The first thing I packed in my backpack was my first aid kit.
I had already downloaded the US State Department’s app on my unlocked Samsung Android phone so I could be notified if there were any threats – potential, imminent or existing – in the three Southeast Asian countries in which I would be backpacking. Then came the strategically stashed emergency cash wads in various currencies and denominations, iodine tablets in case I had any trouble finding potable water and my Swiss Army knife. I had already watched YouTube videos about how to escape from zip ties for potential kidnapping scenarios. Some might call this being prepared; others may think it’s extreme. I call it caution.
And yet, I had just quit my lucrative and fancy NYC marketing job to travel – undoubtedly the riskiest move I’ve made life-to-date.
The decision to quit my job to travel with no real post-travel plans for work left many in my world scratching their heads – not necessarily because this move is objectively “risky” for most but because it was anathema to my persona. I am a Girl Scout, literally and in every sense. The first 27 years of my life have been completely by the book, so the shockwaves were deeply felt when I made my announcement and then unapologetically belly-flopped into the deep end.
But, for me, this decision came somewhat easily. I had a good job and had created for myself a good life in NYC, but I had settled into a routine that made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. A dream of my future, potential self that stayed on the existing path shocked me into place, and I knew exactly how I was going to make the change that I was seeking.
Many adventurers and lifelong travelers can point to a singular moment when they “caught the travel bug.” For me, it was in my early 20’s when I was backpacking through Western Europe after a semester abroad in London. A few friends and I hopped over the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain into Morocco, and after a couple days wandering around Tangier, it was my time to head back to the States to be home in time for Mother’s Day. Not aware that May Day (a.k.a. International Workers’ Day) protests would eventually and almost entirely cripple my efforts to get to the airport by myself, I bid adieu to my friends who were heading to Gibraltar for the day.
My plan was to go back to sleep, read the English paper over breakfast and slowly make my way to the airport for a late afternoon flight. Arabic chanting that turned into Arabic shouting outside my window revealed a large and growing protest that foiled my plan, and I had to readjust on the fly. The always-full cabstand had disappeared, and I had to figure out how to get to the airport. I should note this was pre-Uber.
My new plan was to shower – admittedly, my first in a couple days – and then throw everything into my backpack, which took all of three seconds since I was traveling light. As a non-Arabic speaker, I wanted to gain a better understanding of what exactly was happening outside my window since I couldn’t discern what the protesters were saying or what was written on their large banners. Not being able to speak or read the language stunted my initial threat assessment, so when housekeeping knocked on my door, I attempted a line of questioning: What? Why? WHAT?!
This very friendly woman and I did not speak the same language, but we both knew enough Spanish to engage in a short yet effective conversation. I learned that most people took the day off to engage in civil protests as a part of International Workers’ Day. When I asked where all the cabs went, she said, “No taxi.” I then pulled out my plane ticket to show her that I needed to get to the airport. Again: “No taxi.” Frustrated, I headed downstairs, seeking an alternative answer.
To the hotel’s concierge, I strung together a surprisingly coherent series of French and Spanish words that, together with my tone, communicated that I needed to get to the airport dès que possible, por favor (translation: ASAP!). I blindly followed the man into the protest, stood next to him as he spoke in Arabic with one of the shouters and pointed to an alleyway where a cab was parked. My generous tip convinced the protesting driver to leave his spot in the crowd and take me to the airport.
Getting to the airport meant crossing the street, and with thousands of people surrounding the cab, this was going to prove to be a challenge. (Author’s note: As much as you can avoid driving through a protest – traveling or not – I recommend it.) After about three minutes of inching forward at less than five miles an hour, the surrounding crowd really became pissed. The protesters were already standing shoulder-to-shoulder as it was, so when a car that clearly didn’t get the “we’re not going to work today” memo honked at them, all of the anger that was fueling their angry fist punches into to the air was then redirected to fuel their angry fist punches into my cab. I felt like Billy Elliot’s dad trying to cross the picketing line. Shaking in the backseat, I crouched down as far as I possibly could after ensuring that all the doors were locked, and in what felt like an eternity but was actually probably about two minutes, we escaped the crowd.
I made it to the airport, and I was lucky. I remained calm yet sharp while navigating my way, solo, through the protests, and then I allowed myself to release several dark “what-if” scenarios from my mind through tears, standing alone in a corner at Tangier’s Ibn Battouta Airport. Then, unexpectedly, I felt a rush of power in a ‘if I can do this, I can do pretty much anything’ kind of way.
This kind of polarizing moment while traveling creates two camps: those who retreat into the comfort of the known and the crazies that latch onto that power feeling and jump – or belly-flop, in my case – further into the unknown. For me, the effect was the latter, but it also ingrained in me a deeper sense of caution that I balanced gingerly next to my dogged adventurism.
Fast-forward seven years, to another teary moment in an airport by myself: This time I’m in Guangzhou, China on a layover and eating a huge bowl of spicy noodle soup for breakfast. A mild “Oh shit” panic attack was brewing between slurps.
It was at that moment that I made a decision.
As much as I wanted to and as much as it is my nature, I did not obsess. I made a decision, and I was sticking to it. With that, I embraced my new – or at least evolved – persona.
I made a promise to myself that as long as logic and conventional wisdom said that I wouldn’t die or endure any negatively life-altering changes, I would commit fully to this adventure, which, to me, meant forgoing cocktail-fueled and relaxing afternoons at the pool for every tour, ride, class, etc… that I could find. No Buddha would go unseen, no cycle or motorbike ride would be turned down and no zipline would be missed.
I was fully committed, and embracing this new persona, as I would soon learn, meant for me, re-learning how to do certain, everyday things… like how to cross the street.
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