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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Post Pre-wedding Post

The morning after

My most immediate impression right now is the slight spice-induced queasiness that stems from the pre-wedding function I attended yesterday night. Not that any of the food was bad – on the contrary, it was amazing to taste some old favourites like pani puri, phav baji, and aloo tikki, as well as some unknown snacks (none of us felt the need to help ourselves in actual food after several rounds of snacks).

But well, for now it’s porridge and tea for me, in one of these touristy rooftop cafés in Paharganj (the main Delhi backpacker location), overlooking typical Indian bustle from a safe distance.

A few hours later

I’m again sitting in a café (this time a very artsy – and empty – venue in central Delhi), but nothing much has changed. I am sipping masala chai instead of ginger lemon tea, and am considerably more exhausted than before. My plans have been changing at a dizzying pace (or is that still the queasiness? Or the fact I haven’t had lunch?), and I’ve resorted to not knowing anymore, and waiting for some local friend-person to help me. That is because local non-friend people have been dragging me around different offices from where I was supposed to get train or bus tickets (after someone told me I had to book my train ticket from the tourist office). It seems established that there’s no train available today, nor a bus. Oh, yes: the plan was as simple as getting out of Delhi until my French (ex-host) family arrives and the actual wedding is happening. But there seem to be train strikes or whatever. Who knows. When one guy in one office told me that the only option of getting to the hills would be to take a taxi, which costs more than 100€, I decided that I should reconvene.

Since my friend who is getting married is understandably busy, I spent most of the function yesterday in his friendship group, listening to mostly Hindi conversation over blasting music, while the ring ceremony was held somewhere in the background, attracting interest only from a few people.

As far as my Hinglish (see below) goes, I’m up to speed now – my English has already taken a slightly different accent plus the occasional Hindi word, which probably sounds more odd than authentic, and hopefully not mocking. It also seems more representative of young men’s than women’s speech, although I haven’t had a great sample to check that. It seems wise to hold back on expressions like “bro”, “man”, and, for many additional reasons “cunt” in any case… even though they’re very tempting to add emphasis!

Anyway, so I called one of the people from yesterday, who’d already helped get me a taxi back to the hotel and had told me to ask in case of trouble. I told him about my issue of getting out of town and he said: “Let’s meet after I finish work, and we’ll sort something out!”. As strange as I find their bewilderment about someone (especially, but not only women) travelling alone, sometimes I really do appreciate that protectiveness.

Evening – how it all resolves

Even though I kind of threw the plans arriving a week before the other foreigners (as in, my French host family), the delegation of friends that was set aside to cater for us has swiftly accommodated for me. Right now, I’m sitting in someone’s “spare flat”, and a few people were trying to figure out what they could get me to do to pass my time. Maybe I wasn’t helping that much when I was like “Oh, I like parkour! There surely is even a parkour gym somewhere in Delhi…”. Well, they’ll help with the gym bit – at least something to avoid potato-mode. And shopping also seems to be universal – and to be honest, having a local person with you can actually save quite a lot of money on that.

In the meantime, I am trying to find out how to quickly find lots of interesting people, and try to understand more of what the world looks like from around here.

Appendix: Hinglish

Just a few things I remember noticing today

  • “Also” in place of “too”, e.g. “You should try this one also”
  • “Thrice” instead of “three times”, e.g. “We had to queue thrice to get the tickets!”… but seriously, that makes sense – do any non-Indian soeakers use that, too? (Or, also)
  • “Even” in unexpected locations, but I don’t have a good example.

… plus lots more stuff (check for yourself, ha). One more thing: some time ago, someone asked me: “but do you know a single Indian who speaks English properly?” … which I found a strange way to put it. As in, there’s loads of English native speakers around here (Yesterday, I met this cute maybe 8 year-old, who already spoke English better than I did age 14), who all speak perfectly fine according to the variety they’ve grown up in. It just happens not to be American or British standard (which, by the way, lots of native Americans or Brits also fail to acquire).

Although, if you are a speaker of Indian English or have some other expertise, please do say if you disagree!

As always, do sign up for email alerts, so you never miss any of these incredibly important posts. Much love from India ❤

How it began II

Well, okay, I’m back already.

My post last week made me remember an article I wrote in Morocco but never published anywhere. Going back a bit further back, this will introduce and expand on one of my big themes: trust. Enjoy and discuss! (Seriously, I’d like your views: do you think I’m being stupid doing what I do?)

Morocco: tales of trust

Sexual assaults and terrorist attacks – these and other fear-laden buzzwords pop up in the minds of many when talk is of anything Arab. This is why I decided to hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Morocco, all alone and female and suchlike. If not a rational way of convincing others, this journey was meant to at least confront and hopefully overcome the creeping fear of the unknown within myself, by countering my own distrust with openness.

Hitchhiking – from the Sahara…

My solo journey began in the Sahara, on a long and unnaturally straight road with view on bright orange dunes. From there, I started hitchhiking all across Morocco, through heat, rain, and snowstorms. On that first day, the director of a youth centre picked me up and gave me something of a guided tour on the way to his destination, including views of the most extensive oasis in the world, wedged into a landscape of red sandstone. A young man, who I was first very weary of, surprisingly did not try to rape me, but instead helped me find a café with an internet connection. That night, I was adopted by a family who shared their enormous plate of couscous with me, bathed me in generosity, laughter, and music, and urged me to stay a little longer and to bring my family the next time.

…into the snow.

The following day saw me stuck in a snowstorm when trying to cross the Atlas mountain range. While still waving my finger Morrocan-style on a spot where road conditions weren’t too bad, I was approached by a man about the age of my father who convinced me in his native-like French to take the bus instead. For the two hours we spent on the bus, we talked about the bombings in Brussels which had happened that same morning, but also about apple trees, painting and life philosophy. He encouraged me with these words: “good things always attract good things, so if you believe in the kindness of others, you will be met with kindness yourself”. One view he held was that to be a proper Muslim, one had to be kind and generous towards others – something I saw implemented throughout my journey, be it with me, the elderly, or beggars on the street.

After the Atlas experience, I spent some days getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways that make the medina, the old city of Fez, the biggest of its kind, to then move on to the sky blue lanes of Chefchaouen. After two whirlwind weeks, I finally left the country on a ferry towards Spain, clutching my last Moroccan oranges as if to keep them as souvenirs of this place and the new friends I was leaving behind.

merzouga-tanger

There also were moments when I did not feel at ease, like when I was spoken to in Arabic while the car seemed to take strange back roads –  moments which always resolved themselves when I safely reached my destination.

Assaults and conclusions.

Only one encounter, on the last of all days, was able to intrude into my picture of a place filled with openness and generosity. Just before leaving his car, a middle-aged men started groping my butt, which didn’t end with me being physically harmed, but left a strange aftertaste. I was baffled about this even more since he was the only person who kept telling me “you know, it’s dangerous to hitchhike!”. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a link between this distrust and his own behaviour, as if believing in the badness of other people somehow made him feel licensed him to be disrespectful himself.

He left me on a tiny roundabout, and while I watched the cars driving, a question started circulating in my head: Can I still trust? I decided that I could, and that I had to. Risks are real, but fear would ultimately result in me adopting a worldview way too similar to the one of this guy.

If nothing else, the heartfelt generosity I encountered in Morocco convinced me that trust is something we need if we don’t want to drown in a world of fear. I decided that I want to be one of these who trust, and hopefully inspire trust. And so I set off to hitchhike the 2.500km to Strasbourg.

[….which brings us back to last week’s story. I start liking retrospect-storytelling]

Hillside.idyll

photo 3 (1)

We arrived by train in a town called Jesi. It was a hungry Sunday, since we didn’t realise how serious Italians can be about public holidays. Lina chatted to a woman who brought us to the only open spot in town, doubling as the best gelateria and quasi cultural heritage museum. We ate a sandwich, I had my first Italian cappucino (and couldn’t believe that is was half the price of cappucino in England), all rounded off with copious ice cream and clotted cream (“Foreigners never eat their ice with cream, but you really have to try!”).

photo 2 (1)

Our next stop was a little village up the hill, Santa Maria Nuova, where we had found a Couchsurfing host, so we walked until the road and stuck out our thumbs (no buses on Sundays anyway). A man just a bit over our age and decorated with Indian pearls stopped, invited us to a drink – Lina had to try milk with mint sirup since she didn’t want coffee – and took us to the village. He was used to travelling and hosting people in his place, also through Couchsurfing, and immediately invited us to stop there next.

Just after he dropped us off at the Santa Maria’s main square, we noticed lots of well-dressed people and so stayed on to wait for the newly married couple, welcomed pompuously with heart-shaped confetti.

In this surrounding of mild hills, small villages, sunshine, and the smell of food in preparation, we exhaled deeply, looked at each other, and realised that this was where the actual Italy started.

We walked out of the village until our hosts’ house and garden. Misericordia and Jeronimo are Catalan in origin and speak just like Lina does when she mixes up her Italian with the Spanish she learnt in her gap year. They are artists, new age musicians, hosts for volunteers who want to work in the garden or help with the house that was still uninhabitable a year ago. They could also be my grandparents, but only if my grandparents were small and skinny and yoga teachers. The calm of the place makes us feel that we finally arrived at our destination. These one and a half days are the summit of our travel – we’ve finally stopped moving more South, and are in an agreeable state of equilibrium.

We’ll be leaving tomorrow (the 16th), which will give us three days to get back to Mannheim, after which Lina will move on to Amsterdam and Denmark on her own. Strange that our journey took up all that time, it seems that we’re now in the spirit of valuing processes, not outcomes. Still, I am pleased by the outcome, very much so. When we left Bielefeld exactly a week ago, Italy seemed really far away. Now, it feels like a dream – it’s the summer that didn’t quite happen throughout my time in Oxford, Edinburgh, France, Amsterdam, or Germany. It will not be easy to head North tomorrow.

Breakfast in Italy

I was waking up to mild light reflecting off terra cotta coloured walls under a blue, blue sky. After un momento stupefatto, I grinned an extra large holiday-grin. We actually are in Italy. And it actually feels like Italy. In the course of four days, we came from the plains of norrthern Germany, traversed the hills mounding into the Alps, shivered on Swiss service areas (9°C), stayed in the beautiful Ticino (Tessin) area and then, yesterday, crossed the border to Italy.

photo 5

Yesterday was one of those days that seem way too easy and way too good. Not that I’d complain of that. We started off tasting grapes in this quiet stone-built village where we’d spent the night with Lina’s grandmother and the Swiss-Italian family friends she was visiting. We got a first lift out of Valle Maggia (the Maggia valley), until Locarno.

Our first taste of mediterranean generosità came in form of a gentleman who drove half an hour more to get us to Lugano. And then, a wonderful encounter happened. We were already in a good mood when we waited in Lugano, since someone who’d seen us from his office block had drawn us a beautiful sign saying “Italy”. After about half an hour in this spot, an Italian lady in her fifties stopped and offered to drive us to Como. During the ride, we shared our excitement about Italy and its warmth, and about tasting true pizza, pasta, and ice cream again. Just before leaving us in Como, this wonderful Emanuela said “Do you have time for some ice cream, your first Italian gelato?”. Of course we did, and she ended up inviting us to both pizza and ice cream and a wonderful afternoon in the outskirts of Como. While eating, she shared her story and how meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama changed her life. Radiating goodwill, she drove us to our next spot, repeating how happy she was that she had met us and that she’d been able to help. We continued with full stomachs, hearts, and minds.

2016-08-11 route (Valle Maggia-Modena)

Another person that day will certainly make it onto our top-list of cool rides. I spoke to the guy on a station out of Milan and described him to Lina as “the chilled American in the big car who’s going to take a nap now”. We got a lift before he woke up, but met him again on a service area further along the way, where he stopped while we were singing a song in the evening sun.

It turned out that he had been a street musician for ages (playing in front of the Berlin wall a week before it fell), who then went into the film business and now works for James Cameron in New Zealand. For the summer holiday, however, he’d come to Italy to tour street art festivals, doing some stuff on guitars involving drilling machines (I didn’t get that, either). Also, he was Canadian, if you care to know. Anyway, he gave us some tips for our future busking career after we sang and played a song on the ukulele (“Yeah, you’re good, this will work, find yourself a spot with good acoustics”). Now, in Italy, it all seems possible. Perhaps our next challenge will be to finance our own pizza with our music?

Why would I want to travel alone?

About three weeks ago, I co-facilitated (along with the wonderful Anick-Marie and Luca) a workshop at the Alternative Travel Gathering in Amsterdam. Its theme was “solo travel“. We had a great discussion, shared a lot of hitchhiking experiences, our strategies of dealing with lonely moments on the road, and some of the differences between genders when travelling solo. The most commonly cited motivation for travelling solo was “freedom”. This word makes me imagine the lonesome traveller on a Patagonian plain, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, patiently awaiting the next lift while developing a deep philosophy of calm. Freedom: being only responsible for oneself, not worrying about plans since it’s only ourselves who will be screwed up if they fail.

Now that I’m travelling with another person, I’ve had some occasion to refine this view of what I like about being alone. It’s quite simple. I really just miss time for myself.

In our workshop, we stressed that travelling solo is not the best way to move for everyone, that one should be able and willing to be alone and that challenges can be all the more challenging if you have to face them for yourself. Now, I’d like to add the opposite perspective to this. Travelling with other people includes being around people a lot of your time, possibly all of it. In much the same way in which I use certain strategies to meet and socialise with people when travelling on my own, I need to develop ways to deal with people.

I’m not trying to say that I hate people (just look at all my rambles why I travel for people, not places), but I do struggle to secure my personal space, especially since this is sometimes seen as anti-social behaviour. If I didn’t have time on my own, I couldn’t write blog articles, I couldn’t even reflect the journey I’m on, and for me, this would mean only having loads of raw experiences while not learning from them.

Another thing that this short reflection made me realise is that I must have started behaving like a long-term nomad. When I’m on the road, I’m not too fussed about exploring all the sights I could possibly fit into my schedule. By now, it seems more important to me to take that time for myself, read a book, chill, do some boring admin. Since I spend nearly half my time on the move, I shouldn’t be surprised about this.

It’s also no surprise that I found my first strategy for caring for myself. It’s above all realising my own needs, then communicating them. Boring, really. But it helped a lot. And it turned out that my friend was really looking forward to some time on her own, too.