How Fear Factors Into My Travels

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The amount of times I nearly walked away from a flight is staggering and would probably surprise you. I would say in recent years, I have seriously considered losing thousands of dollars I pay for trips in advance, leaving it all on the table, to walk away from flights. While I’m making strides with my anxiety and OCD, it is also no joke. Sometimes, I’m entirely convinced that the worst situations that can happen to a traveler will happen to me. Muggings, stabbings, murder. The bitch about anxiety is that we who suffer cannot rely on trusting our gut. If I did that, I’d never leave my house. My gut is always telling me that everything is terrifying and risky. What helps my anxiety is consciously reminding myself that my worst fears have never happened on a trip. This normally works, until it didn’t.

Before departing for Spain in 2017, I lamented to my husband that I might be the victim of a terrorist attack. He rolled his eyes. “Stephanie, I’m stuck here working. You have an incredible opportunity. The odds of you being involved in an attack are incredibly slim. Go and relax, a reward for all of the hard work you do.” Oddly enough, a terrorist attack did happen when I got to Spain. I was out at Mercado de San Miguel when I looked at my phone and received dozens of texts and calls. Before I could even open any of my messages, a frantic petite woman sidled up to my best friend and I. “There’s been a terrorist attack in Barcelona! Someone drove a van into Las Ramblas and the attackers are on the loose!” I would be heading that way in two days. I couldn’t believe it. My immediate thoughts were of course terrified. I felt like the attackers were pervasive. They could be anyone and they could be anywhere. I briefly texted my mother and husband before pounding glass after glass of sangria with my bestie trying to numb our fear of what might happen next.

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Heading back to the hotel, we Skyped our moms and had a lot of decisions to make. Do we switch countries? Do we skip Barcelona, a place I’ve always wanted to see? Do we fly home? Amanda offered that we should stick to our original plan. She felt that when people switch plans is when bad situations arise. I received an alert on my phone that yet another attack had happened at a resort town in Spain. We decided we would stick with our original plan. At around midnight we made our way to Joy Teatro Eslava, an amazing nightclub in an abandoned theater. As much fun as I had, I’ll never forget the constant unnerving feeling I held until the drinks caught up with me. The constant need to stand by the closest exit. To scan the room for places that a person might pop out from unexpectedly. It was eerie. I remember walking home from club through Plaza Mayor and seeing a group of people, mostly families gathered around a street performer and speed walking past them feeling that such a large congregation was inevitably a target for a terrorist who might be lurking in the shadows.

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To make a long story short, our trip was nearly perfect, and unforgettable, but I was scared for sure. When we ate outside, I never had my back to the street in case a car drove up onto the sidewalk, I would be able to see it. I recall being alone with Amanda on a bus with a sketchy group of guys who were huddled in a circle and whispering. I made us get off at the wrong stop because I seriously considered that they might be assailants in some way. My heart was in my throat sitting in the Plaza del Sol knowing that it was so heavily frequented by tourists, and what if someone decides to do the unthinkable. My mind had become a microcosm of McCarthyism. Everyone was the enemy. We took a train from Madrid to Seville and shared a compartment with a (probably) 17 or 18 year old kid. I’ll never forget that either one of us couldn’t rest out eyes despite being SO tired because what if he’s one of them. He went rummaging through his bag at one point, and I death gripped my seat handle knowing…just KNOWING he was about to pull out a weapon and end it all. Actually, he was pulling out a carton of cigarettes.

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Fear did not end with my trip to Spain. I vividly remember sitting on a plane from Mumbai to Udaipur with my husband when a young man pulled out two cell phones. Why did he need two phones? What could he need two phones for? I remember tugging at my husband and demanding he ask the young man why he needed two phones. I remember digging my nails into my jeans just knowing that he had one of those phones wired up somehow to hurt us all. This…this is what anxiety makes of a person at its worst. It wasn’t until my husband reminded me that he himself carries two phones, one for work, that I calmed down and was bathed in a river of my own stupidity and embarrassment.

To be fair to myself – I have been in some very hairy situations involving flying. One situation involved my best friend and I flying home from Vegas on Spirit Airlines. The man assigned to sit next to us kept asking my friend about orgasms and cliter-i. When I demanded that he stop, he calmly told me that the entire plane was going down and going to kill us all.

I still don’t have an answer for the question I’m about to pose, but I thought I’d open up the floodgate. To what extent do we and should we allow fear to play a role in our travels?

I’m in a really good position in regards to travel. My husband is a huge fan of travel and supports all of my wanderlust wishes. We prioritize travel above most things. Our baby, at six months old, is already incredibly well traveled. He does excellent on long car rides, adjusts well to new surroundings, and is generally very well behaved and curious in places like museums, restaurants, and tours.

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Having won the lottery on this, the opportunities are endless. One such opportunity presented itself recently, and I’m torn. Recently, we’ve been given the choice of visiting Costa Rica for four to six weeks this summer while my husband works remotely. Do you know how many people dream of doing the digital nomad thing, and here we are with an opportunity? We are deeply in love with the country, in fact, the novel I’m working on is set there! This is an amazing opportunity in so many regards both professionally and personally for our family. We have the funds, the drive, the ability, and still, I can’t pull the trigger. I don’t know if I ever will. Why? Fear.

What if my son gets sick and contracts some weird Costa Rican illness? Would I ever forgive myself? Would society ever forgive me, or constantly look down on me as an irresponsible and unforgivable mother? What if we wind up hating it there and feel isolated? What if my parents and family are heartbroken that we’re leaving for such a long time? What if a severe storm sweeps through the area and tears our home apart? What if we love it, and returning to a conventional lifestyle absolutely breaks our hearts?

Nearly everyone in my life lives a conventional lifestyle. No one I know travels as much as I do, except a few of my husband’s friends. People talk about it with me, dream about it with me, but never actually pursue a life centered around travel. Every person I know is focused on marriage, kids, a house with a mortgage that will never be paid off until near death, taking care of family, and career. Some parts of that really excite me, such as having a big family, celebrating holidays together, and having a home. Others are unfathomable to me. I don’t want to work only to be able to afford a mortgage and nothing else. I don’t want to keep up with the Jones’ family for the best furniture and best clothes. I don’t want to spend my free time, the little time I have on this earth painting walls and fixing plumbing and going to the same bars and restaurants. My whole life I have been an outlier, someone who does things differently, and my whole life I’ve been sneered at. I typically do not care what others think of me, but the criticism to be normal and step into line with others can be intolerable sometimes. People seem to have no problem spending hundreds of dollars on birthday parties, Abercrombie clothes, Christmas presents which get cast to the side after days, and zippy after zippy at Fire Island. When I spend my money on travel instead, I’m doing the unthinkable. I must be a millionaire. I must be in debt. I must have my head examined. I must be doing myself and my family wrong. Traveling the world ain’t got shit on owning a home and a minivan, apparently. I want to give my family experiences, not things. If I had to choose between a hundred top selling toys or the gift of confidence, joy, and learning that experience brings, I will pick experience every time. There are family and friends of mine reading this who, I assure you, definitely think I’m an asshole for feeling this way.

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Recently, I lost my godmother. The process of finding a diagnosis to losing her was very quick, very overwhelming, and very unfair. I don’t think I realized how much she meant to me until I lost her. When family felt loud and wild, she was a beacon of quiet and safety. She thought everything I did was impressive and would genuinely listen to me when I spoke. She loved me, really loved me. Not out of a sense of familial obligation, but choice. I remember laying in her arms on a cool day as she told me about all of the birds who lived in the tree in my other aunt’s backyard. She was calm. She was peace. She was love. I’ve been battling with her loss tremendously, and once a week I break down in tears over it. My godmother was so radiant, so loving, and So. Full. of. Life. Seriously. She wasn’t someone who did nothing with her days, waiting for it all to end. She was energetic, she partied, she traveled, she loved, she always smiled and always laughed. She told great stories. She danced side to side with a glass of wine in her hand. She lived life so fully. Typically, I am pretty rational and understanding when it comes to death. Death comes for older people, yes. Death comes for people who overdose on drugs, or get into a car wreck, ok. This shook me. I still do not understand how someone so full of life, so vibrant in all that they do can suddenly receive a diagnosis and be gone. Thinking of my godmother helps me keep my life in perspective. I’m very careful about where I channel my energy and my efforts. I’m very aware of making the most of the time I have with the people in my life who mean so much to me. This is also perhaps why I think Costa Rica might me a “no” for me. Six weeks away from family and friends seems like a lot. Will I regret leaving my family behind if something were to happen?

When I think about how much I could have missed out on had I let fear stop me, I am sick to my stomach. Most of what gives my life purpose, has kept me going, and makes me happy stems from travel and experience. No matter whatever becomes of me in the future, or how it all ends, I live knowing my life was one of purpose and fulfillment. I currently walk the earth not having a single regret or, “I wish I would have” thought. However, I know that every trip I’ve taken in some way has involved risk and could have ended so badly. On the tragedy in Barcelona, a heartbroken father said of his son, he would have never thought in a million years it could happen to him, that he would be the unfortunate victim in a seemingly random terrorist attack on his travels. This sentiment is not lost on me either.

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When I consider what to do with my life each week, when I consider which thoughts to focus on, which plans to pursue, I keep in mind how finite and uncertain the course of life can be. Do I extend my time on earth by all means necessary? Do I avoid taking risks, going off course, getting in planes as much, and spending money in case a war breaks out? These ideas do not seem unreasonable when you have a child. I’m so damn afraid of bringing any kind of harm to my child, sometimes I do consider staying put and doing what is safe. On the other hand, does the uncertainty of how long we have mean we should be doing the most with our time? Taking the risks, rolling the dice, moving away, changing careers, saying hell yes, and giving a middle finger to convention? I’m still not sure. What do you think?

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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18 thoughts on “How Fear Factors Into My Travels

  1. OK, I’m going to be blunt here. If you pick experience every time, choose the Costa Rica experience. Thousands of people go there every year and come back without a problem. What if your son gets a tropical disease? You’ll vaccinate him first, just like we’re getting vaccinated to go on our first SE Asia trip. Scary to think of all the things you can contract abroad? Sure, but I can tell that you are the type who would tell anyone else: Don’t let that stop you!! Also, what if he contracts something anyway? You hop a flight back to the States. Simple. Also, when you think about it, 4-6 weeks just isn’t that long. Can you commit to four with an option of extending to six if you like it? What will Future You say/think/feel? Looking back in five years, will you say, “It’s a good think we didn’t take that opportunity because a thousand things could have gone wrong” or will you say, “Damn! An opportunity squandered!!”? No, you kid might not be old enough to remember it, but you will, and if you go you’ll always remind him that he’s a little international traveler who lived in Costa! Rica! when he was young. He’ll grow up having a world-curious mindset. Alternatively, when he gets older and finds out you had the opportunity to go but chose not to, what will you tell him?

    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH. I think the idea of going for a short amount of time and extending if I like is what we will do! You’re right, we can always go back to Brooklyn if our son gets sick. Sometimes the potential problem seems so complex that I forget the solution can be very simple!

  2. Imagining your worst fears seems like a good way to get past them when your fears don’t materialize. But I can only imagine how scared you would be to find yourself living your worst fears in the middle of a terrorist attack. I would certainly have been steering clear of large congregations too. And would be suspicious of sketchy groups of guys. But I am glad the trip turned out nearly perfect. I am glad to see that you keep challenging yourself to work through the fears. I think that in the end you will find that the pros outweigh the cons for going to Costa Rica. And you will find ways to manage your fears as you did in Spain.

  3. I’m glad you chose to write about your mental health. Sharing this feeling with the world is a major step actually. As someone with other kind of mental health issues, I know how difficult it can be to pull yourself together to even write this article. I appreciate it.
    I do have a very mild version of the anxiety you describe. Whenever I’m on flight, the first thing I will check is where the life jacket is. Once my friend laughed at me and I said, ‘Well, you wouldn’t be in a position is search for it, when the situation arises that you have to use it’! He just nodded and said ok.
    Its really scary about what happened in Barcelona. I’m glad you’re safe and that didn’t deter you from traveling there or elsewhere.
    My deepest condolences for your loss of your Godmother.
    Happy to know that your 6 month old is well traveled already. Best wishes for future travels with toddler kid!

  4. I understand that travelling to an unknown destination can be scary and it is very brave of you to share these thoughts. Although, I truly think that bad things can happen at home any time too. When you mention people travelling to Barcelona during the Terrorists attack, well, It is also good to remember that most of the people present were not travelling at the time and were just commuting from home to work…
    Therefore, I hope you will continue to challenge yourself, because Costa Rica is an exceptional place, and in my 5 weeks there, I have never ever ever felt unsafe like I can feel sometimes at home in Europe. I think that when we travel we are more aware of our surroundings and we put ourselves in less dangerous situation. So listen to your guts and if it doesn’t feel right now, it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

  5. Love this reminder to face our fears in travel (and out). My husband and I moved to Thailand for a year without ever visiting and I totally freaked out, but it ended up being the best thing we ever did. However, I do believe we need to listen to our ‘gut’ when fear starts creeping in. I will say, traveling with my 1.5 year old has made me much more cautious, but I love that traveling helps him not be as fearful and it helps open his eyes to different cultures and experiences!

    1. I like what you have said regarding your son! When I consider what I want my son’s sense of “normal” to be it is that home is not just a place but WHO you are with no matter where you are. Normal is interacting with people of different cultures and mindsets in different places!

  6. Since I come from an international family, I have been traveling my whole life and I always expect to have a great time. However, I can empathize with someone from the other side of the spectrum and so great that you are able to overcome your fears so that you can still have all of these travel related experiences.

    Having lived through 9/11 here in NYC, i think it is so brave that you continued with that trip in Spain regardless.

  7. I can understand your feelings, as sometimes visiting new places and noticing something weird creates so many fearful thoughts. As you said a person on Indian plane taking out two phones disturbed you for a while and I too sometimes feel that way and in this case, my husband always makes me calm by saying that sometimes these things are normal. But I was scared reading your story of Barcelona as it is so scary and it is good that nothing happened to you. But though you are so fearful and get some fearful thoughts you still have lots of guts to travel again which I liked.

  8. Joanna

    I do understand the traveling anxiety, especially around times when terrorist attacks happen. I am too careful and am aware of my surroundings, and not once I got off the tube because I thought someone looked suspicious. But I don’t let it control my life. These fears come from things that are happening around the world and, if you feel that you can’t cope very well with it, I would suggest you gen professional help. I did with my fear of flying and now I am able to fly without taking any sedatives.

  9. Daniel Kiteski

    I am impressed that you chose to make this post really impressed, as like most people I wouldn’t make myself to do it. I do know that a lot people have anxiety with traveling, and sometimes find it really hard to get out of the shells but remember that our fear is what that keeps us alive. I can say it without any doubts that traveling is the best thing that ever happened to me, it helped to find who i really am and what do I really seek for.

  10. I know how you feel. Your priorities definitely change when you have a child. There has definitely been times when I thought “did I do a right thing to bring my children here”. For example, when the baby got sick in a middle of the night in a remote town in Nevada, faraway from the hospitals and help. But at the same time, anything can happen even at my home town. I do choose safer destination than I did when I traveled by myself, but I figured that there is so many safe places I have wanted to see too, that it doesn’t matter. Life is still a one big adventure.

  11. Emma

    This is honest, open and needs to be written about more. Feeling inspired that you put your thoughts together in a brave way to share with those who honestly often feel anxiety about things too but don’t always talk about it. The world can be a scary place, but it can be a wonderful place. Bad things may happen, but they may not. We’ll never know everything that will happen no more than we can shelter ourselves from it but talking about it is a great first step.

  12. Umiko

    I can’t really put myself in your shoes because I don’t have that feeling of anxiety. Well, sometimes I felt the what ifs, but on the lowest level I guess compared to yours. I think if you learn things and everyday lives of the places that you are going to visit will reduce your anxiety? I can only say keep fighting it!

  13. You might be surprised to know how many people have similar fears and anxieties, yet bottle them up and never voice them? Or are also vocal and thankfully their greatest fears do not happen. I hide the fact that sometimes when I’m about to get on a plane, I’m so nervous, I want to vomit for a myriad of reasons.

    In the end, I fear regret more than risk, so I go, always. I think same as you.

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