It is difficult to talk about my fears and insecurities before I face them while on the road because a part of my building up the courage is in convincing myself that the little trembling inside is insignificant when compared to my courage.
But, once I have taken it on I find myself in my hotel room overwhelmed with what I have just done, playing the images in my head over and over as if they were scenes in a movie I’ve just seen, and not an actual moment I just lived.
To many readers I am so brave and strong, and I think this is true to the extent that I don’t allow my fears to stop me. But all the while, I am fighting against something bigger.
I grew up with a father who could look at me and in an instant find the many reasons why life would be so hard. I was too fat, and no one loves fat people, he would say. I was too dark, and would be plagued with a life of racism and prejudice. I was too outspoken, a vile trait in a woman. I was a lot of things that I couldn’t change and yet were stacked up against me.
One would think that as one gets older and grows into their own skin that a lot of these messages would erase themselves. One would think that in finding love, both from another and in oneself, that this noise would null out. And for the most part, when I am in my most logical state of mind, they do.
But, when I am afraid, they are like rushing waves crashing inside my mind, overwhelming me with self-doubt. It’s both infuriating and sad, just as it is motivating for other fears that may follow.
Driving alone in France
While planning my trip to the Loire Valley, my hosts had informed me that because of my travel schedule, the logistics of travel would need my driving through certain regions of France alone.
Now, I am a great driver. I pride myself in how confidently and effortlessly I can take on the streets of NYC during rush hour, like a boss. My parallel parking skills are worthy of praise. I learned to drive in the Dominican Republic where traffic lights don’t often work and driving regulations are just things tourists follow. Yet, something about driving through the country side of France made me lose sleep. It made me nervous. It might have had a lot to do with the intimidation of my foreign language skills, which is OK, but not great. And the small but significant cultural differences in how things are done that I was unfamiliar with.
The first day that I got to drive the car I found out that the vehicle’s navigation system was not only set to Spanish, which would have been fine since I am fluent, except for the fact that it was malfunctioning so that it wouldn’t change or take directions. The portable navigation system given to me by the rental company only spoke French. Thankfully, I was equipped with my cellphone’s GPS and was able to use that. But for a moment I felt my hands start to sweat.
Then there was the moment when I had to go through the toll. Everyone told me I could pay with my card. But when I drove up and tried to pay, it spit it back out with a rejection. I tried another, to no avail. I saw the line forming behind me and I began to shake. “Oh my god. Oh my god. What do I do?” My mind started racing. I press the red button. “Oui?!“, said a stern voice.
“Oui, um…je ne peux pas…..” I tried to explain, as best I could, how my card wasn’t working. I apologized for my French, and before I knew it, a flurry of French words rushed out of the speaker too fast to grasp, too quick to understand.
“Pardon, mais, je ne comprend pas…je…” More words. I tried to put my card in again, then I hear, “Non, non, NON, NON, NON!” she yelled.
Exasperated, I closed my eyes and listened to her. Something, something…” your card doesn’t work here” something, something “pay cash” something, something “go to another lane”.
Move to another lane and pay cash. Great.
I look behind me, the line of cars patiently waiting. I extend out my arm and make motions that I need to back up. I apologize profusely the entire time. No one yelled. No one honked. No one cussed me out. Everyone backed up, the next lane halted to let me merge in. I paid cash and left. My head and body hurt. My hands trembled. I took a deep breath, let out a few swear words, then laughed.I was nervous about this experience from the moment I learned I would be doing it, but I did it anyway and told no one other than my husband about my fear till it was over. Now, I can look back at it and feel proud.
Before that moment, I had driven along a narrow road between two vineyards. I was listening to some song, I can’t even remember which one, that made me happy. Next to me, two sparrows flew over the vineyard, but at the speed of my car, as if alongside me keeping me company. Though the rest of my experience would be less harrowing, it is this moment of perfection, right before the toll booth, that still makes me feel that having taken on the challenge was worth all of it.
Encounters with bad and good people
Only two weeks after having arrived from France, I left again. This time I would be gone for over 30 days. I arrived to Paris late for my connection to Bordeaux. Drunk with sleep I made my way onto the commuter belt in the hopes it would help move me along. I was halted by a woman in front of me, with two bags on each side of her. It was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.
I took a deep breath, too exhausted to stress over it, and opened my phone to check the status of my next flight.
“Pardon!” I heard. It seemed far away. “Pardon!” I heard again, this time right behind me. I move over, though I knew whomever it was wouldn’t get too far either.
A man passes me, but not without making a rude gesture towards me.
I am awoken by this and react. “I moved, didn’t I?” and I went back to my phone annoyed.
He walked away. The woman got off the belt as it ended, and he took a couple of steps forward, but not without turning back and punching me on the chest. Hard.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” he whispered angrily, his breath touching my face in rage before quickly turning away, hopping off the belt and briskly walking away from me.
I was shocked. Then angry. Then full of rage.
I yelled at him, wishing I could move the crowd between us out of the way. I yelled and cussed and threatened him, before he disappeared into the crowd.
Then my eyes teared up. I wasn’t sure how I was still walking. Maybe anger, the adrenaline of it all. I felt violated, the anger inside me growing at the regret that I didn’t react faster.
I made my gate, with plenty of time to spare. My connecting flight was delayed. I stood there, trembling. Unsure what to feel. I had just arrived to France. I would be here for over a month and all I wanted to do at that very moment was go home, hug my husband, and cry. “I want to go home,” I thought. “I just want to go home.” I fought back the tears.
“Sweetie?” I heard a woman’s voice behind me, “Are you OK?”
I turned around and three women stood behind me. “We saw what happened. Are you OK?”
I think I nodded yes, but I am not sure. They came around me and hugged me. “We are so sorry we weren’t closer to help you. It’s going to be OK.”
I didn’t cry, as much as I wanted to, but I thanked them and wish they didn’t have to leave.
“You were awesome,” said another, as the three began to giggle. “He looked like he was going to sh*t his pants when you told him you were going to kick his ass. You must be a New Yorker.” And we all started to laugh.
I thanked them again, hugged them goodbye, and they left.
By the time I landed in Bordeaux, I was ready to take on the day.
Getting left behind
I was invited to hike a 13er in Vail, CO to start only two days after my extensive time away in France. I didn’t even think about the fact that I would arrive for the excursion in the worst possible shape of my life. France was all about drinking and eating and drinking and eating some more. I walked some, but I would hardly call it being active.
I had never really heard about this love that people have for hiking 14ers in Colorado. Apparently, scaling mountains above 13,000 and 14,000 feet is a thing…and a very difficult one at that. I guess I just envisioned a hike. Instead this would become one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences of my life.
I would hike with four other people, all of whom were in pretty great shape. I was by far the less fit, most overweight person in the group. I could tell this wasn’t going to be easy.
Our tour guides were amazing. Expert hikers and mountaineers were assigned to our group. We were in good hands. But as we did our warm-up hike on day one and I kept stalling behind, I realized that I would be the slow one. Muscularly I felt strong, but cardiovascularly I was weak, and the altitude and oxygen levels were a huge challenge for me. I struggled to catch my breath and had to seriously pace myself as I tried to figure out a pace that worked.
On day two, we hiked part of the way from an elevation level of 8,150 feet in Vail to 11,000 feet where we would spend the night in a cabin and where I would suffer from insomnia and stress about the hike to the summit 2,000 more feet up. The hike that day was a bit easier in pace, as we all trekked with the llamas that carried our supplies. Instead it was my determination that would be challenged.
For many hiking professionals working with people from various backgrounds, experiences, and physical abilities, the biggest challenge is managing expectations. A lot of people come in committed to doing things that maybe they were great at doing before, but now, for whatever reason – fitness, age, injury, whatever it is – can’t seem to do it as well. It is hard to convince that person that it is dangerous, or maybe not the best idea. It is even worse to have to tell them that they won’t be able to do it. No one wants to be in the position, on either side, especially when safety is a concern.
The rational person in me, the smart, logical, realistic woman who I am, understands this. But as the various messages started coming my way that were clearly meant to help prepare me to accept the fact that I most likely would not make the summit, I rejected them. I rejected them because I believed that despite my being overweight, despite my lack of physical fitness especially when compared to the others, despite my bad knee (which was fine and I refused to talk about), despite my slow pace, and my fear of falling (due to the fact that I had recently experienced several severe falls that led to injury), despite it all…I believed I could do it. If I paced myself and was patient with myself, if I managed my own expectations and controlled my competitive spirit because I was out of my league when put side to side with the others, if I kept all those things in check, I knew I would make it.
And so, the day of the summit arrived. We woke up at 5:30 AM and head out at 7:30 AM. I immediately fell back, my pace slow and consistent.
Then at the first ridge, our lead tour guide waited with the group for me, and his assistant guide who was with me, to join them. I was about 10-15 minutes behind the group. He explained that the clouds might be rolling in soon. We had experienced a severe thunderstorm the night before and so this was a concern. He explained that the trail would get more difficult from this moment on, as we would have to scale rocks and this would need not only confidence, strength, and balance, but also agility. Safety, both with regards to the weather and our abilities, were his main concern. “It is clear that we are working with two different paces,” he said. I knew he meant me, and I didn’t care (though I would later find out from a group member that my slow pace was annoying to others who felt they had to wait for me all the time).
“We will separate from here, and I will take the rest of the group up with me,” he continued. “We will see how you all handle the rocks when we reach them. If you do well we will continue, if not we will turn back. Either way, we will turn back around 11:00 AM. Carol, we will see you later.”
It took me awhile to realize that I was being left behind. It took me a few seconds to understand what was happening. Because it hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t reach the summit, I didn’t immediately grasp the fact that everyone else had essentially determined that I wouldn’t, especially with the time constraints set in place.
And as the group walked away I cried. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being categorized and, yes, to an extent judged. When I would talk about this later, two group members would tell me how I was “taking it too personal” and questioned “what it was I would’ve wanted our guide to do and say instead”. To them, I was making a big deal out of nothing.
I want to reiterate that I understand the logical reality of the situation. Yes, I was slow. Yes, there was a threat of storm. Yes, the group kept having to slow down. Yes, I am fat and out of shape. Yes, yes, yes. But, I also know myself and my limitations and I never once felt I was even close to reaching them. To have someone set them for me was hard. Very, very hard and it hurt.
“Would you like to sit for a while?” my tour guide asked.
“No. I just want to keep moving,” I said. I struggled to refocus away from my tears and back to breathing.
“If we had all day, there is no doubt in my mind you would have made it to the top,” she said.
I said nothing. I looked at the valley below. I was high enough, 12,000 feet at this point, that I could see the top of the clouds and then the rays of sunlight as they streamed through forming shadows on the ground. I could smell the flowers. The silence was such that I could hear the many busy bees around us, their combined buzzing sounding like moving plane propellers.
“I am not angry with you guys,” I said to my guide. “I understand. I was just not ready to be told I can’t. I don’t feel like I can’t. I needed to go at my own pace, and I guess, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.” A funny analogy coming from the fat girl, I thought.
We didn’t stop. I didn’t go faster. We talked and quickly reached rocks…though I didn’t think these were the rocks as I didn’t find scaling them all that difficult nor intimidating. Then we reached more rocks and I could hear voices.
“Oh my god, Carol. There they are. We are almost there,” said my guide.
I could hear them cheering me on. I closed my eyes and wished they would not. I didn’t want their support nor their cheers. I silenced them out, didn’t look at them and moved on.
“We’re going to make it!” said my tour guide again.
“Whatever. I don’t care,” I replied, refusing to believe it.
I could hear the cheering getting louder. I could hear my guide’s encouraging voice. The climb was getting harder, steeper.
At one point, I reached for a tall rock. I would need to lift my leg high. I wasn’t flexible enough, I thought. I don’t know if I can do this, I told myself. My eyes started to tear up and I turned my face so no one could see it. I looked down. Dammit I was really high. “What the hell are you doing,” asked a voice in my head. “You are a mother! You have three kids!”
I closed my eyes, and stretched my leg. I stood up and looked ahead. I had made it to the top.
As everyone cheered, I asked one of the hikers closest to me what time it was.
“It’s 11:00 AM. You made it just in time.”
I broke down and cried.
No one said the words “you can’t” but that’s what I heard and it was the most difficult message to hear because up until then I didn’t believe it. So, when I did it, I cried for ever doubting myself, but also for proving to myself that I was right.
Even after it happened people who saw it would react with “how shocked they were” that I made it and “how unexpected that was” and I get it. I know what I must look like on the outside.
I am sure that my fear and insecurities show at times during my travels, through various experiences in life. I’m sure that it is easy for strangers to decide who I am and what I am capable of.
But it is how I judge myself that matters the most to me. It is what should matter the most to all of us.
The limitations will always be there, readily available and at our disposal. They don’t always come with intention to cause sadness or harm. I know that everyone on my hiking trip had nothing but good intentions. They aren’t often passed on by someone, as was the case in my driving in France, and sometimes they are very direct and intentional, as was the case with the attack at the French airport.
But it is how we choose to deal with them, what we allow them to do to us, our willingness to accept them as truth or not, that is the real challenge.
I always say that it is not that I am fearless, but, rather, that I hate being afraid.
I am afraid a lot. I worry that people are right to label and judge me. That they know more than I do when they look at me and tell me I can’t. I am afraid of not knowing what to do, or how to get out of a bad situation. That those things out of my control will control me.
I don’t expect it to work out in my favor all the time. But I know I win every time I don’t give into my fear and rise above it, making me stronger for the next time.
Note: I don’t live my life calling myself ‘the fat girl’, but I use it here because it is clear that many others do, and to show that obviously, that doesn’t matter in the end.