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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

21 Steps & 5 Breaths

The words emboldened are paraphrased quotes from our ´charla´with Oscar Oliviera. His words (though about politics and governance) have given me added insight on my experience trekking.

It was forty-five minutes into our uphill trek on the second day in Toro Toro. I was already missing the comfort of the more mentally intensive activities of orientation. Admittedly, I panicked. Here I was surrounded by mountains and fog, pushing myself in an elevation I have never experienced before. Why was I pushing my body in an altitude akin to that of the tallest mountain in Jamaica? Why would I have possibly taken this task upon myself? For a solid five minutes, I contemplated what it would be like to go back the way we came and just settle for less.

¨Breathe, take deep breaths Danielle, ¨ said Sandy.

With each bout of air rushing into my lungs, I felt comforted by her words and warmth from her big, hearty smile. Each breath reminded me that going back was not an option. We had a mission to finish.
In harsh moments, we cannot stop going. We need to keep walking. We will eventually meet others with similar mindsets who will walk with us and make us better for it.– Oscar Oliviera
Each time I looked up seeing my fellow group mates ahead, I felt some pangs of discontent with my body and its abilities. Why was it taking me longer? I have seldom ever been the ´weak link´ in my experiences in Jamaica. I am usually the queen of the deck or the lucky golden ticket but here I was lagging behind.
We often think about what is going on above us in politics and governance but we can think about what is going on here in our space and how we can improve it. – Oscar Oliviera
By the time we reached the first rest point, I thought I would be greeted by angry faces, rushing to continue the journey but instead many Dragones offered to carry some of my load.
The only solution for the problems we face is collective action.– Oscar Oliviera
A few clinks of trekking poles and gallons of sweat later, Jhasmany taught me a walking technique to complement the deep breathing technique Sandy taught me: Take 21 steps, counting aloud, then take 5 deep breaths and repeat. It seemed too simple but I obliged. The cyclic nature of the process comforted my computer science oriented mind.

Formula for Climbing Mountains

Repeat until (current_position = destination)


Print ´´Uno´´

// Begin walking.

Print ´´Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis´´

//Find a natural rhythm and pace you are comfortable with.

Print ´´Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez´´

// You´re halfway there.

Print ´´Once, doce, trece, catorce, quince´´

// Place one trekking pole after the other.

Print ´´Dieciseis, diecisiete, diecinueve, vienty, vientyuno´´

// You did it.


Repeat (5 times)







Focusing on Jhasmany and I´s synchronous counting, I dug my trekking poles into the soft mountain rocks and pushed ahead. After a few successful sets, I found the 21 steps to be too basic and pushed for 23 or even 25 steps before taking a break. I wanted so badly to be able to pass the 21. As if he could hear my thoughts Jhasmany spoke, ¨Danielle, have you ever heard of meeting your body where it is?¨ I wondered if he was mocking me at first but he continued, ¨It means accepting where you are now and thanking your body for bringing you this far instead of only pushing it to go farther. ¨ Spoken like a true yoga instructor, I found his words to be quite factual. I looked behind me, we had indeed come a far way. Of course we had farther to go but I was very grateful for the distance we had come and the panoramic views that my body and it´s 21 steps granted me. I did that.
Even though we may not make big strides akin to the accomplishments of the water war, we can keep moving in small steps. The real power to change things is within you. – Oscar Oliviera

I now see numbers in a different light. Quantification is an act of comfort. A means of converting the unknown into calculable and recognized terms. This was now my means of conquering the unprecedented task of trekking. Counting, step by step with two smiling instructors deep in Spanish conversations behind me, I felt ease. It’s a different kind of comfort – one where you know you’re pushing yourself and you’re doing more than normal but you accept the difficulty and place one foot in front of the other anyway. By day four, I found myself enjoying the treks through embracing the physical exertion and rejoicing the victories of 21 steps and 5 breaths.
If we are fighting for a happier world filled with joy, then the fight must also be happy. – Oscar Oliveria
Sometimes growth doesn’t feel like growth but trust that you are germinating anyway. Looking at the blessings of breathtaking and awe-inspiring views, I could not deny the happiness of knowing that I did it. In fact, we did it! I can climb the mountain, I can reach the destination but it´s going to take a bit more time and that´s completely fine. Timing is not the only quantifier of success. Being pushed far out of your comfort zone, overcoming and growing from it is a huge personal accomplishment in and of itself. The journey is very much a part of the destination.
We can never doubt people’s strengths. And if I may add to this quote,¨including your own.¨
With these added dynamics in mind, I have gained a keen awareness of the fact that in other situations another person may need to take 21 steps and 5 breaths whereas I won´t. Using this experience, how can I be more fair in these situations? For one, I can exert the same patience and maturity that my instructors displayed and secondly, I can slow my pace to comfort another. This is an experience I have reflected on quite often in our current time of homestays. I cannot begin to describe the respect and trust for my instructors that this seemingly simple trek instilled in me. I know that we can overcome any other difficulty that presents itself in these three months, twenty-one steps and five breaths at a time.