On the first day of my study abroad program, my program director drew a circle on a whiteboard and then another larger circle around it. “This is your comfort zone,” she said pointing to the smaller circle. “This,” she said pointing to the large circle engulfing it, “are things outside your comfort zone that I encourage you to try, for they will broaden your horizons and give you a richer experience. These things might include taking a samba class or a trip to the desert.” Then she motioned to the rest of the blank whiteboard and said, “This part here is everything outside your comfort zone that you do not feel at all safe doing. It is okay not to do these things.”
That was probably the most useful part of orientation for me. Since then I’ve consistently been gauging every experience on that scale. Trip to art museum? COMFORT ZONE! Free Chilean metal concert? OUTSIDE COMFORT ZONE! Climbing up the side of an active volcano without proper footwear and a sprained ankle? TOO FAR OUT OF COMFORT ZONE! But last weekend I was faced with a grey area.
My new Chilean friends, which I was very excited that I had, invited me to Horcon, a small town on the coast famous for its prolific fishing industry. Horcon looked like the glossy photos of an issue of National Geographic. The men all had beards, Cosby sweaters, and callused hands from spending all morning hulling up fishing nets. The tops of rocks were stained white by seagulls and pelicans. The town’s centerpiece, a lighthouse, punctured the cloudy sky and reminded me of the lighthouse on the bottles of Nantucket Nectar. After eating some shrimp empanadas with my new friends, we piled into the station wagon and headed to the beach. I casually mentioned that I forgot my swimsuit. One of them said, “Good thing you don’t need it.” I innocently asked why, assuming the water would be too cold anyway. “Horcon is famous for its nude beach.”
I’ve never been to a nude beach. It’s not that I’ve never wanted to go to a nude beach, it’s just that I’ve never had the opportunity. I mean, if my new friends wanted to go to a nude beach, why shouldn’t I be down for new things? It’s not like I’m a prude or anything. I’m sexually progressive enough to lie on a beach with no clothes on. It’s just going to be a lot of sunscreen– oh god, I’ve forgotten my sunscreen, I’m going to be completely pink. Everyone is going to see the giant bruise I got on my butt I got from falling last weekend. Everyone is going to see that new crop of acne on my back. Do people lose friends from back acne? If I don’t want to do this will they stop being my friend? Is this out of my comfort zone or too far out of my comfort zone?
I debated this internally until we arrived at the beach and it started raining. I like to think that it was a divine intervention, preventing me from either embarrassing myself or seeming like a party pooper. But being in a car for fifteen minutes thinking I would be naked with a group of people I was trying to impress made me realize that if some things fall on the border of the comfort circle, I will not die.