Don’t ask me how my husband convinced me to hike the Inca Trail. I am legitimately not sure. All I know is that it all started with a voucher from a cancelled flight (not to Peru), and it was easier saying yes to something when the trip was six months away.
The hike was four days (three nights camping), and involved both climbing up, and down, over 10,000 feet (plus walking nearly 30 miles).
I had hiked once before, in Ein Gedi, with my high school, a mild trip. I still almost threw up towards the end, and had to drag myself up the last few steps, before crawling to the tour bus to catch my breath. I had never camped. I had never been anywhere remotely that high- not even the Rockies. And as the trip neared, and the reality of the impending hike set in, I began to panic.
Gentle reader, lest you superimpose the stereotype of a spoiled Jewish girl onto this narrative, think again. I am the stereotype of a nerdy Jewish child of other nerds whose family trips were all either oriented around grandparents or museums.
“If you’re having a rough time, you can just yell at me!” my husband, Michael, suggested sincerely. But, rather than lean into the worst stereotypical Jewish marriage dynamics, I declined.
“That won’t help,” I replied. “But I have to be able to kvetch to you.”
And so, it was decided. I would indeed climb a freaking mountain (actually, two).
Listen, I’m supposed to come forward and say that while the hike was difficult, it was meaningful, and beautiful, and I felt so accomplished when I got through it in one piece. And because it was so strenuous physically, emotionally, and financially, I want to be able to say all that. And I don’t want to burden my spouse with feelings of guilt that I felt pressured into doing something that was unpleasant for me. Time has healed many wounds. But, readers, the hike was awful.
There were five other hikers in our group, and just our luck, none of them were beginners. We would be the first to leave for a leg of the trail and the last to arrive. The humiliation of being the slow one dulled, but never went away. The forced closeness during mealtimes was uncomfortable; our tour guide kept calling us “Family.” Sorry, but you people are not my family.
Then, there was the constant guilt. The tour companies employ local farmers part time as porters. They not only made camp but also carried a larger load than I could bear on a good day at sea level, and would run up mountains on stones laid down five hundred years ago, past my huffing form. The privilege I hold was thrown into stark relief, and I couldn’t even convince myself I was having a good time.
But, somehow, I didn’t freak out at Michael. I didn’t shout at him (OK, once, briefly on Day One when I was still learning to pace myself). I didn’t blame him for pressuring me into going on the trip. I didn’t revel in “I told you so’s” when he admitted the hike was harder than he thought it would be. What I did (other than at times cutting myself off from the world to listen to podcasts) was strategically, and periodically, kvetch.
I didn’t kvetch in front of the other tourists. I didn’t kvetch to our tour guide, or any members of the amazing staff. I kvetched to Michael in private, whenever I needed. It wasn’t too hard to tell– the trick is finding that sweet spot, when something is bothering you, but isn’t at a crisis point. The pressure is building up, and a good kvetch is that built-in release valve that stops you from exploding.
My legs hurt. I wished I could take a shower. I needed to know what was going on in the news. I made meta-kvetches; having a hard time despite my privilege made me feel like Lena Dunham, but admitting it out loud helped. I made jokes, too, and enjoyed the amazing sights, and chatted with my husband about everything under the sun, but I also complained. These were little bits of punctuation on the long stretches between meals, like water or snack breaks.
I did the heavy-lifting kvetching-wise (if not backpack-wise), but Michael joined in from time to time, too.
“Our tour guide is really experienced,” he whispered to me. “But he’s still not great at dealing with people.”
Yes! I had been feeling the same way, and now Michael had articulated it. We went back and forth with a few justifying examples, and voila. What started with someone else’s kvetch turned to joking between a married couple. We spun the complaints into positive—fantasizing together about when we would be able to take showers, or sleep in a real bed. And when Michael had issues that weren’t affecting me, it was a win-win: I could play the supportive wife, but it was a problem that wasn’t bothering me!
By Day Three, I started to feel sick, and, for the first time in my life, I was running out of podcasts. I could feel it coming. Like a squirrel in winter, I had hoarded the biggest kvetch of all, and now the time had come. “I need to say this,” I calmly warned Michael. “I’m having a really hard time and I really want to go home.”
WHOOSH. I immediately felt better. I mean, I still was having a hard time, and still wanted to go home, but now another person knew how I felt. Michael commiserated, and just like that, my feelings were validated, and we kept walking.
The final day of the hike, when I was physically the most worn down, I alternated between sullenly keeping my mouth shut and complaining that I really, really needed to get back to the hotel. And somehow, we did (and were then sick for the remainder of the trip).
And so, if you too want to be an expert kvetcher, not kvetching more, but better, here is what I did:
1. I pre-negotiated the kvetching. My husband gave his informed consent to the dynamic, and I operated fully within that trust. I didn’t get other people involved, and I didn’t express my feelings with anger or spite.
2. I used kvetching as a form of communication, rather than as protest. I shared how I was feeling, and I listened to my partner-in-kvetch.
2. I didn’t overdo it. This may all sound like a lot in the telling, but in the course of walking from dawn to dusk, it was really a minority of the time. I didn’t just mouth off; I considered what was making me complain, and I contextualized each issue.
3. I savored the kvetch. I felt each one leave my body, taking with it just a fraction of the problem itself, of the hold it had over me. I let it be cathartic, rather than adding to my discomfort.
Getting to the top of Macchu Picchu didn’t make me feel accomplished, but realizing that after everything, my husband and I weren’t sick of each other did. I had to spend a lot of time with myself over that trip, and I suppose we all have to face the uglier sides to ourselves when under stress. I may be a spoiled American stereotype. I may be a terrible hiker, and addicted to my phone, and a picky eater, a die-hard New York pizza snob.
But I am not a bad partner. And I am an excellent kvetcher.