On Fear, Self Deprecation and my Traveller Alter Ego

“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.

See that tiny patch of green? That's where we were headed. In a single day's walk.

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.

A face of smiley terror at Sear's Tower

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.

See that strip of houses? We had to climb down the canyon, and then back up to the level of those pueblos again...

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.”

The scenery around us was stunning. Too bad I wasn't really taking any notice.

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 – I only got up a few minutes before you, and I was pushing myself to go as fast as I could.”

But it 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.

Caving in Bolivia, despite being claustrophobic. My major incentive to do it? Thinking I'd be able to then write about it later.

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.

Weighed down by the copious Bolivian stresses...

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.

Our oasis hostel in the middle of a canyon. Complete with palm trees, and wonderfully bizarre.

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? We leave at 6am.”

And 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!'

Evil, crooked non-stairs.

But there simply wasn't the option to do that. 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.

 

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25 Responses to On Fear, Self Deprecation and my Traveller Alter Ego

  1. Pepe Samson January 30, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    I love this article! I can relate a little, because when I travel it’s the huge bodies of water that tend to make my knee tremble. I love how you ended with such a positive resolve. :) Nice blog overall!

    • Flora January 31, 2014 at 12:41 am #

      Cheers Pepe, glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Beverley - Pack Your Passport January 30, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    I had to smile when I saw the caption on your canyoning photo Flora – I’m terrible for saying yes to things on the basis that I’ll write about it later! Then again, some of these things have actually turned out really well, like when I went black water rafting in New Zealand. Terrifying? Yes. Claustrophobic? Yes! But I actually overcame a lot of fears that day, and laughed a lot with my friends and ultimately, even though I did write about it on my blog in the most honest way I could (talking about my fears and journey through the caves) it was something I’m glad I did, not just to write about it.
    And honestly, trust your feet! They’ve got you to where you are today, physically and mentally. And you should be proud of them, and yourself :)

    • Flora January 31, 2014 at 12:46 am #

      Good lord, black water rafting sounds utterly terrifying!! Although definitely something good to write about :p But yeah, I think challenging myself to do things like this is ultimately going to force a shift in how scared I get. Hopefully. And 2014 is the year of feet appreciation!

    • Jo Ferguson February 3, 2014 at 1:14 am #

      Black water rafting was a big one for me – my greatest illogical fear is water I can’t see the bottom of. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world though, completely amazing, and went pretty far out of my way to do it too. I’ve always been one for doing things because I’m afraid of them if the opportunity arises.

      Still hate deep or dark water though, and swimming on my own.

      P.s. Great post Flo, when is Aus on your list??

      • Flora February 5, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

        Again with the black water rafting – which I still don’t think I’d ever have the guts to do! It does sound intense though. Not sure when I’ll be hitting Oz, but when I do I’ll let you know Jo!

  3. colin January 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    I can so relate. I usual decide right before I need to begin to just not do it.

    • Flora January 31, 2014 at 12:42 am #

      That’s the thing – I need to work on NOT saying no when I get the same feeling!

  4. Kiara Gallop January 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    I totally relate to this! I always try to put a positive spin on my articles because I figure no-one wants to read an article packed with negativity. I suppose generally I do feel positive at the end of a physical or mental challenge because I have an enormous sense of achievement, even though quite often during such challenges, I feel anything but! I’m quite a stubborn, determined person though so it’s often mind over matter with me, I hate letting things beat me. Brilliant, thought-provoking article, which strikes a chord with me on many levels :-)

    • Flora January 31, 2014 at 12:43 am #

      Glad to hear it resonated with you Kiara :) I think it’s quite a common feeling to not want to be negative – particularly when you come out of a challenging situation feeling accomplished, as you said.

  5. Tim Meredith January 31, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Hi Flora. Great article – as usual. Very insightful and thoughtful.

    • Flora February 5, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

      Hi Tim – it’s so lovely to hear you’re reading my articles! Glad you enjoyed it :)

  6. Sharon Burke January 31, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Hi Flora
    I love reading your pieces. Although I have not “explored” as much of South America as you have, when I read this particular blog entry, I find myself saying “yes I do that too”, and if I do this or go there it will make a great story to tell my friends….as long as I survive. I guess the difference for me is being a lot older than you, and also only spending 2-3 weeks away at any one time….I seem to fear very little when I travel..that may be a bad thing…
    We only met briefly during my first trip to Colombia last August, though I am happy to say that I will return to Colombia in April for the third time….still solo as it seems most of my friends and family still think I am insane and have no wish to join me. They do however enjoy my “stories”, and now armed with a Colombian cell phone + social media package, they get “live” updates on facebook :)

    Hope to see you again some day – Take care
    Sharon

    • Flora February 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      Hi Sharon, I’m glad the article resonated with you. I think it’s wonderful that you don’t fear things when you travel – if only it was that easy to simply make a choice! Great to hear you’ll be returning to Colombia, too. I can’t wait to get back there!

  7. Sam February 1, 2014 at 2:48 am #

    Hi Flora, just found this post and your blog (through another blog), and I can definitely relate! And I’ve been on that hike in Colca Canyon too so I know the intensity of the downhill and those evil no-stairs! Ha! I also struggled to keep up with my hiking group on that trek and on other group hikes as well. I’m always a bit embarrassed if I’m the slow one, but when I finally make it to the top or to our destination, I’m overcome with that sense of accomplishment (and then promptly can’t wait to write about it!). Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts. I’m kinda new to blogging and still trying to find my “blog voice”. I’ll be reading more on your site… I spent 5 months traveling in South America a few years back so the memories are flooding back as I read about your travels.

    • Flora February 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      Great to hear it Sam! I hope you find more articles here that strike a chord :) Good luck with finding your voice!

  8. TammyOnTheMove February 1, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    I can really relate to this Flora! I always push myself to do things I don’t like doing on purpose. Kind of sick actually if I think about it. :-) When I first did it (I think it was when I climbed Scaffel Pike in the UK) I thought I’d die and didn’t enjoy the hike at all. Once I have done it though I felt such a great sense of achievement that I promised myself to push myself more and more in future. Most recently I rappelled down a 50m high building in La Paz. I was absolutely pooing myself and nearly chickened out, but I was very proud of myself for having tried and completed the task. Sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to be happy…

    • Flora February 5, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

      WHY is it such a common thing to embark on a hike when you think you’re going to die the whole way through?! Although I’m kind of glad it’s not just me that gets these feelings…! Also Tammy I can’t believe you did the rappelling in La Paz – did you put on the Spiderman outfit to do it??

  9. Victoria February 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

    Ha! I very much relate to this. I’m a terrible hiker and I always seem to forget it so find myself in the middle of yet another trail muttering about how much I hate it. I also tend to be quite self-depreciating.

    I read an article on Brain Pickings yesterday that shed a little light on this. You might find it useful too.

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/

  10. Britney McSweeney March 4, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I think every travel blogger can relate to this post. Thanks for being so honest.

    • Flora March 20, 2014 at 12:54 am #

      Thanks so much Britney :)

  11. Sarah A March 15, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    First off Kudos! I’ve done that trek and that hike isn’t easy. I have done my fair share of mountain climbing including the summit of Kilimanjaro and even for me it was no walk in the park. So congratulations on finishing it! I think there is something extraordinary about everyone who opts to fight through something like this for achievement’s sake, especially when that torture is self-inflicted to any degree.

    You said that part of what made it so hard was your distrust of your feet and that a lot of times your traveler alter ego does things for the sake of writing about them, that really struck a chord with me. Everyone who climbs mountains or deep sea dives or does anything physically or even mentally challenging is essentially doing the same thing. What I’ve realized is that no matter what mountains I climb or how many times I climb them I still get the same gratification when I have finished. Even when you aren’t paying attention to the amazing views or the unforgettable people travel is still exhilarating because it’s a mad process of testing yourself and your perceptions of what you are capable of. What makes it so exhilarating is that more often than not, usually because we drastically underestimate ourselves, when we test our limits we manage to succeed in the best possible ways.

    I really enjoyed reading about this hike from your perspective. Sometimes when I remember past hikes they are just that past hikes. I don’t remember the sense of achievement or even the struggle that precedes it. When I read your article it reminded me of all the stuff I tend to forget about this hike and every other hike I’ve ever been on. I happen to trust my feet explicitly and a fear of heights or anything similar has never plagued me however I will admit I shared a lot of the same trepidation that you had, I think everyone did. Every step down was accompanied by a tiny voice in the back of mind screaming, “You are going to have to walk back up! And you are gonna be tired from walking down!” I think everyone goes through the same thing as you. People like me are just crazy enough that instead of seeing that voice as common sense we see it as a challenge and delight in winning the challenge.

    I think challenging ourselves is innately human. If we stop doing things that push us to become better and grow then we stagnate and rot. So I don’t think it’s really fair to call the explorer part of you an alter-ego, it’s just part of your humanity shining through.

    I hope that this comment doesn’t come off as incredibly pompous or condescending. It’s just that people like you who manage to overcome fear or self deprecation in order to accomplish things like this are particularly inspiring to me.

    On a lighter note even though I have never met you nor did I complete the hike with you I can still guarantee that I know at least three people who were quite a bit slower than you were. The people in question were 3 nineteen year old friends on their gap year. Two of them had never hiked a day in their life and the third was wearing brand new hiking boots. All three of them were also carrying their full rucksacks. Yes. All forty pounds and 60 kilos of stuff. They had only been travelling for a week or so and didn’t know that hostels would store their stuff for them while they were trekking so they wound up carrying all of it with them. It wasn’t until the second day that they let the rest of our group take turns carrying their pack. By that time they all had bruises across their chest from their packs and their feet became so swollen that they finished the hike in flip flops. So if you think you were miserable…

    • Flora March 20, 2014 at 1:16 am #

      Sarah, thank you so much for such a kind and thoughtful comment. A large part of what you said about underestimating oneself rings true for me: time and time again in these situations I feel like it’s me, specifically me, who will not be able to cope – like I have a particularly worse ability than anybody else. And even though I know this isn’t true, I find it hard to keep that internal nagging voice quiet.

      I think ultimately I don’t let myself stay aware of the challenges I consistently face and then achieve when travelling. And if I do, I only focus on the torture part and not the achievement – which is nuts! I really learnt a lot about myself in the Colca Canyon. Clearly so did the teens you were hiking with – they took their whole packs?!?! What an incredible gesture from you guys to share their loads for them too!

  12. Steph Tutton April 12, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    I like the honesty of this article, and I think most people will relate to the feeling of having a positive alter – ego and a negative/pragmatic side. I also think that each attitude takes different kinds of strengths of character, but that society tends to value the happier one rather than the perhaps more realistic and sometimes negative one. I suppose finding the right balance for ourselves is the biggest task.

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