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A young arriero leads a mule across fresh snow in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Benjamin Swift (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist), South America Semester.

As Challenging as it is Magical

– We’ve just finished breakfast and a group of students lounges outside the kitchen tent, journals in hand. For three of us, however, clean up duty calls. I scour the campsite for dirty dishes. I gather mushy, messy plates and bowls of a thousand crumbs and a hundred smells. Every lid seems covered with the same earthy dirt that’s colored my pants and filled my nails. I then close my eyes, say a short prayer, and plunge my bare hands into the Antarctic water. I rub, rub and rub some more. Every time the dishes come out, it seems I missed a spot. Oh, did someone leave a plate at the bucket’s bottom? Never mind, that’s just a chunk of ice. Soon, I move on to a new frozen tub: the rinsing station. Finally I bring my hands into the Andean air. My fingers are numb enough to barely move but awake enough to feel the sharp, piercing cold. Now it’s time to dry. I pick up a damp, dirt covered rag and half-heartedly move it back and forth. Will my hands ever work again? Poking my fingers feels like touching rubber. I rub my hands against my puffy, place them under my armpits and even try jumping jacks to restore feeling. Eventually, my extremities are a little less wet and slightly less cold. Ah, there’s a abandoned bowl crusted with dry oatmeal. Here we go again.

– Trekking through the Andes is a big and often rewarding experience. The six days were packed with joy. One night we imagined how everyone would react to a murder threat and happily teased each other while cooking pasta. We hosted an elaborate party for Hannah’s birthday and danced for hours. I had a moment of Zen on my thirty minute silent walk, meditating on the noise in my head and from the river five-hundred feet below. The guides sometimes jammed out with Jesse on the harmonica and joined in our cliff side games of hackysack. I found myself filled with warmth that defied the thermostat.

– The biggest experiences, however, are also the fullest ones. It is so easy to fantasize or romanticize. Yes, we travelled to a new hemisphere, formed a new family and now sleep among the clouds. Yes, this trip is very far, very unique and very expensive. But trekking with the same dozen people for six days with little oxygen is as challenging as it is magical. Some days it rains or snows. Some days things, whether they be tent poles or food bags, break and we have to adapt. Some days we get lost or overwhelmed or fall into arguments. And, on the worst of worst days, I have to wash dishes.

Con Amor,
Mahesh