How NOLS has changed since my 1975 semester
Chewing tobacco, belching and farting contests, loud profanity, a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on smoking weed and sex are no longer the standards for acceptable NOLS behavior today as they were in 1975
The NOLS methods and language of 2016 were new and a bit baffling to me but must have been even more confusing to our Croatian kayak guide, Gollam “Johnny” Valera.
Johnny is, likely, the most extraordinary outdoor guide I’ve ever met. A very fit, tan, muscular, 27-year-old, square jawed, blue-eyed native of Zagreb, Croatia, he is a survivor of, not only, war torn Croatia in the 1990s but also of an abusive father. He ran away from home at age 15. He soon started his own business as the first “legal” body piercer in Croatia. He is currently finishing a masters degree (in history and biology?). He also has qualified for the Croatian national whitewater team as solo slalom kayak competitor.
Choosing the opposite paths of his abusive father and his drug addict younger brother, who is in jail in Germany for dealing drugs, Johnny does not drink, is a world class athlete, and is soon to be married in December to a wife he methodically found through months of internet research an hours of dating conversations.
A master chef, attentive host, emergency medically trained and a loquacious and high-energy guide, Johnny speaks with flawless English and a thorough knowledge of American pop culture. When Johnny starts talking, he won’t stop unless forcibly interrupted. But his dialogue and stories were never boring. In his unique Australian/British/Croation dialect, his piercing, ice blue eyes would dart and connect wide-eyed with everyone in earshot. Here is our last conversation when he dropped me at the Dubrovnik airport:
Me: “So Johnny, did you know that the word “therapy” is used in the U.S. to describe almost any activity as a mental health exercise: “Art therapy”, “Talk therapy”, “Outdoor therapy”, this list goes on…”
Johnny interrupted excitedly in his British/Cockney brogue. Other than his ‘th’ pronounced as a “d”, his dialect could have passed for a Brit from Brighton. “Oh yeah! I’ve been trained in psychotherapy as a guide!”
“One time, we had an autistic kid who threatened suicide wid some broken glass! What could I do? Punch him out!? Knock him out to save his life? ‘E finally calmed down. Oh! And anudder time” his eyes locking with mine “a kid got stung on his tongue by a bee dat was in his snorkel! I hate snorkels. His tongue swelled up and he was turning blue from suffocation ! I had to cut a hole in his windpipe wid my pocket knife to save his life!