The Great Wall

The Great Wall

I am at the beginning of my first proper solo travel experience, waiting for my connection, flying to Thailand, planning to explore South East Asia for a month. I first flew to Thailand 23 years ago, a terrified 18 year old, petrified, wide eyed. It was my first real experience of the wider world. I can clearly remember the taxi arriving in Ko San Road in Bangkok and feeling like I had been transported to another world, an alien planet. It was so unlike anything I had experienced previously. I also remember the realisation  (obvious to many perhaps, not so much to small town thinker from suburban UK) that there were all these people living their lives around the world at the same time as I was eating my fish fingers and chips in Herefordshire. The more I live abroad the more I realise that those things I take for granted as ‘normal’ are not the same normal for everyone (see this previous post on kettles http://createeducatedeviate.com/2013/10/20/314/ (actually the first thing I did when arrived in my hotel room last night was get the kettle on, old habits die hard!).

I was gifted and encouraged in this opportunity by a wonderful friend. My two closest friends in my late teens were two sisters, fantastic women whom I still love dearly today. In my old age and hindsight I see more and more clearly the legacy of my friendship with these two and their family and friends. They welcomed me in to their world, and I was permanently changed by this connection.

Not only did I travel to Thailand with the elder sister, Alison, I also remember them both sharing with me many new experiences; my first taste of ‘exotic’ foods like, avocado, whole baked salmon (I don’t think I had seen a fish with a head on before) and gin and tonic. We discovered new things together like music, clubs, bands, festivals, love and heartbreak.  They encouraged me to be brave. I don’t know if they or I even realised at the time how much I needed them.

I did not always live up to their encouragement to be braver. I was in Taiwan last week and a friend organised a surprise balloon ride, instead of planning an excuse not to go up in the balloon or succumbing to the fear, I just thanked her and climbed in. The view of the rolling Taiwanese countryside was worth it and the balloon was tethered so it really wasn’t such a frightening experience anyway. Rewind 18 years, those same two sisters offered me the chance to go up in a balloon over our hometown. Back then I was not so brave. At the last minute I ducked out, giving some lame excuse. I remember feeling their irritation, and later my regret at not seizing the moment

It has taken me a long time to become brave. It is an adjective I have heard much more often in the last few years to describe my actions. Of course I never feel brave, on these worldwide adventures I am in a constant state of fear. The little girl from St Albans who had never tasted an avocado still never very far from the surface.

When I think about Alison and Sophie encouraging teenage me to new experiences, and then the people I have met over the last few years who have given me the strength to take risks and be brave, I am so grateful. Grateful, they could ignore and forgive that negative fearful voice that sometimes over powered me. The one that tells me, ‘you can’t do it’, ‘you don’t do that’ or ‘you are going to fail.’ Ultimately, what am I really afraid of? Failure? Falling? Looking foolish? I have done all these things many many times before and survived. Well, I have never fallen from a hot air balloon but I have definitely fallen over in the street a few times… but you get up, laugh, rub the graze on your knee and carry on walking to work.

As I walked/climbed/crawled along The Great Wall of China, I learned two very important lessons which I am trying to hold on to every day since. There was a moment when we had been told that the way ahead was closed, that we should turn around and go back as we wouldn’t be able to get through. Already exhausted I turned pathetically to my intrepid travel companion and asked feebly “When do you think we will turn back?”

“We are not turning back.’ He said decisively, “We go forwards until we can’t go any further.” And forwards we went until we came to a locked gate and a Chinese guard who may have brandished a gun, and finally even my fearless companions agreed to turn back.

That last section of wall, when all other wall walkers had already turned back, was a special experience. We were on our own in blazing sunshine, the magnificent views all around, on crumbling parts of this ancient wall. Thighs burning, knees feeling like they would give up, but each time I stepped out of the guard house and had managed another section of the wall, the rewards were always incredible. Don’t turn back, keep going till you can go no further. I think I had already turned back in my life too many times.

I wanted to turn back because I believed I couldn’t do it, I was momentarily distracted by that awful voice in my head, that anti cheerleader, shouting ‘you can’t do this’ at me. Thanks to the intervention of another brave friend pushing me on, I was able to silence the voice. I could ignore it because do you know what?

I could do it.

I did do it.

I made it all the way to the end,

And back.

So, I sit here waiting for my connecting flight to take me back to Thailand remembering the fears I let make decisions for me in the past. Remembering how I used these fears to create the persona I fell in to as a protection from that voice. Finally working harder to ignore the negative voice, to give up the props, bandages and self-medications I used to protect myself from its furious pessimistic tones.

I think I am ready. I think I am ready to be braver, because I am realizing that being brave just means being afraid, but doing it anyway.

I will not listen to that voice, telling me ‘You can’t do this’ because I could and I did. The voice is wrong and I need to silence it. Ever forwards, never backwards all the way along my own great wall.