|Panama...or Middle Earth?|
For 3 years, I listened to other Volunteers talk about their journeys: from miserable, soul-crushing freezing rainstorms to life-changing sunrises. Every climber had a morsel of advice, a nugget of wisdom, and well wishes for their successors. They discussed the best gear, snacks, and hiking styles. In an amiable one-upping contest, they detailed the challenges they faced and overcame. Some played it off as an afternoon stroll; others dramatized it into a battle of life or death on the steeps of Mount Doom. Everyone was glad they did it, but most admitted they would never do it again.
Not for a second did I believe I could be one of those people.
When I was first told about this volcano upon my arrival to Panama, I was content to admire its beauty from afar. The first time I saw the volcano myself, a stark peak disappearing into the cloudy sky, I was anything but motivated or intrigued. It was formidable and unfriendly. It was neither something I aspired to do nor believed I physically could.
Those who chose to climb it were impressive and seemingly untouchable. Not to mention completely crazy. Clearly only the super athletic, protein-shake types could ever manage it. The people who can climb a whole volcano in the dark all night without sleeping are strong, dedicated, persistent…and crazy.
After a 3-year stare down with the big rock, I psyched myself up for it. On June 14, 2015 at 5:40am I became one of those people. Well, partially. You expend the last of the last of your reserves to go up the last kilometer, pulling yourself up on your hands and knees. Thus you don’t realize after the sun makes its grand debut, it’s time to come back down. It would be 12:25pm before I made it down and really became one of those people.
By ‘I’ I mean WE, because I would not have made it without the companionship and encouragement of my hiking buddies- my cousin Melinda and fellow PCVs Michelle and Christina. Shout out to these ladies- they are incredibly impressive!
If you want the fully dramatized tale of my Volcán adventure, I would be happy to detail the 13 hours of hiking, sweating, freezing, and mind numbing “just put one foot in front of the other”. 13 kilometers up, 26 km round trip. And the conditions that night were perfect. Cloudless sky producing a breathtaking sunrise with a view of the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans.
But this post isn’t about the hike itself. With more than 3 years in Panama, my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer is quickly coming to a close. In the next few weeks I’m going to do a series of reflections and life lessons. If that volcano taught me anything other than what the depths of physical exhaustion feels like it’s this:
The limit does not exist.
Nothing about anything I’ve done before suggests that doing an all-night volcano hike would be something I’d accomplish. Up until the moment I did it I wasn’t sure I actually could. I just put one foot in front of the other and trusted the rest would work itself out.
If you had told me in high school I would be fluent in Spanish, I would have haltingly called you ‘loco’. If you had told me my first week in Panama I would live here for 3 years, I would have peed myself. If you had told me my first day in site I would help my community build 22 composting latrines, I would have fainted. If you had told me in my freshman acting classes I would create a camp to teach teenagers acting, I would have laughed in your face.
“Epic accomplishments are just a bunch of mundane and ordinary things done over and over again.”
There is no such thing as extraordinary work. There is just ordinary work done with extraordinary passion and persistence.
To learn Spanish, I just kept talking. And talking. And talking. To serve for 3 years in Panama, all I did was get out of bed each morning and take the day as it came. To build the latrines, I focused on one batch of cement at a time. To bring the theatre camp to life, I sent one email after another ceaselessly. To climb Volcán, all I did was put one foot in front of the other.
All I have to do is show up and do my job to the best of my ability. Some days the best I can do is sit in the hammock. Some days I need Google translate to buy breakfast. It doesn’t matter. When I show up and do my job, the rest works out. Maybe not how I thought it was going to work itself out- sometimes “working itself out” looks more like “utterly failing” but things balance out in the end.
On my second day in Panama, I sat on the edge of my bed and decided to ET. (Early Terminate, quit Peace Corps) My Spanish wasn’t good, I knew nothing about the job I was assigned to do, and making new friends is always intimidating. However, having never been out of the US before, I decided to stay in Panama for a couple of weeks so I could at least sightsee a little more first. (By the next day, I had changed my mind and I’ve never regretted it.)
When I got home from work on the 8th latrine, I collapsed on the floor of my hut and tried to figure out how to cancel the rest of the project because I was tired of the arguing, the heat, and the community politics. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and went to bed even though it was only 6pm. The next morning, I ignored the protests of my aching body and rolled out of bed.
When my theatre camp grant application was delayed for the third month in a row, I sat on a crowded bus of strangers and cried for an hour because I was tired of the red tape struggle and was doubting whether it was all worth it. When I got home, I had an email from Katy talking about how excited she was to come be a part of it, which kindled my motivation again.
When we reached the 2km mile marker on the hike, I opened my mouth to tell the group I didn’t think I could make it, that I should turn back. Before I said a word, Michelle asked me a question about a project and I simply forgot to quit.
In the last 3 years I have been faced with real physical, emotional, mental, financial, social, spiritual, personal, and professional limitations. They don’t matter. Most of them are lies stemming from insecurity and the rests are curves in the road at most. A non-athletic artist-type from the flattest state in the Union can still hike a volcano.
The cliché “you can do anything you set your mind to” is incredibly true- but it says nothing about the amount of work that’s going to take. If you want it, you’ll have to fight for it- and it is rarely ever exciting, high-impact work. Most of it comes down to washing dishes, hauling water, waiting for the bus, chatting with friends, answering emails, scratching bug bites, and sweating your butt off.
There’s exquisite beauty in the “mundane and ordinary”, and these days I try very hard to cherish each of those moments. However sometimes, you just have to make it to the next mile marker. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and never, ever, ever give up.
|We just *BARELY* made it in time for the sunrise!|
|You're not at the summit until you reach the cross.|
|It's cold! I'm exhausted! We made it!!!!|