It could have been the South Island of New Zealand, or the west coast of Scotland, yet we were in neither of those places; we were in Cajas National Park, Ecuador. Only a simple 1hr bus ride from the city of Cuenca, Cajas feels like another world – a much needed and beautiful escape from city life. For the three of us New Zealanders and one Scot, it was like a portal home, yet it was not too close to comfort to rid the place of its exotic – in a freezing cold way – mysterious and wondrous feel. Plentiful in mountains and lakes Cajas truly was stunning.
The fog, rain, and a sub zero temperatures did nothing to dampen this. In fact it pooled together to create a somewhat ‘moody’ and mist-defying (see what I did there) aura. On arrival we were shown to the cabin – or refuge as mountaineers call them. Whilst we hadn’t tramped for hours to get there, and on the scale of things our need for ‘refuge’ may not have been that serious, we were definitely looking forward to cuddling up and coozying down in our piece of quite retreat. With an incredible view across the lake and its surrounding mountains, and its ski cabin characteristics it didn’t even bother me that it was only 2m from the information centre; it was perfect. Its’ only downfall: stairs that creaked like there was no tomorrow. You definitely knew when someone needed to use the bathroom upstairs. After a walk around the lake, that turned out to be much shorter than we planed due to the fact that girls stop to take photos every 10 steps and the air was notably thinner (having thought I was adjusted to the altitude I found myself out of breath and light headed from a couple of stairs…. I will blame this on the altitude and not a lack in fitness), we begun the planned ‘coozying down’. We had high hopes for this part of our evening. It’s not that we didn’t get warm eventually; it was just a rather long process, which included squishing four people onto one single bed for body warmth. In total I may have gotten 4 hours sleep. Yet I am not sure because it felt like I was awake the whole night. We were warned about the cold temperatures. However, when packing for a climate on the Equator, thermals and such were the first items to be forfeited. I am now regretting this decision. Before heading off travelling, or even going back to Cajas – which I most definitely intend on doing – I need to gear up. Heads up to anyone else heading in this direction! On our departure – flagging down any bus passing by and hopping on – we were treated to the typical ‘llama in the mountains’ shots. I’m sorry that I couldn’t take a live one and send it home for you, mum, but there is a picture below that you can use to curb your obsession.
While being prepared is such an important thing when travelling, or going anywhere new, I have learnt that surprise is a necessity. I am guilty of over thinking many things, and with this often comes expectation. True, Cajas may have been more enjoyable with a few extra layers, a beanie and a pair of woolly gloves. However, apart from knowing the type of clothes/equipment to bring, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. There is something magical about surprise; about turning up in an unknown place with no expectations. The moment when you are so overwhelmed, because what is in front of you is perfect. Untainted by expectations of what it should or shouldn’t look like. It isn’t trying to live up to any pre-set standards; it just is. When it comes to volunteering, and travelling in general, we mostly hear the overall result, or see the hand-picked photos. Because of this we expect that volunteering will be constantly rewarding, and you will always fee fulfilled because you felt like you’ve helped. Travelling, in turn, looks perfect and magical – constantly enjoyable.Before I go on you should know that I am not being negative (my optimism won’t allow for any of that), I am being honest. On a whole volunteering is hugely rewarding, and you are helping even when you feel as though you aren’t, and travelling is magical. However, having these pre-set expectations can often make reality hard to handle. The days when you are so exhausted, when you feel like you’ve achieved nothing, when you don’t feel fulfilled, and the journey feels anything but magical. They are life. They are just as vital to the experience as the perfect days, and therefore should be embraced with as much vigour. They make the adventure real, and not photo-shopped. Ridding life of expectations frees you to enjoy even these times. Don’t expect everything to be 100% rosy, because you will more than likely set yourself up to fail. Expect life to be an adventure; one with smooth seas and thundering storms; a mixture of delight and pain – all of which is necessary for true appreciation, and I am truly learning to value each and every part of this incredible journey.