Earlier this year, I wrote about my experiences with being overweight while traveling in Asia. I thought about calling this piece, "What I learned from being a mid-sized traveler," but despite the progress I've made, I still feel like I have so far to go. While the experience can be frustrating and sometimes disheartening, I have learned to keep pressing forward. I've gotten fewer comments in Asia this year than I did last year, but I think that's what's made every one that comes my way even more ear-worming.
I know that those who make comments have never walked a day in my shoes. I know that many of people who do go out of their way to reference my weight just come from a different perspective culturally. But their words can still reinforce the loudest critic I know: myself.
I've made a lot of strides towards body positivity. But I'm not there yet. My current transformation is as much mental as it is physical.
I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Halong Bay with my friends Jake and Leah, who were visiting from Los Angeles. The few days we spent there were, by far, some of the highlights of the past two years of my travels. The bay was stunningly gorgeous (1), and I was there with some of my favorite people in the world (2). I got to see the stars in the middle of nowhere, which is one of my favorite things to do, surrounded by the water and the most stunning rock formations I’ve ever seen. It was a minor shot of awe.
But it also felt a little bit like adult summer camp. We kayaked, and swam in the sea, and laid in hammocks. There was a lot of drinking, and a lot of jumping off boats and cliffs. There were about 20 people on board, so it was fascinating to watch how people interacted for the next three days together.
I'd be lying if I said Day 1 wasn't mildly terrifying. I've never been one to shy away from getting into a bathing suit--I love the water, and this is what my body looks like, and anyone who doesn't like it can deal--but there was something about kayaking while wearing one that was kind of freaking me out. I think the idea of doing something so physical while being more exposed than usual (cuz let's be real, I do get a little bit of anxiety from biking or hiking in groups, hating myself a little for being last) just sent me over the edge. And Leah and I were the only two girls who had opted out of cover-ups.
I impressed myself when we managed to stay in the middle of the pack the entire time. We weren't the fastest, but we weren't dead last. I'll openly admit now that I probably cared too much if we were. While I did get to observe the beauty that were the Bay's rocks, I can't help but feel I tainted it slightly from being so self conscious.
When we returned to the boat, our guide let us know we could dive from the roof of the boat into the water. I had jumped from higher distances in Chiang Mai, but this jump freaked me out a little because you had to climb over the fence onto a small inclined part of the roof. My first attempt, I slipped on my wet feet and squatted on my butt to avoid falling in. I was already nervous, not so much because of the height, but because of the slipperiness, and the fact that we had spotted a jellyfish in the water not a minute earlier. One guy leaned over to try to pull me up, and mortified, I waved him off.
I took a deep breath, and pulled myself up from my squat with the help of the fence, and jumped in.
It was awesome.
I floated for a moment, before Leah, Jake and I decided to do another jump together. I was nervous after my slip, but with a little encouragement from my wonderful friends, I took the next leap. Another successful jump.
As the sun set, our tour guide called for final jumps. This one, we would get on film.
Usually this is the kind of thing that I would bury deep, untag on facebook, and pretend it never happened. But for the sake of honesty, this was the result:
Needless to say, I was mortified (3). One of the Australians called from up top, "are you okay?!" while I held my chest and struggled to catch my breath. The impact of the water had been painful, and I knew I’d be sore the next day. Of course the one jump we actually got on camera was the one I epically belly flopped. Of course I was the one to fail. After a day of body consciousness, I couldn't help but equate this failure to my size.
I pulled myself out of the water, chest still throbbing, and wanted to crawl into a hole.
But then, something kind of amazing happened.
There was a group of fit Dutch and Australian boys that had been diving off the boat all afternoon. Rowdy, cocky, and a bit drunk, these guys seemed completely fearless.
Just after my spectacular flop, they decided they wanted to get a little more dangerous for their last gos. They grouped together to stand at one end of the boat, get a running start, hop the fence over the slippery edge and jump into the water.
So the first guy starts. And this kid--he gets an epic sprinting start, everyone is cheering him on loudly, it's gearing up to be awesome--when he hesitates on the jump and knocks straight into the fence. He hits a piece of the boat into the water, but worse (4), his side is completely bruised and his knees are bleeding.
After checking to make sure he was okay, I felt a lot of tension leave my body. Not exactly in a schadenfreude (5) way, but in a, wow, so I'm not the only one who can fail epically in front of a big group of people way. Some people are clumsy. Sometimes we fuck up. It isn't determined by our size, and it definitely doesn't define our worth.
The rest of the trip was wonderful--the group of 20 gelled nicely, and Leah, Jake, and I spent time with some of the people we met in Hoi An. No one even seemed to remember my belly flop. And if they did, they didn't care, or let it affect the way they interacted with me.
When things are going well--like last year, during my adventures in India that reminded me that things can be amazing regardless of what I look like--it is easy to dismiss my body. It is harder to do so when something goes wrong, especially when it is something physical, but I'm getting better at treating myself with kindness. Sometimes things happen, and as I learned last year, it is better to laugh at yourself than be overcome by self-depreciation. To echo Sarah Kay's Useless Bay, "This. Is Not. A metaphor." Let a fall be a fall, and not a divine sign that I am a failure in life.
As for my Dutch friend--he was a great sport, and handled the teasing he got from the whole tour group for the rest of the trip like a champ (6).
He owned it. I'm learning to own it.
Sometimes you just gotta.
1. I wasn't aware that Halong Bay was one of the natural wonders of the world until a recent pub trivia. The more you know.
2. Leah, thanks for being my most consistent travel buddy, and Jake, I couldn't have asked for a better new one.
3. You can laugh. Don't feel bad. This was a very Monica thing for me to have done.
4. Those of you familiar with the Joey Wetmore dizzy bat incident of 2012 will understand the drastic change in mood.
5. German word, meaning deriving pleasure from another person's misfortune.
6. Thanks, S., for agreeing to being in this post :) You can see his battle scars beginning to form--as of the beginning of November (a month after the fence incident) he let me know that his ribs are still bruised...