Before I left home in January, I had a going away party. My sweet roommates co-hosted with me, and Mira encouraged everyone to leave me little notes; words of wisdom, love, memories, whatever people wanted to say. The next day I read through the notes, overwhelmed with gratitude and warmth for all the people who sent me off with such love. The notes were filled with good advice: “trust your gut”, “explore with a sense of childlike wonder”, “maintain an open heart and mind”. I brought of few of these pieces of paper wisdom with me, in a little box made by my roommate, Ana Lua. Periodically, I’ll re-read the papers as a little practice to ground myself and remember these sentiments. A couple weeks ago, I gave away one of my papers to a new friend, as an offering. Oddly enough, since I passed along this piece of wisdom, it has been the one that had been staying with me the most: “Just Say YES.”
“Just Say YES” in combination with “trust your gut”, makes for a powerful combination of words to live by. The “trust your gut” piece is important because we don’t want to say yes to things that are sketchy or don’t feel right. But these things aside, it’s hard to go wrong with saying yes to anything that piques our interest. If we don’t automatically get a bad feeling about an opportunity, but we think about saying no anyway, it’s interesting to investigate where the no is coming from. I’ve found the more I look into what it is that holds me back from saying yes, it is almost always fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of responsibility – the possibilities for things to be afraid of are endless. Fortunately, fear is a compass, so paying attention to all of the little fears that arise provides us with a direction to move: into the fear. The quickest way to the other side of fear is through, and it’s the only way to conquer it. Tiptoeing around it, we may avoid discomfort for a time, but the same fears inevitably arise until we take the time to really look at them.
Traveling alone certainly brings up a lot of fear, and at the same time offers an opportunity to move beyond it. This past week, I spent a total of 26 hours on busses, getting myself up from San Jose, Costa Rica to Guatemala. The bus journey required me to to spend time in the capital cities of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala: all notoriously the most dangerous places in each country** I was asked several times, by both locals and fellow travelers, “you’re alone? Aren’t you scared?” The answer: yes. Si si si, tengo miedo. I am scared. Is that good enough reason to not do something? Almost never. Why? Because after all those hours on a bus, and nights spent in dingy hotels in bus stations, and many moments of discomfort, I am now sitting here:
Happily writing this blog post from one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, Antigua, Guatemala. I am a little bit more confident, a little bit more informed, a little bit more experienced, and no worse for the wear. And so far in this town, I’ve said yes to tentatively knocking on the door of an unknown cacao shaman, which led to consumption of delicious cacao, information about local customs and the Mayan calendar, and a lot of wisdom about being a solo female traveler. And right before I knocked, I had a pang of fear of the unknown. I said yes to eating in a restaurant because when I peeked in the door, a friendly looking Guatemalan girl, who would later introduce herself as Mayra and invite me dancing, told me the place was good. And without looking at the menu or fully understanding the dish, I said yes to the traditional Guatemalan dish of pepian, and got this:
A delicious vegetable and chicken stew with a sauce like none I’ve ever tasted before. Check out this link for a little more information and a recipe for pepian. Later, I said yes to a glass of wine and a mochaccino in cafe/bar/restaurant called Por Que No?, where I had the pleasure of meeting Carlos and Carolina, a super sweet, warm, Guatemalan couple who welcomed patrons with open arms and gentle, joyful energy. They explained to me their vision of having a place where people can come to feel at home, and serves as a model for the possibility of living well without needing a ton of space; something they achieved beautifully in their tiny little space filled with antiques and written wisdom on the walls:
Despite an ever-persisting nervousness about striking up conversations with strangers, I said yes to being the first one to say hello to new people, and ended up meeting several people that live on Lake Atitlan and offered to help me find a place to stay, crash on their couch, or just meet up for a drink once I get there. Every yes that felt really good has led to a positive, and even sometimes magical experience. And every yes said out of obligation inevitably leads to disappointment; with the experience, with myself for not trusting my gut, or both. Which brings me to the difference between a yes for me, and a yes for something or someone else. Saying yes to myself often means saying no to someone else. This is hard. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn, and am still learning. None of us are ultimately responsible for anyone else’s experience, and while we of course want to be compassionate and avoid harming others, we cannot do this at the expense of our own well-being. We must take care of ourselves to be able to take care of each other. Before we can offer a sincere and supportive yes to another being, we MUST say yes to ourselves. This is not always easy, and often requires putting ourselves in situations that will lead to more fear. For example, saying yes to being alone because we know that it is what we must do. At a certain point we must leave the comfort of our parents’ homes, we must leave an unfulfiilling relationship, we must leave an unsatisfying job to pursue our deeper dreams. And in these YESses (which can also be seen as NOs), we may find fear of independence, fear of loneliness, fear of financial insecurity. Sometimes we need to say yes to connection and opportunity. We must say yes to an opportunity to pursue our passion, yes to a spiritual path, yes to joining a supportive community, yes to love. And in these YESses, yet other fears emerge: fear of self-actualization, fear of letting go, fear of accountability, fear of intimacy. All of these fears point us where we need to go. The things that we try to avoid are so often the exact things we need. And so then the question becomes why? Why are we afraid of the truth? Why are we afraid to get what we want? Maybe we are scared that if we find what we want we won’t have anything to look for, any more reason to go on. Maybe we are scared of being let down. Maybe we are scared of death. Maybe we are scared of life.
I don’t know if it’s important to find answers to these questions, as much as it’s important to have a willingness to ask them and investigate. To continually move to our edges seeking more. More information, more experience, more wisdom, more growth, more questions. And there are always more questions, and always more fears to attend to. And the super sticky ones are the ones that we really have to get into. As I previously mentioned, I have a lot of fears come up, all the time, but especially when traveling. Some are deeper than others. Some are minor blips on my radar and easily surpassed. Some require a little more work. Surfing for example. Oh man, do I have a lot of fear of surfing. Every single time I get in the water, it’s there. People often talk about surfing as a spiritual experience, a metaphor for life. I feel that. Because the depth of fear that I feel when surfing rivals almost any other fear I have. Of course there are the straightforward fears of being maimed by the board or drowning, which can probably be remedied by strengthening my swimming skills, my paddling skills, and my understanding of how to read the water. But there is something much more profound there as well. Someone told me the other day that I need to learn to trust my ocean, which really hit home. If I am thinking about surfing as a metaphor, then trusting my ocean can be likened to trusting my life, trusting my universe, trusting my God. And this is why I know I have to keep surfing, as much as it scares me. For the same reason I have to keep living my life, even though it scares me. Because it’s there for the taking, and the rewards are endless and always outweigh the risks. It’s a beautiful offering from who knows where and if we don’t take advantage of it, well, what a waste.
Surfing is humbling. Every time I fall, get rolled, drink water, it’s like oh yeah, I am not in control of the ocean. Travel is humbling. Every setback, every loss, every wrong turn or wrong word a reminder; I am not in control of my environment, what I don’t know is always much greater than what I do know, and I will never stop making mistakes. Life is humbling. Again with the setbacks, the mistakes, the falling and getting rolled, over and over and over. We can try really hard to protect ourselves. We can create little bubbles of “security” and say no to anything new and unfamiliar in the hopes of staying safe and sure. But as soon as we think we have everything figured out and get comfortable, we get hit with a reminder that we are not in control. We get sick, we lose our job, someone we love dies, we break. Life will shake us awake. And the sleepier we get, the harder it will shake to wake us up. So why not actively try to stay awake? Let’s get right in the water and learn to ride the waves instead of burying ourselves in the sand and slowly suffocating. Saying YES awakens us. When we say yes in the face of our fears, we are saying YES, I am willing to try; YES, I am willing to be wrong; YES, I am willing to feel scared; YES I am willing to FEEL – something, anything; YES to letting go; YES to life. Ask any surfer and I’m guessing they will say that every fall was worth it for one time in the tube. And I believe any traveler will say that all of the tribulations are worth it for the experience gained. And anyone who has said yes to doing something that scared them and come out the other side will say that they learned something and enriched their lives because of it. I could feel a lot more comfortable if I didn’t push myself to do the things that scared me, but I feel a lot more alive when I do. And if I have to choose between feeling safe and feeling the often times scary strength of the force of life flowing through me intensely, passionately, completely out of my control? I scream a huge YES to being alive. And now I’m going to go say YES to climbing this volcano 🙂
**Note: I do think it’s important to be careful and exercise caution and common sense, especially while traveling alone. I also think that allowing warnings to be the only information we absorb about a place robs us of the opportunity for deeper understanding. I’ve learned that there are real dangers, and also that all information can be taken with a grain of salt, and cannot be applied as a generalization to the whole of a place and its inhabitants. Every place, person, thing has light and dark, good and bad. Always two sides of the same coin and never as clear cut as: “don’t go there ever it’s dangerous” or “definitely go there it’s the best place ever”. All information is coming from the perspective of the person delivering it, and there are always countless factors to be taken into consideration about anything, ever, including travel. It’s safe to say that traveling alone and as a female, we are vulnerable in ways that men and groups are not, but if we arm ourselves with research, caution, confidence, respect, and humility, we are on a good path for safe travel to almost anywhere. And while this blog post focuses mainly on choosing to move into the places that scare us, we can also use our fear as a guide to know when to move away from dangers and protect ourselves.