Pamela MacNaughtan

How to Travel To Countries That Scare You

It sounds crazy, I know. Why on earth would you travel to a country that scares you?! That doesn’t sound safe/sane/smart! Hint: I’m not talking about going to Afghanistan, or any other war-torn country. I’m talking about countries that force you to leave your comfort zone. Countries that are vastly different from your own. Countries that will test you, over and over. And over. Countries that scare you because they seem too different, too hard, too intense.

Abandoning your comfort zone, and trying something that scares you is nothing like riding a bike (so if somebody tells you that, tell them they have clearly been away from the mental asylum for too long, and they should go back, and take their meds. Like now.), it doesn’t get easier. Even the most seasoned traveller can feel scared/nervous about a country. But that probably won’t stop them from going. After all, they’ve done it before. They’ve learned how to work around (and challenge) their fears.

Figure Out WHAT Scares You

Grab a piece of paper, write the name of the country at the top, then write down all the things that scare you. Yes, all of them! Is it the food? The culture? The lack of Western toilets? Transportation? Cleanliness? Whatever makes you nervous, write it down.

You can’t face your fears about a country until you know what they are. Think of it as taking roll call in school. You need to know who all of the students are, the good, the bad, and the nightmares (note: this is not suppose to be a sadistic exercise).

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” – Jim Morrison

Once you have everything written down, go to the top of the list, and ask yourself what scares you about that item. For example, food. Why does the food scare you? Do you think it will be too spicy? Do you think it’ll make you sick? Are you worried that you won’t be able to eat the entire time you’re there? Is your fear of local food so intense that you would rather stay home?

Sometimes when we break down our fears we realize that they are not nearly as bad as we thought. Some ‘fears’ can be faced at home, before your trip. Others can be faced once you’re on the road (which I’ll discuss in a little bit).

Facing What Scares You

Using the example of food in India, let’s say your concern is that the food is too spicy, too foreign, or both. Before your trip make an effort to eat Indian dishes from local restaurants. The dishes won’t be as spicy as the ones in India, but you can start acquiring a taste for them. That way when you’re in India, the food is not as much of a shock. If your concerns are about getting sick, well there are a couple things you can do.

  1. On your first few days in India eat at places that are relatively close to your hotel/hostel. This way you don’t have far to go if you’re feeling sick. It usually takes a couple days to acclimate to a drastic culture change.
  2. Carry Immodium with you, so if you think you have a case of Delhi Belly (think of the worst diarrhoea of your life, and you’re close to understanding what this is like), you can try to knock it out right away.
  3. Be cautious (but not fanatical) with where you eat, and what you eat. Look for bottles where the seal hasn’t been cracked. Use straws (never drink from the bottle). Look for places with a lot of locals or travellers.
The biggest hurdle you’ll need to overcome is yourself. Your mind is a powerful tool, and many times we make things seem a lot worse than what they really are. When you step off the plane, or out of your hotel, be mentally ready to face whatever fears you have. Keep an open mind, relax, and try to refrain from comparing everything to the way it is at home. You’re travelling. Things will not be the same as they are at home. The crowds may be larger, there may be more pushing, more traffic, less order.
Your first few days will be an adjustment period. Don’t hide. Go out, explore, and experience your new surroundings – but know your limits. If the culture, the people, the food, the air is getting to you, it is totally okay to turn around and go back to your hotel for a little while. Go do something that revives you. Relaxes you. Makes you happy. When you go back out later in the day, or the next morning, look at it as a fresh start.

Getting Comfortable with Cultural Differences

I admit this can be tricky some days, but it’s not impossible. There are a few ways to get around the cultural differences. Here are things that I have found helpful when travelling:

  • Dealing with Staring – If you’re travelling in second or third world countries, you will be stared at, a lot! Although many of us consider this to be rude, it’s not always meant that way. Most times the locals are just curious. I’ve found that smiling and saying ‘Hello’ in the local language can usually change the blank stares into bright friendly smiles.
  • Take a day off – if you’re feeling off, it is completely okay to take a day off to read, relax, and regain your travel legs.
  • Dealing with Crowds – I hate massive crowds, but when I travel I’ve learned to deal with it by clearing my mind, and paying attention to other things like interesting architecture, people watching, etc. That being said, there are days I need to escape the crowds. That’s when I look around for quiet corners and go exploring (if you’re going to do that, make sure you have the name and address of your hotel in case you get lost and need a taxi to take you back).
  • Traffic? What traffic? – Whatever you do, do not freak out. Driving habits in whatever country you’re in can sometimes be drastically different from your own. Stay calm. Look around. Take out your camera (use the sports setting) and shoot some photos. Distract yourself instead of being a white-knuckled passenger.

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” – Jawaharlal Nehru

Look For the Positive

It’s not always easy, but if you make an effort to find the positive aspects of a new country, the things you’re afraid of will disappear. During your trip, look for ways to recognize and record the things that you love, or find interesting. If you have a journal, write about new discoveries, views, friendship; instead of the bad things that happened. Take photos of everything you love, and post them on Facebook, or keep them on your phone so you can flip through them on a bad day. If you’re a solo traveller, make an effort to meet fellow travellers at your hotel/hostel and plan an outing together.

Find things you love, and focus on them. It may not be easy sometimes, but it’s doable. When I went to Sri Lanka, I absolutely hated it the first day. I hated it so much that I ran to the nearest Hilton and hid for the day. It was not my best travel day. I didn’t give up though, I went back out the next day and gave it another go. I didn’t fall in love with the capital city of Colombo, but I found things I loved, and I vowed to return to Sri Lanka, and visit more of the country.


  • September 1, 2012

    My biggest issue is the food, but just because I have so many allergies, esp to seafood. So I usually end up becoming vegetarian when I travel. LOL

    But I’m always a firm believer is stepping outside your comfort zone when I travel. Like you said, you just have to prepare yourself for the differences.

  • September 2, 2012

    Great post Pamela! I always find the thing that scares me the most is the language barrier… I always try to learn a bit of the language before I go somewhere, but it’s often scary/frustrating when no on understands you. I’m also scared of doing something that is considered ‘wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’ in a different country!

  • Britany

    September 18, 2012

    Great advice here!! I’ll be heading to South America in December and giving the Mongol Rally a go next year and I’ll be honest – i have my fears, even as a somewhat seasoned traveler. (Coincidentally, that’s exactly what I discuss in my latest post.) The challenges of travel are what make it so transformative and facing your fears is what its all about!

  • September 19, 2012

    Oh I SO needed this! I’d never thought of breaking it down before, but it’s a great strategy. Thank you. I’m going to sit down and do this for each of the countries left on my RTW trip.

    I’ve found that there are some things that have actually gotten scarier as I’ve gotten older things that worried me at 18 (will I make friends) are different to those at 28 (will I die of rabies). I miss how invincible I used to feel!

    I found the best way to deal with it is to lessen the risks as much as possible, ie. get the jabs and remind myself I could just as easily get hit by a bus at home as abroad!

  • February 27, 2013

    Great post, filled with useful tips! My favorite places to travel are always the ones that are most foreign in every way, I love the feeling of having to re-think everything I think I know, it forces me to lose myself to to the new place, and be completely in the present, I liken it to being a very young child where you don’t always know quite what is going on around you but you go with the flow and try to figure it out.

  • October 17, 2014

    Very encouraging article, and I hope it will let the people come out of their fear of travelling to other countries…


post a comment