The Mechanics of Fear (and climbing gear)

I’m standing on about three centimetres of stone, pressed against the rock at about 18 metres from the ground, as Dave shouts up: “You have to turn around! Spin a few times – you know, like a ballerina!”. Seems like I don’t need to hitchhike to experience the thrill of the adventure.

I am at a climbing spot just out of Chiang Mai (called “Crazy Horse”), because climbers seem to know each other across continents, and because I was lucky. A cool local agreed to introduce me to the joys of outdoors rope climbing, me who has only been bouldering indoors a few times and occasionally gets on top of the odd wall. She brings along Dave, who leads the way up the twenty odd metres of rock, and then says: “You go next”.

I start climbing, slowly feeling the stone around me, touching it, stroking it. It is reassuringly solid and gives enough space to be gripped and to hold my body. Nice! Indeed, the difficulty is not the technical bit of the climbing (which is good, because my technique is very basic), but the ever increasing height. Several times, I stop to shake out my hands, which forces me to lean back into the rope and trust that my belayer down below has got me. When I reach the top, I turn around and look over the trees into the valley and I see the others down below, gosh, am I high. But – gosh – this is great!

Later, we try a second route. It’s meant to be as beginner-friendly as the first one, but it looks more difficult. Maybe it’s because the stone has had time to heat up, maybe I’m just a bit tired now.

When it’s my turn to go up, I am secured by a Dutch guy we met at the site. He is only hardly more experienced than me, which makes it even harder to trust in the rope that should prevent me from falling. Said rope also starts twisting as I climb which forces me to play ballerina at height. At about four or five metres from the top, I am not sure what to do. There is a ledge at about the height of my chin which provides good grip. If I managed to get my feet onto that one, I’d manage the rest of the route. My hands search for something to hold – after hearing Dave make some comments on proper technique, I repeat to myself “hands high, arms stretched, legs bent” (“aha, exactly like when you’re hanging on a wall before pulling yourself up”, my mind adds). The technical advice isn’t really helping: it feels as if upon leaving the instinctive auto-pilot (“get up this rock”), my mind suddenly offers me helpful comments like “Do you really think your hand can hold this grip for long?”.

Well, and every time I search for a grip higher than the nice protruding edge, I imagine my hands sliding over the surface, suddenly at a loss for things to hold, me falling backwards. After a few minutes, I shout down that I need a break. “Gotcha” goes the echo from below, but it takes a while until I loosen the fingers clamped around the saving edge. I stretch them, I breathe. That’s hard, because I can already feel the storminess inside (if it pleases you to imagine my mood like a deep sea, it is one now slowly set in motion). If I listen, I can hear something very primal trying to get my attention to inform me that nonononono, I don’t want to be here.

Instead, I look up and see that there’s only two more hooks left before the end, and I can picture how great it would be to be up there, to accomplish my mission.

I remember: “bend your legs, then push. Your legs are stronger than your arms”. Since I cannot directly reach the edge with my foot, I put it halfway up and try to imitate what I’d do if this was a wall: push against it to get enough momentum to move my body up.

And then, my left foot slips. I don’t know if I dangle in the ropes for a second, nor what my hands do. I don’t even know whether I make the sound of some small, frightened animal. I catch myself again, holding on, leaning back just enough to remind myself of the reassuring draw of the rope that secures me. What before was a dark, but mostly calm, ocean, is now like a tsunami going in all directions simultaneously. There is no capacity for thought, just a nameless force making me want to not be here. But even going back down requires a minimum of coordination, and I panic because I’m not able to go down, and I have no breath to shout that I want to be lowered. I breathe, I’m okay. I try to take action, I’m not okay. The panic comes in waves and this time, I do hear myself producing strange little sounds when they hit.

And for some reason, I don’t want to go down because I am so close, because I’m ashamed of leaving this unfinished, and because I want to concede no points to this part of me that seems so uncontrollable. Maybe it’s that wish to take control that makes me try a third, and last, time.

In any classic story, this would be the moment where I succeed, where the tension resolves into bliss and accomplishment. But there is no way my stretched nerves would do any better than before, no chance to spot a previously unnoticed path. So I try, and I fail, and I hoarsely shout that I want to be lowered.

When I come down, I am shaky and a bit disappointed. For a while, my brain keeps generating anxious thoughts, which in turn annoys me. But then, I also feel a strange lightness. It takes me a while until I notice: This was actually a pretty scary situation. It’s fine if my body reacts that way in case of actual danger (my body doesn’t yet know that much about ropes, so it must have been as scared as you’d imagine unsecured climbing would be). And now that the situation is over, I can relax.

And then, I am pleased with myself: today, I tried something that was new and outside my comfort zone. I am excited about it for several days to come. Why then did I share the “failure” bit of it more lengthily than the “excitement” bit? Obviously: because I don’t think that we have to succeed at everything straight away. If I only did stuff for which success was very likely, I probably wouldn’t learn much at all.

Just like in my last post, which talked about my not-so-successful attempt at hitchhiking, I am starting to celebrate my tries more than my successes. And I think that’s a great thing for me to do.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

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To Hitch or Not to Hitch

It is morning and I still haven’t decided. Will I do it? How dangerous is it? Can I do it? At the thought of leaving the hostel to hitchhike the 300 odd kilometres to Chiang Mai, my chest knots itself up and my head goes spinning.

I spend some time on my newsfeed to procrastinate, I google road safety (Thailand is number second in death cases on the road, after Libya) and half-heartedly check bus timings.

Yesterday, I had an argument about whether to do it, in which I revisited a lot of my points from this earlier post.

I think the arguments still stand, but two things make this situation different. One is that I am more tuned in with cautious, or anxious, vibes than I used to be. Therefore, I am more receptive to people telling me that I’m about to do something stupid. Rationally, I still don’t find the particular arguments I encounter convincing (I still think that we tend to exaggerate some risks, like being raped, while neglecting others. I am definitely more worried about car accidents here than about malicious people. And my cursory consultation of the usual sources seems to have shown that, if anything, Thailand is one of the nicer countries for autostopping), but I am faster to doubt myself. But then, I want to update my beliefs on rational grounds, and not because someone got me scared.

The second thing is that, because of the recent changes in my temper, hitchhiking now carries another significance for me. And it feels like now would be an exceptionally bad occasion to not do something because I’m scared.

I decide to give it a go because I want to remind myself that I am able to do things even if I feel scared and that, once I’m in it, reality usually isn’t as bad as I imagine it before I set off.

Just before I go, I have a chat with a girl in my hostel who has hitchhiked in Australia and therefore is sensitive to, and concerned about, my lack of hat or other sun protection. I reply “I might find one on the road” and she laughs about my bad planning. Fifty metres along the main road, there is a shop that sells hats.

I walk on, soon soaked in sweat. “I’ll wait till I’m at the exit of Old Sukhothai, so it will be more obvious that I’m hitchhiking”. This makes me gain time to think, and to collect my thoughts. Whenever a vehicle passes, I find a good reason not to signal – there’s not enough space, it looks like a tourist bus, there’s not enough room to stop. After half an hour, I finally come to a halt, on a place as good as any. I’m having moral doubts, and I feel ashamed. Am I propagating an image of the Western backpacker, who has, or could have, more money than the local population, and yet doesn’t spend any? What are the most likely consequences of my actions? Is it wrong to ask people who probably have less than you for favours? How good is it to ask people for favours at all? Would it really be that much better to spend my time working, to then spend my money feeding the Thai tourist industry (which, in turn, feeds lots of people)? And once I start think about morality, these things are no options at all, go work and spend your money/time really helping people instead of going on holiday!

Still, if choosing only between the two current options – to hitch or not to hitch – it comes down to a question about my goals. If my goal were simply to reach Chiang Mai, I might as well just take that goddamn bus, on danger of never recovering from my persistent air-conditioned cold.

But now that I’m travelling alone again, I aim for experience, I want to challenge myself, and I want to observe how people behave over here.

I stick out my thumb, and alternate that gesture with downward waves of my hand, which is how people stop taxis here. No-one seems to understand. My body language is hesitant; I find it very hard not to cross my arms, occupy my arms, twist my legs. I remember the second morning of my marathon-hitch from Morocco and how I’d persuaded people to stop by what seemed to be sheer force of will; how I’d been sure of myself and trusting in fate; how I’d really made myself believe that this was a glorious morning which would end in an awesome day, and how no challenge was able to stop me getting to where I wanted to be.

It doesn’t work this time.

After a while, I get the first acknowledgements: people indicate that they don’t have space or are not going my way. I feel better – at least some people understand what I’m trying to do. But no-one stops. Someone from opposite the road calls me and tries to say something, but we don’t understand each other. He comes from within a building that looks like it belongs to a university or some ministry.

I tell him where I’m going and give him a text in Thai about what I’m doing and what hitchhiking means. He reads it out loud, slowly. Then he smiles and motions me to go inside his car.

I’m not sure he understood, but I let chance decide – we’ll see where he brings me. Indeed, we drive all the way back to town and, out of all places, he stops right in front of my hostel. However, he doesn’t look at it, but crosses the street with me – to the police station opposite. I’m pretty sure hitchhiking is legal over here!?

Soon, I’m surrounded by a flock of more or less helpful police officers in snazzy uniforms, always happy to help what they perceive to be confused tourists. Out of awkwardness face to all this haphazard effort to help, I nod meekly as one of them asks “bus to Chiang Mai?”. And so, I am conducted to the bus station from where I head to my next destination.

Thailand! Family holiday (Familienurlaub)

I have never so much as looked at a guidebook about Thailand (okay, I leafed through one for about five minutes once). Now, I’m on an improvised road trip with my dad, my step mum, fifteen Thai people and two Malaysians, somewhere in North Eastern Thailand. As much as I’d like to find out more about my surroundings, I am tempted to stay in the dark for some more time and see how things unfold.

Things are good at that, unfolding. We follow, we savour, we see. Toyota vans, noodle soup and other things, temples – wooden and mosaic, colourful and sobre.

We travel in a cloud of animated chatter, a flock of a species that enjoys, most of all, taking pictures, especially of each other and oneself. And us, of course. We enjoy ourselves, start learning the art of posing, and the art of enjoying the silence when it’s there.

We leave the group when they travel East while we want to go North West, there are lots of hugs and good-bye photos, we make plans to have dinner together back in Germany (two of them live in our German hometown, which is how this all came about).

Our next stop is a spa resort; which lies in stark, but not unpleasant, contrast to my usual travel surroundings. This is a moment that falls into a very clearly labelled “holiday” category.

I spend my time lying around the pool and then, I experience my first Thai massage in such a relaxing environment that I can’t help but look for the loudspeakers producing the chirping, which, instead, originates from real birds.

Once the external pressure falls off, my mind suddenly gets laborious. And so, on my first morning in paradise, I complete a job application, and start reading books on topics I usually find challenging, like statistical modelling. The thinking: “These are things I am usually scared of, so better get them done in an environment in which it seems impossible to be unhappy”.

While that kind of makes sense, I notice that it gets me agitated nonetheless. And on the second day of paradise, after starting on more “serious” reading, I decide that this is also a great place to let go completely, and I fall back on a well-tested relaxation technique of mine – I start reading a Terry Pratchett novel.

Today, we are leaving paradise for a fallen city, that is, the ruins of what once was a capital of Thailand.

After that stop, our paths will also diverge and perhaps that will be the moment to give my journey a twist by embarking on an adventure. (Question: can you plan adventures, or do they have to come as a surprise? Or both?)

10-minute-friends and floating thoughts.

I made six new random friends since I boarded the bus in Jaisalmer yesterday evening. Within a few minutes, I’d introduced myself to the guys across the corridor of the sleeper bus, and my plan of having locals handy in case I was confused worked out fabulously. Plus none of us got bored, and I was invited to stay at their desert school at my next visit. Facebook friend request: sent.

In my next bus, from Jaipur to Delhi, I was alone for quite a while, until two men (again, haha) joined me on my bench. I was first annoyed because that didn’t leave me much space, and I’m suspicious of situations in which I’m required to be physically close to men I don’t know. The ones next to me didn’t show any undue interest, though, and we sat in silence for a few hours, until we started talking about marriages. The three of us turned out to have travelled for a wedding, the two of them to their first Rajasthani one and I to my first one at all (although that had already been in Delhi). Anyway, we got along well and spent the afternoon together even after getting off the bus. We were joined by one more of their friends who turned out to like formal logic and had started reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, as well as watching lectures from Erlangen University (in Germany) online… we ceremoniously pledged to hold each other accountable for finishing the book.

What an improvement to sitting in the dust for hours by myself! More facebook friends: check. Plus, obviously, more nice people to visit in Delhi.

When the time came to reach the airport, one of them explained me how to get to the airport by metro, reassuring me that it would be no problem at all. Well, it got late, I got incredibly stressed, and so he took the metro with me all the way to the airport to make sure I’d be alright (I was filled with righteousness: “If you hadn’t reassured me, I’d left an hour earlier!”).

When saying goodbye, I gave him a stormy adrenaline-filled (and therefore probably tight?) hug, which left him visibly perplexed.

Woops, forgot Indian protocol – non-related, non-married men and women usually greet each other by waving/signing “namaste”, or shaking hands, or giving a very chaste hug selon occasion.

[Side note: not even married couples kiss each other in public; not that I’d wanted to try that].

I didn’t consider my potential faux-pas for long, but slid away. On my golden wedding sandals that provided no grip whatsoever on the shining floor; straight to check in, where I was greeted with a grin, considering my generous margin of 13 minutes before check-in closure and my inability of taking corners without looking like an overpacked surfing apprentice.

I grinned back; relief! Relief! The best euphoria. Then, waiting at the passport controls, I started a conversation with someone I suspected might also go to Bangkok. The kind of East Asian face turned out not to be Thai at all, but from eastern Nepal. What a joy! Under normal circumstances, I already get excited when I meet Nepalis, but now, I must have looked like a very happy chicken or something, and completed all the relevant introduction (I worked as a journalist on Durbar Marg! – Really!? I’ve studied journalism in Kathmandu!!) in record speed. We lost each other at security checks, but then I saw him speed past me (he was also late) and lose a jumper. I saved it – film-worthy scene of me running after him, still in sandals – and we’d become friends by the time we’d reached our respective gates.

I felt like just jumping on his plane to Kathmandu; build on the foundations of my Nepali life that still feels strangely real (I still have dreams in which I am back, exhilarated, greeting everyone… and then wake up). For a moment, it was there; I had a cool job, like working for the UN or something, or opened the first real German bakery of Thamel among all the fake ones – and then I rushed on, go, go Thailand.

A conversation I had a few hours before, remotely.

Me: ” The disturbing thing is that I find myself wanting very different kinds of lives depending on what feels good in the moment”

Friend: ” when ‘living in the present’ goes too far ;P “

Will I also want to stay in Thailand? What would happen if I gave myself actual travel time, you know, the kind without return ticket; where you just follow whatever leads you get? Would I get lost? Build a life abroad? Return home? (Also: where’s that?)

I try to be patient with myself. I’ve left the clear path labelled “studies”, and then had some ideas I was pursuing while in Brussels and Berlin. Leaving even that fragile skeleton of a life plan plan behind puts it all up for questioning again.

Why not live on an island and write stories? I could literally do anything. There is some consistency in my wishes, but it’s hard to pin it down. One constant: wanting an environment in which to grow, in a healthy – not stressed – way. Writing and stories have also been a big part of my life for a long time, so much so that it feels like a sacrilege that I haven’t substantially invested in my passion since my two first attempts at writing novels age 8 and 12.

What keeps changing: the wish to “break free” (strong now, as you can tell) versus the one to advance, to get to a position from which to be of the most use to the maximum amount of sentient beings. I am terrified of ending up as a novelist, even a successful one, because I could have, I don’t know, saved a few hundred thousand people’s lives, or made it infinitely less likely that humankind extinguishes itself within the next hundred years instead.

I don’t see an easy answer, and yes, I am taking into account that I could do several things at once. But what to do, like, right now?

Is it even worth applying to jobs that I don’t find totally inspiring?

Thus are my thoughts in the air towards Bangkok, and while they are disorienting, I float above them, so to speak. I am glad that being abroad has this unexpected but understandable effect, and that I’m able to look at life from a different angle. Even just remembering what my core passions are (woops, did I really forget?) is great and will help in the overall decision-making.

For now, let me float, explore, write. Maybe that’s as much as I need. And hopefully, I’ll make some more friends along the way.

Family Holiday (vacances en famille)

I find it easy to adapt to unfamiliar conditions, but it takes others to make me duly appreciate and marvel at my surroundings. A little French flavoured family holiday is exactly what is needed. We’ve rented a minibus, including a Sikh driver who sometimes swaps the turban against a Nike cap and drives the nine of us through Rajasthan. This feels appropriate – all the same people who first took me to India when I was 15 are here. And their habit of cultivating joy is healing. We spend the long hours on the road making up a game of bingo, for which we have to spot things like a monkey on a cow (or the other way round) or a woman in a red saree crossing the motorway. Which we have now observed multiple times, unlike a motorbike on which all three passengers are wearing a helmet.

We are also preparing a game of “two right, one wrong”, which we’ll play with friends at home. Is it true that we’ve danced on the back of a truck? Or that we’ve been in a temple dedicated to mice, in which hundreds of rodents walk over the pilgrims’ feet? That Clem has moulded a brick with her own hands, which was then burnt in camel dung?

In the meantime, I am discovering roadside photography, right from the bus’s front seat. Which leaves me with hundreds of poor quality photos of the same setup. But this occupation helps to stay focused on camels, cows, painted trucks, and smouldering looks their owners probably copied from Bollywood.

Or cotton fields in which camel carts are loaded, puppies in the dust, little round huts that could appear in a Star Wars scene, a naked toddler being washed, and finally a sandy scene with no people; a sight in itself.

I wrote this on the way from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, where we slept under the stars of the desert. ⛤

Solution: I cheated; two of the above were wrong. We haven’t (yet) danced on a truck, although that’s definitely on our to-do; and the professional brick-moulder wasn’t satisfied with Clem’s work and redid it.

How to: Indian wedding [in 9 simple steps]

05h15

We have just broken into our flat in Delhi, dismounting the gate and leaving a hole in the fresh mortar.

Twelve hours earlier. Clem (my French nearly-sister) and I are standing on the dirty road, made up like Disney queens, waiting for everyone else to come back from the temple. Two hours later. Elephants have welcomed us to the venue from which we’ll dance over to the actual wedding place. They’re fake, but still impressive. Only that their feet stand on concrete containers. If we’re out of place now, that’s just because everyone else is much better at being princesses than us. We get credit for trying and start our race of getting more selfies than the bride and groom.

One hour later. We dance around the groom, who, on a throne, arrives on the party lawn readied by the bride’s relatives and friends.

Some stuff happens on the scene (but no one really looks). Then the bride arrives, in an estimated 17kg dress and jewellery (and make-up, but I don’t know whether that counted in the estimate the groom gave me beforehand).

There is some staging of a love story (it’s an arranged marriage), including a film they shot beforehand (rose petals and wine on a lake included) and a question round (she knows his favourite food, he is not sure about her address), then they are allowed to retire to a sofa, where they have to take photos with nearly all of the guests. I think we lose on that count.

In the meantime, we have time to sample everything from several tens of metres of Indian dishes over Chinese and Italian food up to ratatouille – which is funny, because I’m with a bunch of French people.

There is also dance, some on stage, some by ourselves. It’s hard to tell whether the Indians around us are genuinely complimenting us on our (very… energetic) moves, or whether they are making fun of us. We don’t care and take some more selfies while being filmed.

00h30

The music has stopped. Really!? No more dancing. Lots of people leave, only the 20-30 from the inner family circle stay. We’re privileged enough to belong, in part because we really are close to the groom, but also because we’ve come from far and get to see everything.

03h27

I briefly open my eyes, scan the room we now all sit in. Nothing has changed – the room covered in Hindi writing (prayers?), the groom, then the couple on a small stage, chanting, rituals, chanting. Waiters walk around with a toffee-flavoured hot drink they call coffee, which I drink until I feel sick; the night is cold.

03h46

Brief agitation. The groom has bought back his shoes, which the bride’s side has stolen. Apparently a tradition from some Bollywood movie.

04h23

We’re sitting in the mini bus that will bring us back from the area with all the massive party venues, back to the flat which the groom’s family has rented for us close to their home. Indian hospitality goes so far as to provide housing, food and taxis for the nine of us while we are staying, to then give us gifts to thank us for having attended the wedding. Wait, what?

On our short walk to the flat, the streets are shockingly empty.

05h20

…we’ve found the key on the inside of the gate. If you want an actual explanation of how Indian weddings work, better look here or elsewhere. I probably didn’t get half of it. PS: this all sounds quite detached, which is partly due to my (poor) go at being comical, and partly because it was such an incredible experience as to become a surreal one. You might get what I mean when you only know dream marriages from films (or dreams?). And if the couple seemed a little distant at times, I think that is understandable seen how much effort a wedding in India means for the couple. It’s pretty hard to basically not sleep for days and sit through endless hours of rituals to then still look like you’re having the time of your lives. Luckily, their honeymoon is coming soon!