One month into my trip, I got an email from my friend that kind of threw me. He had stumbled upon a children’s book entitled, Charlotte, Wander On and sent me the plot description from Amazon and the author’s website.
“Charlotte, Wander On is the simple, yet emotionally-complex story of a young girl alone in a disastrous world, swarmed with terrifying creatures. However, while Charlotte is accustomed to living alone, she’s actually quite unfamiliar with herself. Oddly, her dark and dangerous world is not what worries her most, but instead her own capabilities, or lack thereof, become the major source of her apprehension.
Charlotte leaves both the relative safety of a mountain dwelling and the few other survivors in this world, in search of a hidden answer she’s sought many times before. The nature and origin of this answer is initially unknown to us, but as Charlotte nears the end of her travels, she reveals parts of her past and the true reason she’s willing to risk the darkness alone.
However, if she intends to make it to wherever this truth exists, she must first realize who she is – and what she can do – all while staying mere strides ahead of ever-watchful and ever-hungry beasts.”
My friend concluded the email with, “The parallels were pretty crazy, and may have made me tear up a bit.” I found myself speechless after hearing that this book exists, that it was published this year, that my friend happened to stumble upon it, and that he too saw aspects of me and my trip in this description. Pretty crazy, indeed.
I wasn’t really sure what to do with this weird coincidence, so I forgot about it for a while.
Skip ahead two months, and throughout my last weeks in Europe, I mentally prepared for the Asia leg of the trip. I remembered about this book and was able to find a Kindle version (which hadn’t existed when my friend initially sent it to me). So, I bought the book and dove in.
It certainly isn’t a light read, but I appreciated the book’s message and beautiful artwork. The main takeaway for me was about fear.
I didn’t realize how fearful of a person I really was until I started breaking out of the different aspects of my life that I had never questioned before, like giving up having an apartment, not having a full-time job, and being alone. Fear has been a running theme throughout my trip as well – things that are easy for other travelers and often not easy for me. Throughout the Europe portion, I tried to brush off my frustration with these limits and go with the flow, but entering Asia, I didn’t feel like that was possible. It had become a major point of fear for me.
Once I arrived in Bangkok, I forgot all of the mental preparation I had done and got extremely anxious. It felt like there was nowhere safe to go – nothing “normal” to rely on. I spent my first ten days in Thailand with an average of four hours of sleep a night, generally those hours would be from 6am to 10am or even later. My mind wouldn’t turn off for a second. I tried to get out, keep busy, and exhaust myself, but it didn’t work.
In an effort to take control, I decided to delve into my fears and figure out what the heck I was so anxious about. What are my big, scary, “ever-hungry beasts”? Here’s what I identified:
Snakes. I have a massive fear of snakes, to the extent that I still have nightmares about them even though I am 29 years old. It is bad enough that I considered not coming to SE Asia because of it.
- Food poisoning, parasites, dysentery, etc. Don’t eat salad! Don’t eat ice! Don’t drink the water! Don’t use the straws! Only use the straws! Only have drinks that have been opened in front of you! There are so many things you hear when you’re coming over here. A lot of them conflict. How am I supposed to know who to listen to?
- Offending people. Really simple things like forgetting to take off my shoes before I go into a building now has the consequence of offending someone. I do things mindlessly all the time and don’t even realize it. I worry that I will make some serious faux-pas over here.
- Being mugged or robbed. “And they broke into every locker and stole everyone’s valuables. And they had to go past the front desk to do it. I think the hostel’s staff must have been in on it…” These stories are like the urban backpacker legends that you hear over and over. How am I supposed to avoid this?
- Seeing really difficult things. I had heard that you see all kind of crazy stuff on the streets of Bangkok – people without any limbs, people without entire sections of their spine. I saw a little boy without a nose when I was walking back to my Cambridge apartment and when I got home, I cried about it. How am I going to handle this? Who will I cry to?
- Dengue Fever. This is a sickness caused by mosquito bites, mainly in Thailand. If you get it, you’ll be knocked on your bum for at least two weeks with a fever, low blood sugar, a rash, and other fun symptoms. It seems to have the same sort of effect as mono and takes a long time to get over. I’ve heard of so many travelers getting this.
- Cleanliness/sanitation. What kind of toilets am I dealing with? Will there be toilet paper? Have you ever seen a roach that big? There are many questions relating to hygiene that continuously come through my brain.
- Being scammed or severely overcharged. Everything is negotiable. There are no “sales” – you’re just savvy or you’re naive. How can you tell what is the correct price?
- Loneliness. Self-explanatory.
Once I made this list, it became so obvious. It is so simple to say, “I’m scared” and stop there. That’s what I had been doing. Fears are a different beast (ha!) because they seem to halt the analytical part of the brain altogether. I’m sure other people have realized this, but for me, this was a bit of an epiphany.
I am afraid I am going to get Dengue Fever.
Once I identified that this was one of the things holding me back from feeling comfortable in Asia, I was then able to think through, Ok, so what will I do if I get it? Well, I guess I would find a hospital or clinic, use that insurance I paid for, find comfortable place to recover and find some nice people to check in on me and take care of me. Ok, next?
Having a tangible list of fears, allowed me look at each item on a smaller scale and break down the knot in my stomach item-by-item. It led to using the under-utilized portion of my brain -the problem-solving skills – and walking through different possibilities for how I could handle each instance. The one thing I couldn’t do is figure out how to lessen the severity of getting a poisonous snakebite. But I thought, Well, if I’m going to go, at least it’d be doing something pretty badass!
Overall, the main fear I have, and probably anyone ever has, is of the unknown. That is never going to go away if I give in to it all the time. I would hate to let my fear get in the way of an entire continent with all its history, natural beauty, amazing people, and delicious, delicious food. So what choice is there really?
Stuff is going to happen, but I’m wandering on and seeing what I’m capable of. Just like the really intense children’s book is telling me to do.
Wish me luck and please pray the snakes away.