The year I spent in Bangor, North Wales stands out in my memory as the place where I discovered Linguistics and learned how to study. And it was where I first hitchhiked. But when I look back on that year it’s not what I did that changed me; it’s what I stopped doing.
In Wales, I stopped smoking, once and for all. Back in the States, I had tried more than once. Even before the dangers were well-known, something told me I did not want to be smoking in my 40s, like my mother. But it took flying 5000 miles to Wales before I was able to summon up the strength.
In some ways, the environment didn’t make it easy. I spent evenings in the smoky salon bar of the Belleview Pub, drinking British bitter and discussing Bertold Brecht and Noam Chomsky with my new university friends. My boyfriend smoked a pack and a half of Player’s a day. His breath reeked of stale tobacco. I was in love and didn’t care.
Within a few weeks of arriving, I joined the university mountaineers’ club. On Sundays we’d explore the rocky rain-soaked fells and hills of Wales, and I began to revel in being outdoors for the first time in my life. Smoking had always been an indoor activity for me, yet here I was, wanting to be out in the wild. It took several months, but eventually my outside self won, and during the Christmas break, I smoked my last cigarette.
After exams the following spring, I panted my way up my first peak (3560′ Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales). I’ve backpacked every summer since.
Wales was the first but not the last place where I changed a habit. I used to live on Doritos and Tab (remember Tab? the precursor to Diet Coke). In the 80s, my diet consisted largely of Doritos, Tab, and toast. I knew I had a problem nutritionally, but I couldn’t get myself to change. Then, one summer, my husband and I went on a 10-day sailing trip to the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. At that time Doritos weren’t available in Canada, so I decided I’d use the opportunity to kick my habit. I remember one afternoon, holding the tiller of the sailboat and staring into the gray horizon, visualizing myself back home in the States without my Doritos fix. The moment I was dreading was over a week away, but that did not stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks, my grief was so powerful.
But by the time we returned home to Bellingham, the worst was over, and Doritos have not touched my lips since 1985. In the gap that Doritos left, I dove into cooking, now one of my favorite activities. Once again, being away from familiar surroundings was the tipping point.
Fifteen years later, halfway around the world, I peered into the cracked hotel bathroom mirror. By the dim light bulb, I saw the fleshy rolls of my skin. I turned sideways to inspect my profile and there it was, my stomach in all its unmistakable fullness. I had been overeating like crazy and I had to do something! But what? My husband and I were on a year-long sabbatical in Turkey. I loved our adventure, but at that moment, alone with my body, I felt desperate. I had no one to turn to. No sister to call, no friends, no support group, no program.
Yes, I had my husband, my closest friend and ally, but when it comes to talking about body, he is one of those perennially fit guys with no history of overeating and who just doesn’t get it.
I retraced my day’s eating. Yogurt, banana, bread for breakfast; hummus, salad, bread for lunch; rice, beans, bread for dinner. The common denominator was obvious. I lived for the thick hunks of bread that arrived in a heaping basket in Turkish restaurants. I remembered how at dinner that night I had, as usual, wolfed down half the basket of bread before the entrée arrived.
“OK,” I said to the face in the mirror. “OK. OK. I’ll stop eating bread. If nothing else, I can do that.”
And just like that, I stopped. That decision, made in a hotel bathroom in Antalya, Turkey, had a long-lasting impact. I still don’t eat bread. And my stomach and I made friends long ago.
Could these changes have happened at home? Maybe. But they didn’t. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, being away from my anchors has brought huge changes in my life. Travel has given me not only all the well-documented benefits, but it has brought me intimate changes in the place I know best: my body. Far from home, without the support of friends, I find my longing to change is stark and unavoidable, and I’m forced to find the courage I didn’t know I had.