Q & A with Marinel de Jesus, Founder, Peak Explorations, Arlington, Virginia, USA.
No, not at all. I grew up in Manila, Philippines. My father was the only income earner for a family of four children, so we did not have the financial means to go on hiking trips or to travel in general. During that time hiking was not a common form of recreation for the locals as most travels were focused on visiting relatives outside of the city [Manila]. When I was 13 years old, my family left the Philippines for the USA as immigrants; we settled in the city of Seattle. We still did not have the financial ability to pursue leisure travel. It was only some years later, after I completed law school and moved to Washington, DC, that I discovered hiking and the outdoors.
I first took a trip to Guatemala and hiked up Volcan Pacaya with a group and a guide. The guide mainly showed us the way up to the top of that volcano, he did not offer any training. A few years after that, I discovered the outdoor scene in Washington, DC. I decided to hike more regularly, and this led me to an introductory backpacking class offered by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Apart from that class, I have learned what I know about mountain trekking through my own experience, trial and error. Back then there was not as much information readily available as there is today for beginning hikers.
My job as a lawyer entailed advocating for abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia, and I did this for 15 years. It could be at times stressful and emotional. So I found hiking to be a good way to de-stress. I launched my social enterprise, Peak Explorations, at first purely out of passion. I enjoyed taking people with me to trek in various countries. Over time I began feeling less in tune with my profession as a prosecutor. I had to reflect on my career direction. Around then, also, my mother suddenly passed away, and the reality of mortality and our limited time on Earth really struck me. It was a time of personal growth for me. My transition was actually easy since I had already dedicated so many years to this hiking enterprise, so what started out as a hobby became my new professional focus.
Mountain trekking has been instrumental in my life as a way to connect with my authentic self and desires. Once I became acquainted with my true desires, I then discovered joy that emanates from the process of self-awareness and self-love. The joy that I now experience is not one that depends on external matters but one that flows from my capacity to appreciate and embrace myself fully.
I came from a very challenging childhood. I had a parent struggling with mental health issues, plus we all faced the additional hardships of being immigrants in a foreign country. You receive many forms of judgment and criticisms from other people. Once I discovered hiking, it became a major source of healing for me. It challenges you physically, mentally, and emotionally, in a good way, you become stronger. The wilderness is like a neutral zone, you are free to be yourself.
There is no doubt that the outdoor adventure industry in general is still very male-dominated. The same can be said for mountain trekking. As a social entrepreneur, I feel a sense of purpose to promote women in the outdoors to send a clear message that women can be as adventurous and skilled in mountain trekking as men. My company offers women-only treks to Peru, India, and Tanzania for that reason. With more of that to come. On the other side, we also wish to empower the local women in these developing countries. Hence, we match our female clients with local female guides and porters. I have become an advocate for women empowerment in the outdoor adventure industry as a whole and in the world of mountain trekking more specifically. That means catering more to the female clients as well as the women working on the mountain trails.
I find Peru to be quite diverse in terms of landscapes. Around the city of Cusco the environment has a lot of jungle-like features, but once you start climbing higher in the Andes Mountains the terrain changes dramatically, and eventually you are looking at the snow-capped mountains of Cordillera Blanca. Peru offers a range of trails, some are better for beginners and some appeal to more advanced hikers. If you are an avid hiker, you could spend years trekking around this part of the world.
Because the Quechua women are breaking old molds and taking ownership of that decision. For such a long time, the trekking tourism industry there neglected the relevance and presence of these women. No one thought to include them as guides or porters even though they are strong physically and mentally. They just need to believe in their ability to be guides and porters in the same way they believe in themselves as farmers and textile weavers. Today these Quechua women are learning the guiding skills required to earn better pay and become role models for younger women in their villages and for women in other countries too.
Yes. There is one woman in particular that I admire, and her name is Thinlas Chorol. She is from Ladakh, India. She started the very first woman-owned trekking company that only hires women as guides and porters. Her story inspires me when I think about the challenges she had to face as a woman entrepreneur and the element of innovation that she brought to the industry. I feel my work is similar in many ways which is to stand up against the stereotype of women being incapable as mountain guides. I am also encouraging more minority women to become mountain hikers and join us.
SO WHAT CHARACTERISTICS DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING GUIDES?
The guides who lead our trips must be naturally drawn to the mountains and enjoy the adventures that abound on the trails. They must have obtained the prerequisite qualifications and experience. We look for guides who will go above and beyond for our clients, and they must share our mission to empower indigenous communities and women in general.
Peak Explorations works with agencies that are locally owned and operated. We focus on inclusion and equity; we choose partners who share the same values. I believe sustainability is best achieved when these local partners can operate successfully without reliance on big foreign corporations.
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