a lesson learned…

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When I return from a trip, I usually get asked questions like, “Where have you been? What did you see? Where is the nicest place you have been? What are your favorite countries?” There aren’t easy answers to these questions. When you travel, you find out that it’s not only about the places you go, it’s about who you are with, what you do while you are there, and how you feel. Even something like the weather can have a very strong influence on your experiences. I can give you names of places and countries, but it’s hard to describe what I really feel while I’m away.

Seeing cultural places, visiting sacred temples, and enjoying the beaches aren’t the most important things. What matters most is what you get out of it. You find your own borders, your loves, your dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses. You meet locals and other travelers from around the world, and you are faced with different opinions and cultures. You open yourself up to new horizons, and with that, life will teach you unexpected life lessons.

The really good questions are those that challenge you to think, such as, “What did you learn on your trip?”

My story is about a little hike in the southern mountains of Ecuador. I stayed in the tiny village of Vilcabamba, nestled in the lush green forest of the Loja province.

The area is referred to as the “Playground of the Inca” which refers to its historic use as a retreat for the Incan royalty. The valley is overlooked by a mountain called Mandango, the Sleeping Inca, whose presence is said to protect the area from earthquakes and other natural disasters. The locals recommend, with caution, the 2000 m high mountain ridge. The instructions for the hike, in a broken translation, were to:

  1. Climb the top.
  2. Walk along the ridge for a few kilometers.
  3. Take one of the many trails back down.

Sounded easy enough. I packed my bag for the day and went on my way.

The climb started in the sun through some jungle, which was strenuous, but no harder than anything I had done before. I completed the first stage quite quickly and was greeted with some great views. The trees disappeared and were replaced by bushes and cactuses. On the next level, I was met with more of a challenge. There were tree roots and ropes to help guide me along to higher grounds, and the last 100 metres brought a steep climb. The washed out sandy floor was slippery, but I made it to the top, as so many people had before, and gazed out upon indescribable landscapes.

I continued along the ridge and slowly came to realize what the locals had meant by dangerous. The trail became thinner and thinner, until it diminished to a mere 50 centimetres wide with a 150 metres sheer cliff drop on both sides. I began worrying at this point and from where I was standing, the trail ahead appeared to drop 10 metres down below. I had no other option but to slowly slide down. Any wrong move might have been my last. I slowly and carefully managed, but started to lose my confidence and started to question my choices.

I followed the trail along the ridge. The dangerous part was over, and the path began to widen. After a while, I found a track that seemed easy to follow, for a little while anyway. All too quickly, the trees started to take over, burying me in their shadows. Barely a few meters into the forest, it was obvious that this trail had not been used for months. The largest spider webs I had ever seen draped themselves between the trees, with their creators watching, in all sizes and colors, just waiting for me to walk through. I felt like I was trespassing in the home of the snakes and pumas. I made as much noise as I could, scraping by branches and ruffling through fallen leaves, trying to make my presence known to the true keepers of the land. I didn’t want to meet them. I lost the trail in no time at all. And there it was again, this deep feeling of being lost.

After struggling through this maze of thicket, I stumbled upon a dried up brook. Would this lead me back? There was no obvious other way, so I put my complete trust in the dry creek bed to be my guide. After what seemed like hours, a promising road appeared, but of course, it wasn’t accessible. It was 10 metres up a steep slope and I was drowning in the thickness of the jungle. Where would the water usually flow? I found a hidden pipe under the ground cover that passed under the road. Not big, but big enough for me to squeeze through and seeking liberation from my nightmare. I slowly crawled, following the light at the end of the tunnel. Once I was through, I was cordially welcomed by a pack of aggressive cows huddled over me in grazed pasture. Running up the steep slope to freedom, I jumped over my final hurdle, a barbed wire fence. I cannot put into words the relief I felt, to be back on a road.

As I followed the road that would eventually lead me back to the town, I reflected on my journey. What would have happened if I had accidently slipped off the cliff? Would anyone have come to look for me? If I had survived a fall, any help may have come too late. No one would have known where to look for me in the first place. Why hadn’t I told anyone where I was going? There is that saying, “you learn something new every day”. From that day, I’d like to share mine: always tell someone where you are going. Someday, it might just save your life.

Reisejahr: Frühling 2008

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