Happy Earth Day, all! To celebrate, I am throwing it back to my South American journey this time last April, and the most breath-taking natural experience I’ve ever had. Almost one year ago to date, I spent a week camping and trekking through Torres del Paine, a national park in Chile’s region of Patagonia. It was the most rejuvenating and testing (both physically and mentally) 7 days I had ever experienced, and each day brought even more beauty than the previous.
My travel teammate and I traded in our late-nights for early mornings, our cell phone screens for glaciers, the weight and distraction of social media for our 85-liter backpacks and our own thoughts and, perhaps begrudgingly, our showers in order to bathe in nature’s silence and acceptance. The magnificent ability of our natural planet to heal mind, spirit and overall wellbeing journeys far beyond words. Alas, here is my attempt at capturing the majesty of this park, and our astonishing planet Earth, in a visual post. Enjoy!
Day 1: April 5, 2016
Entering the Torres del Paine National Park at the tail of the ‘Q’ route. On this path we saw guanacos (relative of the alpaca) and wild horses, though I searched for mountain lions all week.
Day 2: April 6, 2016
The most vibrant and saturated blues and golds I’ve ever seen; this shot is of Lago Pehoé. This part of the trek offered unbelievably strong winds as we marched north into the park.
Day 3: April 7, 2016
Despite our sore knees, we hiked a little extra one afternoon to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Glacier Grey. By the time a gentle snow flurry began, I was in awe and in tears.
Day 4: April 8, 2016
In beautiful irony, the soundtrack to this pale and delicate sunset were the thunderous sounds of avalanches tumbling down mountainsides above our camp.
Day 5: April 9, 2016
One of my favorite days of the week was this one spent in the French Valley. It was also the most strenuous– think trekking 25 kilometers in one day with 85-liter packs on. Bless hiking poles!
Day 6: April 10, 2016
April meant autumn in the southern hemisphere, and we caught just the start of changing foliage in the park, despite celebrating Easter in the coming week.
Day 7: April 11, 2016
Watching the sun rise on the Torres del Paine is the ultimate reward and grand finale for the strenuous and breathtaking weeklong experience in the park. Kicking off day 7 at 6 a.m., we hike-raced uphill in darkness to watch Patagonia’s famous glowing sensation.
I will never forget my experience in Chilean Patagonia. My week fully immersed in nature reminded me of our planet’s magnificent healing properties, among returning me to my true self. This Earth Day, let us marvel in all that our planet offers us and remain mindful that it deserves the same healing and protection in return, today and every day. This year, I vow to create some healthier and more eco-conscious habits. What sustainable changes can you make today?
My Earth Day 2017 vows for healthier & sustainable habits:
It’s been two months since I’ve returned home from a four-month backpacking adventure in South America. I flew home to surprise both my mother and father on their birthday on May 6 (yes: same year, same hospital, no: not related) despite serving a spoonful of white lies in the weeks prior about inexpensive flights at the end of the month, when I could probably come home.
Surprising my inquisitive, detail-oriented mother was the imminent task at hand and my absolute victory was reason for a full weekend of birthday-turned-Mother’s Day celebrations, only to be continued with the return of my father from his California surf trip later that week. And my 23rd birthday. Needless to say, returning home and being home came at me nothing less than full force.
I’ve been bummed about this unwritten “conclusion” blog post regarding my travels, and a good friend said to me recently, “maybe you’re just not done concluding.” Maybe he was right.
Reverse culture shock was instantaneous upon my touchdown in Orlando, Fla., for my connecting flight.
I could fill my filter water bottle from– and what’s more, drink right out of– the water bubbler without concern for sanity or cleanliness? I could call or text anyone without having to search or beg for access to Wi-Fi? I am expected to put this toilet paper– wait, there’s toilet paper, and soap, and paper towels in every bathroom– in the toilet instead of a trash can? Can the pipes really handle that waste?
My most shocking observation was the contrast and complete social and cultural opposition of South Americans and North Americans regarding technology and electronics, and children. The two categories of precious cargo are at polar ends of sociocultural spectrums on both continents.
In South America, particularly in less industrialized and more traditional areas of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, I noticed an overwhelming
unsuspecting demeanor in parents. Children were running around at all ages and all hours of the day and night, often times alone without any
Kids are plentiful; particularly in highly religious countries like Ecuador and Peru that have strict abortion laws. And they are costly.
Less prevalent and in higher demand are technology and electronics. Unfortunately, pickpocketing is still an issue in many parts of South America and my boyfriend and I had heard our fair share of travel horror stories. Constant awareness and overprotectiveness of cell phones, laptops, tablets, music devices etc. were drilled into our young, blonde, English-speaking minds.
Some of my first instincts in the Orlando International Airport were to tell people that their bags were open. “Do you know your iPhone is hanging right out of your unzipped backpack?!”, I would think anxiously. The number of electronics exceeded the amount of people around me, and they were all being used or lying nonchalantly near their owners.
I refrained from revealing my rusty knowledge of United States of America norms and entered the fully stocked bathroom, only to see a mother shuffling her probably 8-year-old daughter through the three-person-throng from the stall to the sink with a fearful look on her face.
Following days and weeks brought more observations. I didn’t realize how accustomed I was to the beautiful, ever-dynamic landscapes of South America. Bolivia still offered the most spectacular starry sky I have
ever seen in my life. The Amazonian jungle of Ecuador, endless, looming peaks and valleys of Peru, Bolivia’s salt flats and deserts, the entire Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, the rolling hills and waters of Brazil and the Andes mountain range that accompanied us for
much of it all; our planet had never been so utterly magnificent to me.
It was easy to find myself in awe each day. It was easy and convenient to shop at local outdoor markets full of traditional farmers and vendors, not to mention the economical and social impact it made. It was impressing to cover so much distance and explore so many places on foot, and not via car.
It was humbling to hear people speaking a different language than I did. It was beautiful mind practice every single day to pick up new words, listen for words that I had already learned or try to figure out what strangers were saying.
It was special and soul-opening to meet people chasing after the same dreams and adventures as me: the spirit of being alive.
It is seeing these changes around me and feeling these changes inside of me that required all of this time to process. It is returning to the same place with the same people and a similar routine and knowing that I am very different now, though it’s not easy to communicate or show.
“So, what’s next?”
It is summer-after-each-year-of-college inquiries multiplied by Thanksgiving and Christmas family small talk. It is a common question, born of human curiosity. It is intrigue that seems to grow exponentially in face of unconventionality. What does one do after backpacking for four months? There’s no chapter for that in the rat race handbook, and hey, I’m dying to know, too.
But at some point along the way, if even subconsciously, I determined the conventional life was not for me. I knew I wanted to travel after college and that I had many life lessons to encounter before I could share my gifts with the world. I know that South America was just the start of this winding and unsystematic path of mine, and that excites, though scares me at times.
The mind, soul and spirit I was created with and the life decisions I have made thus far have demonstrated and called for a different route. It is unknown and self-manifested, in the same way that they all are. I do not have the answers. And I’m coming to accept the terrifying and freeing truth that I never will. No one will. But I have dreams and strengths and ideas and gifts to bring to the world, and I’m the best possible version of me that I’ll ever be for what’s coming next.
And it’s already here, happening everyday. It’s now, it’s present, it’s ever-flowing and ever-growing. And my eyes, heart and arms are open for it.
Humans have long recalled the healing effects time spent in nature has on the mind, body and soul. It is a concept that has been explored by classic novelists, poets and more recently, scientists and neurologists.
While perhaps still unexplainable, the refreshing, rejuvenating qualities of spending time disconnected from the real world and connected to our real roots is undeniable.
Though I believed I had loved and appreciated and felt nature’s healing properties before in my existence, it wasn’t until I spent a week fully plugged into the wonders of camping in the Torres del Paine National Park of Chile that I finally understood.
Seven days without a shower. Six mornings of oatmeal for breakfast. An average of 20 kilometers of trekking per day. Living in tents, permanent dirt under fingernails, glaciers, wild horses, guanacos, sore knees, friends, turquoise lakes, golden fields, autumn foliage and blistering, snow-crested, looming dark grey mountains.
And the whole time, I was present.
I wasn’t thinking about who did this or achieved that; who landed a new job or started a business, who got engaged, started dating or went to the raging party last night.
I was disconnected from this “real world,” and these thoughts that had nothing to do with me nor affected my truth or being. It was just me and nature and my own, honest thoughts. And no one, especially not nature, was there to judge me.
We are not naturally programmed to concern ourselves with what others are saying and doing. It is a social construction taught to us, induced and reinforced by the media in commercials, movies, songs and advertisements. It is a concept that has found its most influential platform, today, through social media in particular.
We are living in a world and culture that is driven by consumerism and monetary gains- gains that flourish from honing in on human fears and egos.
These all-surrounding, mass-broadcast thoughts, are distractions in the simplest form. They are the fears and concerns that we consume and allow to pull us away from the truths that we know about ourselves, our wants, dreams and needs.
They are the elements of seeming complexity that we inhale and tack on to our self-knowledge, making it deceivingly difficult to decipher what it is we really want to do and how we want to live our lives.
These distractions are the ones that take our dedication and desire to travel the world or pursue our dream career and mix them with Johnny getting accepted into a rigorous graduate program and Jane opening a school for civil war refugees. Shouldn’t we be doing something like that instead?
“I should travel right after I finish university because I won’t have the time or money or health to do so later on. I should get into the workforce right away or I’ll fall behind my peers. I should be in a relationship, be engaged and pregnant, I should make that career change, move cross-country, volunteer abroad and exercise more so I can look like him or her.”
Distractions, fears, comparing ourselves to others- they are merely thoughts of negativity that prevent us from listening to the honesty of our hearts and souls; the parts of us that know the answers deep down inside. (They also create a market for corporate consumerism to feed and profit off of).
And they are not natural. When disconnected from these thoughts, nature is an honest, healthy, kind old teacher and friend. She will listen and demonstrate the lessons and knowledge that you are seeking. Nature is the truest and most beautiful reflection of our very selves.
In that week, I was free of all the layers of distractions that wouldn’t ever naturally infiltrate my mind. I knew only my own, unadulterated thoughts and my only concern was the best version of me that I could be.
Through hail, snow, sun and winds, I was stripped down of these negative distortions, being reset back to the truths I knew about me in the first place- a clearer understanding of myself and my life.
I’ve deleted the Facebook application from my phone. I engaged in deep self-reflection in those hours of walking that have guided me to the next steps in living my life truthfully after this trip. I’ve addressed feelings that I’ve avoided for longer than I can remember, and I know how to shine light on them now. I’ve kept these lessons from my Patagonian experience and enlightenment close to heart, and I don’t plan on going another 22 years without the clarity that only nature can bring me back to. On top of it all, it was the most beautiful place I’ve seen on Earth. What could ever compete with that?
Some of my favorite experiences on this trip so far have been the unplanned, yet calculated series of yes’s that lead to outings and interactions with locals. They are the deep, authentic moments of culture immersion that are near impossible to feel on the surface level that is being a tourist. They are the tastes, after all, that are the true makings of travel. They are the experiences that remind us to accept the interconnectedness of life using a broader perspective. The night before Easter was one of those times.
A. and my intentions for that Saturday were to be productive: accomplish some reading, some writing and some financial planning. We had been in Santiago, Chile, for nearly two weeks- the longest we had been in a single place- and we were getting antsy. Though our Airbnb landlord, R., had invited us to a daytime electronic park party in the morning, he found us, hands grasping the barred gates, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, staring at the overly stimulating, yet very over, park darty at 9:30 p.m. that evening.
Laughing, R. followed up his first invite with a second: did we want to join him and his friend at a house party in the “Beverly Hills” of Santiago? Eager not to miss a second shot at fun- whyyeswedid.
The Chilean hillside house was stunning. It was equipped with an in-ground pool and lounge area, a living tree growing through the ceiling in the shower, Buddha statues galore and other sprinkles of modern design.
A local couple approached us shortly after our arrival, offering a kind welcome and intriguing conversation. We hit it off instantly, discussing deep relationships and closeness with others, connectivity and mindfulness. The Chilean man told me that at once point in his life he felt anger and dislike toward certain individuals. How could I love a rapist or a thief?, he asked aloud. We concurred together an answer to be something like this: it is morally difficult, but possible when looking at the pixels that are the sameness in each of us.
Instead of getting caught up in the differences, dive into the deeper, shared qualities. It doesn’t mean malicious and unkind acts should be overlooked or justified. It does not make them right or change wrongdoing that has already happened. But remembering the oneness of humanity aids in the relief that is forgiveness and even further, love. At the end of the day, we are all human. It is much easier and deeper to find love for another person remembering that than it is to love, accept or evaluate someone solely for their actions.
It is both the tiny pixilations that compose us, and the magnificent web of oneness that encompasses us all. It is not the insignificant differences that lie in between. We humans share all of the same most magnificent and significant qualities: the universe inside.
Before leaving the party of Chileans, swaying to the dj and having lounge chair conversations under the night sky, our friend left me with one more piece of wisdom: family is the most important.
“At the end of it all, they gave you life. They are humans just like the rest of us. They don’t know what they’re doing. But they brought you here. And without them, you are nothing.”
I woke up feeling homesick on Easter morning, in part due to last night’s conversation with the stranger and to a dream I had about my grandparents and my aunt. But after calling my parents and speaking with some loved ones, and a short moment of condolence from the person who has spent the last 75 straight days with me, I was feeling better and was ready to celebrate Easter the way that I best knew how- like my family.
I pulled an Easter outfit out of my backpack to get me in the spirit: cue pink floral romper and pink lipstick. I compiled three Easter “bags” out of the $10 thousand Chilean pesos’ worth of chocolate I had bought the day before (not included in the backpacker budget): one for my favorite sweet-toothed partner, one for R. and the last for our roommate, T.
I let the three adult men search the house excitedly as I cooked Easter brunch for A. and me, smiling at how much I reminded myself of my mother.
A. helped set the backyard table, munching on his remaining peanut-butter-filled chocolate eggs while we waited for my frittata to finish (I really do need to stop eyeballing measurements- how do you do it, dad?!).
In some time, we moved outside to enjoy a delicious brunch of eggs, home fries, fruit salad and avocado, accompanied by the South American touches of fresh maracuya juice and Chilean red wine.
We sat outside laughing and talking long after the food was finished. If the neighboring cat made an appearance, I might’ve thought I really was home. Or better yet, that my family was all here with me celebrating like we always do. I smiled again at A., feeling loved and full of love.
The stranger was right. I am human, just like him and our families, and just like every other stranger besides him. What’s more, my family did give me this life. They have given me everything. And they are always a part of me.