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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?