Always Look On The Bright Side!

I just climbed to the highest point in the Indian Ocean. Piton Des Neiges is a mountain in Réunion Island with 3070 metres of elevation. That’s three times higher than England’s biggest mountain, Scafell pike, which is 978 metres.

I’d been feeling pretty down in the week before so seeing the sun rise from a viewpoint above the clouds and feeling literally on top of the world, was exactly the dose of awe-inspiring energy that I needed to boost me up. Nothing like climbing a mountain to lift the spirits! Life’s full of surprises, so let’s start from the beginning…

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My Spanish and English housemate plus our German guest and I rushed out of the house on Saturday morning, bags packed full of snacks, warm clothes and sun cream. We met two other English girls at the bus stop and were all feeling pretty smug about not only being on time, but early for the bus. THAT’s how super organised and sensible we can be. Only the bus did that thing it often does here, where it just doesn’t turn up. Because, you know, bus timetables are more of a proposal than an actual plan.

So, we waited, and waited, and waited some more. In the end we got on the next bus and arrived at St Louis bus station with a 2 hour wait for our connection up to our starting point in Cilaos. I was very grumpy about this. Until, lo and behold, I realised that the universe had a greater plan for me because guess what I remembered? That St Louis, probably one of least exciting places on this island, is actually home to a gluten-free bakery!

Off I trotted in search of this mysterious hidden gem that I had only heard about but never seen. I must have asked about four different people for directions and ended up walking around a very long way to a street that turned out to be right next to the bus station. The last people I asked was a young lad working in a snack bar and his much older dad sitting watching the world go by from his chair. They joked in Creole with me and I only half understood what was going on but joined in merrily with the laughter anyway.

I tried to pronounce the name of the street I was looking for loads of times but it wasn’t until I said I was specifically searching for “the gluten free bakery” that they both nodded enthusiastically and said “yes of course the gluten free bakery, it’s just up the road!” We were all very happy to have found what I was looking for but I was still a bit suspicious about whether or not I’d fully understood the French/Creole conversation because normally people don’t know what gluten is, never mind where to find gluten-free places. However these guys did not disappoint because there it was, a gluten-free bakery full of cakes, bread and traditional treats.

I marched in and declared in French “this is the BEST day of my life” before hurriedly choosing as much as I thought I could eat on the hike and running out to get back in time for the next bus, babbling about how great it was that they thought to open this place.

In Cilaos we joined about ten other friends and all began the hike up to the hostel we’d be staying in that night. When we arrived everyone screamed with delight that the first day was done. After an intense game of cards and an early dinner, we hit the hay with all the other hikers at around 8pm. The alarm went off at 3:30am and we rolled out of our cosy little nests in the triple bunkbeds and into our hiking shoes.

It was pitch black and had been raining all night, all the bleary eyed hikers were deliberating whether or not to still set off in search of the sunrise from the summit or wait until the conditions were better. Onwards and upwards, we optimistically set out with anoraks and head torches and determinedly marched off.

Except from none of us thought to check which markers we were supposed to be following or which direction to go in. And we ended up walking down hill, picking our way through rocky puddles in the dark, for over an hour before we realised that probably we should be going uphill given that we were trying to climb a mountain. So we all turned around and marched off back in the direction we came, getting the beautiful sunrise from ¾ of the way up the mountain instead of from the top. But that’s okay, it was incredible none the less and we got a, ahem, 2 hour warm up to help us with the climb up to the top and some sunlight to show us the sign for the right direction. Always look on the bright side of life, dee dum, dee dum dee dum dee dum.

And oh how the aching legs, tired muscles and constant sweating were all worth it in the end! We got treated to the most amazing views at the top and got that beautiful feeling of achievement swelling up in our chests. Fueled with a sugar high from my little gluten free cupcake and a natural high from the breath taking surroundings, I was ready to start the 6 hour hike back down to civilisation and more bus fun.

That’s another challenge ticked off my list of things to do on the road, and who’d have known that a missed bus would mean gluten-free snacks on the hardest hike I’ve ever done.

Until next time and thanks for reading : )

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Travelling with my Friend Anxiety

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When I first arrived for the second time in the “Ile Intense” (Réunion Island), I was convinced I couldn’t do it, that I’d have to get on the next plane home and give up on any dreams of being an independent, intrepid traveller out in the big wide world. Seven months of ups, downs, crazy adventures and lazy days on the beach by the turquoise lagoon and I look back to that watery-eyed girl with a knowing smile.

Transition is difficult. However, despite all the doubt-filled voices in my head and overwhelming emotions crashing over me in those first few days, somewhere in my gut I knew with certainty that I just had to ride out the hard bits of readjusting then soon enough I’d be okay.

I’m writing this because travel is such a transformative, incredible, and unbeatable adventure so we naturally hear a lot about all the highs of leaping into the unknown and discovering different corners of the world. But it’s not necessarily easy and most of us are carrying a whole heap of emotional baggage.

I’m a relatively stable individual but ever since I can remember I’ve carried anxiety with me that can be like a tornado ripping through all sense of reason. From recurring nightmares, sleep paralysis and a washing machine stomach to panic attacks, obsessive skin picking and various physical illnesses, my anxiety has manifested itself in all kinds of ways throughout the years.

So what did I do? Alongside daily meditation I also started to visualise the anxiety as a guest, someone who was welcome to stay and say whatever it felt it needed to say, but who must also respect my house rules. The most important of which is to be kind, so even when my guest is kicking up a fuss and trying to send the whole household into panic, we try and be kind to each other. I treat it like a baby who just needs to be held until it feels more secure and less scared and in return it kindly quietens down and trusts that I know what I’m doing.

Leaving your tribe behind and waking up in a completely different place / country alone can be daunting. But with awe inspiring natural surroundings, the people you connect with along the way and the chance to make good friends with yourself, warts and all, means you’re never really alone.

Having done the get-up-and-go thing a fair few times in the last 5 years, I can say that it is so totally worth it. Whether moving across my own country or overseas, I have never once regretted it and I have always left each place feeling stronger than when I first arrived. This means that I now expect the sheer panic following a change and know that it’s just making room for the growth that is about to come.

I posed my bags for seven months this time, getting a shared apartment by the sea in the south of Réunion Island to be an English Language Assistant for the British Council. In the short space of time that I’ve been here so much has happened.

To mention a few, I started learning three different types of dance, African, Swing and Bachata. I became fluent in French. I got rescued by a helicopter after getting stuck in the mountains on a hike with a friend. I went on countless hikes and saw a volcano in eruption. I went to an international picnic with people from all over the world. I attended a two day singing workshop where I shared a traditional song from my hometown despite the fact I feel sickeningly anxious singing in front of people. I danced in the full moon on the beach around a fire and lay back gazing at a sky sprayed with stars. I volunteered at a local organic farm, sleeping in a wooden hut with a straw roof. I learnt I love helping students express themselves in a foreign language and that you really can have a job you enjoy.

I arrived here longing to turn around and go back home, feeling too physically sick to eat properly for days. I spent a good three hours shaking and sobbing into the pillow, followed by an all-consuming dread that something terrible was going to happen, before getting to sleep on the first night. The funny thing is that I’ve had a more memorable time than I ever could have imagined and have surprised myself in many ways. Challenging things did happen but I coped and the good times outweighed the bad. I’ll be sad to say goodbye, having found yet another home from home.

Transitions are tricky, anxiety can feel crippling. But I’d rather go through the change and work out how to adapt than never get the chance to explore beyond my comfort zone. I’ve accepted my anxiety and I’d go as far to say that it’s a travelling companion of sorts. Curiously, the more I treat it as a friend, the less destructive it becomes.

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