Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Week 38 - Opus Ultimum

It is with great sadness that I write this post, the last of my Peace Corps adventure in Guatemala. Earlier today I was medically separated from my service due to what the Peace Corps deemed an unmanageable condition within Guatemala.

Many of you I know I have suffered persistent dental problems since early July, and after 10 chipped teeth, 8 medical visits to Antigua and Guatemala City, a night guard, and prescription toothpaste, -spray, and muscle relaxants, Peace Corps has admitted defeat. After submitting to a battery of closing procedures, I will be back in the United States early next week.

The irony that this is exactly what I fantasized about during the weeks immediately surrounding my departure in early January is not lost on me, a way to go home with my honor intact. And yet, now that it´s here there is no relief, no satisfaction. I am depressed to leave, even as I´m acutely aware I was drooling over an American-style sandwich less than a week ago.

As a coping mechanism I keep trying to hate this place, to remind myself of the cold showers, the intestinal fireworks, the frustrating work situation

But I can´t, because it´s not any of those things that have made the greatest impression on me. Rather, it has been the people of this truly remarkable group. My fellow PCVs have been my confidants, my drinking buddies, my fellow explorers into parts unknown. They have been my surrogate family, even when (and perhaps especially when) surrounded by the peculiarities of my host families. What truly destroys me from this violent expulsion back into the proverbial real world is to no longer be part of this fraternity of shared experience forged—and yes, improved—by hardship.

In these final hours of my service, I have been thinking with increasing fondness of its beginning: I remember riding the chartered bus through the deserted streets of Washington nine months ago, that early morning darkness tinted by the orange glow of street lights. It just as easily could be nine years ago for how distant that person seems from myself. I was terrified; each passing building took me further and further from the known, the safe.

I remember those first days in Santa Lucia, so unsettled by my surroundings I thought about bolting back to the airport, begging the airline to forgive my enormous mistake even as I continued to hide behind my painted veneer of bravado.

But you fake it ´til you make it, and after a few months here I found little fault with my life on any day-to-day basis. The strangeness of the everyday became exciting only after it ceased to be terrifying.

And now that Ive relived that cycle in San Se, supplanting the threatening with the thrilling, growing accustomed to—and then comfortable with—the banality of my routine, I can´t help but be sentimental to the way life was, and will likely never be again.

I am scared, and I make no secret of that fact. Not so much about substituting one country for another, but that I will never fully be part of this motley crew again. I can—and will—continue to keep up communication over Skype, Facebook, and the easy conveniences of modern technology, but it is the daily grind that brings us together, not the distilled talking points each evening.

So now must I resort to being a member of an imagined community rather than a physical one? Am I now part of the Peace Corps diaspora that was not unified in the initial country and dispersed to distant lands, but united in distant lands dispersed to the initial country? Or has the betrayal of my teeth against my PCV status precluded me from being part of this deep, horizontal comradeship?

But I´ll only get a bruise from beating my head against this wall of unknowable, not some sense of vindication or epiphany. For that, perhaps only time.

Goodbye, Peace Corps. You weren´t perfect, but we had our moments. And now, with great remorse, I admit that for or better or worse, this too has passed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Week 37 - Computer Aneurysms

It was a mediocre movie, and it was perhaps for this reason that it happened: My computer had simply had enough and, like the Mahayana Buddhist monks, chose self-immolation as a form of nonviolent protest.

That is to say, my computer caught fire, and it was its own damned fault.

Living in San Se gives a lot of time for personal reflection, and after the first few months, there really aren’t a lot of things left to reflect about; movies become a big part of my nightly routine.

On the particular night in question, it was Marley and Me, a middling movie with a squandered cast based off the book of the same name. It features a young blond couple in Miami trying to raise a dog, and later a family.

I didn’t get it; where were the live-in grandparents? The irregular water pressure? The tortillas? It was entirely unrelatable to my current situation.

Still, my computer seemed to be enjoying it just fine until the beginning of the third act, when a postpartum depressed Jennifer Aniston was yelling at her uncomfortable-with-his-literary-success husband, Owen Wilson. And right there the movie jumped the shark.

I mean, how could anyone find cause to yell at Owen Wilson?

My computer seems to pause, the screen becoming cloudy as it tries to rationalize Aniston’s irrational behavior.

Dark holes begin to appear in the right corner of the screen—my computer is having an aneurysm.

With a shriek that would put Wilhelm to shame, I lunge for the power button. In a few seconds it goes dark. My heart is thumping wildly. For a brief second I contemplate Peace Corps life without a laptop, and fear seeps over my chest, swelling my throat and face like air into a flaccid balloon.

I wait a few minutes. Usually these sorts of issues are the result of overheating, but the localized pixel dead zones have me worried. Like the brain cells after an aneurysm, a lot of times they don’t come back to life.

With a muted prayer to not punish me for cutting corners and buying a Dell, I depress the power button once again. The clicking and whirring of a normal computer boot-up greets me. The screen is still dark, but with a brilliant flash, my darkened room is painted in light.

Unfortunately none of it makes any sense. The pixels are working, but there’s no picture, just jumbled grayish lines of pixels swimming about without cohesion. On the right, the dead zones stay dead, and several more restarts improve nothing.

The fear turns to disappointment and deflation. I immediately start trying to recall the last time I backed up my files. Had I saved since the Tajumulco photos? The great cooking experiment? I had now way to check at that moment, and with little other recourse, I went to bed.

The next day I drank my coffee staring despondently into space rather than reading the New York Times.

Later, I rode into Huehue, hoping to get my computer examined and receive an estimate for its repair. It sounded like my internal hard drive was spinning, which was a good sign, and I felt fairly confident that if I connected my laptop to an external monitor I could back up the system once again before leaving it in a questionable condition in a questionable shop.

I got to the internet café, and was pleased to see my hunch was correct—the rest of the computer was working as it should. I spent the better part of the morning dragging and dropping files from one folder to another, ultimately confirming that the most important elements of my digital life had been salvaged.

Almost on a whim I went online and contacted Dell customer support. I expected no favorable solution as I got connected via their chat program with “Jaspreet,” a customer service representative.

“My, uh, computer recently caught fire while watching a movie, and now I want you to replace it.” I sounded lame and mildly deceitful even to me.

He replied with one of those cheerful nonsequitors that make you wonder if you’re connected to a person or an answering machine. “Hello, and welcome to Dell support! If it’s not too much trouble, may I have your service tag number?”

I humor him, though I’m already formulating my arguments for why this is everyone’s fault but my own, and the character assassination I will rain down upon Dell if they leave me unsatisfied.

As the conversation progresses, he actually seems like he can make something happen, and when he assures me that Dell will overnight the parts to a technician who will come to my house in San Se to replace them, I am pleasantly shocked. We end on a good note.

A few hours later I receive an email from him to that effect, along with the transcript of our conversation. The email tells me I need to contact Dell-Latin America, presumably to work out some final details or something.

They are not as helpful.

“I’m sorry sir, I know you have proof of our prior agreement, but you need to upgrade your warranty to include Latin America.”

“Then why did the other representative say I would be granted an exception and specifically do not need to upgrade the warranty?”

“…You need an upgraded warranty.”

I switched back to Dell-US to complain, and they seemed to split the difference. “We’ll ship you the parts, but you’ve got to install them yourself.”

I’m annoyed, but it’s still a better resolution than I originally hoped for. The problem is that I’m legitimately afraid that a big box marked “computer parts” will never make it to rural Guatemala. All of my care packages are sent with “family photos” and “history books” translated into Spanish and liberally scrawled across each face of the box. Even with these unprofitable sounding descriptions, they can get stolen or “mislaid” by the postal service.

I guess all I can do at this point is wait. I’m sure Marley and Me will still be there when I get back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Week 36 - Evacuation and Standfast

The general election has finally passed. Since getting here, there’s been a steady ramp-up in violence perpetrated against both the citizens and politicians of Guatemala.

“But don’t worry,” everyone kept saying, “the situation will improve after the elections.”

And so this past Sunday an estimated 65% of the populace went to the voting booths and selected from ten candidates for president and hundreds more for congress and various local political offices.

Many people believed that it would be the mayoral, not the presidential, elections that would cause violent reprisals. More than 35 mayoral candidates and/or their families throughout the country have been assassinated in the preceding months (including orchestration, on at least one occasion, by a rival mayoral candidate). Because San Se’s mayor was publicly assassinated last year, as well as concerns expressed to me by my friends in town, Peace Corps decided to evacuate me and Lauren for the days immediately preceding and following the general election.

This was hardly uncommon; more than one third of the 250 volunteers in Guatemala were relocated to safer areas and told to stay put. On Friday morning I left for Aguacatán, about two hours from San Se, and stayed with friends, returning to San Se earlier this morning. It proved to be a popular spot: Including myself, there were four refugees.

For the most part it felt like a giant party. The three volunteers who were putting us all up made sure we felt welcome and relaxed. Work, mostly due to the widespread and continuing strikes, was hardly a thought, and travel outside of the municipality was forbidden by the Evacuation and Stand Fast orders issued by Peace Corps. Thus, we amused ourselves by going to the pool one day, hiking to a beautiful mountain spring the next…

On the day the election there was increased traffic on the roads as people came in from the surrounding communities to vote as mandated by law. While Aguacatán is hardly a sleepy town—I was envious to see that they have reliable sources of pancake mix—it became bloated with traje-bedecked Aguacatecos (traditional Mayan dress; people from Aguacatán, respectively). I kept expecting there to be more drama as the day progressed, but save the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers, it seemed, as hoped, rather tame.

In order to win the presidency, a candidate must get an absolute majority of votes (50% plus 1). As the polls began reporting, it became clear that Otto Perez Molina, the heavily favored frontrunner, would fall well short of that majority, entering him into a runoff with second place finisher Manuel Baldizón scheduled for November 6th.

Controlling crime has been the greatest issue in this race, though few remember—or seem to care—that former School of the Americas graduate Perez Molina was the director of Military Intelligence during Guatemala’s lengthy civil war. Thinly-veiled accusations in the media that he ordered several of the major human rights violations perpetrated by the Army have bred skepticism that the tough-on-crime Mano Dura (Firm Hand) policy he now seeks to implement will not result in extra-judicial killings or open war in the street between the military and the equally well-armed narcos.

Baldizón, by contrast, is a wealthy business man from the department of Petén, the heavily narco-infested region of northern Guatemala that made news when 27 farmworkers were slaughtered by the Zetas in pursuit of the ranch’s owner earlier this year. He is inarguably more centrist than Perez Molina, but his strongly pro-business stance and conspicuously opaque campaign finance reports make him a question mark for the future.

But I really should get away from making statements regarding the politicians. Not only is it bad form given my overall level of knowledge on the race, but Peace Corps rightly maintains political neutrality for our safety and its continuity from one political reign to the next.

Moving on; as I mentioned, we cooked, we ate, we relaxed. Unfortunately, not all municipalities experienced as much tranquility as Aguacatán.  At least four municipal offices were torched by protesters in response to real or perceived voting irregularities in Huehue alone, and dozens of similarly violent riots took place throughout the country.

When I got back to San Se I was eager for news regarding our own situation. Had violence occurred? Do we have a new mayor? Are there still chocolate- and peanut-covered frozen bananas at that store near my house?

No; yes; yes, respectively.

According to everyone I talked to, the political structure remains standing here, though the son of the deceased mayor was elected under the banner of the incumbent UNE party. Without knowing a single thing about his politics, there would seem to be a tragically heroic story in the making, of sons taking up the mantle of their slain fathers, courageously fighting the good fight against shadowy criminal forces, getting the girl in the final act…

So now we are left with greater questions: Will the future president be able to control crime? Will the threat of getting a country-wide Peace Corps evacuation diminish? Will that store near my house continue to sell choco-bananas? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Week 35 - Tax Season

Arguably the hardest aspect to resolve with preconceived, pre-departure notions of what service will be like is that we are still a part of a bureaucracy. While the entire application process, frequently lasting more than a year, is an enormous mess of paperwork, signatures, background checks, and interviews, I expected it to end when I got out into the boondocks. Here we often feel like we’re out in the middle of nowhere, free to do virtually whatever our own sense of morality and work ethic let us get away with. Most of the year this is true; then again, there’s that one nagging downer on the calendar. Like tax season for real adults, there comes a time where we are held accountable for our actions over the previous year. And like real adults, we hate it. We hate it a lot.

It’s called the Volunteer Report File, or VRF, and it chronicles everything we do related to our job over the fiscal year, from baseline surveying to running workshops, school visits to addressing the city council.

I don’t doubt the need for such a tool. As much as I despised doing it, I never once questioned that it wasn’t an important diagnostic by which Washington can measure the Peace Corps’ efficacy. Rather, it’s just so boring. Beat your head against the wall and run screaming for the internet boring.

Vaguely Recalled Failure

As I look through my datebook, deciphering scribbles in black and blue ink, I take stock of what I’ve done in the last 5 months since getting to site: Visited each school (30) once to introduce myself and give a broad overview of what Healthy Schools is about; Visited each school (15, my half) once to conduct baseline surveys of the current infrastructure and health practices; and conducted a workshop in 7 schools delving a little more in depth about how to become certified as a Healthy School.

Beyond a few little odds and ends, that’s about it. 52 school visits in 5 months. Even only going to one school per day (I try to go to two or more), that’s only going to work every other day. In any other field in the world I would be fired. Here, in the land of strikes and unplanned holidays, it’s about par for the course.

The VRF sits dauntingly empty. There’s no way to increase the margins or make the font size 13. Just me and the tragic loneliness of the reporting tool.

            Very Real Frustration

I enter the same details again and again and again: School name, number of workshop leaders, subject presented…In a minute I can no longer force myself to go on, and take a break, wallowing in the shared misery of all the other volunteers expressing their frustrations on Facebook.

“Mine didn’t save,” said several status updates. “There goes 4 hours of work, down the drain.”

I press the save button on mine 3 times in a row, still not convinced it’s telling me the truth when the program tacitly says “enough already.”

A lot of it is just the typical complaints of burdened shoulders. I certainly give in to it—frequently, in fact—and cannot begrudge anyone partaking in the same.

After a short period I decide that others’ melancholy is increasing my own, and I go back to the form.

            Verbosely Reported Fluff

How can I make my own accomplishments seem more grandiose than they were? I use eye-catching filler words, like vis-à-vis, indubitably, and hence. Hopefully my lexicon will be conflated with an equal dedication to precision and efficiency.

Three hours later I’m finally done. Entries litter my file, and all of the essay questions (“Describe a success you’ve had”) are completed.

I email it to my bosses, and then lean back, exhaling. Tax season is done for the year.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Week 34 - Food: It's What's for Dinner

Food holds special significance in a person’s life. Whether it’s that recipe that reminds you of your mother’s cooking, or that single, sinful dish which makes you feel like a happily atrophied bag of goo, it has the ability to transport you to other times and places.

In Peace Corps, food hold special meaning for us, too, though perhaps in a way that is unique to expats and long-term travelers alone.

“Bacon?!” I exclaim, “Someone in your town knows a guy who knows a guy who can find you bacon? Wait there, I’m coming over!”

Never mind that from my current location to theirs was separated by six hours, four camionetas and untold physical discomfort: It was bacon.

While bacon itself can be interchanged with just about anything we can find only in a US supermarket (sharp cheddar cheese, Sriracha brand hot sauce, waffles, anything from Trader Joe’s…) the message is, there are virtually no hurdles too great to stymie our quest to consume it. It leads to some odd care package requests, and a reevaluation of what constitutes luxury: Familiar items are worth their weight in gold, while more expensive—and arguably rarer—items are overlooked. Give me a huge jar of Jif peanut butter over caviar; Kraft mac ‘n cheese packets above white truffle oil.

Hanging out in another volunteer’s site is always a treat, and Jaron R. is known as an especially good cook. Camionetas are a small price to pay to live like a king for a weekend.

“So I vote we cook the bacon first,” she paused for effect, “so that we can fry the pancakes in the grease, and maybe a fruit salad to go with it? To drink I have real Starbucks coffee I got in a care package…or Aveda tea.”

I was at a loss for words. Pancakes, while simple, are a luxury afforded only to those near the cosmopolitan cities—Xela, Antigua, and perhaps Panajachel. I had snagged the only box of mix in San Se several weeks ago, wiping the patina of grime from the unopened carton the way a doting parent might their child.

“That sounds like it might work.” I tried to play it cool, but I’m pretty sure my voice cracked with eagerness.

We cooked together: One of us looked to bacon while the other made sure the music was ever-flowing. I doubt it’ll be hard for you to guess which job was mine.

Three large pancakes, a half dozen strips of bacon, and the must succulent pineapple I’ve ever tasted later, I was temporarily sated by Jaron’s eleemosynary inclination.

But breakfast is just a single meal, and there are at least two more worthy of consideration on any given day. It would border on sacrilege to ignore them with such quality resources at hand.

A few hours later, with the dinner hour approaching, we began brainstorming about what to cook.

“You know, I make a pretty decent mango curry,” I offered. I’m not as good of a cook as she is, but it was edible and filling, arguably two of the most significant characteristics of a nightly meal in San Se.

“Mmm, that would be good.” Jaron’s reverie was broken at virtually the same instant as my own by the practicalities of what I was suggesting: Mangoes are out of season, and have been so for some time. It will be another few months at least before they become common once again. It would probably be possible with pineapple, but it just didn’t seem the same.

“What about Chicken Parmesan?” She was staring at the small box of seasoned bread crumbs on the shelf. “Chicken Parm with broccoli florets and a tomato-based coulis? I can’t puree, but we can sauté diced vegetables with some butter, onions, and maybe some oregano and basil; keep it really simple.”

My mind raced to remember what the meal tasted like: That time a housemate had made it while we were all living together for the summer during college; the kindly Jewish mother of a friend who let me and another stay at their house while road tripping to a music festival. It was a magnificent dish.

“That’ll work.”

Again we divided the tasks, and while Jaron started boiling water and preparing the sauté, I tried to filet the chicken. Having very little experience in butchery (except in matters of Goldfish crackers), I messily went about my task. She shot a raised eyebrow in my direction as I awkwardly attempted to slide the knife along the breastbone, running into resistance at every rib, but said nothing.

When I was done, there was only enough chicken for one, so I ran to the little corner tienda (store) for more. Unlike the meat in my town, it seemed well-preserved and disease-free, and at 12Q ($1.50) per pound, we could essentially afford as much as we wanted.

When I walked in the front door to her apartment, the aromatic tendrils of garlic and frying onion led me up the stairs and back into the kitchen. Everything was bubbling, sizzling, and smelling as it should.

A few minutes later we sat down to our meal in the same space in which we had prepared it. While she has more living space than I do, a problem endemic to Peace Corps is the chronic lack of diversified furniture.

We stared at our plates for a moment, admiring the soft browning of the breadcrumb crust enveloping the chicken, the vibrancy of the fresh broccoli and how it complimented the soft reds and golds of the sauce. The contemplation lasted only a moment, and then the growling of our stomachs took over.

With a grin we began.

Food took precedence over photos, but I still managed to snap a few. See them here: https://picasaweb.google.com/114291229338134891582/Week34?authkey=Gv1sRgCOaUt971ov7zuwE

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Week 33 - My Immortality is not Immortal

Guatemala feels like it is getting worse. The violence (perpetrated by gangs), the restrictions to personal sovereignty (perpetrated by Peace Corps), and the sense of being useless (perpetrated by a mixture of the continuing teachers’ strike and my own impotence) are all weighing more heavily.

As I mentioned in Week 30, I have been having some trouble with my teeth. Namely, little pieces keep committing sedition. I’ve now had 4 or 5 dental appointments in the last two months, with varying levels of success. They keep fixing the cracks and chips, but a few days later it reoccurs. I now am the proud owner of prescription tooth paste (extra fluoride), prescription tooth spray (extra potassium nitrate), a second night guard (extra grinding protection), and  prescription muscle relaxants (extra…relaxing?). My nightly routine has ballooned to about 45 minutes.

However, there is a reason for this recapitulation of an earlier post. When I went to the dentist most recently, last Friday morning, it required me to arrive in Antigua Thursday evening, a pretty typical scenario.

Shortly before embarking upon my 6 hour bus ride from Huehue to Antigua, I received a call from the volunteer a year ahead of me, a friend who also lived with La Familia Loca (The Crazy Family), the name we fondly bestow upon the host family we both lived with during our respective training periods.

She was calling to check up on me, partly at the request of La Familia. They had written me a text message a few days ago and I was slow in responding. After a short conversation, we both realized that we were headed towards Antigua, and she suggested I stay with her at La Familia’s house in San Lorenzo. The family, for their part, always loves surprise guests.

“Why not,” I reasoned. “After all, it’s been some time since I’d seen them, and it’s free room and board.” It would mean that I wouldn’t get to meet any other travelers at the hostels in Antigua, something I greatly enjoy, but the pros outweighed the cons.

It’s a very good thing they did.

I only know myself. I cannot speak with certainty about hypothetical events, but in knowing myself, I feel pretty confident in how my night would have gone:

In San Lorenzo, with La Familia, I ate a meal of fried chicken, spaghetti, tortillas, and a single pickled jalapeno.

In Antigua I expect I would have ingratiated myself with a group of single-serving friends—tourists—and brought them to my favorite, dirt-cheap, hole-in-the-wall felafel joint.

In San Lorenzo, I washed my meal down with a wineglass full of Pepsi.

In Antigua I would have been convinced by the starry-eyed novices to help the food settle with a few beers, some dancing, and a late walk home.

 Meanwhile, not far from Kafka, the hostel I most typically frequent, someone was getting mugged, and then. as an exclamation point to this traumatic crime, they were stabbed. This someone was not Guatemalan, but a gringo that was targeted for that reason. This someone who was probably just like me.

And then it happened 6 more times around the city over the next few hours.

The crime rate in Guatemala is perpetually high, but the truth is, security incidents against Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala are grossly under-reported. We are—imprudently I might add—more concerned about potential judgment or administrative separation (getting fired) from Peace Corps than the actual crime or safety issue that has taken place. On several occasions I have heard of volunteers unwilling to report being robbed at knife- or gun-point in a place frequented by other PCVs because they had not called out of site. It is more important to know where the dangerous places are than to punish people for administrative transgressions.

When I think about this, it makes me pause. Antigua is the beautiful city, the safe city. Antigua is the oasis in Guatemala where violent crime does not occur. I’m not saying that it wildly reforms my notion of the country—I know that the country in which I live is dangerous—but it forces me to be more reflective on what I do to be safe and, more importantly, the wanton randomness of street crime. Simply put, I could be doing everything right and it still might not matter. My sense of immortality, which I’ve carried with me since I was old enough to know what “hubris” meant, is dead.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Week 32 - Vertical Endeavors of a Mediocre Mountain Man

I came back into the tent after peeing off the side of the mountain. The rainy haze-infected darkness gave me more privacy than I get inside my bathroom in San Se.

“Is it 3:45 yet?” Alicia asked me groggily as I began to unzip the tent flap. The timbre of her voice suggested that she hadn’t actually been sleeping.

I checked my phone, the luminescent numbers uncomfortably bright to my unadjusted eyes. “No, it’s not quite midnight.”

“Damn it.”

It’s a rare occurrence when an alarm goes off well before dawn and it’s met with an enthusiastic response, and yet when the hour finally came there was no complaining, no attempts to hide from the world for a few minutes more; rather, it was received with a collective sigh of relief.

The seven of us crawled out of our sleeping bags, donned our warmest clothes, and set about getting ready to summit the highest peak in Central America. We were on the Tajumulco Volcano, 13,000 feet above sea level, and within an hour’s climb of the top.

Still, the trek it had taken to get to this point was far from luxurious. Most of us had suffered almost 7 hours using camionetas and a single, absurdly overladen taxi to get to the base of the mountain. More than that, we had endured 4 intense, though enjoyable, hours of climbing overgrown goat paths and bushwhacking before we reached what would become our base camp.

As we began to set up our tents, a four-person and a two-person (that would ultimately be stretched accommodate 3 of us), we noticed crucial items were missing: We had no rain flies and, in the case of the smaller tent, no poles. There was little we could do about the rain protection other than hold our breath that canícula (essentially, a week-long drought in the middle of rainy season) would hold out. It didn’t, and parking ourselves in the middle of the cloud layer would prove to be a poor choice. The smaller tent was held aloft by the reappropriated drawstring to a backpack tied to a low lying tree branch. It wasn’t great, but it kept everything roughly triangular.

The rain began pouring shortly after we finished our unheated dinner of beans, corn, and tortillas. A fire would have been a welcome comfort, but the dampness from the omnipresent clouds made keeping one lit unsustainable. We retired to our tents by 6:30, though the cramped quarters, growing puddles, and impending altitude sickness made sleeping next to impossible. Every time I was able to get my nausea and racing heart rate under control enough to doze off, a new source of water or rustling from an equally uncomfortable companion would awaken me.

And so, when 3:45 hit, it was a relief rather than an onus. Finally we could quit this tiresome charade of sleeping and set out to do what we had intended.

The temperature had dropped since we had gone to bed, and now hovered in the low 40’s. The beams from our headlamps were reflected off the moisture in the hyper-saturated air, showing not just the surface the light hit but, like lasers, the linear path it took from its source. We laced up our boots, donned our outer layers, and wrapped our sleeping bags around ourselves in one final, desperate attempt to stymie the seeping cold.

Our goal was to make it to the summit before dawn, so that we could watch the birth of the new morning in complete detail. We set off just after 4:00, initially playing leapfrog with a crew of tourists and their surly guides before outpacing them midway up the trail.

The way was difficult, certainly far more so than at any point earlier in the climb. Where our route had initially been fairly obvious and gentle, we now had a path that led over loose, irregular boulders, made all the more treacherous by the rain and darkness. A single misstep meant a broken bone or worse. We trod carefully upwards, sometimes just a step or two away from the void.

The oxygen deprivation and gale-force winds, relentlessly increasing since we left base camp, peaked on the unprotected final two hundred meters. The slope was such that I could only see a few dozen meters at a time, and each time it made me think that the end was at hand. If I just trudged a few steps farther, I would be at the summit. Then I would reach that point and see it continued for a few more steps. By the fifth such disappointment it was getting difficult to convince myself that I was making any real progress.

And yet, like everything, the mountain too came to an end. With a final push I slipped over the lip of the mountain and found myself standing on a relatively flat natural platform of rock, 13,845 feet above sea level. The wind, stronger than any I have experienced, whipped at the sleeping bag draped across my shoulders, making it look more like a biblical robe than a sodden piece of synthetic fabric. I held on to it tightly; if I let go for even a second, it would literally blow off the mountain.

We had beaten the sunrise by more than a half an hour, so we sat amongst the boulders, doing our best to shield ourselves from the relentless onslaught of the elements. We had risen above the clouds, and thus most of the wetness, but the cold was exponentially worse. We huddled against each other inside our sleeping bags, voicing an expletive every now and again, as if the forcefulness of the word could warm our bodies.

When the sun began to rise, it was hard not to gasp. The discomfort went away—within reason—and was replaced by the sheer thrill of adventure. It felt like we were standing on the roof of the world, all other peaks preferring to bow in meek deference to our majesty. To walk from one side of the summit to the other took only a few seconds, but the views could not have been more different. The clouds that had made our night so miserable were spread out to the east of us like a roiling sea, so dense that it dared us to walk across. On the western slope the moon was still visible, the terrain bathed in blue gradients. We could see for dozens—perhaps hundreds—of miles in every direction.

I was alive, and the cold and the muscle aches were a small price to pay for that feeling.