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

Mind & Body

I´ve always been a kind of idealist. Daydreamer, romantic, nose always buried in a book. My mom would say it´s my artistic nature. My friends would say it´s because I´m a Pisces. Myers-Briggs says it´s an INFP thing.

Most of the time, I believe that keeping my head in the clouds is a positive thing – an essential part of me. How could it be a bad thing to feel too deeply, to love too much? It´s definitely fueled my decision to take a gap year, to dive headfirst into travel and adventure, to work and study and learn to understand people and nature in as many forms as possible. It´s what made me love English and theater in high school, and what helped me pass math and science by imagining the swirling eddies of the universe, the impossible perfection of a solved equation on paper, when boredom threatened to sway me into a mid-class nap.

At times, though, I´m painfully aware of where my limits are. Sometimes I find myself burnt out, pouring all I have into feeling and caring without pausing to assess where I am or what difference I´m making. Other times, I know I´m impractical, averse to dealing with data or minute details. Most often, though, I find myself buying into the idea that the mind and body are separate — that the former is more important than the latter, or that my body is just a way to house my consciousness, my true identity.

Of course, that´s not true. The mind and body are intrinsically connected, each dependent on the other — and nowhere is that more apparent for me, I´ve realized, than on a trek.

When you trek, it´s impossible to not be aware of your body. Each day becomes broken up into a set of systems and routines – all of them ways to care for your physical health, your cohesion with the larger group, to care for your ability to continue. It´s meditative, in a way, because trekking requires one to be constantly present. A minor miracle: I, who normally can´t stop reflecting and observing and analyzing, can´t concentrate on anything besides the trail when I am on it. All the thoughts fly out of my head, and all that remains is the way my feet sound on the path, the air whooshing in and out of my lungs, the sun and the clouds and the rain. In those long hours, especially the ones we recently spent in the Valle de Sondondo, it is suddenly so obvious to me — that my mind and my body are one and the same, working together to continue forward.

HEAD – I feel my head pound as we ascend, bit by bit towards the mountain pass in the distance – the lowest point in between two peaks, but it feels plenty high to me. When we get there, though, I know instantly that every step was worth it. From this viewpoint, Miguel (our guide) tells us, we are at the exact midpoint between two districts. On either side of where we are, neighborhoods sprawl out before us, encompassing the valleys and tapering off into the ridges beyond. Each person in the group finds a rock, and together the group builds an apacheta — a structure, a miniature tower, bringing the height of the pass a few inches higher, all to say: We were here.

THROAT – I always have trouble finding my voice in a group — never wanting to be contrary, waiting for a way to speak without conflict. But that´s not always possible. On this trek, we´ve had lots of difficult conversations – about power and privilege, victimization and the framing of history, on foreign aid and development. None were peaceful, but all were necessary. As we continue our descent into the community where we´ll camp tonight, I can´t help but wonder: how many conversations and people and experiences have I missed in the past, by choosing not to speak?

HEART – I´m in the kitchen tent, helping to cook dinner with Miguel and Teo. Miguel shows me how to peel cloves of garlic with a blunt knife, and so I carefully strip away each layer of translucent purple skin. When I ask Teo about his cooking experience, he tells me that he has eighteen years of experience in being a cocinero for treks like these. And when I ask why, he just shrugs and smiles. Es un accion de amor, no? he asks me with a grin, and continues to stir.

STOMACH – When I wake up one morning, congested and nauseous, my first instinct is to try to ignore it, to battle out a physical illness with mental perseverance. This brilliant strategy works for about fifteen minutes, until I stumble out of my tent —  dressed and packed but completely miserable. When I admit to Miguel how bad I feel, his eyes light up with an idea. A few minutes later, I have a spoon in my hand – a spoon filled with crushed garlic, chopped onion, and a squirt of lemon juice. Natural medicine, Miguel says. I don´t hesitate, because if I did, I really might gag — and it all goes down, in one swallow. My friends whoop and Miguel grins, and for one wild moment I really do feel better — but whether it was due to the medicine or the people here supporting me, I guess I´ll never know.

FEET – Go! Before I let myself think twice about it, I splash into the freezing river, feet instantly going numb. Why did I decide to do this, again? I think for a moment, remembering the steamy indoor hot spring I just left to swim in these unforgiving waters. Besides me, Jackson and Michela are gasping and shouting just like I am, striving deeper in the water before their nerves leave them. I grit my teeth and follow. Above us, Rosel calls encouragement. I screw my eyes closed and, sucking in one more breath, dunk my head underwater. In that split second, everything about what I´m doing right now — the coldness pressing in around me, my hair floating around my head in a halo, my feet firmly planted on the riverbed — brings me irresistibly into the present. Here I am, I think. And again: Here I am. And then my head breaks the surface, and I can´t stop smiling. At least, until we have to clamber ashore and sprint back to the safety and warmth of the hot springs.