When travelling overwhelms, reconnect with your roots

November 19, 2018

I’m in my new place in the Envigado neighbourhood of Medellin, Colombia and for the third time this week, homesickness has taken hold. I have yet to make new friends and I’m missing my best buds back in Canada. I’m overwhelmed by my new surroundings and coming down hard on myself for not “being good at travelling.” I thought by now, I’d be grabbing the bull by the horns, satisfying my wanderlust with new adventures each day. Instead, I’m fumbling my way through these early days. I’m intimidated when others stare as I walk by. While shopping, I miscommunicate my shoe size and, later, my empanada order. I work up the courage to wander around alone, and I get hopelessly lost on my own street.

When picturing life in Colombia, I didn’t think about the inevitable culture shock. I thought about hot afternoons, fresh-squeezed orange juice and salsa music blaring from downtown bars. I thought about tasting Colombian foods on sunny patios. But my daydreams left out practicalities such as finding these places on my own and figuring out how to order. This is the first time I’ve ever lived abroad and, in these early days, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.

I head to the track just a short jog from my front door because running is something I know how to do no matter how unfamiliar my surroundings may be. I’m looking for just an ounce of normalcy as I adjust. This seems like the best option for that.

For the better part of a decade, the 400-metre black track that sat two fields away from my house in Ontario, Canada, was my happy place. As a kid, it wasn’t spring until my track club held the first practice there in April. I ran with a club at that outdoor oval two or three times a week and in my spare time, when it was my turn to walk our family’s scraggly mutt, I’d often bring him to the start line (the odds were in his favour).

That black ring was the view from my bedroom window, where I often watched from afar. It was also a meeting place for my friends, and was a source of comfort as I crossed its eight lanes en route to my nerve-wracking first day of high school. During those four years, the workouts were gruelling. I did my drills and sets of speed work on one half of the circle and lap upon lap of evenly-paced running. Back then, my biggest Friday plans were race days. Tuesday and Thursday nights in winter were track nights — no excuses. I expended most of my energy in lane one, and even though there are few things I have ever loved that much, I eventually got sick of the track. I still ran, but my running was no longer competitive or obsessive. It certainly was no longer bagel-shaped.

Until I moved to Medellin.

I step onto the track in Envigado and note that there are some major differences between this one and the one back home. Shooting up from its edges are palm trees, not pines, and rather than running in the sleepy backyard of my suburban high school, I’m circling a packed field of sweating soccer players hard at practice. The stands are packed, and Andean mountains keep watch just beyond. There are similarities, too: The track is black, it’s 400 metres long and, again, it’s conveniently close to my home. Most importantly, though, when I get to lane one, I fall into the same old pattern. I do my old two-lap warmup to get my blood flowing and my steps even, and then I start to count my laps: two and half makes one kilometre; today, my workout will start with three sets followed by some speed work and a cool-down.

I fall into a rhythm despite the blazing heat and even though I haven’t actually run this way in a while, it starts to feel the same. I lean into the track’s curves the same way. I pick out focal points in the distance like I used to do. I pick up the pace on the straight parts and, when I pass the start line to begin a new lap, I sometimes keep count out loud. When I’m done my modest three sets, I start on the faster stuff: running half-laps of the track almost at top speed. I start at the bleachers and head to the finish. I run the letter “C” which could stand for “Colombia,” the place I’m calling home for a while.

I finish my workout and head home. As the weeks wear on, I make a habit of returning to the track to do all the old workouts of my past. I start to pick out familiar faces, and I observe pieces of Colombian culture (their talent and enthusiasm for soccer, for example) from this newly established comfort zone. I’m so far from home, but it feels like I’ve been reunited with a best friend and we’re picking up right where we left off. Oftentimes in the mornings, I even take a cup of coffee up to my roof in the morning where again, I can keep watch of the track from afar.

Travel is uncomfortable. When I arrived in Colombia, reality hit: I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. Nine months later, I have to admit that I find myself in frenzies, because I still don’t totally know how to navigate life abroad. But I do know how to run on a track. So I rediscovered and redefined my relationship with this kind of running during in a time when I desperately needed familiarity. When travelling turns into an emotional rollercoaster, your roots will provide refuge. It won’t make everything perfect, but it will make things better, and that’s enough.

Funnily enough, the day I reconnected with the track, I posted a photo online with the caption: “First track workout in Colombia.” While true, I feel that was extremely simplistic given it was actually my first time back on a track in about eight years. A couple weeks later, I articulated it better. Accompanied by a bird’s eye shot of the Envigado track I wrote: “Once again, the track happens to be in my front yard. For years, it brought on a case of the nerves. These days, it’s more of a comfort.”

Getting there

Want to visit Colombia for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Colombia here.

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