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What is Bravery?

As some will know by now, I am drawing most of my writing inspiration from my 5 month trip around South Eastern Europe that took me to twelve different countries.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

The beauty of Bulgaria… this was taken at Rila Monastery

I have written about the surprised, if not shocked reactions to this plan. Common questions and their answers went like this:

„All on your own???“
– „Yes. I’m gonna love it!“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„But – is it safe?“
– „Come on, it’s Europe, what’s gonna happen, really?“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„So – do you have everything booked, like, flights and hostels?“
– „No. I have a list of countries I will go to. That is the extent of my plan.“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„Wasn’t there a war there recently?“
– „That was 15 years ago. I really don’t think that should be a huge issue.“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

„Uhm, but aren’t there Muslim countries down there?“
– „So?“
„Wow… you’re so brave!“

I’m going to spare you more because all these talks went pretty much the same way and after a while it was really neither interesting to be confronted with so many ridiculous stereotypes nor flattering to be called brave. However, at some point it struck me as remarkable that „You’re so brave“ was a reaction so versatile, and I was wondering what people actually meant by that. Obviously they thought there were fears to be overcome. Now I am going to say this straight away: I never felt brave. Because I was never scared of any of the things people proposed to me to be scary.

Vis, Croatia

Not being particularly brave on the ferry back to the mainland from Vis island in Croatia

In the five examples I have given, the things that my conversation partners thought to be scary about my endeavour were loneliness, safety, (lack of) planning, history or the political situation that would be met and the issue of religion. And here is why those things didn’t scare me:

1. Loneliness

Lots of articles have been written about the issue of solo travel, and surely I will write one too before long. The essence of what I have to say on the topic is: being alone is very different from being lonely. I was hardly ever lonely, even though I was alone a lot. I think a lot of people are afraid of being alone, but they have never really tried it. If they did, they might find that it is the best way to come to terms with yourself and the people around you.

Coastline, Albania

Not being particularly brave – or particularly lonely for that matter!! – in Albania

2. Safety

Granted, I may have been naive when I left for the trip, but I really never felt unsafe in any of the countries I went to. People hear Albania and they go „unsafe“. Often it seems that „poor“ equals „unsafe“. I find that dangerous. Again, people are scared of something they haven’t seen or tried. The best thing to promote your own saftey, I have found, is what Sarah of Yes and Yes calls the Don’t Mess With Me Walk. I’ve got that down and I think it saved me from many unpleasant experiences.

3. Planning

I did not even know how right I was not to plan when I didn’t plan. But once I was out, I noticed quickly that plans never stick anyway. So being flexible and trying to make up your mind as you go is really the best way. Plans don’t give you control over things. It is more likely that they will fall through, which will be much scarier. Not having a plan was very liberating.

Studenica monastery, Serbia

Granted, Studenica monastery in Serbia would actually have been easier to find with better planning…

4. History and Politics

I think if you’re curious and sensitive to the cultural specifics of a new country, there isn’t much that could go wrong in this department. Be at least a little bit informed and try to just find out more. As a foreigner in the company of open, well-travelled locals, you can also get away with some stuff. Today I think back with slight discomfort at the few times that I bluntly asked people in Serbia what the big deal with Kosovo was. That could have gone very wrong, but I was lucky.

Prizren, Kosovo

Even with barbed wire and KFOR signs, Prizren in Kosovo was beyond peaceful, and the locals told me that all the precautions do more harm than good.

5. Religion

It is a bit of a pet peeve of mine that people will be scared by Islam as such, and I never was scared or extra careful about going to Muslim countries. I think nearly every religion has the potential to be really beautiful and enriching while also possibly turning radical and then becoming scary and restrictive. When equalizing Muslims with islamists, people forget that certain Christian sects have equally radical and, from the standpoint of humanity, inacceptable opinions. I learned so much about Islam in Bosnia, Albania and Turkey and I think it is a lovely concept.

So since I wasn’t scared of any of the mentioned things, I never had the feeling that I was generally being very brave. However, there were numerous occasions on the trip when I was scared of something. Sometimes I overcame my fear, and then I did feel brave. Like when I jumped that 14 meter cliff in Greece. Sometimes I backed out. Like when I did not jump the much lower cliff in Macedonia, because the water looked shallow. And then I did not feel like I wasn’t brave, but that I was being reasonable.

Paragliding, Tribalj, Croatia

Not being particularly brave with this tandem paragliding either. I felt completely safe in the hands of my friend who took me.

Some fears are to be overcome. Others aren’t. Sometimes it’s all in the moment. And sometimes, when you look closely, there is no fear to master, but there is just something you don’t know yet, and that someone or something else has suggested to be scary. Ask yourself if there is an actual reason to fear it. Will it threaten you? Does it have the potential to harm you? If the answer is yes, your fear is there to protect you. Respect it. Surprisingly often, however, the answer is no. And then you don’t have to be brave, but just a bit faithful. I have found that to be the most rewarding feeling in the world.

14 Comments

  1. My Guatemala-Honduras trip during January 2012 was the first time I did minimal planning: I just bought a round-trip ticket and a first-night’s hostel booking. Aside from that, everything was left to the wind, so to speak. Additionally, I was doing that trip as a break from writing my dissertation, so I naturally didn’t have much time to plan things before, trying to get ahead on work so I wouldn’t feel guilty taking the time off. Perhaps it’s the combination of these factors that 3 days before I left, I actually felt cold feet, perhaps, it’s because my other friends were also telling me how unsafe Guatemala and Honduras was and that it would be very dangerous. Believe it or not, I seriously thought I wouldn’t want to go, and went on an Internet spree where I looked for online stories about how safe or unsafe my destination was. I ended up going, and enjoyed myself, but I guess without adequate preparation, one can definitely have doubts. After all, it partly depends on one’s own gut, whether one feels safe or not.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      I agree very much – lots of it is gut feeling. And if you emanate fear, I really do think that you’re more likely to get into scary situations. Of course the planning bit really depends on the destination! I wouldn’t go to a lot of places outside of Europe without at least a bit of preparation.

  2. Fear is something we should always respect and realize. Living your life in fear is cripling. Spread your wings and live each day to it fullest. Steve

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      I agree – fear has many functions: It is there to protect, but also to realize your own full potential and stretch your own ideas of what you can do.

  3. When I was traveling solo through Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia And Herzegovina, I maybe was a little scared at moments, but not any more scared, and probably less scared actually, than I would be traveling in the U.S. or Paris, for example.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      I do find that at least inside of Europe and North America, fear is not something that should largely be led back to the place you’re travelling in. Danger can come about everywhere. That being said, I might be a bit more scared if I was in some remote area of Africa where I had no means of making myself understood. I wouldn’t go there without any planning either.

  4. Nice post, I like it !
    I think fear is only a state of mind and whether we’re strong enough to overcome it. But of course it doesn’t mean that we have to risk ourself. Sometimes we just need to hear what our heart says 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you, Debbie! I agree about the state of mind thing, it is important to find the balance between recklessness and apathy when dealing with your own fear though.

  5. I absolutely love this post. All I could do was nod again and again as I read this. (And I loved what you said about Studenica Monastery). I have to admit, something like paragliding would terrify me because I’m scared of heights but in December I tackled that head on with a 100 metre free fall jump from Orlando Towers in Johannesburg. I guess paragliding will happen for me one day after all.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks a lot, Mandy!! Paragliding is really beautiful – I imagined there to be much adrenaline, but it was all very soft and gentle. I mean it’s not exactly a bungee jump 🙂 I’m sure you will like it!

  6. I had the same experience with family and friends before I went to Eastern Europe… Although I wasn’t so much brave as ’stupid‘ to them! I can never understand how someone can hold such rigid views on a place when they have never stepped foot there.

    In fact, there was never a moment where I didn’t feel safe in that part of the world. In most places, I even felt safer than at home – people seem to forget that bad things happen at home, too. Of course, nowhere is completely safe, but as long as we are careful and look after ourselves then we can start to realise that the world isn’t such a bad place!

    • bridgekeeper

      März 19, 2013 at 10:49 am

      You are so right, Lizzie! People do forget that travel life is still life! What you say about safety also goes for loneliness. Yes, sometimes you get lonely when you solotravel – but it’s not as if I’m never lonely when I’m at home! And it is so rewarding to go out there with trust and faith. It makes for the most beautiful experiences. Thank you for stopping by my blog! 🙂

  7. Oh the bravery answer… Yep been there got that. When I embarked on my trip almost a year ago I got that a lot – going alone to Africa and then to South America as a girl!!! You must be brave to do so. Well, even though I have never felt exactly brave for doing so I think it is kind of brave to quite your job and just go. Where many people dream of doing something like this, not many have the guts to actually do it. I think having the balls to travel solo through the world is bravery!

    I don´t think this bravery is particularly about travelling alone through places where not many have gone before, embracing different cultures and interacting with locals etc. I think we are brave for actually doing what we want to do / what we love to do. Recently my brother bought a house – I think that´s brave! Buying a house, alone! Wow! He has the guts to just do that. I have the guts to buy that ticket and leave everything behind – also that is brave =) Not the journey itself but the step towards the journey! =)

    Great post as always!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm

      I see you know what I am talking about 😉 the point is, I think bravery is something that really only accounts if you feel some sort of fear. I must say that I am scared of a lot more things now than I was when I was younger. The trips I outline in my head I find much braver than the one I took a few years back, but maybe that is just because I am more aware of the things that might happen to me.

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