I WAS AT A CROSSROADS IN MY TRIP: SIX MONTHS IN, AND TOTALLY MISERABLE.
MAYBE IT WAS SIMPLY TIME FOR A BREAK.
Six months is an awfully long time to have no fixed address or place to rest your toothbrush. Maybe my brain was exhausted from communicating in Spanish.
I was in Ecuador and, though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I was over it. The constant cold and everlasting drizzle was affecting my mood. It had been weeks since I had shared a dorm with anyone else. For the first time ever traveling solo, I was overwhelmingly lonely.
I contemplated booking a ticket home, knowing that my family would be delighted. But staying true to my stubborn self, I decided to hang on for just a little while longer. I headed to a small mountain town that was to be my last stop before I crossed the border to Colombia.
For all the good things I heard about Otavalo, after a day in town I was still feeling lost. I, yet again, found myself alone in a dorm room, struggling to stave off my misery. If traveling was supposed to be fun and I was too lonely to have any, then what was the point?
The next day, I chatted to a local who told me about a magical tree, El Lechero, that was rumored to have healing powers. Desperate for something to distract me from my dark mood, I asked how to get there. He drew something that resembled a map and handed it over. It wasn’t more than a few lines, dots and squiggles, but it was enough to send me in the right direction.
I made my way to the edge of town and headed through farmers’ fields on a rutted unmarked track, hoping it was the right way. After walking for quite some time, I finally crested over a hill. I had to stop to catch my breath when I turned around to check the view. The Andes, steep and green, are a marvelous sight.
I pressed on, feeling dwarfed by the backdrop of giant peaks. I had the sense of being on top of the earth, feeling teeny tiny and gigantic at the same time. My heart was overwhelmed with immense gratitude for the moment.
But seconds later, I was engulfed by utter grief that I wasn’t sharing it with anyone else.
I continued my hike in silence, nothing surrounding me but mountains, fields, and a couple of cows. Finally, I set my sights on a small, gnarled tree sitting on top of a round hill. It was El Lechero, the healing tree. I approached it and put my hand on its bark. I didn’t feel any different. My heart was still aching; I wasn’t feeling healed.
Do you know that irrational feeling of disappointment that follows the dissipation of a far-fetched hope? I’m a logical person; I hadn’t been expecting a miracle. But for some crazy reason, a small part of me hoped that even the act of walking into the mountains to find this tree would make me feel less lost; less lonely.
Exhausted and disillusioned, my brain took over. “Sit down, take a break. Grab some photos and then make your way back. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Giving my brain license to reign, I followed its instructions and soon began the walk home.
When I reached the outskirts of town, I ran into three pint-sized girls happily playing in the street. They crowded around me, full of questions: Who was I? Where had I been? After I answered in very slow Spanish, their three sets of eyes grew wide with amazement. “El Lechero? We’ve never been. What did it look like?”
Rather than try to describe the twisted old tree high in the mountains, I decided to show them the pictures I had taken on my camera. The girls’ interest in the tree was immediately replaced by a fascination with the contraption that produced its image. Amazed and delighted by my camera, they wanted to know how it worked and insisted on a photo shoot. Each photo was quickly examined, inducing fits of giggles and new ideas for the next photo.
Their wonderment made me look at my camera with new eyes myself. How blessed we are to have a device that allows us to encapsulate each moment. We can still joy, harness wonder, capture grief. A camera allows us to relive moments and emotions; the press of a button gives us the opportunity to keep memories, and mitigates the fear of forgetting.
After half an hour of unwavering excitement from the girls and the foreign sound of my own laughter, I continued on my way. As I put one foot in front of the other the rain cloud that had occupied my head for the last month dissipated. My heart was calm, my head clear.
My pilgrimage to the healing tree had, in fact, healed me, though not in the way I had expected. The tree I trekked out to visit did not offer up its powers; rather, three little girls who bestowed their friendship upon me for thirty minutes had. They reminded me that misery is not a permanent reality. Even in the most unlikely circumstances, there are opportunities to make a connection.
I had become so wrapped up in my negativity that I had forgotten one simple thing: bliss lies in the little things that make this world an amazing place to be. We simply need to take the time to be grateful. Although loneliness is a force to be reckoned with, it is easy to overcome.
So, when you get out in the world, make sure to get out of your head and appreciate the passing friendships that come your way. They may not be lasting, but who knows – they could have healing powers.