A little announcement: I’m speaking at a festival!
This coming weekend I’ll be heading to the heart of Oxfordshire, England, where hundreds of people will be wandering around Wilderness Festival. And at some point, some of them are hopefully going to gather round a campfire to listen to me talk about travelling.
For a full forty five minutes.
Giving this talk is a pretty big deal for me.
Although running this site has led me to a number of unexpected job titles, I’ve never been able to call myself a ‘speaker’ before. It’s a new road — one I’m both nervous and very excited about.
So what’s the topic I’m attempting to fill forty five minutes of chatter with?
“Up A Creek Without a Paddle: Travel Tales & Fails From a Solo Female Traveller”
At first, I figured I should be planning a talk which made me sound like a hardened traveller — but once I realised I was on a programme alongside ‘real’ adventurous women (like cycling through dense Indian jungle or motorbiking across Iran), I decided it would be better (and probably funnier) to tell some stories about the bizarre travel experiences I’ve had around the world.
More importantly, to address the fact that things can – and often do – go wrong!
But what’s been interesting is that in the process of writing an outline for this talk, I also began to think about all the ways travel has changed me. Travel ‘fails’ don’t necessarily mean something negative, either. As I jotted down various events to talk about, I started noticing a pattern.
The bigger, scarier, more adventurous and more ‘out of my comfort zone’ an experience had been, the more memorable and life-changing it was.
How adventurously do you live your life?
Being ‘adventurous’ can be defined completely differently from one person to the next.
Some of us want to do every physical challenge possible, but are terrified of travelling alone. I used to hate roller coasters with a passion but was supremely smug about my ability to watch any horror movie while my friends screamed and ran out of the room.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s worth recognising the benefits of both.
The other day, a writer I follow on Twitter asked her followers a question.
What’s something you feel good about having done? (Small/big/long past or recent/for someone else/others/yourself).
— Hayley Webster (@bookshaped) July 29, 2017
To be able to compliment ourselves – hell, just to treat ourselves more nicely – is something everyone should feel comfortable with doing. We deserve a bit of love, particularly when we’re going through something which makes us feel vulnerable and small and unsure.
I’m in that kind of place at the moment. I need bolstering; I need energy, and positivity, and I need reminding that I’ve been strong in a multitude of different ways in the past.
So what makes the following stories particularly adventurous?
Well, it’s not just physical or daredevil activities which require bravery. Often it’s the smaller parts of life which really challenge us — mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.
And more than that, each of these stories have helped to shape me. They’re moments I’m extremely proud of, and it’s worth a lot to actively recognise that.
1. Walking the Camino route halfway across Spain
When I decided to walk the Camino, I readily assumed I’d be able to get myself geared up in time. What I didn’t account for was my love of procrastination – something which marred the entire project before it had even started.
For months I told people I was walking the Camino, but I still refused to start training, to book my flight to Spain or to actually research how I’d cope as a pilgrim.
Thankfully when I finally bit the bullet and caught a thirty hour bus from London to Leon (don’t follow my example), my Camino proved better than I could have hoped – but it unnerved me to realise how close I’d come to quitting the whole idea.
Four hundred kilometres later, I’d learned so much about the kindness of strangers and the value of community – and I also discovered my body is a lot stronger than I’d thought.
Enough so that I should have trusted in myself much more from the start.
2. A ‘Polar Plunge’ in sub-zero Arctic seawater
On board an expedition ship in the middle of the Norwegian Arctic, a group of octogenarians and I were asked whether we wanted to jump into the ocean outside. All but four of us said a resounding, “NO”.
Of course, part of the job description as a travel writer is to actually ‘experience’ what the world has to offer – but I was secretly terrified of throwing myself at the mercy of the Arctic Ocean.
What if my heart stopped because of the cold? What if I drowned?
As it turned out, the exhilaration and adrenaline from racing into the icy sea was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Moreover, I knew I’d achieved something I hadn’t expected to even attempt, let alone enjoy – and it opened up a world of possibilities.
The photos were pretty spectacular, too.
3. Skydiving over the Kenyan coastline
I’d just arrived in Kenya (literally that morning) when a group of the volunteers I’d just met mentioned they were off to skydive at Mombasa beach. I was eighteen and nervous about making new friends with this big group of Aussies, Americans and fellow Brits, all of whom had been volunteering in Kenya for at least a month together.
So I guess you could say I skydived for the first time because I wanted to be accepted. I wanted them to think I was cool.
While this obviously isn’t the best reason to challenge yourself, it’s nevertheless been something which has always stuck in my mind.
Since that first skydive, every other adventure sport, adrenaline-rushing experience I’ve had has been on my OWN terms – be it paragliding in Ecuador, caving in Bolivia, scuba diving or white water rafting in Australia. Every time I’ve considered the idea of backing out, and every time I’ve decided it’s worth doing.
I even skydived for a second time a few years later.
4. Drinking ayahuasca in the Brazilian jungle
Before taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony, I had no idea what to expect. And to this day, I’m not sure whether the experiences I had could ever be replicated.
What I do know is that the ceremony occurred at the exact right time in my life.
Then again, the actual ayahuasca experience as it was happening was pretty brutal. Vomiting and hallucinations, a complete deconstruction of what it meant to be ‘myself’, and the strangest and most surreal night I’ve ever had.
Ayahuasca is a scary experience, and not one to be taken lightly. In fact, if I’d fully known what was in store I think I might have thought twice about drinking. But because of the positive after-effects it led me to a second spiritual ceremony with San Pedro a few weeks later, and it served to open up my mind to the idea that a positive mental outlook can actually affect your life.
Among other things.
5. Perpetually boarding planes despite my flying phobia
It’s a fear that’s only got worse with time: the older I get, the more I worry that turbulence is going to cause my death.
It’s also a very common fear, I know: and because travel is an intrinsic part of my profession, I’ll have to keep swallowing the fear as best I can.
This same attitude goes for a lot of common fears and phobias, which many people won’t outwardly admit to in their daily life. Instead, they’ll catch buses which teeter on the edge of steep cliff drops; wiggle their way through narrow spaces in underground caves without fuss; and feel that same dreaded sense of doom when someone’s dragged past them at airport security.
We can’t avoid our fears arising. What we can do is accept their existence and try to live fully in spite of them.
As a result, every time I get off a flight I inwardly congratulate myself because I know that the more irrational part of my fear hasn’t won out.
6. Spending 18 months becoming fluent in Spanish
When I arrived in South America, I could barely speak a word of Spanish. Six months in, I was still pretty rubbish at the language – but over that year, I slowly realised how big an impact fluency would have on my life.
Not just when travelling, but in general.
I’ve always hoped I could one day be bilingual, but throughout school I didn’t really put the required effort in. Once I understood that total immersion was the way I’d learn best, however, everything changed.
Suddenly I was passionate about the Spanish language, to the extent that I challenged myself not to leave South America until I could say I was fluent in Spanish.
Eighteen months later, I was as close as I possibly could be – and I loved it.
7. Getting naked and blue with three thousand people
I’ve been lucky to not struggle too much with body confidence in my life, but I was still a bit terrified about stripping naked in a park at 3am in Hull city centre and covering myself in blue body paint.
Our perceptions of nakedness – both our own and other people’s – have always fascinated me, so when I saw the call-out for participants in Spencer Tunick’s #SeaOfHull photoshoot, I knew I wanted to be involved.
Yet there’s a mental challenge which comes with voluntarily putting yourself in such a vulnerable situation.
We were lucky. Amongst three thousand naked bodies, not one person was insulting to another, and as far as I know every participant walked away feeling stronger, freer and more confident about themselves.
8. Cutting all my hair off in an Indian bathroom
After a month of travelling in India’s soporific, suffocating heat in 2012, I made a decision to cut off my hair.
This wasn’t taken lightly: my hair had been shoulder-length or longer for the majority of my life, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to behave when suddenly cut to just beneath my ears. But I’d had enough of it – so one night in a homestay, an Australian friend borrowed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and began snipping.
It was absolutely liberating. I felt like I was taking control.
Only later did I realise how much I hated having short hair. It stuck out like a triangle and no amount of styling attempts would make it look acceptable in my eyes.
The funny thing, though? Eventually I just had to deal with it. My perception of myself was infinitely less forgiving than other people’s opinions of me, and because there was nothing I could do to fix my hair in the middle of the Indian mountains, after a while I didn’t care as much.
By the time I got my nose pierced on a whim in Dharamshala, I’d understood that spontaneously changing my appearance was OK. It wasn’t automatically a disaster.
9. Admitting the importance of my mental health
The desire and ability to travel by yourself is clearly admired by a lot of people. What’s problematic about that is feeling like you’re less able to stop as a result.
After years of solo travel and the accompanying loneliness which often goes with it, I made a decision. When I’d finished my London-based masters degree, I didn’t head off into the world alone again. Instead, I stayed in the city I was born in, and addressed the anxiety which had been growing stronger for months.
I admitted to myself that, for once, my mental health was more important than my love of travel.
Recognising my needs for their fundamental importance is something I’m hugely proud of. It’s not easy to do – and it’s also not easy to speak about publicly, when years of social conditioning has made anything mental-health-related seem like a taboo subject.
Happily enough, the more I talk about mental health, the more I feel connected to other people. It seems like expressing your vulnerabilities can often lead to something much more positive.
10. Being publicly vulnerable by writing about myself online
When I think about it, this site is also something which has been hugely adventurous in its own way.
I’ve written about my issues with self-confidence and self-deprecation before, but the more I’ve dwelled on it the more I’ve understood that sometimes you just have to try pulling yourself out of it by any means necessary.
I know a lot of bloggers who actively choose to keep their private life private, and don’t talk about their personal feelings online. I’ve found this isn’t what works for me: in fact, it’s almost the opposite.
To be going through something life-changing and devastating as the imminent loss of another parent has made me all the more in need of support from my virtual community. Sharing that here has alleviated so much stress and made me feel loved and cared for.
Of course, this level of openness doesn’t work for everyone. But I do know that this six year process of writing about myself in a public online space has led me to places I never thought I’d go. Because of my growing confidence in my words, I entered a National Geographic contest I never thought I’d win – except then I did.
A year later, I travelled to the Arctic Circle because of it.
If that’s not an obvious reward for challenging yourself and being adventurous, I don’t know what is.
11. Still to come: speaking about my travels at a festival
Despite chatting away on Instagram Stories on a regular basis, I’m still not that familiar with public speaking – so my talk at Wilderness Festival this weekend is no doubt going to be another challenge.
Luckily, I’m more than eager to rise to it.
If you’re heading to Wilderness Festival then please keep an eye out for me! I’ll be down by the Filson campfire at 2pm on Sunday – but I’m also hopefully filming the talk in case people want to watch it later (YouTube, anyone?!)
The takeaway: adventure can (and does) change your life
These challenging travel situations have taught me a lot. Mainly that I could have backed out of every single one, but I didn’t – and as a result, I know how much I’ve grown.
They’ve also made me more invested in continuing to challenge myself. There are too many adventures left to tackle: from driving the Mongol Rally (I need a licence first), to running a marathon (my recent foray into jogging at the local park is a good start!) to learning Mandarin, Arabic and French.
Ultimately, I’m rather proud that prepping for this talk has reminded me to be excited about the challenges to come. If these past experiences are anything to go by, it’ll make my life that much more interesting as a result.