(Not including the USA and an afternoon in Tijuana)
Wales. I was sixteen. My big loves all got me young: Han Solo, Wales, Classic Rock.
Most of you know that I love this little country of kind and funny people. Here’s how I fell in love.
The scouts and us Venturers all worked so hard to go on that Jamboree trip. We had garage sales, bottle drives, shoveled manure, and held casinos (Well, our parents did. We didn’t break any laws until we got into international airspace. Where the laws are different, so maybe we didn’t break any). Whatever the case, we worked hard for about two years to be able to go to the UK for two weeks, for the jamboree, and some time in London.
There were three camps we were aiming for, three big concentrations of scouts from all over the globe. You got to choose your first, second and third choices. My friends all chose Ireland first, but my mom wouldn’t let me, because of the IRA. I was all, “Yes, Mom. The IRA CARES that I am coming to Ireland. They want to kill a sixteen-year-old Canadian.” In retrospect, I think she was just worried: Big concentration of people, lots of publicity. Maybe she had a point.
Whatever. I got Wales, along with my friend Jason. Wales was like getting the short friend on the double date, I thought. Wales was geeky. Not as cool as Leeds or Ireland, at all! But I had shoveled shit and sold ceramic cats, and, damn it, I was going to Wales.
Our jamboree site was a place called Margam Park, which has an actual castle on it, and deer roaming the grounds. There are beautiful copses of huge trees, and miles and miles of rolling hills, which were covered with tents arranged in little ‘villages’. We were about two thousand people, a tent city all over those hills and under those trees, and if you stood at the crest of the hill at the main entry, you could see down past all the tents and the bustle, to the sea, shining in the distance.
Jason and I were in the work camp, because we would be doing jobs and helping out with administration and whatnot. We were meant to take our meals at the staff cafe, but when our first breakfast was lukewarm baked beans, a grilled tomato, and a few pieces of cucumber, we changed our breakfast routine to include chocolate bars from the tuck shop and a shared bottle of Newcastle Brown. Yeah. Beer for breakfast. Hm.
We worked mornings educating kids about ragweed (poisonous to sheep). We collected the kids in this big central tent, and took them out into the fields to pull ragweed up and save the sheep. While we were waiting for kids in the tent, we talked to the other volunteers. I learned from a retired colonel how to distill my own urine into potable water, and the correct way to season monkey meat. I got into a conversation with a guide leader from Cardiff who was astonished that I’d never seen a hedgehog. She whipped into town and presented me with a poster of a hedgehog. I was enchanted.
Afternoons were mostly ours to do whatever we wanted. We met kids from all over the UK, swapped badges, and taught each other slang. One afternoon, Jason and I, and our friends Tai and Andrew, from Wolverhampton, hitched a ride on a supplies truck into Cardiff and wandered around shopping.
Evenings were wonderful. We sat around fires and swapped stories with the other volunteers, or Tai and Andrew and Jason and I would walk into the little town of Pyle, and hang out with the scouters. We drank beer and ate cheddar and onion flavoured crisps. Walking back got slow, because Jason always wanted to stop and talk to the sheep. I would make the boys roll over the cattle grids if I thought they were too drunk to walk.
The closing horseshoe, I cried a little bit. It was like I found this new town, this new place, and I had found a way to fit in. I had friends, I had responsibilities. Somehow, Margam Park had become home. While I wasn’t looking, Wales turned into home.
And that’s how I fell in love with Wales.