The “Yes Man” philosophy and other things

I have no pictures today, only a lot of words. And a link to a map.

Perhaps you have heard of the “Yes Man” philosophy, a practice of unhesitatingly saying “yes” to whatever comes your way. The term, named from the book and movie adaptation Yes Man, was not one I had heard until recently, presumably because I avoid any movie starring Jim Carrey. But the concept is familiar, most notably from the realms of improv comedy and handling dementia.

The “Yes Man” philosophy is one I try to apply in my travels. Saying “yes” is how I ended up in my current location in the Drakensberg, how I spent two days hiking the Wild Coast, how I found myself in Cape Town, how came to southern Africa in the first place. And for the most part, it works out pretty well. Sure, I’ve had a few sketchy nights out, but mostly I’ve encountered beautiful places and friendly people who I would not otherwise have met.

Saying yes is a challenge for me. Forcing myself to meet new people, to take chances, is unsettling in the extreme. I have always been the one who has an exit strategy for every situation, who says “maybe” so I can back out and not feel bad about it – a habit that has become so polished over the years that “maybe” is practically my automatic reply. So saying “yes” means overcoming my inclination toward non-committal answers, pushing limits, and making myself uncomfortable. After all, what is the point of traveling if not to move outside one’s comfort zone?

The other side of this, of course, is my status as a young, foreign Caucasian woman traveling alone, often through areas not exactly renowned for safety. For the last month in South Africa, I have been on my guard whenever I leave the relative privacy of a hostel dorm or the extreme luxury of a private room (which I have at my current location, and am in Paradise). Nothing especially bad has happened. I’ve been sworn at a few times, and have creatively (or at least profusely) returned the favor. I’ve slapped away a few hands, and turned down more than one proposal of marriage (each time from someone I had met but moments before). But far more often people are generous, or at least polite, and the experiences are exciting, especially the unexpected ones.

Traveling alone can be emotionally draining. As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself avoiding company, seeking out the restorative quiet that my introversion demands. When meeting new people, my responses have become more and more guarded in an attempt, perhaps misguided, to not get too attached to anyone. I miss having a traveling companion, someone I trust to confide in at the end of a long day. Or at least someone to watch my gear when I have to use the loo (because fitting a massive pack and a guitar and a carry-on backpack into a toilet stall and still having room to do one’s business is not easy).

But for the most part, it has been wonderful. Exciting. Productive of good stories. There are a few days of exhilaration, of breathtaking beauty that more make up for the greater number of days in the doldrums, the rainy days. Besides, the doldrums are not specific to travel. They’re more a fact of life. ( I rather like the doldrums anyway; it means I have lots of time to read, lots of time to think, and lots of time to write inordinately long e-mails, mostly to my sister.) Whenever I get frustrated, I remember a conversation I had a few years back with a female graduate student I met while traveling abroad. She said then (and I definitely am summarizing an entire conversation in two sentences) that given the choices of traveling with a friend, traveling alone, or not traveling at all, she would of course choose the former. But when the latter two are the only options, she would always choose to travel. I didn’t fully understand her logic at the time, but now I think I do. And I think I agree.

*       *       *       *       *

Steering away from the philosophical pondering, I’m glad for now to take a break, a reprieve from the hostels, busing, and last minute phone calls arranging a place to stay for the night. I’ve finally managed to some of that restorative quiet, not to mention a bit of privacy and free food. (I am still too recent a college student to not be excited by that last item.) In exchange for room and board at Ardmore Guest Lodge, I am to work for five hours a day and have the rest of the time to myself. The location, the Champagne Valley in the Central Drak, is beautiful but isolated. Too far to walk to town or to the official hiking trails, and I don’t drive here (wrong side of the road). But I can run, or at least take really long walks. (It turns out that after a month of Not Running, Running is hard. Who knew?)

I’ve been here three days. I’m still learning the ropes. The manager of the place has me pinned as an expert baker and hopes I’ll be creating masterpieces of artisan bread to serve the guests each morning. I’m striving for the more manageable goal of something that looks presentable and tastes good. The kitchen matron, a middle-aged Afrikaner woman, has taken me under her tutelage, apparently trusting me more than most of the colored staff (note that “colored” is not an offensive term in South Africa). This division along what seems to me racial lines makes me more than a little uncomfortable, but I do not yet understand the dynamics of the work or social environment enough to feel comfortable speaking up. We shall see over the next few weeks how things go.

Thus far, I spend most of my free time exploring and reading, writing and practicing guitar. My choices for company are the colored staff – who are generally busy, and shy around me (the feeling is mutual) and speak Zulu among themselves – or the two teenage boys who are the only other under-thirties working here – a quiet Swiss 16-year-old and an 18-year-old who is alternatively endearingly awkward and intolerably cocky. But I will be here a while, at least until October I think, and am determined to learn (some) Zulu. And teenage boys can be alright. And right now, reading and music sound like a pretty good way to pass the time.

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