Here’s a very belated felicidades! Hope you’ve started the New Year off on the right foot, so to speak ☺
For being such a small country, the Dominican Republic is quite vast in its landscape and climate. It features both the highest and lowest geographical points of the entire Caribbean and boasts a variety of wildlife endemic to the island. Larimar, a distinct blue-green stone used to embellish jewelry, is only mined here in the region of Barahona simply because it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Needless to say I’ve been putting together a bucket list since even before I arrived to my site here in the southern part of the country, knowing that so much exists beyond the cane fields and plantains. Towards the top of my list was Pico Duarte. At 10,164 feet/3,098 meters it is the 79th highest mountain in the world. No Everest, but certainly something I’d have to work for.
Two other Peace Corps friends and I joined a group of about 15 Dominicans in the city of Santiago, where they unexpectedly weighed us upon arrival and jotted down our body fat stats. Though I was at first embarrassed to be exposing my post-Christmas-cookie weight to complete strangers, I was soon reminded of and comforted by the easygoingness and camaraderie of Dominicans, and so I decided to do away with my vergüenza and instead focus on the journey that lay ahead of us. After more than 3 hours of waiting (another ‘comfort’ I was reminded of), we eventually headed off towards the mountain. We had each paid RD$6000 (~US$135) for all transport, food, park entrance fee, tent use, and mules to carry our gear to the campsites.
Throughout the 4 days of hiking we stayed at 3 different campsites (1 night at base camp in La Ciénaga, 2 nights at La Compartición 5km from the summit, and 1 night in the Valle de Tetero). Though we typically split off into respective groups for each day of hiking, we all came together in the evenings to enjoy the heat of the campfire and to fill our bellies with víveres, salami, and hot chocolate before facing the far-from-balmy January nights. Though I grew up in Vermont, living in one of the hottest parts of the country for nearly two years certainly did not prepare me for camping in 40-degree weather.
Despite the cold and the fact that I think I might eventually lose my two big toenails, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the new year. Challenging but satisfying, it was quite reminiscent of my Peace Corps service as a whole. Many parts were uncomfortable, where I longed to not only reach the summit but to also finally get back to base camp. Standing at the top was gratifying – cloudless and powerful – but it couldn’t have been done without the other members of my team who had put so much effort into the logistics, fruition, and congenial character of the trip.
The culmination of Pico Duarte, a New Year, less than 4 months of service left, and a 2-day reading binge of Into Thin Air has left me quite reflective and motivated.
“If you’re bumming out, you’re not gonna get to the top, so as long as we’re up here we might as well make a point of grooving.”
“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” Hall observed. “The trick is to get back down alive.”
“…I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of use were probably seeking, above else, something like a state of grace.”
“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality.”
“This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die.”
While I don’t think Everest and serving as Peace Corps Volunteer are the same by any means, there are similarities that could be drawn between the two, given that both endeavors entail challenges and risks, require endurance, drive, and consideration, and have the potential of producing immense satisfaction and fulfillment. As a volunteer, we strive to find the balance of achieving goals and meeting needs; meanwhile, we stretch the cultural fabric that is known to us, looking to embrace other traditions while sharing our own. Many difficult moments can produce one single moment of peace – a ‘high’ if you will – where things seem like they might just be working out. Yet, the real challenge is not to reach the summit – a potentially short-lived project-, but rather sustaining an accomplishment on it’s way back down, after one’s service on the mountain has ended.
Wishing you a very happy 2015 – here’s to reaching new heights, testing your limits, and forging bonds with people who enjoy those two things as much as you.