I’m supposed to be brave. I’m a “pro traveller” after all, right? The last year and a half our lives have been steered by complete unfamiliarity from one day to the next. In this time, Ted and I have become quite comfortable navigating surprises and disappointments in even the strangest of places.
So why was I so afraid to travel alone?
I’ll rewind a bit here because you’re probably wondering just why I am sitting here alone as I write this. Earlier this year, my best Australian bud Maggie suggested we do a girls trip to South America. She knew she’d have five cherished weeks off from the pressure-cooker madness that is medical school. And of course, she knew just who to ask to get a big “heck YES” in proposing such a trip.
Fast forward months later to November 16 – departure day – and my stomach is teetering between rampant hunger and 6AM nausea. “There’s eggs, bread, and grapefruit if you want!” my adorable mom piped as I walked upstairs. I’d made it back to Canada for two very short days to pack and attempt to cram a month’s worth of blogging prep in before leaving (perfect example of my non-existent planning abilities right there).
I hopped out the door, happy with my 28-litre load. The morning frost chilled my nostrils and I smiled at the thought of leaving it behind. I felt good, ready. I could do this.
The first hour of my bus ride to the airport was spent completely engrossed in my DuoLingo Spanish lessons. I made it to my transfer, patiently waiting my final bus. It was then my nagging sinus infection had me quickly run to the bathroom for a tissue. Emphasis on quickly – I swear I wasn’t gone more than 60 seconds. On exit, I came out to see my connecting bus peeling away up the highway ramp.
Panic unwillingly spread through my veins. “When is the next bus to the airport?” I blurted to the man at the ticket booth. Delays from my prior bus had already plagued my morning and I was cutting dangerously close to catching my flight.
“In an hour. You just missed it, it leaves at 9:20 you know!”.
Involuntarily, tears threatened my eyes. Why am I such a loser?
He softened his tone. “I can call you a taxi”.
“Okay,” I muttered.
HOW did I let this happen? I didn’t want to dwell over the $40 taxi I was about to pay for, but I struggled to overcome the stupidity of the mistake I’d just made. I stood arms folded in the bus loop trying to digest my self-anger.
“Are you disabled?” a man in an orange and green taxi yelled as he pulled up.
“I’m here for someone disabled” he repeated.
Dumbfounded I replied, “I’m Jen… and I really need a ride to the airport”. We looked around. No one else was in sight.
“Well, come in! I’m not supposed to drive in here, it’s only for buses!”.
Minutes later I realised, the man at the ticket booth had fibbed about a disabled passenger being at the terminal in order to get a cab in. Huh, I thought.
20 minutes of small talk later, I saw the signs for Terminal 3. I wore my best poker face as the driver continued to share fables and anecdotes from his home country. I was late. Very late.
“You’re a good person, I like you!” the driver exclaimed as he pulled the gear into park. I smiled and tipped him generously. “You just paid my breakfast, thank you!”.
I waved goodbye and jogged through the construction-ridden maze that is Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Oh Lord.
If I had to sum up that airport experience in a word it would be “delays”. Delays, delays, delays. Construction, an absent baggage trolly on check-in, no clear signage of the subsequent super secret hidden baggage trolly (which I then had to run back to after going through security). Remarkably, I made it with just 15 minutes to spare.
Fun fact: I hate flying. I have no shame in saying that this is mostly due to the fact that I have anxiety. Beyond my fears, I actually have very bad luck on airplanes. Earlier this year I attempted to revive a deceased man midway through a 13-hour flight above the Pacific Ocean. And on every flight I’ve been on with friends, they always exclaim that they’ve never had such bad turbulence as when flying with me.
So, I guess you could say I really am bad luck flying. And I dread it with every fibre of my being.
Fortunately, flight one of two on my Quito-bound journey was fairly smooth. I even spotted a beautiful and fairly rare phenomenon called a solar halo. It’s basically a full circle rainbow. The craziest thing is I caught it encircling the shadow of our plane in the clouds. How amazing is that?
And then there’s the second leg of the trip. I’m still in shock that I am sitting here typing this because I really, truly thought that was the end for me. And I promise I wasn’t the only one who thought that. Here’s what went down.
“We’re going to hit some turbulence, there’s a bit of rain in Quito,” the pilot declared all too casually on take-off. No problem, I thought. I’ve developed a routine for dealing with this which involves blaring music and closing my eyes. Meditation and deep breathing help too, though I struggle to stay focused amidst intense movement. And that’s just what happened next.
Our plane had continuously been shaken by rumbles of bad weather since takeoff. Then things progressed into what I will declare as utterly horrific.
My laptop and e-reader jumped from my lap. Sudden dips sunk our plane like a cart on a rollercoaster. My arms shook from the turbulence, like I was sitting in a vibrating chair. I struggled to tuck my items into the seat pocket. The coffee in my hand was spilling on the floor.
“OH!” people screamed from all over the plane as we plummeted suddenly. I folded my coffee cup into the front pocket, not caring that it was half full and would quite possibly spill on my electronics. I clenched my hands around the arm rests.
“AH!!!” everyone cried again. We swooped deeply, and people screamed with the intensity of each drop.
Are we nose-diving? I wondered. My head became dizzy with the pressure of descent. Is this what a plane crash is like? Are we going to die?
I held the hand of the Korean girl beside me. If I’m going out, I want to hold the hand of another human being, I thought. We declined steeper, all while rumbling like a jeep navigating a pothole-filled road. Tears formed in my eyes and I swallowed a lump of both sadness and gratitude over the very privileged 27 years I’ve had. I really began to question, and then finally accepted that this could be it for me.
I tried to imagine Ted telling me that it’s okay, that it’s just bad weather. But something felt extraordinary wrong about this flight. Each repeated ding of the seatbelt sign surged adrenaline through my limbs. My legs were melted jelly.
“Please everyone put on your seatbelts” a shaken voice of the flight attendant blurted over the speaker.
Oh my god, I thought. If she’s scared, I’m terrified.
The plane remained silent, save for the gasps with each intensely nauseating bump. White knuckled, I continued to clench the arm rest. Please, if this is it, I thought, let it be fast.
And then eventually, the dizzying dips stopped. We transitioned from sudden plummets to perpetual rumbling for the remaining (and longest) 2 hours ever.
I divided those final hours into music playlists on my phone, only allowing myself to check the time after an album was complete. I tried to distract myself with the cute Minions on the overhead movie screen, but anxiety blanketed my thoughts. It took everything in me to keep it together.
Even as we neared the runway, our plane fitfully rocked amidst the winds. We swerved slightly as our wheels hit the ground – and then it finally happened. The deafening whoosh of the brakes grew silent. We were there. We had landed.
As the seatbelt sign turned off, everyone stood up in near synchronization. We wanted out, ASAP.
Tears formed again in my eyes as I sped-walked up the jet bridge. I messaged Ted, my family, and my best friends to remind them how much I loved them and that I had successfully just disembarked a flight straight from hell. Part of me seriously wondered if me entering customs was a figment of my imagination. But it was real – I was here.
From one challenge I moved straight onto the next – navigating a foreign city by myself at midnight. I’d been to Quito before with Ted in 2013, but it felt completely different doing it on my own as a female. Unfortunately, Quito is quite riddled it with petty crime like taxi scams and mugging. Locals will tell you it is definitely dangerous after dark. And as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I was scared about all of this too.
I’m positive the taxi driver sensed my fear as I hopped in the car and gave directions to the hotel. As we wove down the loopy roads in the darkness, uneasiness swept over me. Stupidly, when Googling taxis a few days earlier, I’d read an awful story about a female tourist who’d been killed and raped by a driver in Quito earlier in 2014. Anxiety propelled my brain into worst case scenarios with each slowing down of our vehicle. Seriously, why can’t I just take my own advice and chill?
But then, just as my flight miracle happened, so too did another. I safely arrive at my hotel, and even surprised myself with my not-so-rusty Spanish abilities on check-in. I flopped onto the hotel bed, smiling at myself in pride of the day’s achievements. I may have also shed a tear or two (didn’t I warn you I’m a wimp?). I had made it – amidst all my fears and doubts, I made it.
And so too did I make it through today, my first day here on my own in a foreign place. Maggie’s flight was delayed a whole 24 hours, leaving me to meander solo in a foreign place for the very first time. And you bet that even this experienced traveller was nervous as anything about that.
But you know what?
I survived again, too.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that the mind is incredibly powerful. Our own thinking has the ability to scare us right out of experiences, or give us the courage to embrace them.
In spite of my very apparent weaknesses, I made a decision a long time ago to never, ever let fear rule my life. I will probably always have doubts and anxieties, but I won’t ever let them stop me from doing what I want. We all have differing tolerances and fears, but regardless – anyone can work through those, no matter how big of a wimp you think you are.
Now, there’s a good reason most people don’t share rambles like these. It’s clearly more inspiring to drool over neon sunsets on Instagram, or laugh at hilarious travel moments seen on Twitter that you’ll soon be able to relate to. But I’m tired of the deception that travel is this picture-perfect “oh my God I’m so inspired right now” escape from “real” life. It’s really not – even for well-seasoned travellers like me.
Like life, travel is a spectrum of complexities both incredible and awful. Don’t let fear prevent you from pursuing what you want – because I promise, if you do, you WILL miss out on incredible opportunities.
Have you ever overcome fears while travelling? What’s your wimpiest moment?