As a kid, I wanted to be more like my older siblings. I wouldn’t say they are the bravest people that I’ve met, even if, back then, it did feel like they were my magical protectors and nothing (living or otherwise) could destroy them. Somehow, even as kids, they knew how to not let fear cripple them. And that was something — I lacked.
I was a timid child and preferred to live in a world of my own making. Being the youngest, I wasn’t the first to explore or experiment. I rarely got into trouble. I’d let fear win on most occasions. Mum would (still does) let me take my time and just let me be me. On the other hand, dad was worried: how would I survive the ‘world’? He thought I was (still does) too sensitive to face whatever’s out ‘there’.
Naturally, I never thought I’d travel. I spent my teens watching travel shows — hoping I could visit those faraway lands someday. Back then, I was content with virtual travel. It seemed easier that way. Honestly, the easiest route is never the best route. It might take you from point A to point B and sadly, point B is the only place you’d see. You’d miss everything else along the way.
“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.”
Most travellers and travel blogs focus on strengths and achievement. We live in a world where success is equated with fearlessness and the ability to hide your weakness. A part of me envies people (including Basil) who don’t let fear rule their lives. I would love to be like them. But, I also know there’s nothing wrong with being me. Fear or anxiety is not a weakness. It’s an opportunity to tap into a latent inner-strength that’s been hiding under self-doubt.
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’
No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
It’s not been an easy journey to conquer fear. I wish I could say it gets better with extensive travel. I wish I could say I’m invincible now. But, even after a decade of travel, I can never say when will I struggle to move a foot forward. I’ve learned to accept that as a part of my life and at the same time: not let that stop me from travelling. We all have our own ways to cope with being different, and here’s what I learned on the road.
Get a supportive travel partner
Having a supportive travel partner or companion is the best way to gain confidence. That doesn’t mean you can’t do solo trips. It just makes a difficult journey more bearable and you have someone to boost your morale — when its on a downward spiral. Travelling through mountain passes and high altitude mountain towns has been my worst nightmare. But, Basil was incredibly supportive when AMS (in Lachung) struck or when fear got in the way. Any traveller, including guides or drivers, can also be a pillar of strength. Our driver, from Manali to Leh, kept repeating, “It’s nothing” whenever the pass got difficult. That’s all I needed to believe.
Distract yourself with the view.
Exploring some of the most beautiful places on our planet requires bravado. Nature can be soft and harsh — if you don’t respect her. I’ve found that looking at her beauty can be a nice distraction from any sort of anxiety or travel-related sickness.
Don’t forget to breathe.
Mawswami Caves, India
Fear targets your breathing. And when you’re struggling for air, there’s no way you’re going to think rationally. Practicing breathing techniques have helped me control my breathing and placate my fears in tricky situations. Closed spaces, with limited air, are especially challenging. When you’re underwater or exploring a cave, how you breathe can turn the experience from a living nightmare to exhilaration.
Be well prepared.
Hallasan, South Korea
Being prepared physically (through regular exercise) and mentally (mediation) is important for any trip. It’s also important to carry the right clothes and footwear depending upon the terrain you choose to explore. It saves you the trouble of triggering your sore points. I made a mistake of not using hiking boots on the Hallasan hike and struggled with a sore knee — all the way down. It wasn’t a difficult path, but the rugged stones just aggravated an old condition. I could have completely avoided it — had I been better prepared.
Push yourself, but take your time.
Taebaeksan, South Korea
Goryeosan, South Korea
Travel isn’t a race, unless you’re actually competing in one. It’s a journey of self-discovery through exploration. I prefer to start a trip or hike early in the morning, so I can take my time and not worry about rest-stops. It may seem cliched, but maintaining a steady pace will get you to your destination. It eliminates the need to rush (trigger panic) or feel the pressure to make it before a deadline. It’s always worked for me.
It’s OK to cave in. There will be a next time.
Seoraksan, South Korea
The Great Wall of China, China
Mt. Bromo, Indonesia
I’ve never liked to leave a project incomplete or a book unfinished. I’ve always liked to compete any task that I attempt. But, on a trip, it’s wiser to quit rather than risk injury and avoid a sticky situation — you can’t get out of. There’s no shame in not completing a hike or a trail. It’s the attempt that’s more important. In Seoraksan, I didn’t feel confident walking along the suspension bridge and sat till the others came back. The story wasn’t very different along the Great Wall. While a part of me wishes I could have completed the trail, it motivated me to complete many trails afterwards.
We all have an inbuilt survival mechanism.
Our survival depends upon our ability to adapt and change in difficult situations. We all have this inner compass that makes us want to survive the odds. When our guide lost her way in a Mongolian forest — I panicked. I was the weakest link, because of my ill-fitted boots that triggered my weak knee. But, I was also the only one with a keen sense of direction. Now, no one wants to listen to the person who’s crazy scared. After some yelling, they took my advice and I, tried to follow them without keeping them back. Teamwork and the fear of wolves got us to the other side.
Stay Calm and you’ll figure it out.
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Staying calm isn’t easy for anyone who’s experienced anxiety. It’s easier said than done. You just need to believe in yourself and don’t let doubt cloud your judgement. Water scares me and I’ve never been comfortable on or under it. During our river tour of the Mekong Delta, our oarswoman urged me to try rowing her sampan. It took some effort and I was quite successful. Cut to Halong Bay, two days later, Basil signed the two of us for a kayaking experience. It was our first kayaking experience as a couple and after some bumpy hits and nervous stares — we made it to the start.
Stop reading and stay optimistic.
Orkhon Valley, Mongolia
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia
Last year, a week before our dream trip to Mongolia, I let pre-travel anxiety control me. It’s also the reason why I’m writing this post — a year later. I was so nervous about the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the instructions in the travel brochure, and all those negative thoughts that kept clouding my rational thought process. I nearly cancelled a trip that I had been dreaming of. I’ve learned that planning, saving, and preparing for a trip should start from 6 months or a year before — if it’s a challenging trip. Information helps in being prepared physically and mentally. A week before, stop reading. It’s like exam fever and it’s best to bet on what you already know rather than get confused with every possible outcome.
You’re the only person who should judge yourself.
Bromo View Point, Indonesia
Mt. Bromo, Indonesia
Quite often, we let others judge our ability. As a geek, I’ve always had people expect more from me. But, when it comes to adventure, Basil is the only person to believe I can do something. Our Java trip was packed with early mornings and long days. We reached Bromo on the last leg of our trip and my body was finally telling me to stop. I struggled with breathing during a simple climb to Bromo view point and I wondered if it was tiredness or the slight change in altitude. Our guide looked at me with sorry eyes and wondered if I would climb Mt. Bromo. Honestly, I doubted myself until I reached the ash-covered steps. I struggled with the sun, dust, and fumes; but made it to the top. I was not going to let my fear or someone’s judgement deprive me of that stunning view!
Lastly, having a little faith in yourself can help you take those first few steps of discovery because…
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”