It’s dark and late.
I walk through the heavy rain, dragging my bags behind me on the isolated midnight streets of a Filipino city. A Filipino city within a region my government advises against travel in.
The bus had arrived 6 hours after scheduled, and the 15 hour journey had left me looking for a hotel much later than I had intended. I’d spent the entire day trying to be as discreet as possible, wearing a headscarf, as if my blonde hair were some kind of honing beacon to terrorist extremists out to find their next victim. The reality is that a woman travelling alone never goes incognito, as any female who has had to undergo 7 selfies a day in Asia, with everyone from their taxi driver to their waitress, can testify to.
I once read a book encouraging me to ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ but I’m not altogether sure it was referring to travel in blacklisted areas.
Never wanting to be held hostage to irrational fear, as a woman travelling alone I’d definitely pushed my comfort zones before. Considering myself the “sensible type” though, this was the first time I’d ever consciously wandered into a foreign region with immediate bombing and kidnapping warnings.
My reasons for straying this far south had been (what I justified as) practical ones. I couldn’t find an airline that would fly my surfboard to where I was heading. Admittedly if I had fallen foul of some terrorist plot I doubt I would have found it quite so justified.
I devised a route which involved landing in Davao, an area where a market bombing killed 15 people last year and close to were a Canadian tourist had been beheaded after a group of foreigners were taken hostage. I would then travel on land to the north of the island, before catching a ferry to my final destination. To some people this route would be no big deal, to others, a needless risk. I wavered between thinking both.
In the run up to my upcoming trip to Mindanao I noticed in myself an increased suspicion and paranoia. The taxi driver who locked the passenger doors was no longer just ensuring I wasn’t going to skip the fare, he became in my mind a threat of attack.
The dozens of people who I usually encountered on a daily basis enquiring: “hello mam, where are you going?” now wanted to map my movements for sinister reasons. Why?! What were they planning?! And so my mind went on, from this new heightened sense of fear, plotting pitfalls and threats which did not exist.
There will be plenty who read this and think any risk is a foolish one to take. Yet the funny thing about fear in our lives is whether we use it rationally? In most cases we don’t. In reality the speeding bus, overtaking bends on a rainy night was the deadliest threat I faced during my entire trip. Yet it was my far-fetched imagination of armed gunmen storming the coach at any moment that occupied my minds worst nightmare.
Although fear is packaged as some kind of tool to protect us, how efficiently does it do it’s job versus how much it controls and restrains us?
I’m intrigued by fear and its value. I constantly find myself realising how limiting fear is within my life, even debilitating. Has it really saved me from more dangers than it has taken away from me opportunities?
I was fascinated to watch a short video of a Scandinavian woman who decided to run across Iran alone. As she began her journey, with tears in her eyes, she spoke about her anxiety over what she may face. As her trip continued all she encountered was a country filled with warm welcomes and loving support from the people she met.
I’m not trying to sell rainbow vibes here. I realise the tale would be entirely different if she had in fact encountered the one person who did wish her harm. What I do question is fears usefulness at even guarding us from that chance encounter.
Can fear be used effectively if we avoid every single threatening situation in life? If that is our strategy then I at least need to acknowledge that statistically last year more people died after being stung by a jellyfish in the Philippines than through an act of terrorism. (A statistic which must be true as I read it on the internet, the source of all factual learning).
Fun fact: falling vending machines kill 13 people every year. (although to my knowledge this photograph is of regular vending machines, rather than the evil killer ones…the same cannot be said for their contents)
Thankfully the chances are that you are unlikely to either die from a jellyfish sting or fall victim to insanely misguided terrorist organisations. In the meantime the chances are very likely that fear is creating suspicion, misunderstanding and missed chances in our communities all across the world.
We definitely don’t need to take a camping trip to Sao Paulo’s snake island or a fortnights holiday to Baghdad in order to face our fear head on. What I’m suggesting is a far more modest internal questioning of how fear shapes our decisions and whether the mistrusting anxiety it creates really is justified.