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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

The Mountain Climber

I have completed a third of my time here in Bolivia.  Just saying that feels strange.  No matter what metaphor you choose to invoke in order to measure your time abroad, a third feels like a significant amount, whether it is one cookie eaten out of a total of three, or one boliviano spent out of a total of three, or even an Andean glacier that has melted and now is only 2/3 of its former size (rapidly melting glaciers are one of the most alarming and visible forms of climate change affecting Bolivia and the Andes in general).  The common theme here is one gone leaving two remaining—or in the case of the glacier, a smaller quantity remaining from the original whole. The most popular metaphor as far as I can tell is the use of the three cookies. I have definitely referenced it during my time here as it is a very easy benchmark to keep track of: one cookie out of nine, two cookies out of nine, one cookie out of three, and so on. Plus, who doesn’t love thinking about eating cookies? However, when you have three identical cookies and you eventually eat each of them, each cookie you ate is essentially the same. You may be slightly more full after eating the first and second cookie, but there is not much to separate the three. Bridge Year is not three identical chunks, however, and completing the first third will not feel the same as completing the second third, not to mention the last third. As I have thought about it more, at least for me, the cookie metaphor falls short.  Therefore I have adopted a new metaphor—the mountain climber.

The 9-month bridge year program in Bolivia is climbing a mountain, both in the stages of the journey and the sense of accomplishment and personal growth that is achieved once the journey has been completed. The summer before bridge year was the planning and initial preparation.  It involved: gathering gear, making an attack plan, studying maps, deciding on the best route, exercising to physically prepare for the exertion of the climb, and going over all precautions that will be taken to mitigate danger during the adventure.

Then, the night before the climb arrives.  I have just landed in El Alto, the highest international airport in the world. The first month of my time here in Bolivia was the last minute preparation for the climb the night before, the gear checks in the parking lot the day of, lacing up the hiking boots, tightening the backpack straps, and looking up with equal parts excitement for the adventure to come, nervousness at the prospect of the unknown, and a feeling in the back of my head of how overwhelming and daunting the peak looks high above, so far away, appearing as if it will never be reached.

After all of the preparation and planning it is time for action.  Let the real adventure begin.  I am currently climbing up the mountain with the top finally in sight. It no longer looks far away or daunting. I am going to reach it. I have wound my way up switchbacks, through pine forests, around boulders, and through meadows, clear ground has given way to frost and suddenly to snow. From October through December, I am climbing up the mountain attempting to navigate my way to the once perceived unattainable top and the halfway point of my journey.

January means summiting the mountain, reaching the highest point and gazing out in wonder at the surrounding landscape, fatigue giving way to a deep sense of wonder, satisfaction, and peace. In January I will be traveling around Bolivia for two weeks with the group and the end of that travel experience, around the 15th of January, will mark the exact halfway point of this epic adventure. The remainder of January is for preparing to descend, snapping a few last minute pictures, grabbing a bite to eat, gazing out one last time at the breathtaking view, tightening the backpack straps, and heading towards the trail down the mountain. Except, I will not be taking the same route back down the mountain. I will be climbing down the other side to end in a new place.

February through April is the descent down the new path. It would be expected that the descent would take less time than the ascent, however, in this case they take the same amount of time. The mountain is familiar by now, but the terrain is different.  The path zigs and zags unpredictably and at times is hard to follow, forcing me to take my time to carefully pick my way down.  No sense getting lost or twisting an ankle when I am so close to the end of the adventure.

Finally, I emerge from the pine forest into the dirt parking lot, where earlier I had parked my car with the help of a friend, so that I could drive my friends and I back to the original parking lot to get their cars. May is the new parking lot at the end of the climb and the drive back to the original parking lot where the whole journey began. It’s a time to savor the accomplishment of having climbed the mountain, to take a moment to be sad at the fact that the adventure is almost over, to reflect on how the adventure has changed me, and to look forward to what is next. Arriving back in the parking lot where the climb began, I step onto the plane at El Alto international airport, six hours later I have arrived back in the U.S. after 273 days abroad.