How it feels just before a Brand New Adventure
In just a few minutes, I will be leaving for Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains, a remote and isolated land of beauty, wild animals and tribes. I leave my devices, my computer and everything familiar but my essential belongings behind. Yesterday I spent much of the day repacking and organizing my soft pack luggage to meet the weight requirements. Everything is to be carried by horse (including me), and that means no overloading.
How does it feel to be on the verge? What’s it like to be just about to head off into parts unknown, among people who don’t speak your language, who may or may not appreciate your being there?
Invariably there are mixed feelings. Exhilaration, for one. I love being around animals of any kind, and any excuse to ride is a good excuse for me. Most places in the world, horse (and camel and elephant and donkey) owners don’t pet or love on their animals. When I ride them and take the time to remove pests from their ears (like ticks, which are common) or scratch areas they can’t reach, the horses respond first with fear, then with curiosity. Then they lean into it. I often have animals follow me around afterwards, delighted that human hands can be kind for a change.
Personally I get a huge bang out of how all the men will shout at me that I’m about to get kicked when I start to scrub the horses’ butts, when instead the animal simply drops his head, eyes closed, in pure happiness.
Curiosity. I never know how things might go. While in Lalibela, a town of Coptic Churches and great beauty, a child spat at me through the open van window. While I am well aware that his misplaced anger had nothing to do with me, his response to my uninvited presence in his rapidly-changing world means that there are likely more who feel the same way. What that means is unknowable. Many that we will see hope for gifts (I have plenty, but they don’t include money or candy). I deliver small things like nail clippers, which are hugely useful, nail files and hair bands. Hair bands delight women, for they are colorful and useful and make playthings for kids when not in use. Cheap, easy, and they work.
Thrill. I delight in going to brand-new places, which promise potentially beautiful scenery or simply remarkable people. The expectation that I will enjoy what I find creates a lovely sense of adventure. While it’s true that at times I’m disappointed, that doesn’t change anything. There have been things that are painful (such as how people treat their animals at times) and there are signs of careless development, or the inevitable masses of trash tossed carelessly by the roadside, otherwise spoiling a magnificent view. That is everywhere, no matter where I go.
Fear. A little. As this time around I injured myself before I barely started the trip, I have hobbled both my knees (I started with one bad one, now I have two), so there is some concern about how things will go. We’re going to be in an inaccessible area, so I have to trust both my competence and my physical abilities, which are slightly compromised at the moment. That said, I’m with a good group, and I trust that whatever comes will be what is supposed to happen. That’s not so much fatalist but practical.
Challenge. We’ll be riding through some of the last great forests in Ethiopia, and much of it at very high altitude. Since I live and train at altitude this isn’t that big an issue for me, but it is for some. People (including football and baseball players) who come to Denver’s mile- high city get nosebleeds. I train and run stairs above that altitude which makes this kind of trek more tolerable. It’s still damned hard work to hike in, but at least I am better prepared than many.
Delight. Up here there are still species being discovered. In many ways this remarkable country, as war-torn as it has been for so many years, continues to offer extraordinary experiences especially in the areas which enjoy relative peace. The tribes we are going to see haven’t had much experience with tourists, so it’s our job to make sure those exchanges are positive ones. This particular trek is still very new and as a result quite raw, and that’s precisely why I chose it. I am far less fond of well-worn tourist treks than I am of those which promise a bit of strangeness, the frank curiosity of those who are unaccustomed to white faces, and the kind of welcome many people offer to weary travelers brave enough to come to their remote lands.
The villagers put ribbons on their horses’ manes and tails to make them more attractive for us. We change our mounts regularly so the villagers get paid for the use of their animals. If I understand correctly (and riders will appreciate this) we don’t use bridles. Only a halter, and then, only a rope on one side of the head. We have to bring our own stirrup irons and leathers as what is available here is either too short or won’t accommodate our larger feet and boots. We leave that gear behind as a gift to the locals, where a sixty-dollar investment in our comfort becomes a huge treasure to these people.
As a result, as I do in all new countries with new horses and gear, I get to be a rank rookie all over again. By that I mean that while I am a skilled equestrian, every time I travel to a new place, those horses are fundamentally different from what I know in America. They are trained differently, the tack is different, and all the signals that I know back home are useless. The only thing I carry with me is an excellent seat, and the patience to learn how to ride like the locals. I prefer to ride right behind the guide so that I can watch their hand and foot movements. That is the best way I know how to learn.
I’ve seen very talented dressage riders make fools of themselves in other countries by demanding that their mounts respond to commands they can’t possibly know, and then get angry at the horse.
In human terms, this is like traveling to the deepest darkest parts of the Amazon and expecting people to speak and understand English. It’s just that stupid, yet time and time again I watch other riders get frustrated.
I understand the dynamic. It’s exceedingly challenging for someone who is very well-trained and in fact even an expert in an area, like horseback riding, to have to let go of the superiority that such skills convey, and revert to being a beginner all over again. People resist this because they have to potentially allow themselves to look foolish.
And this brings me to the most important point: Beginner’s Mind or Shoshin. Buddhists will understand this concept. Even if you are a so-called expert, Beginner’s Mind demands that we remain open, soft and curious as though we had never been there before.
This to me is the greatest single gift of travel. I am on my 36th country. No matter how many countries I visit, no matter how many horses I ride, no matter how many miles I put under my belt, I am now and will always be a beginner. Guaranteed.
What makes this so powerful is that keeping that openness to the new is what makes me youthful. At nearly 67, perhaps the most life-affirming thing I can do is constantly put myself into different, challenging and changing environments. It’s impossible to get jaded, and the brain delights in being pushed to learn to new skills.
Being willing to look (and often be) foolish is childlike. Children, until they learn that looking foolish is a societal no-no, could care less. It’s part of the adventure of learning how to walk, talk, feed themselves, negotiate a brand new world. It’s part of being young. Or, put more succinctly, it’s the best part of being.
Many folks talk about how travel changes them, and I would concur. Perhaps the best part about standing on the edge of the cliff this morning, about an hour before my guide picks me up, is possibly the way an eagle feels just before it leaves the nest. A certain trepidation (shit that’s a long way down) a question (do these wings really work?) and extreme excitement (I wanna soar like MOM!!!!).
Yes you can. I will fall. Fail. Falter. Guaranteed. I will make mistakes, do dumb shit and embarrass myself. Guaranteed. I might even injure myself again (I hope that’s not guaranteed).
But those become my best stories. Also guaranteed. Because I will come back deeply enriched, and ready for the next big segment, coming soon to a Medium article near you, right around December 6th.