Travel and My Fears
I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid. This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks. Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat. From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans. When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea. I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities. I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin. It seemed very intrepid. All winter, the trip was abstract. I read books about the history of the region. But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in. I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower. I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler. Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000). I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases. (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses). Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen. Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country. I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.
Fear is not new. I’ve always been afraid of travel. Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence. That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality. Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone. I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi. Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean. In retrospect, it is really no big deal. That sort of travel seems easy. But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal. Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.
Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified. I was terrified before then. I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa. I was afraid of being alone. I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular. I was afraid of becoming very ill. I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads. I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals. Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined. It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it. Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.
(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter. I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before. But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).
I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone. After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl. Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant. So, that is where I went. I don’t regret it. Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see. Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique. Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure. I only spent a few days in each place. I think that traveling often has waves of fear. For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver. Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge. After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc. It is like this on every adventure. The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.
I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips. I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure. I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver. Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges. I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer. I am cowardly. I like books and birds. I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick. Brave H. won’t stand for that. Nope. Life is too short. I want to see interesting things and test myself. Granted, there are people who test themselves far more. For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river. Brave H. wants to be her. Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water. The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world. She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip. I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling. The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges. I will always be afraid. As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon. I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places. Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear). Maybe I will learn to scuba dive. Maybe I will never do those things. Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed. It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone. Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.
Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass. Well, maybe someday it will be true.