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.

“What?”

“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.

old-man2

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

 

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.)

Relaxation Opportunities in the World’s Airports

As many of us can attest to, dozens of modern international airports are like mini-cities, complete with malls, chapels, huge kid’s play areas, two-story food plazas, and sometimes even golf courses and movie theaters.  As travel services have evolved into an art, more and more airports have focused on offering the weary, anxious, or downright cranky traveler the chance to de-stress — to the point that some of us might even forget we’re in an airport.  Spas?  Art galleries?  Gardens?  They’re in many of the world’s largest and most popular hubs — maybe even in the one you call your own.

You don’t have to belong to an airline’s VIP club to access most of these relaxing amenities; you just have to find the right terminal.  So, if you have a choice of where to spend a long layover on your next trip, I offer these observations about some of the best airports out there where you can settle your frazzled nerves instead of dreading the next bout of altitude.  I’m sure you can think of a few other airports where you wouldn’t mind killing some time at all.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia

  • Rainforest
  • Reflexology and massage center

Narita International Airport, Tokyo

  • Silence room
  • Reflexology center
  • Oxygen bar

Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates

  • Two indoor Zen gardens, located on either end of the concourse

San Francisco International Airport

  • Yoga room
  • Library
  • Aquarium
  • Art galleries

Schiphol International, Amsterdam

  • Library
  • Museum

(No offense to Schiphol, but besides the library and museum, this has to be one of the noisiest, most hectic airports on earth… and this is after they ditched the one-terminal concept!)

Beijing International Airport

  • Temples and pond

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

  • The “Backrub Hub,” offering neck and back massages

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

  • Self-service yoga studio

Incheon International Airport, South Korea

  • Spa
  • Indoor gardens
  • Museum
  • Private sleeping rooms

Heathrow, London

  • Art Gallery
  • Be Relax Spa

Taiwan International Airport

  • Library featuring e-books, regular books, and magazines and newspapers

Charles de Gaulle, Paris

  • Be Relax Spa
  • Movie theater

Changi Airport, Singapore

  • Five themed gardens, one of them home to more than a thousand butterflies
  • Free calf-massage stations
  • Designated napping facilities

Vancouver International Airport

  • Sleep pods, complete with noise-canceling earphones

I can think of some airports I’d put on a different list for being the loudest, most irritating, panic attack-inducing places on earth, but alas, one of the best ways to manage stress is to keep things positive.  So, I’ll leave you with this image — wherever you may be right now.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Too bad more of us don’t find laying over in Tallinn, Estonia convenient.  The international airport, Lennart Meri Tallinn, has passenger relaxation at every gate down to an art.

Does Jet Lag Impact Your Stress Level?

I’ve asked a lot of travelers this question, and consistently noted that about half of people say yes, and about half say no. Jet lag is one of those things international travelers inevitably have to manage, and something that we either learn to put up with, ignore, or (at the very least) use as a good explanation for our coworkers, family, and friends after we get back from a trip and feel like we’re stumbling through a fourth dimension for a week.

Interestingly, those who admit that jet lag causes them quite a bit of anxiety discover that it’s actually worrying about jet lag that causes them the most stress (how will it affect them physically?  Mentally?  Emotionally?) while those that say jet lag doesn’t bother them often say that while jet lag is irritating, it relaxes them in a certain way — unlike any other physiological phenomenon.   These are people who actually don’t mind having their natural body rhythms thrown off because it is a break from their daily rut of work-eat-sleep-worry-work-eat-sleep-rinse-and-repeat.   In other words, jet lag is just a feature of being on vacation, of doing something different.

Given the varying reactions and all the anecdotes and quick-fix recommendations that abound out there on how to deal with jet lag, it’s worth taking a closer look.

Jet lag results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms caused by trans-meridian (west–east, or east-west) air travel.  When traveling across a number of time zones, your body’s natural pattern is upset as the cycles that govern times for sleeping, eating, and body temperature regulation no longer correspond to your environment.  To the extent that your body cannot immediately realign these rhythms, you are “jet lagged.”  Symptoms can either aggravate anxiety, or be mistaken for intensified side effects of medications.  Some of the most common jet lag symptoms include:

  • Ÿ         Headache and irritability;
  • Ÿ         Balance and coordination problems;
  • Ÿ         Difficulty concentrating;
  • Ÿ         Early awakening (if flying west) or trouble falling asleep (if flying east); and
  • Ÿ         Interrupted sleep (to say the least).

Jet lag usually occurs with a change of three time zones or more, and the extent to which you’re affected depends on the number of time zones crossed.  If you’re unfamiliar with jet lag (or just want to explain it as painlessly as possible to your great-aunt), it’s worth noting that the maximum possible disruption is plus or minus twelve hours.  If the time difference between two locations is greater than twelve hours, subtract that number from 24 to understand the “adjusted” time zone difference.  New Zealand, for example, being nineteen hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, would pose only a five-hour jet lag challenge to a traveler from California.

The recovery time for jet leg is generally one day per time zone crossed, although many people (particularly those who travel more) are able to recover faster.  Women are affected by jet lag more than men, since normal nighttime and daytime body rhythms are connected to estrogen levels.  Recovery will also depend on whether your flight(s) are overnight or scheduled during the day.  You’ll typically experience more jet lag if you begin a long flight mid-morning or early afternoon than if you take a “red eye” flight departing at eight p.m. or later (it helps, of course, if you can actually fall asleep on an airplane).

Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to avoid jet lag altogether.  You can talk to your general care practitioner about where specifically you’re going, and how to strategize flight times and sleep hours, to try to minimize the impacts.  Your doctor may suggest getting only a minimal amount of sleep the night before your flight (so that you’re naturally sleepy when you arrive at your destination) or taking a prescription-strength sleep medication for the first several nights of your trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How will you feel after making this trip?!

Addressing Common Stress Triggers while Touring a City: Part 2

We’ve covered how to manage detours, crowds, and making eye contact with so many strangers.  What else can make you wig out on a vacation, and what can you do about it?

Accidents.  Seeing an accident while touring – whether it involves a slip, trip, fall, or a vehicle – can jar your confidence and make you feel like you’re next to have disaster descend upon you.  Depending on how much you can relate to the person who suffered the accident, and just how bad it was, you may put sudden limits on your physical activities or transportation that can rapidly develop into a phobia.  There are some things to understand about accidents before your healthy precautions build into a cage of fear.

I once saw a middle-aged tourist do a full somersault down the departures escalator at London’s Heathrow Airport.  He was distracted by writing on the luggage tag of his carry-on bag, and lost his balance as the escalator belt hit a bump followed by a small jerk.  The next thing the man knew he’d flipped upside down, and then lay dazed on his tailbone on the bottom step.

Interestingly, about half the people at the scene (the ones who hadn’t seen him writing up his luggage tag, completely oblivious to his surroundings) were shocked and horrified; the others (who’d seen what the man had been doing) had a look on their faces like, “Well, what did he expect?”

The point is that most of the accidents you see or hear about – perhaps of a taxi driver backing into a tourist, or of someone twisting their ankle between cobblestones – are not true “accidents,” but mistakes.  An accident implies that nothing could be done to prevent the incident from happening, when really a lot could be done in most cases – if people were paying attention and taking the proper precautions.   Once you realize this, and understand that it takes two people, places, or things to have an “accident,” the less anxiety you will suffer.  Instead of blaming an elevator or a door or a moving vehicle, you recognize that by being vigilant you not only make up for hazards and for other people’s carelessness, but you give yourself a lot more control over your surroundings.

Perceived sounds of distress.   Anxious people have often experienced a significant trauma in their past.  Certain noises, particularly screaming and shrieking, can cause you great alarm and induce sweating, heart palpitations, and other physiological manifestations.  If you suffer from this phobia, screaming is not an expression of a good time, but a sign of an emergency.  Screaming children at play can make you think someone is hurt, and I know several women who are haunted by images of sexual assault when they hear teenage girls screaming.

To keep your reaction from escalating, take a quick look at what screaming children or teenagers are doing, and observe other people’s reactions to them.  If there was really something wrong, wouldn’t others notice and step in to help?

In general, someone else’s noise rarely has anything to do with you.  If it’s still a significant anxiety trigger, try to stay away from amusement parks, carnivals, and other places where you’re most likely to hear excitement bordering on terror.

Avoiding confrontation when taking photographs.  If you’re a visual person and want to relive many moments of your trip, then taking pictures will be one of the most rewarding and essential parts of your journey.  Unfortunately, it’s the one thing you do in the normal course of touring that can cause some provocation – usually because people are concerned that they’ve appeared in your photo (or video footage).  In general, the more elaborate your camera is, the more attention you’re going to attract using it.  Snapping shots with your cell phone is going to draw the least attention; setting up a tripod with a camera the size of your head will attract a lot more; and walking around with a videocamera constantly raised and pointing will attract the most.

You may be aware of all of this, and have reluctantly resolved to hold back your shutterbug impulses.  However, there’s no need to restrict yourself like this, and later regret what you didn’t get on film.  Here are some tips to avoid confrontation and ease anxiety when out and about with a camera.

Portray clear intentions.  If you want to photograph a famous landmark and there are people constantly milling around, look directly at what you’re shooting and don’t make eye contact with the people around it.  This will reassure others that you’re not interested in them or in invading their privacy.

If someone confronts you about whether you’ve taken a picture of them, or included them in your shot or video footage, offer to erase the photo.  In almost every case they won’t actually take you up on this; they just want some reassurance that you’re a tourist and not a voyeur.  If they do take you up on it, then wait until they’re out of the picture, so to speak, and re-shoot.  It’s a lot faster than arguing with someone and getting yourself significantly distressed.

Watch what others are doing.  If there are signs or graphics around a place indicating that photography isn’t allowed, take a look at whether others are shooting photos anyway.  I have been in museums or churches that officially ban photography (and state so right on the front door), yet people were taking pictures left and right and no one stopped them.  If you want the same picture everyone else is taking, then take it.  The worst that can happen is that a grounds person comes by and chastises the whole lot of you.

The opposite can hold true for military buildings and embassies.  Military buildings can be surprisingly difficult to recognize, and it’s usually understood that absolutely no pictures can be taken even if there are no signs indicating such.  Embassy districts are usually filled with attractive buildings and landscapes that make for great picture opportunities, but keep in mind that they often prohibit photography as well.

In poor areas where local or indigenous people depend heavily on tourists for economic survival, check to see if you’re expected to pay to take a photograph (of a person, place, or item).  Save yourself embarrassment and stress by abiding by the rules.

Don't get stressed out: these Moscow port-o-potties smell as nice as freshly carved matryoshka dolls

Imagine my embarrassment when I stopped to take a quick picture of these cool port-o-potties in Moscow, then thought in horror that the woman to the left forgot to close the door for herself (she was just the babuskha collecting the rubles)

Addressing Common Stress Triggers While Touring a City: Part 1

Part of the fun of traveling is getting to explore the unknown.  Unfortunately, the delight of discovering something new and different can sometimes come with significant distractions and aggravations.  Addressing and managing several of the most pervasive “travel anxiety triggers” is easily possible, and will help you get back to enjoying your trip.

Detours.  The more you travel, the more you’ll realize that the world is an unfinished work of art.  The average metropolis can have at least half a dozen construction projects shaking the ground at once, while a mega-city can have a dozen or more.  Popular tourist destinations become even more popular and congested when they win a bid to host a major sporting event, or cultural or political summit; new coliseums, arenas, hotels, and rail tracks suddenly spring from the dirt, outdating your map and giving you a new challenge in the form of blocks-long rows of pylons and yellow tape.  Although construction detours are the most common you will find, you might also encounter detours to accommodate marches, protests, security lockdowns for government officials, biking and marathon events, and others.

Unfortunately, pedestrian detours can lead to confusion, disorientation, and getting very, very lost if you don’t know how to handle them.  Your stress level is going to shoot sky-high if you “follow the orange signs” only to find yourself in an alley at dusk with no idea which direction to turn.  Here are some useful guidelines for managing detours.

  1. Trust the logic of the detour.  City planners and engineers have to get a number of high-level approvals to implement one, and while not all detours are intuitive, the basic goal is to get you as close as possible back to where you need to be, in the shortest amount of time.  You may have to let go of your initial assessment of where you should be, and go with the flow of a detour even if it feels like you’re going the wrong way.  As any construction worker would tell you, there’s a reason why two U-turns gets you headed in the right direction again.
  2. Before you go through the detour, clearly understand where you are by picking a landmark that you can identify from blocks away (i.e., at the end of the detour).   This is essential if you need to retrace your steps, but the detour only allows foot traffic one way (this usually occurs with detours from a train or metro station).
  3. If you have no idea where you’ve ended up at the end of the detour, see where the majority of other people (especially commuters) are going, and follow them.  Tourist areas in most cities back right up to central business districts.  If you still can’t find the tourist area or where you want to go, and it’s too stressful to ask a stranger, then head back to the detour exit and try another direction.  Improvising after you’ve followed a bunch of people two blocks down the road is not a good idea.
  4. Recognize that detours can take you up or down as well as north, west, east, or south.  You may have to take stairs, tunnels, or escalators to avoid a construction zone.  If you think only in terms of traveling across, you could find yourself staring at a dirty wall.

Crowds.  There’s nothing like a throng of humanity crammed into a small plaza or a narrow street to aggravate even the most extroverted people.  Anxiety triggers include noise, getting jostled around, fear of pickpockets and other thieves, and feelings of constant self-consciousness.

The key to dispelling anxiety about crowds is to understand that they’re made up of smaller units of people.  In social settings, people rarely interact in groups larger than six or seven, and are so tuned in to each other that they won’t even notice you.  Except at private functions, each group knows very little about anyone outside their group.  And each group can look cliquish simply because they’re a little uncomfortable about all the strangers around them.

As a tourist, managing a crowd (i.e., bunches of groups) is usually a matter of either getting around it, or through it.  Groups in dining halls, plazas, or other confined settings can be the most challenging given the potential to get “stuck” for space between one group and another.  You’ll find that walking the perimeter of a gathering area can be less stressful as you reduce the number of times you have to break “through” people, and are simply going around them.

Crowds in line are often less intimidating.  People will pay attention to you at the beginning, for long enough to see if you’re going to cut in front of them; otherwise, their attention will be diverted to how fast they’re moving forward.

A third type of crowd gathers to fill a theater, stadium, or other event venue; their focus is on what’s happening in front of them, not on you.  Take a look around the rows and you’ll see that people are too absorbed to watch you.  If you still feel considerable anxiety being part of an audience, then sit in the back (or towards the top) where you won’t feel so many pairs of eyes staring at the back of your head.

Eye contact.  One of the most unnerving things for those of us who are shy, sensitive, and/or anxious is to pass, see, or be passed by hundreds or even thousands of strangers every day – many of whom, for whatever reason, want you to look back at them.  Stressful emotions that arise from unwanted eye contact include feelings of intimidation from being stared down; intense self-consciousness from people who sneer for no good reason; uneasiness from sexually suggestive ogling or once-overs; and the glares or grimaces of angry or sad people.  People carry a tremendous amount of emotional energy in their gaze, and making eye contact with every single person you come near could be so draining that you’re distracted from sightseeing.

One of the reasons people think they need to make eye contact is to avoid bumping into others.  The truth is, you don’t have to make eye contact in order to navigate sidewalks, shops, squares, and tourist attractions; if you look in the direction you want to go, then people will not bump into you.  Even if you have sunglasses on people will generally be able to tell by your body language what direction you plan to steer, since both your body and attention tilt slightly (but perceptibly) depending on what you’re focusing on.  You can make a similar evaluation of others by doing a split-second assessment of their focus and movements.

Is avoiding eye contact a way of giving into (or developing) a phobia?  Given the number of cultures that discourage direct eye contact between people on the street – and particularly between the opposite sex – it would be difficult to say yes.  Save the emotional energy it takes to make eye contact for the people who matter more – hotel staff, store clerks, and others who are helping you have a pleasant journey.

Just the idea of bumping right into strangers in crowded areas can stress people out.  In Japan, the authorities don't want to see you embarrassed (or bruised); the question is, does the translation really mean "crash"?

Just the idea of bumping right into strangers in crowded areas can stress people out. In Japan, the authorities don’t want to see you embarrassed (or bruised), and post “warning” signs that you might not see elsewhere.