Self Reflection

The future is so uncertain and at times frightening, I don’t know what I want to do, I don’t know who I’ll “end up with”, I don’t know where I want to settle down and be. These thoughts would’ve been overwhelming and so heavy in weight a year ago, but days of recent times it’s not had the same influence.

To the person who I was this time last year, I know you’re in immense pain. The last couple of months and the months following will be the hardest and most heart-crushing pain you will have ever gone through. You will learn some truths that goes against some fundamental principles you held dear, but you will grow from it. Don’t try and hold tightly on who you were because that Louisa is dead and gone, all you can do is look forward. The new you is not worse or better but just is. You will be pushed to the furthest edge of the mortal cliff, you will come back having gained a better idea of where the drop-off is and make peace with it. All of this will be a trial by fire which will give you a new skin of cold, hard steel when you finally emerge – a process that is slow and not a quick transformation by any means. Well done on being you Louisa, I’m proud that you are still here and have made the last year what you have. Shit happens all the time. People will do awful things intentional or unknowingly, but do them they will nonetheless and that’s not within your control. You are the master of only your own actions.

One thing that I did learn about myself in the last year was the existence of my anxiety which has always accompanied me and been an obstacle in many situations. Living in London did not help things, being in such a high pressure city where there’s little love for strangers on the street, where there is little time to get from A to B it feeds anxiety and sometimes it would make me feel and act small. The new skin of cold steel has been priceless in gaining clarity on when this affects me and helps me challenge why it is I should feel small (to which the answer is always “no real reason”). It’s a big but subtle change. The best way of explaining this is to liken it to how Evie changes in V for Vendetta after V tortures to “free” her from her fears. I suppose when you’ve stared into the eyes of something so dark, nothing feels as bad anymore.

My lowest point last year was being unable to answer what my motivation was in life, what I wanted to do, what direction I was to have. When I rationally thought it through, I rationally saw that there was no point to my life. My life (as with all other lives, it is not special) is an accumulation of moments, relationships and knowledge learnt. But without feeling a reason (and I still don’t, this is not something I think I can change), nothing I do matters. It got to the point where I saw logic in ending my life – although I have to stress that I was not suicidal. There is a distinction, albeit nuanced, between feeling like you need to end your life and seeing the logic in ending life. Being the latter, it also allows me to carry on to see what the alternative is, because what else am I going to do otherwise? As dark and possibly twisted this post is, I wanted to be brutally honest about how I felt, what I continue to feel. I am still alive and actually doing really well. I have a new job and a new house lined up, I’m about to go visit my boyfriend in the US. I don’t need help, and I’m currently not seeking help. I feel perfectly in control and at peace with who I am at this moment in time and what happened. The purpose of writing this was to point out that no one needs to be happy 100% of the time. That’s not human. Dark thoughts happens in all of us, but they need to be conversed with. Why are you feeling the way you feel? Don’t try and shirk from it – the most unhealthy thing here is denial.

The event that threw me into the existential blender of the past year was atrocious. It is heinous, despicable and should never have to happen to anyone. But having spoken to people who have had similar if not worst tales to tell, and having had time to process, I’m glad it happened. I am who I am today because of it and what I did after. How much I learnt is something that I’m fiercely proud of which no one can take away from me.

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How Far I’ve Come

I’ve now been back in London for two days. It’s been interesting to see the lack of change in the city contrasted against the changes I see within myself. I feel a different person and it’s made much more obvious being back in a familiar environment. Part of the changes are due to the travelling I’ve been on – I wonder whether if these will be long term, but there are also changes which I can imagine are due to what happened last summer.

Looking back on the person I was, it seems a lot of the stresses and anxieties I had came from the expectations and how tightly I was gripping on life. I no longer have the tension I had before and that in itself feels so different.

I was not in a good place before I went away so it’s kind of comforting to hear my close friends say that I seem happy and better when I stayed with them. But the pain still sits there and still hurts, I don’t think it will ever disappear and I’ve accepted it. Moving on isn’t necessarily to reach a place where things no longer hurt. This last year has taught me that it’s about making peace with what happened, fully accepting that it changes you as a person and having the courage to take the next step without letting it hinder you. It’s been a long, difficult process but ultimately I wouldn’t be the person I am today without everything that’s in my past. I have no insight on who I would be had things panned out differently and there’s very little use in wishing for things to have turned out otherwise. I love myself enough to not waste any time dwelling on that.

The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Thakhek: Green Climbers Home

We’re currently on our way to moving on having spent 25 days at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek. Having only planned to stay for 16 days, when it came to the leaving on our original end date, neither Ed or I felt ready to leave. The climbing was good, but so was Kalymnos and Tonsai. What really makes Green Climbers Home special is the people who turn up there. It felt like an adult summer camp where the days are spent throwing your efforts at the wall and nights are late hanging out with your friends you’ve made. Out of the people we met, I don’t think there was a single person who actually left on the day they had planned to leave which is real testament to the way the place is run. If you go, you will find that you have an entire valley to play with – a climber’s paradise. What was also really surprising was the proportion of people who arrived having never climbed and were there to learn.

I do think some of the grading at the crags are a bit off. Even the 5s and 6as proved to be challenging, more so than at other places we’ve climbed. Also, since I’d travelled for the prior two months with no training or climbing, it really whooped me the better half of the first week we were there. The climbing didn’t get easier, but I did get more comfortable and could climb harder.

My sport climbing goal for 2018 was to do my first 7a. I managed 6c+ in Tonsai in January before running out of time to project a 7a route there. Knowing how relatively weak and out of shape I was when I arrived, I didn’t really have any expectations of being able to climb hard. But after throwing myself continuously at a climb called Schwitzerland, on the eleventh attempt I finally made it. It’s a route with lots of lovely flowy technical moves, something I’d normally be really into but for some reason the climb was very intimidating to me. I’d managed to get to the last few moves about five times before I managed to send it. And even on my send try, I still didn’t quite believe that I could do it. My biggest weakness is currently and has been for quite some time a mental hurdle. Physically the moves actually never gave me too much trouble, my endurance was perhaps lacking a little but I could perform all the moves without trouble. I never felt quite comfortable on it to fully commit though. Whereas on a 6c route I’d projected a week earlier I could happily go for moves and fall without holding back. The emotions when I finally clipped the anchor was undeniable. Nothing else puts me in such a state as climbing does. What made it even better was that the friends I had made were climbing at the crag right next door so some could see me and cheers accompanied my pathetic sobbing. It was the best way to repay their belief in me throughout the days I projected the climb. Now I have the evidence to prove to myself I can do this, hopefully I can climb more confidently in future.

It’s only been two days since we left and already I miss the place, the lifestyle and most of all the people. Every single person who left before we did, I missed them and now I miss everyone like cattle misses their herd when they’re lost. I would definitely like to go back, although it’d be incredibly hard to replicate the time we had. Nevertheless, the 25 days has made my life and memories infinitely richer.

Escape the dust to Inle

So we got a night bus from Bagan to Kalaw which was scheduled to arrive at 4am and we organised a two day trek that started at 8am. Now that we’ve done it, I wouldn’t recommend it haha. Our bus ended up arriving at 2.30am to Kalaw which does not have much facilities open at that time in the morning apart from a makeshift cafe. The only places which seem to have toilets are hotels (genuinely, the cafe had no loo and they didn’t seem to know what a public toilet was). The temperature at night also plummeted to 4 degrees which we were a little ill prepared for. So with very little sleep we started our two day trek walking 16-17km a day with a company called Jungle Kings. The first day we were little more than zombies ambling through the dry fields and valleys. Our guide Simon was not the most talkative, although he did show us a few plants like garlic leaf and wild coriander (if you’re one of those weird people who doesn’t like coriander, Myanmar might prove a little troubling for you). Despite the low energy, we still saw some incredible sights.

It made me really curious as to what the countryside would look like in rainy season.

One thing that kind of really put a negative spin on the trip was that there was a French woman with her three year old son. I have to start by saying that I am all for female empowerment. I do not think that women should be limited and prohibited from things like travelling just because biologically they’re able to reproduce. However, if you do choose to travel with a child, you have to make sure you’re able to show them boundaries as well as all the amazing sights. This little boy of three was an absolute nightmare. He was aggressive and violent at every possible opportunity. For example he threw a rock at me, and then at lunch threw a small wooden at me whilst I was dozing. He also throttled another guide at dinner as well as hitting people on numerous occasions. And what did the mum do? Little more than calling his name when she sensed that people were looking at her wondering why she wasn’t disciplining him. Single mums who travel, go you. And I can only imagine how hard it is to look after a child on your own particularly if you’re travelling but it’s no excuse to let them run wild and not learn when they do something wrong. Rant over.

So overnight we stayed at a monastery. A few people we’d met travelling opted to go with a homestay instead as there were rumours of bed bugs but we didn’t seem to be bitten by any on our stay. The food was delicious and a definite highlight of these trips. The Burmese people are very generous with the food and on events like these they will more often than not refill the dishes for you to eat to your heart’s content. The worst thing about staying in that monastery was the toilets. Full of spiders and just full in general, if you catch my drift. Squat toilets aren’t the most pleasant thing but even out in rural Myanmar I’ve come across some that, despite being quite rudimentary, are clean and don’t smell. Overall though it’s an experience, just not necessarily one that I would repeat.

One advantage of starting the hike on very little sleep was that I managed to a great sleep in the monastery despite monks running around on the wooden floorboards. The second day was done with a lot more zeal from our group. The activity highlight of the trek was the boat ride at the end from lusciously green farmlands up across Inle Lake to the town at the top. The lake looks small on the map but is so vast that I could almost believe it was an ocean.

Inle is a very nice respite from the dry and dusty climate we’ve come to associate with Myanmar.

Our 48 hour journey to Yangon

Reluctantly we had to leave Coron after an awesome five nights in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen so far. We had booked an overnight ferry (with 2go travel) from Coron to Manila (the route also continues to/from Puerto Princesa) and having not been on an overnight ferry up to this point, we were a bit sceptical as to how pleasant the journey would be. Both of us are not particularly strong-stomached when it came to rocky travel and there are various reports online of how tricky the journey can be. Firstly, the ticket says you need to be there four hours early. Yes, that’s right, four hours. That’s longer than waiting for an international flight! Secondly, we had gone for the cheapest option of the Super Value class (which worked out at ~1,200 PHP), and had been told by others that there is no aircon. So going onto the ferry, we were definitely apprehensive.

When we got onto the ferry, the apprehension didn’t go away. We were on the third deck which was filled with small bunk beds with narrow walkways in between. 15 hours on this ferry? I really wasn’t sure how it would go.

A couple of the bunks didn’t even have mattresses or pillow and the owners of these bunks were stealing them from other bunks that were unclaimed at the time. It was all a bit chaotic really.

After we set off though, it did get better. There was a good breeze coming through the deck (apparently the aircon gets too cold in the cabins), we got a small meal included in our ticket and watched a beautiful sunrise as we ate. The main thing that made it one of the best trips we’ve done was that we made friends with two French guys and also a small group of French Canadian people. With them, we drank and instigated the karaoke that seemed to be lying neglected by the Filipino travellers. Once we started though, the requests didn’t stop and soon we had performances from everyone all round. It turns out “Breathless” by The Corrs is very popular in the Philippines…

By the time we sang our hearts out, we went to bed at about 11.30pm and managed to get a half decent sleep. The deck lights don’t get turned off so remember to bring an eye mask but actually it was not the worst sleep I’ve had on the trip.

Once in Manila, we had a short time going around the Intra Murose area of the city (the historical centre full of old Spanish buildings from when it was colonised) which was very pleasant before getting a flight to Singapore for our 11 hour stopover.

When we booked our hostel, our main requirement was that it had hot showers, was cheap and close enough to the airport. Unfortunately, it turns out it wasn’t a good enough requirement, our hostel turned out to be pretty dingy. Kind of like the setting for a horror VR game where the players get murdered. Kind of a derelict unpleasant feel. Since we only had a short stopover we made the decision to just not sleep and stay out all night. Annoyingly because we booked both flights with Jetstar, despite it saying that you need to collect your baggage between flights, it turns out if the flights are on the same booking, they will keep hold of your bags to transfer to the connecting flight even if it’s a long layover. Luckily, I had my rucksack as hand luggage (it’s a nifty Osprey 40l farpoint) so I had all my things and could lend Giada some clothes for the night. It descended into a chaotic night where we ended up in a party bus that had blaring music, neon lights and a fog machine but somehow we managed to not sleep until we got onto the plane to Yangon. For anyone doing that journey, I’d recommend a longer layover time so you can actually experience Singapore!