Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
I wasn’t always afraid of travel. As a kid, family vacations to places such as California and England were the highlight of my year. In my early 20s, I drove from Toronto to Bethlehem, Pa., by myself to visit a friend. But in my mid-20s I stopped travelling. Some of the reasons were financial, others had to do with my worsening anxiety. By my early 30s, travelling had become a thing I didn’t do.
I don’t just mean taking off to Thailand, like many of my friends had done. Or even long road trips. I mean leaving the Greater Toronto Area.
I didn’t realize how bad it was until my girlfriend and I went to a wedding in the Kawarthas, two hours northeast of the city, and I broke into white-knuckle, heart-in-my-throat panic.
Slowly, my friends and my girlfriend tried to get me used to the idea of leaving Toronto. First there was a road trip to Chicago (almost constantly terrified), then there were a few trips to Montreal (less panicked, although still kind of a wreck). Then I flew to Halifax for work (terrified of missing the flight and of the plane crashing). Eventually, I calmed down, and by mid-trip I was enjoying myself.
Halifax, however, was nothing compared with what was going to happen next. One of my road-trip buddies found some absurdly cheap flights to the Philippines, and suggested a group of us fly to the other side of the planet. At first, I did not want to go. But based on my limited success with flying to Halifax, and my firm (though probably misguided) belief that anything that terrified me to the point of hyperventilation must be good for me, I agreed to go.
When we bought the tickets, the trip was nearly a year away. Long enough, I figured, for a good reason to crop up and let me change my mind.
Except none did. The trip kept getting planned. We booked accommodations and inter-island flights. We got vaccines and Philippine pesos. Slowly, I found myself getting excited about the trip.
Until it was time to go. Then I found myself babbling incoherently on my porch, saying “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” Eventually, my girlfriend calmed me down, and I got in the cab, and then on a plane, and then on a series of other, different planes. And luckily, my travel companions were all ceaselessly kind and kept me pleasantly distracted every time I panicked.
My fears going into the trip were numerous, and ranged from the reasonable – missing a flight and being forced to rebook at full price – to the illogical – winding up in an Emirati jail during our layover in Abu Dhabi. None of those things happened. We made all our flights with time to spare. None of the planes fell out of the sky. I avoided Emirati jail. We didn’t get malaria. In fact, nothing bad happened at all.
Instead, I hung out with lobster fishermen on the South China Sea. I went snorkelling. I saw Magellan’s Cross and old Spanish forts and visited one of Asia’s new crop of megamalls. I saw tarsiers – the most Jim Henson-esque animal to actually exist – up close. I went to Iwahig Penal Colony, an open-air prison where minimum-security inmates live with their families, medium-security inmates work on dance routines to pass the time and they all make handicrafts to sell to tourists. I met Mike, a man who lives in the Palawan jungle who has been feeding a troop of monkeys for 25 years. More than a dozen of them will come running when he calls, and you can feed them fruit on the end of a stick.
On this trip, I learned that good things can happen when I say, “yes”; that I’m resilient and can go with the flow; that even when my anxiety gets the better of me, I’m capable of rallying in a way I never thought possible.
More important, I discovered that travel is something I am totally capable of doing. I may have missed out on backpacking across Europe or teaching English in Asia in my 20s, but I’m still young enough to get started. I’m surrounded by a crew of supportive people who want to see the world. I hope the Philippines is only the beginning.
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