June 27th, 2017

compass rose


First Steps

For over a year now, our happy Crew has been struggling. Venturing Crews tend to be small, tightly-knit groups. Youth come and go, but the core group tends to go through the experience together, aging together as they go. It becomes difficult to add younger members to a mature group, and the rapidly aging group will tend to reach departure point at the same time. "Departure point" means that point at which one's life changes so as not to allow participation any more: graduation from high school and going off to college; falling in love and getting married; or actual aging out at 21.

Crew 119 started to hit serious bumps in early 2016, and we failed to pull off our high adventure plans for that summer. By the beginning of school last summer, I was doubtful that we would last very much longer. Still, I promised the Crew members that if at least two youth committed to a trip -- any trip -- and I had a second adult, we would go anywhere they wanted to go. My only other condition is that we had to go and return by mid-June. (I was already looking ahead to retiring, though I couldn't tell them that at the time.)

Well, one Venturer insisted that the only trip he would be interested in would be to Switzerland -- why, I have no idea. He was supported by another youth. No other strong ideas were mooted. So, Okay, I said. Switzerland it is. Within a few weeks of announcing that, the two who had so insisted decided they didn't want to go. But we had made our announcement, and I had a promise on the board.

I feel very strongly about promises, especially those made to children and youth. I remember all the big dreams of my own youth, and how frustrating it was that no one could help me make them come true. And I remember the big-talking adults, in school and in Scouts and later in church, who would talk about all the things we could do, but somehow we never did. I became determined to never be That Guy, the one who talks big and then disappoints people. After all, if I want people to believe in the promises I give on God's behalf, I figure I'd better be a walking advertisement for kept promises.

Having determined that we were going, I began costing out the trip and we started trying to recruit people to go. The cost for ten days of European adventure was only $2,000 apiece. But still, we asked not only our own remaining Crew members, but the Scouts of our sister Troop, and Scouts from around the District. No takers. I was boggled, but I've been there many times before. I felt like I was giving away diamonds on a street corner, and couldn't find a buyer.

Finally, the group stabilized, at the minimum size of four: T.C., our Crew President, was going. And T.J., who was technically an adult now, but only recently so, would go as our second youth. Alane, one of our Committee members, would be my second adult. And so we got our passports updated, put our money in, and I secured our reservations at Kandersteg International Scout Centre.

Sunday, 6/11

I was up very early. Had to be at the church at 6:30 a.m. We were flying out of Indianapolis on United Airlines to Dulles International, and then overnight to Geneva. Our original itinerary had us flying Turkish Airlines there and back, but we got switched to United for the outbound flights when Turkish canceled one of their flights.

On our way

On our way
Alane, me, T.C., T.J.

We were all in good time. Alane over-packed, but the boys helped her get her stuff ready. All of us are experienced travelers, but this was Alane's first high adventure trip. "Packing light" was a new concept for her.

T.J.'s mom, Kara, drove us to the airport. There was a minor glitch in our ticketing at check-in. This is why you show up two hours early. The lady behind the counter soon had everything straightened out, and we were good to go. We had to pay an extra $100 to check a fifth bag -- the one containing our Crew camping gear -- but I expected that. We were at the gate by 9:06, with a little over an hour to wait before our flight.

I took a half hour nap on the flight to Dulles. They served us lunch. I promptly took another half hour nap. It wasn't just that I was tired from being up early; I had just finished moving from the parsonage into a rented home and doing other frantic things to close down my pastorate. Still, sleeping on planes is a blessing; it helps with the boredom.

I changed a bunch of dollars into Swiss francs at Dulles. The abbreviation for Swiss francs is CHF. The F is obviously for francs, but the CH is a puzzle at first, until you get a look at their money, especially their coins. Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). German speakers call their country der Schweiz; French speakers refer to le Suisse; in Italians, it's Svizzera. But apparently their official name, as it appears on their coinage, is Confederatio Helvetica. And they say nobody uses Latin anymore.

We had some time to kill at Dulles, but soon enough, they called for the overnight flight to Geneva. Dinner on the plane offered two choices, both vegetarian. I remembered my first international plane trip in the fall of 2000, when I went to Tanzania all by myself to set up a big Scouting mission trip. I tried several new things on that trip, starting with the food served by the airline. I figured that I was going on an adventure, and that I ought to try new things.

Monday, 6/12

All too soon, we landed in Geneva. It was 7:00 a.m., local time. Considering that Switzerland is six hours ahead of us, that means we were getting ready to start a full day in-country at 1:00 o'clock in the morning by our bodies' time.

Our first challenge was figuring out the public transport system in a foreign country. How do you buy tickets for a bus from a machine, which bus takes you where you want to go, etc. Eventually, we figured it out and took a pair of buses which dumped us on street somewhere near the city center. We asked directions and found our hostel, just a couple blocks away.

Geneva is a French-speaking city. Many people spoke English, and that helped. I remembered enough French pleasantries from my 2014 trip to Congo that I could be polite.

At the hostel, we were given 24-hour bus passes as part of our reservation, which meant we could go anywhere the bus system could take us without having to worry about buying tickets. And with that, we were loose on the town. One of the first places we passed as we walked up the street was a pastry shop. We were feeling a little hollowed out, so we stepped in to get a snack.

We started our official day in Geneva with some very fine quiche. We have become a Crew of foodies, and eating local is part of what we do when we're on an adventure. Swiss pastry is hard to beat, and it made a good start. We also filled our water bottles and looked over the tourist maps we got at the hostel.

The old town across the Rhone seemed to offer the most interesting stuff, so we grabbed a bus to get over there. It deposited us at the base of a hill. Above us, through a tangle of streets, loomed the old St. Peter's Cathedral, which had gone through the Reformation. We set out to find our way to it. Along the way, we discovered a delightful water fountain, a feature we later found repeated in many Swiss towns. The water was potable; the trough was from the days when everybody had horses.

Water fountain

Water fountain
Old town, Geneva

The streets climbed steeply up to the cathedral: a common feature in Switzerland. Everything you want to see is uphill. Getting there will require you to go uphill, both ways. A tangle of streets, of buildings and terraces each higher than the other, finally brought us to a side door of the church. St. Peter's occupies a site which has had a Christian church since the 4th Century. Beneath it, we toured the excavations of several former cathedrals.

St. Peter's Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral

Old baptistry beneath the cathedral

Old Baptistry
Beneath St. Peter's foundations

After touring the church and its archaeological museum, we wandered down to the lakeshore. There was a pretty park there, and we window-shopped for souvenirs. The bus line went all the way out to CERN, the European nuclear research facility, so we decided to go out there and say we had seen it.

It was a long trip out to the suburbs. As we passed through the city, I noticed that the buildings were all of a standard type. They were built of cement, with some kind of metal or tile siding above. There would be shops at ground level and about six stories of apartments above that. As we got out into the suburbs, residential blocks of apartments buildings (no ground floor shops) of a dozen or more stories began to appear. All rather drab and functional. Later on, sitting in the hostel dining room, looking at the structural beams made of cement, I realized that the architecture of Geneva reminded me of Dar es Salaam or Morogoro.

There was kind of a park for visiting school children at CERN. We only looked at the big display at the entrance. Then we grabbed the bus before it left us and returned to the city. We got some lunch on the street above our hostel, and then went back to our room. We were all beat. T.C. and T.J. collapsed on the floor without bothering to get into their beds.

Lac Leman

Lac Leman
The heart of Geneva


Got any atoms you need smashed?

Worn out

Worn out
Long day, but short on sleep

Next: on to Kandersteg
compass rose



Tuesday, 6/13

Breakfast at the hostel was a minimal affair. I tried Muesli for the first time. The hostel, I think, toasted their own; it tasted like mildly burnt cinnamon toast. There was yogurt, fruit, cheese, bread, butter and jam. There was also some lunchmeat, like salami, which puzzled us.

Two observations: this is what all Swiss breakfasts are like, apparently, since cereal, yogurt, fruit, cheese, bread, and lunchmeat were what we offered every day of our trip. No cooked meat, like, say, bacon. No pancakes or waffles. They never heard of "the full English" in Switzerland, either. The second observation: all cheese in Switzerland is Swiss cheese. Which doesn't mean it's all the same, exactly, but it's all the same type of cheese: yellow, varying degrees of sharpness. We liked our breakfasts in Switzerland, but we got bored with them after a while, I must say.

The weather was hot and fine. We were already in trekking mode, slugging down water constantly. We carried our water bottles everywhere, too. As they say at Philmont, the first response to every situation is, Drink more water. By the time you feel your thirst, you're already dehydrated.

Drink more water

Drink more water
T.J., determined to remain clear and copious

We handed in our sheets and towels, made sure our bill was all straight, and got ready to leave for the train station. I asked where it was (though if I hadn't been so tired, I would have remembered seeing it). I couldn't make out what the receptionist was saying at first -- or at second, either. When I asked her to confirm by repeating what she said, she smiled. Apparently, my pronunciation of Gare Cornavin wasn't very close. Oh well, points for trying.

We wore our full uniforms for our day of travel to the International Scout Centre (Pfadizentrum). Waiting at a bus stop, a middle-aged lady made a joke at our expense in French. Something about, Where was the war? I explained we were Scouts Americains, going to Kandersteg. She sniggered, thinking her snide little joke was original, but I've heard it in American English too many times. *Sigh*

At the station, we hopped a train, hoping it was the right one. We were headed for Bern, where we would have to change trains for Kandersteg. This doesn't sound too complicated or worrisome, except to Americans, especially those who don't live on the East Coast or in Chicago. We're car people; we aren't sure what to do with trains and have to be taught.

If the economics had worked out, I'd have rented a car and driven to Kandersteg. But the Swiss have made rail travel easy and cost-effective. We had Scout Transfer Tickets I had purchased ahead of time, which gave us a cut rate from Geneva to Kandersteg and back. In addition, I had ordered tickets from Kandersteg to Thun for us to use for a day trip later in the week.

Changing trains was a novel experience for us. I wish we hadn't had to do it encumbered by all our gear, but we made it. I also wish we had more time to explore Bern. All I saw of it was its train station. Signs announced trains departing for many interesting locations.

Unfortunate name

Unfortunate name
It's pronounced, "Vonkdorf"

Looking around the train station, I saw a pretzel stand. It was called Brezelkönig. Just what we need, I thought. I like the chewy, salty stadium pretzels. I asked for vier Brezeln out of a pile, and we got -- surprise! -- a soft, sweet pastry pretzel with a hint of almond extract in it. Like a cherry turnover. Revelation! Like I said, Swiss pastry is a wonderful thing.

First encounter with Swiss cuisine

Another encounter with Swiss cuisine
It just keeps getting better

We got on the train to Kandersteg. We passed through Reichenbach -- which is not where the famous Reichenbach Falls are, I'm sad to say. That's another thing to put on our bucket list, though. And we saw snow-clad mountains in the distance. Alane got very excited. She had never been in mountains before. "We don't grow 'em that big in Indiana," she said.

All snazzed up

All snazzed up
T.C. in full uniform

When we got off the train station in Kandersteg, we looked around for a bathroom; also, where to have lunch. We eventually had lunch at the little restaurant at the train station. The goulash soup was very good. In ordering water, we had to make sure to explain we wanted "still water"; if we had just ordered "water," we would have been served mineral water. Adelboden, over in the next valley is a major producer of mineral water.

Oeschital from the train station

The first thing you notice upon descending from the station

Wearing a neckerchief -- or really, anything that identifies you as a Scout -- gets you free bus rides in Kandersteg. So we got on the bus and rode up to the Scout Centre. And there we were, at last. Our eyes devoured everything around us.


The Chalet, KISC's headquarters

Kander River

Kander River
Swift and full of glacial runoff, dangerous


Pavement below the Chalet steps

Your move

Your move
Just a quick game, then


Blow-up of a Baden-Powell sketch


Office cat

We checked in. I paid the balance of our catering and camping bill, along with the costs of the various tours and transportation they had booked for us: all in all, about 1200 CHF. Paying ahead meant that we were controlling our costs. Most of the Crew cash we had on us to spend would go for the few meals out when we had planned to be away from camp, touring. The cash in our personal pockets was for ourselves, alone. I am famous for telling people that our trip budget covers "everything but your Coke and souvenir money."

Katje, a "pinkie" (headquarters staff) from Germany, gave us the orientation tour and showed us where to set up camp. We also shopped a bit in the Chalet Shop. Alane bought a Swiss cowbell -- a ubiquitous item, sold in every shop in Switzerland in various sizes and amounts of decoration. She put it on her daypack so that everywhere she walked, we could hear it tinkling. This immediately gave rise to cowbell jokes, such as, "What this Crew needs is more cowbell."

Our campsite

Our campsite
These tents have been set up under several sets of mountains and hills, in several different countries, by now

We didn't plan anything big for our first afternoon and evening in Kandersteg. We just wanted to settle in and rest up. We learned that people from all over -- including many Americans -- vacation here. We saw many of them, and heard a lot of English spoken. KISC welcomes non-Scouts, too. There was a large group of International School children staying in the Chalet when we arrived, touring about and doing lots of interesting things.

One 9-year-old boy was fascinated by my uniform. I had so many badges! I explained to him that was because I was old; I'd been doing this a long time. One of the school girls wanted to know if being a Scout leader was fun. Yes, I replied. I think she thought I got paid for doing it, like her teachers. We also met a couple from California, who were checking out KISC as a possible destination for their Scout Troop while on a family vacation.

KISC is a long, expensive way from America, and we have a lot of big Scout attractions here, so not a lot of Americans find their way to Kandersteg. But for the rest of the world, this is where it's at.

KISC was begun in 1923, when the Chief Scout of Switzerland informed Lord Baden-Powell that some of the facilities left over from the building of the Lötschberg Tunnel a few years before would make an excellent international meeting site like he had been saying the World Scouting Movement needed. B-P agreed, and the site was purchased. He visited here at least once. British leadership in the World Scouting Movement -- particularly in the early days -- is probably why English is the language of KISC, even though German is the language of the area.

I began to realize that for the Scouts from the rest of the world -- especially the British ones -- Kandersteg is their Philmont. Not only does it have similar mountain programs, buts its place in their imagination is much the same as the place Philmont occupies in American Scouts, even those who have never been there.

The long evening finally began to draw on toward dark. We were tired and went to bed early. Tomorrow, we would be up and exploring.