by Keely Kriho
Sitting on dampened grass at almost 8,000 feet above sea level, I squinted into the gray foggy mass that seemed only inches from my face. From whatever angle I attempted, the gray remained impenetrable—I couldn’t make out a single shape behind its haze. I glanced over at my friends, and they also stared futilely into the opaqueness that should have been the beautiful Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. After hiking for four days along the Salkantay Inka trail; trekking up and down huge mountains with elevations of up to 15,000 feet; camping out each night in the cold that soon turned to heat as we neared our destination; and persisting through rain, rock, rivers, and even hail, we had finally made it: Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world. And now, alas, it seemed that our efforts had been for naught, as Mother Nature had triumphed despite our perseverance.
Okay, I’m being a bit melodramatic. We had reached this viewpoint at around 5:30 AM, obviously too early for the fog to dissipate, and our leaders and tour guides continually reassured us that the fog would lift in thirty minutes, an hour at most. But try telling that to a group of absolutely worn out eighteen/nineteen year old kids who have trekked for days to get to this point. We were not having it, and I think each one of us had resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to see the mountain.
I like metaphors, analogies, parallels, whatever you want to call them, and since hindsight is 20/40 (I don’t pretend my hindsight has perfect vision, but I’d hope it’s closer to perfect than my real eyesight), I see a lot of the journey of this semester with Carpe Diem—and, dare I say it, my life in general—in our trek, our setbacks, and our eventual reward. So let me talk about “the climb” (thanks Miley) that was the semester, and what I think I gained from it.
It’s impossible to be with a group of people for three months and not become close-knit, but the level to which I connected with the other members of the group is something I never could have imagined going in. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect in September. I’d never been away from home for more than a week, never been outside of the country except to vacation once or twice, and hadn’t met a bunch of totally new people since kindergarten. There was no comfort zone to really fall back on, so—as I learned in mountain biking—you shouldn’t pull back or brake when it gets scary (or else you flip over the handlebars…yes, personal experience). You just need to let go (of the brakes, not the handlebars) and ride with it.
You share yourself with other people, and every time you do that, it’s a risk because you’re making yourself vulnerable. But this challenge is what makes “the struggle of life, upward and forever upward” so rewarding in the end (thanks for the quote, George Mallory).
We all struggled at times. Sometimes it was lack of a hot shower for weeks, or throwing up on a bus, or planting 1,000 trees on a steeply sloping mountainside. Other times, it was feeling overwhelmed by newness and lack of routine, or confronting a someone about a big issue in a (somewhat) tactful way, or losing someone back home. It’s scary to rely on other people in these times of ultimate vulnerability.
But, in the words of my friend Chris McCandless, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
I think that most of us, especially those of us in that post-high school, pre-“real world” age group, can identify with being Beatles-eque nowhere men and women, in the sense that we flit between houses and places and ages and experiences so rapidly. Some people will choose to set down roots one day, but at this point in my life, I can’t foresee a time when I’ll think, “I’m going to live right here and be like this for the rest of my life.” Perhaps that’s an underlying reason I decided to live abroad for this year: to answer my questions about what a home is to me. And in moving around different countries every week with all my possessions in one (okay, three) backpacks, living anywhere from a nice hostel to a banana farm to the Amazon to a bus, I saw that it becomes less about where you are and more about who you are, but most importantly, who you are with.
I am so lucky to have and have had the people in my life thus far to help me along, even if I didn’t realize their impact at the time.
So we sat on that terrace at Machu Picchu on one of the last days in South America, and probably one of the last days we would ever spend as a full fourteen-person group. Having spent three months which each other, challenging one another and growing and living and being able to share in this once-in-a-lifetime experience with one another, we had all somehow ended up here on this ledge together.
Eventually, the fog started to clear and the sun came out, and the clouds were blown away from the mountains, and sitting side by side in this place and this time and this experience, we were finally able to see the ruin and wonder that we’d spent so long trekking and searching to find.