The story of retraining my brain...
For my 40th birthday this year, I decided to travel solo to a place where I could indulge in my passion for photography. I do photography just for myself. Photography is one thing that brings me instant peace, calms me down, and is my meditation practice. I decided a solo trip to South Africa for two weeks is what I wanted to do to celebrate my 40th birthday. I planned the *perfect* trip for myself. A few days in Cape Town - a city I love, a few days on a beach at a remote lodge by Mozambique/South Africa border so I could snorkel to my heart's content, and then a luxurious safari so I could indulge in my passion of photography.
I have loved traveling for as long as I can remember. I started traveling with my parents when I was 9. So when it came time to find a job it had to be one that offered me the luxury of travel. I was fortunate to work in a job for 15 years that afforded me to travel all over the US. Often times these were solo travels (I couldn't tag my husband along everywhere!) for anywhere between 3-5 days and I relished my alone time.
After I got married, my husband and I quickly realized that giving gifts to each other for birthdays and anniversaries was not our jam but traveling together to remember those important events was our jam. Hence started our journey of traveling the world together. Each year we'd go to 2 or 3 new countries and spend at least 10 -14 days in each country and savour the food, music, art, culture, and everything else the country had to offer. All this came to a halting stop when COVID hit us in early 2020. Our last trip was to India in December 2019 where I did a bit of solo travel but nothing too long - just a few days here and there. So when I planned a solo trip to South Africa, I was very excited to not only have the time for myself but also to have time for photography. I knew I was going to have a phenomenal time!
I couldn't wait for July and August to rush through so I could get on the plane at the end of August and be on my own. While I was super excited, I was also a little nervous. I hadn't been on an international trip in nearly 3 years. I hadn't done any solo traveling - work or pleasure for over 3 years. And as luck would have it, my trip started with a bit of a hiccup with me having to re-route my itinerary 6 hours before the flight and having to purchase all new tickets the *day* of travel. (I certainly had the privilege to be able to buy new tickets and reroute my travel at the last minute - which I know, not everyone has - and I recognize that.) This experience of having to re-plan a trip that had been planned for months was my first tryst at retraining my brain and not losing confidence in myself or what I had planned for the next 17 days.
Once my new plans were sorted, I decided that on this trip I was going to ask for help when I needed it instead of trying to figure out everything by myself and getting flustered. After all, I was going on this trip to relax and not be more stressed. You see I had conditioned myself to believe that asking for help - especially when I traveled - meant I was weak; and, weak I couldn't be when I had traveled to almost 50 countries and 46 out of the 50 states in the US. This asking-for-help business meant I had to retrain my brain. Retrain to think what "weak" meant, retrain to think what "confidence" meant, and retrain to think what "trusting" others meant.
My first opportunity to ask for help came when I was in India and had to figure out how to transfer from domestic terminal to international terminal at the airport. I often don't trust people in India. I have had experiences where I was misguided or redirected incorrectly. So trying to convince myself to ask for help in India and then following through on that advice was a big leap of faith but I did it. I asked for help with directions and followed through with what this stranger told me and I got to where I needed to. This little experiment in asking for help (in a country where I spoke the language and could largely navigate if lost) gave me the confidence I needed for the rest of my trip to continue asking for help.
By the time I got to Johannesburg - I had been either on a plane or at an airport for over 20 hours - and I still had to catch a flight to Cape Town. As I was trying to figure out where my boarding gate was, I started to get flustered, tired, upset, and almost wanted to give up on my solo trip - even before it had begun. This is when I remembered that I had decided that I was going to ask for help so I didn't get myself into these situations of stress and fluster. So, off I went to the nearest airport official and asked for help. And guess what, I was standing at the gate I needed to be all this while but just couldn't see the gate number from my vantage point! This second incident reinforced that asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness but a sign of self-awareness. A signpost that helps you recognize what you need, what you are not good at, and truly where your strength lies.
As I continued through the rest of my trip, I realized that this trip was just what I needed. I used parts of my brain that I hadn't in many years. And I gained skills I didn't know I needed. Here's what I learned:
travelling alone meant I could have flexibility in my plans and not follow a prescribed schedule - this helped me realize that following a structured plan can be overrated sometimes and that taking chances is very important.
being disconnected from technology and reading fiction meant I could daydream again and visualize the books I was reading. I created a movie in my brain as the book progressed and my imagination has not been this vivid in a while!
there is a reason for everything that happens and you only realize this in hindsight. While going to the Safari game reserve, I missed a turn and kept driving. I had to make a U-turn and drive back for about 20 minutes to get to the safari lodge. In the moment I cursed myself for not reading the directions correctly but only a few moments later I had the most incredible experience of an elephant walking straight at me and me having to drive in reverse for a few kms so that he didn't run me over. Now if I hadn't missed the turn, I would have never experienced this!
go with the flow because all structured plans WILL be challenged. I was most excited to go to the beach because I could snorkel, be in the warm weather, and feel the sand under my feet. Once I got to the lodge, I realized that it was a very sandy beach but with rocks. I could only snorkel during high tide and that too only in certain parts of the ocean. It also rained one of the three days that I was there. Instead of getting upset, I quickly realized this was my opportunity to read the book I had been wanting to for a while. This was also my opportunity to sit on the beach and watch the dolphins and whales breach. This was also my opportunity to get a massage. When I let go of needing structure, I could focus on everything else around me and slow down to enjoy my surroundings.
being in the moment grounded me to where I was and helped me count my blessings, recognize my privilege, and taught me not to worry about the past or the future. I truly took the time to not think about what was going to happen the next day or what I was going to eat for dinner that night. I just didn't plan and savoured the moment I was in.
I came back from this trip fulfilled and happy (in spite of all the challenges at the beginning). I took over 2000 pictures in 2 weeks, reconnected with myself, disconnected from social media, and learned to live in the moment. I realized that I could retrain my brain to slow down, to ask for help, to trust others, and to regain my lost confidence.
When was the last time you experienced something like this? When did you last reconnect with yourself? I recommend doing it soon. You never know what you will discover about yourself.