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On the Back of a Colombian Donkey: Lessons of Love, Perseverance, and Gratitude

In that moment, on a beautiful sunny day on a remote trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains somewhere in northern Colombia, I suddenly found myself questioning whether I would spend the rest of my life with Ashley by my side, or the rest of my life mourning her death.  

We had set off for a month to travel through Colombia.  When we first arrived, we meandered through some of the streets and markets, at some point we caught wind of a lesser-known six-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city deep in the jungle that encircled the nearby mountains.  We are always up for an adventure, so we took on the challenge.  

Our adventure began with a three-hour drive up the mountainside just to get to our starting point.  Our guides happily assured us we were arriving under a good omen because our land rover only got stuck once, and just three of our fellow hikers vomited from the drive in.  We hesitantly accepted their optimistic view of the events as we jumped off the truck.

We began our trek and were struck by the fact that we were constantly surrounded by the lush beauty of the jungle everywhere we looked, as we plunged deeper and deeper into the thick canopy.  In this jungle, you are always wet as it rained every day around 3 pm.  We also had multiple river crossings every day, so  – as fun as it was – there was always a sense of urgency because we needed to get to the next camp on time or we would risk not being able to cross the river.  Our guides had told us that the river was capable of rising 3 feet per hour, so we were racing not just to keep our socks dry but to get to safety.

Late in the afternoon of our third day on this hike, Ashley noticed she had blood in her urine – even before the days of Dr. Google, we knew that was not a good sign.  We had been told the trek took four days to get in, and another two days to get out.  Despite Ashley’s unwelcome medical development, we agreed to continue pushing forward.  We resumed our expedition and arrived at La Ciudad Predida – The Lost City, and even now – knowing the perils that we were about to face, I admit that it was one of the most breathtaking things I have ever seen in my life.  The intrinsic sense of accomplishment that accompanied the magnificent view was unexpected, but I welcomed it.

As we prepared for our journey back and left camp in the morning Ashley’s conditions were worsening.   We had fallen behind, and suddenly we were alone; we were separated from the rest of our group.  Ashley began to cry.   She was in severe pain, and she was frightened; she didn’t know what was wrong.  

So much goes through your head at this moment: Is it an infection, malaria, a parasite, some weird undiscovered virus?  And then suddenly things got much worse, she collapsed entirely.   I froze for a moment.  Could this be it? I thought.  Is she going to die right here in the middle of the jungle?  My vision for our future was being fundamentally shaken for the first time since I met her.  My brain was on fire with questions and the fear of so many unknowns.

Ashley regained consciousness and was immediately sick to her stomach. I could see she was in so much pain she just would not be able to continue.   I knew that not far ahead there was a small village – and when I say “small village,” I mean: there were like four huts.  I bolted.  I had never run that fast in my life to that point, and I have never run that fast since.  I left her there alone in the jungle and ran to the village for help.  I returned with water, a man, and a donkey.  The man helped me load Ashley onto the donkey, and all our bags onto me – that’s right I became the donkey – and we set off together back out of the jungle.

After four hours on foot of me chasing after Ashley on her donkey, we finally arrived at the safe house where we had started the trek.  The local women took Ashley in and began treating her with medicines we had never seen and couldn’t identify.  She was in and out of consciousness.  At this point, we had no choice but to put her life in their hands, and to have blind faith in the kindness of strangers.

After a bit of rest, and another three-hour truck ride, we were brought to another slightly-less-tiny village (this one had five huts). I yelled to the driver asking him to take us to a hospital.   It was then I noticed there was a red cross painted on the shack we had pulled up to; he had brought us to a hospital.  We were met by a doctor soon after, and we were told that Ashley had a terrible urinary infection.  She was treated with antibiotics and given some proper rest, and she was feeling better in just a few short days.  I’ve never been more grateful to see her smile than I was at that moment when we realized she was going to be OK.

We were forced to find a solution when there seemed to be none.

We were forced to trust in the kindness of strangers.

And we discovered that love will conquer all.  

I have never been so scared in my life.  That jungle showed me exactly what true love feels like, and how when we are faced with a problem, we always have a choice: give up, or rise up.  You choose. 

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