Some weeks ago somebody posted in a travellers group a simple question to hitchhikers: “What are you afraid of?” To our surprise most of the answers walked along the lines of “no fear”, “trust yourself and ride on” or “if you store good karma, you have nothing to be afraid of”. It made us wonder whether all these brave travellers are truly so fearless, so calm that the universe will take care of them even on the creepiest paths (if so, we envy them mightily),or if perhaps they believe that is our mission to spread a positive message in a time when bad news crowd the media and that we should not worry our mums more than there is need for; or maybe, could there be some sort of shame and silent superstition that condemns recognizing out loud what we are afraid of, as if the name of fears could invoke the bad spirits, that will then easily find our whereabouts.
All these reasons are probably true, some for ones, and others for the rest. But we, we have to be sincere and say that many times we have been afraid. And there is nothing wrong with that. The knot in the stomach, the rush of blood to your mind, the stupid reactions or the clever ones are just some of the symptoms that arise when things turn dark, or we step into the unknown. Fear is dull, it is possessive, counterproductive and it is ever-present. Our minds overflow with fears, deeply rooted in the unconscious or swiftly arising to the surface in the least appropriate moments. Fear keeps us tied, it can paralyze us, freeze us in flight, but it can also make us run, take us further or make us grow. Is the best way to deal with fear to look it straight into the eye or to turn our backs?
And since we share little with popular US animation and comics heroes (in fact we actually somehow suppose that even Batman shakes in terror at times), we have gathered some thoughts to make you see fear on the road through our eyes. We don´t really think there is any universal treatment for it, but we have anyway related how we usually deal with our personal nightmares in each case.
1. A traveller afraid of planes
On a flight to England, some years back, I held Boris hand to celebrate the happiness for moving somewhere together, only to realize that the sweat in his palms was in unison with the unusually pale tone of his face. A traveller that is terrified by the word “plane”. This fear, though, was our excuse along the way, when somebody accused us of being stubborn in our determination to stick to overland travels. There is no need to cross every border by foot, but we loved it, and would definitely take on such a journey again. Despite that, in this fragmented world of ours, there are times when it seems one will need to fly, and then we will see if Boris got cured after two years of plane-less travels, and will happily lift himself off the ground to maybe, one day, join Marta for a journey on the clouds, who knows!
Our remedy: so far, as you can see, no successful treatment has been found, so instead of flying like birds we stick to the ground like snails. For the way back from India to Europe, we are checking all alternatives: does anybody know of a boat from Mumbai to Oman? Or maybe a magic potion to turn Boris airplane-friendly for a short while?
2. A hitchhiker with fear of cars
If one of us is afraid of planes the other one is absolutely terrified by cars. To aid with this issue, and in a sort of shock therapy, Boris’s cousin invited us to a curios goodbye gift the day before leaving Sofia…a drift-drive! He is an excellent pilot and an ace on the wheel, but while the two cousins enjoyed it in the front like kids on a rollercoaster, I, with a tight seat-belt and my arms around Boris’s neck, shivered for the minutes that the swirling lasted…I realized then and there, before the start, that a hitchhiking travel would be a challenge for my nerves more than once.
My calfs would hurt as if I had exercised for ours, every time I got out of a Georgian car. Nice drivers, good chats, but they would drive at such speed that I would only hold on to my backpack and hope that the vehicle would not lift iself from the asphalt into the sky. Speed is the key to my fear, but sleepy drivers play their part as well. In the end it’s all about the feeling of losing control, the moment where everything slips off ones hands and into a potential tragedy. It’s terrible to hitchhike one’s way with such a fear of cars and speed and sleep. But it was not less worrying to travel by bus from Greece to Bulgaria, or to hear of mini-bus accidents, or to be squeezed between people and a slope in a shared taxi uphill, all wheeled vehicles have in common the same worrying characteristic of being able to run way too fast.
Our remedies: when hitchhiking one can always keep a few tramps in the sleeve, like choosing the slower roads, talking to the driver or getting him a coffee when his eyes look tired (I’ve become an expert at spying them discretely through the mirror!), even pretending to be sick and asking to slow down or stop. And last but not least we can always get off. While waiting for cars by the roadside, we try to remember what they say in Thailand: safety first!
3. Harassment, a silent nightmare
The hitchhiker exposes him/herself to the nature of strangers, to their kindness, and also their threats. We don’t really have terrifying stories that would not let our parents sleep one more night, and although we have suffered a couple of uncomfortable suggestions or misfortune misunderstandings, in almost all of the rides we’ve taken we have been treated like guests, with total respect, and are convinced that most people would rather be kind than rude.
But sometimes that’s not the case, at all times one needs to stay alert, read the signs that people make, and take decisions to stay safe. Specially for female travellers things get a bit darker, whenever someone mentions the unnamable “rape”, for this is the fear we are bound to live with, the one that crawls into our nightmares from under the bed. And we are not safe from danger, no matter where we hide. On the road, we are even more exposed not only to harassment and annoying propositions, but also to very kind people who would give us a hand. We should certainly keep watch, take precautions and know the limits of our searched freedom, but also turn to someone for safety when in need. Because it is terrible how an imposed fear can paralize us to the point of making us want to stay at home or live in dreams waiting for a (male) prince to take us out and see the world.
Our remedies: there is no remedy as such, one can be harassed on the street, on the way to the bakery, in public transport, even at school and definitely at work; no public space is yet free from such evils.
When hitchhiking it helps to follow a few safety rules and a lot of common sense, and make everything possible to feel in control. Talk to the driver, cut short any uncomfortable conversation and, if anything feels out of place, ask kindly to stop.Specially for girls, trying to hitchhike (and travel) with friends, specially the first times, avoid too revealing clothing and beware of your language and gestures (specially in countries with conservative cultures), and always ask a driver to stop, straight away, without delay, if anything feels wrong. Show (or pretend) to be in control, and you may end up being so.
- Hitchwiki has the best tips for all safety matters (not just harassment). Check them and update them if you have devised something else that helps keeping safe.
- And Nina, from Compared to me you are all tourists, has a well explained post of tips for women hitchhikers, compiled from her 10 years on the road.
- For an extensive discussion on whether girls should hitchhike alone, check this post at Hitchhiker’s Handbook, definitely a topic to be talked about over and over till all patriarchal assumptions and impositions are broken… In our opinion, as with everything in life, it’s better to listen the advices of those who make it, rather than those who are too afraid to do the things themselves.
Have you never been stolen? Oh, yes, we have. Three or four times in the streets of Madrid and once in London, when a person broke into my own home and loaded a bag with laptops, cameras and such. Also, once in Iran. We do not believe that staying at home, even in our own sofa, with all our money in a safe and setting three alarms in our car could successfully prevent us from ever being stolen, from somebody nicking what we think we own. When it happened on the road, when Boris’ backpack disappeared almost by an art of magic – and with it our tent, equipment, laptop, diaries and clothes – there was nothing we could do, except to go on. For weeks I held on to whatever we had left, and would not even let the border police touch a hairpin without my consent, but slowly, over time, I learnt to let go once again. For one can, and should, take precautions and watch his stuff, but sometimes we will need simply to trust. To trust that somebody will watch over, or at least not break into your locker. 15 or 20 kilos are too much weight to carry them in our mind all day and all night.
Our remedies: we try to keep the absolute essentials always at hand, never leaving behind the passports, money and credit cards. For the backpacks, when in crowded places, using the rain cover may prevent someone from unzipping a pocket. And we don’t usually use locks or safety nets, but that can help. When we need to leave our luggage somewhere, like a station or a hostel, it helps to ask someone personally “are you sure it will it be safe here?”, so they feel a little extra pressure to watch from time to time. None of these things will cure thieves from their actions, but they help us enjoy the days with one fear less.
In the unfortunate case of getting stolen, experience has given us an extra piece of advice: do not desperate, keep calm (although it’s not easy), list our basic needs (i.e. shelter, clothes, food or stove…what do you really need to go on?), and if we cannot provide them by ourselves, we call for assistance, the world is full of helping hands, and the chance to trust strangers and ourselves may be, weird as it sounds, the evil thieve’s gift.
5. Money (or lack of money, better said)
Simon told us once that the moment one runs out of money an intense fear would climb up his spine, just like the moment before jumping from a plane with a parachute (but as you alredy know, we have little experience in that). Walker, in turn, says somewhere in his blog that the only true travel starts when one has less money than he needs to come back home. We never asked Walker about the fears that strike the traveller when seeing all his money slip away, and his days on the road turn into mornings cleaning toilets and afternoons in dubious construction sites. Is that travelling? Is that a joyful holiday? He definitely did not think of circumnavigating the world on a first class tour, and misfortunes were probably part of the way.
We have never been so brave as to roam the world money-less, but in more than one occasion got to be saved from dramatic cashless experiences (in Iran, in China and even in Meghalaya, and Boris should tell once the story of how he ended up being registered as homeless in Poland…) – all temporary incidents, luckily so far. If Boris was travelling alone, he would probably run more often into such troubles, but he admits is a healthy habit to store some coins here and there “just in case”.
Our remedies: when we were unsure about leaving our home without a bunch of dollars in our pockets, we worked and saved, to gather some money before stepping on the road. Along the way, our only chance was to check the cash inventory from time to time, and plan a bit ahead. When running thin, we found volunteering opportunities, exchanges and housesitting to help us save. When we feared the sight of our empty bank accounts, we had to get creative and find ways to make some money on the move: writing, photos and crafts helped us get further. One can also look for temporary jobs if you don’t mind stopping for a while and in your inventory of skills for what you can do on the way. From playing music, to circus or selling fruit salad by the seaside…we all have something useful for someone else that will save us from getting hungry along the way.
6. Cold (or weather in general)
Cold crawls from your toes, through your feet and up your spine, till it takes over every bit of you, till it numbs your hands and senses, till the only thing you can think of is reaching for warmth of any sort. We may try to forget about it while the sun is high, but let the night fall and we will soon realize that we had not learnt anything about fear control the one before, and find ourselves shivering, not just due to freezing but with terror of how we are going to go through the night. Cold may even stop us from moving, from dancing on the snow, and sliding on ice, just because we know that we do not have a boiling kettle waiting at home, not even a home, and no more warm clothes than all the ones we are wearing in endless layers right there. Such thoughts and feelings struck our minds while trying to gather our body warmth in the minus temperatures of the Georgian winter, in a tent, sleping on top of our backpacks for further isolation from the frost.
The same goes for heat, and sunstroke, and the extreme temperatures of lands one has never been to before. We suffered the consequences of summer travels in the desert or the steppe, but still without doubts, one of our biggest fears is still cold.
Our remedies: Probably the only reason why we managed to reach India overland, instead of freezing on the road, or getting stuck, was Boris’s careful analysis of weather conditions along the way. We would not have dared crossing Central Asia, or trying to hitchhike Tibet in winter time, for example. We check the meteorological charts, and draft itineraries to travel through the seasons. And when we happen to need or wish an adventure, in the cold, this is what we do to hitchhike in winter.
7. Cockroaches (the irrational representation of disease)
We are convinced that the only reason why one fears such innocent and inoffensive, albeit ugly and disgusting, insects as cockroaches is an unavoidable and irrational fear of illness, disease, even death. And the only rational response to this nightmare is realizing that we are not safe from ailments by staying at home. True that we may avoid tropical diseases, but may other threats can crawl under the door of our comfortable flat on a fifth floor.
Said this, we do not wish anyone the terrible feeling of vulnerability that invades you when one day you wake up in Thailand with 39º fever, or in Laos with your skin colonized by staphilococos, or in a hospital of India with gallstones. Then and there you wish that a magic time machine could bring you back home, to the well-known sight of your childhood ceiling or near the reach of your mum’s recipes. And no matter how much you wish, that, we are afraid, will not happen without some extra suffering. Things get even worse if there are cockroaches around…big, dark, flying cockroaches…
Our remedies: we try to stay healthy, eat properly, sleep well…easier said than done! And even if we try to keep safe and in good shape, the fear of malaria or dengue, or even breaking a leg may invade the most apprehensive ones…so the only tricks we can share, are: is good to get informed and prepare a bit before travelling (carrying a few medicines with you will save you from troubles in remote places, but no need for excess either, antibiotics can be found all over the world). A trick for expensive illneses is to keep a bit extra cash totally separate (in a different bank account even, or in the hands of a good friend) for an occasional emergency. And when the bad moments come, trust helpful strangers, who may go with you to hospital or help translate to doctors, it will save you worries and time.
Is it useful to travel with a medical insurance? We are divided on that. These companies make the best use of our fears, and profit from them, and in most of the cases you will well do without them (visiting local hospitals, doctors and pharmacies for minor illnesses), but could prove useful in case of hospitalization, so it´s up to you to check the options and decide. We travel with the cheapest insurance we could find, which is only a medical emergency one (no theft coverage, flight loss or such fancy things included).
8. Dogs, angry ones
We were not particularly afraid of dogs until we both ended up, in different occasions, with a visit to the local clinic and four shots of rabies vaccine. Boris actually is still not afraid, and we both made canine friends along the way, but after an encounter with a nasty Tibetan stray dog that left a pretty scar on my leg, I would immediately start to sweat my bodyweight in water at the sight of a dog by the roadside. Burma, in turn, has an inherited fear of dogs coded in her genes.
The same goes for other creatures, so far we have met wolves, foxes and jakals, wild boars a few times, snakes on our tent and in our bed, monkeys, rats and mice…and a black spider. And Boris swears he saw a leopard crossing the road the other day (the only reason why I trust him is that the driver of the car saw it as well).
Our remedies: Try to learn dogs language and know to react, also when to back. Someone told me recently that she sings when she is afraid to hide her fear behind the tunes – she said so far it always worked. For wild animals, the thing gets trickier, and it would be too extensive to discuss right now at length, but in general get informed of who lives around wherever you go.
Regarding getting a rabbies vaccines for travellers, as far as we have read and heard (but we are not doctors), having a shot in advance simply buys you extra time to get the vaccine after being actually bitten by a possibly rabid dog (or monkey or rat). You can get it at home, of course, but that won’t save you the trouble of needing it afterwards. If one gets bitten by a suspecting rabid animal, it is wise to head towards the nearest health center.
What will we do tomorrow? Next month? If we don’t get this visa? If we don’t find a host in the city? If we don’t get a job or sell any books? What will we do when we get home? How long can we go on? What if it rains? Useless worries, we know, for uncertainty is a hitchhiker’s best friend, and the road has taught us we should live the way we travel, letting the unknown come.
Our remedies: stop at the crossroad, look around, make the travel a game of decisions and luck. Since we are ready for a bit of discomfort, and do not mind trying odd stuff, we should be able to come out of any hard time. And grow, like a garden, blooming from the tricky moments of the travel, for the future shares with the road, that it unfolds slowly at every turn. Only cockroaches will anyway stay around… and we know already we should not be afraid even of that.
A little conclusion
We can run from many things, but not from our shadow, and fears are just like it, part of us. All we can do is to rent them a room in a cozy corner of our minds, and ask them kindly, not disturb us too much. But when the moment comes, that the travel is too much, that things are beyond our reach and we tremble by the roadside, let’s call them up, consult them and listen. When we learn not to let fears rule over us, we can hire them as part of a very valuable team that will help us more than once: intuition. On the road, and probably in life, let’s remember to trust strangers, but always trust our guts.
Happy, worryless and safe travels!
EXTRA: While finishing this post I came across an online talk by Laura Lazzarino, precisely about the fears that take over us right before setting on the road. It might be therapeutic, like a spring cleaning day, to spit out the fears, as if dusting spider webs…For those who can read in Spanish language, here it goes!