We all know the type. Those pesky people at youth hostels with the hiking poles, fancy backpacks, and firm calve muscles. Those Adonises of adventure travel which we all (or is it just me?) secretly want to be.
My first foray with fitness was at my local YMCA in high school. I began taking yoga classes at age 15 with my mom, and as cliché as it sounds, I “started getting really in touch with my body,” thus turning my baby fat into toned abs and strong bicep muscles. Oh the time when I had time! A time which sadly passed when I entered my freshman year of college and immediately ate my way through the freshman 15 as soon as I possibly could.
I, like most young women, have participated in quite the roller coaster ride of body shaming, body envy, and then, everyone’s favorite, the a-ha moments of body positivity. A mindset where I can finally cut through the crap repeated to us, and instead, learn to appreciate the benefits of my own unique body and embrace a healthy lifestyle which includes both regular exercise, and also, a good dose of fatty foods (in moderation).
As I have said before, and as bears repeating again, travel is one of the most rewarding spaces to push yourself as a human being, and pushing oneself physically while abroad can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. Within the last year, I have had experiences that ran the gamut from outdoors-woman rising star, to bed-ridden tissue monster.
While working on a ranch in rural Colorado last summer, I marveled at how quickly my body could feel fit and healthy in the right environment. My job as a housekeeper was physically strenuous, involving me carrying two vacuum cleaners up and down a hill on a daily basis. On my time off, I, like everyone else, would go hiking in the beautiful mountains surrounding the ranch, go for walks along the stream which connected to the Rio Grande, kayak in the little lake at the edge of the property, work out at the gym, or bathe in the hot springs. The food was plentiful and fresh, the air was crisp and free of urban pollutants, and the water I washed my face with was cool and refreshing.
I went from huffing and puffing and farting and wheezing and blushing my way through altitude sickness climbing one of the most strenuous upward treks during my first week at the ranch, to voluntarily hiking a 16 mile trail BY MYSELF at the end of the summer. I was still one of the worst hikers on the ranch, but I had improved tremendously!
After I departed the ranch, I went to the Netherlands to study abroad for 4 months. I swore to myself that I would maintain the level of fitness that I had achieved in Colorado, but it didn’t quite work out like that. Everything was so expensive. I couldn’t afford gym membership, I could only afford french fries, and what type of cultural immersion would it really be if I didn’t ask for extra mayonnaise on the side? Not only was it expensive, it was also cold! As a native Floridian, I experienced the tendency towards hibernation which comes with the advent of perpetually gray days and the need to put on 7 layers before going out to the corner store.
I pushed on, forcing myself to walk around Den Haag in my unfashionable American shoes and bike around on my unfashionable Dutch bike (I was told a pink and purple cruiser would be less likely to get stolen). I found a bikram yoga studio that would let me take classes for free if I cleaned the studio for them on Wednesday nights. As fall turned to winter, I had of course lost all of my tan, all of my tone, and also almost all of my will to move out of bed. I figured it was because I was a super wimp when it came to Holland’s cold weather, but after 4 months of a perpetual runny nose and sore throat, I came back to Florida to find out I had mono the whole time! Not such a wimp after all!
In my back to back travels through Colorado and Holland, I attempted to emulate and achieve what those other, fitter backpackers that I always admired had. But at the end of the day, I learned that I don’t have what they have, and instead I have something much better: my own body and my own will. A body which I can both train and rest to suit the passing seasons of my life, and the differing landscapes which I find myself lucky enough to end up in.