Feel the Fear and Travel Anyways
How Embracing Your Fears Changes How You Live Abroad
When I am back home I get a lot of the same comments and questions. “I’ve been keeping up with you on Facebook ya world traveler”, “Wow you have been all over the place”, “Weren’t you nervous being alone?” “How was it over there with everything that’s going on?” “Was it ever sketchy over there at night?” “Where you not afraid?”.
I was raised in the Southern U.S. I was raised to be afraid. Of strangers, of straying too far from home, of God’s wrath, of big cities, of women who were prettier than me, of walking to my car alone at night, of pretty much everything. But, and fortunately for me, the thing I have always been most afraid of is missing out on adventure. So afraid that I headed out. Choosing to surrender to the call of an adventure was only slightly less scary than staying home while the adventure happened elsewhere and to someone else.
Vigo, Spain was where I was going. Despite years of wishing and months of planning I was restless the night before my trip. I barely slept. I woke up early to make the drive to Atlanta to catch my flight to London. I was tired and anxious, but also, relentlessly excited. Though I did not leave the airport, London was comfortable and manageable. I was hesitant to get on the plane to Spain, because I knew that it would not be as familiar as London was. From London, I took a plane to Madrid. Once in Madrid it sunk in. I was far, far from home. I waited an hour then boarded my final plane to Vigo, not knowing what I would find on the other side.
When I arrived in the Vigo airport, I must admit, my first impression wasn’t pleasant. It was humid and I was sweating, I was exhausted, surrounded by people speaking Spanish, and worst of all I was alone. Here I was, in a strange land without access to Google maps and Instagram. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I panicked. I scrambled. I paced around breathing through my mouth, trying to acclimate, trying to think straight.
And then, I was thrust out into the world that is Vigo —the narrow hilly roads, the cars, the mopeds. No slowing down despite the tight corners, people walking unfazed by the humidity and the steep uneven sidewalks. Everyone around me was completely serine, as my heart raced. So much to take in. Too much. I got to my hotel alone, I locked the doors, and I sat unsure of what to do next. My first day in Spain I was unsure if I’d make it through to the end of the year, the remaining 365 days of this adventure I had fantasized for years.
After a panicked couple of hours pacing in my hotel room and calling my parents back home, putting on a grin and acting content and un-phased by my new surroundings, I heard voices in the hallway. The first sound of a familiar accent I had heard since I stepped onto the plane in Atlanta. I found two girls from California, Rosie and Kate, who seemed just as overwhelmed as I did.
We made our introductions and then dove head first into the Vigo nightlife. As we wandered our way up a not very well lit street looking for a welcome party for international students I felt the fear again. As we weaved our way through alley ways passing dark figures, I struggled to feel safe. Utter and complete chaos was in my head. There was an array of florescent bar lights, spray painted facades of old buildings in the alley ways, crowds of young Spanish people surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke, music pumping through the walls of old brick buildings, and the occasional drunken cat call from a young Spanish guy.
Looking back the only way I could describe it would be sensory overload. We found the bar, which little did I know then would be where we spent many Tuesdays listening to local jazz musicians play, it was packed wall to wall with people trying to speak Spanish and the language of their own countries over the loud music and muscle their way up to the bar for a beer. I was sleep deprived, I was nervous, I was ready to retreat to my room, call my mom and go to sleep. That night I fell asleep nervous for the days ahead of me. I longed for the peace of my familiar bed. How would I survive in this place so foreign to me? Would I make it an entire year estranged from any shred of my comfort zone or would I get lost irretrievably to the unknown?
The next morning, I could feel a huge change in myself.
My body began to adjust, my heartbeat started to sync its self with the rhythms of my surroundings. It is an innate ability of humans to adapt to what surrounds them. It is the most basic of our survival skills to readjust to our environment.
In the day light, what had the night before been an indecipherable labyrinth of turns down alleyways and cobble stoned streets, suddenly started to feel like something I could master. I felt a calm settle itself in my belly, and a soft confidence started to fill me. I had found an apartment, I had found the grocery store I would go to, I found a group of friends from all around the world I could call to hang out with, I found the bus lines that could get me to my classes, and I found the coffee shops I felt comfy in and would frequent. Of course I did not have the streets of the city mastered, and majority of the time I did not know where I was going, but I knew that I was finding my way the best I knew how.
And here is where the real challenge presented itself, here is where choosing to leave home and be in the unknown really shines. I started to understand that, if I was going to enjoy this adventure, if I was really going to give myself to my surroundings and dive whole heartedly into Spain, I had to start trusting strangers. I had to surrender to the willingness of people to lead the way when I asked for directions. If I was going to get where I needed to go I needed to start ignoring all of my life’s previous warnings to never talk to strangers.
I had to blindly trust over and over again. Trust strangers at night in dark alleys when part of me was screaming, “stranger danger!” all the while knowing that that inner “no” wasn’t coming from the part of me that really knows, it wasn’t what my heart or gut was telling me is okay, it was my head that said no, it was years of being taught to be afraid. It was a lifetime of growing up having fear of the unknown pushed upon me. It was all of fear-mongering old southerners I grew up around and waxy faced newscasters on TV shouting about how “The outside world isn’t safe”, “Strangers can never be trusted”, “Don’t go to Europe or you’ll get taken like that movie”, “Women should NEVER travel alone”. But despite all of these subliminal fear clouding my mind, my body said yes.
My body quickly learned that I was safe, that some humans are here to help each other. That strangers are just friends who we haven’t met yet. So I stopped walking with my eyes to the ground. I stopped triple checking that I locked my doors. I stopped feeling in my purse to make sure my wallet was still there. I stopped leaving the party early to get home before it was too late. I stopped being afraid.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not delusional, I know that the world isn’t all butterfly’s and gum drops. I am all too aware that there is violence that lurks around corners, especially for single female travelers. But I also know that I have now spent the last year and a half traveling around all parts of Europe, full of strangers that showed such overwhelming kindness in their eyes and hearts. When I smiled, they smiled back. When I asked for help, they lent a hand.
I can only hope that if I were back home, I would offer the same to a foreigner in the strangeness of another country. That people everywhere would realize that despite all the bad news constantly filling our news feeds and TV screens, all the horror stories that are shoved down our throats from childhood about anywhere outside of the small town we grew up being dangerous, that they are all just a fraction of a larger and far too often untold story.
I travel because of the daily desire that I feel for all of us to live in peace. I travel to sit down and laugh and share a meal with friends from all corners of the earth who have become like family. I travel to see places I dream about. To learn new things. To find joy in chasing horizons and waking up under new skies. I travel to remember that the more I trust in my fellow humans, the more I am rewarded with mutual trust and caring back. The more I open my heart to people who are not like me, the more hearts I am lucky enough to get to know and connect to.
Life is so much sweeter when I choose to trust in the kindness and goodness of people. When I believe that it is not violence. Not danger. Not hate. But love that is the currency that moves life. Choosing to miss out for fear of the unknown is not a life I, or any traveler chooses to live. We choose to feel the fear, and travel anyways.