Transforming experiences – Internship with Outward Bound Brasil

In January this year I did an internship with Outward Bound Brasil. I’m very happy I got the opportunity since I have been interested about Outward Bound for a long time and to work with experiential learning.

I took part in the leader team at a program called Desafio, Challenge. The Desafio is a 12 days long program for teenagers with hiking and canyoneering in Serra de Mantigueiras. The Mantiqueiras is a beautiful mountain range that stretches through the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.

There were 12 participants in the ages 13-17 years with different backgrounds. They came from orphanages, favelas and from welthier homes. The first day we spent at the Outward Bound base in Campos do Jordão going through and explaining all the equipment, packing the backpacks and getting to know each other. The following morning, we woke up really early and went by bus to the Mantiqueiras.

During the first days of the hike the students learned the systems for everything from building the camp, cooking, hygiene, navigation and leadership. One leader and one or two navigators were responsible for the group every day. At the end of each night we reflected over the day, things that had happened, lessons learned, personal feelings and the leadership that day. We were often seated in a circle in the dark while louminous bugs crawled around in the grass.

Mantiqueiras is an indigionous word meaning “mountains that cry”, they cried almost every day. At night when we were all seated under the tarp, the skies often opened over us and everything we didn’t protect was immediately soaking wet. The rainfalls could also come during daytime, just to vanish again the next moment. Serra de Mantiqueiras is part of the Atlantic Forest, a vast forest that stretches along a big part of the Brazilian coast all the way to Paraguay. In the Mantiqueiras the lightning’s can be devastating and it’s dangerous to camp on high ground with no trees. Camping right under a tree can also be dangerous if the tree get hit and catch fire or even fall… There were distant lightnings almost every night which were very beautiful to watch.

The more the students learned, the more independent they got. Towards the end of the course the teenagers ran the whole show with support from the leaders. This is experiental learning, to gain knowledge from experiences. By using all our sences, trying different methods, by failing, evaluate and try again, we learn better!

Every participant made a personal development during the Desafio, but it was up to each and everyone how much they were willing to invest. If you dare to take a jump, to do something challenging, you may be rewarded with things you couldn’t imagine on the other side. Sometimes I could almost see physically how the self esteem and self confidence grew bigger on a person who succeeded with a personal challenge. It could be anything from doing the navigation the whole day to cook food for the first time in life (and actually make the best pasta sauce during the whole program), get used to carrying a heavy backpack or to take a shit in the woods.

When we are taken out of our normal contexts and put together in nature, something happens. We are depending on each other to make it work, and we become important for our group. An environment where we are all needed, where others believe in us, where we are all in the same boat, is a great place for personal and interpersonal growth. That’s why Outward Bound programs often become transforming experiences for the participants.

Today we have incredible technology and very advanced knowledge. People spend decades on universities studying super advanced stuff! But despite this humans fail on understanding each other, the whole time. In school we hardly learn anything about human interaction, communication or collaboration. To create good teamwork we first need to explore our personal comfort zone, our preferences, limits and needs. Today we are so focused on performance and achievements that and there is no time or space for reflection. Outward Bound courses take place in nature and are challenging both mentally and physically, but the focus is on the participants’ inner journeys.

Some of the participants on the Desafio didn’t have their parents alive. The sad truth is that those persons are facing a tough future after turning 18 years. Without support from a family and with poor education they will have to manage a life on their own, risking to end up in bad company. The value of the work that Outward Bound Brasil does is beyond measurement. No matter where we are from and what our challenges are, we need to learn to listen to ourselves and others.