Sorry, there are few images to decorate this post. When I am stressed, I am very unlikely to take photographs.
Aren’t You Afraid?
People often ask me if I am afraid to travel alone.
Yes, sometimes I am afraid when traveling. But no more often than when I am at home. Experience helps. Sometimes you just need to step out and meet your fears head-on. The next time you face a similar experience, the fear will have lessened. Today, I am sharing some of the times when I have been afraid or worried while traveling.
Arriving in a new destination is almost always stressful for me—especially when arriving in a completely new culture. As I approach the arrival hall in the airport, I have to keep reminding myself that millions of people enter new countries every day.
It was January 2014 and I was on my way to Peru—alone. I was scared.
As the plane descended in Lima, the airline attendant announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching the Jorge Chávez International Airport…,” and everything inside me willed the plane to turn around and head back to Houston.
What the hell was I doing? And it was almost midnight, for gosh sakes! Afraid of going outside in Lima at that hour, I spent the night in the airport. Then, I took a 16-hour bus ride to my first stop, Arequipa. I was exhausted, but more than that I was frozen with fear. I could not make myself leave the safety of my guesthouse. Eventually hunger overcame fear and I stepped outside. You can read that story here.
Making a long story short, two weeks later I was comfortable enough with my environment that I made an excursion alone to Puno and Chucuito to enjoy the Festival of Candelaria. I did the research and made all the plans on my own. I had become more confident and over came my fear in two short weeks!
Midnight Arrival…and No Room at the Inn!
The only ferry to Orkney Island lands near Kirkwall, Scotland at midnight. I thought I had reservations in a guesthouse, but when I arrived in the wee hours, I found a tiny deserted reception room. There was a phone and number to call. When the sleepy owner answered, she had no idea of who I was. She tried to be helpful, but all her rooms were full, and she could not think of a solution for me. I told her I had a tent and asked if there was someplace I could pitch it. She suggested the campground “on the other side of the Tesco’s.” (Where in the world was the Tesco’s???)
Luckily, I had downloaded a Google map of the town in advance and it showed me where I was and identified the Tesco supermarket. Not too far to walk, but it IS disconcerting to walk around a strange town at night with packs. After a bit of meandering, I found the campground—a nice one—and pitched the tent in the wee hours. I settled up with the host the next day and ended up staying for two nights, saving £10 each night over the cost of the guesthouse.
If I had not had the tent, I probably would have asked if I could stay in the corner of the reception room until daylight. Then I would have found a café in the morning to consider my options over a nice cup of tea.
Irish Immigration Officer: “Don’t make me sorry I did this.”
I confidently walked up to the immigration officer in Dublin’s airport and handed him my passport. I had never had any problems entering a country and was surprised when he started asking some hard questions. It soon became apparent that he might not let me into the country. As I was stammering my answers, I began thinking about what I would do if that happened. I could not go back to the European continent—my EU Schengen Zone visa was expiring soon.
I REALLY did not want to go home. The UK was close enough that a ticket would not cost so much, and I said to the officer, “Well, I guess I could get a ticket to England.” For some reason, the officer seemed to back off a bit. However, as he stamped my passport, he said, “Don’t make me sorry I did this.”
In reality, I had little to be afraid of. Worst case, I would have had to purchase a ticket to somewhere in the nearby UK. (Scotland is always welcoming!) It was interesting that I was never afraid while talking to the immigration officer. But as I rode the bus into Dublin, I started shivering and blinked back tears. I thought about the myriad immigrants all over the world who have good reason to be afraid while standing in the immigration line. If my passport had been Syrian, this story may have had a very different ending.
One day, riding in a collectivo (small local bus) in Peru’s Sacred Valley, the woman next to me asked if I was solita, alone. “Tienes miedo?” she asked (Aren’t you afraid?) I responded, “Solamente de perros malos!” (Only of bad dogs!).
We laughed…but later that very day, alone on a trail, I encountered two large dogs protecting some sheep—with no person in sight. I realized they were just doing their job and if they were well-trained they would stay in the pasture. But I walked way around the field anyway. The dogs did not come after me. But my heart pounded for the next 15 minutes as I scoured the trail ahead for more of the beasts.
After living in Peru, where street dogs run rampant, I am not as afraid of dogs as I used to be. I have learned a little about how to read their body language. City street dogs are rarely dangerous—at least not during the day. When hiking in the countryside, I usually have my trekking poles. Dogs hate sticks, and I can wave the poles behind me when they are barking and growling at my ankles.
Another trick: I only need to stoop down and pick up a rock, and almost any dog in the world will shy away. It is like universal dog language!
Of course, anytime a dog runs after me barking and growling, my adrenalin spikes. Once it is over, I my heart pounds for quite a while—with fear or anger or both.
I Don’t Like to Appear Stupid
Funny thing, my worst fear seems to be that I will look like a stupid tourist, or I will commit some cultural or social faux pas. This makes me reticent and I am sometimes hesitant to engage with strangers. As a result, I miss out on cross-cultural experiences and that is the whole reason I travel!
It also means I might not ask for directions before I have walked a mile out of my way. Or, I miss out on an incredible photograph because I am too shy to ask for permission. Or, (and this really happened!) I don’t pull out my drop spindle to show a group of women who are spinning yarn that I share a special skill.
My reticence does not make sense at all. Rare is the person who does not want to help with directions; many people are flattered to have their photograph taken; and every time I have pulled out my spindle, smiles broke out all around. “Sabes!” said one surprised woman in Chucuito, Peru, “You know how!”
But I am so afraid of being the “ugly American” or appearing foolish, that I tend to over-hesitate. Not a good trait for an independent traveler, I know. But I am working on it.
If you are also reticent when traveling alone, and you want some inspiration, read my blog post, “Courage?” about how afraid I was to get on a bus in Arequipa, Peru.
I Have Been Lucky
I have been very fortunate in my travels and nothing really bad has happened to me. When I have been sick, I seemed to find myself in an environment of caring people. But I never became seriously ill while abroad. I have sometimes wondered what would happen if I fell and was unable to get up while hiking in a remote area. How long would it be before someone would find me. But that has not stopped me from hiking alone. Ironically, my worst fall recently was on a sidewalk in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the sidewalks leave something to be desire. I tripped, fell straight forward, and broke two front teeth! Luckily, I was living in the same community as my dentist. Unfortunately, it happed right before the COVID-19 lockdown, and I still have two broken front teeth!
What bothers you when traveling? Does it get in your way of enjoying the experiences? How do you manage your own fears? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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