Friday, April 7, 2017

Scissors, Drums, Water, Wheels and Rope: Lessons in Trust

It's kind of amazing the way that travel can affect you...  It pulls you out of your comfort zone and brings you face to face with who you are.  These 8 months have been no exception.  Within this time, I have been extraordinarily uncomfortable, dumbfounded with awe, blissful, profoundly homesick, terribly grateful, and very aware of my own shortcomings and strengths.  This post has a slightly different tone than those of my past.  I aim here to share more of my learnings from travel, rather than the travel itself.

Over the last week, I have been in positions were I needed to give up my control.  I am a naturally careful and notoriously bossy person, used to being in control of my own experience, taking every precaution, etc.  Here in Brazil, I have needed to let go, and just trust, whether it was another person, an object protecting me, or myself.

Here goes:


São Paulo, Brazil

Most recently, I had to let go and trust in a way that most people do all the time:  getting a haircut.  

That probably sounds laughable, since this is a regular practice for most, but I haven't had my hair cut since 1995, when I first started cutting it myself with a swiss army knife while traveling in Zimbabwe.  Doing the math, that's 20 years of not having anyone else doing my hair.  With the expensive price tag of a salon cut, it was easy to begin doing it myself, and the habit stuck.  During this trip, the harsh deserts, glaciers, wind and sun, have dried out my hair, leaving it a frizzy mess, so I decided to get a haircut with my friend.  In addition to the 20 year gap in care, I was really nervous to have someone doing my hair for 2 other reasons: 1) I couldn't communicate well enough in Portuguese,  2) I didn't want to cut it short.  Nonetheless, despite my misgivings, I let go, and trusted.  The guy does this for a living, after all, it's not some rando with a Flowbee.  After a luxurious shampoo, the haircut itself was quick and simple, and it was finished with a blow dry.  I spent most of the time trying to concentrate on breathing and unclenching my nervous fists.  In the end, it was a bit shorter than I hoped, but, here's the result!  What do you think?

Snapshot the day after the haircut
Courtesy of my friend Vivianne


São Paulo, Brazil

An old friend of mine got me into latin dancing years ago, and I still love to go whenever I can.  Here in Brazil, there is no salsa, but a variety of local styles, including the well-known samba and capoeira (although the later is considered a martial art).   When my new friends learned that I love to dance, they decided to teach me a new one:  forro.  It is a great fusion style, bearing resemblance to both salsa and bachata.

Why is this included in a post about trust, you might ask?  Well, if you have ever danced with a partner, you know at least some of where this is going.  Firstly, the woman's job is to follow.  We read the body signals of our partner in order to know where we are moving to and what step is coming next.  This is very literally letting go of control and following.  Complicating it, of course, was that I don't speak Portuguese well-enough yet to be able to ask my partner to explain something, or to teach me a move I don't know.

My big challenge came last week, on my 4th or 5th evening of forro.  Up until this point, I had taken to the dance somewhat easily, following different partners, trying music at different tempos, and adapting to different styles.  On this night, however, my partner and I just could not match up.  As I put it, "we heard different beats."  I was trying so hard to hear what he was hearing, how the beats fell in a way that made sense to his body.  I can tell you, this was incredibly frustrating!  I would look down at his feet, concentrating on the beat, glancing around to the feet around us to see whether maybe, in fact, it was just him!  No such luck.  Everyone else was on the same beat as he.  As I continued to struggle, I got more and more embarrassed with myself, feeling bad for this guy who patiently tried to carry me along.  By the end of the song, I think I was pretty much there, closing my eyes and using my partners encouragement to listen to the drum beats.  I still couldn't really  hear what he was hearing, but I was able to follow.

Candid shot by my sneaky friend Edson


Bonito, Brazil

Sometimes lessons in trust are accomplished alone, no encouraging arms carrying you through.  Instead, you engage a little bit of adrenaline and jump.  I took that 'leap' on a beautiful river one day, where I went tubing with some friends.  Most of the river was calm, the steady current meandering through trees and water lilies.  When it wasn't calm, however, it was class 2 rapids (at worst a 1.5 meter drop).  We were kitted out in cushy tubes, lifejackets and helmets, so the risks were really minimal, but that didn't stop my heart from beating out of my chest at the top of each rapid!  It didn't help that I completely tipped over on the first rapid, either!

A still from my go-pro video as my tube is vertical, tossing me into the churning water below.

Once I flipped on the first rapid, I had nothing to lose; I was already soaked.  From then on, I took the rapids in the less secure (but more exciting) face first position, trusting my gear and my own sense of balance to carry me through.  Success!  I never tipped again, and I had a blast!

Isn't she pretty, folks?!

We navigated the most dangerous rapid connected together like a snake!


Bonito and São Paulo, Brazil

One of my biggest lessons in trust was riding on motorbikes.    To save time and money, many Brazilians drive motorbikes instead of cars, weaving in and out of traffic and cutting hours off of commutes.  Before this, I had ridden on the back of such two-wheeled rockets only a couple times. I'm pretty sure that the entire time I was white-knuckled, clenching the driver and inhibiting their ability to breathe.  In Bonito, though, I had to use a mototaxi, about half the price of a full taxi on my own.  I very nervously stepped out of my hostel, strapping on the helmet and straddling the back seat.

It was a tough first ride, totaling almost an hour each way, including busy town streets, bumpy back roads, and lots and lots of potholes and speed bumps.  I spent the entire ride gripping the sides of my seat like my life depended on it, terrified to take even one hand off for even a second.  My whole body was so rigid, that when we arrived to my destination, I was already exhausted, and this was at 8am before my tour.  I couldn't tell you anything about the scenery we passed, but I remember how hard I concentrated on telling my body to relax, to breathe deeply and slowly, and to just trust that this very experienced driver knew what he was doing.   Fortunately, we arrived safe and sound, but as I stepped off the bike, my legs were made of jello.  I doubled over for a minute or so, just getting my wits about me again.   The way back was much easier, as I now had a general sense of what to expect and how to balance, and I almost even enjoyed it.

My driver slowed down for me so I could do a quick video on the way back.  Despite it being easier than the way there, I was still not comfortable enough to have even one hand off the railing at full speed.

Since that induction in Bonito, I have ridden on the back of a couple friends' bikes many times now.  Each time, it gets a bit easier to trust, let go and enjoy the ride.  Of course, I still have a helmet on each time, and my hands are usually on or near the railings, but I am no longer a ball of nervous energy, exhausted by the use of adrenaline by the time we arrive to our destination.  I am more relaxed, and even, dare I say, even looking forward to the ride?!

My fearless (but careful) driver, Edson

I got so comfortable, that I even began driving one myself!

Just kidding


Bonito, Brazil

Repelling down into Abismo Anhumas is by far the most emotionally challenging activity of my trip here in South America, requiring every ounce of trust and self-calm I possess.  The Abismo itself, is a 75m deep abyss that opens into a large cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites which one must literally repel down into through a 1 meter wide opening.

Don't be fooled!  This doesn't look like much, but wait until you see what's below!

Since this is a seriously dangerous activity, I had to participate in a training the day before to know how to use the equipment.

Here was my training the day before.  We practiced going up and down about 10 meters of rope, a small taste of the next day's challenges.
The next morning, I arrived to the activity after my hair-raising mototaxi ride, so my adrenaline was already firing and my body worn out.  Upon arrival, I was outfitted with a harness and helmet, waiting my turn to clip in and descend into the cavern.

The platform to begin the descent into the abyss.

Once I was clipped in, and was hanging above this 75 meter drop, my heart was pounding, I was sweating, and terrified.  Lots of trust was involved in this.  I had to trust that the equipment was sound, that the staff had attached everything correctly and securely, that the back-up systems were  solid, and that I would be physically able to complete the task.

Me, questioning my decision, and holding on for dear life

If I didn't make it back, he was to blame.  He suited me up, completed the safety checks, and controlled the back up rope.  Here is the view from the first person: my hands desperately grasping the rope holding me, trying not to think about just how dangerous this was.
Somehow, I was able to bury my fears enough to begin the descent.   The first 20 meters were tricky, slowly easing my way down through a narrow 1m wide crack, one hand at my side guiding the rope into the descender, and the other on the brake, controlling my speed of fall.  This part of the fall was actually emotionally easier, surprisingly.  At least, I thought, if something were to happen (you know those unrealistic 'what ifs' that run through our heads at moments like this), I could maybe wedge myself between the walls, rather than careening the 60 meters left down to the bottom...

First-hand view of the look down.  If you look closely, just to the right of my hand, you can see the bottom.  That dark square is the landing platform, floating on the water over 60 meters below me.

But then, after navigating through the narrow entrance, the abyss opened up underneath me.  It was then I could see the sun streaming in through the greenery outside, the ancient stalactites, the opalescent water, and of course, the huge drop.  That's when my brain kicked in, running away with 'what ifs.'  Making this worse, my braking hand was exhausted, having already been worn out by the grip of death on the back of a motorbike.  I couldn't switch hands, either, so instead I tried my best to muscle through.  It was slow going, the brake a lot more difficult to release than in the training, but I made it down eventually.

This is what I would have looked like coming down, so let's just pretend this is me.

There was a floating dock as a landing platform, so we were safe to wait on the platform as the rest of the group came down in turn.
Once I was down, I was finally able to let my body relax after all of the excitement.  I sat, exhausted,  and watched each pair come down.  Once my camera (along with the rest of our gear) was lowered down, I was able to experiment with capturing shots of the inside, despite the low light conditions.

This shot really captures the color of the water, and the ominous, enormous stalagmites piercing the surface of the water.

Once everyone from my group made it down safely, we got into our very thick wetsuits, hoods, and boots, some of the group snorkeling, and 2 of us scuba diving.  Even before the dive could start, 2 women actually had to be lifted out of the cavern, experiencing anxiety and nausea, presumably due to the depth and confined space.  Thankfully, despite my many fears, this place didn't trigger any of them, so I suited up and got ready to descend again, this time into the freezing cold water.

The dive was surprisingly nondescript.  Visibility was really low because there just wasn't enough light entering the cave at this time of year.  The flashlights helped, but not much.  We weaved in and around the rock formations, marveling that something like this could exist.  After the dive, I came up the the surface, cold and tired, but thankful for this incredibly unique experience.

Selfie under water in an ancient cave?  Yes, please

Just one of the peaks of the rocks, silhouetted against the light from the surface

Looking up on one of the snorkelers

So that's it!  5 solid lessons in letting go and trusting.  What did I learn from all of this?  Well, that I'm way more nervous of a person than I thought, but that I'm also braver than I thought, able to overcome tremendous nerves and do something new.  I've learned that a certain amount of nerves is healthy and productive, keeping us safe, but then there are times when we really let fear hold us back.  In the end, I think we are all capable of a lot more than we think, myself included.  I'm thankful for these lessons, as they remind me just how lucky I am to be here, doing these once-in-a-lifetime things.