Three events in one year changed my perception of traveling for the worse. First, I nearly drowned in Hawaii while overestimating my surfing ability (I had none). Second, I finally got around to watching the movie Castaway. And third, Sept. 11 happened. There I was, just 21 years old, afraid of swimming in the ocean, of flying over the ocean and of flying in general.
My paranoia got so bad that when we moved to the coast of North Carolina, I nearly had a panic attack the first time I heard the waves crashing on the beach. By then, I was so limited in my travel options that if I couldn’t get to a destination by car, I wasn’t going.
Long before my fears took root, I had a genuine curiosity about the world abroad. I was one of those Americans infatuated with the Indiana Jones-fueled fantasy of India, believing it to be a country of mystic yogis, painted elephants and snake charmers. I soaked up information about Hindu culture like water on parched earth. I read every book I could find, watched every Bollywood film I could get my hands on and devoured every morsel of buffet Indian cuisine that I heaped on my plate.
I romanticized the hell out of India and those rosy glasses made me all the more desirous of seeing a country I thought I knew so much about.
Still — to get there meant I had to fly and that was enough to delay my travel plans for over a decade.
Nearly 15 years passed before I seriously considered taking a trip abroad. Fifteen years of playing with an idea and letting fear make the decision for me. I was worried my plane would crash. I was worried that the destination would be too scary or too strange. More than all of these worries, though, was the fear that I would never see the world, and never share that experience with my own sons, who, at 16 and 17 years old, were close to leaving home.
I had to come to terms with my mortality to come to a decision about traveling. I had to face the fact that at some point in my life, I was going to die, and while I don’t plan on being reckless with my existence, I don’t want it to be a lackluster version of what it could have been.
To teach my sons to follow their dreams, I had to allow myself to do the same.
I spent the next eight months saving every penny and reading every travel book imaginable. I questioned friends who either lived in India or who had traveled there before, and slowly, entry by entry, I checked off my to-do list.
Last summer, after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, my husband, sons and I got on a plane, flew first to Tokyo (because it was cheaper than a direct flight to India and we wanted to see Japan, too) and then flew to New Delhi, India.
Did I take Valium before the flight? Absolutely. Did all of my travel fears magically vanish because I made the decision to go? Not in the slightest. But I was no longer going to let fear choose the course of my life.
Our trip was one of the most adventurous, exciting things I’ve ever done. I learned that I have a profound love for Japanese cold noodle dishes and that India, as beautiful and exotic as it is, is nothing like the fantasy I had woven in my mind.
We rode on the subway, ate ramen and sushi and visited the streets of Harajuku while in Japan. In India we bowed our heads in the Golden Temple, touched the cool marble walls of the Taj Mahal, rode in tiny auto-rickshaws and traveled to a monkey-laden hill station.
None of those experiences or the resulting travel bug that bit my sons would have happened had I not learned to place my fears on a shelf and follow my dreams.
In a few months, my now 18-year-old son will be flying to Japan to spend two weeks there with his girlfriend. My 16-year-old wants to go back to Japan, too — but he’d also love to explore Germany. These are dreams and discussions my sons never had before we traveled abroad. Seeing the way travel opened their eyes and added to their bucket lists has made the journey so much more profound.
The way to get over your fear of travel is easier than you may think. You have to decide that the reward is greater than the risk, and you have to be brave enough to take a chance on your desire to see something greater than your own backyard. If I can do it, then what’s your excuse?
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