( Cover Feature)
The corporate high flyer who left her job so that she could learn to live again
Two years ago, Konstantina Sakellariou’s life was as perfect as it could get. The Greek national had over 20 years in the corporate field and served as a partner and marketing and operations director in Stanton Chase International in Dubai. So, when she, along with a few colleagues, organised a trip to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania two years ago, she did not expect it to lead her on a journey of self- exploration or inspire her to write her upcoming memoir The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other. This is her story…
How it all began
“When you reach an altitude of 6,000 metres — and you’re not a professional mountaineer — breathing gets a little difficult. It’s because when you inhale, you’re only getting about 40 per cent of the oxygen, but your body is still exerting itself and demanding more. So the final effect is that the air you breathe does not feel like it’s enough. Your brain and stomach don’t react well. You are reeling, and brought to your knees.
“The entire trip to Mount Kilimanjaro was really challenging
for me. My stomach didn’t react well because of the high altitude and I stayed up late the previous night because I was feeling sick. Before we scaled the mountain, I found myself wondering why I was so upset and stressed out. I certainly did not have anyone forcing me to climb. In the moments that followed, I found myself wondering ‘ Who am I?’
“As I climbed up the mountain, I realised I did not have the right answer to that question. It felt like everything I had been doing until that point had been a cycle. A good one, but it was no longer working and I had to start a brand new cycle. It was a moment of brilliant clarity.”
on Taking The Plunge
“As a Greek national, I’ve travelled around Europe when I was younger, but these were all traditional vacations spent with the family. I was never a hiker. But I believe that when you get out of your comfort zone and push yourself, something truly magical happens. It’s almost like you’re shedding an old skin. You emerge brand new.
“After I came back to the UAE, I realised that I wanted to do a bigger trip. It was no longer about a hiking adventure but a spiritual journey for me. So, I took a long sabbatical from work and over the course of the next year and a half, I travelled to six other countries, coming back to the UAE after every trip. I felt like I was diving and collecting parts of myself with every journey, and coming home was like coming up for air.”
The beginning of her adventure
“American writer Joseph Campbell was the one who coined the term ‘ hero’s journey’ and you can see it in all popular fiction, from The Hobbit to The Hunger Games. If you’ve noticed, something triggers the adventure, and the hero goes along with it ( reluctantly at first) until he or she is mentally and emotionally transformed.
“When I returned from my seven trips, I realised that I had been on something of a hero’s journey myself. Each trip brought with it a change, a new understanding, until I felt like a completely new person. Today, I see the world, its opportunities and its threats, in a whole new light. That is how strong a hero’s journey can be.
“After Kilimanjaro, I decided to take a long trip through
Nepal. This wasn’t really hiking but more of a cultural trip. Different groups always joined me, and this time we went off the road and ended up staying in a private school in Makadum. I have so much awe for the people there. The man who ran the school was less educated than I was, but he was making a real difference to his life — and to the lives of all the children in his village.
“My next trip was to China, and once I was there, I started thinking about boundaries. It was very much influenced by the Great Wall of China, and it made me realise that a lot of the things that we feed our mind on a daily basis is garbage, and that we should all put a stop to it. I’ve noticed that if men don’t want to do something, they simply won’t do it. But women think they are being kind but accepting things they shouldn’t have to. This trip put things into perspective regarding boundaries when it comes to family and relationships.
“When I visited Vietnam, it was raining heavily. It was so green and there was so much life all around me. That was when I started thinking about starting from scratch. If you’re not happy with the person you are, and have a chance to create a new person, who do you create? To answer that question is about taking responsibility for the person you are becoming.
“Travelling in Oman was all about embracing my feminine side. Again, I met with a large group, and found that there wasn’t really a lot of exerting physical work to do. It was simply about enjoying the natural beauty of the place.
“At Everest base camp, the sheer exhilaration I felt helped me let go of the last remembrance of myself. My final journey was in Bhutan. Again, it was like the weather was a part of my journey — it was spring, everything was in bloom, and it was in that country that I felt reborn.
“When I came back from my last trip, my mind felt so clear. I simply sat down one day and told myself ‘ I have to write about this’, and my book was written in three weeks. The first draft was like a baby coming out.”
“Spoken word poet Sarah Kay once said ‘ Sometimes the only way I know how to work through something is by writing a poem’. I understand that because I felt the same way. While I was travelling, I was only taking things in. Every journey was inspirational and it made me see that there was so much more to nature and human beings that I had ever expected. But when I came back and began to write, that’s when I clarified my thoughts. For me, that book The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other simply had to come out. It took its time, not because of details or technicalities, but because it represents me. I was lucky enough to have those experiences, and I had to pass it on.”
Why We should all travel more
“Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was a journalist long before she became an author. But what made her so famous was that, through her book, she allowed herself to discover herself. I think women are more open to change. That is not to say men are not! But I believe women are not afraid to say ‘ I want to discover something new about myself’.
That being said, both women and men should travel more, because if they are looking for something new, they are going to find it. And it doesn’t have to be just about travelling — there’s more than one way to find a new side to yourself. The point is whether you are actually looking for it or not. A lot of the times, people say they can’t really go because of financial problems, but travelling can be cheap if you know how to go about it. Most of the time, it is all just an excuse to stay in your comfort zone.”
On finding herself
“I believe that everything we do answers the question ‘ Who am I?’ Whether we make decisions subconsciously or consciously, our choices define us. And if we are not happy with our definition of ourselves, that’s when we have to change. For example, if we have a product, but cannot define it, we can never know how to promote it. The same goes for a person — if I’m comfortable with myself, I will know instantly if something does not suit me. However, if I don’t really know who I am, I will consider every alternative and then eventually opt for the more rational point of view. But is that wise?
The trick is realising that there is no right or wrong way. You just have to just find the right path for you, in that moment. So, when you know who you are, everything becomes effortless.”
jan[email protected] khaleejtimes. com
HIKE HAPPY: Konstantina during the climb up to Mount Kilimanjaro; ( left,top) as seen during her ascent in 2014; ( bottom) walking along the Great Wall of China
ON A HERO’S JOURNEY: 1 Riding an elephant in Chitwan, Nepal 2 feeling on top of the world at Mount Kilimanjaro 3 meeting students of the private school in Makadum, Nepal 4 at the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan 5 going shutter- happy in Oman 6 taking the Machame route to Kilimanjaro 7 posing while climbing the mountain