Take it from a seasoned panicker – new and unfamiliar situations are always going to pose the threat of throwing you off-balance. If you’re like me and tend to overthink every potential outcome of every hypothetical situation before it’s even had a chance to become a possibility yet, it’s time you accepted the fact that you do this, and stopped distancing yourself from trying new things in fear of it.
Once you accept the fact that certain circumstances and types of people stress you out slightly more than they do others, it becomes so much easier to take a step back and put things into perspective. Perspective in this case has a lot to do with accepting your own lack of control over certain elements of life, and embracing your vulnerability instead of running from it and pretending it’s not there.
That’s why when I announced my plans to embark on a bit of solo travel and exploration, my close friends and family were very clearly slightly dubious of me. Even if they didn’t say it or voice their concerns, I know them well enough to recgonise their polite acceptance of what I was calling my ‘travels’, when I knew all they were thinking was ‘how the hell is she going to manage?’. It’s only been a little over a month since leaving, but several short-term trips beforehand prepared me both mentally and physically for this next step of setting out on my own and away from the safety net of an organised travel group (I’m not completely on my own just yet, but will be soon, and I find 2 or 3 is a much more managable number than a large group). But I like to think I’ve proven them wrong in how well things have gone so far…..(*touches woods apprehensively*). Here’s some advice I wrote for the benefit of others that I keep needing to remember to follow myself….
1. It’s Natural to Anticipate
I am and have always been chronically early for absolutely every kind of appointment, meeting, flight, bus, train, or any other kind of scheduled journey I’ve ever taken. It’s this anticipation, this un-uttered fear and apprehension that something might go wrong or somehow need to be altered at the last minute and leave me unprepared that has led me to panic as I have in the past at the mere mention of the dreaded words ‘change of plan’. I am also an earlybird. I’m up before the worms, which I figure is always better than being late. It’s ok to be early for things, in fact sometimes it even works out in your favour. The tricky part though is managing to get the balance between overpanicking about it to the extent that you arrive 3 hours before your check-in time and have to sit with your suitcase in the only café on this side of the airport, and being so relaxed that you rock up 5 minutes before boarding closes and have left no time to deal with any issues that may have arisen between the sprint from the check-in desk and the quickly downed pint of Bulmers’ in departures. The apprehension associated with pre-determining things and trying to ensure it will work out as planned is exhausting, so just be aware that only certain things are in your control when it comes to transport and travel. You can only ever hope to take care of yourself and ensure you’re there on time and with all of your belongings – there’s no point stressing over others or over conditions (weather, delays, timetable changes, etc) that are outside of your control. Going with the flow is something that is most effectively learnt by literally just taking the leap and doing it, and so there’s only so many times you can tell someone before that they must take the initiative and do it for themselves.
2. Just Go For it.
This leads me on to my next point. Just Go For It. There’s only so many times people are going to listen to the fact that your main plan and dream in life is to travel and see the world until you actually set out and DO something about it. It shouldn’t be about what other people think, but I know myself that I was getting tired of hearing myself go on about it on nights out and with various groups of friends, so much so that I eventually just went for it and booked something. I was more nervous than excited right up until the week of my departure, but by then it was too late to change anything and I’d come to terms with the fact that I was challenging myself in this way for the forseeable future, and that it would ultimately prove a positive and character-building experience for me. What have you got to lose?
3. Language Barriers
Be prepared to encounter some pretty incomprehensible situations and difficult people on your travels. It can get frustrating and stressful at times, especially if you’re (heaven forbid) running late for something or require certain information immediately. It’s often the hardest thing to do to take a step back and a deep breath, and use your most plainly broken down English to try and get a point across. Panicking in this situation will only make things worse, as body language becomes more important and obvious when words are no longer an option – this means that the more erratic you get, the more difficult it will be for the locals to grasp your intent. Keep a ‘cool heart’ as much as possible, and you will get by without too much anxiety or frustration bubbling over and escaping in the form of angry and accidentally offensive hand gestures (many Asian cultures do not appreciate pointing). Another thing that can help with this is to try to get a basic grasp of the local language – such things as please, thank you, how much, and the numbers 1-5 have proven especially helpful in securing directions, transport, prices, and also in cooling off situations where the language barrier has been particularly difficult to scale.
4. Money is Not Actually all that Important
If I had’ve known how little it is possible to get by on a day in South East Asia, I would have embarked on this trip a hell of a lot sooner. If you’re smart about it (which I’m not pretending to be always, but hear me out here), the main thing you will find yourself parting with hard-earned cash for will be transport from place to place. Food and drink is another necessity which does add up (especially given the charges to refill water bottles), but if you stock up in a supermarket and don’t mind carrying an extra ‘food bag’ around with you (beware of ants!), it is actually easy enough to avoid paying extortionate amounts. Still, it’s difficult not to let budget concerns get to you while you’re on the move and dealing with tens of thousands of a foreign currency you can’t begin to grasp the value of. This is made more difficult by the surcharges that seem to exist at every unexpected turn. A dollar here for parking a bike, 50 cent there for a water refill, which actually leaves you a couple of million Dong down, really make for a lot of confusion and stressful expenditure until you familiarise yourself with the currency, which I recommend doing as soon as you arrive. Avoiding organised tours and pushy guides who convince you their offer is best is also key, and it is often so much cheaper to rent your own bike or motorbike and go exploring by yourself. You may get lost once or twice, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding your way back and grasping the geography of such a foreign place – every chance you’ll stumble across hidden gems you’d never see whilst blindly following a tour guide! The sense of independence achievable by doing this is also second to none, and even if you do go astray and feel like you’ve no idea where you are, there will always be someone willing to point you in the right direction home – humans can actually be nice, you know, and contrary to what some people think the whole world isn’t actually out to get you!
5. You Get What You Give
I get it. You’re a nervous person. So am I. It generally takes me a drink or two to loosen up to the stage where I’ll talk freely with a stranger for no reason other than out of politeness. But travelling has really changed the way I see this. Being forced into group situations and dorm rooms where it would be just downright rude to ignore likeminded travellers’ enquiries and lighthearted banter has really made me see that I am more than capable of socialising and holding solid conversation without the backbone or safety net of a group of friends behind me. So often I’ve heard ‘oh I’m rubbish at making friends’ or ‘I find it hard to talk to people’ – excuses I’ve made myself to avoid having to involve myself in social situations that I actually end up enjoying when I get into it. I’ve found that, simply put, to gain anything from any social situation or interaction, you must be prepared to also give an equal amount to show the person you’re engaged in conversation that yes, actually I do want to keep talking with you and stike up an impromptu friendship over how we both got ripped off by a cyclo guy in Ho Chi Minh City. You never know anything until you ask, and more often than not I’ve found you’ll be surprised with both the answer and with yourself and confidence after opening up and letting people in. After all, how can you expect anyone to want to speak to someone who sits closed off to the world? Any relationship is based on give and take – even a barman is not going to know what you want unless you tell him, this seemingly minor interaction being strengthened by the only certainty of it’s grounding, which is your order. It’s more difficult with new people, when intention may or may not be clear, but I’ve found that if you let go of this factor and accept that it really doesn’t matter WHY this person is talking to you, they just ARE, it becomes easier to lessen anxiety and enjoy just living and being in the moment of the conversation.
6. Push Your Limits
You’re already doing this by taking the step outside your comfort zone to go travelling, so why not try and push a little more? I’ve surprised myself in many ways since leaving home; I’ve held tarantulas, tried streetfood I wouldn’t touch in a million years were it made at home, ridden motorbikes up mountains and around streets where the only observed rule of the road is ‘biggest vehicle goes first’, and put my life and valuables in the hands of bus and tuk-tuk drivers who swear they knew where my requested destination was, but have actually embarked on wild goose chases searching and asking others they see along the way. It’s only natural to be slightly on edge when trying to progress in such a foreign and alien society, but there is definitely a balance to be struck between letting the anxiety take over, and accepting that certain things here are just done differently, and that it’s kind of in the unwritten travellers’ handbook that visitors to any city or new town adapt to the local ways instead of resisting and causing negative and problematic interactions – there’s a reason many locals in tourist areas dislike foreigners!
7. Enjoy, don’t Endure
This is possibly the most important piece of advice I have ever received. I guarantee you, if you fill the time you have out travelling and exploring a new country with worrying and anticipating everything up until you arrive on time for your flight home, you will return with nothing but regret that you fret over such trivial issues instead of enjoying your surroundings while you were there. Living in the moment is advice we all hear on a regular basis, and I feel that escaping to a new country, a new place, with new people and new experiences is one of the best ways to put this way of living into practice. In shifting your mindset to enjoyment, focusing on the new and exciting things that surround you on all sides instead of merely existing and not fully appreciating things, you will gradually come to be aware of how easy it is to confuse enjoyment with endurance. I’ve lost count of how many family holidays or group trips away that I’ve merely endured purely to satisfy others, and I regret hugely not enjoying them and making more of them whilst I was there. It had gotten to the point where I confused the boundaries between what was endurance and what wasn’t, and I’d almost forgotten what it was to enjoy new experiences, instead focusing always on the negative – the long journeys, the heat, the lack of available peanut butter….the list of trivialities goes on. I’m now lucky in that even though I’m often naturally inclined to the negative, I have the ability to pull myself up on it and stop the spiralling thoughts before I lose control of them.
8. Learn From Mistakes
Finally, you wouldn’t have reason to panic or be anxious at all if it weren’t for past mistakes you’ve made, or the potential disastrous consequences leaving your home and comfort zone can present to you. Be aware only that things will go wrong, and you will make mistakes, but it’s so important not to view these mistakes as failures, and merely to accept them as they happen and try to learn from them. Admit to yourself that no, it probably wasn’t the best idea to agree to a city tour without fully understanding how much they charged first, but it happened, I was naive, and I won’t do it again. It’s the only way to deal with the unexpected blows to the bank balance, dignity or confidence that come naturally with travel. If nothing else so far it has taught me to take myself less seriously, and to see that literally everyone in the world is in the best way possible just out for themselves in the hope of progressing forwards. Rarely have I encountered a situation where people are genuinely nasty or mean in their intentions, and even the most stingy shop assistant will at the end of a tough haggling session sigh and take what little amount of money you have resigned them to accepting. If you’re assertive enough and aware of the potentiality of being ripped off and taken advantage of, but possess the ability to still function somewhat normally and enjoy your new surroundings despite this awareness, a good balance can eventually be struck between awareness and fear. It’s not exactly an easy ask, but it gets easier the more you remember it in tough situations, and gradually becomes second nature to take things in your stride instead of letting the anxiety win over and needing to ask for directions home to the hostel you’ve returned to without an issue for the past 4 nights already. Learning curve. Baby steps. All that jazz. Worst comes to the worst, at least you’ll have the comfort of knowing you had the confidence to give it a shot!
If I can do it, anyone can!