It might sound crazy but hear me out. It’s expensive, but well worth the cost. Especially when considering other potential costs that come with spending time in a bad relationship. Lost years, emotional turmoil, divorce… The perfect pre-test to any longterm relationship involves a simple flight to Colombia and trek through the jungle to the Lost City, La Ciudad Perdida.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but David revealed to me a great deal about the type of life partner he would become when as a new couple we took this fairly grueling five-day hike together. It’s in the Sierra Nevada de Marta mountain range in northern Colombia, home to indigenous Kogi tribes and patrolled by the paramilitary. The ancient ruins known as the Lost City date back 1200 years, but were swallowed by the forest millennia ago and only rediscovered in the 1970s by treasure-hunters. The only way to access the ruins today is to walk there, a journey of several days. A winding and at times treacherous trail leads you through rapids and along rock ridges to the mystical Ciudad Perdida.
On that first day, walking fresh-faced and eager into the jungle’s great maw, we crossed paths with a young couple on their way out. I regarded them warily: ragged and weather-beaten, something in their expression suggested they were escaping the depths of hell. That should’ve been our first clue, but I chalked it up to poor fitness. Within a few hours I began to understand. We were nearing our campsite after a manageable few hours when the skies opened up and great swollen raindrops began beating down on us. Soon, we were trudging through steep hills of mud, laboring with each step.
That was our first test. And while we’d settle into a rhythm that was more often than not pleasant, the jungle would test us again over the course of the next five days. Unforgiving sun. Rain. Rapids. Crossing them, sometimes chest-deep, again and again. Inching precariously along a mountain edge. Snakes. Inopportune diarrhea. And very long days. We’d each, separately, reach breaking points. And we’d each, separately, have to bolster the other one up. Overall, the adventure was exactly that: adventure. At no point did we actually fear for our lives or want to quit. Yet it was definitely a challenge that tested us as individuals and a team. In retrospect, it thoroughly clued me in to the kind of partner David would be for me as we’d go on to face larger challenges in life: marriage, childbirth, parenting.
My breaking point came days before his. After a very long and arduous day, there was the promise of camp just around the bend. Food, water, rest. In minutes we’d be stripping off our wet clothes and kicking up our feet. Cracking open a beer. I’d been dreaming of this moment for hours. And then, there it was! Nothing luxurious. A covered space for hammocks. Some tables. But to me, in that moment, it was the Four Seasons. And then we were passing it. We were in the lead, and our guide informed us that most of our party would stop, but a few of us, including David and me, would have to press on – there wasn’t room there for everyone. I can’t remember how much further we’d have to walk. Not much. A couple miles, maybe. But it completely broke me. I’m not a cryer. But I couldn’t control the tears from springing to my eyes – the response was physical and uncontrollable, like being sick. David noticed. He was quietly sympathetic. Not effusive. Not terribly concerned. Or surprised. Not annoyed. Didn’t say “suck it up” or try to cheerlead by saying “almost there.” He just gave me space without any apparent judgment.
And now, years later, I realize that was him revealing what kind of man he’d be when things get tough. He was that man in the delivery room too. He didn’t coddle. Any encouragement was low-key, as if he expected I could handle it. There was no other choice but to handle it. He was a quiet, peaceful strength, and he gave me space and a quiet acceptance in my battle.
By the time we reached the Lost City I had discovered that David was tougher than I was. At least in terms of wilderness trekking. Not once did he complain. He was first to pack and tidy up without need of rallying, was careful in it. He didn’t fill space with chatter or balk at tough river crossings or mountain passes. He seemed to relish the experience, both the serenity and the difficulty. Turns out he’s good in the wild. But he did have a breaking point. It came at the very end. Even past the point in the trail when we’d run across the beaten-down couple on our way in.
At some point during the five days we were on the trail, a storm had felled trees and damaged and blocked the road that led us in. So there were some miles added to the end of our journey that the Jeep would’ve otherwise managed for us. There was no shade at all. We were hot, tired, thirsty, and slightly resentful of this unexpected push. Somehow I was managing cheerfully. But David was OVER. IT. He just wanted to be done. Still, he didn’t complain. Didn’t take anything out on me. Wasn’t annoyed with my presence. He just kind of quietly, inwardly seethed. It was a bit of a relief to see his human side. And again, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was him revealing something important of himself to me. He needed space and quiet acceptance in his low point, as he’d given me.
We’re eight years into our relationship, and in the thick of raising small children and keeping a household afloat. It’s impressive to me how similar we behave with each other when under pressure to those early days on the Lost City Trek. These days can be arduous – they often are – but pleasant in a trekking-through-the-jungle way much of the time. We’re in a rhythm with the occasional (often) fucked-up obstacle. Public poop blow-outs without a spare diaper have replaced the odd lurking snake. And we’re managing more or less the same. The strains cause cracks from time to time. And he generally remains strong and steady, quiet and calm. He revealed it to me long ago.
So, if you’re still in that “what kind of partner would this person make?” stage, here’s my advice. It doesn’t have to be a trek to La Ciudad Perdida in northern Colombia, although that comes highly recommended. But some real challenge. Something that goes beyond taking you out of your comfort zone, and makes you a little bit miserable. Something that both scares you and exhilarates you. Something that goes on for a period of days, so you can’t just keep playing nice or trying to impress anyone. Something that will really reveal yourselves when the going gets tough. The absolute most effective would be to get on the Amazing Race. When you see that Amazing Race side, do some serious soul searching. Is that the person you want/need by your side? Because when you add a couple kids to the mix, maybe an expensive property and a couple careers to maintain, it’s that person who will be there. Not first date person and not even three year anniversary person. But trudging through mud with no cold beer in sight person.