When I was 13, my cousin came to stay with my family and me. He was on his Gap Year; the shorter, British version of a Big Kiwi OE. We were his first stop after Thailand and while he was here, he regaled me with stories of crystal-clear water, pristine white beaches, trance music-infused full-moon parties and drugs so strong that he’d seen a fellow backpacker scrawl cryptic messages all over his own skin in a frantic, tripped-out haze. I was mesmerised. I wanted to know everything there was to know about backpacking: the partying; the dive lessons; the tranquil, un-touched beaches; the random hitching-hiking adventures; and the hostels, ohhh the hostels, with their wild foam parties, limitless opportunities for romance, and sun-kissed travellers who’d long out-stayed their welcome. Thankfully, my cousin was a willing storyteller and not a day went by that he wouldn’t offer up a pearl of backpacker wisdom or confirm a travel-centric urban myth I’d heard in the schoolyard.
My cousin’s stay coincided with the release of the movie, The Beach. When my dad and I dropped him off at the cinema, I sat sulkily in the front seat of the car wishing desperately that I could join him and silently cursing the R16 movie rating. After all, it was the cult Alex Garland novel that had led my cousin to Thailand in the first place: to find his own version of paradise of course. After he’d talked incessantly about the film for week, I finally convinced my cousin to let me have his copy of the book. I devoured it in a matter of days. That was it: I was hooked. I had to travel – and I absolutely had to go to Thailand. I started telling anyone who would listen about the joys of being a backpacker: “You can live in Thailand off one dollar a day!” I would preach. “What on earth would you do in Thailand?” my mother would ask in retaliation. “Write, become a dive instructor, travel around…. You know??” I would implore, frustrated that no one seemed to share my vision of living in a Kombi van and washing my clothes in the ocean. I plotted to leave home as soon as I was legally able, to spend my life travelling from paradise to paradise, experiencing every different culture, food and environment the world had to offer.
Fast forward 20 years and despite having travelled extensively across the globe, I’m about as far from the island-dwelling, eternally young backpacker as I could possibly be. Thirteen year old me would be disappointed – I’ve really sold out. But the realisation that I was never going to be a dive instructor in Thailand or live in a Kombi van in Costa Rica came as soon as I was old enough to travel. For one thing, I never had any money. Despite once prophesizing the joys of living in Thailand off “one dollar a day” (I still don’t know where I dreamed that idea up from), getting the money together to actually buy a flight over there was easier said than done. After all, back at home there were parties to go to, boys to try and impress, sushi to buy at the University food court, new dresses…. Life started to add up and international flights didn’t feature. But the biggest realisation came in my mid-twenties. It had been bubbling away under the surface for my entire life – even throughout the backpacker-obsessed years – but I’d never had the gumption to admit it: I am deeply afraid of almost everything travel and adventure related. Flying, sharks, sailing, drugs, strangers, tornadoes, foam parties, baboons, spiders, bad drivers, waterborne illnesses, being mugged, leopards and even the mere sight of the underneath of a boat in the water (yes, the underneath of a boat in the water) – you name it, I’m afraid of it. And I don’t mean afraid as in, I might have thought about it once or twice and felt a bit nervy. I mean afraid – as in, often paralysed by fear.
I have always been what is described as a ‘worrier’, no thanks to an overly active, vivid imagination which is still alive and kicking to this day. I was the kid who, at age 11, refused to sleep in a tent in the garden with my sister, because I thought I could hear nuclear radiation in the air and decided that this meant the dropping of an atom bomb was surely imminent. This was in New Zealand. In the ‘90s. I had an almost unhealthy obsession with volcanic eruptions and tsunamis and could vividly picture my worst nightmare coming to life: skiing on Mt Ruapehu and hearing the siren go off, warning that an eruption was just around the corner. Cringy, over-the-top 90s disaster movies like Dante’s Peak and Volcano fuelled my fear ten-fold and to this day I still have a recurring nightmare about lava engulfing a small alpine village as my family and I run for our lives with molten rock flowing hot on our heels.
These sound like irrational, childish fears and for the most part that’s all they are, but the thing about travelling is that it sometimes brings you face to face with even your most nonsensical, imaginative terrors. Flying out of San Jose airport in Costa Rica two years ago – and already fearing for my life in what looked and felt like a plane better suited to a museum display – I could hardly believe my eyes when I noticed a volcano erupting in the mountain range just beyond the city. Rubbing my eyes and pinching myself, I realised this was no nightmare. A volcano was quite literally erupting just over yonder. Frantically I pushed my husband’s head against the window, barely managing to get the words out. If there was ever anyone who could tell me I was seeing things and not to worry, it would be my husband. But sure enough, he saw it too and confirmed it was indeed an erupting volcano. Pushing away dark thoughts about what happens to a plane’s engine when it flies through volcanic ash, I held his hand – and snapped a few pics on my phone of course – as the ancient plane banked away from the plume of volcanic smoke and ash and fixed its course towards Panama City. I should add: the very same plane later bounced along the runway when it landed – no prizes for guessing what that did for my fear of flying.
For better or worse, my fear of natural disasters, transportation, people, food-borne illnesses and wild animals has not stopped me from travelling. Whether this has helped or hindered my self-proclaimed multiple phobias is up for debate, but I tend towards the latter. If anything, as time has gone on, I have become worse, and despite having a tiny wrist tattoo that simply states, ‘Brave’, I am far, far from it.
What started as a fear of flying soon became a ‘fear of other people driving’ after one too many wild taxi rides in Greece and Turkey – the last of which resulted in a frantic Google Translate search for “PLEASE SLOW THE F*** DOWN!!!!!” on the iPad as my sister and I careered down a motorway in Istanbul in the back of rusty old car with no seatbelts. The speedo in the clunky old beast confirmed we were going 160 kmph and it didn’t help that we drove past not one, but three horrific accidents, including one in which the passengers were still stuck in an upside-down vehicle.
While big waves and boats used to intrigue me they now induce nervous butterflies in my stomach, thanks to an extremely shady trip from the San Blas islands to the Panama mainland in a long boat whose engine kept cutting out, leaving us bobbing mercilessly in huge, rolling swell. Seeing the looks of fear on my fellow passenger’s faces filled me with a terror so palpable I nearly threw up – and lead me to compose a plan for if we capsized. Spoiler alert: it would’ve been every man for himself, thanks to the lack of (read: zero) life-preservers on board.
I’ve always had a healthy fear of fire – I would say that’s relatively common among most humans – but nothing could prepare me for the deep level of panic I felt when I woke up to the smell of smoke whilst on a conservation trip in South Africa’s remote Kwa Zulu Natal. Mustering as much courage as I could to go outside in the dark (because leopards leaping off buildings and mauling people is absolutely a thing) I was mortified to realise the source of the smoke: a bush fire raging some distance away – but how fast would it travel? And in what direction? I spent the rest of the night between a restless rock and a hard place trying to decide whether to wake up my camp mates and make the call to evacuate or just lie there and listen to the distant crackling sounds until they got louder. That morning, I was informed that it was in fact a “controlled” fire and nothing to worry about. This of course did absolutely nothing to soothe my bush fire anxiety which was, by then, at an all-time high. And there have been plenty of other fear-inducing incidents along the way: a monkey attack in Costa Rica; tornadoes in Iowa; an unscheduled (but thankfully not emergency) landing in Croatia to avoid a severe electrical storm; San Jose in Costa Rica – nothing specifically happened there but just being there was scary enough; spiders the size of dinner plates in Nicaragua and South Africa; an out of control horse and cart in Seville…. I could go on.
But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining – even the one you wish you weren’t flying through. My travel-related phobias mean I am always on the lookout for disaster and I always, always, have a plan in place for if or when it strikes. I know where the exits are in any building I enter and every plane I fly on – and I’ll be the first to let you know how to get to them, should the need arise. I can put a threadbare, circa 1982 lifejacket on in less than 30 seconds – and I’ll help you with yours too. Walking back to your hostel alone through a dodgy part of the city? I’ll walk with you – and when we get there and a psychotic drunk tries to force his way into the girl’s dorm room, I’ll barricade us in, call the police and get him evicted. My nose can sniff out fire, stagnant water, past-its-best food and, rather weirdly, leopards; I know how to recognise the changes in the weather that signify a tornado is brewing; I’ve had basic training in avalanche recognition and rescue; and, if push comes to shove, I can haul a man three times my own body weight out of a nightclub swimming pool when he’s fallen in drunk. All in all, I’m a pretty good travel companion to have around, especially when it comes to all of the disastrous situations you’ve never even thought of.
Interestingly enough – and as eyerolling-ly irritating as my behaviour probably sounds – my fears have done anything but polarise me from my fellow travellers. Asking if you can hold a complete stranger’s hand on a bumpy flight is a sure-fire way to make a new friend, let me tell you. From the Greek man who prayed with my sister and I as we landed weirdly in Athens (we started landing, then took off again, then landed again…) and the Vietnam War veteran who drank whiskey with me and wooped and cheered as we flew through an electrical storm, to the wonderful Canadian woman I met on my South African trip, who gave me a fear of flying book which has since become the good luck charm I cannot fly without, humans are generally top notch at providing comfort, kind words and an arm to grab onto when the going gets tough. Would I have met so many brilliant beings if I weren’t so open about being terrified? I tend to think not.
Sometimes it feels like the world around us is becoming more and more dangerous, and that’s especially true if, like me, you’re always on the lookout for worst case scenarios. If I’ve learnt anything in my adult life though, it’s to not let fear get in the way of what might potentially be a great adventure – as cliched as that might sound. Besides, there’s always whiskey, shark-proof wetsuits and emergency parachutes, if all else fails.