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Getting lost, and finding my happiness, on the side of a Nicaraguan Volcano

By Clarissa WeiOctober 13, 2015

Clarissa Wei hiking in Nicaragua
Clarissa Wei hiking in Nicaragua Clarissa Wei

For the last six weeks I’ve been a volcano trekking guide in Leon, Nicaragua. We take clients on excursions to local volcanoes and donate all our profits to local charity. We’re completely volunteer-run, we live in the same house, and we’re all mostly under 30.  

I made the decision to go to Nicaragua without much thought. A friend told me about Queztaltrekkers and I thought hiking and volunteering were both great ideas, and even better together, so I booked a plane ticket. Hiking volcanoes is now a normal routine in my life. I live in a colonial-style home with a courtyard in the heart of Leon – a completely pedestrian-friendly city that I have grown rather fond of. And I have accumulated some crazy stories – most of which would make my mother worry even more than she already does.

Like the time I got my client lost in the jungle.

It was on the second day of a two-day trek. We had already walked a brutal three hours down Volcano El Hoyo, where we had camped the night before. After a solid twenty minutes of waiting for our companions to join us, I started to get concerned. We were a party of four, but the others were nowhere to be seen or heard.  

Natalie (my client) and I pushed on, we retraced our steps; we screamed their names. Our feet were in pain. Eventually I started panicking, all while apologizing profusely to Natalie for being a horrible guide.  

It’s a curious thing being in the wilderness while in a state of panic. Trees start to all look the same and you begin to feel claustrophobic. Common sense, unless you force it to stay, has a tendency to run away in dangerous situations. The red painted spots on the trees that I swore were trail markers began to confuse me. They clearly weren’t pointing the right way. At least, not the way I wanted to go.  

Common sense, unless you force it to stay, has a tendency to run away in dangerous situations. 

We had been en route to Asososca Lake – a crater lake four hours away from our campsite. Though I had been on the trail twice before, the road is thin and frail and cuts through thick forest. Thunderstorms and livestock pass by the area frequently. Both rain and cows knock down trees so the path is never quite the same twice. And if you’re not paying attention – and I really wasn’t – it’s easy to take a wrong turn.  

Clarissa Wei in Nicaragua
Clarissa Wei in NicaraguaClarissa Wei

We retraced our steps until we got to a hill. From behind the trees, we spotted the corner of the lake, and behind it Volcano El Hoyo, where we had been that morning. We strategized, debated our options, weighed our water load and made the compulsive decision to cut down straight to the lake, down a steep hill with absolutely no trail. Our reasoning: heading to the lake with no trail was better than heading to nowhere with a trail.  

A couple more impulsive decisions were made in those 40 minutes of being lost. I faced the fear of being stuck indefinitely in a Nicaraguan jungle without provisions or any way of contacting help. As luck would have it – sheer and pure luck – we eventually found a trail, made it down to the lake, and ran into my co-guide who had been looking for us. Immediately the jokes resumed, the laughter came back, and we went through the rest of the day in great spirits – happy, because we had survived. Natalie and I are now friends and my 40 minutes of shame has become just another funny (but cautionary) tale.

Despite some mishaps and close calls, coming to Nicaragua to hike volcanoes has been one of the best decisions of my life –  simply because I’m happy here. I’m happy here even though it’s perpetually humid, even though I live in a room chock full of mice and cockroaches, even though I get lonely at times. I’m happy even though I got my client and myself horribly lost in a Nicaraguan forest.  

The formula for happiness, despite the inevitable obstacles, is simple: Get involved with the things you’re passionate about and by doing so, you will meet like-minded people who think and live their lives in a similar fashion.  

Because of the nature of our hikes and where we’re located, most of our clients and volunteers are also young, fellow wanderlusters. They’re folks who aren’t as into material possessions as they are acquiring memories. They’re travelers who are street-smart and people who are experts at living simply and cheaply. Because we share so much, I find myself connecting more deeply with them than I did back home in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.  

Get involved with the things you’re passionate about and by doing so, you will meet like-minded people who think and live their lives in a similar fashion.  

My biggest lesson in happiness on this trip came the night before that eventful trek into the jungle. We set up camp on a wonderful grassy area on the top of Volcano El Hoyo. That night we were treated to a full moon and a clear sheet of night sky dotted with stars.  

The four of us got out our sleeping mats and just laid there, side-by-side, in complete silence and complete comfort. Some shooting stars caught our attention and someone whispered the inevitable: “Make a wish.”

Usually, when moments like these come, I’m quick to make a wish. There’s always something that I want. But that night, for once – I wanted absolutely nothing.