22 Things to Pack for a Trip to a Developing Country

There are lots of great travel packing lists out there — and with plenty of us fleeing for warm-weather countries this month for a break from the snow and rain, we can definitely use some recommendations.  I haven’t seen a list yet for  what to pack if you’re destined for a place where it’s easier to buy a goat than a bottle of Purell, or where the locals think that “Samsonite” is the name of an American airline, so here are my recommendations.  Believe me, there will be no room in the suitcase for your anxiety once you stuff all this in.

I. Bring to stay healthy:

  • A bedbug trap, since your place of lodging is probably unable to do anything in the case of bedbugs, or can move you to a bedbug-free room. Amazon carries a decent one: http://www.amazon.com/ClimbUp%C2%AE-Interceptors-pack-passive-traps/dp/B0028Z0LDQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1388938697&sr=8-2&keywords=bed+bug+detector
  • Vitamins. Don’t underestimate how many nutrients you may lose by eating non-fortified foods in developing countries.  Vitamins also help replenish your system after any bouts of diarrhea or vomiting
  • Granola bars, protein bars or trail mix.  Protein bars are my pick since it can become nearly impossible to get enough protein from safe sources abroad.
  • Water purification tablets, or a water filter
  • Condoms: these can be nearly impossible to find, depending on the religious and cultural swaying of wherever you’re visiting

II. Bring to stay clean:

  • Toilet paper: as much as you have room for.  I will never forget finding only bright pink TP in Morocco that practically disintegrated as soon as I touched it
  • Paper towels, in case your hotel or hostel towels (if provided) are dirty
  • A sheet, since the cheaper hotels, and many hostels, do not provide clean bedding
  • Laundry detergent, and a few feet of rope to use as a clothesline (among other things)
  • Enough hand sanitizer to sterilize a small village
  • A universal rubber plug, for use in tubs and sinks. Just remember to hide it after use each day or your host could accuse you of trying to flood his or her establishment.

III. Bring to stay comfortable:

  • A small, battery-operated fan, both to serve its primary purpose of cooling you where there is no A/C, and to drown out street noise.  Don’t wait to buy a fan where you’re going, since it will almost always come with a cord and you’ll already be using what precious few socket(s) you have to charge your devices
  • A sewing kit, if you can actually thread a needle; if you can’t, go with a few tubes of Krazy Glue like I do

IV. Bring to stay out of trouble:

  • Plenty of Google map printouts, zoomed in enough to get both the English and native language script for street and place names

V. Bring for a variety of uses:

  • Ziploc and plastic bags for protecting your electronics and documents from the elements Swiss Army pocket knife (remember to put it back in your checked bag)
  • A waterproof container of matches, or a lighter (also to remain in your checked bag)
  • A small roll of duct tape.  It’s come through for me as both bag repair and medical tape in a developing country!
  • A luggage lock and coiling cable (preferably one for each of your bags)
  • Keychain flashlight
  • World Market crinkle curtain-in-a-pouch: http://www.worldmarket.com/product/porcelain-crinkle-voile-curtain.do?&from=fn.  Can be used as a beach blanket, rag, rope, souvenir packaging, modesty or sun scarf, or a privacy curtain in case your hotel window comes naked.  And if you lose just about everything on your trip, including your inhibitions, at least you’ll have one last thing to wrap yourself in!
Unfortunately, there is no mall behind this neighborhood.  Best to bring what you need!

Unfortunately, there is no mall (or even a drugstore) beyond this neighborhood. Best to bring what you need!

Touring without Stress: How to Leave Your Anxiety in the Baggage Compartment

Joining a Sea of Strangers on the Streets of a Foreign City: A Practical Approach 

There are dozens of books you can read on understanding the social norms and etiquette of a particular country you will visit. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and attempts to capture a culture can lead you to believe that millions of people behave similarly in all cultural and social interactions.  In reality, etiquette is more rooted in local ways of life, with differences across provinces, rural areas, counties, and even city neighborhoods.  Think about how you would answer an American culture question from a Dutchman taking a road trip from Harlem, New York to a small fishing town in Maryland, to New Orleans, and then back to New York City – this time to Manhattan.  Would you know where to start?

One of the goals of social norms is to establish standard behavior so that people know what to expect of each other, and can stop thinking so much about basic interactions.  While many cultures encourage freedom of expression, many have tolerance “blind spots” and hypocrisies that may have originated in conflicts between religious, social, and political beliefs.  Not understanding or respecting social norms, no matter how exasperating they sometimes may be, can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, dejection, and significant stress.  Remember, your goal is to feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a place you’ve never been, so you can get your mind off “code of conduct” stress and enjoy your trip.

First arrival.  Sources of anxiety when arriving to the streets of a foreign city or town may include:

  • Not knowing what is appropriate street behavior (voice level, pointing, stopping to make a phone call, etc.);
  • Not wanting to offend people (e.g., violating taboos);
  • Smaller than normal personal space;
  • Level of formality expected or demanded; and
  • Fear of confrontation if making a mistake or upsetting someone.

A negative experience can amplify embarrassment into shame, with anger, distrust, and loss of confidence along for the ride.  Fortunately, negative experiences and encounters can be mitigated by a few key approaches.  These are:

  • Observation;
  • Self-awareness; and
  • Assimilation according to your own comfort level.

We’ll go over each of these below.

Observation.  Sit at a plaza café or a small park, alone or with your travel partner, and just watch people go by for an hour or so.  Notice things such as:

  • What are people doing that you find unusual or unnatural?
  • What are they not doing on the streets that you’re used to seeing?  This could include activities such as adjusting one’s clothes or hair, blowing one’s nose, or snacking at a pedestrian stoplight
  • How do other people react to someone who engages in generally anti-social behavior (such as letting a door slam in a stranger’s face, or corralling a taxi that someone else has hailed?)

Self-awareness.  Realize that you have two different street behaviors: one when you’re at home, in your accustomed environment, and one as a tourist or outsider.  At home you’re used to being part of the scene around you; as a tourist, you’re usually preoccupied with the scene, and stand apart from it. You may walk more slowly, stare, stop suddenly, and meander or change direction.  You may be more polite and more patient than normal, and you may be louder or quieter than normal. Your “tourist” behavior may or may not be more suited to the mannerisms of those around you.  Ask yourself:

  • How many of your unassuming street behaviors are going to draw unwelcome attention?
  • How good are you at controlling your first impulses and responses?
  • How much will this matter in your particular environment?

Comfortable assimilation.  Trying to blend in too much with the locals may take a lot of the enjoyment out of your travel.  Hurrying, looking down instead of around, and constantly restraining your interest and curiosity aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice tour.  Identify which two or three of your habits are the most disruptive or displeasing, and make a regular effort to tone them down.  Remember, the goal is to spare yourself embarrassment and anxiety – not make yourself uncomfortable.

This scene doesn't have to be intimidating.

This scene doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 3 of 3)

Here’s the final segment on what to keep a wary eye out for during your travels.  May you all have safe and scumbag-free journeys, wherever they may take you!

11. Driver or hotel claiming you damaged their property
I sat in the back of a taxi last fall in Morocco that had a large tear all the way down the middle of the opposite seat. I had my luggage over the seat for the whole ride, and when I paid the driver and got out, all of a sudden he started yelling that I had “ruined his seat” by destroying it with my bag wheels. He started swearing and demanding money, and people at the train station stared. A policeman came up and took my side, I think without even knowing what my psycho cabbie scammer was upset about, and the taxi driver quickly got out of there, so I got lucky (the policeman had dealt with this taxi driver before.)

Lesson learned? When taking a ride or accepting services from unscrupulous-looking individuals, avoid contact with all signs of physical damage as much as you can, because you can be blamed for them. Of course, shoddy hotels are also known for claiming that unsuspecting patrons have damaged the room. In general, when staying for several days at a place, you should clean up any cigarette butts, broken glass, or anything else potentially damaging before the maid comes in, or the hotel can get ideas about charging you for old burn marks, tile scratches, etc.  Also, remember to report any existing damage to the room as soon as possible after you check in, or you could be blamed for it.

12. The tap water is “unsafe to drink”
Hotels in foreign countries (especially in Eastern Europe) will post “helpful” warning signs around your bathroom and/or kitchenette warning you that the tap water is not potable, and that drinking water must be purchased from the front desk (or worse, from the minibar). In many of these countries, water is perfectly safe to consume, but the hotel wants to sell you bottled water. In some cases, they’ll give you bottled water, implying that they’re free, but then add it on as a hidden charge later; this happened to me in a hostel in Australia a few years ago (and I actually believed that the tap water in Canberra was unsafe to drink…).

To know whether or not the tap water is safe to drink somewhere, do your own research on the internet (preferably your country’s embassy guide), or ask a local. If you’re unsure one way or the other, then buy bottled water — at the nearest supermarket or mini-mart, not from the hotel.

13. Accommodation recommendations
Your tour guide or taxi driver will tell you that the hotel you’ve booked is closed, “no good,” or too pricy, and that he knows somewhere nicer. While this might be true, the “nicer” place is giving him a commission for his referrals, and if you say yes and let yourself be taken somewhere you weren’t planning, you make yourself vulnerable to more unexpected costs and detours. Furthermore, a stranger who is friends with your hotel owner now knows where you’re staying.

What can you do? Stick with your planned hotel. An unfamiliar, flashy hotel that your scammer has just pulled you up to is always going to look more glamorous than your reserved hotel did when you saw the tiny pictures online; don’t fall for it, and trust your original arrangements. If it’s a “reputable” tour guide who’s telling you to change all your plans at the last minute, you might consider ditching them altogether.

14. Help with buying the metro ticket
Do you love being self-sufficient by buying your own metro ticket in Paris, Rome, or other large cities — but get tired of locals huffing and sighing behind you as you stumble around on the screen to choose the right train or fare? Local opportunists will gladly appear out of nowhere to help you purchase your ticket — and demand a “little something” for their help. You should be very careful since at this point you probably still have your wallet out and you’ve just stepped away from the machine and no longer have the attention of the people in line who might actually intervene if your “helper” very discreetly mugs you.

In general, be leery of non-service person who goes out of their way to help you without asking you if you need them. If you’re “stuck” as to how to purchase a ticket, remember that the person waiting behind you has an obvious interest in you getting what you want and moving on. Try asking them rather than waiting for someone to approach you in your moment of ineptitude.

15. “I’ve just been robbed!”
A clearly distressed person (often a woman, but can also be a man) posing as a fellow tourist will approach you and ask you if you know where the nearest police station is. They’ll tell you they’ve just been mugged or robbed and don’t have enough money to get back to their hotel, much less get back to their own city or country. When you suggest they talk to the police, they will tell you that the police “couldn’t be found” or that there was a language barrier. The person will continue to be emotional (but not overly aggressive) until you break down and give them some money. Even if you don’t give them much, these people can make a lot of money in one day playing the same dirty trick over and over.

16. Forgetting your change
A friendly ticket seller at a tourist site takes your cash, then takes a long time processing your ticket(s) all the while chatting up their colleagues, asking for your ID, and perhaps answering the phone on top of it. While you’re busy looking around and waiting, your large bill has gone into the till and nothing has come out yet. A few minutes later the seller gives you a bright smile, some instructions, and says “bye!” so you’ll leave. Once you step through the gate you remember about your change, but have no way of getting it — or if you do, it’s the ticket seller’s word against yours.

To avoid being a victim of this scam, try vocalizing your transaction, such as saying “I’m getting 30 back in change, right?“ as you’re handing over your money. Don’t let your eyes and attention wander until after you’ve gotten your money. The scammer will notice you’re on the ball and find a more distracted person to shortchange.

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)

 

 

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 2 of 3)

Calling all travelers, explorers, vacationers, and wanderlusts who don’t want to be taken advantage of abroad:  here’s the continuation of last week’s series on scams you need to be aware of in cities around the world.

7. Forced Upgrade at a Hotel
You book and pay for your hotel online through Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline, or another well-known vendor. When you arrive at the hotel, you’re told that there was a “mistake” with the online booking, that it’s all the online vendor’s fault, and that your room is not available and you have to pay for a higher-priced room if you want to stay. You either have to pay for the more expensive room or find another hotel, which is often impractical unless you know the area well.

What can you do to avoid this scam?  If you’re staying at an independent hotel that isn’t highly rated (and that you‘re unfamiliar with), try emailing them a week or two before your trip with a question, concern, or any other excuse that involves forwarding your confirmation email right along to them. Bring a printout of your correspondence with you when you check in. It will be a lot harder for them to claim that they don’t know about your existing reservation.

8. “Free Tour”
You are approached by a cab driver or tout outside your hotel and offered a free tour of a historical district or exclusive area a considerable distance away. You take them up on it after getting a nod or a shrug from the man or woman behind the reception desk. You’re then driven to a store or restaurant (owned by the cab driver’s or tout’s friend) where you’re pressured to buy expensive, inferior-quality items. When you ask about your “tour,” your scammer says it’s coming, but there are a few places he’d love for you to see first. Meanwhile you have no idea where you are and are wasting your money and time.

It’s tempting to think that in the most beautiful, least expensive countries in the world (where this scam often takes place) you can truly get “something for nothing.” Nope, nothing’s free in life, not even in these places, so stick with your planned tour and don’t let anyone “take you for a ride.”

9. “Amenity Fees”
Unscrupulous hotels will charge you an additional fee just for the use of certain things in your room, such as the safe, the microwave, the iron and ironing board, or the refrigerator. Some will charge only if these items have been used; others will charge even if you haven’t touched them. You’ll see the “fees” on the final bill and be given a bewildered look by the receptionist when asked why the use of your “amenities” don’t come with the price of the room.

If you’ve prepaid for your room through Priceline, Expedia, etc. it becomes a little harder for the hotel to assess the fees. Beware though that they might disguise the charges under a “city tax” in a city where there is no such thing. Online booking websites will usually warn you when there will a city tax to be collected at the end of your stay. At any rate, the best way to fight “amenity fees” is to print out a receipt of your reservation including all the amenities right above your room charge — or find out about and stay away from nickel-and-diming hotels by reading reviews on TripAdvisor or Hotels.com.

10. Distraction Opportunists
Lots of us are pleasantly distracted when we’re touring. We want to be unexpectedly delighted or drawn in by something new and different. Unfortunately, scammers and thieves thrive on our distraction. These scheisters often work in pairs or small groups: one person will distract you, while the other will rob you while you’re distracted.

If you’re traveling alone, you might be approached by a very attractive member of the opposite sex and offered advice, help, or the privilege of their company. While spellbound by Ms. or Mr. Hottie, another person slips something out your bag or pocket.

Scams that employ children are becoming more and more common as poverty and desperation make thievery a family affair. A smiling kid will come up to talk, sing, or “perform” for you until an adult (who may or may not be the kid’s real parent) comes up to apologize for the bother. While the parent is sweetly engaging you in their apology, the kid is robbing something out of your bag.

Another common distraction scam features scammers pretending to be hit by bicyclists, or starting to drown in the hotel pool, or otherwise the victim of some major trauma that makes everyone, including you, stop and stare — and possibly step away from your belongings. The “victim’s” friend may rush by you on their way to the scene, making a big swipe for your valuables in the process.

It's easy to get distracted on city streets in other countries.  Self-awareness, and knowledge of the most typical scams, go a long way towards keeping you safe.

It’s easy to get distracted on city streets in other countries. Self-awareness, and knowledge of the most typical scams, go a long way towards keeping you safe.

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 1 of 3)

Few things are going to cause you stress on a trip abroad like getting cheated, duped, taken advantage of, or just plain screwed over.  When we travel, we often let our guard down, because we’re curious about people in our host country, we want to be liked, and we want to believe that we’ll be treated fairly; however, there are plenty of scammers, schemers, and slimy scheisters looking to cash in on our trust and optimism.  And when we go someplace we’re not familiar with, we’re vulnerable: we often don’t know our way around, may not be in charge of our transportation, may have very limited language skills, and may not know where to go for help.  One of the best ways to defend ourselves against scammers is to know what their tricks are, and how to avoid them — then you can go back to actually enjoying your vacation.  This special series covers 18 of the most common universal scams. 

1. Currency Swap
Many seasoned travelers keep a wary eye out for crooked cashiers and clerks around the world who give back the wrong change in bills (e.g., a 10 bill instead of a 20) in shops large and small. A less common, but more effective, scam is to give you back a 20 bill — but it’s the wrong currency. For example, a clerk in Beijing may give you back a 20 ruble note instead of a 20 yuan note. Since you see “20,” you think all is good, and don’t even notice the different currency — but the clerk has just given you something worth 1/3 of what you’re owed (and hey, who wants to visit Russia these days anyway?).

With so many countries using different size notes and distinct colors for currency (a notable exception being the U.S.) you may think it’s hard to get confused — except when you’re country-hopping, outside the Eurozone, or just in too much of a hurry to see if that somber guy drawn on your bill is from the country you’re actually in.

2. “Non-Exportable” Gifts and Souvenirs
If you’ve fallen in love with (and immediately purchased) a unique handicraft made out of natural materials such as preserved plant products or small amounts of animal skin, feathers, or fur, beware of these items being confiscated by border police — not because it’s prohibited to take such items out of the country, but because corrupt cops want to sell them back to the tourist shops (who peddle them to other unsuspecting travelers). This is a particular problem in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.

What should you do? Only buy natural product/”heritage” items from larger stores that provide information (such as in a product insert) about where the product came from. A good bet is to buy such items from government-operated museums, zoos, aquariums, or the like. At the other end of this scam, remember that legitimate border police should be able to produce written regulations stating what natural product items cannot be exported.

3. The “Red-Light Bag Grab”
Think your bags are safe beside you when you’re sitting in your taxi at a red light? Not always so. In Southeast Asia, South America, and South Africa, thieves on motorbikes (or even on foot) may simply open the unlocked door across from you and grab your carry-on, briefcase, or purse. What’s worse, your innocent-looking cab driver might be in on the scam.

To reduce the risk of this scam, make sure your taxi door and the one across from you is locked — and by all means, try to avoid taxis with roof-top luggage racks which make the temptation even greater for crooks.

4. Dual Menus
A bar or restaurant can scam you by providing a menu with inexpensive prices, then taking the menu once you’ve ordered. Later you get a bill with double or triple the prices, and once you make a fuss, the manager produces a menu with the higher prices on it. This scam is most common in China and parts of Southern Europe.

A fairly straightforward way to avoid this is to simply hold onto the menu until you’re ready to pay — or better yet, stay out of bars or restaurants with too-good-to-be-true specials, and that clearly cater to tourists. Your hotel will probably be happy to tell you which restaurants in the neighborhood may give you indigestion in more ways than one.

5. “Per Person” Taxi Charge
Before you get into an unmetered taxi — especially an independently-operated taxi in a country not known for treating tourists well — ask the driver if the quoted price for you and your partner/friends is for the ride, or per person. Nothing is going to sour you and your (possibly) drunken group more than being told at your destination that you owe three or four times what you thought you did. Of course, you can always give the driver the price he gave you when you hired him, and walk away — but it’s inadvisable as you could be harassed, followed, or worse.

6. Your Passport as Security for Equipment Rental or Debt
The news that two passengers aboard Malaysian Air Flight MH370 traveled with stolen passports has generated a flurry of reports on how many passports are stolen every year — and how easily people make themselves vulnerable to such scams. It’s remarkable how many people will hand over their passport to people behind a counter in a foreign country — even for things like kayak or motorbike rental. If a clerk in a beachside or roadside establishment demands your passport — in addition to your credit card information — in exchange for equipment rental, beware. Pay cash wherever possible, demand a receipt (even handwritten) and hand over some other form of identity (such as your work badge) instead.

Next week: lodging scams, “free tours,” forced upgrades, and other things that will make you fume, rage, and rant unless you wise up.  Stay safe out there, and stay smart!

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How to Travel on a Special Diet

Lactose intolerance.  Gluten-free diets.  Low-sodium diets. Any one of dozens of food allergies… and more.   Plenty of us are on a special diet or have restrictions on what we can eat, often for medical reasons.   Some people won’t even go on long trips abroad because they’re justifiably worried that a meal could send them to the hospital — or leave them stranded in the bathroom of the Holiday Inn.  One thing is for sure: anxiety over what we eat far from home isn’t limited to concerns about food poisoning or an upset stomach.  If you find that eating abroad causes you a lot of stress, you might find the following tips helpful.

Research local dishes before you go.  Part of the highlight of going to places like South Africa, Peru, or Mongolia is to try different food — and your food allergy or diet restriction threaten to hamper your culinary exploration.  Learn more about what people eat where you’re going, before you go, to find a popular dish that will fit your diet.  Try going to http://www.eatyourworld.com for more information by country and region.  At the very least, you can find out the ingredients in several dishes, the various types of preparations, and what to definitely avoid.

Book a hotel room or suite with a kitchenette. These don’t have to be expensive, and are more prevalent overseas than you may think.   Many such hotels are found where the tourist areas meet residential districts, which means that a supermarket is usually just down the street.  I’ve noted that such hotels, though, can be very fussy about requesting that you clean up the kitchen, completely, before you go out for the day (presumably to avoid possible pest nuisances), so be prepared to do “kitchen duty” before you go out sightseeing.

When eating out, stick with basic foods.  The less sauce, fixings, and “concoction recipes” you indulge in, the safer you’ll be — even if it takes some of the fun out of it.  The best choices include plain vegetables, grilled chicken or fish, and plain rice or pasta.  The waitress will give you a bored look, but at least you’ll be able to see her again the next evening for dinner.

Don’t make assumptions at globalized restaurants.  Is it true that a burger you order at McDonald’s or TGI Friday’s abroad is 99% similar to what you get at your favorite chain at home?  Absolutely — and it’s that 1% difference that could wreak havoc on your system.  One minor additive from a local source can make you ill, so start out with small portions at that Burger King in Siberia or Hong Kong to see if you have a reaction.

Remind the airline before you board that you ordered a special meal.  How many passengers have been vexed by flight attendants who come down the narrow aisle with chicken-or-beef in one hand and no inkling of your requested special entree?  By the time you (and everyone else on board) is ready to eat, it might be too late for the crew to locate and bring you what you reserved.  Verify upon check-in or baggage drop that you will be served the special meal(s) you requested.

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The airline’s cold breakfast — possibly the most straightforward meal you’ll eat on your entire trip.

Phobias vs. Fears: Which Control us More?

At some point in our lives, most of us will develop a phobia.  Some of us will develop a few of them, actually.  Phobias come in so many forms, and many of them are so common, that most of us don’t have a problem talking about them — and they kind of ride along with us through life, like a minor sore on the back of our head.  We even joke about phobias; they’ve become part of the popular culture.   Claustrophobia.  Agoraphobia.  Arachnophobia.  Many of us would rather talk in terms of “our phobias” instead of “our fears” or “our anxiety.”  Phobias, being very specific in nature, usually have a good justification  — something that most people can relate to and talk about without needing (or wanting) to go into three hours of miserable backstory of how they “got this way.”  I have a real phobia about…  yes, that just sounds so much healthier to describe the things that, well, freak us out.

Can you name your phobia(s)?  Probably.  But can you name all your fears?  That’s undoubtedly a longer list.  We develop fears before we can even spell the word, after all.  And fear is an overused word.  I fear this, I fear that.  Technically speaking, “fear” is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.  An emotion.  Interesting.  So what exactly, is a phobia?

Well, there are lots of long-winded definitions.  But a phobia is basically a fear that impairs your life.  Your unpleasant emotion had mushroomed into an aversion.

If you fear something,  you can do it, see it, or live with it anyway. If you have a phobia about something… you can’t.  You avoid it at all costs, even if you know you’re overreacting.

So would you still rather talk about your phobias than your fears?

The fact is, we can function just fine through life with a phobia or two.  We can also live normal lives with a number of fears.  But how do we tell when a particular growing fear has become a phobia?  When does that fear lead to a condition where we’re shutting down a small part of our life — or making our lives more difficult?

I knew a woman from Toronto who wouldn’t drive at night, for any reason.  She had to travel back and forth to Miami a lot for her job, and one fall afternoon her flight got delayed and she landed in Toronto at 7:30 pm.  It was a calm, dry evening, and she was staring at her car in the lot, debating.  She just had to drive to her small farm about 55 miles outside the city — a route that she knew well.  Could she do it?  No.  She wasn’t even thinking about what had caused her fear, and eventually her phobia: a friend hitting an animal at midnight some years ago, and waking up in a ditch paralyzed.  All this woman could think was: NIGHT: DRIVE: NO.  Could she have taken a cab?  You bet.  But she walked to the nearest airport hotel, and put herself up for the night.  Did this woman have a phobia?

I’ll compare her to a guy I sat next to on a flight from Casablanca to Lisbon last month. He was originally from Mali,  mid-20s,  loved to fly — and could tell me everything about the Boeing 767 we were on, bragging about the safety features as if he’d designed them himself.   He admitted, though, that he had a real “hang-up” with flying over populated areas, and explained that’s why he loved our particular flight — because it was “all ocean.” I had to inform him that no, we were going to fly — pretty low, I might add — over the entire city of Lisbon before landing.  He didn’t believe me until we blazed right over the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, close enough to tell SUVs from cars.

Well, this guy went into a bit of a panic.  Switching seats with me, so he could be in the aisle seat, didn’t help.  But what could he do?  Nothing, except live through his phobia, and wait for the plane to not suddenly clip a building or a power line.   I thought about how, sometimes, not knowing everything about what we’re going to do is sometimes good, because you can end up looking your phobia right down the throat before you’re wound up in that anticipatory dread that helped turn the f-word into your aversion in the first place.

I didn’t tell the man this.  I asked him to think about what our plane must look like to the people on the bridge, and the roads leading to the airports.  Some of them had to fear that our plane would crash, inexplicably, into their paths, and end their ultimate journey.  But they were still driving down there, even though there were plenty of places to pull over.  They weren’t stopping.

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