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So This is the Part Where I Die Traveling the World

running in Vietnam

Angering the scooter gods in Ho Chi Minh City. Jogging in Southeast Asia can be hazardous to your health.

My Irrational Fears Find a Home on the Road

Traveling to new places brings with it uncertainty, and sometimes danger. Because my wife and I are currently on a one-year tour of more than 30 countries, I’m more keenly aware of that danger, and I feel like I do a pretty good job of avoiding it. I believe in taking seriously that little voice in your head that says “This dark street just doesn’t feel right, you need to turn around or get in a cab!” It’s the very same primitive part of your brain that used to say “Look out! That rustling in the brush is a saber-toothed tiger!” I listen to that voice. I avoid the rustling brush and I get in the cab.

Listening intently to that voice is essentially why I’ve always been a big worrier. As a little kid, I watched a quasi-documentary about Nostradamus’ many true predictions and how he supposedly predicted that the end of the world would occur through a nuclear war sometime in the 1990s. For months, I moped around under a cloud of impending doom, convinced I would never see the ripe old age of 25. Some guy in Siberia named Ivan would push a button to send a face-melting missile straight to the strategic geo-target of Okeene, Oklahoma. This was still the Cold War era, so the possibility of being nuked into oblivion was in the back of everyone’s minds. But unlike the oblivious general population, I just had the good fortune to learn through a prognosticator’s bizarre 400-year-old poems that my fate was sealed. Gee, Mom, we are all doomed anyway, so why the heck should I eat my broccoli?

That nuclear apocalypse never came, thankfully. But my need to assume the worst has never left, and occasionally I still find myself reverting back to that freaked-out kid. The uncertainty of travel has given me moments where I thought my demise was imminent. Here are a few examples:

  • Flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg — I don’t like flying. Any flight that includes turbulence greater than what you’d experience holding a tuning fork causes me to tense up like a cat backstage at the Westminster Kennel Club. So what do I do to help avoid this irrational fear? I get the brilliant idea to take an around-the-world trip! And what could be more comforting than taking more than 40 one-way flights, many of which are on airlines I’ve never heard of! For our Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to Johannesburg, South Africa, our plane took acrobatic dips and surges that had me white-knuckled, getting right with the Lord. As the belly of the plane creaked and swayed, I kept expecting the pilot to announce that the recent turbulence was due to the fact that we had actually ripped through the space-time continuum and entered a portal to another dimension. So sit back and relax folks, we’ll be landing shortly in the Italian Renaissance.

  • Mountain Roads of Cuzco, Peru — For our five-day hike to Machu Picchu, we started by taking a 4 a.m., one-hour bus ride to the base of the Andes Mountains, where our hike would begin (Incidentally, later that same day I’d be fearing for my life for an entirely different reason.) The bus driver must have really wanted to get back home in time to catch “Good Morning Lima” because he was taking the hairpin turns up the mountain road like a Formula One driver on a three-day coke bender. As I looked out the window and watched the cliffs blur by me just off the edge of the narrow mountain pass, I wondered what it would be like to go soaring off the road, Thelma-and-Louise-style, and what the ensuing media coverage would be like. But wait, don’t we see an international news blurb describing a terrible road accident about every nine months? It’s always a bus, and it’s always in a mountainous region. Usually there are missionaries involved. I looked around our hiking group and didn’t see any potential evangelizers, so I took that as a good sign.

  • Our First Flight out of Washington, D.C. — As we prepared for our trip, this melodramatic storyline seemed imminent. Recently married couple decide to quit their mid-career jobs to take an amazing once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world, only to have their plane slam into the Washington Monument as they set out on the trip. Or more ignobly, I choke to death on my everything bagel on my first day of retirement. It’s always the unfinished accomplishments that make for the most heart-wrenching drama.

  • Bumpy Safari ‘Roads’ — Going on an African safari was a thrill of a lifetime, and our guide showed us some amazing wildlife scenes as he drove us along the dirt “roads” on the Maasai Mara National Reserve. I’m using quote marks around “roads” because what we drove on were roads in the same way that the Titanic door was a “boat” for Jack and Rose. We bounced off every side of that jeep like sweaty American pinballs. I was one bounce away from being thrown clear of the vehicle, right into the gaping maw of a hungry lion.

  • My Wife Driving a Stick Shift — Most rental cars outside the U.S. don’t have automatic transmissions. We decided while we were in Cape Town, South Africa, that it would be a good time for my wife to learn how to drive a stick shift. It wasn’t more than 15 feet after getting behind the wheel that she nearly ran over a baboon. I am not making that up. Earlier that same day, I swam with great white sharks. Men threw chum into the water and I dove into a cage as the massive killing machines of the ocean swam around me. That was the second-most dangerous thing I did that day.

  • Running in Southeast Asia - Running in southeast Asia can be hazardous to your health. First there are the potholes. If the definition of a pothole is a hole that is the size and shape of a pot, then in Cambodia they should probably call them witch-cauldron-holes. And each one is varied, with its own shape and depth. Some I’d call ankle-breakers would be like running into a bear trap. Others are larger, much like the trap door to a gallows, and would go up to your waist if you fell in. Luckily I never fell victim to any of these, because after seeing the first one I was constantly looking for them. Constantly watching for killer potholes makes the traffic in Cambodia and Vietnam even more treacherous. Again, the English language fails to provide the full explanation, because it’s not so much traffic as being placed in the most dangerous movie car-chase scene you’ve ever seen. Cars, scooters, tuk-tuks, semis, angry stray dogs, children, and an occasional barnyard animal all share the road, with only inches between them as they pass. There are no lanes. And most of the time there is no sidewalk. So I was typically running down the street as a part of this psychotic kabuki dance. And a guy running for no reason is generally not something these people see very often, so they’re not looking for me. I frequently found that my increased heart rate came not so much from the actual exercise as from a truck zipping past me, only inches away. After my first run in Vietnam I never wore headphones again in Southeast Asia - too dangerous. Anyone who wears headphones while running in Southeast Asia is willingly sacrificing themselves to the scooter gods.

Being a bit of a worrier has had it’s benefits. It has helped me prepare more for an exam, a client need and certainly for the challenges of travel. But maybe I could find a middle ground, where I prepare adequately for future events without expecting it to also include my grizzly death? After twelve months and six continents, hopefully I’ll realize that uncertainty doesn’t always equate to danger.

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