Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spelunking and Bathrobes in the Ardennes

Wednesday the three classes of us 5th level Education students took off on our long-anticipated trip to the Ardennes to animate and be animated. 40 teens on a train is just fun stuff, even more so because we had the entire car reserved to ourselves and our overstuffed baggage was safely en route by truck. When we arrived in the village of Lustin we took a little hike to the infamous building that the school rents every year. I had heard horror stories of sleeping in an attic with holes in the roof and pigeon poop encrusted all over the floor, with a meager two showers and trough-like sink. I was pleasantly surprised to find a clean two-story building with functioning appliances, electricity, and a spacious attic to sleep in, albeit with several holes in the roof. Luckily it didn't rain.
After rolling out our sleeping bags and enjoying some school-made spaghetti we got ready to present our activities. My class and another were in charge of the veillée (like a night party, think the traditional night around the campfire with songs and games). Our theme was 'challenges and spectacles' so my group did several skits. Overall they went well and we got people to laugh. I played a black singer with pipes in one and a rather dumb bloke trying to brush his teeth in another. For the second I wore a truly incredible bathrobe of Marianne's (she has quite a stock of costume material) and everyone was relatively shocked when the quiet Alaskan kid started head-banging and brazenly acting the part of the funny fool. I got a kick out of their shock. They were equally surprised when I showed up at the soirée after the official veillée was over, not to drink beer(yes, Belgians drink beer on school trips) and sit on the sidelines but to rock out on the dance floor as it were. I, in turn, thoroughly enjoyed the partying, dancing profs and other kids. It was a good time; we crawled into our sleeping bags around 1:30 and conked out.
The next day was a busy one. After breakfast we swaddled ourselves in raincoats and old clothes and walked to a nearby cave to go spelunking. I had visited some touristic caves in Alabama, but this was nothing of the kind---no light show and nice level walkways with handrails. This was a headlamp, crawling over boulders, wiggling down shafts, and scooting through mud affair. We spent two hours following our guides up, down, and sideways through the caves. The rocks were all smooth and there wasn't much in the way of stalactites, partially due to the amount of traffic the cave gets. It's been hot lately so there wasn't much in the way of water either, although the mud was pretty abundant. I kept thinking of Tom Sawyer discovering Injun Joe and Bilbo creeping through goblin tunnels. Despite the amazing skills of writers, their descriptions never really imparted the whole impression of being underground that I found. Chaos, with all its primeval connotations, would be a good word to describe it. Anyways, I had never done anything like that before and it was really rather fun, even if we were all dead-beat and looked like we'd fought in Vietnam by the time we came back out into the sunshine.
After changing out of our mud-caked clothes and enjoying some Belgian hotdogs it was time for our group to do 'VTT'. I knew that the V stood for vélo (bicycle) but I was unaware that the whole abbreviation meant MOUNTAIN biking. And thus, imminent danger and possibility of death and humiliation by hurtling metal vehicles over rough terrain. I was in the 'strong' group, thus mostly boys. Who mostly liked the idea of rocketing down the steep and plenteous little mountains of Belgium regardless of the trail conditions or traffic. Gulk. I'm not a very coordinated person, and I almost never bike. Thus, biking on a flat surface is already peril-frought as far as I'm concerned. It took me about 10 minutes of sticks, leaves, and pointy rocks to decide that mountain biking is on my antipathy list. Plus shortly after I fell up to my hips in a mud hole. So much for my dry underwear and my only clean jeans. I decided laughter was the best response to my misfortune and clumsiness, and I managed to joke with the others about how I obviously missed the spelunking mud. Anyways, after losing and finding multiple members of our group and pedaling up and down and all over the beautiful countryside for 3 hours, we made it back to home base. The forest and farms really were gorgeous, with tractors and cattle out on the hills and flowers in the woods. We also saw a snake. Quite exotic fauna for an Alaskan. I would have been in raptures about it all if I hadn't been focusing on survival.
After dinner we had another veillée put on by the remaining class. Everyone was dog tired, but we managed enough enthusiasm to participate and help our comrades out. Their theme was 'battle', and everyone participated in the different challenges. I got called out to help in a dance-off (we won, I might add) and then a sing off. I'm not much of a singer, and I don't know all the words to most of the popular songs I'm familiar with, so I chose to sing 'Soldier Soldier Will You Marry Me' (a yankee tune that dates back to the Revolutionary war) and acted out the story of the wily, married soldier who tricks the maiden into buying him all kinds of clothes. One teacher understood the story and indignantly berated the rascal with his 12 children at home. So that went relatively well. Afterwards I managed to stay awake with a few other brave souls to dance for a bit, but gave up relatively quickly. I wrapped myself up in the bathrobe of marvels to stay warm and slept like a rock.
Friday we packed up and took the train to Floreffe, where we strapped into harnesses and clipped on ropes to go rock climbing. The mountain really wasn't that big, and we really weren't all that high, but it sure felt like it. We went around on courses set up with metal cables bolted into the rock, holding ourselves up on whatever we could. We also did a type of tight rope walk, rope bridge, and rope ladder. We also did a zipline. It was pretty petrifying, but I climbed and clambered and hauled myself all across the cliffs and ropes and out of caves. And I was really quite proud of myself for it in the end. With the exception of a break for some barbecue (hot dogs in baguettes. I don't think I'll be able to stomach wonderbread ever again!)we spent all day clinging to ropes and whatever else for our lives, so we pretty well collapsed when we made it on the train home. We ended up in the first class car, whose cushy seats were thoroughly appreciated, because there wasn't enough room anywhere else. Score.
So the trip was pretty cool. I did a lot of things I'd never even considered doing, and I bonded with Belgian buddies.

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