A Journal of My Mid-Life Crisis
19 April 1998 - Fear and Mastery on the Dark Continent
I'm sitting in a cybercafe in Harare, Zimbabwe, avoiding writing some of my real travel dispatches because I'm more interested in the emotional stuff but not indiscrete enough to write that in what feels like a more public space. Not that this is actually private, per se, but I don't advertise the journal to people I work with or the world at large. If someone stumbles across it, fine, but I'm not inviting them in outright.
Anyway, the last couple of months have been very weird and very good for me, I think. I don't really feel like I've been gone from home for 2 1/2 months, but I do feel like a lot has happened. I've often said that the value of personal stories is in finding themes in your life and that may be the same of travel. At any rate, without really trying to, I've found out just what some of my key issues are. Not that I didn't really know.. this is more a process of clarification and crystallization, though maybe that is what all discovery involves.
So what are these big issues? First, of all, there's the matter of perspective. I've felt that I was blowing up over trivial things (not necessarily in extreme ways but either being snappish with people for no good reason or beating myself up too hard for relatively small things.) Traveling in the conditions I've been in is good for perspective. It isn't just the physical hardships of washed away roads, intense rain and mud, and not being able to buy much for days, but the realization of just how privileged I really am. So I can get great fresh tomatoes in Malawi, compared to the cardboard supermarket ones in California - sometimes, 3 tomatoes and 2 onions is all the market has there.
Another big issue is just pace of life, and this was probably the one I was most aware of before leaving. I can't say I've totally slowed down, but I was able to handle four days of not being able to do anything in Harare because of public holidays without going nuts. I was still happy when everything reopened on Tuesday morning, though.
The biggest issue though has been one of fear and mastery. Before I left home, I had never slept in a tent and, certainly, never put up a tent. In fact, I had been camping maybe 6 or 7 times and none of those within, say, the past 15 years. With the constant rain, I was terrified of the tent falling. And I was even mroe terrified of people seeing my incompetence. Yes, one night the tent did collapse - due to soft sand, not rain - but the reaction was sympathy, not humiliation. About all I can say is that I did get better at it, though I never felt I achieved true mastery.
I did get a sense of mastery, though, about some other things. I am very scared of heights and hiking downhill is always an ordeal for me. Rafting the Zambezi was a nightmare experience, not because of the rafting, but because of the steep trails in and out of the gorge (and a particularly horrifying portage). I shouldn't have gone - I knew this would be a problem, but I gave into peer pressure. Anyway, the whole experience was just horribly humiliating and the sympathy of others made it worse. I succumbed to a similar panic level descending from the hill complex at the Great Zimbabwe ruins, which was worse as this was the start of another leg and in front of a mostly new group of people. (First impressions...)
So where did the mastery come in? On the second leg, when I came back to Victoria Falls, I signed up to go canoeing on the upper Zambezi. I didn't have any particular fear of the canoeing, but I didn't know what the put-in and take out were like. And, to be fair, I'd not done any canoeing in years, so I did have some concerns about my competence at it. It turned out great, though! In fact, the guides were surprised that my partner and I were novices and said we must have paid particularly good attention to the instructions!
And, then, at Matobo National Park (near Bulawayo), I was concerned about a couple of hikes. The path up and down to Rhodes' grave is not particularly steep so was fine. I was mildly panicked over the "short, steep climb" to Nswatugi cave (where there is a San rock painting) and, yes, it was steep and, yes, I was the last one down, but I never felt really out of control during the descent. So I had some feeling of mastery there.
The whole fear and mastery question comes up with regard to people issues, too, but I'll write about that another time. For now, let's just say that my own issues about feeling incompetent have caused me to behave badly towards others more often than I realized. I think being concious of this helps some, but there are some people who I don't think will ever understand this or forgive me and I just have to have enough perspective to realize this is not important in the long run. I don't need universal approval - which is good, since nobody gets that!
Copyright 1998 Miriam H. Nadel
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