Sometimes you find yourself standing on the edge of a cliff and looking down at nothing but water spread out below you. It always seems a lot higher when you’re looking down, when you can feel that tight twist of fear squirming around and tangling up your guts.
The thing is, the longer you stand up there the further away the water gets.
When you’re on the cusp of 30 and you’re married and you own a house and you’ve spent a few years working your way forward on your career path, you have several choices. Kids, career, retirement, climbing the ladder, keeping up with the Joneses; all reasonable. Chucking it all to travel for a year or two? Well that water seems pretty damn far away, that water isn’t even in sight.
Matt and I decided we wanted to try for it and we hatched a plan to save enough money to travel for a year or so and still be able to come back and start up our lives. But even the best laid plans go awry. The trip got pushed back once, then twice, and the water just kept getting further away. We’d planned and saved and worked and sacrificed for this thing for years but we never felt ready. We were not meeting our savings goal, planning for the trip was insanely difficult, we were concerned about starting a family, ruining our careers, selling the house, etc. We’d been looking forward to the trip in an abstract way for so long that it was difficult to turn it into action.
It took a bad day at work for me to decide to jump. Ready or not, come hell or high water we were leaving in April. I bought the plane tickets and we set the house sale in motion. I was shocked that when it sold within a week (in the winter!) what followed was not the elation that I had expected. It was terror.
I kept running through the reasons not to do it over and over and over. The world is especially dangerous right now, you don’t know the language, you need to save more money, you have so much to do and not enough time, you’re getting older and you need to start a family, it might ruin your career, you don’t have enough saved, your plan is crap, you’ve travelled out of the US for a grand total of 6 weeks in your whole life, you’re going to be isolated, you’re going to be lonely, it’s too dangerous, there’s terrorism and diseases and death is going to stalk you. You’re going to die.
As the trip grew closer I imagined more and more creative ways that I might die. Previously undiscovered diseases that would leak my intestines out of sores on my abdomen, shark bite, malaria, kidnapped for ransom and then murdered, infection from a fish hook in my foot, freezing to death, cerebral edema brought on by altitude sickness, my throat cut by my own kite board, falling into an ice crevasse on a mountain. I know more about exotic parasites than your average doctor.
I was completely terrified and Matt was in denial. We were in free fall but it wasn’t too late to use a parachute and skate out of the trip. It wasn’t hard to think of practical reasons to cancel the tickets either. Only a tiny fraction of anything was planned, it was clear we were going to come in under our savings goal by almost 14%, there was still SO much to do, and we could always just move somewhere since we’d sold the house.
Things only got more intense when we turned in our notices and began talking about the trip. There was so much excitement and care from our friends and family and yet there was often this press of fear at the edge of the conversation. Disease, terrorism, death, horrible stories shared as a cautionary tale, be careful, be careful, be careful.
My last day at work was April 7th and all I could think about was how scared and confused I felt. Was I making a huge mistake? How could I be anything but terribly excited for this? We had worked and planned and scrimped and saved for this. Why wasn’t I pumped? I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.
Someone mentioned that I must have my life together and all I could do was shrug and grin and mumble something. But I remember being a little extra freaked out. Is this really what having it together feels like? Because it doesn’t feel good, it feels like a damn hot mess.
It still doesn’t feel like I have it together. We’ve been on the road for a month and that elusive sense of confidence is still missing. Mostly I just feel like I’m winging it. If anything I mostly feel surprised that I haven’t died yet. Today Matt and I spent 45 minutes failing to locate an ATM that showed up on Google but not in real life. Before every purchase we have to research and memorize and practice words so we can ask for items, which are usually stored behind counters and must be retrieved by the clerk. Totally unlike the grab and go model we are used to in the US.
A lot of time we wander around a little lost and a little confused and yes, a little scared. Wondering if this mosquito bite will be the one with malaria or if this is the time the parachute will fail or if I’m going to drown or be eaten by alligators or get sick from the food or get mugged or die. But in the same moment I also realized that living this close to my fears, shutting them down day after day, was incredibly special. It was exhilarating. I discovered that the rush of living through thing after thing that I am honestly afraid will kill me seems to brighten life, to bring my blood a little closer to the surface. Bring the world into sharper, more vibrant focus. In that moment when my head breaks the surface and I’m not dead, I breathe a little deeper, notice the taste of the air, the scent it carries, the way the atmosphere breathes into me as I breathe it in. I can appreciate things that I hadn’t.
Even the little fears like getting scammed are constantly shut down. Traveling has been a lot of trial and error. We find ourselves placing our trust in other people, like the bus driver who dropped us off at the taxi colectivo stand (which looked like a random person’s garage) and who then bargained for a fair price for us. Or the random person on the street with directions or recommendations or guidance. It’s something we’d forgotten. How to trust someone implicitly… just because they’re a human being. And I know, I know that there are people out there who will betray that trust but after a month I’m beginning to believe those people are exceptions, not the rule.
We weren’t ready to jump but I don’t know if we would have ever been ready. We were scared and sure I wish I had packed a little differently, we could always do with more savings, etc. but at the end of the day I’m sitting here a month later and I’m so glad, so incredibly happy, that we jumped. We’re a little scared sometimes, we’re winging it, we’re probably making mistakes.. but we’re doing it. We’re off the cliff and we’ve hit the water and we’re not dead yet, and that feels pretty great.1