Sylvaine Bettinelli had never known anyone from Oman - not until he met Nidhal al-Ghaithy. In fact, in all his 20 years, as he grew up in the French Alps, Bettinelli had never even heard of Oman.
Al-Ghaithy, on the other hand, was from the Omani capital of Muscat, and though he already knew quite a lot about France, he knew very little about Colorado, or cold weather, or chain saws. And that was why Bettinelli was offering him advice as they stood in a spruce forest 3400 meters (11,000 feet) up in the Rocky Mountains.
"I am very happy that you teach me about your country," said Bettinelli. "Now I must teach you something: Chain saws are very heavy and very dangerous, and you don't know how to use one."
"But I want to learn," said al-Ghaithy, an athletic, handsome young man who was recently a competitive swimmer. "We could clear many miles of trail."
As they talked, the two used picks and axes to carve a narrow footpath out of the forest's black soil. All around them a dozen other young volunteers were also picking away, clearing a trail that will one day stretch almost 650 kilometers (400 miles) across the spine of the Rockies. Al-Ghaithy had just suggested a short-cut: Why didn't they cut down trees instead of waiting for paid Forest Service workers to do it?
"This is not a school," said Bettinelli, hacking at a thick root in the ground. "There is not always time for someone to teach us something."
"But learning to use a chain saw is adventure," countered al-Ghaithy, alternating blows at the same root with Bettinelli, like gandy dancers driving a spike in tandem. "And we - "chop" - are here - " chop "- for adventure." Chop.
"If you want to learn to use a chain saw," said Bettinelli, breathing hard, "you come to my country. My grandfather will teach you. He has cut trees all his life."
"I want to cut some trees now."
Bettinelli stopped his chopping and sighed. "Now I can understand how come countries can have so many problems between them. We are a small group and we already have many problems to work on. Countries are very big with very big problems." Had he been there to witness the scene - two young men from different countries working side by side, having such a discussion - Britain's Prince Charles would no doubt have glowed with pride.
For though he personally knows neither al-Ghaithy nor Bettinelli, it is the Prince of Wales himself who is ultimately responsible for the two being at work in Colorado. Both were there as "venturers" in Operation Raleigh, a worldwide expedition program launched by Prince Charles in 1984 as a sort of cross between the Peace Corps and the American Outward Bound program, which teaches and tests young people in outdoor skills.
Open to young men and women aged 17 to 24, Operation Raleigh is British-based, but for four years its participants have come from more than 30 countries to join in three-month projects that combine research, community service, and adventure - "worthwhile projects... in unfamiliar places and often under conditions of hardship," in Prince Charles' words.
To qualify for participation, venturers must be able to speak English and swim 460 meters (500 yards). They must also raise the money for their own participation costs, which range from $5,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the location and type of each project.
Named after the 16th-century English adventurer and colonizer Sir Walter Raleigh, Operation Raleigh places venturers in such far-flung places as Costa Rica, where OR participants assisted in a rainforest study; Australia, where they sailed along the Great Barrier Reef in a 23-meter (75-foot) ship; or South Dakota, where they helped install modern water systems on a Sioux Indian reservation.
While Operation Raleigh is now in its fifth year, there were no expeditions to the United States until 1988, which was also the biggest year for Arab participation. Venturers from Oman, Jordan, and Bahrain traveled to South Dakota, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina to work on everything from mountain-goat surveys to underwater archeological digs to cave mapping, in effect covering America from its rooftop in the Colorado Rockies to its basement in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park.
Although Operation Raleigh was designed to expose young people like al-Ghaithy to the world's natural wonders, the organization's goals reach much further than exploration. As Prince Charles noted at its founding, the ultimate accomplishment is to help young people make "some practical contribution to a better world," and to "grow to respect each others' cultures and attitudes and thus help to break some of the barriers of prejudice and intolerance"- not only by aiding people from other countries but by learning to understand them better as well.
And under that charter, Operation Raleigh is making a particular attempt to introduce young people from several Arab countries to their peers around the world.
"The goal of Operation Raleigh is to bring together people of as many varied backgrounds as possible," says Mark Ely, assistant director of Operation Raleigh USA. "Certainly on our side of the Atlantic, we have many misconceptions about the Mideast: oil barons and so on. We wanted to dispel those and lessen the standoff between the two parts of the world."
With that goal in mind, OR representatives concentrated on setting up recruiting committees in Arab countries during 1987 and 1988. The first successes were in Jordan, where a committee recruited four venturers to be sponsored by Prince Hassan. Later committees followed in Oman and Bahrain.
To the Arab venturers, Operation Raleigh is also a welcome opportunity to dash Westerners' cultural stereotypes.
"When I came to the U.S.," says Ahmed Faraj, a 24-year-old English-literature student from Manama, Bahrain, "everyone asked me, 'Do your people really live 1000 years in the past?' They are shocked when I tell them that we have electricity, cars - even Pizza Huts and Dairy Queens."
Venturers from the Western world, says al-Ghaithy, a marine-engineering student, "at first had ideas that we all ride camels every day. They didn't know we have skyscrapers in our country or that there are six modern hospitals in my city. It is up to us to explain these things."
Al-Ghaithy got his chance in the Colorado Rockies one evening around a camp-fire. Typically, an OR campfire is the site of long and serious talks on religious, social and political differences among venturers' homelands. On this evening, the 16 venturers assigned to construction of the new Colorado Trail, including al-Ghaithy and Faraj, had finally finished their day's work. After supper, they were relaxing before retiring to the 20-person army tent that was their home for three months.
Faraj was telling the venturers about his country: that Bahrain is an island so small that you can circle it in a car in two hours; that it is too arid for large-scale agriculture; and that it has a diversified economy based on international banking and oil.
In comparison, Oman is different, said al-Ghaithy. "You think it is desert. But it is as green in some areas as Colorado."
Eventually the talk turned to differences in the institution of marriage in various countries. One venturer had a question for al-Ghaithy.
"In Oman," asked Helen-Jane Colston, an English university student from a small town just north of London, "can men have more than one wife?"
"Legally, yes," said al-Ghaithy. "As many as four."
"Well, if I were married to you," said Colston, "I'd hate that - knowing that you were also the husband of three other women."
"But if I were married to you, I would ask you first before marrying someone else," al-Ghaithy replied. "Besides, it does not matter, because I want only one wife, like many men in Oman."
Colston smiled, apparently surprised. "Well," she said, "that seems fair, after all."
Indeed, it is long and surprisingly calm discussions on a diversity of topics that lead Operation Raleigh venturers to conclude that there can be as many differences within cultures as between them.
This point struck British venturer Andy Knight, a Londoner, one day in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. A group of venturers including Hameed Dhaif, a soft-spoken 20-year-old Bahraini engineering student, was preparing to go underground for a day of cave mapping. As they pulled on blue cotton overalls and miners' helmets, they chatted about their preconceptions.
"Before I knew Hameed," said Andy, "I used to think all Arabs were the same - just Arabs from the Gulf. Now I see differences. One may be stricter about his religion, one less strict; one may be more interested in earning money than another.
"At first I thought Hameed was lazy. Then as the language barriers broke down and we talked, I could see that he wasn't that way. He was just less outgoing compared to others. Somehow, I never thought that people from the Arab countries might be so different from each other."
Such lessons, especially on the Middle East, are common OR experiences, says Nigel Zega, an expedition leader from England. He should know: For ten years, Zega ran a business in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
"I think Westerners are most surprised at the modern standards of life in the Arab world," says Zega. "A lot of young people don't think about this sort of thing until they see it first hand.
"For example, many venturers are from places around the world where religious beliefs are very strong. The Arabs bring their Muslim faith with them in the same way that the Northern Irish bring Catholicism with them. Inevitably they end up in discussions around the campfire, and can learn much about culture that way. It's very interesting; it adds a certain flavor."
Of course, in certain areas it is virtually impossible to approach deep understanding of other cultures, says Faraj. "We all have different points of view. But it's all friendly talk - no one can get mad. We say to ourselves, 'We're just talking.'"
The interchange notwithstanding, often the flow of information between venturers is more unidirectional, says Zega. Through Western television and motion pictures, Arab youths frequently know much more about Americans and Europeans than vice versa.
Even where understanding eludes the venturers, however, information and a fresh perspective are there for the listening. Through talks with his new friend al-Ghaithy, Bettinelli saw his own country's politics from a new angle.
"In France, there are big conflicts between Muslims and Catholics now," Bettinelli said one day in a Colorado forest, during a break from trail construction. "We are afraid of them because we think they are something different. But we don't know them.
"In our latest presidential election," he added, "the right extremists received 25 percent of the vote in the south of France. That's where most of the Muslim immigrants are, and the French people don't like that they want to build mosques there. I am very happy to be here because we have learned a lot, especially about Arabian countries."
This prompted a response from al-Ghaithy: "And after I know Sylvaine, I like France very much because I think the French treat the Arabs the best of all European countries."
In general, Zega says, the differences among venturers dim considerably a few weeks into an expedition. Sometimes the barriers fall through deliberate cooperation: It takes the same muscle to move a rock, the same skill to use a theodolite, whether the venturer is Omani, English, Jordanian or Kenyan. Other times, eliminating the barriers becomes a necessity for survival, as al-Ghaithy was to learn in Colorado.
Summers in Oman are scorchingly hot: Daytime temperatures are commonly over 40 degrees Celsius (105°F); humidity is often 100 percent. The July climate in Colorado is the opposite: there, it may snow even in mid-summer.
Al-Ghaithy prepared for his upcoming stint in Colorado as well as he could: He raised money for his expenses, and - knowing his Operation Raleigh assignment would be to help a biologist track mountain goats among snowcapped peaks - he bought what cold-weather equipment he could find.
But the heaviest sleeping bag in all of Oman was at best a fair-weather bag in Colorado terms. And as for the long underwear on the official OR checklist, al-Ghaithy did not know what that was, or where to buy it.
Nonetheless, he arrived at the Denver airport raring to go, and for the first week of training in the foothills near Denver, his equipment was adequate. Al-Ghaithy and the other venturers tackled orienteering and obstacle courses, acclimating themselves to the high elevation and cooler temperatures. Then they left for their first assignment, atop Mount Evans, one of the Rockies' loftiest summits. That's when trouble began.
Conditions on the 4389-meter (14,264-foot) peak turned nasty just as the venturers arrived. They spent a day setting up their huge tent in constant wind and temperatures barely above freezing. It was al-Ghaithy's first experience with temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius (50°F).
The venturers were ready to begin work on the goat survey by the third day. Al-Ghaithy and two others were taken in the biologist's truck to a nearby alpine lake to repair traps used for catching and tagging goats. After mending the traps, the three were to wait at the lake for the scientist to pick them up and return them to camp.
It began raining. The temperature plummeted. The rain turned to snow - the first al-Ghaithy had seen. The biologist didn't appear.
"I had never felt that cold before," says al-Ghaithy. "I've swum in cold water many times, but I'd never shivered like that."
Shortly before midnight the biologist, who had been delayed elsewhere, found the venturers sheltering at a nearby summer cabin. By then the mist was so thick that the scientist could not see the edge of the dirt road leading back to camp. Al-Ghaithy guided him up the precipitous mountainside, leaning far out of the truck window to follow the road's edge as it twisted and turned.
Back at camp, the three burrowed into their sleeping bags wearing every stitch of clothing they possessed, but al-Ghaithy woke in the night with fever and chills. It was 3:30 a.m. and he felt very sick. He called to two venturers sleeping nearby for help: Melanie Davidson, lanky and British, and Haromi Kuroki, a shy Japanese girl who spoke only halting and broken English.
Davidson made hot tea to warm al-Ghaithy, and Kuroki, who had exchanged a scant few words with the Omani during their first days in the group, unhesitatingly bundled into al-Ghaithy's sleeping bag with him, fully dressed.
It was an odd sight - the shivering, muscular Omani swimmer and the petite Japanese girl, stuffed into one sleeping bag - and in any country in the world it would have been shocking in normal circumstances. But these weren't normal circumstances: This was survival.
"I finally stopped shaking," al-Ghaithy says, "and fell asleep again. The next morning they told me that what I had was altitude sickness."
The OR leaders offered to evacuate him, but he opted to stay with the group. "For two days I had a very high fever," he says.
Eventually al-Ghaithy recovered. But the weather raged on, so the entire group evacuated to a lower elevation, where there was trail work to be done. Even there, at 3400 meters (11,000 feet) altitude, each morning brought frost on the outside of the tent. "It was good, though," says al-Ghaithy. "I was used to cold then."
Fortunately for Hameed Dhaif, the caves of Kentucky, though dark and dank, turned out to be much warmer.
Some of the world's most extensive caverns lie in thick limestone beds in central Kentucky. In Mammoth Cave National Park, some 480 kilometers (300 miles) of underground passages have been mapped, making it the largest known cave system on the planet. Some of the passages contain underground rivers and creeks; where they are dry, the temperature is a constant 14.5 degrees Celsius (58°F).
Though the cave system has been known to humankind for thousands of years - American Indians used parts of it as underground highways - many passages and caverns, including some well-known ones, have yet to be mapped. One such, Ganter Cave, is only a few kilometers from the entrance to the national park, where thousands of tourists each year pass through well-lighted underground rooms on paved walkways. Yet here, only experienced cavers are allowed through the steel-gated entrance, opening in a rock bluff above the Green River. For the sake of those occasional visitors, the National Park Service decided Ganter Cave should be mapped, so rangers could more easily find lost spelunkers.
Enter Operation Raleigh. Two OR leaders, both experienced English cavers, were recruited for the expedition; it became their job to lead the mapping efforts.
And that is how Dhaif, from Isa Town, Bahrain - a town of 10,000 people - found himself one day crawling on his belly down an underground passage barely larger than a highway culvert.
Dhaif was one of four venturers mapping a passageway so small that it had been dubbed "Fat Man's Misery." It was a side passage, several hundred meters long, off a corridor almost large enough, in places, to drive a car through.
The "Misery," though, was so narrow that in some spots Dhaif, face down, could not turn his head. Despite these conditions, the venturers had to take compass readings and distance measurements.
"Okay, Hameed," said Tony Hayward of London, who was directing the survey just ahead of Dhaif in the passageway. "Let's get a shot here."
From his prone position, Dhaif held a metal tube to his eye. The tube contained a compass with an internal scale that gave him a magnetic reading. "Thirty-two degrees, northeast," he said to Hayward, who recorded it in a notebook.
Behind Dhaif, another venturer handed him the end of a tape measure. "Five point six feet [172 centimeters]," said the other venturer, giving Hayward a distance from the last shot.
"Okay, measure to me, and then let's get out of here. I don't think we should do any more today," Hayward said.
But what did "today" mean? The venturers were spending two days in the cave, "camping" in a large chamber with sleeping bags spread out on the mud floor. And in a sort of self-test, they had decided not to take their watches with them; only Hayward had one. The others wanted to see how the absence of light affected their body-clocks.
"Let's have a time check," said Hayward. "Any guesses?"
"Eight a.m.," offered one venturer.
"Ten a.m.," said another.
"One in the afternoon," said Dhaif. His guess was closest to the correct answer. It was three in the afternoon, time for the venturers to return to their base camp in the woods, where stood an army tent just like the one used by the group in Colorado.
Light deprivation had indeed had strange effects: The venturers had slept 20 hours the previous night. Now, as they made their way toward the light coming from the cave entrance, Dhaif took deep breaths of the fresh outside air and drank in the sunshine with his eyes.
"It feels great," he said, "but I love it in the cave. That's why I chose to come on this expedition."
Dhaif could have chosen a canoeing and sailing expedition. "But I have canoeing and sailing in Bahrain. I don't have caves to explore in Bahrain."
Yet caving memories would not be the only souvenir of Dhaif's experience. He would return to Bahrain with friendships that he hoped to continue long after the Operation Raleigh expedition. Already he was planning to exchange visits with fellow OR "alumni" from around the world.
And the essence of Operation Raleigh would continue, each venturer individually bridging the gap to work with other individuals from distant lands. As Faraj, Dhaif's fellow countryman, put it, "I will go home to tell others that Operation Raleigh is a good chance to meet hundreds of people from all over the world. It's good because you can show the world much about your country. That's important, because today I'm one from Bahrain, but tomorrow there will be two, and the next day four, until there are many."
Ron King is an associate editor at Whittle Communications and writes frequently about the outdoors.