During a recent trip to Huaraz, Ancash I had the opportunity to climb a mountain. Now, I live in the mountains so you are probably thinking, “What is she talking about? She climbs mountains literally every day.” Yes, you´re right, but this was the Cordillera Blanca in Huascaran National Park!
The big leagues, because during the hike you climb two mountains, reaching an altitude of 4600m or 15,000 ft. The four hour trek uphill is rewarded by some of the most stunning views in Peru.
As I was climbing, more like crawling, up the mountain I couldn´t help but think of all the ways this mountain and impossible trek related to our service as Peace Corps Volunteers. Call me sentimental, but with only three months left in site, a new group of business volunteers arriving a few weeks ago, and our beloved Peru 25 reaching their one-year mark… it´s a time of change here in Peru.
The morning of the trek I woke up early and filled a backpack with nuts, fruit and water. The crisp mountain air was fresh and the strong sierra sun was out in full force, my body couldn´t quite decide if it was cold or hot.
I reminisced about the last days of college and the feelings of excitement and anxiety as I researched Peru and tried to make sure my bag with filled to the brim with necessary items that didn´t weigh to much! REI was the motherland.
Just like that, the time came and we were loaded into the car to begin our two hour dirt road adventure up to the base of the mountain. Full of energy and too much water, we stopped several times for impromptu bathroom breaks behind bushes. The views in the distance were “coffee table book worthy” and little did we know, that was where we were headed!
The first lake along our car ride was enormous, and as we rounded the corner a glittering celestial body of water extended as far as our eyes could see. We stopped the car to enjoy the novelty of it all as a group, and cameras snapped photos every two seconds.
Very much like our first few months in Peru, when even riding the bus to the training center was a fun new adventure. When we shared every moment with all the members of our training group, and swapped stories of the new cultural lessons we´d learned the day before.
The road began to narrow and we could tell it was almost time to leave the safety of our moving vehicle filled with our closest friends and the comfortable seats. The scenery was still as beautiful and full of life as before, only now it was about time to start the trek without a guide and only our friends and instincts to rely on.
Now came the time to leave, luckily the path was clearly marked and we all began our trek in high spirits. There was a big group of Peruvians behind us who were traveling with a guide and we quickly decided to speed ahead, feeling confident in our abilities to navigate. We had water, nuts, sunglasses, jackets, sunscreen, dehydration salts… all the tools necessary to have a successful hike.
After all, we did finish training and learn everything there is to know about Peru! Now we just had to go to our assigned site and meet with all of the people eagerly awaiting our arrival. It would be easy… the path was clearly marked.
The trek started with a beautiful stretch of green pasture, the kind that made one want to break out in, “the hills are alive, with the sound of music.” Cows grazed peacefully and a beautiful river hummed along beside us. We were laughing and playing word games as we walked and walked and walked. Yellow flowers dotted the ground beneath our feet, it was as picturesque as can be. We helped each other hop from rock to rock as we crossed from one side of the winding river to the next, never straying far from the path.
Flashes of my first few months in site flew before my eyes, the welcoming family, the tours of the nearby avocado fields, school introductions by the principal in front of the entire school, and the toasts from the mayor as he welcomed me to town. With the only objectives being to integrate and practice the language. My phone rang constantly with news from friends in far off places about the guinea pig head they were served, or the parade in their honor. It was as picturesque as can be.
Then out of nowhere the path got rockier and the rivers wider. The altitude started to show it´s evil wrath, my chest felt compressed and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. Not wanting to fall too far behind I started to reach down into that place where you pull energy from when you think there is nothing left. “It was just the beginning”, I thought, “I live at 10,000 feet, why is the altitude affecting me so much?”
Accidently catching a glimpse of my clock, I realized we had only been walking for an hour. That meant three more to go. The temptation to turn around and go back to my green “Sound of Music” pasture was intense! I told the rest of the group to go ahead and decided that my pace was just going to have to be a little slower. That I would get there poco a poco, but I would get there.
The host family changes, the parasites and infections, the socios who stop showing up on time or even at all, the gender roles that effect our everyday life in this country… that is our altitude. I´ve always said the hardest part about serving in the Peace Corps is that you can go home any time you want. There is no contract to break or penalty to leave, so every day you stay really is your choice. It is when we stop comparing our service to the service of others that we can find our pace and start building our personal happiness poco a poco.
When we stop competing, we can start supporting. My guardian angel Danielle, a friend from our time studying in Spain who lives in Peru now, realized I was a ways behind the group and she decided that she would continue my pace and we would complete the hike together! Although I might have been able to do it on my own, it was so nice to have a friend to share the moments of beauty with. We were each other’s cheerleaders and boot camp personal trainers for the rest of the trek.
We walked until one of us needed a break and then stopped, usually every 10-25 steps. It was hard. The path is very narrow and rocky as you get closer to the top of the first mountain. We had to use our hands and feet to climb our way up. Then something amazing happened, we looked up and realized we had made it to the top! Wow, what a reward! As the path reached the summit of the first mountain it leveled off and there was a beautiful black lake that stretched out in front of us. The adrenaline that only a stunning view provides began to surge through our bodies.
The high of completing that first successful project is contagious. Teaching that first 7 week business course in Spanish to a group of high school seniors, I can´t even describe it. It is unstoppable momentum that helped me realize I am in Peru for a reason.
Then came the downhill! Crossing the one year mark! The best part, the short downhill that gave my muscles a break and led to an even greener rolling pasture filled with cows. Btw mad props to ya´ll, cows, for climbing that mountain.
Although, the pasture was not as perfect as it looked and there were still some obstacles along the way. Muddy pits and small rivers to cross. The path wasn´t well marked either, but by this time we had grasped our bearings enough to figure it out. It was like a puzzle, go one direction until you got stuck and then retrace your steps and try a different route. Test a rock with one foot before you shifted all of your weight onto it, for fear of falling in.
Then in all its splendid glory, there it was, the final trail marker!! The one that said “You are a super star! You´ve just hiked 3.5 hours without dying. Remember those people who doubted you, you proved them wrong. You are only a half hour away from your destination!”
The final mountain was no joke. It was the steepest yet and the path was purely made out of pebbles. It was narrow, which made it difficult because people were coming down as we were walking up. I am not even joking when I say that I almost sat down and gave up with only 5 minutes left to climb. The altitude was unbearable and I vaguely remember Danielle telling me to regulate my breathing because I was turning so white.
It was that moment when, like a movie, my entire journey in the car, through the “Sound of Music” pasture, up the death mountain, through the mud and rivers flashed through my mind like a VCR tape on rewind. The moment I started to feel sentimental and realize how much each step had changed me and at the end of the day I was here because of all the things I had endured over the past 3 hours and 55 minutes.
And the past 27 months.
The oxygen, thin to my brain, had put me in a trance and it was broken by Danielle singing, “Just around the river bend…”
Then this. This view, which will be forever etched in my memory.
It was crowded by people just like me. Everyone congratulated one another and it was like a small family of hikers who had achieved their goal. People canon-balled into the glacier water and other carried out the tradition of the “naked lake jump.” I was happy for them. I was happy for me.
Some of us had lived in the desert heat for two years, others had literally sat in a bucket in their room to bathe, some had been super volunteers and other had integrated into a family in a different country. We had all learned a language and become more cultured, taught about business or health or water sanitation or youth leadership or the environment. Some of us had reached our destination before others and still cheered on our peers from afar. We were forever bonded together as a random group of humans who joined the Peace Corps.