Travel and Overcoming Fear
by H. Bradford
When I was younger, I never really considered going to Africa. Although I could make some basic differentiation between countries and histories, it always seemed like a place that that was scary. It was a place where there was war, disease, poverty, crime, and uncertainty. It is only in becoming an activist, and by extension, becoming interested in issues of racism and anti-colonial struggle, that I developed any interest in Africa at all. In subtle and not so subtle ways, racism shapes the way that many people view Africa. Racism is such an inescapable American experience, that it is not possible to think of Africa as a continent in the same way we think of other continents. With that said, I recognized a long time ago that I was afraid to travel there. I was afraid to get sick or that something bad would happen. I feared this more than other destinations. But, I often tell myself, “life begins where fear ends.” Yeah, some Indian mystic said that. I would almost rather that Cecil Rhodes or Theodore Roosevelt said it. I believe that the things that we fear limit our lives. I have a lot of fear, but I don’t want to let fear limit what I do in life. My life is already limited by my geography, gender, class, place in history, etc. While I can never overcome fear, I can at least challenge it from time to time. So, that is one reason why I wanted to go to Africa. I simply didn’t want to miss out on going out of fear! And, after figuring out where I wanted to go and how I wanted to go about it, I started to feel a lot less fearful. Of course, my brother injected some more fear into my mind. He was also of the impression that Africa was a monolithic continent of war, poverty, and disease. He had a rough time visiting some Pacific Island nations and questioned if I was ready to take on the third world. Life begins where fear ends…so, I set off anyway, despite some advice to reconsider. Thus, here are some reflections on my fears, some scary situations, and how I overcame them.
I have never actually been anywhere where the wildlife is something to fear. In Minnesota, we have bear and wolves, but both mostly leave people alone. Deaths connected to bear and wolf attacks on humans happen by the handful in a century in Minnesota. In southern Africa, this wasn’t the case. There is so much wildlife in some areas, that it hardly seems real. There is a false sense of security, since animals are everywhere. They hardly seem wild at all, as they become a normal part of the adventure. However, while camping in the Okavango delta, we met some lion researchers. A group of lions was staying on the other side of the river from our camp site. In fact, I could hear them at night. Elephants also were known to pass through the campground from time to time. This made for a very interesting night of sleeping, as I could hear many animal noises outside of my tent. A tent is not a very secure sleeping arrangement in the midst of lions and elephants. Worse than this, I had to use the restroom at about 4 in the morning. This involved unzipping my tent and walking through a narrow path…a path lined with tall grass…about 200 meters to the toilets. Now, I was very afraid. It was dark out and I had to walk through a gauntlet of grass that seemed like the perfect hideout for a giant cat. I overcame the fear by trying to be rational. A.) What are the chances that a wild animal has been waiting in that very spot for my passing? B.) How often our tourists actually killed by wild animals? C.) I need to use the restroom so what other choice is there? Still, there is nothing like the darkness of night, the call of nature, and the sound of unfamiliar animals to draw out a primal fear of being mauled to death.
Fear Level: 3
Fear Strategy: Trying to use reason
Early on in the trip, I became fixated on scorpions. While there are snakes and spiders to worry about, scorpions made me feel the most uneasy. No one else seemed to share this concern. There is something villainous about scorpions. Even their dens are shaped like the letter v. V for Villain. Some scorpions glow in the dark. Some are deadly. Even a relatively benign scorpion could create a sting that might require medical attention. Doctors and medical facilities were not always easy to access. Now, to overcome the fear of scorpions, I became angry! I actually told myself, “I am not going to get stung by some f’ing scorpion.” I would say this as I checked my bag, shoes, the corners of the tent, and under the mattress. The anger created determination to hunt down the little villains and prevent them from ruining my day. Anger creates action and purpose. Some say it leads to the dark side, but, clearly they have never dealt with scorpions. Oh, I didn’t see any scorpions the entire trip. I saw some scorpion holes and one or two were spotted near our campsite. However, no one was bothered by them.
Fear Level 2:
Fear Strategy: Anger
Even the home of the scorpion looks menacing.
I do not have a phobia of spiders, but at the same time, I rarely find them to be a welcome addition to my life. While in Namibia, I went on an educational hike with a San guide. The purpose of the hike was to learn more about San culture and survival techniques. The guide was wonderful and taught us many things about the wildlife. Towards the end, he spotted some spider tracks and began digging into the sand. Soon, he uncovered a spider tunnel and grabbed the spider in his hand. The spider was folded up, gently sleeping in the cold, early morning. This was a pleasant way to “enjoy” a spider. But, just when I thought that I was safe, the spider uncurled itself, doubled in size, and hurled itself towards the group. I actually let out a scream. Yes, I screamed. I was so surprised by the sudden explosion in the spider’s activity that I screamed. This was embarrassing. The guide talked about how he and his father lived around deadly animals, yet remained calm. He said that when confronted with a deadly snake, like a black mamba, he learned to remain still, even letting it crawl over him, and it would go on its way. Finally, he said that people who fear/hate spiders, snakes, or other creatures are the same people who hate San people. This made me feel bad for my fear of the spider, or for that matter the scorpions. Fear sometimes comes from a lack of control, experience, or understanding, so I can see why people who fear animals might also fear people. At least for me, I find that my fear of creatures lessens as I have more experience and knowledge. Thus, I tried to reframe my fear. The spider was actually quite beautiful, my my reaction was because it surprised me. As for scorpions, my relationship remained pretty antagonistic, but I guess it is neat that some of them can glow in the dark and spray their venom. They are 430 million years old, so we are evolutionary embryos compared to their long history on this planet. I can appreciate their place in the world. I think they have a fierce looking appearance. The constellation Scorpio appeared brightly in the Southern Hemisphere sky, a reminder of their hidden existence all around me.
Fear Level: 1
Fear Strategy: Cultivate Understanding
I have emetophobia, or the fear of throwing up. This is an actual phobia. However, my fear has diminished over the years as I have been thrust into confronting it. I work at a Domestic Violence shelter, thus I am constantly exposed to a lot of germs and vomiting. I have become pretty sick over the past few years, with a very memorable bout of extreme nausea and explosive diarrhea on my flight back from Prague. I have had to accept that I really don’t have a lot of control over vomiting. Yet, the fear remains. Travel to less developed countries results in exposure to more diseases and more challenging food and water situations. Overcoming this fear requires all of my fear strategies. I need to be reasonable. I need to give up my need to be in control. But, at the same time I make preparations in case the worst happens. As such, I always pack ginger candies, pepto-bismol, and Emetrol. These things can stave off mild digestive problems and comfort major digestive episodes. I also try to pack a plastic bag in my purse, so that if I must vomit, I have a baggy for it. One part of my fear is that I will have to vomit, but that there will be nowhere to do it (thus I make a mess on myself, others, or the floor). These precautions allow me to face the digestive unknowns that travel present. At the same time, I have to be rational. A person can get food poisoning here in the U.S., and often this does happen! So, even though our water sanitation and refrigeration is more predictable, nowhere in the world is safe from sickness!
Besides my phobia of run of the mill vomiting, I was worried about more serious health risks. It seems that almost every traveler that I speak with has some horror story of a great sickness they obtained. Sometimes it is malaria. Sometimes it is dysentery. These tales often end with the traveler waking up in a foreign hospital or passing out somewhere, only to be attended to by a friendly denizen of their destination. One story resulted in an unconscious trip directly to the Mayo Clinic. Travelers laugh about these stories, since they lived to tell them. They terrify me. Well, I really don’t want a story like this. So, again, I sought out some pre-trip preparation. This brought me to a travel clinic and resulted in a barrage of vaccines, malaria pills, and anti-diarrhea tablets. However, it also bought me the confidence that perhaps I wouldn’t become deathly ill. Thankfully, I didn’t!
Fear Level: 4
Strategy: Preparation, Reason
Another one of my travel fears is that I will be the victim of sexual assault or a crime. South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world. 40% of South African women have been raped. This is a terrifying number. I have never been sexually assaulted while traveling, but as a solo female traveler, I worry about it. This is why I often join up with groups when I travel (though I try to do activities on my own, I like to have a group so that if something were to happen, there is a group that expects my return). I don’t know what I can do to absolutely safe guard myself against sexual assault. I don’t drink alcohol. I avoid walking alone at night (though the next items on my list will show that this doesn’t always work out). I am not a very social person, so when I travel, I am not really hanging out with men. Still, it is impossible to avoid all risks. While sexual assault is usually perpetrated by someone known to the victim, there are instances of strangers doing this. The best I can do is try to be alert of my surroundings. At the same time, I know that because of rape culture, if anything happens to me, I would be blamed for being foolish, going out alone, or putting myself in danger. It angers me. Maybe the best defense against being raped is to fight against rape culture.
I also worry about being the victim of a crime. This is a more plausible concern, since muggings and pick-pocketing are common travel experiences. My trip was going to end in Johannesburg, which has reputation of having a high crime rate. At least as of 2010, 50 people were murdered each day in South Africa. I think my fear of crime did limit my enjoyment of Johannesburg in particular. I did not stay there long at the end of my trip. Even the resident taxi and shuttle drivers said that it was unsafe to drive after 9pm. I went on a Hop-on/Hop-off tour, but that was about all I did in Johannesburg (and that tour was far less eventful than the Cape Town one, which you will read about next!). Beyond limiting my time in Johannesburg, I was afraid of having my money stolen. While I am certainly wealthy compared to the majority of people in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, I am not a wealthy person. I had a fixed budget. Having money stolen would have been a hardship. Also, because many of the places I travelled did not have ATMs or accept my Mastercard Debit card, I carried almost all of my money with me in cash. This made me feel particularly vulnerable. However, I did take a few precautions. A.) I wore a money belt under my pants. B.) I carried some money in a bra (I purchased a sports bra with re-moveable pads and put the money where the pads would have gone. This was cheaper than buying a special travel bra). C.) I carried a fake wallet with some expired cards, a few dollars, and some old IDs- so that I would have something to give someone in the case of a mugging. D. ) I secured my travel purse zippers with carabiners, so that it could not be easily opened. Thankfully, I have never been the victim of a pickpocket or mugger.
Fear Level: 4
Fear Strategy: Preparation, Reason
Hop on Hop off Bus from Hell:
Hop on/Hop off Buses are super dorky and ultra touristy. You ride around in a giant red double decker bus while listening to an audio recording of your route. Cities all around the world have them, and Cape Town is no different. After returning from Robben Island, I thought that catching the Hop on/Hop off bus would be a great way to see the city, but also head to the Table Mountain. Yes, the Hop on/Hop off bus actually went all the way to the Table Mountain! It was a really extensive route with a lot to see. So, off I went. I made a stop at the Table Mountain, took the cable car up, and explored. It was wonderful. I felt like it had been a productive day. Then, I took the bus back to the harbor. I had studied the time table and the buses were in operation for another hour when I arrived back to the harbor. Thus, I decided to stay on the same Hop on Hop off bus to do part of another loop (as this would take me back to near my hotel).
All of the tourists disembarked from the bus at the harbor. I didn’t worry, as I figured that I was alone because it was near the end of the day and no one was interested in doing the loop at that time. So, I stayed on the bus. The driver said nothing and continued on the route. Only, after a few stops on the route, the bus deviated from the route. The driver picked up some friends and began making unofficial stops. The bus veered further and further away from the route. The recording stopped. The bus deposited the driver’s friends. I grew increasingly terrified with each passing second. Finally, I just asked to get off of the bus- as I had no idea where it was going and no one seemed to mind the one white tourist who was sitting in their midst on what was clearly NOT the scheduled tour. In retrospect, that particular bus was probably done for the day, even though the routes themselves had another hour. I was terrified, so I disembarked…
Fear Level: 6
Fear Strategy: Flee
Run for your life!
This is part two of the previous story. I thought my day was going to end with a Hop on/Hop off Tour. Instead, the bus went rogue and I got off! The only problem was that I wasn’t sure where I was or how to get back to my hotel. The other problem was that it was getting dark. After all, it was winter and the sun set pretty quickly once six pm rolled around. As the sun set, the area took on a sinister look. Markets folded up. Businesses shuttered their windows and doors with metal gates. I had a map, but I didn’t want to look vulnerable by opening it up on the street. So, I ducked into a Burger King to study the map. This was difficult, as I was not on the street, with the ability to compare streets with the map as I moved. I ducked in and out a few times. I thought I had a general idea of which way to walk, so I set off.
There are some things I try to do while wandering around in unfamiliar places if I feel unsafe. One, I try not to look lost. I try to walk quickly and confidently. Two, I try to find a group of women to follow or walk with. There is safety in numbers. Well, there were zero women. None. Not one woman. There were plenty of men loitering outside the closed businesses, socializing, smoking, and talking. I was the only tourist, white person, and woman around. It was scary to be different. People asked me for money as I walked by. I walked quickly, ignored everyone, and tried to just keep moving, even though I was lost and terrified. A man grabbed my arm as I passed through group. After that, I jerked my arm away and started running.
I don’t remember being that afraid before. I am really glad that although I am a terrible jogger, I can run for a half an hour to an hour. I kept jogging. I watched an arm guard walk a car dealer to his car. I jogged by police, asking them for directions. They looked at me as if I was crazy. There was a concern look in their faces as they told me how far I had to go to my hotel and how to get there. I kept jogging. I stopped at another hotel to make sure I was going the right way. The bellman also looked concerned.
I finally made it back to my hotel. This was met with relief and a rush of adrenaline that I had made it. I made it! I survived the crazy bus and my jog! Was it wise to run? Travel advice always says to be inconspicuous and purposeful. Jogging draws attention. However, I figured that if anyone wanted to hassle me, it would be too much trouble if I was moving too quickly.
Fear Level: 8
Fear Strategy: Flee
I am a terrible runner. But, I am thankful that I CAN jog.
Keep Calm and Don’t Get Trampled On:
There is a time to run and a time when it is not good to run. I think that getting off the bus and running when I was afraid of my surroundings in Cape Town was an okay time to run. I will end with a story about not running. Now, I had camped in Africa for over 22 days before arriving in Matopos National Park in Zimbabwe. Throughout my trip I went on many wildlife drives. These drives consisted of sitting in an open vehicle and searching for wildlife, often at watering holes. There were many close encounters with wildlife, but at no point were we allowed to disembark from the vehicle. This was the pattern throughout Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe thus far. As such, when we went on our final wildlife drive in Matopos National Park, I assumed that it would follow this same pattern. I was mistaken!
After driving some ways, the truck stopped and we were allowed to get out of the vehicle for a quick refreshment from the cooler of sodas. I assumed that we would resume our drive, but the guide informed us that we were going for a hike. This was really exciting! I wasn’t offered many hiking opportunities because hiking is not safe in animal reserves. Then, we were told that not only were we going to go for a hike, we were going to try to sneak up on some white rhinos. Okay…what?
The guide was a rhinoceros expert who had actually been on the Animal Planet. He told us that we could get close to the rhinos, as they couldn’t see very well. However, our ability to get close to them required us to move carefully, stick together, and NOT RUN. So, if anyone in the group got scared, they were not allowed to run or leave suddenly. Our safety depended upon everyone in the group’s ability to remain collectively calm. We were told that if we ran, we could get charged and trampled.
The group had some hesitations, but we headed out together in some scrubby brush and tall grass. It didn’t take long before we spotted some rhinos. We slowed down and those at the front of the group crouched in the grass. By crouching and moving slowly, we were able to follow the small group as they grazed. We took turns moving to the front to get a better view and better photos, tenderly stepping our way closer. It was a little frightening. Rhinos are enormous. These enormous endangered animals were just a few feet away from us. Each time they moved or stepped closer to us, I became a little afraid. It seemed impossible that they didn’t see us, yet, they kept munching on their food and minding their own business. Eventually they moved on, deeper into the thicket.
Fear Level: 4
Fear Strategy: Staying Calm
Trying to be as cool as a cucumber.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of every one of my fears! And, I fear that talking about my fears makes light of the real conditions that people live in. While it is funny to talk about my fears, it is not funny that so much of the world lives in conditions of poverty, disease, and danger. At the end of the day, I get to return home, where there is clean water to drink and no threat of polio or typhoid. At the end of the day, while I fear having money stolen, it would not sentence me to grinding poverty. Nevertheless, I hope that the discussion of my fears helps to offer insight into how fear can be managed. The world is amazing. Fearless people inspire me. I met a medical worker who traveled to West Africa during the ebola crisis as a volunteer. That is fearless. I met a woman who was in her 60s and went scuba diving with crocodiles at Victoria Falls. Amazing! I also hung out with a young Korean woman who was traveling across the entire continent of Africa all by herself, with limited English skills. That is pretty fearless! I will probably always be more limited by fear by those people. Some fears can be overcome. But, sometimes there is no negotiating with fear and you really do have to run!