She Goes Solo — She Finds Courage
Karen Dougherty / November 19, 2015

Canadian, Karen Dougherty is a TV researcher, writer, singer, songwriter, voracious reader and world-traveller. This is the article that proved to us, without a doubt that Karen is a true and fabulous Journeywoman. She writes…

I arrived in Bangkok weighted down with good luck charms–my dad’s Blarney Stone, my mother’s rosary, a Nordic rune, a blessed Hindu scroll, a St. Christopher’s medal. I’d covered all bets. So why was I so scared

For years, the travel bug had been eating me alive. I was afraid to disturb my universe, but I’d finally become more afraid not to. Of all my fears, I realized, my biggest was regret. At 30, I was growing a little long in the tooth for the backpacking circuit, but if I didn’t do it “now,” I knew I never would. So I left my very good job, gave up my very nice apartment, sold all my stuff, and bought a one-way ticket to the other side of the world

Beware the night people…

It was 2 a.m. when I landed. What had I done? The crazy, steaming city swirled and blared around me, the strange language honked and gabbled. I didn’t understand the currency. It took two and a half hours to find my hotel, through dark streets strewn with stray dogs and slinking night people. But a kind man I met on the plane came with me, argued good-naturedly with the cabdriver in passable Thai, and saw me off with a smile and a wave. His unsolicited goodwill made me think I just might muddle through.

I crisscrossed Thailand using every form of transportation known to woman save camel, Concorde, and dog sled. I travelled Vietnam, with its jarring, half-formed roads, aggressive driving, and incomprehensible cultural subtleties. I got scared. I got involved. I got physical.

A lot of Band-aids…

I used more Band-aids in those three months than in my entire adult life, a whole box, every size, a literal illustration of the difference between life at home and life “out there.” My body was dotted purple, blue, and yellow from various stages of bruising. My wrists, knees, and elbows barely healed before the tender new skin was scraped off again, joining the old in the oblivion of jungle floor, dirt road, rocky beach.

And although I was losing a lifetime’s accumulation of fears every day, some, tested, stuck around. I like to think of these fears as not just healthy, but positively Darwinian in their atavistic logic. It’s good to be afraid of hand-sized cave spiders. They bite. They’re bad. It’s good to be afraid of the ocean. The ocean thinks of me as a piece of dust or a bit of food. I respect that. I wade. I dip. I paddle. I watch.

Coconut bombs…

I amassed some new fears. It had neveroccurred to me to be afraid of jellyfish. There are no jellyfish at Wasaga Beach at home. But they are plentiful and painful in the clear, blue, Indian Ocean, and I don’t want to be around them, nor the two-headed, very poisonous snake I saw while snorkeling for the first, and possibly last, time.

One night, I thought the bomb went off when a coconut fell on my bungalow. Over 70 people die every year in Thailand from falling coconuts. I learned to take care while wandering the beautiful groves. And monkeys. Monkeys are unpredictable and aggressive. They are neither approachable nor huggable. Although I wore my monkey-bruise with pride, I began to learn the difference between taking risks and pushing my luck.

Motorcycles, hot coals and tender tootsies…

But oh, what fun risks! I drove a motorcycle. Myself. For the first time ever. On hairpinning, red, dirt roads, over washed-out bridges, along teetering cliffs. Had a little accident while waving at some children. Got back on. And then, on Christmas night, in an adrenaline-powered trance, I walked over hot coals during a Chinese Buddhist ritual. I survived, feet intact, if a little tender. Felt wonderful. Each risk boosted my confidence just that much more.

Despite new fears (and the old, tested, and re-approved ones), those that might have prevented me from thriving dissolved completely. Practical ones, like the fear of flying, are gone. Flying all the way around the world on dodgy airlines, making unannounced, unscheduled landings in, for example, the United Arab Emirates have seen to that. Fear of pickpockets, kidnapping, wrongful arrest: gone. I’d seen the movies, read the papers. Can’t trust cabdrivers. Can’t trust the night. Can’t trust the food. So I got sick. So I got ripped off. No lasting harm done.

Karen survives, she thrives…

But the most overwhelming fears, the ones I thought were inextricably part of me, were social. Fear of getting out there, making myself conspicuous, giving offense, being misunderstood, these were the sources of the most anxiety and panic before I left. I was terrified I’d be absolutely unable to meet people — never very good at cocktail parties. I was doomed, I thought, to be alone. Thankfully, blessedly, I was wrong.

I lead a quiet life in Canada. My circle rarely grows larger. But now, after only a few months of travel, that circle has widened into a vast mandala. And I’ve learned that as fears disappear, room opens up for other, soul-nourishing things. I am now a mass of impressions from other worlds, imprinted with the memories of kind and loving people, fun and heartache, compassion and laughter and understanding. Was my biggest fear that I wouldn’t get it? Would come home unchanged, unaffected? Maybe. That fear, too, has been challenged head on and sent to the grave.

I like my new fears–and seeing the back of the old ones. Like my little scars and empty box of Band-aids, my fears, new and discarded, are badges of honour, signs of life and of action, of me traveling the world with my heart on my sleeve, yet, somehow, safe from harm.

Her top 15 backpack stuffers…

Aside from the all-important travel documents, a couple of changes of clothing, solid walking shoes, and various good-luck charms, here are the key “can’t-do-without” items you’d find if you took a peek into Karen’s backpack. Don’t worry. Her knife was checked through luggage. She didn’t try to carry it on board.

# Swiss Army Knife (always number one!)
# Laundry soap 
# Picture postcard of Toronto (to showoff my hometown)
# Alarm clock
# Toilet paper/Handy wipes 
# Phrase book 
# Band-aids 
# Hat 
# Sunglasses 
# Short wave radio (for sounds of home) 
# String (for laundry line, among many other things) 
# Small plastic “Zip-loc” bags (again, many uses), various sizes 
# Mosquito net and repellant 
# Travel journal 
# A Global Calling card 

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