But camping under the stars in the middle of the Serengeti was awesome, in the old-fashioned biblical sense of awe. It was thrilling to hear hyenas and jackals outside our tent — and downright terrifying when I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
There have been extraordinary highlights during my adventures, including photographing Mongolian wrestlers as they prepared to compete at the Naadam Festival, spotting a lion on my first day on safari, getting lost in the tantalizingly exotic Stone Town, Zanzibar and making true friendships with both locals and other travelers. There have been lowlights as well. I’ve endured far too many “cultural shows” where I am afraid to make eye contact with the performers lest they see my discomfort. And I won’t even mention the ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam, where I sit right now, with passengers puking in every direction.
Because the truth is, after a full year of running a business and a family, I need a break. I need to allow my mind to wander beyond to-do lists and grocery shopping. I need to disconnect from relationships and gain some perspective. I need to rely on myself — and I need to only take care of myself. I need to push myself out of my comfort zone even though I — just like my kids at sleepaway camp — will not always be successful.
As parents, we lose ourselves in the mundane realities of raising children. But having a summer of adventure, independence and wanderlust can provide us with thrilling opportunities to push ourselves and to dust off some of those same skills our children are learning at camp.
I’m tanned, and I have henna tattoos spread out over my hands and feet. I’m wearing a copper Maasai bracelet that I’ve come to truly believe is warding away bad spirits. My clothes are filthy and my What’s App contact list reads like a roll call at the United Nations. With all of that being said, I’m ready to come home — I’m calmer, rebooted, and inspired. And, most important of all, I have camp visiting day this weekend, where I will have the coolest bunk gifts around.