If I could meet someone from the past I might choose Eleanor Roosevelt. The wife of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not only the longest serving First Lady (1933-1945) but was an international diplomat in her own right, and served in JFK’s administration as Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. She was a great wit and the author of some of my favourite aphorisms. “A woman is like a tea bag” she quipped, “you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” And on the subject of aging she accurately observed that “beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” And it was Eleanor Roosevelt who first suggested that we should “do one thing every day that scares you.”
In a few short days I’ll embark on an adventure with no shortage of opportunities to be seriously scared. First stop will be Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world at 14,400 people per square kilometer, where I will attempt to navigate through three different train stations and decipher a small map filled with Japanese symbols, to find something described online as a ‘backpackers hostel’. For a woman who considers any Fairmont hotel my second home, the notion of a backpackers hostel feels more than scary. I expect that room service is out of the question and that there will be no fluffy white bathrobe waiting for me in the closet. But I am looking forward to the ‘ryokan’ (guest house) experience of sleeping on a tatami mat and taking part in a tea ceremony.
For about two months of this journey I will explore the continent that accounts for two-thirds of the worlds most dangerous creatures. Most of them are small enough to slither or crawl into a sleeping bag, or in the case of the Box Jellyfish – ‘the most extremely lethal animal in the world’ – to wriggle between your toes as you stroll along inviting seashores. I will camp out under the stars in the Red Center of Australia, home to at least three of the worlds most deadly venomous snakes. I expect to survive a tour of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory where salt-water crocs have been known to attack small watercraft. And I’ll spend time exploring the Great Barrier Reef, where a couple were notoriously and inadvertently abandoned – never seen again! – when a tour company failed to do a head count at the end of a day of snorkeling.
The cities I will visit hold their own potential for unnerving moments. I’ll be in Melbourne for Race Day or as its sometimes called, The Day the Nation Stops. The event at Flemington Racecourse is the richest horse racing purse in Australia and seems like an opportunity not to be missed. So, General Admission ticket in hand (no reserved seating!) I will brave the extravagantly costumed crowds to see what it’s all about. This may not sound all that scary to you but to a claustrophobic, who hyper-ventilates when anyone stands too close to me, I can assure you that even the prospect of a crowd is scary enough. I brashly (perhaps foolishly) accepted an invitation to re-connect with a friend to climb – climb! – over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an experience that I expect will result in an extreme and lingering sense of insecurity. I will see the east coast of Australia by various trains, including the Sunlander between Brisbane and Cairns – considered one of the great train journeys of the world. And by a happy accident of good timing I’ll be in Cairns to experience a solar eclipse at the only place on the planet where the full effect can be seen. Everywhere I go in Australia I will be keeping a sharp lookout for the tiny Red Back Spider – the most famous of the continents many deadly creatures. Deaths by this spider are rare, mostly children and the elderly, but the resulting pain is severe and something to be avoided if at all possible. I’m curious to know what ‘elderly’ means, exactly. At any rate, I have already decided that hiking boots will be ‘de rigueur’ for even the dressiest occasion – keeping toes and ankles well protected.
In the highly desirable event that I survive all of the above, I will continue on to New Zealand, Western Australia and then to Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. No doubt these destinations hold their own potential for frightening experiences and scary moments. Burma in particular, having been a ‘closed’ culture until very recently has encouraging possibilities. Eleanor also said “the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Bring it on!