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Musings About Home
The other day, after a morning spent working and a night spent laughing on the floor of my friends’ condo, I got back to my apartment in a sleepy haze and texted my mom, “I’m home.” After sending the message I paused for a minute and stared at the blue text bubble of words I’d just sent. “I’m home,” I’d written, which was odd because I was not home, right? I was in New Mexico – almost 2,000 miles from my house in New Jersey.
When I got into bed just a few minutes later though, I started to think more about all the places that have held me in their cradles this year, and what makes a place a “home.” Some people have put it simply: “home is where your house is,” or “home is where ‘your people’ are.” Other people reach for something a little more sentimental: “home is not a place, it’s a feeling,” or “home is where the heart is.”
Thinking about the word, “home,” I of course think first of New Jersey where I was raised. It’s a deeply important place to me; it’s very central to who I am. However, when I think of “home,” I also think about my friends’ condo in New Mexico. The first time I came over one of the condo’s inhabitants (that I’d never met before that day) said, “Gigi, this is your home now,” and that was that. I proceeded to spend many joyous afternoons there, and a knot was tied between my heart and that condo. One other “home” memory is from my first couple hours in Bolivia. I was in someone else’s house, with three people that would become dear friends in the coming weeks, but at that moment were still strangers. All I knew were their names and that one was from India, one from the Philippines, and one from Vietnam. Together we fashioned a meal from a mere few ingredients in an unfamiliar kitchen. Even then, in such an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people, I felt at home.
It’s April 23rd now and I’m in Japan, where I’ve been city-hopping with two friends I met in Bolivia for the past week. Whenever we get home at the end of the day, I always shoot my mom a text saying, “we’re back home.”
At the time I’m writing this, it’s also the day after Earth day, and I’ve spent some time thinking about how much being outside has added to my life this year. Vast mountains have been my playgrounds, canyons have been my kitchens, and beaches have been my classrooms. Trees have been my rooftops and snow has been my most loving friend. All this goodness cannot be confined to one building, or a few hundred square feet, but when I look at mountains and canyons and beaches and trees and snow – nature – I see home nonetheless.
“We are literally living in Bolivia right now!” my friend Amanda once exclaimed during my backpacking trip earlier this year. At the time I laughed, and considered it such a funny statement, but it was actually one hundred percent true. We were living, and we were in Bolivia. Now, I think that’s my personal truest qualification for what makes a place a home – whether you’ve lived it and lived in it. All of the places I’ve refilled my water bottle this year, taken a shower, played, and slept – those places were and are home. I don’t feign to say these places are “mine,” no, I think we humans more belong to our homes than they to us. I am not claiming to have “collected” many different homes this year. The only home that is certain is the one inside of your own skin, and the rest is somehow both temporary and eternal. The earth’s cradles in which we play and plan are forever, but the tables we eat around and the pillows on which we rest our heads are temporary beacons of this feeling we call “home.”
People I’ve Met on the Mountain
Recently, I made a pretty big change to my gap year plans. Instead of working at home after my busy three months in South America, I decided to move to New Mexico and work the ski season in Taos Ski Valley. The job is pretty cool for a number of reasons: lots of mountains to explore, a free ski season pass, Taos is a certified B-corporation (which means they adhere to high environmental and humanitarian standards), and the job is just a short drive from the Rio Grande Gorge (which just so happens to be one of my favorite places on the planet). But surprisingly it wasn’t any of those factors that drew me to the job. It actually wasn’t a “what” that drew me to the mountain job at all, it was a “who.” This blog post is an ode to those people who’ve inspired me to chase the unexpected.
When I came with my family for a week during the winter holiday season, I met a lot of cool people on the ski lifts. Ski lifts are like that – they’re long and cold, they group strangers together, and are best endured by shedding layers of life and insight amongst liftmates (while of course keeping all your warm coat layers on!). On ski lifts, you get to know people quickly, and I often find myself falling in love with the persons and their pieces that I encounter.
The first person I met on a lift this year has summited all seven of the famed seven summits (including Mount Everest), was friends with the late legendary climber Anatoli Boukreev, has raced on bike from the top to the bottom of the U.S. (the Continental Divide Bike Trail) five years in a row, is in his late sixties, and is currently preparing for a thirteen-day cross country bike race. Then I met a competitive trail runner who wrote hiking guides in the high Andes and worked on documentaries in South America with Oliver Stone. Then I met a chef who has worked in a cook-line in a restaurant kitchen for over ten years now. Next came a young woman who did seasonal work and rugged traveled all throughout her twenties, and is now a nurse at thirty-six. She said to me, “I don’t regret one minute of how I’ve spent my life. I’m happy.” And these are only the first four people I met!
The “seven-summiter”* and I reminisced about our respective mountain adventures, our reflections landing in particular on the topic of being the coldest we’d ever been in the mountains. The trail runner and I talked about hiking and South American history and politics, him drawing on his work centered on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and I drawing on my recent experiences in Bolivia and Peru. The cook and I shared joy over our love for the energy that we’ve found in the restaurant business, and the responsibility that comes with service-industry jobs. And the nurse conveyed to me that it is possible to pursue passion, self-improvement, and world-improvement, all in one life, and reminded me that there is no singular linear path towards my goals.
After meeting these people over the span of only a couple days, I knew that Taos was the place I needed to be for the next few months. The energy, the inspiration, the excitement, the self-reflection, and the learning that these people stirred up within me was enough to make me giddy. It was a no-brainer that I had to come back here.
Since moving out here for the season, I have also met a woman from the Taos Pueblo who is the head of Taos Ski Valley community outreach, a bunch of university students from Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay who are here to work for the season as part of an internship that offers credit towards their degrees, musicians, public defense lawyers, artists, and even a rocket scientist, who have all given me the great gift of their friendship (some only for the extent of a 10 minute lift ride, and others indefinitely). What a place to be.
And on top of all the inspiration that these people have offered me, I’ve found that every single one of us has something in common. It turns out that all it takes to uncover whatever that thing may be is the length of a ski lift. To have something in common with someone who has summited seven mountains, or someone who has devoted his life’s work to a job as difficult as working in a hot kitchen, is empowering. I know I have a long way to go before I find myself as accomplished as those folks, but to see that we share interests and curiosities reminds me that my wildest dreams are attainable if I pour my heart into them. What all of the people I’ve told you about have in common is an immense passion for what they do. What is life without passion? I do not know – and I hope to never know!
One last thing I’ve learned from this adventure so far, and from ski lifts, is that “strangers,” really are not that strange.
* I intentionally chose to omit all names from this piece, just to protect my new friends’ privacy!
Note: This is an adaptation of a blog post, “Feet,” that I wrote and posted on the “Where There Be Dragons Yak Board” (11/24/22). It represents well some of the learning I did and conversations I had while in Bolivia and Peru.
I have a confession to make: I love shoes. For my trip to South America, I painstakingly limited myself to bringing three pairs: my Hoka hiking boots, my rubber Birkenstocks, and my thrifted navy blue low-top converse. My feet are small, size 3.5 kids, and they are soft and smooth with nails intact. They endured the beginnings of a blister or two on the first trek of my trip, but nothing major. My feet aren’t beautiful, they aren’t anything special, but they definitely spend most of their time tucked neatly into Nike’s or converse, with comfy cute socks acting as a cover between foot and shoe. Why am I giving you a vivid idea of my ten toes and their preferences? Here’s why:
Watching 72-year-old Don Jose of Asunción del Quiquibey (an indigenous Amazonian community) stand with bare feet at the head of a canoe for the better portion of an hour-and-a-half-long boat ride, I had an epiphany: since the start of my time in Bolivia, I’d seen a lot more feet than I normally do in New Jersey. And the feet here tell some pretty cool stories. The guides on my first trek wore sandals for the entirety of the trek, the Quechua women I’ve met have all worn sandals, and my new friends in Asunción del Quiquibey have impeccable balance and control of their boats in the Amazon because of a lifetime of experience and the grip of their bare feet.
The feet here look different from mine; they are weathered, calloused, and have nails that have overcome brokenness and fought to stay intact. These feet live under the sun and in the dirt and Amazonian waters. They have crossed Incan trails and withstood the busy streets of La Paz.
In culture and in medicine, feet are vastly important. They keep us in contact with the earth beneath us, they carry the weight of our bodies, thoughts, and things, and they are widely important indicators of overall health and healing. I remember giggling when I was younger over “free the foot” movements in the United States; people would run marathons barefoot as the ultimate show of strength and people even invented toe shoes (which were basically gloves for your feet). I laugh at those same things still now, but for a different reason. They’ve turned something quite simple into something unnecessarily grandiose. Here in Latin America, generations of people have humbly kept in touch with their roots by never abandoning the ground from which we’re all derived. The physical inch of distance that a rubber sole maintains separates a person from Pachamama and diminishes the fundamental relationship and reliance between humans and homeland.
Shoes can trick us into believing that we are entities separate from the land that we occupy. After eating locally here, harvesting my own cacao beans, weeping in the mountains, and observing the way that the Quiquibeyans can read the river like an old friend or a brother, I conclude that we are all extensions of the land – like trees or like rocks.
The Andean cross, the Chakana, is composed of smaller cubes circling a larger central cube. As I learned from a class on Andean Cosmovision, the central cube is representative of a mother figure to the smaller cubes. Through observing her children, the mother, Pachamama, discovers more about herself, and in turn, the children also benefit from her knowledge. I believe that us humans are her children, and as I described, fundamentally connected to her as our life and information source. Our feet facilitate this connection best. They physically connect us to our origin and remind us of our interdependence with the land.
If we eat from the earth, breath of the earth, and live in its cradles, how are we any less animal? Any less earth? To know our earth best is to live in sync with the land and to treat it as a life source, in the same way that we respect our own mothers for doing the same. To do so, our feet must embrace the land, feel the dirt between our toes, and accept the embrace that the earth offers back.
I’m about to leave for an eighty day trek through Peru and Bolivia and, I kid you not, I’ve been packing for months. I’ve gone hiking and camping before, and I love being outside, but this trip is going to be more technical and intense than anything I’ve ever done. A large part of me is pretty terrified. To prepare, I’ve been training in the gym, reading up on Peru and Bolivia, and doing lots and lots of packing.
Packing for an outdoors trip is a bit different than other kinds of packing. This summer, as most of my friends were picking out and packing “twin XL” sized sheets and rolling up posters and printing photos for their college dorm room walls, I was testing out backpacks, wearing in new hiking boots, and, if I’m being honest, looking on with just a little bit of “FOMO” for the college first-year prep. But I know, all in good time I’ll be doing that too, and I’ve enjoyed the particular problem-solving, creativity, and discovery that my packing has prompted.
Spending hours at REI and in my closet, to ultimately cram socks and t-shirts and a journal and trekking poles and “wilderness wipes” (you can guess what those are for…) into my seventy-liter pack, has led me to a couple realizations. First, while seventy liters seems huge and imposing on my back and shoulders, it can also seem so small when trying to fit eighty days of necessities within its recycled nylon limits – my zero-degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag impolitely takes up a third of its space and there’s not much I can do about it if I want to sleep warmly at night!
My second realization courtesy of the packing process is that I’m going away for a long time and doing something way outside of my comfort zone. The drawn-out preparation process I’m going through has forced me to spend quite a bit of time thinking about what I’m getting myself into. I’ve accumulated enough “just in case” prescriptions (malaria medication, Diamox for altitude, Azithromycin for bacterial infections, etc.) to call my backpack a “traveling pharmacy,” and gotten new shots too (typhoid, rabies, and yellow fever). It’s very easy to apply for a trip – to sign up for something – but it’s not quite as easy to follow through with it. But, as I like to remind myself, risks and adventures are what make life worth living, and I know that this trip is the right next step for me. The line between nervousness and excitement is thin, and I am straddling it – boy is it exhilarating!
But third and almost counter to my second realization, in a way I’ve been “packing” for this trip my whole life. I’ve always held the belief that every new version of myself would not “be” without the existence of the previous. We go through phases in life; I was once a little pigtailed girl who played piano, made fairy houses, and cried at birthday parties, and later I was an iPod touch girl with My Little Pony leggings, and now I’m a goofy, outdoorsy, music-obsessed eighteen year old who still believes in bathroom humour. Though vastly different, each moment in time and each phase prepared me for the next. I probably wouldn’t love music so deeply if it weren’t for hours spent playing piano in elementary school, and I probably wouldn’t pick out the most colourful hiking gear for my big trip if it weren’t for my obsession with crazy bright leggings in middle school. Moving more specifically to skills that I’ll be taking with me on my trip and into the new era of my life that is beginning, I’ve found that my packing has prompted me to look inward and backward, and appreciate the preparation that I have been doing my whole life. This past year has been filled with goodbyes; I’m soon leaving my hometown, I’ve already left my high school, and there is so much more that I’m leaving behind. But, in the same way that each “old” me is a part of the “new” me, in a sense I’m not really leaving anything behind. Though the space in my physical backpack is tight and I’ll be packing quite sparingly, I can take all the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned with me in my head and in my heart, in my hands and in my feet, and in my bones.
I am nothing if not prepared. There is lots more to learn, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the many things that I have learned thus far.