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When [Wo]men and Mountains Meet

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet This is not done by jostling in the street"--William Blake

October 26-27. Parque Nacional Cayambe-Coca.

I can feel the thin air and sharp winds grab my lungs and stretch them past their asthmatic capacity, like the way one stretches and pulls a balloon before blowing it up. The day started brilliantly, with unusual amounts of sun and clear skies sending us off on our trek. We started the trek at about 10,000 feet above sea level, and by the end of the day would have climbed another 4,500 feet to our campsite at Laguna Parcacocha. The landscape painted before us a misty,  mysterious land, pitted with countless valleys and a multitude glassy lakes around every turn. Tall tussock grasses and extreme altitude plants dotted the rolling hills, some resembling more like coral reefs than photosynthetic organisms.  The air was  cold and fresh, and the silence when no one spoke was astounding, full of weight and empty of sound.

We continued the hike, following tracks of Andean pumas, tapirs, and deer, and  arrived to the campsite late afternoon, and soon after setting up camp were treated  again with clear skies and sun, revealing he true colors of the deep valley and lake carved by ancient glacier movements. The sunset was unlike one I had ever seen before. Melissa, Frannie, and I climbed up a hill to get a better view and were treated to a lake that reflected the late afternoon and early dusk sky with a brilliant pallete of colors, shimmering like an iridescent watercolor painting. The photos you see below are as close to true to life as they come, I really only edited for contrast and exposure. 

When the black, cold night fell, we tried for 3 hours to make a fire, but it was all in vain. At almost 15,000 feet, there was not enough oxygen to light a fire with the semi-dry tinder; even toilet paper would not light easily, just burn as I held the lighter to it. In the night, the water we left out to purify turned to ice, and I woke up with a start at sunrise to frozen toes and the echoing bellows of the Andean spectacled bear (smaller and less scary than the North American version).

As we made our descent to the small town of Papallacta, my body took on more of the signs of altitude as the changing pressure filled my stomach with air, painfully inflating it. #thingsyoudontworryaboutinNC After getting a ride to town from some friendly conservationists, we ate a fresh trout lunch and soaked in the thermal baths before catching the last bus back to Quito.

My time here is running out. From today I have 24 days until I touchdown back into the homeland, and 8 of those will be spent visiting friends and Krochet Kids in Lima. There isn't any time left for me to be homesick, I realize, I have to soak in the last bits of my South American life before the chapter closes on me abruptly, the beautiful treasured bits as well as the ugly ones. Here's to carpe-ing that diem.

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Because I promised you pretty pictures in my last post... Busted.

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Super-paramo endemic plants? Or tropical coral reefs?

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Hitting a Wall.

How the time passes, how we always seem to find ourselves waking up in November and asking ourselves "how did this happen?!", I will never understand. At this point in my journey, Ive been out of the country a total of 6 months, within it for 12 days total between three trips. For most of the travel time, I've managed to maintain a healthy level of excitement and ambition and sense of adventure. I've seen, done, learned, and grown more than I could have ever imagined. But this week, after returning from a class trip to the Galapagos Islands (post to come on that.), I hit a wall. This week I've struggled with the most intense, overwhelming homesickness and desire to be once again within the borders of the U.S.A. A homesickness so strong, it's almost debilitating, sucking me dry of motivation and inspiration.

I started this blog to document the progression of the story of my life (hence the name, The Next Chapter), after reading a book that convicted me to live my life to be told one day as a great story, to the credit of the Author who has filled the lines, pages, and chapters that are the moments, days and months of my life. (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,  by Donald Miller). As with so many things that start with good intentions, I think I got a little bit lost a long the way. It started as an earnest pursuit for a greater story, for a life lived to its full potential (John 10:10).  I got lost in the visible, lost in what images my camera could capture, and lost in the high of mountain top experiences and weekend expeditions into the wilderness, addicted to a drug that could give me only a temporary fix. I realize now that all these trips are a gift, not a destination, and I fulfillment comes with acknowledging and thanking the Giver, not just accepting his gifts without regard.

Often after I share a photo or a post about a recent adventure, I receive comments like "I wish I had your life" "Your're so cool!" or "I'm jealous of your life." Now, though it's lovely to receive such comments, it also didn't feel quite right. Here is what I realized:

1. "Coolness" is such a lie. I'm SO aware of how awkward I am, how uncomfortable I am in group settings, and how totally, completely uncool I am. The fact that others would think I am cool for the couple pictures I post or couple blubbering words I write makes me rethink what "cool" is. It's so subjective, and completely based on the image that you want others to see, the image that one projects onto social media outlets. My Instagram account isn't an accurate representation of my day-to-day life, it's the highlight reel that I want other people to see. If I were to make it more authentic, more honest, I would post pictures of the bus I take to school every day, packed with people until the doors barely close (#claustrophobic #cantbreathe.), and show you a picture of my alpaca socked feet in bed at 10pm everynight (#grandmastatus)

2. In some way, shape or form, I'm jealous of your life. Pumpkin spiced lattes, football games, fall colors, sweater weather. Thai food. Winston-Salem. Family. Friends. The freedom to leave your house and not constantly feel like your personal safety is at risk.

3. You can't compare your inside life with someones outside life. I heard this is a talk I listened to online, and it struck me as profoundly true. Don't compare your internal fears, loneliness, and insecurities with someone else's external successes, adventures, and social life. You have no idea what their insides look like, and know all too well what yours feel like.

For the purpose of honesty and transparency, I wanted to tell you how uncool I am. To tell you how, though my life is incredibly blessed and I am beyond lucky to have gotten to do the things I've done this year, I have struggled and wrestled and gotten beaten down by so many things more than ever. I'm lonely. I'm tired. I'm homesick. I want to go home.

One of my biggest struggles here is feeling unsafe. I've learned to call as little attention to myself as possible so as to go as unnoticed as possible, wearing layers of loose clothing, tucking my long hair into a beanie hat every day I go out, but still everywhere I go I get disgusting stares, crude comments, fake Chinese words, and men who lean in way too close as they pass me. I hate it. I feel disgusting, permanently in danger, and always on edge. It makes me so angry that these men have the power to make me feel so helpless and trashy, but when it happens 5 times a day and has changed the way I dress and carry myself completely, and has prompted me to lash out physically against several of these men (oops, sorry I'm not sorry you got in my personal space. That bruise will heal, sir.) it's impossible to ignore.

Until recently, I think people thought I was exaggerating. I was even told by an Ecuadorean woman it was "my fault"  for being "pretty", and that if I was ugly nothing would happen to me. But on two separate occasions this week I was walking around with friends, one a girl, the other a guy. I had told them about my troubling experiences with men in the street, but it wasnt until they walked around with me in the city and saw it for themselves, they finally realized what I had been saying all along. I could see from the expressions on their faces that they finally understood.

Yesterday walking home I saw two men attack and rob a German couple on a principal street here in Quito, about 20 feet behind where I was walking. The perps walked right past me, and about 10 seconds later I heard them hit them, a loud SMACK. I turned around and saw that the men had the couple pushed up against a fence, demanding their things. I am so thankful that they didn't see me, a solo girl, and that I got away quickly and made it home, spooked and sweaty and shaken, but safe.

I trust that there is a purpose and a plan for all this, but sometimes it is so hard to see it.

One day I'll look back on this experience and understand why I had to go through it everyday for 5 months. Right now I don't, but right now is temporary. These last few days have been rough, I wish this post ended with more resolve, a profound metaphor or life lesson or something like that, but right now, I'm still a work in progress. I just wanted to be honest, for all ten and a half of my readers to know that though my outsides look like I'm having a blast and living a travellers dream (which, I am, I swear. Outside the city, Ecuador is AMAZING.), my insides still have real struggles, that life, though rich and beautiful, still has its rocky, terrifying, and lonely parts.

And don't worry, next time I post, I promise to have more pretty pictures (:

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All Who Wander...

Last month, we embarked on an overnight hike between two small towns: Lloa, located at the mouth of active Pichincha volcano, to Mindo, a popular destination for Quiteno tourists located in tropical cloud forest and have about 40 kilometers and 1500m above sea level between them. The beauty of this country is ever changing, ever impressing, ever astounding, and ever abounding. Though the trek was long, I enjoyed the continuous unfolding of the landscapes, insects, plants, and flowers. Leaves that appeared to be diseased were actually covered in hundreds of iridescent blue beetles. Large, white water rivers were crossed by teetering stones and stumps or by using rusty metal pully and swing contraptions. Hills turned into valleys, valleys turned into rivers, rivers created cliffs, and beyond the cliffs we continued through thick jungle. Our campsite was literally in the clouds, beside the Rio Blanco.

The second morning I was sitting by a small creek on the other side of our campsite, and noted a pale yellow mold covering organic debris in the creek. Brushing my teeth and washing breakfast dishes, it wasn't until about 10 minutes later that I realized what I was looking at wasn't mold, but actually hundreds of butterflies, holding so still I thought they were fungus! With a wave of my hand, the little beauties scattered, leaving the stones and stumps they once adorned.

In one jungle section, we entered a small clearing and I felt like I was in a scene from the new Alice in Wonderland--instead of being surrounded by the rich greens of the rest of the jungle, the whole clearing was covered canopy to forest floor in vines with bright orange flowers, buds reminiscent of petunias. I leaned in to look inside one of the trumpet shaped buds and jumped back, startled to find sharp, aggressive teeth like structures inside the flower. Yikes. Will stop to smell the carniverous roses next time...

It was a unique experience to feel the changes in climate, and even more, to see the change in altitude affect plant and animal life. Starting in the Paramo, or high altitude mountain above the tree line (3800 m or so), we hiked into thicker and greener jungle; our surroundings were changing every few hours. As with many things in Ecuador, I have never experienced anything like it. I can't help but be left in awestruck wonder, and in deep gratitude that I have been afforded to see such things. Though it makes me feel closer to God, though the wild brings me peace, I come back each time a little more lost. Not in the sense that I have no direction, but lost in the mystery, lost in the beauty, and lost in the vastness, and lost in wonder.

That being said, all who wander should at least get a little bit lost...

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Lost and Found.

  It’s been almost 2 months now since I’ve arrived in Quito–and I can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. In a couple weeks, I’ll be at the halfway point of my time here, which is even crazier to think about. While the adjustment was hard, I am so thankful to be able to say that I finally feel settled in my life here, after making a few more Ecuadorean friends and, starting my internship at a photo and design studio, and getting hooked up with people from a really cool organization that does social work here in Quito, but also in other parts of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru (www.incalink.org)

I thought a lot about how I didn't exactly fall in love with Ecuador right away, how the first month or so I really didn't understand why I was here and struggled with homesickness. It felt like I would not find the kind of life I wanted in the city. But slowly and steadily, I have fallen in love with Ecuador. I knew it would happen at some point, I just thought it would be a lot sooner--a love at first sight kind of deal. I am no expert by any means, but I think this just shows our misconception of love, that it has to be a fall hard, fall fast, or never at all type of romance. But that's just not how it has been. I can't speak in terms of romance, but I can tell you that in the slow, steady way that God has slowly revealed Ecuador, its people, its beauty, and treasures, he reveals himself slowly to us--I never quite understood the metaphor Christians love to use about romance and marriage and the bride for God, and I don't think I will for a while, but I understand love, not in the romantic sense, but in the sense that you have to choose to let something permeate your heart, and that it takes a long time. It's deeper, it's meaningful, but most importantly, it's real.

One of the most surprisingly gifts that I’ve found in my time here is my host family. I have heard people rave about their host families in the past, but didn’t think I would actually feel like I have a family here. They have been my saving grace, source of laughter and crazy stories, support, and advice for the past two months. My parents are older, late 50s and early 60s, but are so full of life. My mom, Ana Maria, is the best cook and motherly figure. My dad, Francisco, is 60 years old but probably more active than a lot of people my age. It’s been a great fit, because he loves to go biking, hiking, exploring, camping, and trekking, so we have gone on several adventures already, almost every weekend.

He’s also an avid beekeeper.

Last week, we harvested the honey, processed it, and sold it, quite a lengthy process, but rewarding and I was fascinated by the complexity and otherwise unknown secret life of bees. With the earnings, we took a family camping trip to Oyacachi, a tiiiiny pueblito about 3 hours north of Quito, tucked away in a valley near Cayambe volcano. No tourists, and even most Ecuadoreans, know about this place, so it felt like I was getting filled in on a hidden gem of Ecuador. My host dad grew up in Cayambe, and has been going to Oyacachi since he was little. We left early Saturday morning, and enjoyed the views of a cloudless sky (rare this time of year) and clear shots of Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Antisana, and other volcanoes that are usually hidden by haze or clouds. Even my family excitedly exclaimed as we passed these landscapes–they had lived here their whole lives and had never seen the taitas, Quichua for “father”, like this before.

After arriving, we set up camp near some pools of thermal waters, and I tagged along with the boys to the river to fish. I’ve never caught a fish in my life, but hey, first time for everything, right? I ended up not getting a chance to cast a line though, because a local boy who my dad knew ended up lending me his family’s horse for the afternoon, and I explored the Andean landscape and countryside on horseback, galloping over bridges and racing around cows, without a saddle and only an old rope for a bridle. I have always dreamed of doing something like this--whisking away on horseback on a great escape from reality. Another  dream come true. You can’t plan these sort of adventures.

The rest of the trip was spent getting acquainted with the extremely friendly locals,  sleeping under the stars, relaxing in the thermal waters, exploring and enjoying the quiet outside of the city. I accidentally tried cuy (guinea pig) when I bought a pincha, or skewered meat, from a lady; I thought it was chicken. It was the best street side meat I’ve ever had.

An excerpt from my journal the morning we left:

"Here in Oyacachi, we are at 0 degrees North, 0 degrees South, in the middle of the world technically. And while I literally am in the middle of the world here, I have never felt more outside of it. In a foreign country, new place, disconnected but more connected within than from without. It's a weird sensation, to crave human connection but to also want to run from it, to escape. I am in the middle of the world, and I am outside of it, not from here, not of this world. I am a stranger, in a strange land, and am reminded that on ths earth, I am just passing through. This is the closest I have ever seen the stars--all different here. Because of our orientation, I have no way of knowing which way is North. I feel so small, I am lost. But also, here underneath this expanse of stars, beneath volcanic giants, speeding on horseback over rivers and through forest, waking up to your sunrise, falling asleep under your stars and heavens, I am found. "

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Harvest moon on the day of the harvest
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Host bro and yo
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Cayambe volcano
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Riding through the Andes, on a horse with no name.
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Fishing with the boys
Fishing with the boys
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Accidentally ate cuy. Thought it was chicken.
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A Proverbial Step Back from a Metaphorical Painting--The Plight of Nearsightedness (And too many big words in a blog post title)

I have a new theory, and by new I mean new to me but most smart people have probably figured it out by now.  And my theory is this: I have a pretty bad vision problem.  And I’m not talking about my -7.00 contact prescription or how I’ve had corrective lenses since I was 4 years old. What I mean is, amazing things happen to me every day,  and I’ve gotten to experience some incredible places and meet, live, and work with even more incredible people, but I can’t really appreciate them until  it’s over or I’ve left. Maybe I have a really bad lag time processing things, kind of like when you watch a Youtube video on South American or African WiFi and the audio is about 1.5 seconds behind the video. Maybe it’s my extreme nearsightedness. Case in point, I’m also just now realizing this, after a good 4 months of international travel. The common trend has been that I realize the full richness of a place and its people only after I leave—whether that be my university, Kenya, Lima, or home. I don't know if this is normal, but I feel like I’m losing a little bit of  the experience when this happens. Just to name a few things, in the last few months I have: -Danced, played, ran around, loved, sang, worshipped, cried, hugged, prayed, and celebrated with the girls of Uhuru Academy, the secondary school started by Uhuru Child that Julia and I have been raising funds for all year in Limuru, Kenya. -Hacked, tilled, watered, planted alongside Jikaze residents, helping with their Uhuru Shambas that allow them to provide for their family, repair their homes, and send their kids to school

-went on safari (dream come true, check.)

-Lived in two South American capital cities

-surfed the Costa Verde in Lima, rode around in a VW van (dream come true, check)

-summited two volcanos on two different continents, and have been on 3 different continents (4, if you count a layover in Rome)

-completed some of the hardest, highest, and most beautiful hikes of my life in the Andes (and didn’t pass out/die/hallucinate—shout out to Mt. Loongonot!)

-worked at Krochet Kids, an NGO and fashion brand I admire, with some of the most incredible, inspiring people ever—the American staff, the Peruvian staff, and especially all the ladies in our program. Learned more and grew more than I thought I would.

-seen some of the most beautiful places in the world—The Great Rift Valley, tea fields, and Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, the seaside cliffs of Lima, the staggeringly high and jaggedly majestic mountains of the Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region in Peru, a city nestled in a valley of volcanoes in Quito, lakes in volcanoes, hundred foot waterfalls in Baños, rocks, cliffs, trees, and mountains that make you feel like you are living on an Earth where dinosaurs still existed, and humans never arrived to ruin it all. (See past blog posts if you don’t know what I am referring to.)

-tried in vain to capture glimpses of all the magic with my camera and communicate it with this blog

And all these things are amazing in and of themselves, but what makes them truly amazing, and this is what I don’t understand, is why I can’t see these things for what they are when they are happening. And maybe it’s not an issue of seeing them for what they are, but seeing them in terms of who is giving them to me.  I get too caught up in the gift, in the present, in the action, in the scenery, and forget that all these good and perfect and glorious things come from above, from a good and perfect and glorious God. Not only am I nearsighted, I’m freakin’ forgetful. I believe in living in the moment, I also am realizing if you get too close to the moment, put your face too close to the painting, you forget where you are, you forget what you’re looking at, and you forget why you’re there.

When working on any new painting or drawing, it’s important to regularly take a few steps back to examine the piece from a far. Get engrossed in the work, spend hours getting lost in the lines and colors, realize you don’t even know where you are any more, and the piece becomes distorted and confused.  It’s not something that I would naturally do though, and have to constantly check myself and make sure I step back every once in a while. I guess the same thing can be said about life and these crazy adventures. Take a step back, and appreciate not just where I am, but where I’ve been, where I’m coming from, and where I’m going next. In the end, I guess this post is about thanks, and not giving enough of it.

Below are a few more things I have to be thankful for—pictures from a recent climbing day on rock slabs in the city, a few hundred feet over a valley on a highway that was closed for being too dangerous. Also included are shots from a weekend trip to Baños, known for its waterfalls and adventure sports.

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Independence Day

Still riding the tailwinds of my time in Peru, and only after spending 8 days in the States, I repacked my bags and left on a Saturday afternoon feeling unprepared to live in another country for the next 5 months, but at least more confident in knowledge and experience after living in Lima. I knew how to navigate the bus system, speak more than just survival Spanish, negotiate a cab, had become a pro at crossing treacherously trafficked streets, walk with brisk purpose in my step, ignore catcalls and wolf whistles. Transitioning from Lima, a city of 9 million that dwarfs Quito's 2 million, I thought adjusting to life in another South American mega-metropolis would, quite frankly, be fairly smooth.I was wrong.

The past 3 weeks have been more of a struggle than I would like to admit. At first, everything was harder here. Even going to the grocery store was an adventure. The first day I arrived, my host sister was assaulted on our street by two men--hit in the face, lost a tooth, and robbed. That Friday night I took a taxi cab who's driver seemed to have less than honorable intentions, and had to pay almost double the fare of a normal cab to get out at my house. A few days later, my host mom was assaulted and robbed on the same street as my host sister, but this time at knife point, and at 10:30am. She was wearing a leather jacket, and the knife cut straight through it, but thank goodness she was wearing it.

As if my dwindling confidence hadn't been shaken up enough already by being the only non Ecuadorean in my university classes, being unable to catch on to colloquial slang, living in a new great big city, and adjusting to an entirely new culture and lifestyle, I now felt like I couldn't even be safe in my own neighborhood. I was told that Quito wasn't a particularly dangerous city, but like any other big city, one just has to be careful. I still think this is true, and, like my 26 year old host brother told me, "Sometimes shit happens--you just gotta let it flow" (Thanks, Fabio.)

If you know me at all, feeling vulnerable and dependent are not exactly my strong suits. Independence and self-reliance are both things I have always prided myself on for as long as I can remember. Hang around me long enough and you'll hear the words "strong and independent black woman who don't need no man" be used in serious conversation. But for the first time in my young adult life, I felt completely dependent--like a child, I felt like I couldn't do anything by myself--especially walk around and wander like I tend to do.

Frustrated and angry, but not scared, I wondered "why?" hoping to make some sense of the speed bumps and street violence that had begun to make me feel trapped. Three freaky incidents within my first week and a half? All happening to me or someone in my family? I don't believe in coincidences, I thought, there has to be a reason...I am a strong, independent...

And then, like my host sister's assailant in the night, it suddenly hit me.

I am a strong and independent black woman who don't need no man.

Though you may laugh at that little dicho, this independence with innocent origins had turned into pride which had turned into arrogance which had turned into me thinking of myself as independent of everything else--main stream culture, other people, and...God.

Which left me with this: Being vulnerable or dependent on others does not make me weak, or foolish, or dumb. I'm not supposed to be 100% independent 100% of the time. Especially when that independence brings me dangerously close to thinking I can live life independent from the one who gave it to me in the first place.

Like so many other truths, it is a paradox. To become strong, you must become weak. To be first, you must become last. To become rich, you first must lose everything. To become truly independent, I had to learn to become dependent. (try reading those in a wise Yoda-esque voice. Giggle. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.)

In Lima, independence day means that every single business, building, and home flies the Peruvian flag, painting the town in red and white beacons of freedom. In Quito, independence day means concerts in every plaza around the city, dancing, drinking, and celebration.

In my head, to become independent I had to learn to do the thing I had tried my hardest not to do--be dependent on someone, even if that someone is God himself. For me this is freedom. For me, this is my independence day.

And on a different note, here are some photos from Ecuador so far...

Lunch with the host fam

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Valle de Cumbayah--Cumbayah valley, view from Parque Metropolitano

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Pinchincha Volcano, Quito. 4600m, 14000+ feet hike

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Teleferico Cable Cars-Pinchincha

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Peguche Cascadas-Otavalo

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Lake Cuycocha--Cotacachi Volcano, Otavalo

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