Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone Isn't Always Pretty
Is it just me, or does everyone glorify the idea of "getting out of your comfort zone"? Quotes like "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone" and other cliches always seem to be paired with a photo of someone doing something magnificent and exhilarating, may it be skydiving, cliff jumping or something else equally ballsy and exotic.
I guess in my mind, traveling has always been a part of that cliche for me. Travel the world, experience something new and beautiful, and you will be changed. This time around, I really missed the mark. In the past three weeks, I've been "out of my comfort zone" more times than I can count on two hands, but this zone had absolutely nothing to do with adrenaline or aesthetics.
Kampala, a city I did not know much about going into, is a terrible assault to the senses. It is bursting at the seams with people, boda bodas (motorcycles), mutatus (van-sized taxis), and filth. Ten minutes in Kampala's smog was enough to give me a full fledged migraine, and that's not to mention the combination of smells of raw fish and market meat mixed with the seemingly endless tons of pungent garbage littering the streets. We rarely saw a single white person on our day trips to Kampala, and everyone (adults and children alike) screeched "Muzungu! Muzungu!" (a slightly derogatory term for a white person) or "Give me money!" at us in passing. Strangers grabbed our arms in an attempt to cajole us into buying whatever goods they were selling and we all piled into mutatus like animals slated for slaughter (don't even get me started on how animals were transported in the city) to get from place to place. Spending just a couple hours in Kampala was enough to merit a nap back in the village. The village, however, was also home to many uncomfortable experiences.
I came prepared to maintain my figure while in Uganda: running shoes and a jump rope were among the first items to be thrown into my suitcase. I had even wanted to bring my kettlebell along for the ride (as it turns out, a thirty-five-pound item that can serve as a bludgeon is not permitted on airplanes). I had never thought of going for a run as a safety hazard. Between being the only "muzungus" in town and the clay roads being uneven, treacherous, and cluttered with speeding and unpredictable boda bodas, running meant putting on a show for the entire village, and would likely result in an ankle injury, or worse. Our small compound had room for some outdoor push up and sit up sessions, although watching small children urinate on the red dirt ground every day made that slightly less appealing. Again, I would become a spectacle if I were to whip out a jump rope on the compound, and every child on the grounds would insist to be a part of it. Even taking photos of the adorable chubby-cheeked children in town or the beautiful sugar cane fields on the hills felt like potentially risky and certainly rude behavior. It just did not seem fair to parade around an expensive camera while watching mothers sweep out their shacks and children dig for toys in piles of garbage.
Finally, while classes were being taught on the compound and we were left to our own devices, working on administrative tasks (like putting together a fundraiser) was the most efficient way to spend our time. So that we did–or so we tried. I dare you to try getting anything accomplished on the internet with wifi and power that go in and out as they please. I bet you've never thought of uncooperative wifi as a means of getting out of your comfort zone.
It was in one of these frustrating moments that I sat back and realized: this is what it feels like to step out of my comfort zone. What in the world do I do with all my free time? How will I cope without exercising? Is it really constructive for me to press myself against sweaty, smelly strangers in an extreme safety hazard of a taxi ride? How can I avoid Kampala? It was impossible to not be plagued by at least one of these uncomfortable situations at any given moment, and it taught me a lot about myself. I learned more about my preferences and nonnegotiables: what I can tolerate, what I'd like to never have to tolerate again, what is imperative to my happiness, where I actually want to live in and travel in the future...the list goes on. I always thought living in the developing world for a few years, whatever the circumstances, was going to be a part of my story. Now I realize, there are certain aspects of this fantasy that mesh with the lifestyle I enjoy, and some that do not. I thrive with structure and some level of routine and ritual. I need fresh air. I do not do well in crowded cities. Community and regular socializing with friends and family are important to me. I am spoiled by the safety and tranquility of the places I've lived in the past. Going for a run, being alone with nature, going out at night–those are just a few of the things I have taken for granted without even giving them a thought.
To wrap up this long-winded thought, I guess the moral of the story is: try things you haven't before, whatever they may be. If you constantly avoid uncomfortable and disturbing situations, you can hardly say you know yourself. Think about the rituals you enjoy and what steps you'll have to take to ensure you always have them as an option. If you claim to like something, make sure you understand every corner of it firsthand. There are many things I thought myself to be or thought myself to like until I really gave them a shot. There's nothing wrong with proving yourself wrong, and often times, getting out of your comfort zone isn't pretty. You are writing your own story. Make a point to get to know yourself and listen to your intuition so you are sure to be writing a happy one.