I always read stories from travelers about moments during their trips where time seemed to stand still, or ceased to exist altogether, to make way for the revelation that this one moment will be a defining one in their lives. It could be a chance interaction with a stranger, the first glimpse of the view from a mountaintop, or an hours-long conversation with new friends. Of course, the nature of good storytelling involves extrapolating these specific moments and endowing them with universal meaning, but in my experience that can’t happen until considerable time has passed. 

man looks out in fear at malta street

I may not be alone in this, but it takes months or even years for a travel experience to distill into a story. Eventually, I notice how themes developed across trips, encounters, and occurrences. That’s more what happened when reflecting on my travels over the past few years, because when I tried to think about moments like those I mentioned above, my mind really only wanted to return to one particular feeling: fear.

Happiness is a very fleeting feeling, just like its (perceived) opposite, sadness. Every feeling in between these two―anger, envy, ennui―also tends to fade, making it difficult to remember them or even put into words. 

Fear is different. Not only can I remember the fragile mindset of being afraid, but I can viscerally remember the feelings in my body at these times: heart beating in my throat, stomach bottoming out, tingling or even complete loss of feeling in my legs. Fear can also pass, but not usually without being overcome in some way. To no longer be afraid almost always requires action on our part, which makes taking risks so thrilling and memorable. There’s no time to sit and think about how one feels—there’s only time to act. 

monument to astronauts moscowAll kinds of traveling involve taking risks–just one reason why travel can feel like “life stuck on fast forward.” Humans are, for the most part, creatures of habit, and putting ourselves out there to the whims of the world is rarely the habit we form. Therein lies the transformative power of travel to change us from spectators of life to active participants.

In the two stories I have to share, perhaps I could have spectated—made excuses, or other arrangements, or just sat down for an old-fashioned pout. There was nothing stopping me from doubling back in this way, but, more importantly, something was pushing me forward. 

The first takes place during two summer months in Moscow, where I worked for a newspaper as a culture and society intern. One weekend, they sent me to review a new ropes gym at one of the city’s most popular parks. It was basically an agility course for ordinary people who wanted to try out a day in the life of a circus performer. I thought that sounded pretty fun, until I arrived and realized the “gym” was actually a free-standing structure of several circular platforms stacked vertically like a multi-tiered cake of death. They housed the various obstacles, which included everything from Tarzan-esque ropes to swinging platforms like little lily pads one had to jump across. Taking one look at it, I was terrified. Fear of heights suddenly seemed very rational—we have legs for a reason: to walk on the ground and stay there. 

Ways to avoid doing the course raced through my head. I told myself I’d order a beer at the adjoining cafe and simply watch people traverse the course, which would give me a good enough impression to write the story. But that only made me more anxious, because I’d never tried anything like this and my editors would surely see through my deception. Finally, I paid the price of admission, hoping that the guilt of wasting money would force my hand. And there I was, receiving safety instructions alongside a few other would-be trapeze artists, who all looked rather more headstrong about it—most likely because they were being briefed on the details in their native language, one that I only half understood at the time. 

moscow state universityOnce I started ascending the structure, I gained a little confidence from doing simple, easily-reversed maneuvers like leaning off the side wall and suspending myself in air. I might have crossed something like a rope bridge, precariously swinging from side to side. To be honest, I can’t remember many details of the more difficult obstacles–that could either be because I outright refused to do them or because I was hyper-focused on the extreme sweatiness of my palms. I would love to say that once I started the course, my confidence slowly grew until I was practically flying through the air, but that’s not what happened. Every new challenge seemed impossible. I played a game of pick and choose until I couldn’t take any more, and then I got the hell out of there. 

But something surprised me: I felt no shame about balking at the crazier obstacles. A simply immense sense of relief came over me, and I can hardly remember a beer ever tasting better than when decompressing afterwards. No one had made me get up there in the first place, just like no one had made me come to Russia alone. I had made my own choices every step of the way, and while they might not look like other people’s, I felt pride in forging my own path. There was no one here judging me for what I couldn’t do, except myself. So why bother? 

Two years later in Malta, I faced my fear of heights again, with the added element of the ocean. A friend and I hopped a bus to where we’d heard there was a good beach, unaware that Maltese beaches are  overwhelmingly of the rocky variety. As soon as we arrived, we saw people traipsing down the same path along the cliffs and decided to do like the locals. Before even reaching the end, we could hear the clockwork ritual: one large splash, followed by an equally big cheer from the spectators. Then again, and again, until they turned to size us up and an expectant look came over their teenage faces. Not bothering with language, they communicated what was expected of us by taking turns plunging into the bay again, this time with somersaults, twists, and mid-air dance moves. Finally, they just stood and waited. Your turn!  

st julian's bay in malta

My friend was quick on the draw with a “nose goes,” and I hung my head in defeat. I’d be jumping first, as soon as I made the two crucial mistakes of 1) peering over the edge, and 2) replaying my life’s every incident of near-drowning in my head. But these seemed like nice enough folk, and there’s no way I was breaking the tradition they’d let us in on without question. To compensate for my fear, I decided to try and dive with all the grace of the Olympic swimmer I’ve never been, lunging headfirst. By the time I realized I hadn’t pulled my legs above my body, it was too late: my belly slapped hard against the cold water. In the brief moment underwater, I was equally glad I’d survived and deathly embarrassed by my total lack of coordination. I delayed resurfacing for what I thought was dramatic effect, only to hear uproarious laughter drowning out the sound of crashing waves and my coughing. They had loved it, and I was smiling too. 

Neither of these situations were questions of life and death, which I knew at the time, but that didn’t stop the fear from kicking in and forcing a reaction out of me. In conversations about fear and traveling, the term “comfort zone” comes up a lot, along with the necessity of escaping it. But growth isn’t about escaping — it’s about expanding. If we aren’t careful, so much of one’s life can be spent on autopilot: doing the things expected of us, showing up where we’re supposed to, and just going through the motions. The travel community is full of stories from people who became aware of this pattern in their lives and hit the road to change it. Hanging from a platform by the safety harness around my waist, or staring from a cliff top down into a shallow bay, I was suddenly aware that I’d taken the wheel. I could either punch it, or spin out in a cloud of smoke. 

Do you have travel stories where you had to overcome fear? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!