As I wrapped up a presentation at the FTUniversity event in April an attendee approached me, after the general Q&A portion, to ask a question some what more privately. “You’ve visited a lot of places,” he observed. “And I’d like to do that, too,” he continued.
But aren’t you scared?
“Scared how?” was my initial thought, before I replied. My next thought was that the easy answer is to say “No” outright, to show strength and confidence. But that would also be a lie. Because, more often than not, there are parts of nearly every trip which have me afraid at one level or another.
I absolutely am scared, but I’m doing it anyways.
And maybe “scared” is the wrong word to use. But in the context of that discussion it made sense. He was concerned about the basics, like food and lodging and transportation (Maslow would be proud). But it was more than that. He was also concerned about truly enjoying the trip, being able to explore the destinations and get a feel for the culture. Both are reasonable types of concerns but, in my experience, they are relatively easily overcome, though it certainly takes a leap of faith.
My first solo time in a foreign country was in Spain when I was 13. I spoke no Spanish, save for the few words I remembered from Sesame Street, and I had around 4 hours on my own between my tour ending and meeting my father after his work ended. It was a hot July afternoon and I wanted ice cream. But I was hardly able to truly navigate the transaction. I walked up to a street cart and pointed at the sign behind the woman and then held up one finger. And then, as she handed me my snack, she said something. I have no idea what she said, but I knew what it meant: I needed to pay for the ice cream.
I held out a hand of coins and she took the ones she wanted. To this day I have no idea how many pesetas I paid but it wasn’t all that much (my total budget for the day was limited and this didn’t break me). And it mostly didn’t matter. Even if I paid the “tourist” rate I still came out okay for the overall experience. I may have started slowly, but I started. And really that is the key.
The topic came up again recently on Twitter when a group of folks started discussing travel and breakfast on the road.
Leave the hotel. Get a local experience with locals. RT @garyleff: What’s the Best Hotel Breakfast?
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) July 5, 2015
@PanAmBag I ordered breakfast in China knowing only how to say "thank you." Push yourself; you'll be surprised how well you can do.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) July 5, 2015
You might not know exactly what is happening, but a bit of intuition and a bit of confidence goes a long way towards making things all sorts of better. And where those fail, well, it is okay. Because not every meal is going to be perfect. One of the dinners I had that same trip in China was pretty bad, in fact, even with English on the menu. But the point is to do more and to do different, not to be paralyzed by fear.
And, of course, there are times when the comfort of familiar food is a good thing. For many years (and possibly still) Marriott hotels everywhere in the world had a Caesar Salad and a BLT sandwich on the room service menu. Not because they are local but because they are decidedly not. The goal was to make life easier for the business traveler when everything else about the day was going to be completely different. A recent conversation with @Veritrope reminded me of this and I don’t begrudge anyone that. In many ways it actually makes things easier. Because having life be “different” every day isn’t easy.
I try, a little bit, to prepare for each trip. Usually that consists of learning how to say please, thank you and bathroom in the local language. Sometimes a bit more than that, and I have passable French and very limited vocabulary in Spanish. I can fight my way through a menu in most of Europe, to the point that one day a few years ago I lamented that travel to Western Europe was a bit too “normal” for me.
I don’t particularly think that’s a bad thing, though. Being able to explore greater portions of the world more easily is a wonderful thing and means I can do more of it. And yet, even in my own back yard, the apprehension can be very real. I visited Cuba in June 2015 and, as I left Cancun and headed in to Havana, I was probably more “scared” than on any prior trip. I would be mostly cut off from my usual support infrastructure of travel friends and family. I’m pretty resilient on my own, but I also like knowing I have a backup plan. Between that and my limited language skills, I very much was concerned about the trip, even being only 90 miles off the US coast.
But not nervous enough to skip it. I was plenty nervous to board the Aerogaviota domestic flight where it was unclear what the history of the aircraft was and where there was no safety briefing for passengers; that we taxied past another of the carrier’s ATRs upon arrival, stripped down to provide spare parts for the one still operating was not especially comforting.
I was not scared enough to skip out on chatting with another passenger, a local, on one of my domestic flights and to accept his offer of a ride from the airport to my hotel. Because getting into a car with a random stranger in a foreign country is always such a good idea. Sure, things could have gone badly, but they did not. And the experience I got out of taking that calculated risk was a spectacular one.
Nerves and adrenaline were also there the following night as I boarded the Cubana IL-96 to fly across the Atlantic. But I was also a bit scared stepping on to the first commercial flight of the 747-8i and on to the very first 787-8 to fly commercially on its 3rd day of service. Because you really never do know what’s going to happen next.
To say that travelers should not be “scared” is, for me, a silly view on life. That’s not to say that it will always be perfect. There was the time that guy robbed me in Montevideo, Uruguay and another time where similar happened on the border of Togo and Ghana, though I stole my money back on that one. Or even the few attempted scams I’ve worked through in Istanbul. Maybe I’m just lucky that things have worked out well enough each time.
But I know that a big part of that “lucky” comes from being willing to live life rather than to be scared of it. And to hope that my charades skills, learned mostly from my Aunt Jaquie many years ago, continue to serve me well as I wander the globe. Because even with the language barriers and the culture barriers and the dietary challenges and the scam artists and hustlers and everything else, the world is full of friendly people willing to help. Meeting them is a big part of why I travel.
Yes, I’m a bit scared every time I take a trip. All the more reason to do it.
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