LA was Coca-Cola and Sushi, bright lights, pink smog, traffic and affluence. My host James (a friend of mine’s brother working for an Architect firm in LA) scooped me up from the airport and delivered me back there the next day. Internally I was mourning the end of the first half of my trip. I had been so afraid for many parts of travelling alone in Latin America but had also made some wonderful human connections and had discovered that I had a total badass somewhere within me. I was beginning to feel myself transforming albeit in a not yet completely graspable way: My inner badass felt elusive still, she appeared unexpectedly like a capricious sprite to pull me out of trouble or stick up for me. At this point, she always melted away in the night.
James was keen to share his typical Friday night in LA with me. This meant gathering up his friends and going to several bars all about forty minutes drive from each other. Our last stop, in the small hours was a small gathering at a guy’s house on the promise of some very rare Tequila with an aristocratic grub inside the bottle. The host and we guests did not really seem to gel. He withheld the Tequila, bringing it out only when all guests were about to leave. He seemed experienced in the leveraging of his power. In the car on the way home, throats burning and teeth sore from the mean snifter, James and friends whooped with laughter and took turns to make cruel impressions of Tequila bloke. I felt detached and puzzled about the peculiar exchange of Tequila for human company and human company for Tequila. I suspected that we might be monsters for socialising as payment for a (mercifully small) measure of liquid that tasted like the smell of surgical spirit (and WHAT is the grub thing all about? Mostly we freak out if there is something insecty, dead or alive, in our beverage). No time to reflect, I was off again to another flight. To Fiji.
I had carried details of where to go when I got to Fiji all the way from the UK. A friend had been to a peaceful and beautiful island on his honeymoon ten years ago. I booked and paid for a 5 night stay and excitedly waited for the bus and then boat to take me there. Within the first crucial micro seconds of making an impression, the other backpackers on the boat and I locked in a mutual disdain. They chugged beers. I watched the water and wondered what I had done to be disapproved of. When we arrived I gradually discovered that my time on the island would be more entwined with the beer chuggers than felt ideal. Firstly, I would be sharing a dorm with the girls from the group. As I settled myself in, I had a chance to eyeball these women. There was a caustic vibe amongst them.They seemed defensive and sharp. Each was haunted by a wild eyed destructiveness and in a hurry to get into bikinis and flip-flops in order to get into the sun and chug. My inner badass whispered to me: ‘you don't need anyone's approval’. Curiously, in the shadows of myself a little corner ached to be accepted by this group. A toxic urge seeded itself; an intention to find an opportunity to impress them. We are so often made up of apparently incompatible feelings in social situations. We have a need to be true to ourselves and stand firm yet also a drive to connect, conform and fall in. Sometimes authenticity is difficult to recognise within ourselves when all options feel like uncomfortable choices.
I had expected hibiscus flowers, ocean breezes and calm. What with the group games, participatory dancing sessions at every meal and singles ceremonies, this destination was more like a lager breathed love-island. I felt so rookie and foolish for not researching the place at all before booking my five nights. The mainland felt a long way away, too far to swim to. Still, I was keen not to waste a single day of my trip, even if I did feel like a total fish out of water. On the first afternoon, I walked as far as I could to find a peaceful spot, deciding that time on this island would be my meditative segue before Australia. I would run a one woman retreat for myself. I felt a deep need to process the last few months and knew I wanted quiet to do that. Distressed by feeling the treacherous little bit of me that wanted to join in with the crazy kids, my inner sensible began its admonishments for even thinking about screaming into oblivion in beachwear at this point. The island felt altogether too little. I could not escape the sound system, which would become an irritating metaphor for the noise inside my own head over the next days.
My lofty plan was to write in my journal on the beach daily, reflect and find stillness. I was sure I would be very good at that. Each time I tried to sit in quietness and just be, my inner noise sabotaged serenity and jabbed at me: ‘What the hell is wrong with me that I can't engage in organised fun?’ ‘Why can't I just let my hair down and join in with the group games?’ ‘Why do I have to make everything mean something?’ ‘WHY do I have to be so bloody self conscious all the time?’ ‘Why do I have to feel so uncomfortable dancing?’ ‘Why am I such a control freak?’ ‘Why can’t I just shut up and enjoy this beach?’ ‘Why am I ruining this trip with my incessant noise?’ ‘Why can’t I just BE?’ I tried to sit it out for days. I tried to stop the inner noise. Eventually I burst and sobbed on the beach for about 100 years, one afternoon. I cried myself into a limp rag-doll and then dragged myself to my dorm for a curative, deep sleep.
When I woke next morning, I noticed that I didn't care quite so hard about the whispering girls in my dorm. I didn't feel under threat. My own wild eyed destructiveness had been physically felt in order to be discharged. I saw that all that separated me from these women was how we responded to our own awkwardness and confusing messages within ourselves. Now, I felt unexpectedly connected to them. Like we were practically sisters. Who was I to judge their partying? (I mean really, was it any worse a way to spend time than crying alone on a beach?) I chuckled to myself and finally relaxed into being a (slightly puritanical) hermit amongst the twisted fire-starters. Peace finally came just as I was about to get the boat back to the mainland.
On the boat back to Nadi I thought about the way I had handled myself on the island: I felt an awareness of the badass within looking after resources, making sure I had the energy I needed in order to continue my journey. Now my inner questions were softer and compassionate: ‘What if my reservedness on the island and my abstinence and urge for solitude were me choosing how to spend my energy, choosing who to give my time and attention to?’ Had something within me known that I needed to release the anguish I had been carrying around? Was that why a quiet place felt so important to find? ‘What if my weeping wilderness was something like an initiation, a breakthrough?’ Transformation, they say is painful. It happens in increments. It isn't an even crossing over, there is much messy backing and forthing. There are gullies of self doubt and fear amongst the eurekas, summits and broad smiles. We can't transform without darkness. When we dive into our darkness we touch the edges of our strength and find gifts we did not know we have. We can’t un-discover what we find, making sense of it often takes us time, a willingness to trust ourselves and an appetite for the unexpected.
One by one in a quiet cafe bar in a hostel in Nadi a clutch of women happened upon each other by chance. All craving quiet. All of a gentle disposition. As we sat talking to one another we realised that each of us had a story of unexpectedly finding ourselves amongst hard-core party people, on different love-islands somewhere out there in the Fijian waters. We had all been together apart in our private storms of un-belonging. During the evening a cat who had been avoiding the guests with classic feline insouciance came and sat with us. We all hung out, ate and talked and played cards. When the bar tables were pushed aside and blankets put on the floor for a faux ceremony, we shrugged, took it all in our collective stride and exchanged smiles and knowing glances. We giggled, shared and felt unafraid. A powerful collective feminine energy rose - a magical thing that happens when women hold space for each other and connect.
A holistic sense of social acceptance comes after we learn to accept ourselves whole. Revealing our flawed selves is how we become visible to our tribe, who will come to find us once they see us...