I’m afraid of many things, but heights isn’t one of them.
Put me by the ledge of a tall building, or stand me on the edge of a cliff, and I’ll be completely unfazed. People will gasp and ask me how I could possibly not be afraid of falling. To me, heights just aren’t that scary.
But put me in an underground cave, or a trap me in a broken elevator, and I’ll be crippled into a state where I’m hyperventilating, with a tightness in my chest that makes me incapable of moving.
There’s always a chance that I’ll have to face my fears during my travels, and on my recent trip to Mexico, exactly that happened. This is a story of my phobia, and how I confronted it.
Our tour group filed along a narrow path through the Mexican Jungle. After our visit to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, we’d taken a walk nearby to get a close-up view of the Howler Monkeys, an insanely loud bunch of primates that could trick you into believing you were surrounded by a herd of dinosaurs.
The jungle held some other treasures as well. On either side of the path, the ruins of small pyramids and ancient rock walls could be spotted under hundreds of years of dirt and fallen leaves. Seeing the ruins in their original form, even if they were barely visible, was an absolute wonder.
Our guide, a Palenque local, stopped to say he had a treat for us coming up on the walk – something we didn’t know we’d be doing when we set off.
A quick glance at my fellow group members showed me that no-one else had a clue what it would be. They shrugged. We were all in the dark.
10 minutes later, we arrived at what looked to be a small pool in the middle of the jungle. But not just any pool – the Mayan ruin of a bathing pool, and it was ours and only ours to enjoy.
I happily walked around and admired our find. Some people dipped their feet in, scaring the local frogs into leaping away when anyone dared to disturb the stillness of the water.
The soft sound of rushing water was nearby, seemingly from an underground river that fed into the pool. A short wander allowed me to find the source through a hole in the ground, about a metre wide, where I could see the river flowing beneath.
Walking back to the pool, I joined the rest of the group who were about to put their shoes back on, but our guide had other ideas.
“Leave your shoes off, I want to show you something. Follow me.”
He led our group to the hole I’d just returned from.
“Half of you can come in behind me, the other half can come in after the first group has finished.”
And then he lowered himself into the hole.
Where on earth is he going?, I thought. Rob followed our guide along with half the members of our group. As they each entered the hole, the sound of their voices muffled to a point where it was almost silent.
I had no idea where they’d gone or what was happening under the ground beneath me. A few of the group members who were left above ground with me poked their heads in, and found that it was an underground tunnel – the ruins of a Mayan aqueduct.
As cool as the experience sounded, my heart started beating a little faster as I tried to comprehend what going in would mean for me. Claustrophobia is actually not the fear of small spaces, it is the fear of being trapped – and walking through this aqueduct did not seem like the kind of place I’d want to get myself in to.
A few minutes later, the voice of our guide could be heard from about 10 metres away. I walked over. The tunnel had opened up into a river that flowed away into the forest. I watched as one by one, the members of our group emerged from the tiny tunnel, some squealing about an apparently large spider that had settled itself on the wall near the exit.
And then it was my turn.
My mind started racing as I thought about going in. As much as I tried to psyche myself for this experience, I just couldn’t bring myself to get into the hole.
“I can’t go in,” I told Rob as I hyperventilated at the tunnel entrance. “I can’t do this, I’m too scared.”
“If you don’t, will you regret it?” Rob asked.
My claustrophobia usually only presented itself in places where I had no choice but to deal with it – on aeroplanes, in elevators, or driving through tunnels. But now I had the choice.
Did I walk through this tiny underground tunnel and suppress the tightness in my chest, or did I back out and feel relief, and possibly regret?
Rob was right. I’d lived my life minimising regrets by never saying no to an opportunity. No matter how terrified I was, I knew I had to do it.
My heart started beating even faster still as I lowered myself through the hole. I went in as the last member of the group, so that I knew I could exit backwards if I need to. Rob went in before me, close at hand for moral support.
Ahead of me was the triangular-shaped tunnel, barely tall enough to avoid hitting my head along the top. Water was rushing around my ankles. I could feel large stones under my feet, smooth from centuries of flowing water.
I took a deep breath, put one hand on each wall to keep myself steady, then started making my way through.
A few steps in, the tunnel got dark and echoey. I used the flashlight on my phone to see where I was walking, which illuminated some bats that were hiding in the darkness. Some members of our group freaked out as they started flapping around our heads, like a scene out of Batman.
I didn’t give two shits about the bats, all I could think about was how much longer it was to the end of the tunnel. I couldn’t see the exit, and as the tunnel turned a corner I was no longer able to see the entrance behind me.
I stopped. The tightness in my chest had reached a point where I could barely breathe. Rob tried to console me by telling me we’d be able to see the exit from the next corner, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen in fear.
“Breathe,” Rob said. “It’s just a few more metres and we’ll be able to see the exit.”
Somehow, after a minute of breathing deeply, I managed to start moving my feet again. Each step in reminded me I was getting further and further away from the entrance, meaning my quick escape plan was not going to be so easy.
When I finally reached the next corner, I was able to see light from the exit. Thank fucking god, I thought. We were almost through.
And then came the next challenge.
As the exit drew near, I saw each member of our group make their way past the large spider by sliding along one wall of the tunnel. The spider was huge, easily the size of a man’s hand with his fingers extended. It clung to the wall just as the tunnel opened out the fresh air.
Now I’m not particularly afraid of spiders, but they larger they are, the less I want to go near them. This was one of the largest I’d ever seen, and I’d have to get within 20 centimetres of it to exit the tunnel.
I paused, trying to gain the courage to go past. It was either this, or walk all the way back through the tunnel. I didn’t think the was any way I could go through that again.
Rob was already out. He held out his hand to me and I grabbed it, using it to pull myself through while doing my best to look in any direction but towards the spider.
As I made it out, I promptly burst into tears. What had only been a few minutes of walking through an underground tunnel, to me had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
Rob spent the walk back trying to calm me down. He nicknamed the our experience ‘the tunnel of fears’ as it had included everything that any one person might be afraid of; darkness, bats, spiders, and small spaces. It took about two hours for the tightness to fully leave my chest and for me to feel like my normal self again.
Phobias are something that many of us live with on a daily basis. They don’t just go away. They’re not easy to get rid of. We just have to deal with them, and try our best not to let them get in the way of living our lives.
I told you this story because I wanted to let you know that fear is something everyone has. What might freak you out is probably completely different to what freaks out the person beside you. Everyone is afraid of something.
And sometimes on our travels we will have to face our fears, but that’s just the way travel is. It puts us in situations that are outside of our comfort zones.