I once tried exposure treatment to overcome an increasingly debilitating cockroach phobia. The therapist had me create a fear hierarchy – a list that broke my phobia down into discrete and sequential parts, from the thing that frightened and disgusted me least (staring at a roach in an enclosed jar) to the thing that I’d literally rather die than experience (having a cockroach in my mouth, which, granted, is no one’s idea of a good time). Then, with the therapist guiding me, I moved step by step up the fear hierarchy, sticking with each item until the concomitant fear and disgust subsided enough to move on to the next item.*
Unfortunately, I never fully beat my phobia because I ran out of time and, let’s face it, the will to put a cockroach in my mouth. But I did let one crawl all over me (albeit slowly, because I had dropped it about six times first) while another one raced around the room.
That was a very long way of getting to the point of this post: without realizing it, I’ve been moving up the rungs of my travel fear hierarchy.
It began in 2010, when I went to Tunisia for work. This was the first time I had to use bottled water and avoid fresh food, which freaked me out a bit. And when I had a few days on my own to explore, I opted to glom on to my colleagues’ plans, and then to meet up with a friend who flew in to join me.
A couple of years later, I did my first truly solo trip to a new place, but an easy one – Providence, Rhode Island. It felt strange but awesome to book a hotel room all for myself and to wander around the city with no real reason to be there except to see it.
The next year I visited a friend in Portland before riding the train up the coast to Vancouver. It was the first time I left the country by myself without plans to join anyone else – whether friends, colleagues, or other people in a study program. But everybody spoke English and the only culture shock I experienced was wondering why they liked ketchup-flavored potato chips so much.
A year after that was the big leap. I booked a two-week trip to Argentina and opted for a hostless AirBnB in Buenos Aires. At that point, I spoke only the Spanish I had crammed into my head during two weeks of Duolingo practice – which is to say, not much. I knew not a person, no one seemed to speak English, and though I thought of South America as an exotic wonderland, I also thought of it as the place in which I might be axe-murdered (for no particular reason except that I was a woman alone). My first night, I scurried home right after dark and felt so lonely that I watched “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” for company. By night three, I was staying out til four a.m. with people I met at dinner, and pinching myself at how fortunate I was to be born into a time and place and circumstances that allowed me to do my own thing. For 99% of history and for a large portion of women alive today, that is not the case.
And now I’ve just returned from Mexico City and Elsewhere, the most challenging solo travel I’ve done so far. Mostly because Elsewhere is not set up for someone like me to visit, in more than a few ways. I would describe it as a working vacation, the equivalent of hiking the backcountry of Yosemite. Super fun, super satisfying, but super tough.
Which has set me up perfectly for the climb to the last rung on the fear hierarchy – francophone West Africa, alone, long-term. All the previous steps prepared me, little by little, to sit with my fears of this next trip without letting them overwhelm me. In a way, the fear is invigorating. If it were easy, I wouldn’t be as attracted to it.
*I’m pretty sure that was the first time I have ever used the word ‘concomitant’ in a sentence and I am really proud of myself.
[Photo: Les Chatfield]