Finding Freedom: ‘To feel the fear & do it anyway’

23/03/2020 16:47

Written by Hannah Stuart-Leach

Hannah Stuart-Leach was the very definition of a reluctant solo traveller. Contributing to our anthology, Roam Alone, she explains the best way to combat travel anxiety - "feel the fear and do it anyway."

I’ve always been an anxious sort of person. I assumed it had developed over time, but my mother recently assured me that even as a toddler, I was terrified of snow – which means I must have been anxious from day one as it was snowing the day I was born.

Then, as an older child, I would happily sacrifice my own sister if we came face to face with a dog on the way home from school.

I’ve come to accept that worrying is part of who I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let it stop me doing things. In fact, quite the opposite. The only way I’ve found to combat anxiety is – as self-help gurus so carelessly advise – to feel the fear and do it anyway.

This is how nine years ago I found myself ending a comfortable, but not-quite-right, relationship; how I left a stable, but uninspiring, job in London; and how I took a job as an English teacher, on the other side of the world, in South Korea.

Manila Jeepney, Philippines © Hannah Stuart-LeachAn old Jeepney in Manila © Hannah Stuart-Leach

I was so terrified at the prospect of the long-haul flight on a Korean airline – which historically suffered a slightly dodgy reputation – that I turned down the free journey, paid for by the school, and booked my own flight. I definitely felt my fears, and they cost me 600 pounds.

Although moving to South Korea sounds like a big step – and it was – it was still a relatively safe set-up. I lived with a great group of American, Canadian and English teachers and each weekend we headed out to explore Korea together. It was like being a student again, and much easier than my almost-adult life in the UK had been. During holidays and in between contracts I even went off to see more of Asia: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Taiwan. But I was always with someone else, and could share the stresses of strange lands.

Then one day, a bit fed up and bored during a lunch break at school, I checked my horoscope. ‘Travel, or taking on a new lifestyle or interest, will do you good,’ it said. Pretty standard. But it went on, ‘A change may be required in order to fulfil a dream.’ And then, to my great annoyance, I experienced a familiar nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach – it was time for a new adventure. Except this time, on my own.

I decided on a month-long volunteer programme in the Philippines, as an antidote to the very wealthy hagwon, or private school, I’d been working at in South Korea. It had started to seem a bit much, seeing three-year-old tots coming to school dressed head to toe in Burberry, their little lunchboxes concealed inside leather briefcases, and I wanted to help people less privileged.

Part of my anxiously inclined mind is determined to catastrophise, however, so the idea of the Philippines, at the time constantly in the news for its plane crashes, boat sinkings and natural disasters, was one big nightmare for me. Maybe subconsciously, that’s why I chose it. I knew it was a challenge. But, like many anxious people, I’m my own worst enemy.

I combed the FCO’s travel advice, always overly alarming, and researched all the possible disasters that could occur and every hideous illness I could conceivably contract. Japanese encephalitis was a big one, where your brain oozes out of your ears. Despite the one-in-a-million odds, I wasn’t placated. All it takes is one mosquito bite, and if anyone’s going to get that mosquito bite, it’s bound to be me.

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I managed to find a volunteer programme with a craft group, the Payawpao Orchids, who made all sorts of accessories out of recycled paper. With unemployment around 85 per cent in the village, many men left for the cities. Extra income, earned in a flexible way like this, was a lifeline for the women left behind. It was on Tablas, the largest of the Romblon islands, and the only way to reach it was by a twelve-hour overnight ferry. Just the thought made me seasick.

I boarded the ferry like a condemned woman, my heart thudding against my chest, palms clammy and clenched, looking up at the sky and analysing the colour and form of the clouds for signs of a storm.

It was just as chaotic as I’d imagined: women getting on with boxes of roosters, kids running around screaming, people and belongings sprawled all over the deck. To make matters worse, the captain was drunk. After a short time, just as rumblings of a storm started to rock the boat, he passed out on a bench with a can of San Miguel by his side.

I sat cross-legged on a plastic-covered bunk bed, barely moving or muttering a word. My diary entry from that long, long night on the top deck, half-exposed to the wind and rain, is jittery and rambling. I can still feel the nervous energy just looking at those frantic scrawlings. But there’s also a certain self-awareness: ‘At twenty seven I am finally brave enough to do this kind of thing, I think when I am alone I have more strength. If I’m with other people, I rely on them for reassurance, but alone I can’t do that, and if I am scared, I have no choice but to get on with it… I am coming to accept that I needed this.’

On the ferry, Philippines © Hannah Stuart-LeachOn the packed ferry to Tablas © Hannah Stuart-Leach

Then, as the movement of the boat reduced to a gentle sway, I got up off my bunk and stood against the railing to watch my first moonrise. A magnificent, hopeful sight in the black of the night, in the middle of the ocean. And in a light, carefree cursive, as if I’m still not quite convinced but trying to persuade myself, I wrote in Filipino: ‘Bahala na,’ meaning, ‘What will be, will be.’ 

Just as dawn broke I arrived in Sogod where I’d be staying. It looked to me as wild as a scene from the television series Lost, with bamboo shacks hiding amid the palm trees. I could smell fires burning, ready for breakfast, and was surprised to see most of the villagers already up. 

Another volunteer, Philip, from the Netherlands, welcomed me on to my host family’s porch and offered me a cup of sugary instant coffee and a strong cigarette. Despite being overtired and over-stoked on caffeine and adrenaline – not the best combination for an anxious soul – I knew instantly I was in the right place. 

After lots of happy hellos, I went to dump my stuff in my bedroom. There was a bed with a scraggy mosquito net overhead; a lizard on the wall, looking nonplussed; and this Joseph Addison quote painted on to a piece of wood: ‘What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. These are but trifles, to be sure; but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.’

One of the loveliest things about volunteering was staying with a local family – Ma Tess, her husband Felix and various children and volunteers. Ma Tess was a school teacher, larger than life and very much the village matriarch. She could usually be heard exclaiming ‘Arrrrooy!’ – the Filipino for ‘Wow!’ – with an almighty rolling of ‘r’s, while gossiping with passing neighbours, her expressive lips pointing in the general direction of whomever they happened to be discussing.

Meanwhile Felix, a portly chap with a marvellous moustache, could often be found doling out Ma Tess’s prescriptions of 80-per-cent-proof gin to anyone with the slightest sniffle, or chilling out in his makeshift ‘Love Hut’: a hideaway in the yard, handmade from scraps of wood with a palm-thatched roof and laundry hanging up to dry out the front.

There was no running water in the house so the toilet was flushed with buckets of water. We all ate together in the kitchen, which was mostly a joy except when Felix decided to splash out on something special one day. Looking mischievous, he pointed with his lips, as is the way in the Philippines, towards a bloody box on the floor. Inside was a gruesome-looking cow’s head with its bloated tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. Despite my host’s assurances to the contrary, that evening’s soup was one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. 

Sugud Mangroves, Philippines © Hannah Stuart-LeachThe mangroves in Sugud © Hannah Stuart-Leach

The five women I worked with were shy and quiet, but we formed an easy bond, and soon got into a routine. Once they’d finished their morning chores I’d meet them and give them a hand with whatever they were making. I was amazed by how hard they worked, and by the creations they’d come up with despite possessing virtually no resources – my favourite were the colourful handbags made entirely of handmade beads. It felt as though I was learning a lot more from them than they were from me.

The warmth of the women, my host family and the rest of the village meant I quickly felt at home. Within the first week I’d tried the local delicacy, balut, a stomach-churning fertilised duck egg; cracked out a rendition of Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’ at a village videoke session; tasted (too much) Tanduay rum; and salsa danced to 2 Unlimited at a mountain fiesta.

My biggest difficulty, apart from the 5 a.m. cockerel alarm clocks, wasn’t any of the catastrophes I’d dreamt up before stepping on that boat. It was finding a minute to myself. Personal space is undesirable in the rural Philippines. Everyone lives in close proximity, some with up to fourteen siblings in one small hut. And life is precious, too often cut short, so they enjoy being together whether it’s to sing corny K-pop songs or have dinner with a neighbour who’s fallen on hard times.

I’ve since discovered there’s often a moment of a trip, maybe just a few seconds, that sums up what that experience meant for you and stays with you long after all the initial insecurities and minor inconveniences have been forgotten. 

For my first solo trip, in the Philippines, that moment is me on the back of a motorbike taxi, speeding round a bend on a dirt road with a lush, jungle-covered mountain on one side and the twinkling turquoise sea on the other. I had the wind in my hair (and up my skirt – I hadn’t quite mastered the traveller’s wardrobe), the warmth of the afternoon sun on my freckly face and an enormous grin I couldn’t get rid of.

There’s a soundtrack for it too, when I think about that moment. It’s a song I listened to a lot at the time by Perry Blake, with a beautiful melody that’s always in motion and the most perfect title – ‘This Life’. That moment for me was pure freedom, freedom like I’d never experienced it before, and it’s this feeling, of life being lived, that still pushes me to do things I’m scared of. On my own. 

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