In the quiet of the night, in a little cobbled Italian town, I became faintly aware of a presence, hovering above me as I lay asleep on my bed in my hotel room, apparently, not as soundly as I thought. My consciousness played hide-and-seek, drifting in and out.
I pulled my covers closer, curling up like a ball but it was becoming impossible to ignore the unwelcome hand tapping on my shoulder. In equal parts irritation and confusion, I looked over my shoulder to the edge of the bed; it was the guy from reception, the one that had made a strange comment that evening. He was whispering something but I couldn’t understand him.
Then it hit me like a stroke of lightning.
It was the dead of the night. I was supposed to be alone in my room. But I wasn’t. Shadows moved across the thin strip of light on the wall that came in through the curtains.
I wasn’t alone. I had to wake the fuck up to defend myself.
My eyes flew open. Nothing. No one.
My hand instinctively reached out to switch on the lamp on the nightstand. I grabbed my glasses and put them on. Still nothing. Just a nightmare that had felt disturbingly real.
Acutely aware of my racing heart and heavy breathing, I sat up in my bed, back against the headboard and with eyes peeled for the door. My mind raced with a thousand doubts.
How could it have been? Had someone entered my room, whispered something, and then left? Was it just a nightmare? But I’d never had such nightmares.
It had been a long, eventful day and utterly exhausted, I’d fallen asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. I hadn’t pondered over anything that could have set off such a nightmare.
I drank a glass of water, got up to check that my door was locked (it was), and came back to bed, pulling the covers close. I needed to be up in four hours. I needed to sleep; I couldn’t let the fear win.
As a child, I was afraid of the dark. I’d sleep with a night light on, terrified by the idea that in case I was conscious, I would see nothing, completely vulnerable to the forces that lurk in the dark.
But I’d not been afraid in the longest time. After over a decade of sleeping alone and traveling alone, spending nights in the rooms of hotels and guesthouses in far-flung places, I didn’t care anymore. I once spent three nights as the only person in a creaky-floored 18th-century six bedroom house on an island home to less than ten people. Squealing wooden floors, howling wind, leaves rustling on the window, and all.
It could have been that the man’s strange comment had registered in some corner of my mind and oddly set off the nightmare. But I was too tired to think about it and gradually, sleep won.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I thought about it the next day. And I thought about fear. About how it could and does manifest when you least expect it, and how this very quality makes it the most human of emotions. As someone whose social media feeds are inundated by the content of adventurers, travel bloggers, and other travel media, it often feels like everyone but me has learnt how to travel without fear.
I often get emails and messages from readers saying how brave I am to do what I do. I’m aware of my unconventional life choices but the truth is, and I’m just going to come out and say it, I feel neither brave nor fearless, at least from where I’m standing. Those who are closest to me know that I can be an anxious wreck, an over-thinker, and a constant worrier. Although, I do push the boundaries of my comfort zone little by little, I rarely take long, confident, drastic steps outside of it.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I wouldn’t dare to go to certain countries that are politically unstable or known to be unsafe for women. I know that their economies could use tourism and their people might be the friendliest, but I have no qualms to admit that sometimes, I am afraid for my safety. I have, in the past, changed flight tickets to avoid passing through certain cities where the safety situation has changed enough to make me nervous about being there.
Is It About Being a Woman Who Travels Alone?
Of course, it is, at least in part, and tell me, shouldn’t it be? Don’t get me wrong; I am the biggest fan of the idea of women traveling alone, and I would not do it myself if I were not. I think every woman, regardless of age and relationship status should travel alone and learn how to enjoy it, because it seriously is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself.
But the fact remains, that the world sees men and women traveling alone quite differently. Just because it sees men and women differently. In many places, women traveling alone attract unwanted attention. They can seem like an easy target for petty, violent, and sexual crimes, seen as the ‘weaker’ sex.
We’re constantly reminded that it isn’t our place to be wandering the world alone, with warnings and questions like,
Your husband/father/parents/family lets you travel alone?
Why didn’t your husband come with you?
I know a handsome man for you.
What would your husband/boyfriend say if he saw you drinking in this bar?
Like we have no business asserting our identities and rights as individuals, bodies with minds that are free of a male owner.
Of course, as a woman traveling alone, I have to be especially careful of my attire, body language, eye contact, need to blend in rather than stand out, and personal safety. So I do everything I need to, to feel safe and I wouldn’t go to places that are known to have high incidences of crimes against women. One time, I moved out of a guesthouse in a Nepali hamlet at 11pm to find another place to stay, because my gut was telling me it wasn’t a good idea to be there.
I don’t have this need to prove a point at the expense of personal safety. In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to think about this; I should be free to roam the world just as freely as a man does, feeling equally at ease about safety.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in a real one. And so I pay attention, sometimes to my fears and always to my intuition.
Personal Fears Versus Global Fears
When there is talk in the travel community of how we should have zero fear while traveling because the world is an amazing place, I can’t help but think of how rose-tinted and lopsided this view is. Like seeing things in black or white without acknowledging the existence of grey.
It’s ignorant to pretend that the problems of the world do not exist- political instability, military coups, terrorism, human rights issues, racism, crime, and epidemics. And I don’t know how not to be afraid of going to places where these are major issues that could affect travelers. Sure, often, the media portrays problems to be far worse than they are and I agree about doing your own research before you decide whether or not you want to travel someplace.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns either.
What many bloggers who tell you to ignore the media and go anyway fail to take into account is that your personal safety also depends on you’re own identity- your nationality, race, and gender. If you’re from a first world country with a powerful passport and a government that cares enough to rescue you from the shittiest situations in a foreign country, you’re obviously safer abroad than someone from a country that has so many people that they simply have neither the time nor the resources to do that.
Travelers are not immune to these things. There’s no ‘Travel Superhero Shield’ that protects travelers or adventurers who sometimes think that the whole world is their playground. In fact, they’re very often affected by the same things that the local population of a country is, when they choose to go at an unfavorable or unfortunate time for that place. They’re just as likely to be at the wrong place at the wrong time because there’s no special travelers’ luck working its magic.
And yes, I know there are statistics somewhere about how you’re more likely to die in a car accident in your own city than in a terrorist attack or a flight incident, but surely, the idea of an end as ghastly, away from your loved ones, rightly causes fear over an awareness of the facts?Then of course, there are personal fears; fear of heights, loneliness, anxiety, safety, darkness, and social awkwardness. To me, they’re all valid and nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, a lot of people gradually overcome these fears when they travel and push themselves to get over them. I’ve had some success with overcoming personal fears since I started traveling by myself.
But having them, isn’t that what makes us human? If we could all be completely fearless, we’d be superheroes and you know what superheroes are? Fictional.
How You See Fear and Guilt When You’ve Faced Loss
As someone who has faced loss of the life-changing kind, I can confidently say that people who have done the same see fear and death differently from people who haven’t. The truth is that losing the people we love shatters us, changes us, and even if we are hardened by time and slowly learn how to get on with life, life is never the same and the pain, though subdued, is always present, waiting to flare up at the slightest emotional provocation.
Until you’ve faced this kind of heartbreak, or have death turn your life upside down, you can live life with a certain carefree selfishness. Until then, it’s easy to believe that your life is only yours and affects only you, and therefore you need to only consider your own happiness when you make decisions that govern it. Like nothing and no one else matters.
I used to be that person.
But eleven years ago, I lost my mom. I’ve kept that part of my life private and never talked about it on the blog, and I don’t intend to dwell on it now. But all this time lends the ability to talk about it a little more objectively. I’ll tell you this: she was, quite literally, the only person who knew me and loved me as much as she did. She was my home. And then, just like that, she was gone. Fast forward three years and my older sister followed her, and the two of them, who had always been my strength and my best friends, left me to stumble my way around adult life on my own.
That was the darkest period of my life. But it taught me everything about what dying does to the people you love.
So yes, I am afraid of death when a cab or bus driver drives too recklessly, or when there is unexpected air turbulence of the stomach-lurching kind, or becoming the target of a crime, or being caught in some crossfire in some unstable part of the world. Yes, I am the kind of person who decides not to go paragliding when she sees that seconds before her flight, the pilot has had a major altercation with someone and is fuming. No thanks, I’m not going to trust someone who is extremely angry at the moment with my life. And so, I’ll minimize the risk as much as I can because I do not want to die on the people whose world I am.
More than the thought of not existing anymore, I am terrified of what that would do to the people I love. To lose me in some far-flung corner of the planet. And so, to me, to pretend that there is no reason to fear anything, is selfish. I am simply not cut out to be okay with that kind of guilt.
Why It’s Okay To Be Afraid
Fear is the most human of emotions, like anger and sadness and love. And contrary to popular perception, everyone is afraid of something, even if they don’t like to admit it because of how that dilutes their image.
Some of the most extroverted and self-assured people are terrified of loneliness. Some are afraid of being around too many people and yet others are afraid of things like heights, closed places, speed, and water. Fear of flying is real and fear of terrorism is valid, despite popular media telling you that you shouldn’t be afraid. Travel anxiety, flight anxiety, fear of traveling solo, fear of dining alone, and fear of not being able to communicate in a country where you don’t speak the language or if you don’t speak English fluently- they’re all valid fears.
It’s okay, it really is. You should try your best to get over them and not let them cripple you into inaction, but you shouldn’t be ashamed of having them.
I’m afraid of speed, and heights, and sometimes I’m paranoid about personal safety. I deal with it in ways that I know how and some fears, I don’t deal with. I just don’t put myself in those situations- I chicken out and I don’t want to be ashamed of saying that. For the usual things like theft, accidents etc, I make sure I’m always insured because on that front I’d rather be prepared than cheap.
I don’t get the fear shaming that is common in the travel industry. What is safe to you might not be safe to me and that should be okay. I shouldn’t be ridiculed or laughed at. No one should be if they’re afraid.
So I’m going to talk about something that isn’t widely talked about openly in the travel community. While this might not be everyone, it certainly describes plenty of people, normal people like me with normal fears, who travel the world with them.
TRAVELERS AREN’T ALWAYS FEARLESS.
As much as viral online content glorifies travelers to seem as though they’re completely devoid of any insecurities or fears, the truth is far from it. The ‘always fearless adventurer’ stereotype simply isn’t true. From fearing the inescapable feeling of loneliness and the idea of dealing with creepy insects to constantly looking over their shoulder in dark alleys, travelers deal with fear in their daily lives just like the rest of us. While some let fear taint their experiences, others take baby steps towards overcoming them.
AND TRAVEL ISN’T A MAGIC WAND THAT WILL WAVE YOUR FEARS AWAY.
You won’t come back from a round the world or solo trip any braver than when you left unless you’re really proactive about facing your fears. A lot of people expect that travel is going to magically make them want to jump on to that canyon swing or skydive at 13000 feet. But if you’ve always been afraid of heights, you’re going to get just as queasy when the opportunity presents itself unless you actively force yourself to stare fear in the face.
SOMETIMES, THERE’S A VERY FINE LINE BETWEEN INTUITION AND PARANOIA.
It can be hard to identify when you need to listen to your inner voice, especially if it has been unnecessarily paranoid in the past. While it’s hard to keep the balance, pretending that you don’t see the red flags in your head can be a foolish choice when you have nothing but your gut to guide your way through tricky situations.
TRAVELERS FEAR LONELINESS MORE THAN THEY WOULD LIKE TO ADMIT.
Yes, even those that never speak of it. But it’s not uncommon for even the most well-traveled solo adventurers to cancel their trips, alter their itineraries drastically, book one accommodation instead of another or follow a travel companion they just met, to avoid dealing with loneliness.
How to Deal With Fear (and how I do it)
- Be prepared and do your own research and due-diligence before you travel. Talk to people on the ground and yes, do follow the news and don’t disregard it. Travelers shouldn’t live in a bubble where everything is awesome and amazing.
- If you’re traveling to remote places, keep your loved ones informed of your whereabouts. Talk to locals and take their advice- they can often give you a more realistic insight than the media and other travelers or tourists.
- Whether it’s the fear of heights, people, culture shock, traveling alone, or flying, make a conscious effort to overcome it. Talk to other people and find a community of those who have had success with this. Sometimes it’s about having information beforehand (about the place, culture, norms, traditions, geography etc) to deal with uncertainty.
- When it comes to safety, leave no stone unturned and do whatever it takes for you to feel safe. Don’t compromise. Be aware, prepared, and always listen to your gut. Don’t force yourself to follow a strict budget that forces you to compromise on safety. Safety over a few dollars, always.
- It’s okay to not go to countries where you think, based on your own research, you wouldn’t feel safe. There is a whole world out there to explore and plenty of places to go where you won’t constantly be on edge. You don’t have to be the bravest or fastest or most intrepid traveler out there.
Over to you, tell me do you have any fears that you take along when you travel? How do you deal with them and are you ashamed of them? Do you hide them or do you talk about them openly? What do you think of the fear shaming that is widespread in the travel community?
Want to read more personal posts like this? Head to my Straight from The Heart section.