During my very first big backpacking trip abroad to South East Asia, I found myself confronted with questions from fellow travellers about my travelling choices. For the most part, backpackers form a tight-knit community of travellers who look out for each other. But every now and again, you come across people who will turn travelling into a competition. We would find ourselves sitting around a table having beers, discussing various places we have been, where we wanted to go next and our favourite moments along the way. When Joe from England would throw down the “omg…. You went to X and you DIDN’T do Y?! That was like literally the best thing to do there… I can’t believe you missed it.” And just like that, your trip of a lifetime suddenly falls short. How could you have missed that highlight? May as well just have stayed home.
Fast forward four and a half years and the black hole of ego has only grown. But instead of a few carelessly chosen words, the addictive online world and overwhelming power of social media has started to suck us in. This is our crisis of choice. Through research, word of mouth, social media, and our own preconceived notions we find ourselves faced with a laundry list of things we “have” to do on our adventures abroad. We find ourselves during the build-up to a trip visualizing the adventure ahead in a highlight reel of anticipation. Hours spent pouring over photos and videos have told us exactly what it should look like. The stories we’ve heard from friends or read on blogs have told us how we should feel. We have lived our trip out in our minds before we’ve even stepped foot on the plane and in turn we have set ourselves up for failure.
This brings me to Adam’s Peak. Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, is the second highest peak in Sri Lanka standing tall at 2,234m. It is the site of a famous Buddhist pilgrimage and was on the itinerary for our 3rd day in Sri Lanka. I had booked two weeks over Christmas exploring the island nation off the coast of India and had little hand in the planning process. When we first booked this trip back in July, the girls I was travelling with excitedly told me that the hike was going to be one of the highlights of the trip, quickly opening up Instagram and showing me photos of the mountain path we would follow. It was a long winding path of delicate lights, snaking their way to the peak in the twilight. It looked pretty damn magical.
The path up to Adam’s Peak was an 8km trail consisting, in its entirety, of stairs. We would start the hike and 2 am and after 5,800 steps of pure torture, we would watch the sunrise over the highlands of Sri Lanka in the presence of monks, pilgrims, and foreigners. The images that began to flood my mind were ones of an incredible, challenging and enlightening experience. It would be one of those triumphant mountain top moments where adrenaline, endorphins and stunning scenery come together to create moments of magic. I was digging it. It was going to be a huge challenge. A test of mental endurance but the vision of standing at the top at sunrise was enchanting. I was sold.
Our alarms went off at 1:45 am, and I was already lying in bed awake. Not because I was too excited to sleep but because I had just finished my most recent sprint to the bathroom. I lay there wondering what it was that was causing everything to leave my body in liquid form. I squeezed my eyes shut, begging the waves of cramps to stop. Anxiety began to creep in as my mind was filled with all the visions I had built up in my head. The voice in the back of my head mocked me like a stuck-up backpacker. “You have to do it… you came all this way… you can’t skip it just because you’ve got the shits… I can’t believe you would wimp out.”
My voice wavered as I told the girls I wasn’t feeling well. I was getting increasingly nervous about doing the hike in my current state, and it was written all over my face. I paced back and forth not sure what to do with myself. I racked my brain for a quick fix but came up empty. They did their best to try and reassure me that if I didn’t want to do it they would understand. But I couldn’t help but feel the disappointment behind their kind words. The guilt of wimping out was crushing, I didn’t want to let them down. So, I did what any stubborn, determined and dehydrated traveller would do. I put my shoes on, made one last emergency trip to the toilet and headed out into the cool mountain air doing my best to be positive.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in over my head with this hike. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t feeling very sick. Pushing myself to complete a hike, that tests even a healthy person, seemed like a recipe for disaster. I trudged along in the dark with each step sending sharp pains through my stomach, and I wondered why I was putting myself through this lesson in personal torture. I made it 1.5km from the guest house to the official starting point of the hike where the reality of what faced me reared its ugly head. As I stood there looking at the line of eager hikers ahead of me, I knew this was beyond me. I was weak and tired, my stomach urged me to find a bathroom and my heart was breaking. I willed myself to take another step forward, the voice in my head was screaming but my body refused to move. I couldn’t do it. Deep down I knew it was irresponsible to put myself in a situation where I could end up worse off all for the sake of a sunrise and an epic story. I made the decision to turn back. The voice in my head whispered in disappointment, “I can’t believe you’re not doing it.”
Tears stung my eyes as I turned to walk away from the girls, I gave one last look back envious of the epic experience they were about to undertake and started making my way back down the hill towards the toilet that I was so desperate for. The immediate disappointment in myself was stifling and the reality that I didn’t push myself left a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had failed. I was a failure. The voices in my head mocked my decision. The next wave of cramps hit me hard and I stopped, buckling forward trying to ease the pain. Tears flowed freely down my face. I was so disappointed in myself. I had failed myself on so many levels and all I could do was cry and hurry the last hundred meters downhill to my hotel room.
I climbed into bed feeling defeated, depressed and completely drained. I sunk into the warm and welcome refuge of my sleeping bag. The burden of anxiety began to lift and reality began to wash over me. I had spent the whole walk home angry with myself. Frustrated with my failure. Trying to convince myself I did the right thing. I was so attached to my expectations that I couldn’t even rationally look at the situation I was in. In my mind this was going to be an incredible story to share but the reality of failure was so blinding that I would have given anything to have completed that hike.
That fateful night on the deserted streets of Delhousie, Sri Lanka, I learned one of the most important lessons travel has ever taught me. The way you see and experience the world is completely unique to you. The attachments we create and the pressure we place on ourselves with our expectations will almost always lead to the overwhelming feeling of failure and disappointment when things don’t go as planned. When you release yourself from this attachment you realize that where you are and what you are doing is even more incredible than anything you could have dreamed up. Because it is uniquely yours.
Travel is something that you do for yourself. You are the one who sees and experiences everything and you are the one who grows and changes as a result. It is completely selfish by design and execution. And at the end of the day, you travel for yourself, not for anyone else. There is no point trying to live up to the unrealistic expectations that other people and social media create in our minds. No one in the world has ever or will ever experience that moment in time the way you do. Our addiction to social media and the online world has created a margin of error so razor thin that the feeling of failure is inevitable. Anything less than perfection is a let-down and it pulls us out of the moment we are in. I saw missing the hike as a failure. But the true failure was my inability to accept the situation for what it was and let go of the things I couldn’t control.
The lesson I learned the night I didn’t hike Adam’s Peak was far more valuable than conquering a mountain ever could be. I woke up the next morning feeling incredibly calm. The storm of emotions from the night before had passed and I finally felt at ease. I had made the right choice turning back that night, and the perspective I awoke with the next morning has changed me for life. So please. I beg you. Release yourself from your expectations and fully submerge yourself in the moment. Don’t worry about anything other than just allowing yourself to feel it and see it the way that you do. Good, bad or ugly you are the only person to ever experience that moment the way you do. And that is pretty fucking amazing.
Jen Sasman is a Canadian travel writer on a mission to visit 50 countries by the age of thirty. Her blog www.thiswayforlocals.com is home to a small library of amazing writing. She's also one of our kick ass reps.
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