That time we went on a walk

The day after we arrived Gonzalo invited us on “a walk” to Quebrada de Macul. Okay, I’ll give, he said it was “a bit of a hike.” Two hours up, waterfall views, two hours down – light trekking. This description seemed incongruent with the mountain I was looking at, but what did I know?


I knew a lot, it turns out.


Part of traveling for me has always been making an intentional detachment of any assumption I may have about any way of life that seems “normal” to me. Locals are the experts of their own countries; so when, for example, someone says to me, “you can hitchhike to get there,” I tend to just go with the flow, despite being a child of the 90’s for whom hitchhiking = imminent death. This go-with-the-flow attitude has served me well, like when I swam piranha-infested waters unscathed in Brazil (“they don’t like the taste of human flesh”); but, it also led to bodily injury hiking in South Africa (“you need to jump to that rock if you want a better view”).

So when Gonzalo says we’re walking up a mountain the day after we arrived from a 17-hour trip, I go with the flow. And up we go.

The first sign should have been the actual sign describing our climb as “4 KM”. I have a lot of strengths: metric conversion is not one of them. That morning at breakfast someone told me that their newborn baby had weighed 3 kilos. I stared at them blankly and waited for them to give me more information, all the while feeling more American than ever. That being said, I live in Boston, where it feels like every week someone I know has decided to train for a marathon, so I know 5K is something like 3 miles. My go-with-the-flow attitude was on full speed: “Sure, I can hike 3 miles uphill with 8 ounces of water.”

The second sign should have been the fact that all the locals coming down the trail were wearing hiking boots and/or using walking sticks. This is the first of what I’m sure will be many self-disclosures on this blog: I’m terrified of heights. Petrified, really. But being born into a family who enjoys heights, and then marrying into a family that shares this particularly horrifying interest is its own form of exposure therapy. I also enjoy a good challenge; however when I see walking sticks it makes me think that you need something other than your body to get somewhere – and that somewhere is not usually a place I want to be at. Other than some nervous laughter, no one else seemed too concerned, and up we went – our fearless advisor leading the charge.

Around kilometer 2, we lost a person. Not a metaphor, someone in the group took an actual wrong turn somewhere and we didn’t see them again until the end of the trek. For a moment, I thought we would turn back, but up we went. Sometime around this part of the hike, we stopped for a snack and I shared my orange. A thought popped up, “I would definitely lose one of those survivor shows for sharing my orange.”

Somewhere on kilometer 3, pride slowly began to replace exhaustion, and in my case a crippling fear of heights. We were going to make it to that waterfall. Maybe it was hunger, leading me to a delirious state, maybe it was the need to feel some kind of positive emotion, coupled with the knowledge that we had 1 kilometer left to go uphill – but this is when I started to think about how much this mountain was like getting your PhD. Sure, walking sticks and hiking boots were helpful, but they’re not what got you up the mountain. The only reason I was getting up that mountain was because I was with a group of people who refused to leave each other behind (except, you know, that one person we lost). If someone needed a stop, we all stopped. We shared a bag of almonds between six people (which might actually be the adequate portion of almonds one should eat). When someone’s water ran out (ahem…) others were quick to give me them the last of their water. Going up was only made easier by being vulnerable, by finding solidarity in exhaustion and pain, so to speak. The only reason I was on that mountain in the first place was because of the people that were with me – people whose companionship was genuinely enjoyable and meaningful to me. And yes, pride was a big part of finishing it, but even bigger than that was the desire to get there and share that experience together.

Yes, mountains and PhD programs are a clichéd metaphor. But that doesn’t make them any less accurate. And did I mention I was tired and hungry when I thought of it?

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