The Power of Maps to Manage — or Provoke — Our Travel Fears

There’s a great existentialist saying out there:

“You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust, riding a rock, hurtling through space. Fear nothing.”

Once we as travelers — or aspiring travelers — have had a couple of minutes to conjure this mental image, we usually either smile or feel overwhelmed. Do you feel any bettter about buzzing around in a jet above that thing called earth when it’s already hurtling through the galaxy? Yes, we know we’re always rotating around the sun. But we don’t think about it much. We think about where we need to go. About relative distances. When we talk about traveling, though, we talk about going “far away.” But far away from what?

Ask someone who loves to travel the world where “home” is, and they might say that the whole world is home. Anywhere you look, there are three things: a horizon, a sky, and a sun. But asking someone to visualize exactly where they are on the globe can upset their sense of comfort. Who hasn’t been in Kazakstan, the Arctic Circle, or Madagascar in a nice hotel room eating Cheez-its and watching BBC when they take a look at a world map in their travel bag and felt marooned and suddenly lost? That feeling is: where am I?

Take one of those long flights on a cheap airline that offers no “entertainment” except the flight monitor screen showing you inching over an ocean or a continent. These little maps can really upset some people, and they look outside. Yep, out there is the sky, the horizon and that nice sturdy wing that will soon be coming into close contact with some familiar asphalt. Other people (probably those aisle-seat people for whom it’s “not just about the extra leg room”) can’t get their eyes off the map. They need to know where they are, and they rely on that visual map like a graphic compass.

If you’re an anxious traveler, the point is to know what type of person you are — one whose fears are alleviated by using and watching maps — or one who isn’t. Personally I need a sense of where I am on a world map at all times to feel comfortable. being a meat-coated skeleton hurtling a rock on a different piece of the stardust is part of the thrill of traveling for me. When I’m in the Arctic, can I sense mainland Europe and Africa being “below” me? Yes, that awareness is always there. If it wasn’t, I’d feel marooned. My mind would play tricks on me. When I’m in Northern Norway, I need to know that I’m closer to Alaska than I am to New Brunswick. If I didn’t, I’d feel lost. I’d go outside and literally take the sky, the horizon, and the sun for what they are — those things that are everywhere — and I’d get disoriented. I’d become afraid. Those things that are so familiar to me — the sky, the horizon, and the sun — would become a menace. I’d be back home, but in the Arctic.

You, on the other hand, might have ditched your map in Oslo. This is your new home. That’s north, that’s south, that’s east, and that’s west. You’re on a different chunk of planet Earth, but who needs specifics? You want a street map and nothing more. If you look at a world map, you might feel overwhelmed, because you might notice that you’re awfully close to the “edge,” in danger of falling off. You feel like Columbus, determined to prove that the horizon can never be reached. The key to alleviating your anxiety is to forget your geography class, and keep moving without thinking about exactly where you are. You’re an adventurous meat-coated ghost with a soul desire for adventure, hurtling on a rock through space.

The World Traveler Getting Back into the Game

Kevin, a traveler I helped over the course of four months and twenty very long, rambling email sessions, was eager to remind me that he’s almost double my age.  He also trumps my “country conquest numbers”; by July 2000, he’d been to 80 countries around the world.  He took a break for a year to have surgery on his knee.  By September 2011, he was ready to travel again.  On September 15, 2001, he canceled his his scheduled trip to Cape Town, South Africa.  Then over 14 years passed.

Kevin’s granddaughter grew up and majored in international relations.  Kevin’s passport expired.  He stopped making weekend trips from his native Edinburgh to London.  “I used to be able to make that trip on a bike,” he said.  Sure, it would take him a couple days.  Now it would take him a couple days to dig out his bucket list, read it, realize he was “better off” at home, and go back to watching National Geographic lion cub videos.

I wasn’t sure how to help him at first because I didn’t know what the problem was.  Fear of terrorism?  Fears of violence or illness in South Africa?  I told him I happened to be going to South Africa on May 24, 2016.  I could work through his fears as I confronted my own, and we did a lot of that through our emails.  It eventually became clear what he was most afraid of: not living up to the “standard” he’d once set as a younger traveler.  He would be ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone he knew that he did what he secretly wanted  on a trip– sit around and enjoy his hotel room all morning, eat a deli-mart breakfast on the beach instead of eating shark meat or something else to tell his friends about back home, and then go on a day safari instead of renting a jeep and plunging into the backroads to see the lions in what he said would just be a “stressful” experience.  He said he wanted to take it easy and see the animals, not have to constantly monitor them.  But…

“Travel is like a sport to me,” he wrote.  “I have this feeling that if I’m not going to make a great accomplishment, and get every minute out of every hour, then I shouldn’t even bother playing, Rita.”   How do I get an ambitious perfectionist to relax and do what he truly wants with his hard-earned vacation money?

“What if you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?” I asked him.


“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.  “Then there’s no updating your Facebook page with travel “accomplishments.”  There’s no racing around town to find people the “best” souvenirs.  There’s no exhausting yourself just so you look like a hero with a passport.”

I lost contact with him for a week.  Then, all of a sudden, an update on his Facebook page: he was taking a three-week bike trip from Edinburgh to London.  He wasn’t taking his iPhone, much to the chagrin of a lot of his 733 FB friends.  He was going off the grid.  Don’t even bother looking for him in the hills outside London, he announced on his wall.  Then he wrote to me: “Need you to help me buy a three-week trip to Africa.  Never bought airline tickets online before!”

Conveniently enough, British Airways flies nonstop from London to Cape Town and back.  I didn’t dare mention the escapade last year to Kevin about two South African refugees who hitchhiked in the plane engine all the way back from Cape Town to England.  He wrote to me a few hours after he checked into his hotel overlooking the Table Mountains.

“This doesn’t feel like Country #83,” he said.  “It feels like Country #1.”

We agreed he should avoid all subliminal reference to anything being “#1.”  But, dang, Kevin, you beat me to it.  My flight for Cape Town doesn’t leave for three more weeks.


Alpha male with a plane ticket

The Cruise Ship that’s Still Waiting for You

Rotterdam in The Netherlands is often overlooked as a tourist city.  It’s big, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s flashy, it’s gritty, and it looks and feels nothing like Amsterdam.  Perhaps it’s “the other Holland ” — a maritime wonder, a reflection of multicultural Europe, a port that is just secluded enough from the Atlantic to make you feel like you’re in the heart of the mainland.  I found myself there this February as a matter of curiosity, and a desire to explore more of The Netherlands than just its canal-laden tourist treasure.  The SS Rotterdam hotel was my stop for just one night.  Yes, a hotel entirely consisting of a massive docked cruise ship.  The receptionists are dressed like sailors, and the guests are among the more unique and colorful you’ll find on the travel trail.

Henry and Laetitia, I think, were the only other people on my floor (level?  cargo hold?), and they were both wearing enough navy blue and white to embarrass a  J Crew himself.  They were both about 70, and they saw me doing my aerobics out in the nice flower gardens in front of the ship at 3 am to burn off my jetlag.  Now, I’m not normally that talkative at 2 am, especially with French people who are ballroom dancing on a balcony in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take me long to engage with this couple from Toulouse, France about just why they were enjoying their stay so much.  They had never been on a cruise before, although they dearly wanted to.

“This is as close as we’re going to get,” Laetitia told me.

“We’re afraid,” Henry confessed to me.  “We’re older, we get on a cruise, there’s an epidemic on board and we both get sick, the winds or the water kick up and one of us slips on the deck and breaks our leg, or who knows, the thing sinks.  We don’t trust cruise ships.”

They had their laundry list of places they wanted to sail, but “couldn’t” sail: St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Canary Islands, Alaska, the Shetland Islands.  Laetitia had survived a near-drowning incident when she was 20, and it soon became clear to me that this couple was held back as much by that as by fears of shipwide contagion or starring in a reality remake of Poseidon.  How do I tell a woman who’s 70 that she could be enjoying herself so much on a Princess that she won’t even realize she’s hovering above millions of gallons of what nearly killed her?

I offered my various visualization strategies, and by the time 4 am rolled around, the “sailor” tour guide in the “control room” was starting to wonder about us.  “Is everything in your rooms to your satisfaction?” he asked

“Can you do one of your ship tours right now?” I blurted out.

“Right now?” he said.

“Yes.”  Well, we got our $100 worth in the form of a walkthrough of the engine room, the chart room, the control room, and everything else with an electrical panel on it that we could keep straight in our heads.  Why did I go?  Because I’ve coached anxious flyers to overcome their fears via cockpit tours, and this seemed like basically the same thing except for a ship.  I see that point where people are too relieved and happy to remember exactly what was holding them back.  Can two retirees still have that feeling of restless desire to make up for lost time?

“I don’t feel like I’m on water,” Laetitia said, “I feel like I’m on an island.”

Yes, I persuaded an elderly couple to go on a cruise ship tour in the middle of the night, and then to book a riverboat cruise down the Danube a week later.  I’ve been helping Laetitia work through her unresolved fears about cruises via email ever since.  Henry won’t talk to me; he says I remind him of Kate Winslet for some reason, and then he just thinks about Titanic.  Fair enough, Henry.   But send me a postcard from the world’s largest floating post office.

The SS Rotterdam in The Netherlands


Travel as a Form of Alzheimer’s Therapy: A Mother and Daughter’s Adventure

Emma and her mother, Judy, are letting me share their story on this blog.

Emma is 50 and Judy is 81.  Four years ago, Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Emma wanted to spend more time with her mother, and dearly wanted to take a trip together — while they still could — but the strain of one disease on two women was evident in three short phone calls with them.    They didn’t even know where they wanted, or could, go.

Emma had pretty well-defined anxieties about traveling; she readily admitted to problems dealing with hotel noise and getting lost.  Worst, “Touring is complete overload,” she told me.  “When I travel, everything I see reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what, and it sticks with me and piles up on me, and it’s impossible to enjoy myself.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “And I also start eating too much.  Every time I can’t clear my head, I eat.”

Judy, on the other hand, was relatively carefree.  Yes, Alzheimer’s is devastating, but how would you like to forget certain things that give many of us heart palpitations?  Judy couldn’t remember news coverage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 being shot down mid air, or suicidal German pilot Andreas Lubitz ramming a planeload of innocent travelers into the Alps.  To my astonishment (happiness?) she couldn’t even recall 9/11.

“It’s on my ICE list, dear,” Judy said.

“Pick a place for us,” Emma told me.  “We’re paying to pick the best place out there for us to go to. And it better not be too far.”

My mission was clear.  Judy was in a wheelchair, so I ruled out a trip to Latin America; there was just no guarantee of disabled access, even in the larger cities.  Still, Emma and Judy wanted an “international vacation,” so Canada became the obvious choice.  Before I knew it, I was picking out flights for them from Oakland, California to Victoria, British Columbia.  Being on an island sounded “manageable” to Emma, and Judy realized she wanted to see the Butchart Gardens.

The first thing I told Emma was to get her mom out of the electric wheelchair.  Push her around all day, I said.  You’ll interact more, you’ll get great exercise, and it will feel so different than what you’re used to. And please, Emma, don’t plan every notch of your itinerary because it will just make you feel tied down and obligated, and your mother will forget it all anyway.  Victoria is a relatively small, safe, welcoming and sedate city.  You don’t really have to plan anything.  My hope was that Emma would be so busy seeing things through her mother’s eyes that she didn’t notice the things that normally bothered her.

Emma and Judy believed in what I had to say.  On a vacation, it didn’t really matter if Judy didn’t remember anything.  They were living in the moment. It didn’t even matter if Judy wouldn’t remember much of this very trip.  We don’t go on adventures just to make mental keepsakes out of them; we go to exert ourselves with all five senses.  Memory isn’t one of our five senses.  We spend a lot of energy as a society caring for Alzheimer’s victims, so why do we emphasize “reclaiming” experiences so much?  Why don’t we think more along these lines — of the exhilarating immersion in a new environment that Alzheimer’s can’t touch?

Beyond that, the irony of Emma and Judy’s experience is that Emma feared certain aspects of traveling because her mother feared them.  Now that Judy wasn’t sensitized to the same old anxieties, mother and daughter couldn’t feed off each other’s worries.  Relief… and more proof that fear of travel is learned, not innate.  Not something that Emma would every actually admit to, of course.

I got a postcard of the Butchart Gardens that featured lipstick kisses of both ladies.

Looking back on the trip, I wrote to Emma that night, what was the worst thing you encountered?

“God,” she said, “I don’t recall.”


Confronting Racism During Travel

It’s a fact: most people in Europe don’t interact much with Latin Americans.  Even as multicultural as Europe is today — with sizable immigrant and migrant populations from the Middle East, Africa, even the Far East – there are only tiny communities of people from places like Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica (for cultural and linguistic reasons, Spain is the obvious exception).  Many people in the ex-Communist countries can’t remember the last time they met someone from Latin America; many have never even heard the term “Hispanic.”  So what happens when you’re Latino and want to visit Eastern Europe?  Especially in the middle of Europe’s polarizing refugee crisis?

I was approached last month by Alissa and Alfredo Morales (who let me use their full names in this blog entry).  They’d lived in California since they were children; Alissa was born in El Salvador and Alfredo was from Mexico.  Racially… they looked Middle Eastern.  What would usually be a sensitive topic was laid out very bluntly over Skype.  On their honeymoon this August to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Alissa and Alfredo had repeatedly been mistaken for Syrian refugees, and the result was shameful and humiliating.  They were asked at a Hungarian train station how long they’d been on the road to Germany.  Alissa was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant.  Upon boarding a city bus in Cesky Krumlov, they were asked for their passports — for a journey that lasted five miles.  They’d been detained at a small train station at the Slovakian border for two hours while customs agents went through all their belongings – in “response to increased security concerns.”  They were kicked out of a department store in suburban Prague for a reason they still don’t know (the store manager spoke only Czech and German), but strongly believe had something to do with the fact that they resembled no one around them.

“Our honeymoon was ruined,” Alissa told me tearfully.  “What could we have done differently?”

I had to think about this for awhile.  Finally I told Alissa that there are two truths: 1) people’s natural curiosity about foreigners can often override their bias, and 2) deep down, people often want their worst thoughts about others to be proven wrong.   I had learned this while traveling in rural parts of Russia where, to say the least, people aren’t big fans of Americans.  Alissa and Alfredo were surprised by what I had to share, and I was equally surprised when they told me they wanted to “redo” their honeymoon by going back to Budapest in late October.

“We were so upset and distracted on our first trip that we didn’t get to see or do half the things we wanted to,” Alfredo told me.

Needless to say, it took exceptional bravery to want to go back, and we continued to work together.  I told them that no two individuals are going to change how frustrated Eastern Europeans feel about their tiny countries being “invaded” by migrants.  Alissa and Alfredo admitted that most of the time when they were out and about on their trip, they’d turned angry and bitter, and this probably hadn’t helped how they were perceived.  Alissa, I said, you’re going to have to smile.  Talk with strangers; go out of your way to do it.   They will know soon enough that you are an American.  Those bored train station attendants who look like they want to give you a hard time? Ask them if they can take a picture of you two.  Heck, they are already staring at you.  If you ask for a picture, you are most obviously a tourist, not someone who is there to claim asylum.  Make friends with the people who “have” to like you because you are buying their services: your hotel reception staff.  You can rely on them for help if you get “detained” in the city.  They know you are Hispanics, Americans, tourists.  Even the most biased people will help you in the interest of doing business.

Alissa and Alfredo always took great pride in being independent tourists and exploring on foot, but we agreed that the chance of them being stopped by bigoted police was lower if they were on the Hop-on Hop Off bus — and they agreed.   I told them  to spend a little extra money to take a taxi than a city bus, and to have their American passports ready to show at the train stations rather than having to rummage for them and give some restless Slovakian time to demand what’s in their bags.  The reality is, it’s a lot easier on a short trip to work around and avoid people’s suspicions than try to alter their stereotypes or worst fears.  I told them, You’ve been to Hungary before; you know what to expect.  The worst is over.  Now you just have to do it again – the difference is that this time, you’re going to enjoy it.

They took off on their “new” honeymoon on October 24, and I heard back from them a couple days ago.   They sounded relaxed and excited.  They were staying at a much smaller hotel this time where they had a great relationship with the husband and wife owners,  who gave them some pointers of their own and found them an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.

“We’ve found the only Mexican restaurant in all of Budapest,” Alissa said.

“How is it?”  I asked.

“Well, the manager asked me to cook a dish for him,” she replied.  “I took it as a complement.”

Well done, Alissa.


The Agoraphobe Who Longs to Travel

Fellow travelers,
I’ve taken a couple months off from this blog to do some important work with people who desperately want or need to take a trip, but have been frozen in place by their own travel fears.  I would not call this work “counseling,” but more like exercises in empowerment with anxious travelers who personally sought me out for help.

I worked for several weeks with Tom, a 30-year-old lab technician from Mill Valley (just north of San Francisco) who has taken three trips to London in the past four years only to sit in his hotel room almost every day while his girlfriend went sightseeing.  The only time Tom left his room was to go to the petrol station mini mart across the street for a bite to eat.  He didn’t want to eat at the restaurant hotel because he was worried about food poisoning.  He didn’t want to ride the Tube because he was worried about germs.  He was afraid to dart into the local tourist information centre because he feared the operators were in constant contact with foreigners, and carried nasty viruses.  On the third trip to London, Tom and his girlfriend, Katie, just missed their flight home because Tom spent an hour sanitizing his hotel room before check-out in order to protect the next guests from his own germs.  “I kid you not,” Tom says.  Needless to say, his relationship ended with his girlfriend.

Today, Tom emailed me from Auckland, New Zealand.  He’s been out on the beach for six hours and coming to terms with his travel fears.  London was too much for him to jump into, he says; too many people, too many cramped spaces, too many stimuli that inspired his fears about viruses and hygiene to take on an irrational life of their own.  Auckland was the perfect place for him to take that one large, important step forward.  He has the vacation time saved up at work to come back to Auckland and try something he’s always wanted to do: a sailing trip in a small island chain of the South Pacific.  And he is certainly happy at the idea of being able to eat what he catches, without anyone else touching it.

Tom, it was a privilege to work with you, and I wish you all the best on your upcoming sailing adventure.  I’m so glad you feel free at last of your worst travel anxieties.  London will be there.  And don’t forget… there are some great sailing opportunities down the Thames.


How to Find a Quiet Place to Relax in a Crowded Foreign City

Do you often come back from a trip and feel like you need a “vacation to recover from your vacation?”  You’re not alone.

Many people feel this way because they didn’t let themselves decompress at any time while they were away.  Given the greater emotional and physical energy exerted during a trip, it’s easy to feel drained or overstimulated during and after travel.   Finding a tranquil place to relax and regroup during your trip is one of the most obvious ways to prevent mental or emotional burnout — and keep every day of your vacation feeling (almost) like the first day you arrived.

Unfortunately, traditional “quiet” places may turn into anything but if everyone else decides to go there for their own relaxation.  Think of oceanside cafés that get so loud you can’t hear the waves washing up; well-known churches that sound like malls inside; and parks that put you in the path of an impromptu tag game – hardly anyone’s idea of peace.  Don’t think you have to return to your hotel room mid-day, or wander into an isolated (and potentially dangerous) area in order to “get away from it all.”  Here are a few universal, but often overlooked, places to unwind.

Botanical gardens.  These can sound like a bore to those not interested in plants, but botanical gardens have all of the relaxing characteristics of parks, but because of the (usually) small entrance fee, attract a different crowd; your chances of encountering skateboarding teenagers, drunks, or soccer practice are slim to none.   There is usually no shortage of places to sit down, and you can generally stay as long as you want after paying the day’s admission.

Universities.  Many universities have the look and feel of self-sustaining villages, and you’d have a hard time finding one without some green areas and benches (and often a pond and some wildlife).  Frat and sorority houses are less common outside North America, and while there’s obviously going to be plenty of activity on the main thoroughfares on weekdays, the overall atmosphere – especially on weekends – is subdued.  Another plus is that many universities are easily accessed within metropolitan areas, and even the grounds of most private universities are open to anyone.

Zoos.  You’d be hard pressed to find a zoo without an attractive, natural setting – and interacting with (or just watching) animals can quickly pull you out of your head and back into the moment.  About half of all major world cities have a zoo within three miles of tourist areas.  Try visiting on a weekday evening, or mid-afternoon after school groups have cleared out.

Embassy areas. These neighborhoods are particularly prominent in capital cities, and are often in easily accessible areas.  Although there aren’t many places to sit down, they are certainly a great place for a quiet stroll.  Embassy neighborhoods are rarely crowded, aesthetically pleasing, and you can let your guard down because security is second to none.

Stationed trains.  Particularly in European cities, long-distance trains pull into a station well before departure – by an hour, and sometimes more (especially if your city is the route terminus).  A parked train can be a very peaceful alternative to trying to rest your mind and feet in the chaotic main station hallway.  I’ve done it many times and not been bothered by attendants or conductors (unlike airplanes, which are usually swept and cleaned after every flight, the usual train is only serviced at the end of the day).

Obviously, you need to make sure the train doesn’t roll away taking you someplace you don’t want to go, but the chances of this happening are minimal as you’ll notice people start trickling in about ten minutes before departure.

Off-hours and hideaways in hotels.  After the maids have come through, and before the next round of guests check in, is an ideal time to get some peace in your hotel room, especially if it’s anything but tranquil in the evening and early morning. The ideal time window is usually between noon and three p.m.

If you’ve already checked out of a hotel, don’t feel bad about relaxing in the lobby a few hours after giving up your key.  It’s unlikely that any hotel employee will ask you to leave just because you’re done and paid for; after all, they want you to come back on your next trip, and write a nice online review about your stay.

Finally, a surprising number of hotels – particularly in Europe – have rooftop terraces.  These are often underutilized, because 1) guests aren’t aware of them, or 2) they simply forget to head up there.  The terrace can be a great escape when everyone else on your floor seems to be checking in, or coming in and out of their rooms, at the same time.  An added benefit is that you get to see the city from a bird’s-eye view, which can make it look less intimidating and give you a better perspective of where you are.

Airport quiet spots.  For some peace and space, many people know to head to the waiting area of a deserted gate.  Less commonly sought, but equally quiet places include interdenominational chapels (many international airports have one, and you don’t have to pray in order to use the room), and the lobbies of pre-check-in areas.  Most people automatically rush to the check-in counter and through security when they arrive at the airport, passing by many empty waiting areas adjacent to the airline ticket counters.

It's not always practical to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax if you know where to look. ( Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)

It’s not always realistic to find a place like this to unwind, but there are still plenty of places to relax out there — if you know where to look. (Pictured: Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland.)