Why Do I Scare Myself Silly Before I Travel?

07/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last night, I watched the season premier of one of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV shows, Burn Notice. If you're not familiar with USA Networks original series, the story is this: a spy named Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) is fired and stranded in Miami until he can figure out why his bosses don't want him around anymore. He's a kind of Robin Hood meets James Bond, using his spying skills to help the good and the innocent.

He also imparts very useful information on the art of being a spy. For example, I have mentally filed the fact that if one needs to bang one's new Cadillac through a stand of trees to evade capture, one should always do so IN REVERSE, to avoid setting off the airbags.

One of my favorite characters is Michael's passive-aggressive mess of a mother, played by Sharon Gless. In the premier, she's been deposited in a motel, for her own protection. There's a little detail in that scene that I just love. She's sitting on the bed, chain-smoking, and she's propped the back of a white plastic lawn chair up under the door knob. As if that'll stop the men with the guns from breaking down that door!

I noticed that detail because, in a few days I am taking off for a research trip to Honduras, so I spent part of yesterday engaged in a game I occasionally play with myself before traveling, which is, I scare myself silly.

I start off by reading the crime statistics of the place I'm to travel to, but then I progress to general crime perpetrated against travelers, US travelers, female US travelers, journalists, female journalists, women of any profession, and eventually anyone. I read with a lump in my throat and the sure knowledge that all of this will happen to me. Probably all at once. A horror movie starts to play in my head, and I am the star.

For scare-yourself-silly game inspiration, you can't beat the State Department's Bureau of Consular affairs. It's country by country advice is cut n' dried, but even a semi-decent anxiety maestro can do a lot with statements like: "All bus travel should be during daylight hours and on first-class conveyances, not on economy buses." Or, with a document called "Take Out Food Security Precautions" on the website for the US Embassy in Honduras. "Security is better at some than others and this should be considered when deciding whether to personally get the order or have it delivered to your residence -- particularly after dark." Even reassuring information can be made grim on this site. When I went to China last year, I first read with some relief that the country is low crime. Oh but the US Government is not in the business of dispensing comfort! "Recently, there have been instances in Beijing and elsewhere of mobs in bar districts attacking foreigners. Nationalism is on the rise and disputes among Chinese citizens or between Chinese and foreigners can quickly escalate. Caution should be exercised when visiting bar districts late at night, especially on weekends. There have been reports of bar fights in which Americans have been specifically targeted due their nationality. Simple arguments can turn into mob scenes and many times have resulted in the American being detained for hours for questioning with no right to an attorney or consular officer at that stage."

Some of my research will be stored permanently in another mental file, which contains the stories that scare me the most. After my active research, my mind unwillingly flips this file open. These stories are all really grim, for example, the 1999 murder of Carole Sund, her daughter Juli and her friend Silvina Pelosso, by a janitor at the Yosemite motel they happened to stay at.

This is about when I start thinking of two things: the means by which I will evade a terrible fate (which is why the lawn chair under the door in Burn Notice catches my eye, and is immediately dismissed as ineffectual); and reasons that I will give for canceling my next trip, and for that matter all future trips. I'm not going away at all. Ever again. I'll just stay home in my nice apartment where it's safe.

As a travel writer, this decision would be unwise and inconvenient. As I contemplate home, though, the rest of that mental file unfolds, and that's filled with horrible crime stories in which the victims have been at home. (One that stays with me is the 1996 murder of two cheerleaders, Sarah A. Hajney and Jennifer L. Bolduc, in Dryden, New York, where I used to live.)

And then, since at this point, I'm basically trembling, I decide to stop the game. The soothing statistical part of my brain kicks in, and points out, correctly, that all of these stories, while true, are just incredibly rare. What's more, there is just no foolproof way to avoid all bad things happening, wherever you are. Life is fatal! Perversely, this both calms me down and cheers me up.

The question I have is why I play this fearsome game with myself -- and I know I'm not the only one who does this. Part of me chalks it up to an issue of family heritage. I come from a long line of champion worriers, all of whom would probably benefit from a course of anti-anxiety medication. Part of me thinks that this game is a healthy form of adversity rehearsal, that the fact that I remind myself of the world's dangers by reviewing the worst stories I can think of, inevitably gets me thinking of what I might do to escape and save myself, and I have read that would-be or actual crime victims that have a plan, no matter how rudimentary, are often able to improve their fate. And part of me thinks it's just an immature and narcissistic, a way of inserting myself as the star of a story, even if it's a grim one.

The thing that makes me not worry about this worry game too much is that it never stops me from heading out the door. No matter how shaky I feel, I remind myself to be be sensible, be smart, be as safe as possible. And then, for better or for worse, I pack my bags, and off I go.