From September to December 2015, I was working as a Project Manager for a youth and sustainable development charity. In my second project, I, together with two other PMs, took a group of 14 Venturers - young adults between the ages of 18 and 22, from international backgrounds - on a 19-day trek across Nicaragua. The aim was for them to learn leadership and teamwork, and to get out of their comfort zone.
Spending day and night together can be trying at the best of times. Such as when you’re vacationing on a remote island with your loved one, without any internet connection to distract you. Or when you’re stuck in a VW bus with your best friend, finally doing the Route 66. Now imagine trekking through Nicaragua for 19 days, in scorching heat, on rationed food, with 20kg on your back, and a group of people you met the day before you set off. If you’re one of the “Venturers” - the young international volunteers - at least 13 others are your age, and half of them might be willing to sleep with you if you play it right and don’t smell too rank after a couple of days without shower and two weeks in the same clothes. If you’re a Project Manager like me, or one of my two co-PMs, your role is to be the old fart that prevents everyone else from doing the fun stuff. You’ll be the person trying to squeeze in an educational “Active Citizen” session after 8 hours of walking, when the only thing anyone in their sane mind wants to do is find a shady place and enjoy an afternoon nap. Or have a cig and a gossip, if you’re one of the cool kids.
Being that old fart can be quite tiring, especially if you usually see yourself as not particularly old, or boring for that matter. However, from the point of view of an 18-year old who feels like they are at the top of the world, we PMs must have seemed totally lame. Here they were, walking along day in and day out, passing the time with stories that mostly seemed to start with “oh my god, that one time, I was soooooooo drunk” and went on to tell adventures that seemed to involve drugs (sometimes), sex (often) and parents (almost always). We, on the other hand, were listening in, sometimes laughing along, sometimes rolling eyes at each other. However, being the responsible adult, that was all we could do. “They must think we’re so terribly boring,” my co-PM sighted, taking a break away from the group. “They’d faint if I could tell them only a tenth of what I’ve done in my youth!”
What really made this situation interesting was that we were trekking across Nicaragua with the aim to instill some leadership skills in these kids. Thus, each of them would take charge for a day, organize breaking camp, navigating, taking breaks, cooking dinner and so on. We as PMs were to be just team members, there to help and direct but not to lead. Which, in effect, meant that we were turned into some kind of super Venturer, taking on any task that needed doing without the privilege of being the boss. One day, sick of our rationed food, we dared to buy some tortillas from a local lady - just for the three us. This lead to an outcry among the Venturers, and a full blown “Honesty Session” at night, which was basically a court martial aimed to address the misbehaviour of us PMs. How could we dare to buy food just for our own enjoyment, without first considering the Venturers and their lust for tortillas? The kids were enraged, and we had to promise better behaviour in the future to avoid some Lord of the Flies-style scenario. Needless to say, little old ladies in remote Nicaraguan villages don’t tend to have 17 spare tortillas lying around - but that might be beside the point.
“Youth Leadership”, in our case, turned out to be a crash course in parenting hormone crazed teenagers at the brink of adulthood. You can’t really do anything right, but you can do everything wrong. And in the end, you’re still the one they’ll come to with blisters, diarrhea, when they can’t find their boxer shorts or miss their boyfriend. It’s fucking hard, trying to lead and to instill some reason in their heads while at the same time making it appear like you’re one of them. Because you’re not. I, for my part, learned that I’m not made for egalitarian societies. My co-PMs felt the same. “I’m quite sick of this,” one of the girls commented while trying to find a comfortable position to lie in in our tiny tent. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been babysitting a bunch of kids for the last three months. And I can’t even eat tortillas”.
I wholeheartedly agreed, and noted down the quote in my diary. However, I also remember being one of those kids myself, at 19, as a Venturer exploring Borneo. Back then, the expedition was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I could feel myself growing and stretching with every day that we trekked through the jungle or build a library in a tiny mountain village. By the end of the trip, I felt utterly grown up. The experience changed how I saw myself as a person, and what I wanted to study at university. That’s why I came back as a PM, years later - to experience the other side and to allow other young people to have a similar experience. I didn’t expect the job to be so hard, and I certainly did not expect to be reminded of my own mother, struggling with me during my teenage years. Hence, the morning after the conversation in the tent, I took out a piece of paper. Then I wrote a letter to my mother back in Germany, and apologized.