Fear of flying* — why do we travel?

Black Rock City, Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

I’m afraid of flying. Even though I have spent so much time on take-offs and landings. Even though flying is an inseparable part of my job and the lifestyle that I have chosen. Even though I once experienced an emergency landing (fortunately nothing serious happened), I’m — in some situations — still afraid of flying.

With my logical mind, I understand the physics behind flying. I enjoy the beautiful views and the taste of freedom that being in the air can give you. Still, if I’m stressed at the time of a flight, I might have a panic attack.

I remember a flight. It was one of these short flights in Europe. The whole trip between Chopin and Charles de Gaulle took about two hours. Not long after take off, I realized that the women sat next to me was scared. Her breath was shallow, her whole body looked tense, ready to react any moment. I knew the feeling well.

Her name was Karolina. During this particular flight, she was much more scared than I. We started a conversation — she was living between Spain, France and Poland, doing research and teaching students. At the time, she was also writing her PhD thesis on the use of the Marco Polo motive in contemporary texts about travelers’ journeys. The central part of the work was centered on the distinction between travellers and tourists.

Paris, Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

Travellers: explorers whose paid work and way of life is either being or preparing to be on the road, or writing about their travel experiences. Their job is to get a “real” taste of the unknown. They avoid flying and prefer public transport like trains, busses, and hitchhiking. Moving from one point to another is part of the learning experience. Conversation with a stranger is just a way to meet a new, temporary friend. The goal is to understand the culture, to almost become (or pretend to become) part of it.

Tourists: it’s a different story. They want to have a good time, relax (…“and enjoy your flight”).They want to release worry and forget about their everyday life. Sure, they will enjoy the culture, taste local cuisines, buy local clothing or home decorations. Airport, taxi, hotel, one day trips organized by a culture concierge. They will pay to be selective. They will avoid going out of their comfort zone. Everything needs to be exotic enough to make them forget, but safe enough not to bother them at the same time. All inclusive needs to be carefully prepared to not include everything.

That got me thinking… There are other ways.

New York, Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

For many people in my tech, nomadic bubble, traveling is our way of life. We are not journalists, writers, or travelers according to the description above. We are not tourists who treat traveling as an exception, as a time which is unusual. For many people that I know, being in a different city or country once or twice a month is a norm. Living in another city or country for a couple of months is also very common. We are traveling to take part in a conference, have a meeting with a client, work on a new project, or meet friends who happen to be in another location. It’s the same part of life as an everyday commute to work — it’s necessary. The difference is that traveling, unlike an everyday commute, can be exciting and fulfil our need for learning experience.

Feed your brain — traveling as a learning experience

Stimulation. Being alive means evolution — absorbing substantially new information that can stimulate our neurons to build new neurons and ties between them. In this way, we train our brain with new knowledge. Substantially new information is the key here. With traveling it’s relatively easy — it’s a like giving your brain a gym pass. New language structures, new flavors and tastes, new cultural meanings.

We are exposed to situations that we are not able to interpret with our current knowledge. Either we remain ignorant, or we try to learn something new.

For someone from a western culture, one counterintuitive example might be the meishi koukan custom. Treating your business cards with dignity, as you would the person with a certain position in the social hierarchy.

Nikko, Japan, Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

Being in Japan and getting a business card from a Japanese entrepreneur, it was a great learning experience. She was kind enough to explain me — her European guest and gajdzin — the custom. To warn me to not put any business card in a pocket and to always use two hands when you are offering your own. I would never get this idea on my own. It’s such a different perspective strongly grounded in the Japanese culture.

New perspectives can teach you thinking out of your box, out of your comfort zone. In that way, you can understand more.

“Travel is an antidote to ignorance” Trevor Noah — Afraid of the Dark, Netflix.

Improvise — build trust in yourself

You can plan your travels, in some situations you can even secure extra time for unexpected events, but… you have no guarantees that you will be able, or… have time to predict everything. There will be always something that will surprise you.

Handling unpredictable situations is a part of the traveling experience. The empowering one.

Seattle (WA), Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

Just a silly example. My very first Christmas in North America. Me and my ex-husband just moved to Seattle. To make the Holiday Season more pleasant, we decided to visit our Polish friends who moved to Vancuver, Canada around the same time. According to the Polish custom, we prepared and bought our traditional Christmas Eve (vegetarian) dishes — herring, kutia, as well as our speciality — spinach casserole and mead. Vancouver is about 250 miles away from Seattle, and as I have mentioned at the very beginning, I’m not a fan of flying, so we were traveling by bus.

At the US-Canadian border we were very surprised by one fact that we just learned — we could not bring any meat. Wait, what? Is herring meat or not? We are at the border (it’s 2013), we don’t have an internet connection. If we would like to avoid throwing away our goodies, it’s better not to ask… Ok — what can we do? Is the prepared herring something dangerous — no. Is there any other logical reason that we should report that we are possessing herring — I don’t think so.

A couple of minutes later, we were asked by the border agent, about food and drinks we are bringing to Canada. We started speaking about the mead (an alcohol). It was a good choice. He asked if we are sure that we are not bringing more bottles than allowed (two in total). He seemed to be thinking of the Polish stereotype. Great! We can play this game. For a couple of minutes we had a friendly conversation about the best Polish alcohols. That was it. No questions about meat or any other food. Our Christmas dishes were safe!

A couple of years later, I learned that it was an unnecessary stress. We were allowed to cross the Canadian border with herring. However, at the time we felt that we successfully handled an unexpected situation by agile actions. A.k.a +10 to confidence.

Vancouver, Photo by Kamila Stepniowska

Gain perspective — see your challenges from a distance

By traveling, you are exposed to new incentives. Your brain is handling new situations. As aside effect, you are putting your current issues on hold. You are not throwing them away. No. You are putting them on the memory shelf and will get back to them in some time, equipped with new experience and without an overthinking ballast.

Travels are extremely useful to gain a wider perspective. Travel stimulate more strategic thought and helps you make less contextual decisions. Travel buys time and distance which is needed when it comes to crucial decisions.

**Stand clear of the closing doors, please — where is home?

Black Rock City, Photo by — that’s a good question… but whoever you are, thank you for this picture!

Traveling is important for me. I’m a learning experience hunter. I’m curious and hungry. New experiences, new projects, new people. I belong to many places. My home is in many places, with several close people.

Why do we travel? I’m not sure about you, but most of all, for me traveling is the part of my life that helps me to enjoy being human among of other human beings.

House by the Sea” — Moddi, Set the House on Fire

Am I afraid of flying — yes. It stoped me from traveling — no.

*I truly admire Erica Jung, especially her novel “Fear of Flying” — this text was part of an important milestone in my life.

**The title “Stand clear of the closing doors, please (…)” — Deep in my heart I’m a New Yorker. I love and hate the city at the same time. Charlie Pellett’s voice still sounds like home.

Sarah Martin, CSC Thank you for your help with the text :*

I have earned my very first money by selling poetry that I have created. Writing hasn't become my job, but it's my lifelong friend.

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