The Flaw in Being Fearless
All I could think to do was cup my hands over my head as I tumbled around in the ever-changing rotations of the waves. The saltiest water I’d ever tasted was rushing into my mouth and painfully stretching my sinuses. I was increasingly sure that this was too risky, that I needed to breathe that instant, that this might even be the end. A short way out from Old Man’s Beach in Canggu, Bali would be the place of my imminent death; any minute now a blow to the back of the head and the bright turquoise would become black.
I was probably underneath the surface for a total of about six seconds.
A moment earlier I had been perched on a chunky beginners’ foam board trying to take a group selfie with a borrowed GoPro. Determined not to be the frightened little girl from England, I hadn’t taken much convincing that trying an hour’s surf lesson was a good idea. I’d even convinced myself I’d be good at it. Filled with visions of myself sporting the beach hair and body I don’t have, I saw myself slicing up enormous waves in images that looked suspiciously like old RipCurl adverts.
It wasn’t until I was ankle deep in water that I realised just how far from the beaches of Cornwall and South Wales I had come. The force of the waves wasn’t anything I’d experienced before, and it was fucking terrifying. When I broke the surface with a panic-filled, fish-like gasp (or 12), I collapsed onto my board and felt exhausted. I suddenly realised I’d spent my first week in Bali piling first upon first, and in the pursuit of valuable new experiences and traveller’s cool points, I had spent a good percentage of that time nervous enough to soil my knickers too.
But no one really talks about the fear involved in travelling. I’d spent the week in a hostel dominated by 30 or so other twenty-something crunchy nomads. In amidst the swapping of stories, retelling of crazy experiences, and general spirit of one-upmanship, if fear was ever mentioned it had simply become something funny. That time you were “absolutely bricking it” as the police chased you through the streets of Hanoi, or you were “totally freaking out” when your shroom guy pulled a knife because your haggling skills weren’t working, or that “pretty fucking crazy” time you were hospitalised for internal bleeding. You can tell all these stories with a cheeky grin on your face and the assurance that all your new mates know precisely how intrepid, wild and cool you are.
Very quickly, the interactions with other travellers can start to feel like high school – particularly when you’re dealing with young travellers and those who weren’t raised in the British spirit of prim suburban hedges, mortgages, and conservatism. The currency is coolness and rebelliousness, two things I have never been particularly rich in. And when I try them out, I find that life deals me a swift reminder: remember how that RipCurl surfer babe morphed into a kneeling, screaming, and inevitably face-planting mess?
There are, of course, those who just don’t feel afraid when they travel. Not phased by severing ties with home cooking and the-devil-you-know, these lucky ones get to skip the fun pre-trip activity of reading through each clause of your travel insurance policy and gaining a hundred new ideas of creative ways you could die. But the real danger comes when this nonchalant crowd joins forces with those just feigning fearlessness. Suddenly, us fearful ones are left feeling like the worthiness of our trips and our ballsiness (or lack thereof) are in direct correlation.
The encouragement we receive from other travellers often requires a lot of boldness: to immerse ourselves in local cultures, to try new things, go to supposedly “unspoilt” places, and to be as independent as we can. Although not invalid, this advice often comes from the mouths of travel snobs who are notoriously full of shit. But the trend remains: independent, intrepid, and above all, courageous travelling is undoubtedly the coolest.
But it is also the kind that puts you, your comfort zone, and your insecurities under the most pressure. Ignoring the anxieties involved in travelling and putting up a façade of fearlessness also ignores a lot of what is real, and often funny, about it. In the healthy spirit of having a good laugh at ourselves, it can be entertaining and even empowering to watch yourself hyperventilate over things, and just continue to do them anyway.
After convincing myself it would be impossible for me, I gradually inched forward from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat of a scooter that first week in Bali. Unlike the surfing fiasco, the terror on this one subsided. After a week of gripping the handlebars so tight I was hunched over like Donkey Kong, I took an hour-and-a-half long drive to Uluwatu for the weekend. Suddenly, I was throwing my scooter around the winding corners and over the luscious hills with a broad grin on my face. The immense beauty of this island is impossible to ignore when you’re speeding through rice paddies, the sun setting spectacularly behind you.
I’m still scared enough to drive without cockiness, use my blinkers, and wear my helmet without exception. But caution is just one of the many reasons why being scared can be a good thing. Granted, it severely diminishes your street cred and requires you to have regular internal battles, but what self-respecting millennial gets through the day without a few of those? Fear can also make you sensible, thoughtful, humble, considerate and considered. It doesn’t have to mean you are unadventurous unless you let it. Acknowledging your fear, whether it persists or disappears, and doing cool new shit anyway? That’s about as intrepid as it gets.
There is no formula to explain why some fears fade and some don’t, and the only response is to keep trying things anyway. But try things for yourself. Be honest about being afraid, embrace it even. Know when your gut is showing you real, sensible, uncomfortable caution, and when it’s just churning a little (a pretty familiar sensation to those who visit Bali).
There are hundreds of fears to get over before you’ve even made it to the airport in your home country. In my experience, travelling keeps up this demand to overcome on an almost daily basis. Including by throwing you into contact with new and impressive people, alongside the unfortunate fact that you can’t leave your social anxieties at home with your winter clothes. But if travelling, at its heart, is a brave thing, then fearfulness is to be expected too. I have found being honest about that far scarier than surfing and scooting put together.
Anywhere I am in the world, I’ll know I had to be brave just to get there. I’ll try my hardest to keep that bravery going for the course of the trip, but also remember that fear is my friend. That it keeps me safe, sensible, and grounded. So I’ll carry on chasing adventures, and letting my knees publically, comically knock in between.
Cover by Blake Wheeler