Yesterday I booked a flight to Bali. No big deal, you might say; you’re living in Jakarta so it’s the obvious short-haul getaway. True enough, but when I go there in August it will be almost exactly 15 years since I arrived there for the first time in the summer of 1999. And it got me thinking about how I felt that first time, miles away from home on the start of what my mum later referred to as my ‘lone and courageous trip to Oz’.
I was 24 and I had decided to fly to Australia (via Bali) and backpack around the country on a year-long working visa. I had no idea what was waiting for me and I was completely oblivious to how that one trip would change the course of my life forever. Was I nervous? You bet I was. Did the idea of spending twelve months thousands of miles from home and with only a limited amount of cash scare the hell out of me? Damn right. But I was going to do it anyway.
Why? Because I knew I had to. I had split up from my boyfriend of two years because his father, Dennis, had died from cancer and we were both grieving for him differently. During his year-long illness Dennis had confided in me that he had always wanted to visit Australia and bitterly regretted never doing it. When he died I made the decision to go for him. I had seen what regrets did and wanted no part of it.
Once I actually got to Australia the fear and discomfort persisted. Every time I arrived at a new hostel I had to introduce myself and initiate conversations, apply for fruit-picking jobs I didn’t want to do (my degree in Textile Design proved virtually useless) and learn new skills that I was reluctant to try. Every day seemed to bring new challenges and that same old sick feeling in my stomach.
I soon realised that there were two ways I could deal with this. I could pack up and go home, safe in the knowledge that a life of travel and adventure was almost certainly not for me, or I could start doing the things I was afraid of. I thought of Dennis and the fear he was forced to face, our ultimate fear, the fear of dying, and I decided to stay. I knew that life was too short to give up so easily and I knew there was more to learn.
By the end of that year I had (among other things) met my best friend on a strawberry farm in Maroochydore, celebrated the dawn of a new Millennium with some wonderful (newly-made) Irish mates, completed a 52 hour bus journey from Melbourne to Perth (the very next day!), seen my favourite band, the Foo Fighters, perform live at The Big Day Out, climbed a 200 metre waterfall, worked on a vineyard, slept under the stars in the outback, watched loggerhead turtles hatching on a deserted beach at dusk, seen the most amazing sunrises of my life and navigated almost the entire circumference of Australia.
I did things I never thought were possible and I grew immeasurably stronger and much happier as a result. I had discovered my passion and knew I had to continue the journey, in every sense of the word. I went to Barcelona to do a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course and while I was there was offered a job in South Korea. That was the start of my teaching career and I’m still happily teaching and travelling 13 years later.
So, yes, you can play it safe. You can stay within your comfort zone and stick to what you know. You can hide from your fears or try to ignore them or just plain pretend they’re not there. But be warned: you will be limiting your experience and restricting who you are. You will be denying yourself the opportunity to find out what you’re truly capable of and you will be planting the seeds of regret.
I still get nervous when I start a new job or arrive in a new place or decide to eat dinner alone. But experience tells me that these fears can be overcome and that on the other side of fear is freedom; the freedom to do what you want, to go where you choose and to (really and truly) be who you are.
For me, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.