What is it about life that defies all expectations? I started this trip thinking I didn’t have any expectations, but now I think it’s absolutely impossible to go into any situation without subconsciously forming an idea of what will happen. Each day that has gone by, each step I have taken, has surprised me. I can already feel my travels hardening and strengthening me, breaking the mold I had created up until now. Traditionally speaking, I am homeless, and carrying all my belongings on my back has taken some of the softness from my body, a body whose favorite pastime had been sleeping in its own bed. Waking up each day with no plan or at best a very loosely-defined one has made me more adaptable and flexible. Finding myself alone in a big, big world has kicked the door wide open to what I am capable of. And yet I’ve also been reminded that I am not invincible, that as a woman and an obvious tourist some people see me as vulnerable and an easy target.
The feeling of belonging is one which is easily taken for granted. It’s not until you find yourself suddenly an obvious other that you are reminded of how comfortable belonging really is. But being an other is immensely important. It gives you perspective into the lives of people who are always other, like immigrants or minorities, it gives you compassion and empathy. Now I don’t personally think I’m ever really the sort to blend in with a crowd, but being a tall, white, blond woman in Colombia is like being a flamingo among sea gulls. We’re all birds but the outsider is obvious from a mile away. It’s enough to make one miss home, and I do, but missing home and wanting to go home are two very different feelings.
My time with Jessica and Adri is over now and suddenly I’m in a country where no one knows my name. The day they left was the first day that I felt something close to fear. Alone? On a continent to which the only connection I have is a hard-won language? It’s hard to explain this quasi-fear and why it’s not enough to deter me. I could say that I pride myself on facing my fears, and I do, but that seems trite and barely scratches the surface of why I’m doing what I’m doing. To be completely honest, I don’t know what keeps me going most days, and that’s not meant to be bleak. What is it in me that has made this possible? Why am I not content with my own bed and people who know me and love me and protect me? Why must I go out and find fear in the big world? Perhaps it comes down to this: I know there are things out in the world worthy of my fear, but there are also things that make risking that fear worthwhile, and for me, that knowledge is enough.
To illustrate the kinds of things I think worth braving fear for, let me share some of the things we all did together before my girls left.
Fear is an incredibly important emotion. Sometimes it tells us when we’re in danger and need to be cautious. It reminds us that we are not infallible, not superheroes. It reminds us that there are people out there who can and will hurt us for personal gain or, even scarier, for no reason at all. But it can also be a useless emotion when it only serves to keep us from doing things. Comfort might be going to sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my things, near to people I love, in a city I know like an old friend, but it also means giving up seeing things, wonderful things, that can only be reached through a veil of fear. Fear can even keep us from meeting amazing people. I was a little anxious about my first Couchsurfing experience in Medellín, staying with a stranger and all, but by moving through it, we had the privilege of meeting and befriending the best host anyone could ask for. So yes, fear is ugly and I resent the way it can make me mistrust people I’ve never met or interacted with, but what you can find on the other side of fear is sometimes unutterably beautiful, so for now, I’ll take fear over comfort, and run with it.
No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection. -Patrick Rothfuss, A Wise Man’s Fear