What is it that gives our travelers pause? Sometimes it is an indigenous person you get to know who lives so differently and simply, yet has the same universal needs. Other times it is a scientist who is consumingly curious about why spectacularly camouflaged or armored caterpillars do what they do, and has such fun learning each day. Or it might be, after a week on a Chill Expeditions Educational Travel trip, experiencing the wonders of the rainforest and coming across a view of a massively planted, fertilized and chemically ‘protected’ single species (industrially grown bananas for as far as the eye can see – miles and miles, occupying virtually every inch) where once, not long ago, it was that same incredibly spectacular and diverse rainforest loaded with thousands of species…and wondering, “why?”
I was about to write this column when I received an email from one of my guides in the field. It included a journal entry from one of the boys – JD, a member of our Chill Expeditions’ Ecuador Expedition. The trip is comprised of 12 days, five in the Andes at considerable altitude and seven in a rather different world – the Galapagos Islands, at sea level, 600 miles out in the Pacific. Each place can change a person – especially when the experience is well framed. What this 17-year-old wrote after the climb far surpasses what I might have captured about the outcome from executing my passion – creating experiences which give pause to travelers, young and old, about why they do what they do – or might yet do – and how they might now see life at home or anywhere a bit differently.
Day Four, Ecuadoran Andes, Climbing Pasachoa
Chill Expeditions Ecuadoran guide Axel tells us, “If someone comes back from the summit the same person something went wrong. Everyone should be changed by the mountain.”
We began the ascent up Pasachoa. I soon found a stick with the perfect hiking length and an elegant shape which calmed my growing nerves about the climb. As I gazed across the “campos” on our initial trail, Maria Clara (Head Guide and Director, Chill Expeditions Ecuador) noted that all of the land and animals around us were owned and cultivated by local farmers. I realized that although the towering mountains and rolling hills of the Paramo habitat we were moving through humbled and outshined the “grandness” of humanity, everything in nature moves in a circle and relies on different aspects to maintain life.
As we neared the top of Pasachoa, the familiar sounds of friendly conversation stopped and I was overtaken by a strange silence. The only audible noise at this leg of the journey was the breathing – both the deep breaths of my own lungs and the ominous wind that acted as the breath of Pasachoa itself.
Clouds descended on all sides as we began climbing over the rocks. To my left and right the billowy white fog forced fear upon me and I fell to my hands and knees, crawling across the now slippery rocks. The trail of rocks that led to the summit was maybe five feet wide with cliffs that dropped 1,000 feet on each side.
By the time I finished my crawl and reached the summit, the clouds cleared to reveal the city of Quito far below and the sprawling plains all around. I thought about what earlier had seemed like the massive height of other mountains now below which paled in comparison to Pasachoa – and it took my breath away.
On that summit, Maria Clara quoted her husband Ricky, “If you fall off this cliff, pray for death because if you survive you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
On the top, as we buzzed around in amazement, taking pictures and enjoying the view, someone asked “What time is it?” The truth is that it doesn’t matter what time it is or was on the summit. It seemed there that concepts such as time are as insignificant as the minor hills below that we walked up mere hours ago. As I looked around at the faces of our group I noticed that no signs of fear or doubt remained. All that was left was pure energy and excitement.
As we descended, I noted how the clouds were gone, along with my fear. I walked across the slick rock trail, no longer needing to crawl. In the middle of those rocks I stopped and gazed below from my 14,000 feet above sea level view and felt as though I could conquer anything.
The group was revitalized on the descent and exuded nothing but that energy. As we left the uppermost rocky section, we even ran and jumped down the still steep slopes that had scared us so on the way up.
We laughed the entire way. Gavin used his sneakers to slide down the mud and mimic skiing, grabbing onto “paga,” which is the tall grass of the Paramo. Trey unleashed his inner child and rolled down the grass.
For the final leg of our descent, a few of the boys even ran about a mile which is an extreme cardio challenge at that altitude! When we reached base and got into José’s jeep, the only thing on everyone’s face was a smile.
Thank you, JD! A beautiful perspective from a young man who resides outside Philadelphia.
Perhaps I will use the phrase finding one’s ‘mountain’ after what JD penned. As an educator I could not hope for a more thoughtful outcome. Then again, the group has not yet experienced the Galapagos, where many more ‘mountains’ loom, and travelers again are likely to be given pause.
As important as is the experience itself, equally important is a provocative frame, intentionally suggested and experientially fleshed out by a thoughtful guide. I love finding the likes of the very rare, talented educators and guides such as Maria Clara and Axel, who can always find ways to lead travelers to their ‘mountain’ or give them their ‘pause’ – of whatever form! Pushing travelers outside of their comfort zone in places very different from home is what makes experiential education and eco-immersive travel so powerful – it is why I do what I do!
– Crawford Hill