The Role of Pain in Travel

Today marks three weeks that I’ve been off the trail. That is to say, three weeks since I limped into Santiago de Compostela, Spain and finished the 800 km pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, up over the Pyrenees, through the rolling Basque countryside, up across the golden meseta and through the enchanted forests of Galicia.

I am still cutting pieces of flesh off of my feet, daily. I have been doing this for 58 days now, every single day. And also, my left ankle tendon is still bothering me, even after a week of cooling my heels on a cruise ship. This is not good. I’m not known for being a princess kind of girl. I’d rather use my body than look at it. I have scars as a result. I’m good with that, but this is a bit ridiculous, even for me.

It’s gotten me thinking about pain and its role in travel

Camino

Travel often has an element of suffering intrinsic to the process, but what about pain as a catalyst for travel?

  • What about the value of suffering physically for the greater journey, both internally and externally?
  • Should we, as indie travelers, be seeking to make the journey more comfortable, or intentionally making it more difficult?
  • How much notice should we take of the pain and discomfort of a journey?
  • What is its proper place, mentally and physically, in an adventure?

These are the questions I’m asking as I’m trimming the black nails off of my middle toes at their root and carefully cutting away the rough edges of blisters that were three layers deep. It’s a meditative practice that I hope, one day soon, will come to an end.

Should we, as indie travelers, be seeking to make the journey more comfortable, or intentionally making it more difficult?

I’ve made my share of uncomfortable journeys. I’ve been cold and wet, sleepless and dirty, sick and miserable, footsore and worn. I’ve hit the wall and been sure I couldn’t go on, only to find that I could, if only I would put my mind aside and keep moving. I’ve battled physical pain, but it’s often the mental distress that is harder to overcome, isn’t it?

We can tape a knee, brace an ankle, stitch a gash, take our meds and press on, more slowly if necessary. Wrestling the inner pain is another matter altogether, and it’s easier to believe that we can’t overcome it. Our minds are the primary limitation of our existence. What we believe we can do, we find that we can do. What we are convinced we cannot do, we never manage.

Understanding the power in that is one of the keys to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life, but rarely without pain.

I’ve battled physical pain, but it’s often the mental distress that is harder to overcome, isn’t it?

The sun was hot. We’d been walking forever, and by forever, I mean four hundred miles or so. The vineyard laced countryside was no longer idyllic; it had turned into a menacing path lined with gnarly, menacing grapevine monsters who mocked my every tortured step. Ten kilometers left. Every step was agony. The bandages in my boot were pink with bloody ooze.

“Are you okay?” my walking partner du jour, asked.
“It hurts today,” I replied, with a tight smile, “I’ll get there.”
“We can stop… is there anything I can do to help?”
“Nope. I’ll be fine, I’m playing games with myself in my head,” I answered, “I have a whole bagful of mental tricks and stories to get through the pain.”

With a sympathetic nod, we kept walking, in silence, so I could talk to the inside of my own soul.

It is not often the pain that actually stops us, it’s our inability to put it into appropriate perspective

Perspective

That said, is there some greater glory in suffering for the end goal? Travelers tell stories of pain and discomfort like mothers tell birth stories, trying to one up each other, as if the struggle is what makes the journey worthwhile.

Is that true? Does pressing on to the summit of Kilimanjaro with a broken leg somehow make her adventure more significant than the guy’s who made the trek with only a day pack, hiring porters to do the “hard work?” Is it my damaged appendages that are the real badge of courage, overcoming them the real accomplishment of my long walk?

I don’t think so, but they’re certainly what I’m still talking most about.

Should we be seeking to suffer more, or less, when we travel?

What is it about uncomfortable fringe adventures that call to a certain type of soul?

Is there anything wrong with holding down a beach chair, getting five dollar foot massages and having drinks delivered beneath my umbrella on the shores of the Andaman Sea?

I must admit to recalling with fondness nearly drowning in the spring rains of Cape Breton on my bicycle, freezing my ears nearly off my head camping in the frigid Sahara, and tossing and turning on a night bus through the thunderstorm of the century in Vietnam.

I love the idea of pushing my body to her limits and seeing what I’m made of, even though I know it’s going to hurt like hell, and I’ll probably spend a few months wishing I had toenails to polish for beach season. Is there anything wrong with holding down a beach chair, getting five dollar foot massages and having drinks delivered beneath my umbrella on the shores of the Andaman Sea? Of course not.

Perhaps it’s not a “less or more” proposition. Perhaps it’s simply about the willingness to suffer, to experience the pain that the journey brings. Maybe it’s not that the pain makes the journey more worthwhile, or more courageous, or more worthy in some way; perhaps it is in conquering the pain, in bearing through the discomfort, that we learn what it is that changes us.

Is it possible that the physical pain, and the emotional or mental suffering, are a journey unto themselves? It seems silly to seek to suffer, in travel or in any other aspect of life. Contrived discomfort is self flagellation of a sort, and that (to my way of thinking) does not build character so much as rob joy from the journey.

Perhaps it is in conquering the pain, in bearing through the discomfort, that we learn what it is that changes us?

The Buddhists may be right, all of life may be suffering, but if that’s the case, why would a traveler want to create more? On the other side of the coin, seeking to avoid discomfort doesn’t seem to be the right attitude either. It is in bearing up under momentary pain for a greater gain, or for a greater goal that we discover who we are and what we are made of.

Pain reminds me that I am alive, that I am frail, that this moment won’t last for a lifetime, and that I’d better make the most of the day. Perhaps instead of being seen as an obstacle, the various pains and discomforts of a journey, both physical and psychological, can be seen as tools and teachers, lessons and meditations on the greater meanings of life and their applications to a single moment.

Sometimes pain stops me in my tracks, reminds me of my very finite being and forces me to scale back, accept reality with humility, modify my plans, get creative in the pursuit of my dreams, and work with what I’ve been given. Other times, pain is a motivator, it pushes me up and out of the door, it shoves me across a country or a continent in search of the balm for a wounded soul.

It’s often in overcoming these things that we create the greatest meaning found in our travels.

Then, there are the various pains that we decide to live with and push through: blistered feet, knees we brace, headaches (both literal and figurative) that we learn to manage – everyone has their own. These are the things that we carry with us, that we battle continually, and that we eventually use as stepping stones to greater things. It’s often in overcoming these things that we create the greatest meaning found in our travels.

If you’re suffering with something on your journey, take heart.

You’re not alone.

If you travel long enough and wide enough, you’ll make friends with hunger, sleepless nights, cold and wet, hot and miserable, bug ridden and road weary. You’ll learn to rate your discomfort on a scale from 1-Molinaseca, and your inner turmoil on a scale of 1-Jakarta.

It’s okay to admit that, sometimes, this glamorous travel life sucks. That it hurts. That you’re barely making it in your own head. That’s part of the journey – weathering the adventures that happen on the inside when you’re climbing the really big mountains that no one sees, while simultaneously taking photographs from the top of of the world with a big smile.

It’s okay to admit that, sometimes, this glamorous travel life sucks. That it hurts. That you’re barely making it in your own head.

 

Take off your boots. Tend your feet. Set down your pack. Tend your heart.

Then pick it all back up and keep traveling, until you find your way home.

Read more about travel, pain, and fears:

Photo credits: Tanjala Gica, Gabriele Maltinti

Featured


Leave a Comment