I decided that a bracelet inscribed with “fearless” would make me so. The letters – bold, loud, capitalized, with the avant-garde color scheme of white-on-black – were themselves fearless, and so I reasoned that their choking presence on my wrist would make me the message, incarnated.
With age, it is easier to pick out the false starts before they do any damage.
This morning, I can’t drink my coffee so much as stare at it because I am scared. Rare is the travel blogger that says this, but I am scared of travel.
There is at least one maxim regurgitated all too often: be fearless. For those of us who are fearful, this maxim is, at best, useless and, at worst, implies that we are not trying hard enough, that fear is unnatural and symptomatic of weakness. But being fearless is difficult only because it’s impossible.
This fear manifests itself, quite slyly, in the seemingly innocuous two words, “What if?” I mean, we are products of our environments, and my environment says that if you’re a woman and you’re traveling solo, you’re going to be raped and killed.
The “what if” bounces around my skull when I’m packing for a trip, when I’m saying goodbye, when I check my backpack and greet the TSA. It worsens on the plane with the thought of infected circulated air and any turbulent affair that lasts for more than three seconds. And my rational Self – the cool, collected Self that knows better than to indulge such fabrications – feels drowned out for a few moments.
I would weep inside. My dreams were coming true! Why was I plagued with this poison, this fear, this curse of the subjunctive.
That one summer of the South American winter, that summer my sister and I looped and zigged and zagged across Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay through the snow and rain and fog, that summer that my fearless bracelet was glued to my skin, like a synthetic tumor. We did a lot then. We skydove in Cordoba. We endured an overnight blizzard in Torres del Paine, an already treacherous route without two feet of snow hiding it. We arrived at Santiago penniless and having just experienced a small but unexpected earthquake in Pucon. We went snorkeling with sea lions in Peninsula Valdez at sunrise. We came to know Tres Cruces, Montevideo’s bus station, better than the janitors working there because we slept there so often. We hunted glaciers in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, and we fucking went sea kayaking at the end of the earth, flirting heavily with man-eating seal territory. We rode with Uruguayan gauchos, herding sheep, administering medicine, and cutting off the females’ tails, eating lamb three times a day. I would gallop, quite accidentally, into the sunset like my romantic brethren. Those were the days of long deep purple sunsets vanishing into a frozen white-crusted earth, of tall stories grounded by fires with personalities.
And not once do I remember referring to my wrist in search of strength or support. Yes, I was terrified as I boarded that plane knowing I would jump out of it. And there certainly was a dull fear when confronted with our empty bank accounts and stomachs, as we sat in a park in Melo and ate the last of our rations.
But as soon as I exited that plane in Buenos Aires and set my feet on the continent of South America, a land so beautiful, so diverse, so exotic that it could only be for the most brazen of explorers, I was, ergo, an explorer capable of it. It was real then. “What if” became “what now.” I was no longer inside my head but out of it, no longer dealing with the what-ifs and would-bes but navigating our reality as it came. Each time it got hard or scary, the choice was mine to continue. And it was a remarkably easy one.
Before my adventures the bracelet was a potent idol, during my adventures it was a tacky decoration. Strength cannot be summoned in the form of a knick-knack found in the $4.99 bin.
But being fearless is difficult only because it’s impossible. Having fear indicates that you are a person. A person without the consciousness that produces at least a little fear is delusional to a dangerous degree, if not psychopathic. I’d even say that fear keeps us breathing, and acting despite the fear keeps us alive.
That choice to escape my toxic imagination is the rule, not the exception. It’s why I’m going to Asia and the Middle East and Africa soon, and I’m choosing to be so excited that my heart feels like it’s in my hand. Travel, to me, is kind of like being in love. You must risk the fall.
So I may be terrified at times, but I’m just as courageous. For the absence of fear means the absence of courage.∗