“I hate this,” I said, slightly pathetically, to the empty air around me. There was nobody near enough to hear the words: the only people capable of listening were already halfway down into the canyon.
I was way behind the group, taking my time as usual. I also happened to be muttering darkly to myself as my feet made their careful way down the slippery, rock strewn mountain path that made me watch every step I took.
Despite my initial enthusiasm at trekking through the Colca Canyon, I was starting to regret it.
Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s most famed sights. The second deepest canyon in the world, at a depth which doubles that of the USA’s Grand Canyon, it plays host to a number of endangered condors, provides an access path to reach the source of the Amazon River, and for the many travellers in South America who love hiking, it’s a must-see on their itineraries.
Sadly, I’ve never been the biggest hiker, but I’d been travelling with Josh for a few months by the time we reached Arequipa (the closest major city to the canyon), and there’d already been a sharp increase in the amount of outdoor activities I attempted.
And now we were heading to the famous canyon for a few days, to go hiking in some gorgeous Peruvian landscapes. So why was I suddenly feeling so vehemently opposed to the idea?
Because the more I descended into the canyon, the more I knew I’d have to get myself out again.
It’s a fear that all started with my feet.
Five years ago, when my mum died, I began to develop a lack of faith in my feet.
They seemed suddenly less trustworthy, and I found myself doubting their ability to do what I wanted them to do. At first I noticed it with simple feet-related activities – like being more careful than usual when going down the stairs, and and feeling rather averse to climbing high buildings and looking out of their windows.
I’d never been a hiker or an intensive walker, but I noticed even my small interest in that dissipating.
In India, I visited with a healer who delved into my subconscious and came out with a discovery. My ultimate fear was one of falling – both physically and emotionally – and which clearly manifested as a distrust in my feet.
So I trod carefully wherever I went – and, as I got older, the fears became more prevalent. Whenever a situation arose that involved the potential of falling, my stomach lurched and I wanted nothing more than to get out.
But often I couldn’t avoid it – particularly when travelling. So I grinned outwardly and bore a number of experiences I’d rather not have endured: like the twisting cliff edge roads in Turkey and the glass bottomed viewpoint in Chicago’s Sear’s Tower, or, more recently, a bus journey from hell en route to Torotoro park in Bolivia and an accompanying knee-trembling moment in the park itself, when I had to climb a pile of precarious rocks with nothing but a tree branch to help.
Colca Canyon was no different. Instead of thinking about how fun it might be (like a regular traveller would), I was apprehensive from the start: anticipating steep and narrow paths, slippery rocks, skittering gravel, and a general array of potentially hazardous ways of hurting myself.
Down, down, down – and up again
So for the first four hours at Colca Canyon, we walked steadily downhill. In my case, I shuffled down the steepest parts, clung to whatever rock faces were near enough, and felt my entire lower body tense repeatedly, in anticipation of a fall that never came.
When we finally reached the river running through the centre of the canyon, crossed the bridge and started to walk along the path at the other side, I thought the worst was over. A girl in our Arequipa hostel had told us it was just the second day of the hike that proved difficult: a three hour constant uphill slog to the top of the canyon’s opposite side.
But then a steep curving path appeared above us, and I realised she’d been wrong.
The ascent was gruelling – not least because we hadn’t been expecting it – and because of the high altitude I could barely breathe. Within minutes my back was soaked in sweat, so despite the steadily increasing rain I couldn’t face donning a raincoat.
A group of hikers made the trip alongside us, but I found myself dropping further and further back, as a stitch attacked my side and I had to take breaks to stop my lungs from burning. Soon I was certain of my ineptitude: a thorough failure, unable even to cope with the smallest of walking-related struggles. I wished for it to be over, but I knew this section was probably nothing in comparison to the dreaded uphill battle of the next morning.
And when I reached the top and found the others, I wasn’t proud of myself for completing it. I was barely even happy that it was finally over. Instead, all I could muster was, “I’m pretty sure tomorrow’s going to kill me.”
Josh simply didn’t understand my lack of enthusiasm.
“Why aren’t you happy with what you just did? Don’t you feel at all proud of yourself?” he said, as we walked through the small pueblo that followed the half hour ascent. I was brooding and silent, dragging my feet – essentially behaving like a child, now I think about it.
“It definitely wasn’t easy, you know,” he continued. “I only got up a few minutes before you, and I was pushing myself to go as fast as I could.”
But his words didn’t help. I couldn’t feel like what I’d done was in any way an accomplishment. The only thing that filled my head was how tired it had made me, and how unfit I must be to feel so exhausted as a result.
A complicated case of self deprecation
I don’t know when it started, but I often get the feeling that I’m different from other people. Maybe it’s from dealing with the grief of losing a parent before I turned 21, or maybe because of some deep seated anxiety I haven’t yet identified. Regardless, I harbour a certain level of self deprecation, and it’s a horrible way to feel.
Of course, it’s natural to get attacks of self doubt from time to time. Even more so when you live a travelling lifestyle which includes a distinct lack of a home base to make you feel settled or confident. I often go through bouts of worry, ranging from not feeling like I have enough friends around me to whether doing all this travelling really is the best idea.
But if I have issues with self deprecation, then why does this attitude not come through in my writing?
Simple: Flora the Explorer is something of an alter ego. One that’s way more about the exploring and less about the fear.
When I write about my travels, I simply can’t help but search for the positive aspects of whatever topic I’m writing on – even if an experience was really rather awful. Because in my heart of hearts, I don’t want to paint somewhere in a negative light.
Sometimes I think this can be a bit of a problem. Take my recent article about Bolivia, for instance. That piece started exclusively as a rant, discussed with vehemence as Josh and I walked around Lake Titicaca and traded memories about how absurd the country was.
But the more I wrote it, the more it changed, and eventually the comments I received on the published article ranged from happy reminiscence to downright amusement of what I’d written. Barely anyone had picked up on the fact that, for a vast majority of my time there, Bolivia had seriously pissed me off.
So it goes: I get stuck in a circle of inward self-deprecation and outward over-positivity. And while I don’t begrudge my traveler alter ego being so damn happy about everything, I do feel like sometimes it’s not quite honest.
“You have to start working on this self-deprecating thing.”
Josh’s voice brought me back from my thoughts.
“Look, tomorrow’s hike back up the canyon is going to be tough. There’s no question about it. And maybe you don’t want to feel your lungs burning, your calves aching, your body sweating – in which case don’t do this stuff. But maybe you want to do it for the challenge. There will always be people better than you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be the worst either. What matters is that you try.”
I thought about what he was saying, a glimmer of realisation forming. And then something he said stuck with me above all else.
“Maybe you won’t enjoy walking out of this place tomorrow. Maybe you won’t want to. But you’ll sure as hell have achieved something at the end of it. And maybe that’s what you need to focus on.”
And suddenly I felt different.
Despite my earlier problems and protestations, there was a stern resolve inside me that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I was going to climb that damn mountain, and I was going to be proud of myself when I had.
By the time we reached the canyon oasis that held our hotel for the night, my right knee was absolutely killing me: a result of the tension I’d put it through on the four-hour downward stumble that morning. A Peruvian man leading two mules behind him caught up with us.
“Do you want a mule tomorrow for the ascent?” He said, eyes glinting at the possible custom. “We leave at 6am…”
But although I felt a distinct sense of relief that the option for a mule ride was there at all, I knew I wouldn’t be taking it.
From the oasis at the bottom to the pueblo at the top in three hours. Straight up.
I’m not going to sugar coat it and say that, after all various internal struggles and realisations, the hike back up the canyon was fine. It most definitely wasn’t.
My knee went through phases of total weakness, my calves and lungs were supremely unhappy, and with every new curve of the path, every fresh set of broken rocks masquerading as stairs, I felt dangerously close to sitting down and shouting, “game over, I quit!”
But there simply wasn’t that option. The only way was up – and so I kept on walking. Not thinking about the steepness or the distance, not allowing the difficulty to really register, and putting one foot faithfully in front of the other.
And when we finally got to the top three hours later, all shaking knees and ragged breaths, just as Josh had said would happen, I held a quiet victory party inside my head.
I didn’t make any kind of New Years resolutions for 2014, but this is most definitely a belated one. I refuse to let this self deprecating attitude rule the way I behave any more. I need to adopt my stronger identity, my Flora the Explorer alter ego, in order to spur myself onwards and do the things I’m afraid of doing.
And most of all, I need to learn to trust my feet.