From arachnophobia to fear of loneliness – Kia Abdullah explores how to face your fears and open up the world of travel.
It was early morning on my first day in Cambodia that the feeling of dread descended. Trundling along in a tuk tuk, I felt something heavy land on my leg. The brown-black mass was two inches wide and very much alive. As the scream rose in my throat, the creature took flight off into the dawn. I watched it go, noting the humidity, lush vegetation and open expanses of still water. This trip is going to be hell.
To my surprise, that was my only encounter with Cambodia’s invertebrate life, but with a 2014 trip to the Amazon on the cards, I knew I had to do something about my fear of creepy crawlies. It got me talking to other people about their travel fears and how they deal with them. Here is our gathered wisdom.
Spiders & Insects
London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme has been running for two decades and attracts people from all over Europe and beyond. Comprising a half day of talks, Q&A sessions, group hypnosis and face-to-face interaction with spiders, the programme is designed to help arachnophobics deal with their eight-legged enemies. By the end of my Saturday afternoon session, I was comfortably handling ‘Maggie’ the tarantula but still felt giddy around the much faster house spiders. I was able to do a capture and release using a plastic container – something I’ve never been able to do at home – but left the session not entirely convinced I was cured. The real test came five weeks later when I walked into my flat and saw a spindly, long-legged spider crawling along the living room carpet. I felt an instinctive jolt of fear but then rationality kicked in. With a newfound calm, I walked over, knelt down and picked up the spider (albeit with gloves). Holding it in one fist, I opened a window and carefully deposited it outside. There is zero chance I would have done that before so while I don’t know if I’m 100% cured, I’m definitely on my way. We’ll see what happens in the Amazon…
It’s often said that the best way to deal with a fear of flying is to fly a plane yourself. It was with this in mind that Anna Birch, a copywriter based in London, booked a 30-minute flying lesson at Stapleford Flight Centre. The centre caters mainly for trainee pilots and thrill seekers, but its pilots are also experienced in helping nervous flyers. In fact, I’m told that one weary pilot traipsed an Atomic Kitten member into and out of his plane nine times before she agreed to take to the air.
“My pilot, Nayar, could tell I was nervous,” says Anna, “but he was completely calm. He told me that we could come back down at any time. When we started to taxi, I could feel myself getting sweaty with nerves. I couldn’t help but think how small the plane was; how it would feel every bump in the air. My stomach lurched when we took off and before I knew it we were in the air. About 15 minutes in, Nayar asked if I wanted to take the controls – no pressure. With a dry mouth and clammy palms, I agreed. I flew it for about 5 minutes before eagerly handing back control. As we touched down, I felt elated; if I could do this, surely I could fly in a bigger, studier plane. It’s bloody scary but I would definitely recommend it.”
Three weeks after the lesson, 30-year-old Anna left Europe for the first time.
The prospect of needing urgent medical care abroad is a genuine concern for many a would-be traveller, and understandably so. Travelling is a break from the norm; it’s all about discovering new foods, exploring new terrain and battling new climates. It’s bathing in the Devil’s Pool, bungeeing over Victoria Falls and hiking the Huashan Trail – things you wouldn’t or couldn’t attempt at home.
Whether you’re worried about a serious injury from a daredevil stunt or a prosaic bout of Delhi Belly, there are steps you can take to protect yourself: Always buy travel insurance with adequate medical cover, never neglect your jabs, take a first-aid kit with you and carry adequate means of translation (a dictionary or translator app). Research the area beforehand so you are aware of particular vulnerabilities. For example, can you drink the local water? Do you need bug spray? Should you eat unpeeled fruit? Preparing for the worst will put your mind at ease, letting you enjoy the actual journey.
Getting lost, getting mugged, running out of cash – the possibilities alone are enough to discourage you. That said, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who regrets taking to the road, even when it was less than rosy.
Take Samira Ali, a London-based consultant who was mugged in Rio (twice) and contracted malaria in Peru – but who has happily travelled through 64 countries. Her advice is to always cover the basics below even if you’re a seasoned traveller. These, says Samira, will minimise the chances of plans going awry, giving you the confidence to tackle a big trip.
- Read warnings from your local embassy (such as the FCO in the UK) beforehand and do your research about particularly dangerous areas to avoid
- Use your common sense when it comes to money: use the hotel safe, never walk around with too much cash and keep valuables out of sight
- Always have electronic copies of your passport, your EHIC card and the contact details of your local embassy
- Familiarise yourself with local customs like how to dress or interact with locals – it may help you stay out of sticky situations
- Check in with someone at home at regular intervals
- Build up a profile on Couchsurfing so you have options should you find yourself stranded without money
“I used to enjoy travelling alone,” says 29-year-old teacher Peter Watson. “Every summer, I’d take off for six weeks: India, Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia. After I met my girlfriend, however, going it alone lost some of its lustre. I missed travelling with another person.”
Nevertheless, in summer 2013 Peter set off again, this time traveling across six countries in Eastern Europe. His most pertinent piece of advice is to project an open attitude: “Don’t bury your head in a book or your phone every time you’re alone as this will signal to people that you’re busy. Instead, keep your head up, look around and smile at people. Soon enough, someone will ask where you’re from and suddenly you’re not alone anymore.”
Secondly, introduce some structure into your day: “Wandering around alone can feel aimless and lonely. Doing some routine tasks like updating your travel blog or curating your photographs will break up the day,” says Peter.
If you’ve never travelled alone before, go on a short city break first, he advises – preferably somewhere with a familiar language. Promise yourself that you will initiate conversation with one stranger every day. This will give you the confidence to start planning a longer trip.
But I have a mortgage! What if I can’t get a job when I’m back? How will the gap look on my CV?
Most would-be travellers worry about their circumstances and how their long-term goals might be affected by taking off. Perhaps your job is going really well and you don’t want to jeopardise your career progression; perhaps you were planning to start a family and fear that soon it will be too late.
The truth is you can’t ‘get over’ this fear. There will always be an adjustment period on your return and there’s nothing to be done but bite the bullet and go. Heed these wise words from Mark Twain – and go!
Kia Abdullah is the editor of travel blog atlasandboots.com.