Camp Takajo: Cristian's Life-Changing Summer Facing His Fears

Authored By:

Work Exchanges

By Cristian Cartenas Montes, 2015, 2016, and 2017 CIEE Camp Exchange USA Participant from Mexico. Check back next week to read Part II of Cristian's story!

Imagine waking up every single morning in a wood cabin surrounded by nature with the most cliché bugle call that can exist in your mind, surrounded by 9 kids full of energy waiting for you to start a new summer camp day with them. Everything seems perfect for these little guys, up until 8:00 AM, when they suddenly realize there’s a huge problem between them and their summertime life-goals: they don't feel like making their beds. This is where your day starts.

My name is Cristian Cardenas, I’m a Mexican mechanical engineering student and a three-time former camp counselor, and today I want to share with you how being a camp counselor has written a brief but very significant paragraph in the story of my life.

The Call

+1 (207) xxx - xxxx

"Hi, Cristian Cardenas? This is Bob Lewis from Camp Takajo..."

I remember this day perfectly. I was in arts class during the second semester of college when my phone rang. It was a weird number. It started with a +1; I felt like it was going to be another spam call offering me a service or debit card which I would later reject. I was about to hang up when I suddenly remembered that I had applied to work at a summer camp in the U.S. some weeks before. So, I went out of the classroom and answered my first ever English-speaking formal phone call. The first thing I heard was "hi, Cristian Cardenas? This is Bob Lewis from Camp Takajo…"

That was the first time I talked with Bob. On the phone, he seemed to be a nice guy with a strong voice. He told me that he had seen my profile in the CIEE applicant pool and liked it, and that he would like to have me as a tennis counselor at a boys’ summer camp in the state of Maine, called Camp Takajo. We talked for about 45 more minutes, and then I couldn’t believe that I had an offer that gave me the opportunity to spend my summer in the U.S. doing one of the things I’ve always loved: playing tennis. So I bought my single passenger flights to Boston, MA, and in the first week of June 2015, I was leaving Guadalajara for what I didn’t yet know was going to be one of the best experiences of my life.

The Journey

What was my job going to be like? What was going to be my daily schedule? Who was I going to work and live with? How professional did I have to be at tennis to be a camp counselor? These were only some of the thousand questions that I had on my mind during the flight from Mexico to the U.S. At the beginning, I can’t deny that I was nervous about all these things, but then at some point I decided it was better to relax and just let things flow.

After some long hours, my flight finally landed. I was going to be in Boston for a day before my bus left for Maine the next morning. I remember spending the day walking the streets of Boston. At the beginning, I remember that I was afraid—after all, it was the first time I had traveled by myself to a city to which I’d never been before. I walked, and didn’t know where I was going, or what was I going to find, and this scared me at the beginning. But it didn’t take more than 2 hours for me to discover that I was enjoying it, that the feeling of independence, and liberty started making me feel happy.

The next day I woke up, had a quick breakfast, and took the bus to Maine. I was excited: the day had finally arrived, and I was going get to know the place I’d been thinking of for the last months. I was anxious, but at the same time excited. Finally, after about 5 or 6 hours, I saw that we were in Naples, Maine, and after some minutes I noticed a sign on the road and I knew I had finally arrived.
The Arrival

I remember arriving at camp for the first time. It was a big place, but there seemed to be very few people there at the time. The first person I was looking for was Bob Lewis. It was not very hard for me to find him: when I entered the camp’s office, he welcomed me and introduced me to all the camp directors that were present. After all those days travelling by myself, I felt happy finally getting to know this place and people. Bob also introduced me to the camp’s staff members, and gave me a brief talk on what to expect the next days in camp and how was this going to change when the kids arrived. He also told me that I already had a cabin assigned for me to sleep. After this brief meeting, I went to find my new place in that cabin.


“Bunk Passaconaway.” That was the name of the cabin that I was supposed to find. I could see that there was a set of bunks around the forest with different names. Yosemite, Chichenitza, Ixtacciuatl, Rappahanock, and finally I saw a big bunk almost at the end of the quad that had a plate on it that said Passaconaway. I entered the bunk, carrying my gigantic bag with all my stuff and tennis rackets. When I entered, I found that there were people inside, so I introduced myself, saying that I was Cristian from Mexico, and that I was coming as a tennis counselor. Later on, I discovered that everybody in that bunk was also a tennis counselor. I met two guys from Argentina, who were happy to see that somebody else spoke Spanish, one guy from Ireland that had come to the U.S. for the first time in his life, a tall guy from England with a deep voice and red hair, and the twenty-year-old number 1 French tennis player from Paris, Stephan Bimboum. Meeting these guys was interesting—they all seemed to be like me. Some of them were travelling by themselves to a foreign country for the first time. We spent the first days of camp together and it didn't take long for us to start becoming closer to each other in the days of work.

It took some time for the kids to arrive. It was about one and a half weeks of hard work and preparation for the four hundred and something kids that were going to come in the next days. We as staff received a lot of talks on how to treat kids, how to listen them, how to protect them from dangerous situations, and many other things. We had also received all of their summer belongings and prepared them for the campers’ arrival.

I remember that day, everybody at camp woke up early and waited for the first buses loaded with children from different states all over the country to arrive. The first bus came in, everybody was excited, and Jeff (the camp’s owner) received them very excitedly and welcomed them. When he opened the buses’ doors, kids started running out of them with big smiles on their faces, yelling to their friends. Hugs and smiles were present everywhere and the place started to look very different. The first week it was a big land, with a lot of sports courts and fields, but it only hosted around 100 people. Now, the place seemed to be waking up. Kids were running all over the fields, others were playing with balls and rackets in the courts. The empty bunks that had been quiet for the last ten months started to have some occupants. Some of the veteran counselors had warned me previously that my perspective of camp was going to change completely the day the kids arrived, and I discovered that was very true. That day, everything became different.

Camp Season’s Open!

I’ve described how I lived my experience of camp, since the pre-camp period and all the things I went through before getting there, until the actual beginning of my days at camp. I believe that camp is a life-changing experience, and to understand it, one has to live it. I remember when I was going to go to camp for the first time, I was anxious to know every single detail of what my summer would be like. But when I finally had the opportunity to live it, I discovered that there are things that one must live in order to understand, and that an experience tells one more than thousands of words. I could tell you every single detail of my camp days, all the experiences I lived, the knowledge I gained, the friends I made, and the places I travelled, but I believe that it is a much more enjoyable experience if you live it without knowing what to expect every new day. I lived this experience without asking much, and I can tell you right now, after being a camp counselor for three years, it has definitely been one of the best experiences in my life.
I also wrote this the way I did, without talking a lot about the rest of my summer, because I think experiences have a very important part: their beginnings. Sometimes we’re afraid to make decisions in life situations. Situations like traveling by ourselves, living in a culture different from ours, leaving home for a long time, or being open to new experiences. This fear is normal, and every human being has it; it's in our blood. I want to encourage you to overcome these fears. Accept that dream job, leave your home for a summer, talk to someone that doesn’t understand your native language, try new food, try that sport you’ve always thought you sucked at, travel to places you’ve never been before with a backpack and little money.

Don’t be afraid to make new friends, never stop trying new things. I want to say that doing this was what made my three summers at camp different from all the other summers of my life. Opening myself like this to the world allowed me to learn things I can’t describe, to make friends in different countries, to travel to places all over the U.S., and to live an experience that changed my life. Living experiences like this feeds your soul, opens your mind, and makes you a different person. I hope reading this helped you with some questions about what being a camp counselor is like—at least for the first part of the experience—but, trust me, you can read hundreds of different stories, watch videos on the internet, and see counselors’ pictures, but you’ll never understand what being a camp counselor is like until you live it. So don't hesitate and go for it, live a dream job for the summer that will change your perspective on the world forever.