Expectations on the Mountain
When yucca is yucky but it’s what you get (and maybe just what you need)
Tales from Retreat – Ecuador 2020
We were at that point in the hike when food was starting to sound good – real good. Imaginings of what our upcoming snacks would entail was prompting me to walk faster. We were stopping at a beautiful spot under a tree canopy with a little spring trickling out of the side of the mountain, to make an offering to the mountain. Thanking it for allowing us to hike on its trails and learn from its wisdom.
But let me back up.
We had started the day at 6am, ready for a burly hike in the Andes Mountains. The hike was a living experiment for us to focus on how we ‘walk in life’: Was there a rush to get to the top? Did we meander and enjoy the scenery? Did we trip over roots and rocks because we were so focused on what was ahead? Were we careful and hesitant with our steps, afraid of falling? This was the context we were exploring in a very real way.
We were headed to a waterfall that was a 2.5 hour hike in and out on private land that was mostly traversed by geologists and researchers. We were blessed to experience this beautiful terrain that many locals didn’t even know existed.
As we hiked up the mountain, sun shining in a brilliant, bluebird sky, we passed through cacti, lush green foliage, Dr. Seuss-looking trees and the occasional fragrant cowpie (that’s cow poop for you city folks).
We were at least a couple of hours into our hike when it started to sprinkle. Our medicine man and guide suggested we sit for a spell and listen to the mountain. He shared with us that while our intention was to hike to the waterfall, the mountain was asking us to rethink that. In the distance, still a 1.5 hour hike away, was the valley the waterfall originated in, and also where the dark clouds were culminating – the head of an impending storm.
He told us that the rain sprinkle we were experiencing was the mountain’s way of communicating with us and it was up to us to listen and heed the warning.
To change our expectations.
We had counted on refilling our water bottles at the waterfall and many of our bottles were already near empty which meant we’d be hiking hours back down the mountain with no water. The thought of communing with the waterfall sounded magical to say the least, and that we wouldn’t be making it that day was disappointing.
Or at least, that’s the story based on expectations.
The truth is, none of us knew what it would actually be like to hike further and experience the waterfall. We could only imagine.
And isn’t expectation just another form of imagination? We don’t really know what anything is going to be like until we taste it, feel it, see it, smell it or hear it.
Back to the offering and snacks.
We stopped under the trees, where the stream trickled from the side of the mountain. The medicine man spread a cloth on the ground and started to place offerings of seeds, nuts, flowers, fruit and grain and each of us took a moment to place our offering on the cloth, thanking the mountain and Mother Nature for the beautiful experience and sustenance we are provided on a daily basis, often without even thinking about it.
As part of this gratitude practice, we pulled out the snacks each of us had packed for the day, and out came two containers from the medicine man’s backpack. One person from our group had brought local chocolate and it sounded like one of the most amazing things I could think to put in my mouth in that moment! As he handed me the piece of chocolate my mouth started watering, imagining that it would be sweet, a touch bitter and maybe even have some bits of fruit in it.
Yuck!! It was the worst chocolate I’d ever tasted – so bitter with a strange herbal, medicinal taste to it. I had to spit it out it was so offensive to my now-betrayed taste buds! How could that even be called chocolate?? Another place where expectations didn’t match the actual experience. Seemed like this was becoming a theme for the day.
The medicine man offered the container of food to us that he’d brought and one of the retreaters opened it up to find pale chunks of what looked like albino bananas. As she picked a chunk up, I could see her eyes light up at the prospect of what an amazing, delicious experience this was going to be.
The look on her face after she bit into the boiled piece of yucca was a mix of a 4-year-old’s face-melting disappointment, an adult’s oh-shit-how-do-I-not-offend-the-person-that-brought-this-food, and hysterical laughter, while simultaneously trying to chew a mouthful of tasteless, potat0-like, dry wad of starch enough to get it swallowed and over with.
Expectation. Reality. Two different things.
Now, this was a sacred thing we were doing – preparing an offering of thanks. To Mother Nature no less, with a medicine man in the middle of the Andes Mountains. But the alchemy of the moment was creating laughter in me that just couldn’t be contained. I tried. I really did. I was the retreat leader after all, and should be setting an example of how to conduct one’s self in said experience. But you know when you’ve got that laugh that’s so inappropriate that it makes it even harder to keep contained? And someone else is trying to do the same thing? Should. Expectation. Reality. Contagious laughter erupted. As it turns out, the moment was perfect and the medicine man started laughing with us. He said that she had brought the most powerful medicine of all – laughter medicine. Don’t get me started about when she tried the fried plantains in the other container – same lit-up excitement at the prospect, only to have the heavy-duty-sweet-strange-mushy flavor dash her sense of what’s right in the world. Except now she was trying to chew a mushy substance and not spit it out or choke while she laughed. And still trying not to laugh. Now the kicker about the yucky yucca and the squashy-squishy plantains was that the medicine man brought it because it contained nutrients that would help to replenish what we’d depleted on our hike. It was a really smart food to bring. Just like turning around on the mountain was a really smart move. Especially as it rained on us the whole hike down. I can’t imagine the shape we’d have been in had we chosen to go to the waterfall that day.
Expectations aren’t inherently bad, but when we rely on expectations without tasting/smelling/feeling/hearing/seeing what’s really there, we aren’t actually in touch with reality. We’re hanging on to an idea about something which is based in the past, and the past could be really outdated and unhelpful. There are some things that expectations are good for – like not touching fire or going to a White Lion - Stryper concert at 16 and finding that it’s painful. No need to repeat. But in so many more areas of our lives, expectations stand in for the actual experience and have us participating in a storyline that isn’t true. I challenge you to find an expectation or two that are standing in for your reality and see if you can’t let curiosity help you to update the file on what’s actually showing up. Have fun with it – you just might find something delicious waiting for you!