Do you ever get that feeling: when you're in a new place and absorbed in your own thoughts. Someone's talking to you but it doesn't compute. Maybe they're speaking another language? Maybe you’re completely surrounded by .. well nothing recognizable. And suddenly you realize...you don't belong.
Your stomach drops.
What do I do?
It's these moments, more than any others, that I treasure. I can feel a toughness building inside me, like the calluses on the bottom of a hikers foot, or on a drummer's hand, or on the tips a violin players fingers. These moments where I'm overwhelmed by fear, I both learn something valuable about myself but also in how I react to the world around me.
I take the deepest breath I can muster. Hold it tight. Let it go. And am renewed.
So. Rather than write about the sparkly parts of my trip to “secret China” (can you point to Hainan Island on a map? I couldn’t before this trip. Thus, secret China.), I'm going to drill down into a moment when I was most afraid, where I jumped right out of my skin, when I felt most alive, what I learned, and how I feel I’ve “leveled up”.
I spent a total of 13 days on the ground: 3 days (rushing around the visa office) in Hong Kong; 2 days sunbathing in Shimei Bay; followed by 3 days in (rural, surf-haven) Ri Yue Wan; 2 days in Baoting County where we climbed Seven Fairy Mountain and swam in natural hot springs; and 3 days in Sanya (one of two cities on the island). An epic journey, and one where the lessons were vast and frequent.
On day two of our stay in chilled Ri Yue Wan my travel companion and Hainan import Louise took me on a 3hr hike through the jungle to find the best coffee on the island in a town called Xing Long (兴隆). A town where foreigners are absolutely foreign (because it’s impossible to get to) and to where I'm not sure I could have ever found without my personal travel guide.
The thing about China is a lot of it has been built (or at the initial stages of being built, when construction for whatever reason quickly stopped) and so there are roads which go... well, everywhere. Even the tiniest of rural villages have roads taking you from one hut to the next.
The thing about a road that runs through the jungle, is that 95% of the time you don’t have to worry about much > only really about getting sun stroke, being hit by a didi, or being screamed “HELLO” at by passers by (if you happen to actually pass anyone). These roads are pretty safe, and pretty easy to travel on! Unfortunately the other (albeit rare) 5% you have to worry about literally everything else: wild dogs, wild boars, spiders as big as your face, snakes as big as a didi, and no one being able to hear you scream. Great. Cool. Wonderful. I’ll just hold my breath til it’s over then, shall I?
On this particular hike (the one towards coffee) we fortunately only came across one of those things. It was a gorgeous, not too warm and not too wet day. We set off early to avoid the afternoon heat. Louise and I chatted about life, work, about home. About who we felt we are as people, what we find most valuable, how it evidently wasn’t the rainy season anymore and how I could have probably brought my favourite trainers without worry. And suddenly Louise stopped - dead in her tracks - she turned back, and her face had pure terror across it. I stopped and began to turn.
My stomach dropped. I held my breath: “what is it? should we go back?”, I asked.
... She laughed “what? back the two hours we’ve come?” Typical Louise. Laughing, at a time like this!
“Well, I don’t know!” I said exasperated.
There was a pack of wild dogs, up ahead, to the right, standing in a ditch on the side of the road.
What do we do? I had never come across wild dogs before. And, I was afraid of dogs on leashes passing me on the sidewalk in New York Cities, on the best of days.
We couldn’t go back. It was too far. And moreover, the dogs had seen us! Turning back would be the the worst of the ideas on the (hypothetical) table and there was no way around. No, we would have to walk past them. But how to do that when I was already frozen in fear?
Shit. I was still holding my breath. Ok. Breath out. Breath back in. Ok, we would just have to walk past the pack of dogs. Sure, yea. Fine. Right?
We started to walk forward. Slowly.
I wasn’t blinking. Could I do this?
Turns out, the Universe was on our side. We could hear a car driving up behind us. (Of all moments on this mostly uninterrupted walk - Hallelujah!!) We had about 5 seconds to act. We were going to pass the ditch right as the car did, using the car as a makeshift wild dog shield.
Just as we passed the ditch the car sped off. So I began to speed up. We just need to get another 20 feet, around the bend in the road - and then we’ll be fine! Louise grabbed my arm ... hard. She jerked me back. “Dude, relax,” she said. “Don’t speed up.” My heart was racing. All I wanted to do was run all the way to Xing Long. As fast as I could. And never look back. “Ok,” I said. My pace slowed. I fixed my gaze ahead and started to count (in my head) “one. two. three. four. five...” one for every step I took. “Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two..”
Eventually we made it around the bend, up the road, around a second bend. My body un-tensed. I started to breathe normally again.
In the end, we made it to Xing Long. We had several dark, rich coffees and reflected on the day: “glad we hadn’t started later, in the heat of the day!” There wasn’t much chat about what had happened, and by midday the wild dogs, now miles behind us, felt a bit like a dream.
Louise didn’t tell me until days later that the first time she encountered a pack of wild dogs in China had actually been another 20min up the road. She didn’t mock me for my fear, or for the way I had reacted. We just continued on our way. Unadulterated. Perhaps a bit more focused on the final mark.
Fear is a funny thing, isn’t it? It can seize all of your senses, overwhelm you to the point of collapse. Fear changes people. It builds them up or breaks them down. Some fear is impossible to overcome. Some fear is bearable. Some unrecognizable to others. We can use tools to work through it. I personally find that knowledge is power. I coach myself through: "Xann, I know you're afraid of heights but dude there's a gate between you and the ledge." "I know this latter feels rusted and unhinged but if you hold on tight and move quickly, you'll be on the solid ground in no time." "Just walk past the wild dogs, don't acknowledge them or look their way. They don't exist.” “If the dogs come after us what could you use as a weapon? Your rucksack?” “Next time carry a stick with you. Ok. Noted."
Coming head to head with our fears is inevitable. To be honest I hadn’t expected to face so many of mine in one trip. I wasn’t prepared. But I suppose we never are. I’m grateful that it happened the way it did. Before this trip I had packed myself away, tucked into a cave of safety. I had my routine, my life compartments neatly stacked in perfect, tidy rows. This trip shattered my sense of safety and reliance on those compartments built up around me. It reminded me of my humanity and woke me up from a hazy dazy dream I was living in. The fear shattered the glass box I had hid myself away in. As the glass started to crash around me. I took the deepest breath I could muster. Held it tight. Let it go.
And was renewed.