From the top, the world is two-tone: blanketed by the whiteness of snow, ice and clouds below, an inverted bowl of the sharpest blue above. At the back of my throat, a cough-inducing coating that, to my mind, has the colour, consistency and taste of mashed egg yolks. My cheeks are flushed, my legs ache, the crampons attached to my boots seem to be causing pins and needles in my right foot, and the ice pick in my hand feels as though it has become colder and heavier over the course of the last five hours. The last five hours: the time it has taken to climb to the top of Volcan Villarrica, an active volcano just outside of Pucon, in southern Chile, and one of the most difficult hikes I have ever attempted.
Perhaps it was the mountaineering side of things that made this particular trek so challenging. The terrain, the conditions and the equipment were all new to me. Never before have I scrambled up volcanic shale, crunched over compressed ice, gripped tenuously to a glacier, and ploughed through knee-deep snow at inclines that ranged from steep to near-vertical. Going up, I had moments close to defeat. At the top, I felt euphoria. Going down – on my bum through powder – total exhilaration. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. This hike, one of the last I did on my spectacular South American adventure, was symptomatic of the last three months.
This journey has seen emotional fluctuations that match the geographic fluctuations I have experienced. Some highs include:
Proving myself to myself: negotiating unfamiliar places, keeping my sense of humour, accomplishing the little goals that sit in the back of my mind: The friendships formed along the way: conversations in buses, restaurants, historic sites and dusty streets that enlightened, educated and humbled. Settling a bit more comfortably into who I am. And writing, a little, at last.
Some lows: My technological misfortunes: a broken iPad (not my fault), a broken Kindle (my fault), a broken blog (only for a week and not my fault – I don’t think). The arrogance of strangers: “But Oscar Pistorius is wealthy, can’t he just bribe the judge and get off?” The misfortunes of those I met whose adventures were interrupted – I’ve been there, I know the flavour of that particular type of disappointment.
I thought that I would feel a sense of finality at the end of this trip, as though I had neatly wrapped up what began a year and a half ago, but instead I realise that such journeys – all journeys – are not bound by space and time. There was never a beginning. This is not the end. Already I feel compelled to return. Perhaps next time I will start in Mexico, head south.
Back in Toronto now – my second home – I am comforted by the city’s familiarity and by the open arms of family and friends I know and love. But my time here will be short-lived – I leave soon for a five-day reunion with my mum in Istanbul, before we both return to Johannesburg. A new chapter in the city of my birth. Of course, going back to South Africa is neither a beginning nor an end. Merely a continuation.