There was once a time, back in 1999, 16 years ago, when I flew from Mexico City to Caracas via Miami on an expired passport. I knew it had expired before I got on the plane. I’d noticed the date a few days before when I got my passport out ahead of the first big work trip for a new employer. What? You must be joking? First disbelief, then anger, followed by tears. This couldn’t be happening to me.
I tried my best to get it renewed, over a weekend, I think – ringing emergency numbers in Mexico City and London, pleading with them – don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know who I work for? – but to no avail. So I decided – instead of telling my employer what had happened and missing an exciting trip to Venezuela and Colombia – that I’d wing it.
There were some hairy moments. Handing my passport in at the check-in desk in Mexico. I got away with it. Phew. Getting stuck in transit in Miami – just me and hordes of Latin Americans who didn’t have visas for the United States. Being told I might have to leave Miami airport and get a hotel – and therefore go through immigration and … who knows … get arrested, get sent back? – because the plane was faulty and might not leave until the next day. Finally, after hours of anxious waiting in the transit lounge, being ushered onto a plane and being told they’d oversold the seats and I might not get to fly. Then, heart in mouth, being directed to a spare seat in first class in hushed tones by the stewardess, who advised me not to be too conspicuous, to try and fit in. Then eating all the free food and drinking glass after glass of free champagne, smiling and nodding every time the stewardess passed by with the bottle, so by the time I got to Caracas, I was well and truly drunk, anaesthetised against any fear I felt and able to stroll confidently up to the immigration desk, smile, converse in my best slurred Spanish and wander on through. They didn’t notice my expired passport there either. And they didn’t ask too many questions at the British Embassy in Caracas the next day. I’d got away with it and my employer would never have to know (until now).
There was also a time, some 20 years ago, when I was stood at the side of a massive highway on the west coast of Australia, on my own, my huge backpack at my side (about as clueless as Cheryl Strayed in Wild), wearing a cap to try and disguise the fact I was a solo female traveller, holding my thumb out, hitchhiking, as huge articulated lorries driven by large, possibly lonely Australian men rumbled by. It was late afternoon and I knew I didn’t have a whole lot of daylight left. Underneath, I must have been terrified, but on the outside, I was bold, fearless, daring, crazy and ruthlessly independent (apart from the fact I needed someone else to drive me to the next town).
The trucks didn’t stop. But someone was looking after me that day. My ride came in the form of a VW combi van driven by a bunch of northern English 20-something ladies (I was a 20-something from northern England too – they were from Manchester, I’m a Liverpudlian, but we didn’t let that get between us). They took me in, gave me food and wine, made me laugh and kept me safe. I slept in my tent by the side of their van and we travelled together for several days, all the way to Perth.
Then there was the time I was hitching out of Mexico’s Copper Canyon (as described in my Mexican memoir blog) in the middle of the night – because cars couldn’t make it out of there in the heat of the day. Once again, alone, vulnerable, by the side of the road, but feeling invincible – at least on the surface – and laughing at my boldness and crazy sense of adventure. I got a lift out in the dark with the Coca-Cola truck although we got a flat tyre half way up and I started to feel a little uneasy about my two male travelling companions towards the end of the journey and parted company as soon as I could.
And a few weeks earlier, stood on a street corner in Tijuana – Tijuana of all places – on my own, with a backpack and a city map, lost, looking for some non-existent backpackers’ hostel. Once again, I was looked after, taken home by two Mexican brothers who could have taken advantage of my naivety, but didn’t.
I have diaries and a memory bank full of stories like these. The solo trip I took to see the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, ending up in a bus on my own with a driver who appeared to be giving me a private tour, despite us not being able to communicate, and who, I realised when he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow, had a gun down the back of his trousers. A gun? Now what? Should I try and get away? I remember the lunch I ate with him in a restaurant and the moment I felt he’d drugged my drink and I went to the bathroom to see if I could escape through the window. I couldn’t and returned to my table. He drove me to my coach and said goodbye. The gun wasn’t for me.
There was a more dangerous gun in Mexico, of course, pointed at my chest, when I was being robbed on my own in a taxi by two men or three if you count the taxi driver who might have been in on it. And a knife too, during another robbery in a different taxi a few weeks later – I didn’t learn my lesson. There was the ride in the sports car on an empty road in New Zealand – hitchhiking alone again – and the trip on the back of a motorbike in Bangkok. Adventures galore.
At the time, I wore these crazy escapades like a badge of honour, trying to outdo myself each time, seeking out something even more outrageous than before. Today, though, the memories are tinged with sadness. I don’t want to dismiss my adventurous spirit, my crazy courage or my trusting heart that took me all around the world and brought me into contact with so many kind strangers. And I’m grateful for the gift of being able to speak Spanish and Portuguese with ease. But now I see beneath the bravado to the loneliness and I see all the unhealthy behaviours I used to mask my fear and pretend I didn’t feel unsafe.
On most of those occasions, you see, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t aware of who I was, how I felt inside or the risks I was taking. I didn’t feel the loneliness. I was in denial. I used food – too much, too little or an obsession with my body – to take me away from reality and numb my feelings. I used alcohol too. I did feel fear – especially when I saw a gun – but I dismissed it quickly and just kept going, logging it in my memory bank of great tales to tell my friends once I’d found my way to the bar.
Why did I have to travel so far, take so many risks and insist on being so alone? Yes, I was a thrill seeker, an adrenalin junky and I wanted to run away, from home, from myself. But perhaps I was also recreating some of the patterns from my past, from my childhood years, because there were occasions, as a little girl, when I felt sad, lonely and scared at holiday times.
I remember a scene at Manchester Airport when I’d forgotten my teddy and was inconsolable. A typical child’s reaction, perhaps, to forgetting their favourite toy but I can’t help but think that my response was extreme. I was a sensitive child. I remember feeling lonely too when we got to Spain, playing with a Spanish girl I couldn’t understand, who dunked me in the swimming pool although I couldn’t swim, leaving me in tears but with nobody around for support. Everyone laughed at me – didn’t I know it was a game?
If it’s true what the psychotherapists say and we unconsciously repeat the patterns of our childhood as adults – because we seek out the familiar, because we replay the tape and hope for a different outcome – I wonder if that was what I was doing, at least in part, when I went off on my solitary adventures and took risks that left me vulnerable and insecure?
Today, things are very different. Yes, the adventurous spirit is still there but without the crutch of excess food (most of the time) or other substances to calm my nerves, the fear of the world that’s been with me all my life is much closer to the surface, so it’s more of a struggle to leave the safety of my home, break my routine and go on adventures. Will I cope? Will I manage without resorting to excess food? Can I trust myself to stay safe? Can I trust the world? The prospect of change can seem scary, be that a simple weekend away, a holiday or moving to the sea. I struggle with the decisions, wanting everything to be perfect, just right, wanting to control every last detail, not leave anything to chance. At times, the fear can be paralysing.
I’ve also lost my desire for solo adventures, although I know it’ll come back as soon as I go on one, as soon as I’m off the plane and have found my feet in a new country. This is what happened in Spain last year. I felt a lot of fear before I went but my confidence returned as soon as I picked up the hire car at Malaga and headed off in the direction of Tarifa. Yes, I have a boyfriend now, a marvellous travelling companion, but I don’t want to lose my ability to travel and explore on my own.
These days, though, I’m finding the glorious British countryside is exotic and exciting enough for me most of the time, after so many years of travelling all over the world. I’m discovering my own country has so much to offer, although I know my heart will sing again when I walk off a plane in a foreign land, particularly if I speak the language, and particularly once I feel the heat. Then I will wonder why on earth it took me so long.
This travelling thing feels like a process. Like any good extremist, I went from one extreme to the other. The crazy, risky, bold, solo adventures gave way to a craving for stability, home and very little change. And the more I stay, the more I don’t travel and the more I get used to a routine, the more scary it feels to change and to move.
Fear builds quickly, very quickly I find. It doesn’t take long for fear of the unknown, of change, to quash my adventurous spirit and convince me to stay home. Faith is much harder to build, it’s a much slower process.
But the answer, for me, is to keep building my faith in myself by taking the action, going away – on my own or with others – and making the changes my heart desires.
My faith grows as I remind myself that I’m an adventurous soul who comes alive and feels inspired when out exploring the world. I don’t crave the adrenalin hit like I did before, which I think is a good thing, but I do want my heart to stay open to the wonders of travel and the possibilities of change.