Digesting my experience

Trip Start Jan 01, 2013
Trip End Jan 21, 2013

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Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

When we eat food, our body needs time to digest and process the food in order to extract the beneficial nutrients and nourish our bodies. I often feel the same way when it comes to big experiences like the three weeks I spent in Ecuador. 

I know it might sound strange, but as soon as I got back home, my first instinct was to disconnect from the world around me and just be. I had no desire to answer questions or tell stories about my trip (except to my immediate family that I saw when I came back home) because to be honest I hadn't truly digested my experience there. It was still a raw and unprocessed series of events that I just needed some time to settle in my brain. Any response to the question "How was your trip?" would result in a chronological account of what I did day by day, and I know for most people that was a bit more than what they were really asking for. I learned this from feedback that I got, and I already know this about myself. That's why I didn't write a post right after I climbed up Cotopaxi or as soon as I arrived back in the states. I simply need time to process my experience and write down my thoughts when I feel the time is right. 

Ecuador answered a lot of questions for me. I used to fantasize 'about epic amounts of traveling, playing with the thought of traveling for months at a time in a foreign land. I still want to experience many other parts of the world in depth, but Ecuador told me that I don't want that right now in my life. I pretty much winged my three weeks there, and what I learned is that I prefer having a more structured approach to traveling: having a general (but flexible) itinerary, setting goals and "must do's/see's", and not under-planning. I just saw no benefit to having unproductive days in a foreign country because I have plenty of those in my normal life and I don't have to pay lots of money to go to another place in the world to do that. 

Ecuador taught me the beauty of traveling. The people I met alongside the people I went there with really made the trip meaningful to me. Don't get me wrong, the awesome things that I did in Ecuador were absolutely huge parts of why I traveled there, but they alone would not have made the trip worthwhile to me. I learned that I don't like traveling alone for long periods of time, but that I am totally capable of doing so. I much preferred traveling with my friends and the people I met at my hostel than the times I traveled alone. I had companionship and someone to share an experience with and that is very meaningful to me. 

The physically demanding challenges presented by the technical ascent of Pichincha and the arduously long and grueling walk up Cotopaxi were very rewarding in the end. In the moment, I felt like I overcame fears that I had lurking in the back of my mind, fears of not being able to persevere when it came to physical fitness, or fear of climbing on an exposed ridge, but I was able to manage all of these concerns and have a great time as well. Climbing Pichincha was so enjoyable, the scenery was gorgeous and I had acclimatized well for it. I experienced an intense focus when I was climbing, and focused on each step and not on how exposed I felt on the ridge. Ascending Cotopaxi, it was a mental dance between wanting to turn around because I was exhausted from sleep deprivation or because my calves burned and ached with each proceeding step. Yet consistently after every rest we took at strategic locations, I felt rejuvenated and began to focus on getting to the next check point instead of focusing on how much farther till I reached the top, because the top is just the halfway point. At one point when the sun was rising, I was able to just soak up all the beauty that surrounded me. There was nothing like looking behind me and seeing a view that I normally only see when I am in an airplane. Looking up the mountain, I saw a beautiful golden halo of clouds formed around the summit like a crown. There was simply nothing more beautiful to me in that moment than what was before my eyes. I'll never forget it. 

Now that I think about it, the top wasn't even the most difficult part of the journey for me. I found it much more taxing to descend the mountain in the whiteout conditions we faced, while also managing my emotional state because I was really worried that we might be headed in the wrong direction or traveling over uncertain terrain through the area where the crevasses were. 

What's even more funny is that I experience the "climber's depression" shortly after returning to Quito. I was ecstatic at the top, I teared up, I congratulated myself, I celebrated with everyone. Then we descended through the challenging conditions of the whiteout and I was exhausted the rest of the evening. The next day, the thoughts crept in of, "What's next now?" and "How do you top that?". These thoughts judge and compare the success of the summit to something quantifiable, and it's a cycle that will inevitably reach a pinnacle and then it's only downhill from there. Those kinds of thoughts depressed me because at the time I didn't have an answer to "What is next?".

Most people I know have never experienced anything like what I did, so I don't expect them to relate to what I was experiencing. Beforehand, my whole perspective on summitting a mountain this big was to see it as a great achievement, like winning an award or something that was merit based. But the only thing I merited was perseverance. This challenge is attainable by anyone with the willpower and mentality to get to the top, of course, alongside proper acclimatization, guides and safety precautions. This realization deflated my thoughts about the "greatness" or uniqueness of ascending Cotopaxi. Initially that was a bit depressing, and naturally I thought, well "what is next?". But now, I am not focusing on what is next in terms of bagging another peak. Instead, the question I want to answer is, what is the next growth-filled experience that I want to pursue? Cotopaxi taught me that it's not about the summit and it's not about the destination; it's about the experience and the journey and the learning in the end. Cotopaxi taught me that I can push my body far more than I ever had before. I had never hiked as long, as high, been as tired, or as hungry, etc  and I finished strong! Dead tired, but strong nonetheless. That to me means there's a lot more fire in me than I ever knew. 

Simply writing this post is therapeutic for me. I am solidifying intangible thoughts that last but a brief moment. Writing down my thoughts helps me to logically and naturally harness what floats around inside me and is waiting to be expressed. 

Until the next adventure... 
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