Expecting to come back a new woman after a challenging South American adventure, Leah Berkenwald was disappointed when she returned home feeling like the same old Leah. Perhaps, she says, you can’t simply will yourself to change.
I just finished a six-week trek though South America with nothing but a backpack and the rough outlines of an itinerary. I visited remote towns in Northern Argentina, the Andean deserts of Bolivia, saw the largest salt flats in the world, and hiked 25 miles of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I ate llama and guinea pig. I chewed coca leaves. I witnessed extreme poverty and child labor. I endured extreme cold, food poisoning, hiking at 15,000 feet above sea level, dehydration, blisters, and squatting over toilets that were actually just a hole in the ground. But now that I’m back home, in my cushy Cambridge apartment, I can’t help but ask: So what?
After two long years of graduate school and work, I desperately needed a vacation. I wanted a complete break with my daily life so that I could clear my head and recharge my batteries. But rather than choosing to spend my summer with my feet up, drinking piña coladas in the Caribbean, I chose to spend it trekking in inhospitable terrain.
Instead of resorts or beach houses, I chose to stay in hostels where there’s always a chance you’ll wake up to discover a drunk guy peeing on your stuff. (Yes, this happened.) I chose to sacrifice my the northern hemisphere summer for a southern hemisphere winter, frozen to the bone in my sleeping bag despite wearing two sweaters and three pairs of socks. Rather than booking a luxury cruise, I booked a three-day trek in which we hiked into and out of a canyon more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. I chose discomfort over comfort. Why?
Before I left, I started reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her 1,100-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Lost after her mother’s death, Strayed chose to hike the PCT alone. Her words are mesmerizing as she describes in great detail the trials and hardships of her journey—and how they brought her back to life. I love this narrative.
There’s a common belief that travel, especially the difficult kind, has a profound impact on the traveler. (It’s the journey, not the destination, etc.) Adventure travel exposes us to new people, landscapes, and experiences. It forces us to confront our fears, test our physical limits, and overcome seemingly insurmountable personal challenges. Because of this, we confer on travel the ability to teach us, heal us, and to change us as people in ways we cannot yet know.
I set my sights on trekking in South America because I didn’t just want a vacation; I wanted the kind of adventure that would change me as a person. Now that I’m home and quickly falling back into old routines, however, I find myself disappointed.
Hiking the Inca Trail was a huge personal challenge for me, an out-of-shape grad student who had lived a fairly sedentary life for the past two years. The first day was a struggle both physically and emotionally, but I finished the nine miles of what they jokingly call “Andean flat” terrain and that felt good. The second day was even more difficult (we climbed a peak nicknamed the “Gringo killer”), but I was slightly more confident in my abilities after completing the previous day’s hike, and so on. By the end, I could not believe what I had accomplished and it felt amazing.
But now that I’m home, I wonder if this experience will have any real impact on my normal life. Will I go hiking more often? Push myself harder at the gym? Make an effort to be more active in my day-to-day life? So far, it seems unlikely.
While traveling through Bolivia and parts of Peru, I witnessed a very different kind of poverty than I had ever seen before. It startled me to see homeless children and children working to support their families instead of going to school. I was deeply disturbed to hear about the sex tourism and trafficking of children that occurs in some areas of Peru, where everybody knows it’s happening and nobody does anything about it.
But after learning this, am I a changed person? Will I found a Bolivian aid organization or dedicate my life and career to helping Peruvian children? As much as I’m not proud to admit it, I probably won’t.
If I didn’t come back a changed person, what was the point? Was there a reason to put myself through these tests and challenges when I could have been relaxing someplace safe and warm? Is the idea that adventure travel can heal or change us only a myth? Or did I fail to challenge myself enough for the mysterious power of travel to take hold?
Perhaps my expectations were simply too high. People have told me that I seem happier since I’ve been back, and with the stress of work and grad school two months behind me now, I agree that that’s probably true. Let’s not forget that the reason I wanted to travel in the first place was to clear my head and recharge my batteries, and despite the other expectations I may have had, the trip succeeded in serving its original purpose. Maybe this is enough and I should be satisfied.
The thing is, though, that I want to believe in the power of travel to change us—even if it is more myth than reality. I’m holding on to the hope that my journey has changed me in small, subtle ways, of which I may not yet be aware. Even if I never hike another trail, I hope that seeing what I have seen and accomplishing what I have accomplished will stick with me and play a role in shaping my interactions with the world.
I think my mistake was expecting the trip itself to do all the work of changing me. Perhaps it’s neither the destination nor the journey that matters, but rather our willingness and desire for change in the first place.
Leah Berkenwald is a communications specialist and freelance writer living in Boston. Visit leahbee.net to get to know her better.
Photo of the author hiking the Inca Trail