Monday, May 30, 2011

Are You Afraid to Travel?

As a child, my shyness and sensitivity were such that Emily Dickinson, that queen of recluses, would have appeared as a raging socialite by comparison. When the phone rang, I would run and hide because if I were near the phone I might be asked to answer it, and if I answered it, there was the chance (oh, horrors!) I would not know the person who was calling. I was almost pathologically shy -- except for when I was with my best friend, Amy. During those times, I would talk too much, laugh too much, and daydream out loud. When I was with my best friend, I acted like the person I would eventually grow up to be.

Amy and I met in kindergarten. I immediately took to her because she wore her hair in princess-like brown braids, sometimes in loops above her shoulders, sometimes pinned above her head. And she was always smiling. I liked that. Amy and I spent nearly every waking moment of our childhoods together, as well as many sleeping ones in what seems, in retrospect, like summer-long slumber parties. As we loped through the awkwardness of adolescence, we had a fight, grew apart, and lost touch. But when I remember Amy, I think of sunshine and fresh-cut grass, picking sweet wild strawberries, dressing in costumes of tulle and glitter, creating worlds of faeries and witches and sophisticated cats who wore top hats and ballgowns, pedaling our bikes so quickly uphill that our legs ached, and racing so fast downhill that it felt like we could fly. She was the other half of my childhood. But Amy didn't make it far beyond childhood herself, dying from cancer at the age of 25.

There have been other friends and acquaintances in my social circle who have died. Though not as close to me, their deaths were sad and unexpected. People who were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. People who radiated health and happiness. People who had simply gotten in their car at the wrong time, turned down the street just 3 minutes too soon.

Nana, mother to my mother, was the only person on whom I could always depend. Hours after an unexpected heart attack, she spoke her last words to me from a hospital bed. I watched her, the person I loved most in all in the world, as she died. Then there are the other relatives who faded from life -- my aunt and uncle on an icy Christmas Eve, all my other grandparents, a distant teenage cousin. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote, the art of losing isn't hard to master.

When I tell people about my plans to backpack alone around the world, the comment I most often receive is: Aren't you afraid?

Do you want to know the truth?

I am afraid of many things. I'm afraid of not helping others enough, not deferring to God enough, being unable to write a decent story, never finding someone who will love me enough to stick around. I am afraid of simply not being good enough.

And that just covers the internal fears. There are also the more pragmatic fears directly related to travel: the potential of being physically hurt by someone, attacked by an animal, or caught in the path of natural disaster. There are a lot of things that are scary in this world.

Last August, a man tried to break into my apartment in Seoul while I was at home. I was alone in a foreign country and without a working phone at the time. For weeks afterwards, I felt frightened if a man walked too close behind me on the sidewalk. Tears would start in my eyes if a friend ran up and greeted me in surprise. (Some of my Korean friends would then exclaim, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot you were American,” thus starting a strange stereotype that all Americans, in fact, cry when startled.)

I’d walk down nearby streets in the area and study all the men. Was it you? Was it you? Was it you? I’d think. But I didn’t tell anyone the extent of the fear I felt. I even felt guilty for continuing to feel afraid, like I was being a drama queen. After all, the man had not been successful. He hadn’t found a way into my apartment. He hadn’t touched me.

After I moved from that apartment and months passed, I believed myself to have gotten over the scare of that night. But when traveling through India with Katie, the fear of being attacked in my sleep reemerged. Katie would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Still asleep, I sensed someone was nearby, moving in my bedroom. Without even opening my eyes, I'd begin to yell things like, "Get out of here! Go away! Leave me alone!" Then, through the haze of my terrorized dream-state, Katie's voice, tiny and frightened, would break through. "It's just me. I need to pee!" she'd softly exclaim. "Sorry," I'd mumble into my pillow and re-immerse in sleep.

In the situation where I’d actually been threatened, I was lucky that the would-be intruder had failed in his several attempts to enter my apartment, that even though he'd pried at my door and opened my windows, there were locks and bars that prevented him from entering. But what if there's a next time? What if I'm not so lucky then? I like to think that God protects me, but the truth is that good people get hurt all the time for reasons I'll never fully understand.

So yes, I'm afraid of traveling alone through the world. The possibility of getting hurt is a valid fear; but I'm still far more afraid of dying before I've fully lived.

I can't believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well. I can't believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been. ~ Dave Matthews Band

Now in Seoul, I'm friends with a dancer who has the words Carpe Diem tattooed in delicate, beautiful curlicues around his wrist. I pursue a friendship with him because of that tattoo and because he goes by the nickname Dreamer.

"We are alike," I have told him several times. "Similar personalities."

I rarely see Dreamer, though, since he spends most days at the office working until late at night, even during weekends. I told him about my plans to take a year off and backpack around the world.

"Oh, that's my dream, too," he replied softly.

"Well, why don't you do it?" I asked.

"I can't," he replied with quiet resignation. "I'm Korean. I need to get married, make a family and a career."

I can't recall any particular negativity I've encountered when telling my friends and family about my plans to travel around the world, except for one fiercely-opinionated woman who flat out told me traveling around the world would be quite impossible unless I were rich.

I smiled at her and nodded.

"Yes, it may be impossible," I said, "but I'm still going to do it."

{What are you doing with your one wild and precious life? ~ Mary Oliver}


  1. Where's the fun in "possible?" (and fantastic writing, as usual)

  2. Really lovely...I feel the same way very often. There are so many things to be scared of that it's easy to drown yourself in all of those thoughts. Still, courage is doing things even though you're frightened. I think you've already done that.

  3. I can really relate to your feelings of fear while traveling. I was robbed in Belfast, just before the end of my trip. I was so proud of myself for traveling alone with incident and then I couldn't sleep for fear someone was going to steal my purse. Your thoughts on fear really put those incidents in perspective. It isn't a good way to live or travel.

  4. So lovely! It is scary this traveling alone and living along abroad thing. There are sometimes when I'm paralyzed with fear that something bad will happen to me & I'll have no way to communicate or get out of the situation (especially here in China where I have very little Mandarin skills -- I don't screaming "How much?" at a would-be attacker is really going to help me out). But so far I've been lucky -- ridiculously so. So I just have to keep on hoping my luck doesn't run out.
    P.S. Now that I am a professional blog-tip-hander-outer, I want to tell you that you need to get yourself a RSS feed button on your blog so I can follow along on Google Reader. So there.

  5. I've had your latest posts in my Google Reader queue for days, waiting for chance to sit down and read them thoroughly. Really enjoyed reading this.

    I too was a very shy and sensitive child. I think there are still elements of that girl underneath my typically strong exterior. And although people think I am tough for traveling to certain places on my own, I am terrified of a lot of things both at home and abroad... many of them unreasonable. The thing is, I too have seen people leave this world earlier than they thought they would or than I thought they would, and the thing I am most scared of is leaving without living. I'm still fairly young and I still have sooo many things I want to do, but I think I have lived and that feels good.

  6. Amazing read... I'm so glad you linked to this from your 7 links post. Beautiful, true, scary and inspiring all at once.

  7. Greatpost. and honest...even better. I came on the trip I am currently on, wondering what the heck I was doing and why, but knowing if I didn't, I would regret it later.