No matter how much I want to go, especially to another continent, there is always a moment, prior to departure, of abject terror. It's often longer than a moment -- a day or a week -- when I would give anything to get rid of my ticket, cancel the idea I have put in my friends' heads that I am an adventurous soul, pull down the shades and stay where I am. I used to make out my will every time I crossed the "great water" until my sister, who knows a bit about probate law, persuaded me to make out one real will that stands whether I die in California or Urumqui. This leaves time on my hands prior to departure, more time for terror.
For traveling alone, though it is the only way to go, is not something anyone, especially women, do easily. No matter how much you believe in it, no matter how much experience you have had already doing it, it isn't easy to take that first step of the thousand miles -- all by yourself. We've been trained otherwise.
The American media, as well as your best friend, warns you against taking a walk around your local woods alone, let alone a stroll around the world. So, you're fighting not only your own anxiety, but the anxiety induced stress of our stay-at-home-lock-your-doors-and-forget-your-dreams society, our if-you-must-travel-travel-with-the-herd culture. The pull, therefore, of Azerbaijan, of Borobudur, Samarkand, Tadzhikistan, Tierra del Fuego, even of Cologne has to be pretty strong to last through the inevitable willies.
One of the things I do to minimize terror is get some money from the land I am going to -- if possible. Or, at the very least, trust the exchange booths in the airports, which in itself often takes great courage. The other great terror reducer is to know where I am going to stay that first night.
However you locate it -- by reading a guide book, making a phone call, having a phone number from a friend, going to a friend, going to one of the ubiquitous religious retreats, or through a travel agent -- know where you are going when you get off the plane -- and go there.
Go there! Don't get waylaid by other possibilities when you land, tired and worn out. Don't let your heart run away with you and give into the hundreds of beautiful little lads of Asia who will be there to offer to carry your bag, get you a taxi, take you to a hotel, find you a lover. I mean, do so if you want, any adventure is ultimately worth it.
One of my favorite sayings is: "Good judgement comes from experience. And experience? Well, that comes from poor judgement." Arrival, exhausted from maybe an eighteen or twenty-four hour flight, is one of the great opportunities for bad judgement and can supply material for some incredible adventure stories which, when you share them with your house-bound friends back home, will more or less persuade them to never travel. On the other hand, you'll more than likely live through it.
I've done it both ways. And I prefer the security in a new country of going, at least that first night, as adventure-less-ly as possible to some recommended, known-by-some-trusted-friend place. Time enough for adventure all the days and nights of the rest of the trip. For when I say the first night, I usually mean that first night of leaving your home. After you are in a foreign country, somehow, a higher power steps in and overnight you become an "experienced" traveler. Going from Bangkok to Kathmandu is less strange than going from your home town to even New York city.
The above cautions refer mostly to plane travel, because airports are so far out and it's often expensive to get to and from them. But now many countries have public transportation to and from their airports, even America does in some cities. Find out from a friend or a detailed guide book how to use it. Bus stations and train stations you can often walk to and from or take another bus and, best of all, they have storage lockers for your luggage if want to leave your stuff behind while you explore and find accommodations.
Another means to find a way of graceful arrival is to closely question your much traveled friends to find out how they have done it. Don't question the rich ones, unless you, too, are rich, for they get in a gondola, pay the premium and go to the Danieli. If you can and want to do that, do so, but that comes under a different heading in my book. Luxury, and I've tasted some of it, is about the same the world around. Don't miss it when you have the chance. But real adventure, the genuine thing, in my opinion, is quite something else.
And, if at all possible, travel in the daylight -- so you will arrive in the daylight. You'll see more, and first impressions are always the most vivid. It also minimizes the terror. In fact, when I am wandering around a country, I almost always try to make my trips brief and by bus. You see so much more and stop in wonderfully out of the way places. "The point," as Robert Louis Stevenson said, "is the travel, not the getting there."
However, don't despair if you get there in the dark. Most places in the world are safe. (Look at the millions of people who live there!) Especially if you are lucky enough to be an older woman with grey hair. I remember arriving in Bangkok for the first time at four in the afternoon thinking I would have plenty of time to get into the center of town to Khao San Road and, therefore, was determined to take advantage of the 8¢, as I recall, fare on the public bus. But very few Thai's speak English. I got on the wrong bus. By the time they had sorted me out at some obscure bus terminal way out somewhere and helped me to the right one it was twilight. By the time I got into the center of town to Democracy Monument, it was pitch black! The square which surrounds the monument is a vast square, I mean, even bigger than Red or Tienamen Square, and is irregular in shape with many streets, tiny ones, snaking off between the massive building out of which, on that night, not one light shown. My destination, according to the map a friend in the Su Dok Sah monastery in Korea had drawn me, was back that way and down that appallingly dark and tiny alleyway.
I hefted my one loaf-shaped shoulder bag and, heart in throat, went to peer into the blackness around the corner of the building that formed the edge of that dark alley. God it was dark! I commended my soul to Shiva, and plunged ahead. About the distance of half a block down the street, then turning left and going a few hundred more yards, I came upon Khao San Road, as lively as San Francisco's North Beach/International Settlement in the '50s, those pre-Beat days when I had shared 1010 Montgomery with Allen Ginsberg. Thousands of travelers, mostly, but not exclusively young, from all over the world were eating in small, sidewalk restaurants, drinking, laughing, selling tickets, walking about, dancing in the streets. Night markets were open and full of food and people, friendly people.
During one of those intense brushes with a fellow traveler, I had been given the name of a guest house by the Chao Phraya River. I couldn't see a river. My new friend -- she was English -- had said the guest house was a ten minute walk from Khao San Road. I had forgotten how far the English can walk in ten minutes. So, even with the help of a tall Danish lad, who carried my bag, and his girl friend, I never found it. We walked up and down for an hour or two, but we never walked far enough away from the festivities of the all-night road. So I spent my first night in Bangkok somewhat sleeplessly in a dorm room above a restaurant, men and women, all on pallets, but nice clean pallets. I didn't sleep much, because I was down on the street chatting and eating for half the night. For the other half of the night, the others were coming and going and rummaging through things, so it was never quiet, even at dawn. And, of course, I worried. I had to be sure I kept my hand, probably unnecessarily, on my valuables.
However, being conscientiously paranoid about my money, my passport, and my return ticket -- I never let them out of my sight or possession when I travel -- I have never been robbed. Whether that is because of my caution, my good karma or Buddha smiling on me, I don't know, but nothing bad has ever happened to me when I travel.
I mean, I have been propositioned -- even with my white hair -- but usually charmingly, and one smiling "No" suffices (or it could be "Yes," if you're so inclined). I have missed busses and train connections, but usually only to find greater adventure in trusting whoever was standing by to help me. I have gotten sick, so sick I thought I would die in places so remote that not a single friend or relative knew I was there, and yet survived to tell the tale. Such tales provide opportunities for hanging-on-your-every-word stories for future dinner companions and, in the end, always have their amusing aspect. I have stayed in places so unimaginably filthy that my mother would faint to see them. I have, wanting some sugar, picked the ants out, one by one, spooned out the white stuff and let the ants wander back to their home. I have walked miles up through the surf of the Indian Ocean to find other accommodations when the recommended ones turned out to be even less than I could handle.
Which reminds me: always travel light, with no more than you can comfortably carry for a mile or five or ten or twenty. Remember, even in Lhasa, people have lived there for a thousand years and you can find what you need, usually for much less then in the West. Also, remember to give away every single little thing you're not using. It will lighten your burden in this world and delight your new friends.
Poverty is a blessed advantage in traveling, it guarantees adventure, relationship to the country you are in, its people and its ways, and to your fellow travelers. You, of course, have to learn to gage the depth of your own taste, for the world offers everything from some training an ex-special services agent once told me about: As part of his "toughing" during WW II, he, along with other lads, was dropped behind enemy lines in Europe with not a sou nor a "clothe," with the assignment to make their way back to their base of origin in a specified amount of time. Some, of course, came back in limousines with swagger sticks. Others didn't come back at all.
Or you can choose Peace Pilgrim's way. She walked America for twenty-eight years, with not a penny in her pocket, vowing: "I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food." You can choose every level of comfort, from lizards on the walls in the shower to the marble tubs of maharajas, or nothing but the Ganges to bathe in, from former palaces and palatial monasteries to huts or hermitages, or Bed and Breakfasts with farmers in the Cotswalds.
Out traveling I have met some of the most wonderful, friendly people in the world. Like musical notes, they sounded in my life, with unutterable beauty and left a great poignancy when they were gone. I have learned as much from an acquaintance of nine minutes as I have learned from other relationships of nine years.
Once I had a six minute love affair with -- who else but an Italian -- on a platform in the Verona train station. I had got off one train and was completely puzzled how to catch the next which was momentarily due to leave for Munich. A young man -- and I also was younger in those days -- came to me, offered to carry my bag, hurried to the right platform, declared his undying love for me, agreed, if I would like it, to come with me to Munich for a holiday, agreed not to when I, regrettfully, said I was meeting a friend, kissed my hand, again declaring his eternal love and helped me on to the already moving train. Twenty years later it is one of my most charming memories.
One of the things I have noticed, if you travel as I travel, fairly bottom class, you meet both the young and the old out there -- sometimes on three-week vacations, but often for a two or three years apprenticeship to the world -- when you have barely nodded to each other in Bodhnath, you become bosom buddies when you recognize each other in Ayutthaya. Acquaintance with and love of the human race seem to expand almost geometrically with each mile you travel.
Yet there is a sadness that lingers from travel. All those good-byes to old friends, to new friends, to five-minute friends, to two-day friends. Travel, as life, is always full of good-byes. I used to cry coming back from the airport when I was a settled, normal worker-of-the-world, for I was in a profession where it seemed at least once or twice a week I was driving a friend or colleague out to the airport and crying on the way home. But travel itself has mellowed my life and let me loosen my hold on others. It has taught me to let my hand open for the swans to come and feed and also to fly away.
The greatest sadness of all is to come home to "normal" life with your little travel notebook full of a hundred addresses and realize, after a year back in the rut, you have written to almost no one. All those shining stars in the firmament you have touched with the intention of holding, you now find your grasp releasing and they are gone, existing only in your memory -- and theirs. Each moment -- travel teaches you -- is divine: each moment on the road, each moment at home. Cherish it. And remember what a friend of mine once said: "Many of the most terrifying moments of my life never happened." Remember, too, what another friend, whose last name I didn't even know, in India said, waving gaily as she disappeared on a bus into the back country of Maharashtra: "See you in Bombay!"
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Selections from TERROR were published in "Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World." Other travel stories by Jan Haag include: MISSION WALK, VIJAYANAGAR, PASSING THROUGH BODH GAYA, THE WEDDING IN MAHABALESHWAR, and SAN FRANCISCO.
Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO