Intern Journal: Jake Kincaid - MEDLIFE

Intern Journal: Jake Kincaid

I was on a massive granite dome in Tuolumne Meadows several hundred feet off the ground, hanging from three fingers buried into a crack, my toes balancing on sharp ball bearing sized crystals. I looked down and saw that my last piece of protection was 30 feet below me. If a foot or a hand slipped I was going for a 60 foot ride and probably at least breaking an ankle on the ledges below. I had just pulled through some of the most difficult terrain I had ever climbed. The section ahead was easier but more dangerous.

I was exhausted, my legs were beginning shake, I had what we called the Elvis leg. I looked up at the crescent shaped crack marking the way and saw no opportunities to place more protection that I was confident could hold a fall. My hands were becoming slick with sweat, my arms swollen and weak. I tried to dry my hands with chalk, to take deep breaths and shake out the burn, to feel like there was no way I could fall. It wasn’t happening.

elcapsmallMe climbing high on El Capitan.

Yet still, I was calm, I felt raw, real. I just breathed and flowed through it move by move. I tip-toed my way across the knobs and crystals that poked out of the otherwise smooth glacier polished face, slid my fingers across the flared seam and eventually reached safety.

I sat on a ledge and waited for my partner to follow, basking in warm high altitude sun and the euphoria of adrenaline.

I spent my five years in college (hey I had three majors and who wants to leave college after only four years) focused primarily on a singular goal: climbing The Nose of El Capitan. The Nose is the most famous, and often called the best, rock climb in the world. Sure I did pretty good in school and learned a lot along the way, even wrote a some stories I am still proud of. I always had a vague idea of finding work telling stories, engaging with people, and making a positive impact, even in just a small way. But my heart was mainly focused on this one selfish climbing goal. I never did much that was of any real use to anyone else.

I graduated and went and lived in Yosemite for two months. After 5 days of struggle, 3000 feet of sheer granite, and every emotion I have ever experienced from agony to bliss, exhaustion to exhilaration, my buddy and I topped out the Nose. It was a lifelong dream and it had been all I had hoped it would be- it felt like the ultimate physical and mental challenge.

When I had finished I went and camped by Sand Dollar beach in Big Sur with a good friend of mine. I sat on the beach physically and emotionally exhausted, but at peace and blissed out by the tranquility of my surroundings, listening to the ocean, bathing in the afterglow of the climb.

But I could only truly relax for a few days.

I told her I felt aimless, adrift. I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I felt lost without that one goal that I had been constantly pushing towards. In school, all I had known was that I wanted to climb Half-Dome and the Nose in Yosemite, then somehow get into journalism and tell stories that mattered. The story telling, having a career, that was always distant, abstract, something I would do later, like turning 30. Training for climbing was hard but straightforward, get strong and attempt incrementally difficult climbs. Then, one had to just walk to the base of El Cap, and climb to the top.

Getting into journalism, telling good stories, that was something different. Progress was not delineated by a physical direction in space. Telling stories professionally, or even just finding satisfying work, required navigating a baffling set of social and cultural obstacles. I didn’t just want to find satisfying work, I wanted to find work that actually made the world better somehow. I had no idea how to do that.

           So I went climbing more, I took comfort in its beautiful simplicity, get to the top, and you’ve done it. Sure, getting to the top was sometimes maddeningly difficult- but the objective and the path were always relatively clear.

And so yet again I found myself sitting on a ledge hundreds of feet off the ground, my nerves on fire, trying to catch my breath.    

The crisp piney air filled my lungs and calmed me. Pristine alpine lakes spread out below me, shimmering in the sun, reflecting the pine forests and granite domes surrounding them. Just another day out on the rock. Sure it was beautiful, exhilarating, fun, but the feeling that I was moving towards something important was gone. Climbing just wasn’t doing it anymore.

 I could continuously push the danger and the difficulty but the kind of challenge was always the same- always get to the top. Don’t fall. Don’t die. When you were done, all you had to show for it were some cool photos, sore muscles and stories that only your climbing buddies cared about.

 It seemed climbing The Nose had been enough for now. I will never quit climbing or enjoying it, but it was time to find another kind of challenge. The challenges presented by climbing were not helping me grow like they used to. It was time for climbing to be just a hobby, at least for a while.

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I went back home to Boulder Colorado after months of living out of my car and climbing. I started applying to jobs and internships, mostly at newspapers all over the US. That was where you got to tell true stories right?

I had always written off public relations of any kind as bullshit. I wasn’t going to lie and make some company look good. If they were actually doing something good, then a real journalist would cover it. I wanted to actually do something to improve the world, and improve other people’s awareness of it, not obfuscate it. I wanted work that felt like an adventure.

 I had always imagined myself moving abroad after I graduated, but I didn’t know how, I had no hope of writing for a newspaper in another language. I only kind of spoke Spanish, and I wrote it horribly.

I spent the year adrift and in a daze, bored. I became lost in the endless black hole of the internet on a daily basis, trying to find some direction, advice, opportunities. The challenge of finding meaningful work was depressing, I often poured days into something only to realize it was a complete waste of time.

 I wrote freelance stories at small local papers, even some stories I am proud of, but it didn’t make me much money and for the most part I didn’t find it very inspiring. Who goes to journalism school to write stories about the farmers market or a bizarre holiday where people (only 10 people showed, they had been going for years) bring their pets to church to get blessed with holy water? Alot of these stories just didn’t need to be told.

I delivered groceries to make money. I wandered up and down the aisles of grocery stores and perfected the art of not being present- of disengaging, a habit that eventually spread outside of my job to the detriment of my entire life.

 The most challenging part of my job was searching for the right kind of vegan cheese (did they want the one made from almonds or the one made from coffee, since when can they make cheese from coffee?) for the yuppie health crazed boulderites the app catered too. I listened to podcasts while I worked, interviews with writers, Serial, this American Life and wondered how I could possibly find stories worth telling, and who would give me a place to put them?

 Sure I had interviews, the most promising one covering crime in a small town in Colorado. But my heart was not in telling those stories. In my cover letters and applications, I struggled to find a convincing way to sound like I cared about covering small town USA news (I didn’t) or to sound like I was qualified to work as a reporter at a place like Reuters or Harper’s (I wasn’t). They all saw through it. I didn’t get far. I wanted to travel, I wanted an adventure.

8 months later I went climbing with a friend on a route that would have been child’s play for us in our Yosemite days. We both lamented how we had done nothing exciting since Yosemite, but now we sucked at climbing too. I started training again out of a lack of direction, but the inspiration wasn’t there like it used to be.

Eventually I decided if I didn’t find anything, I was going to abandon my life- my girlfriend, job and lease, head to South America, wander around and just find myself a story to tell. I started practicing my Spanish.

I scoured the internet for anything abroad anywhere, but I was especially interested in Latin America, both because I missed it (I had traveled in Central America before) and because I already had Spanish language skills and actually felt there was a hope of attaining fluency.

That was when I found MEDLIFE. It seemed to offer what I was looking for. They had a robust media output, interesting stories, and worked in Latin America. The only reason I was hesitant because it was PR and international development- not traditional journalism. But I thought, “hey why not this looks like the best opportunity to give public relations a try, at least I will get to travel. Maybe they do such a good job I won’t have to bs and distort information.”

It is easy to be cynical and defeatist about aid and development. Everyone has heard a story about a do-gooder’s attempt to help the poor that has backfired and made things worse, from the common American mythology of welfare queens to the true stories of entire towns bottomed out economically by poorly implemented microfinance plans.

I had read such things and felt a sense that it was impossible to do anything at all. It seemed easier to keep living the good life in Boulder – not that I think those who do so are bad people, or that no one in Boulder makes a positive impact in the world, but I sure wasn’t doing much but having fun in Boulder.

I was hoping to see something different, something better, something that clearly worked, something beautiful- wasn’t that what giving was supposed to be?


Sometime later I found myself standing in a landscape that seemed like something in between a post-apocalyptic shanty town and a failed outpost on some distance desert planet where the atmosphere was too thick to let light through. Only it was real, it was on earth and it wasn’t something as drastic as a global apocalypse that had created it but the subtle interaction of a number of factors: years of internal conflict in Peru, mass migration, market forces, geopolitics and of course historical circumstance going back to colonialism that would require several books to explain.

MEDLIFE had accepted me into the internship program, and I was doing fieldwork in the Peruvian slums where we work.

Rolling hills of barren dirt and rubble speckled with shacks stretched out as far as I could see. The fog and mist had not subsided in the weeks since I arrived. It disoriented and exhausted the mind, typically causing me to nod off on the crowded busses and awaken at our field site with the sense that I was in a bleak dystopian nightmare.

Although I felt like I was on another planet when I was in the pueblos jovenes (the name given to the slums outside Lima), I have learned that a perceived distance between these places, the lives of the poor lived here and my privileged life in the US was only an illusion created by the mind’s inability and resistance to understanding and accepting the complex flows of capital and resources, of interdependence and influence that lead to the existence of such places. While no one is innocent and few can be said to be truly guilty- it is hard to deny the fact that each thing one person possesses is something that another person necessarily does not.

One thing has become clear, the pueblos jovenes are not on a distant desert planet. We all live in the same planetary and economic ecosystem, one with limited resources, resources that in this day and age can be distributed most anywhere.

But simply throwing resources and money at a problem like poverty won’t fix it, and sometimes it can make it worse. There is no one formula for successful aid, it takes something else.

We got off the bus and began hiking into the hills, it was my second day in the field with MEDLIFE. A sickening vapor rose from the earth that created the distinct sensation I was wading through a substance, one that felt slightly viscous when inhaled, composed of evaporated dog feces, car exhaust, and smoke from either wood fires (at best) or garbage (more likely). I was adrift and in a hazy sea of suffering and hardship that I did not understand.

 I had no idea I was about to encounter the first of many amazing stories- the kind I had been hoping to find when I came here. A story worth telling, a story that mattered, a story that didn’t make one feel cynical, helpless and defeatist.

We met Rosario and her neighbor Nilda after a long hike high into the hills. Stray dogs barked at us as we approached the collection of small shacks built out of materials that appeared to have been scavenged from a junkyard. The dogs sounded like they were waiting  for us to take just one more step before leaping at me and tearing a chunk out of my leg. I tensed at each bark, but Janet, the nurse I was with, assured me they were harmless.

Rosario only speaks Quechua- so her neighbor Nilda was translating for her. Rosario was 70, her home was one of the most squalid I had ever seen. A small, dirty one room shack. Mobility was clearly a huge issue for her.

It made my head reel to see her struggle out of her home and remove her hat to reveal a massive tumor. Apparently I didn’t need to be dangling on a rock face hundreds of feet off the ground to get vertigo.

 I struggled not to cry. I took a deep breath and realized that this was not about my privileged, shocked reaction to the realities of poverty. My feelings did not matter. I would hop on a bus and go back to my life of comfort and opportunity, she would stay here in this existence that I was struggling to accept the reality of even for just a few minutes. I felt pathetic.

But I wasn’t here to go on some kind of sick poverty sight-seeing tour, I was here for a reason, wasn’t I?

I had done dozens of interviews before, even done interviews in Spanish before, but this was different. I started nervously asking questions from the list I had prepared earlier that week. How has your illness changed your life? Who helps you, who supports you? What are the biggest challenges in your life?


Within the grim landscape of the pueblos jovenes, I have witnessed countless inspiring acts of selflessness, resilience and kindness from the residents that live there, the beauty of which in my mind outweighs the shocking squalor of the environment they live in.

This was the first one: Nilda, a 23 year old mother of two who also has a massive tumor on her chest, doesn’t just translate for Rosario, she takes care of her as if Rosario were her mother, brings her food, looks after her.Though it was sad, ugly, disturbing- there was alsobeauty in that story, and in the many other stories I would encounter on a weekly basis.

The mother who cradled her mentally retarded and epileptic daughter like an infant because her daughter is basically an infant. Who only leaves her community high in the hills a couple times a year because she is always taking care of her, yet, still says she is happy. “This is my life,” she said. “At least I have my health, I can see my mother, talk with my neighbors, the seizures aren’t everyday anymore.”

The children who appear to be having the time of their lives, running and screaming with delight as they jump into gravel like it is a soft pile of leaves on a lovely autumn afternoon.

The woman who took in an old senile arthritic friend (Elberta) who was abandoned by her family. Elberta is so senile they have to change her diapers. They put everything into caring for Elberta, despite having enough problems of their own, she had a stroke, her daughter who supports them both had a heart attack, and yet still says “We had to care for Elberta, we are human beings… How can you abandon an old woman like that? I think such people have never opened a bible.”

We visited a family to make a video to fundraise to build them a new house. The little girl shoed chickens out of her dirt floor kitchen as we entered. She spends her nights, often alone, huddled around candles with her younger brother, tiny beacons of light in the absolute darkness of the Ecuadorian countryside. Their mom leaves them alone to go see her boyfriend in Riobamba. As we leave, she insists that we take pieces of jewelry as a gift to remember her by. We try and refuse but she protests, “I have enough.” We didn’t take her jewelry, but we did accept the flowers she made in arts and crafts class.

I have spent several months now visiting people like this in their homes and trying to tell their stories. It has been rewarding and challenging beyond my expectations. I love this work. I feel like I am on the right path again.

 I relish in the nuance and challenge of communicating with people far different than myself, of trying to make those who read my stories, look at my photos, or watch my videos feel as if the fate of these people seemingly so far away is somehow bound with theirs, that the problems of the poor on another continent should matter to them.

The best thing is that MEDLIFE exceeded my expectations as an organization. I really do just have to document the stories unfolding around me. I am proud to work for this organization. MEDLIFE finds a problem and tries to fix it, there is no formula.

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Pamplona Alta needed a school so MEDLIFE built one, a beautiful, clean white school in the middle of one of the most dilapidated, dirtiest slums I have ever seen. The place looked rough even for a Lima slum. But now, the kids have somewhere nice to go and learn. The clean whiteness of the school made it look like a supernatural apparition, like it was photo shopped into the foggy dilapidated environment that is Pamplona Alta. It was a symbol of hope. After smashing a Champaign bottle with a hammer to inaugurate it and taking a tour, I let myself tear up from a sense of hope instead of holding back tears of sadness.

Another community needed a water pylon, a woman needed a house, a boy needed a surgery, the list goes on. MEDLIFE has destroyed my cynicism and defeatism towards development; I have seen with my own eyes that it is possible to make progress, albeit slowly.

It is not easy, it is messy, confusing, and complicated. The path forward is not always clear. I admire the way that MEDLIFE listens to the needs expressed by the people we are trying to help, and is willing to try to meet that need in a way unique to each person or community.

Working with MEDLIFE has given me the perfect opportunity to work towards becoming the best version of myself, and to help the world become the best version of itself. I have no delusions of grandeur, what I am doing is only a drop in the bucket, but I am happy to be putting it in. 

18890 10153375532424161 9190035675929915492 nMany of the incredible people I have had the privelege of meeting and working with at MEDLIFE.