Traveling is always a risk. My doctor told me after I ended up in the ER in Montana last week, "You live life on the edge." That isn't true, however, or at least it doesn't feel true to me. I've been to 30 countries and six continents, but many people I know have traveled far more. I don't base jump off skyscrapers, or ride motorcycles into remote jungles. I don't even hitchhike (much) anymore.
I do travel cheaply, which inevitably means taking more chances than an average traveler: on a dingy hotel in Bangladesh with a sketchy night manager and sleazy pinholes in the wall; on an overloaded flight out of Laos on a retired Russian helicopter; or camping in the Rocky Mountains when the temperatures are below freezing at night and I wake up with frost on my sleeping bag and my nose.
Sometimes I've encountered bad luck and violence as a solo woman traveler. A Chinese soldier once pulled me off a bus and held me at gunpoint while his comrade emptied my backpack. A Malaysian man on a motorbike groped and tried to assault me while I was cycling, until I started throwing rocks at him. On a ship bound for Patagonia, I experienced a traumatic brain injury that has left me with permanent neural deficits and a disability.
But I've also had very good luck on the road, with strangers generously showing me love and embracing hospitality. After I was bit by a rabid dog on a remote Indonesian island, half the the village adopted me for six weeks as I recuperated. In Korea, a family I met on the ferry over from Japan took me home with them, electing themselves my hosts and guides around the country for a week. In Ireland, I always got a lift from locals (except priests, who seemed to never stop for hitchhikers), even over the border with Northern Ireland during troubled times.
Right now, I'm too sick to travel and am waiting on biopsy results for a definitive diagnosis of what's wrong with me. Whenever I am in the hospital, I always wear a small jade Buddhist amulet that I bought in Bangkok. It hangs on a gold chain that was a gift from a good friend in Malaysia, a man who always gave me safe harbor after ugly things that happened on the road, someone who never expected anything in return, someone who was like an older brother to me. When I wear the amulet, I remember all of the love I've been given around the world that I did nothing to deserve. It keeps me hoping that things will turn out all right, that no matter what the medical diagnosis is, I'll still be able to do the only things I live for: summiting mountains, following deserted roads to the horizon's edge and escaping to far places nobody else I know has ever been.
Photo: Death Valley National Park (Sara J. Benson)