Fear This! (Or, The Adventures of a Softie)

Some people think I am brave, but I am seriously, heavily freaked out by many things: bugs, food-borne illnesses, sports injuries, hunger, physical discomfort, huge crowds, sleeping in unfamiliar places, and, until a few days ago, sailing. (About which, more in a moment.) Lucky for me, I lead a pampered, clean, healthy, completely wimpy American life.

However, this year is the year of facing my soft, suburbanite fears head-on. I have put myself on a collision course, in fact. Why? Because most of the planet is not as comfy-cozy as those few sheltered places I am used to--and it's time for me to see some more of this earth.

For six weeks in February and March, I will be staying at an ashram for yoga and ayurveda on the Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas, in northern India. Six days a week, from morning till night, I will be practicing yoga, meditating, and studying yogic philosophy and anatomy and physiology. I will learn something about my inner and outer self and grow physically healthier. Plus, I will be forced to stare right into the beady little eyes of every one of my above-mentioned phobias. (Well, except sailing, which just came off the list.) Truly, this will make me stronger if it doesn't kill me--and it's not going to kill me. Sheesh! I look at this trip to India as a kind of boot camp that will prepare me physically and mentally for all of my future travel adventures. In the coming weeks, you'll hear more about my India plans. Now, though, I will tell you about sailing.

Four years ago, I went out on the proverbial three-hour tour with some sailing friends who had been asked to move a boat from one Chesapeake Bay inlet to another. The day was sunny, but quite blustery, and when our sailboat hit the open waters of the bay with its whitecapped waves and increasing winds, we realized that this was not the day to move an aged sailing yacht with an underpowered motor. But we realized it too late: we were already out in the bay, and the winds wouldn't allow us to retreat.

For the next five hours or so, we fought our way up the bay, the big boat heeling way over to first one side and then the other, as the experienced sailors of the group maneuvered to try and catch the right winds to move us forward. I am a confident swimmer, and I have never gotten seasick, but that afternoon, I was literally shaking, and my skin was pasty and clammy. My knuckles were white from gripping the railing so tightly, and my jaw ached from hours of clenching it. Every muscle in my body was tensed with fear. In short, I was having a panic attack. It wasn't a particularly logical reaction--if we had capsized (which I was assured was not going to happen) we could have swum to shore. It wasn't cold. It wasn't raining. Nobody was going to die out there. But I could not talk myself down. I was physically sick and sore for several days after that, and ever since then, I have been petrified of the very notion of getting into a sailboat. Once, a couple of years later, I thought I'd give it a try with Michael in his little sailing dinghy on a nearly windless afternoon. I was so wigged out that he had to take me back to the dock minutes after we headed out.

Fast forward to just a few days ago, at Half Moon Bay on the Persian Gulf. Our new friends Marc and Lise, who are avid sailors from Quebec, invited us for a day of sailing on their boat. I made it clear that I may not be able to go through with it, that I would likely sit it out on the beach with a paperback. When we arrived at the beach around 9:30, the wind was blowing enough that we could see a few little whitecaps out on the bay. I was having none of it. Lise, in her charming, French-accented English, told me that while she is not afraid of windy conditions, she doesn't particularly enjoy them. So she stayed with me on the beach, while Marc and Michael took the boat out for a morning sail.

We relaxed under a shade awning in canvas chairs with snacks, and as we visited, Lise casually let me know several times that the wind was expected to die down in the afternoon, that we would all four go out on the water after lunch, that everything would be fine, and that was that. She sounded so ... reasonable. There's something about a French accent: it makes the speaker sound eminently sensible, quite impossible to argue against.

And so it was. The gents came back to the dock, we enjoyed lunch at the little restaurant on the beach (grilled fish, tabbouleh, hummus, and flatbread), and then we got on the boat and went sailing, boom, just like that.

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Lise (with the lovely French voice of reason), me, and Michael on the Cherie Has 2

The afternoon was calm, with just enough wind to power the boat across the sheltered bay. The weather was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the 70s, and there were only a few other sailboats out. Marc, Lise, and Michael took care of everything, including giving me lots of notice when we were about to change course or heel over at all. Within minutes we were way out in the bay, away from shore and skimming across the vivid greenish-blue water, keeping an eye out for dolphins (we didn't see any, but apparently they're common), and enjoying the quiet calm. Being out there on a sailboat after all those years of drama was kind of anti-climactic. What a relief!

Michael is a sailing fanatic, who would gladly be out on the water every day. He starts spewing nautical terminology at the eensiest little encouragement, and pores over boating magazines, hatching dreams of trips around the world by sea. I can't see myself ever being interested enough to learn the salty lingo and dream about ocean crossings. But that's okay--I'm just happy to have put an irrational fear behind me, and to be able to join the fun when our friends invite us to sail.

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Sunset over Half Moon Bay

Next on the list: Tons of Bugs! Frightening crowds! Questionable Cuisine! Sleeping in Strange Places! India!