Travels with my father: how a hiking trip to Colombia helped me cope with loss

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Standing on a cliff edge above a forest in Colombia, I looked out at the vast blanket of rainforest below me, trees as far as the eye could see. The curved mountains in the distance, carpeted in green, met the wispy cirrus clouds, which hovered on a morning horizon the colour of orange peel.

I could hear birdsong and the distant chatter of my group back at camp, ready to finish our four-day hike to Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s “Lost City” – the only way to reach it. I inhaled the dewy morning air and watched a pair of brightly coloured toucans fly past, disappearing into the canopy. All of a sudden, a vision of my childhood hikes in England with my father appeared. 

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The curved mountains met a sky the colour of orange peel

I’m eight years old and standing on the top of a hill, far smaller than this one, in the Long Mynd, a heathland in the quiet Shropshire countryside where some of my family lived. I’m lively, excited and shout into the valley below. 

“HELLO!” I scream. My father grips my hand and laughs, asking why I feel the need to hear my own voice all the time. “I don’t know,” I tell him. These days, I wonder if it was something to do with not leaving my mark on the world – of not being heard.

My father was quietly content with his lot. “Just listen to the sound of nature”, I can hear him say up on that hill. Suddenly, a rustling in the bushes jolts me back to Colombia – and I jump. 

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I’d left home during surreal and distressing times

My guide had warned me about snakes. In fact, he’d already hacked a poisonous black and red one in half with a machete, right in front of the group. Luckily, this time the noise wasn’t a snake emerging from the rainforest, just a fellow hiker hurrying me up as we were setting off. 

I’d left home – and my father – for Colombia during surreal and distressing times. He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months before and the disease was whittling him down with each passing day. 

I was 21, recently graduated from university and interning at magazines and websites in London. I vividly remember trying to maintain a veil of normalcy, even though I could barely focus on day-to-day tasks. 

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Leaving to travel felt indulgent, selfish, a betrayal

The man who never sat still – always doing DIY, cooking or helping me, my mum and brother with something – was suddenly confined to a chair in the family living room. 

I’d been learning Spanish in preparation for my South American adventure when my dad was taken sick. Leaving to travel suddenly felt indulgent, selfish, a betrayal of his love. Yet, I wasn’t present at work or at home – a shell of myself. 

My mum, who had become dad’s main carer, told me to go. But I only really heard the message when it came from my father. He had always been quietly content with his lot. “I’ve never left Europe”, he lamented one day, through tears in our living room, reflecting on his own travels and our family holidays to France, Spain and Ireland. “Maybe I should have travelled more. Go, and I’ll be here when you get back”, he said. So, on his instruction, I packed a backpack and, a few weeks later, left for Colombia.

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On dad’s instruction, a few weeks later, I left for Colombia

On the Ciudad Perdida trek, which starts in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, I thought of my dad often, camping in tin-roofed shacks and eating arepas (a filled cornmeal pancake) for breakfast with my fellow travellers. 

In my mind’s eye, I saw my dad, a former chef, making breakfast for me and my brother as children. As I hiked, I thought of how my dad had never been particularly active, preferring a quiet pint in the summer with a sausage (or four) from our BBQ, rather than a run or a hike. “It’s a good life”, he’d say in the sun. 

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On the Ciudad Perdida trek, I thought of my dad often

Aged 10, he’d taught me to play badminton in the summer and, years before, how to ride a bike without stabilisers. On day three in Colombia, as I scaled a ledge above a river with my hiking crew, I was scared. Still not as much as I should have been, I realised, because my dad had taught me to swim, too. 

As our guide pointed out various tropical plants, flowers, monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds and bugs in the forest, I remembered my father, the prankster. How he’d once thrown something to me from the other end of our garden, shouting “Catch!” and laughing loudly at the horror on my face when I did catch it – and realised it was a snail.

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I scaled a ledge above a river, unafraid because my dad had taught me to swim

On the trail that leads to Colombia’s ruined city – built in AD 800 at 1200m above sea level – I learned of the indigenous Kogi and Wiwa people, who have lived on the land for centuries and now have to contend with American, European and Australian hikers walking past their homes each day. Colombian soldiers stood by to prevent a repeat of the looting which occurred in 1578 and again, upon its rediscovery in the 1970s. 

As I walked, each step I took became a step for my father. I thought of all the times he carried me upstairs to bed in his strong arms as a child, and all the steps he would never take because cancer had robbed him of the privilege of growing old.

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In Cartagena, I’d been communicating with my dad. On the trek, there was no WiFi

I’d started my trip in the port of Cartagena, a colourful town full of colonial-era buildings and Caribbean culture, and had been communicating with my dad via Facebook and email. He’d asked about the people, the music and my Spanish. He never forgot to tell me to have a good time. 

On the Lost City trek there was no WiFi so I couldn’t update him or find out how his chemo was going. Even so, he remained in my thoughts. Being among verdant, unspoilt terrain during my grief reminded me of the cyclical nature of life. I realised that I had become despondent immediately after learning of my dad’s terminal diagnosis and that, in retrospect, I had wasted time mourning when he was still alive. 

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Colombia and its people have an infectious lust for life

As I walked the 30-mile round trip, I thought about how my father was dying, but how I knew that I could – and would – eventually find the strength to go on. The sounds of the forest acted as a balm for my soul during some of my darkest moments. 

My group distracted me from some of the pain, if only for a while. I thought of what had brought me to Colombia (sadness) and what it was giving me in return (joy). Colombian people have an infectious lust for life, they know how to appreciate simple pleasures, and their country boasts landscapes so brilliant and beautiful you could lose yourself in them for hours. Here I was, amongst it all.

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We bathed in a river and then took the 1,200 stone steps up

On the day we reached the Lost City of Teyuna, we were up at dawn. We bathed in a river and then took the 1,200 stone steps up. The climb wasn’t hard but it was long. When I finally emerged through clouds and mist to the top of a terrace that overlooked the bottom section of the ancient site, it felt like I had stepped back in time. 

Built by the Tayrona people, the significance of each part of the city is still debated. There are a few signposts explaining the set of tiered terraces, plazas, stone paths, houses and stairways across the 80-acre site, yet much of it still shrouded in mystery. 

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My legs ached but I knew my father would be proud

We were free to stroll around for some time. I broke away from the group and headed to one of the highest points to check out the views. After nearly four days of walking, I’d made it. My legs ached but I knew my father would be proud. I stepped out onto the stone ledge, opened my mouth and thought for one moment, about letting out a shout. Instead, I listened to the sounds of nature around me, just as my dad would have wanted.

Georgina Lawton is the author of Raceless and Black Girls Take World. She travelled to Colombia in 2014. 

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Images: Adobe Stock / Unsplash

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