I've written before about how scared I am of travelling, and it's probably down to the fact that I'm intrinsically unsuited to this way of life. Peta pointed it out the other day in worryingly accurate detail: I get seriously homesick and always have, my stomach is sensitive to the slightest hint of microbial activity, my brain melts in the tropical heat, I have a painful lower back problem that's triggered by carrying a backpack, my favourite place in the world is our sofa by the fire, and I burn in the sun even when I cower away under an umbrella. On paper, I'm the last person you'd expect to see on the road.
This comes to a head at the start of every trip, and in particular when the plane lands. My mind starts to whizz and whirr, imagining the worst possible things that can happen. We won't be able to find anywhere to stay; we'll get into the wrong taxi at the airport and will end up in the middle of nowhere; our bags will go missing; we'll be slammed in the face by the language barrier and unconcerned locals; the list goes on. It never turns out that way of course, but for some reason, this time things have really hit the fan, because I've been getting serious panic attacks ever since we started packing up the house a couple of weeks ago, and they have only just gone away (though thankfully I'm now through the other end and ready to start exploring).
It makes sense, in a way, because as I've already mentioned, we really put ourselves through the wringer in the month before we left on this trip. I thought it would be nice having a month off before hitting the road; it would be a chance to learn some Spanish and to relax before packing up the house and hopping on the plane. But in the end it nearly broke us; after seven amazingly happy years in our rented cottage in Ealing, the emotional wrench of packing the whole lot up and leaving the house forever proved too much, especially when combined with a diary groaning under the pressure of seeing practically everyone we know before we hit the road. It feels churlish to complain about the stresses of what on the surface appears to be a year-long holiday, but I never again want to go through a month like that.
It really hit me on the first night of the Day of the Dead, the three-day-long Halloween-esque celebration that the Mexicans throw themselves into with characteristic gusto. As families wandered down the main drag in Playa del Carmen dressed as pumpkins, brides, skeletons, witches and zombies, I felt the panic rising in my chest and had a full-blown panic attack, right there in the street. Peta saved the day by guiding me to a cold beer and a quiet table just down a side street, but there is no doubt that the combined stresses of October, the oppressive humidity and the jet lag have fried my brain. I'm not a rootless young man any more and I clearly can't cope with the physical and emotional strain in the same way that I used to. It was all a bit of a shock, to be honest.
A doctor would probably have prescribed a nice long holiday to get over it. The trouble is, it was a year-long holiday that was the main cause of the problem; the panicking part of me freaked out and got scared witless about the next year, and it was totally illogical. Deep inside I know that this year will end up being excellent and legendary, and that we'll look back on my initial panicking in Playa with raised eyebrows and a shrug, but at the time it felt like we'd just tipped over the top edge of the roller-coaster, and my stomach shot into my mouth and stayed there for about three days.
I guess that's one of the points of changing your life, but I can't believe it freaked me out so much. Everyone said to us before we left, 'I bet you must be excited.' Truth be told, we weren't excited, we were unnerved, but it makes it all the sweeter now that we're ready to hit our stride and the panic has subsided. If that was the illness, bring on the cure!