Thursday, May 7, 2009

Maui Chronicles: Fear and Fun

It seems counterintuitive that a little fear can enhance your fun, but my recent experiences in Maui tell me this is true.

While in Maui we paid for three “adventures”: horseback riding at the Mendes Ranch in Wailuku, surfing at Kalama Park in Kihei, and snorkeling at Olowalu. I did not expect to experience any fear during the horseback ride, but the first time my horse, Cowboy, started running, I found myself grabbing the saddle horn with my right hand and laughing out loud all the way uphill: a little fear, a lot of fun. The second run, on the other hand, wasn’t fun at all. First, Cowboy took off too early, and Gerard, one of the guides, yelled, “not yet, not yet.” I got the horse reined in (a feat of which I’m proud because that willful horse wanted to run), but as soon as Gerard took off, so did Cowboy. One of my feet had slipped from the stirrups and I was little off balance, so I grabbed the horn with both hands as we went charging up the hill. I was just too frightened to enjoy the ride. By the time I got my balance and composure back, it was over.

The fear I experienced surfing was of an entirely different order. As we walked toward the water carrying our boards I found myself wishing I had never signed up. I felt pretty sure I’d get dumped and tumbled and scraped and that I’d never manage to catch a wave let alone ride it. So I was afraid of pain and humiliation. That fear persisted through my first effort. I was surprised how fast the wave was pushing the board, and how easy it would have been to stay on my belly. I had to make myself kneel. It took all my will to try to stand up. I almost made it, and falling didn't hurt a bit. After that, I wasn’t afraid at all, just focused and determined. And when I finally did it, when I stood up and kept my balance and rode that wave, I felt only exhilaration. I suspect that if I ever try surfing bigger waves--and I want to, I want to--I’ll experience more fear and more exhilaration.

The fear that accompanied snorkeling was closer to what I experienced surfing. It started as we began swimming. Images of drowning flashed through my mind. I pushed them down: I’m a good swimmer, I’ve snorkeled before, and I was in good company. I had little flashes of fear throughout the snorkel. Once, surfacing from a dive, I started to inhale before I’d cleared my snorkel. I spit the mouth piece out before I’d taken any water into my throat and, as I gulped in air, told myself to be a little more careful. A bit later, after we had found some sea turtles and were following them, I found myself anthropomorphizing, wondering if they were leading us into some kind of trap. It was a passing fancy, quickly dispelled. I also felt a little afraid during the time we were following the manta rays: they have long barbed tails and I worried that if I got too close they might sting me or that if we followed them for too long we'd never get back to shore.

The verdict? A little fear increases vigilance. Heightened awareness increases pleasure. Too much fear paralyzes. Paralysis ain’t fun.

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