Monday, January 07, 2008

Fear On the Road

I want to write today about the fear that we feel when we are traveling. Not because I am afraid or depressed at the moment, but because my blog so far is one of elated discoveries and soul-touching experiences, without a mention of the fear I am certain that all backpackers in the wide and unknown world feel but seldom share.

Thai Yoga Massage
In fact, quite the opposite of fear, I am feeling very good these days. My ankles and knees are in pretty bad shape, and the beach I am on - as I mentioned the other day - is less than idyllic, but I am swimming every day, doing yoga each morning, and spending the bulk of my day learning Thai yoga massage - which is an exhilarating experience that is pushing me out of comfort zones that I think need to be challenged.

Fear and Insecurity
But fear is with you when you are out on the road - and I don't mean the type of fear I felt when confronted with many dark hours on a mountain in Cambodia perched on my dented and dead motorcycle. Rather I mean the shadow over most new countries and towns that you arrive in almost every other week as you work along a coast or across a continental mass.

I bring this up because I think that backpacking, more than many experiences in life, brings you face to face with your weaknesses and your insecurities. Every time you find yourself in a new country or town you begin a process of making a dozen or so important choices, each of which is fraught with peril of a sort - and each of which can arouse feeling of incompetence or insecurity that challenges the image of the savvy and seasoned traveler and generally amiable and interesting individual that you like to believe in yourself and to portray to others.

The challenges that arouse this fear and insecurity include the fact that you have to find a "home" in that town, you have to discover clean but affordable local eateries that fit the budget without endangering your health, you have to face and befriend at least a few amoung the crowd of travelers that are already settled and comfortable, but nameless and faceless to you in your tired and sweaty state. You also face a army of businessmen ranging from rickshaw drivers to lodge owners, all of which know you are new to town are eager to separate you from as many Rupees as possible - a true battle of wits if there ever was one!

Each of these examples leaves you in a situation where it is easy to make a wrong decision that you will regret or even literally pay for - and those wrong decisions are impossible to avoid altogether. When one or two add on top of each other as you fumble around new environs, you can end up regretting your decision to leave the last comfortable little town you new well in order to visit this new place that challenges your ego and leaves you feeling pretty insecure and literally out of place - and there is no friend to turn to for reassurance, just a dingy, loud, smelly room to curl up in and feed on your negativity and the fear of this perceived weakness.

The great thing, however, is that it almost never lasts long. You can change your lodging the next day (I have changed 4 times in the last 5 days on this party-central beach, but am comfortably settled now, try a new restaurant next meal, and meet a friendly face around the next corner.

We are also now blessed and cursed by new technology - I am amazed to see young backpackers touting around notebook PCs, iPods, cameras, portable gaming systems and cell phones amoung the many gizmos in evidence. I myself hit the rod with a digital camera and an iPod, but am now down to one such gadget - my camera.

Add the ubiquitous Internet cafe to this litany of communication devices and toys, and a quick call to a good friend, parents or a sibling for a taste of home and a reminder of who you are is as easy and cheap as a plate of paneer tikka (cottage cheese baked in a tandoor) at the corner eatery.

But the fear remains nonetheless, and in every town and in every situation we stare it down as we confront the unknown and make the best judgments we can. Regret of perceived incompetence and resulting insecurity can only last a short time, as the wonders I write about in most posts quickly eclipse them and the next decisions are coming at you fast - better be on your toes...

At home in real life we are not immune to this situation, but have a lot more padding to insulate us from it. We have the cozy den of our homes to retreat to to escape the need to confront the unknown or uncomfortable, we have a steady job to give us a feeling of stability and competence and we have a community of steady friends and family to encourage and amuse us.

Sometimes the traveler just wants to give up the road and go back to those insulating comforts of home, but thankfully the spirit of adventure and curiosity keeps at least this trekker on the go...

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