Getting Outside My Comfort Zone

The only times you really grow are the times you push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

For the most part, the first two months of our South American adventure have been relatively easy and fun. There have been times I unintentionally ended up outside my comfort zone (e.g. getting lost in a dodgy neighborhood in Medellin looking for a bar) but until last week I hadn’t intentionally put myself in any situation where I knew I’d be scared.

I took the opportunity to change this last week when I signed up for a three-day white water kayaking course.

Day 1

When I signed up for the course I asked if it was taught in English or Spanish. The sales person at the tour agency said “both.”

This seemed like a curious answer I thought to myself. In reality, I would soon find out that “both” meant “neither.”

I ignored the red flag that went up in my head because I had long wanted to learn how to kayak and I wasn’t sure how many other opportunities I’d have. In retrospect I can trace the next eight hours of terror to this precise moment.

The goal of the first day was to learn the correct way to paddle, get comfortable escaping the kayak underwater (a “wet exit”) in the event of an emergency, and finally, practice the Eskimo roll (the fundamental kayaking maneuver where you to flip your kayak back over from underwater after you have capsized).

The wet exit and learning to paddle were easy enough. But as I suspected when I signed up for the course, the Eskimo roll would be my achilles heel.

I’m not sure if it was a self fulfilling prophecy where I was psyching myself out but I simply couldn’t do it.

As far as I could tell there were two major obstacles getting in the way of Eskimo roll succss: (1) me; (2) the instructor.

Me: I was a panicky mess

In order to complete an Eskimo roll you have start off underwater, inverted in the kayak at a 90 degree angle with your feet over your head and your torso perpendicular to the surface with the top of your head facing the bottom of the body of river. Your legs are stuck in the kayak covered by a sealed piece of neoprene so you can’t just easily escape and swim to the surface if you get stuck.

For me, this is a scary-ass position to be in. Every time I would find myself flipped over, upside down in the water I would immediately become disoriented, panicky and claustrophobic.

There were only three steps needed to complete the Eskimo roll, and though I could perform each one perfectly on land, when I got underwater panic would set in and I couldn’t concentrate. It reminded me of taking the bar exam, or the handful of times I had to give an interview on TV for GiveForward. I could know exactly what I wanted to say ahead of time, but when the cameras went live, my heart would start pounding and my mind would go blank. I had pretty much the same reaction here except now I was underwater, couldn’t breathe and my legs were strapped into a plastic river coffin.

The Instructor: he was an incompetent dick

The other half of the failed equation was the “instructor”

I would find out on day two that the kayaking course is the least popular excursion that the company runs. Unlike the rafting trips that they run daily, only about five students a year sign up for the kayaking course.

In other words, this guy wasn’t really an instructor who taught people daily for a living. He was was just some dude who liked kayaking and was willing to try to teach you if you really, really wanted.

On top of his not actually being a teacher, his English was more or less limited to four catchphrases which he would yell at me repeatedly:

“You control the kayak!”

“Open the paddle”

“You are a scared”

And my personal favorite

“This is very easy. Why you no understand?”

When I’d come up from an attempted Eskimo roll gasping for air, water having gone up my nose and down my throat, I’d ask what I did wrong. Invariably, he’d say “you no open the paddle”.

When I’d asked if he could give me some cues to open the paddle he would look at me with a blank face and then repeat the same phrase but just more slowly.

“Ohhhhpen the paddle”

“Uh huh…yeah. [deep breath to swallow my frustration] Got it, dude. I need to open the paddle.”

This back and forth repeated for an hour with increasingly violent intensity.

I would come up from a failed attempt sputtering water and shooting snot out of my nose and he would yell at me to immediately do it again with no further instruction. At which point he would tip my kayak over and we would start the process again.

“Why you no understand? You no open the paddle. Okay. Again. Let’s go, my friend”

At each flip, he became increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t learning. He would yell at me, telling me how scared I was and that I needed to stay calm underwater.

On several occasions I thought about quitting. I was literally paying for this guy to abuse me. It was the definition of insanity.

Finally, I snapped.

“You’re not fucking teaching me anything. You’re just yelling at me,” I shouted back. “Yes, you are right. I am scared, but I’m not going to become more calm by you yelling at me to calm down. It doesn’t work that way. No more fucking yelling or I’m done.”

“Okay, my friend.”

The yelling stopped. We tried a few more unsuccessful rolls and then mutually decided we would start again fresh the next day.

On the drive home that day we didn’t say a word to each other for the better part of an hour. I wasn’t having fun. I had only paid the deposit and thought again about quitting. But something inside me said to keep going and give it just one more day. So that’s what I did.

Day Two

Day two was marginally better than day one. I still couldn’t Eskimo roll but at least the yelling had stopped. Also two things happened on day two that would prove to be game changers.

1. He threw me into the deep end

We went from a flat currentless section of the river on day one to a faster moving section with small rapids on day two. The first day he had told me to stay away from the current because I could tip over. I was terrified of tipping so I followed instructions.

On day two the current was probably ten times faster but he told me to get after it. He had me do a drill called “ferrying the river” where I had to cross the river from one side to the other through the rapids. On my second attempt, I capsized. I didn’t even think of trying the Eskimo roll. I instinctively went for the wet exit. It happened so quick I can’t honesty remember how I got out but a few seconds later I was swimming back to shore with my kayak and paddle safely in tow.

I didn’t die! I had survived and it wasn’t as scary as I thought.

As humans we tend to adapt to the environments we are put in. If we are told all we can do is a flat section of the river, that’s all we can do. But when we are thrown into the deep end and told that we can do it, it turns out we can handle a lot more than we think.

2. He let me struggle

“We’re going to try the Eskimo roll again” he said “but this time you do it on your own. If you get stuck pound on the kayak with both hands and I will rescue you.”

Given that I hadn’t yet completed a successful Eskimo roll even with his help, I was highly skeptical that I would now be successful trying it on my own, but I reluctantly agreed. As I suspected I got stuck. Upside down in the water I banged on my kayak with my hand and waited for him to flip me back over. Nothing happened. I pounded again frantically and again nothing. In a panic I twisted and kicked and squirmed and eventually broke free from the kayak.

When I got to the surface filled with Adrenalin and gasping for air, I yelled at him “what the fuck? Why didn’t you help me?”

He was about eight feet away in his own kayak not even close enough to rescue me had he wanted. He responded “you no give me the signal. You only hit with one hand.”

Are you fucking kidding me? I thought to myself. I didn’t say anything else to him. I just gave him a death stare.

At the time I was furious. But looking back on it, struggling on my own and realizing I wasnt going to drown gave me more confidence in the water. I don’t know if he played this trick on me intentionally or if he had actually just not been paying attention. But it worked. My fear of drowning was clearly greater than the actual risk of drowning. He knew this and now, slowly but surely, I was starting to understand it too.

We ended day two with more Eskimo rolls. After two days of drills I was finally getting closer. I still hadn’t mastered one yet but I was about 80% of the way there. Unlike day one where I had been ready to quit, by the end of day two I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I wanted to keep going. I kept saying “one more time, one more time.” I was so close. I could taste it.

We finished the day with a near sicceful roll. We pulled the kayak out of the water. He turned to me and said, “tomorrow we start with Eskimo roll. You muscles fresh.”

Day 3

Day three was by far the best day of the course. Instead of starting the day with more Eskimo rolls he decided we’d start the day by running the river.

This was the whole goal of the course and now we were doing it. The rapids weren’t big (class II+ with maybe one or two class lll rapids thrown in) but it was exhilarating. I came close to capsizing on two occasions but thankfully managed to stay upright the whole day.

This was everything I had wanted. After two days of drills and repeatedly getting dunked under water wee were actually kayaking down rapids in the middle of incredibly beautiful jungle. I was in heaven.

Finally, at the end of the day after we had run the river twice, we went back to my nemesis, the eskimo roll for one last attempt. After a couple of tries I started to get it. On my third attempt I completed my first full Eskimo roll without assistance and then we did about three or four more in rapid succession.

“Okay, ready? Again, my friend” he would say as he tried to etch the movements into my muscle memory.

This time I didn’t mind the rapid fire dunkingd like I did on my first day. I was more comfortable in the water and now understood there was a legitimate non-sadistic reason why he was repeatedly dunking me underwater.

At the end of three days I didn’t fully mastered the Eskimo roll, but on the other hand I also didn’t die. I pushed myself harder and farther outside my comfort zone than I had in a very long time. I don’t think I’m going to become a professional kayaker anytime soon, but I’m really glad I didn’t quit after that first day. I learned a lot about my own limits and grew a lot because of it.