I am not a total chicken, but I don’t consider myself the bravest person around either. (Some people in my family might, possibly, even argue I’m a bit of a worrier, maybe.) Travel has presented me with some good challenges, and there have definitely been times I was not at all sure I was up for them. The existence of this post means I have somehow survived all these real and perceived dangers, but the memory of a few of them can still make my hair stand on end years later.
When it comes to nerves on the road, it doesn’t have to be bungee jumping or whitewater rafting to produce a good adrenaline rush sometimes; believe me, I’ve frozen up before my share of foreign subway ticket machines while my train is leaving the station, and it can be daunting just trying to get directions or pump gas in a country where I can’t even read the alphabet!
But danger to life and limb is a different story. The first time I remember really feeling physically shaky was on a zip line in Costa Rica. The zipping itself was a blast, and standing on the platforms between zips was manageable, but there were three platforms from which we had to rappel instead of glide. The idea of that backward step D-O-W-N (that’s 140 feet down!) and the initial drop freaked me out; I was not at all sure using my hand as a brake was really going to slow me down and I pictured quite a splat at the bottom when it didn’t work. It did.
Tight spots and closed-in spaces are another great fear inducer for me. I once got talked into going down into some cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula and swimming down an underground river; to this day, the thought of being in that watery underground cavern makes me shiver. Likewise, crawling through stone tunnels – twice – in Peru made my blood pound as I tried to inch forward, feeling both my back and stomach scraping rock and knowing all too well that I could never turn around if I had to. Just the thought of being closed in gives me nightmares, and being in these claustrophobic situations in real life made me feel sick. I was sure I would be the first person to become paralyzed or trapped inside all those dark tunnels. I wasn’t.
Scary vehicle stories abound in my travels and many others’. From the bouncing, out-of-control rickshaw in Lhasa traffic, to the bus careening around mountain curves in the Balkans, to the Athenian driver who … well, ALL the Athenian drivers … , traveling under someone else’s control can be quite frightening. By far the greatest example of transportation trepidation was a flight from Kathmandu into Lukla, Nepal – the gateway to the hiking trail to Everest.
In the weeks before traveling, I watched way too many Youtube videos of this harrowing flight and by the time I boarded the aging, cramped prop plane, I was terrified out of my mind. For once, everyone on board shared my nervousness and a few morbid jokes took the edge off for the first few minutes. Both take-off and the flight into the Himalaya were smooth enough, but the landing was a big gulp. Trying to hit a 1700-foot long, 65-foot wide runway that starts at the edge of a cliff and slants uphill toward a mountain face at the other end, the pilot deliberately cuts the engine just before touchdown (stall alarm screaming) and slams on the brakes to mercifully end the flight. Before the trip, I had recurring visions of dying on this landing just as a planeload of passengers had a few weeks before. Luckily, I didn’t.
Heights and narrow ledges are another test of my mental strength. I know I am sure-footed and rarely worry that I will misstep, so my fear here is not always a physical one. No, I’m afraid that others will slip and either bump me or make me watch their own flailing deathfalls. On a narrow trail in New Zealand’s Dart River area, with a huge ravine on one side, I was petrified watching my son walk in (what I perceived to be) a careless way through the woods. I kept picturing him tripping and falling off but, of course, he didn’t. At Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, I did question my own footwork and had the additional fear that one of the heavy chains I was grasping to stay on the ledges might suddenly pull out of the rock. Somehow, it stayed intact this one more time!
If I had to pick my poison? Well, I think I’d take heights and rickety ledges and scary vehicles over anything cramped or subterranean. An avid spelunker or diver I will never be. I’d rather fall off a cliff than get stuck deep in the sea or an extended passageway underground. Just reading articles – heck, just typing these words – about cavers trapped in rain-filled tunnels or deep-sea divers whose ropes get tangled on coral makes me sweat and breathe faster.
Fording fast rivers in Chile. Exiting a chaotic airport in the middle of the night in Kathmandu. Eating a singed guinea pig in Peru. They’ve all required a gut check of some kind or another, but I’ve made it through all of them and learned a little about needless worrying, maybe. “Always do what you are afraid to do,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m trying to take him up on that challenge as often as possible.