Some long-term travelers see themselves as adventurers, brave souls willing to cut all ties and throw themselves into the vast unknown.
Others are more timid, toeing that unknown with caution and care and gliding into it gently rather than catapulting themselves head-on into the uncharted.
Yet others are petrified, resigned to the knowledge that each flight will be their last, each mountain ledge their deadliest, each strange bug fatal.
I’m a bit of all three, reckless at times, cautious at others, and often, yes, petrified. Yet travel forces me from one zone into the next by shifting me from the familiar to the alien, cutting off my escape.
It forces me out of my comfort zone.
Travel grabs me, kicking and screaming, and thrusts me into situations I would never willingly enter had I had any inkling of what was ahead.
Like Beirut in wartime. I might have expected flying bullets but for some irresponsible reason I never expected they’d be flying at me. The weeks I spent there were mostly calm, other than that one time.
That was the time I was shot at and I know the taste of chipped concrete in my mouth, the grit on my tongue as I dive headfirst to thwart a sniper. That hasn’t forced me to avoid war altogether, but now I try not to wear bright colors while walking into the line of fire.
I’m also a ground-lubber, happiest on terra firma at altitude zero. I tend to avoid meetings in highrises and prefer my flights smooth and bumpless. High mountains, too, are on my ‘rather not’ list. It’s partly fear of heights, but a larger concern is vertigo, that sinking feeling of being drawn to the void. I can cross a mountain ledge – on my stomach.
Yet a life of travel has me bumbling across the skies in contraptions ranging from recycled helicopters to coughing biplanes on which only a single engine kicks in.
Unable to swim more than a few strokes, I lounge around ferry decks next to the Gathering Point, sidling over to the safety vest locker and positioning myself near the life rafts. Just in case.
In truth I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by the familiar; I like my own environment and change, although I’ve known it all my life, is still something I battle.
So I battle myself.
Left to my own devices I’d probably travel to Spain repeatedly rather than explore the world. I grew up in Castile, I love the food and the people, and Spanish is as much my mother tongue as is my native French.
To push beyond that cocoon of familiarity, I gravitate towards countries that leave people a bit perplexed. Albania? Why? Because it’s different – and utterly unfamiliar, dredging up memories of Communist dictatorships and isolation from the world. Panama? Because… well, because it’s a tiny country with a gigantic history. Nigeria? Because few people go there unless they have to.
Comfortable as I am in the familiar, I urge myself to explore what I don’t know and each time, I return sharper, stronger, more in tune with myself.
For someone who adores food I’m not an adventurous eater and only when starvation knocks will I finally accept something I’ve never tried before – caiman in the Amazon, or snake in Senegal. I admire people who can down a deep-fried bug without blanching (that said, I eat snails and frogs’ legs; some people might prefer a crispy cockroach).
My comfort zone includes having my own bathroom when I travel. So of course I end up in the desert, where the only bathroom is a tall sand dune, or in the rainforest, where a midnight loo run might involve flipping out of a hammock and over a buffalo for the simple privilege of bending gracefully behind a tree.
To be truly comfortable when I travel I like a plan, a solid itinerary that tells me where I’m going, and when. Yet most of my trips look dramatically haphazard: I’ll find myself on one-way flights with no return ticket, uncertain of my destination (that’s how Africa happened: a one-way ride to Cape Town – and I surfaced a year later in Eritrea).
I do like my creature comforts, and I enjoy a degree of predictability. For some reason life hasn’t chosen to give in to my preferences. Instead, it conspires endlessly to challenge my wants with its bounty.
Given my inclinations I should have been a resort vacationer with an all-inclusive plan, a Club Med regular with a discount card. Instead, I roam the world uncovering one surprise after the next, pushing beyond myself at every opportunity, not because I want to, but because life is just made that way.
I don’t court danger and I love life, so when it’s threatened, like anyone I’m devastated. But once I’ve survived, my gratitude knows no end. The confidence and energy I feel after having gone somewhere I truly feared sticks to me like maple syrup, coating me with a certain self-assured sheen I can’t seem to wash away.
I’m a scaredy cat. But like that wonderful book title by Susan Jeffers, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”, I move my feet forcefully in any direction they don’t want to go.
And then I come back for more.