Two winters, and what seems like a lifetime ago, I read a sentence that went something like this: If you’re in a creative void, stuck, and not making progress, simply stand on top of your chair and observe… this simple shift in perspective will provide clarity and perhaps will bring new ideas to what you’re trying to accomplish. Try it; it works for writer’s block, art projects, studying for the ACT, and even a mood boost. (How can you not smile when you’re looking ridiculous standing on top of a chair?)
Autumn of my senior year, I found myself in a void: a black hole that was composed of a feeling similar to what I would imagine it would feel like to have the bottoms of my feet covered in Elmer’s glue and the hallways of my school made of that super-tape that catches dust, mice, and everything else that crawls in dark corners. Mix that with the muted voices of others telling me where to go or what to do, and it’s no wonder I was paralyzed – stuck between who I wanted to become and the confusion of who I was. The one thought that vibrated vibrantly within the strings of my chaotic mind was that I need to see the world.
So I traded the map posters that hung on my newly painted bedroom walls for a map of Ecuador, sold all of my clothes so I could buy Tevas, bought eight months’ worth of deodorant, and other practical things, then said a quick but meaningful goodbye to my family as I prayed my luggage wouldn’t weigh more than 50 pounds. Why? I needed to stand on my metaphorical chair: the Andes mountain range. I needed to find out what it means to be alive, what it means to live, so I could define, then find my road to walk on and create goals to grow towards, but most of all I needed perspective on myself and the world around me.
Four weeks ago, as my dirty white Converse planted squarely on one of the many old brick streets in the Historic Center of Quito, I felt like I slipped through the cracks, like the admissions committee made some kind of error in paperwork but couldn’t bear to break the news so they decided it wouldn’t hurt to have the smiley girl from Missouri tag along with the other brave, strong, really-good-at-everything kids. I attempted to roll my eyes at myself and my ridiculous thoughts, remembering Abby Falik’s meaningful words she imparted on us at Pre-departure Training: you’re here for a reason, we hand-picked you because we know you have potential (or some inspiring phrase along those lines).
With those words trying to bend my mind into a search engine to find some meaning in the mass confusion, the people and cars rushed around leaving me behind, and all I found was a haze of rapid Spanish that smelled like gasoline and over-fried plantains. My doubts swirled around me creating a negative uneasiness deep in the center of my stomach. I knew I needed to stand on a taller chair (even while standing on my chair) so I decided to climb an active volcano to clear the firing brigade within. After all, I was in Ecuador where I was supposed to be gaining clarity.
And so the second Saturday in Quito, four incredible friends and I met; armed with positivity, water bottles, and each other, we started onwards. The two-maybe-four hour hike up was a struggle filled with many pauses to catch the elusive breath, to marvel at the critically endangered national symbol of Ecuador: the Andean Condor, and appreciating the fauna that survived in the unforgiving climate.
The higher my dirt-filled shoes took me, the more my ears became a throbbing piercing pain from the cold, the more my thighs shook out of exhaustion, and the more my breath became tangible, escaping my lungs to materialize in front of me only to disappear in a few white seconds as if laughing at my inability to catch it.
As I pulled myself closer to the scraggly peaks that rose in front of me beckoning my exhausted body, I stopped and saw Quito. I realized there were more than the heavenly smell of street food that made it easy to forget how sick you got last time you ate meat-from-a-stick that cost one dollar, the cough-inducing pollution of the city buses, and the rainbow of colors that made up a street. When I looked around in the rushed streets of Quito, I could easily tell that I was surrounded by mountains. What I didn’t see were those blue, often cloud-covered mountains that were also surrounded by grandeur in snow-peaked mountains. While standing there, my hair whipping around me and my eyes squinting through the harsh equator sun, I found there was a lot I just don’t know that I didn’t know and how I am limiting myself if I assume that what I see is what there is; there is so much more of everything than meets the eye.
I was engulfed by clouds as I summited one of the massive dark peaks and with each breath of thin air my lungs ached and each particle of me was present and I shivered and screamed and I was alive. The first thought that came to mind was that finding meaning is as simple as being present in the fleeting moment. The chaos in my mind clarified, but not into the meaning of my life, or what college I wanted to attend, but into a peace. The chaos was there and I acknowledged it, and then let it become a part of who I was in that moment. After all, I was alive, on top of a volcano in South America, and I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment: I was truly living.
David McCullough Jr. perfectly describes how I felt climbing Pichincha and what I want to model my experience in Ecuador after:
“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
I’m in Ecuador to be and to become, to experience and grow, to learn and love. I’m here so I can see the world and feel the currents of a culture so different than my own while being wholly and beautifully alive.