Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
First, three anecdotes:
1. Another travel writer and I laugh incredulously when a travel company representative tells us someone entered the company’s contest (prize: free trip to Jordan) five times and turned down the trip when he won.
He thought he wanted to go to Jordan, but when the dream of doing so became tangibly real, he balked.
“I talked to him several times,” the representative says. “But no matter how much I told him about the country and about our experiences taking travelers there, it didn’t make him feel better.”
2. I am in Mexico City with some other writers, including the editor responsible for overseeing the publication of one of the major guidebook publisher’s Mexico edition. She is scared to take a taxi, unless we take the one that leaves from the hotel’s front door, which will easily cost three times more than a street hailed taxi. “I’d have come to Mexico City sooner,” she says, “but I was afraid I’d just end up sitting in the hotel for the whole trip. The city just seems like too much for me. I wouldn’t have been sure how to begin to get into it.”
3. “Por qué no te vas al supermercado?”
The taxi driver looks at me sternly in the rearview mirror.
“Why do you want to go to Mercado Bazurto anyway? Hay muchos rateros. The supermarket is better for you, don’t you think?”
I know what he’s not saying, because I’ve read the local news. At least five vendors were killed in the market last year. Neither of us talks about that. Instead, I explain that I visited a supermarket already and that I like municipal markets; the organization and pace of street markets, the goods they sell, and the way exchanges are transacted give a different sense of place than fluorescent-lit, fixed-price supermarkets.
He sighs and turns his attention back to the road before giving me the standard warnings: “If you have a phone, don’t take it out. Don’t use your camera. Always pay attention. Don’t get lost. When you want to go back to the Centro, have a police officer flag a taxi for you.” “Isn’t that a little extreme?” I think to myself, but to him I say, “Ok, ok, gracias.
When I get out of the taxi, he says, “Suerte, amiga.”
When I shut the door and he pulls away, I’m suddenly not feeling so brave.
Is this fear?
After I left the market, I boarded a bus and headed to the community of La Boquilla, about 20 minutes outside Cartagena. Francisco and I translated the text for an art exhibit about La Boquilla six or seven years ago. Recently, I’d read that the community had changed– the “sleepy fishing village” was replaced by a strip of mega-resorts, according to reports– and I wanted to see if this was the case. I rode the bus through La Boquilla (the recently built resorts and luxury apartment buildings precede La Boquilla, which is mostly ramshackle, especially at the edge abutting the mangrove) and then decided to keep riding. I’d get off wherever the bus ended its route, and then board a bus in the opposite direction to head back to the city.
The 2.5 hour ride gave me plenty of time to think about fear and travel.
When I got back to my hotel, I looked up the etymology of “fear”:
fear (noun): Old English fær “calamity, sudden danger, peril,” from Proto-Germanic *feraz “danger” (cf. Old Saxon for “ambush,” Old Norse for “harm, distress, deception,” Dutch gevaar, German Gefahr “danger”), from PIE root *per- “to try, risk, come over, go through” (perhaps connected with Greek peira “trial, attempt, experience,” Latin periculum “trial, risk, danger”).
That’s a whole lot to unpack, especially since there’s a massive difference between “to try” and “calamity, sudden danger, [and] peril.”
While I was riding the bus, I’d made a note in my journal: “difference between fear and discomfort.” How much of our fears related to travel– the fears of deciding to go (or not), the fears of having a certain experience (like going to a market or walking a city’s streets)– are rooted in anxiety about the actual prospects of “calamity, sudden danger, [and] peril” versus our anxiety and discomfort of not knowing, of being “the other,” and of perceiving that we’re not in control of a situation?
I suspect that we’re actually uncomfortable more than we are fearful, and our discomfort amps up our anxiety levels, putting us on guard. In most places (with some notable exceptions), the possible dangers we face are not much different from the ones that lurk in our daily lives at home. Yet because we’re familiar with our own little patch of the Earth, because we think we know it and how to operate within it, we spend far less time worrying about danger and demise than we do when we’re traveling… or considering traveling.
What I’ve noticed, though, is that we tend to share a particular approach to looking at the world, defining what’s comfortable and what’s not, and assessing perceived versus possible dangers. Here are a few of our strategies:
1. We read the news, but we put it in context.
If you read your local newspaper, it’s probably not a wholly accurate reflection of your hometown. If I let the articles in the local section of The New York Times determine (rather than inform) my view of the city, I’d probably never leave home. It would be too terrifying: people waiting to push me in front of a train at the subway station, to run me over at a crosswalk on Queens Boulevard, or rape me in the elevator of a residential building.
In other words, if you read the horrors of your hometown and still go outside and go about your business, why is your approach much different when you’re away from home? I’d read about the vendor murders at Cartagena’s Bazurto Market, just like I’d read about kidnappings in Mexico City, and gun violence in Puerto Rico. Most crime isn’t random. The more you’re informed about the context of the news you’re reading, the less inclined you’ll be to panic.
2. Listen to locals, but take their advice with a grain of salt.
Locals, especially taxi drivers, are an invaluable source of advice. But they also tend to have certain biases, as we all do, and as travelers, we may not be aware of those. In Mexico City, for example, it’s rare that you’ll hear someone from the upper class or upper middle class say, “Sure! Take the Metro; it’s a fantastic way to see the city!” (which it is). They don’t take the Metro themselves because they have cars or prefer radio taxis; the Metro is perceived as a form of transit for the working class. Yet it’s a cheap and safe way to get around the city quickly.
Locals also tend to be over-protective of visitors because they want us to be safe and to leave with a positive impression of their city, so their advice is often over-cautious. I listened to the taxi driver and took his advice; I didn’t take out my phone or my camera in the market. But I still insisted that I wanted to go to the market… and I went.
3. Get an overview of the place.
In a big city, in particular, it can feel overwhelming (as it did for the guidebook editor) to know where to start and how to get immersed in the place without feeling too vulnerable. Public transportation (especially buses) and city tour buses are a fantastic way to allay some worries by getting a sense of a city’s scope. Ride a bus to the end of the line to get a feel for the place and to make some notes about what you’d like to return to and explore when you start to feel more comfortable.
4. Check in with yourself when you feel anxious: Do I feel afraid or do I feel uncomfortable?
It’s easy to let emotions run wild when we’re anxious. Since anxiety tends to breed more worry, though, it’s important to try to step back for a minute, breathe, and ask yourself: “Do I feel genuinely afraid? Is my life in danger right now or do I feel uncomfortable?” If you’re genuinely afraid, then take the necessary steps to stay safe. But if you’re uncomfortable, talk yourself off the ledge. Try to find a place where you can step out of the scene for a bit and regroup. Cafes can be good places to do this.
5. Trust your own instincts and have an exit plan.
Ultimately, you know yourself best. If your gut is telling you that you’re not safe or if your discomfort level has risen to a point you can’t tolerate, get out of the situation you’re in. It can be tough to do that when you’re in the midst of a high-tension situation, so if you know you’re headed to a place where you’re likely to feel anxious (like the market I was going to visit), have your exit plan ready and use it when you need it.
Have you ever felt fear or discomfort when traveling? How did you cope with it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.