Son of a bitch here it comes again. Loud stomping through the middle of my chest and across my solar plexus. The trumpets blaring the message of “ignorant American” and the clarinets playing an out-of-tune ditty about “feeling foolish.” The timpani add their insistent beat, telling me that I’m “inconveniencing others.” I want to interact, but I’m afraid to.
This is the start of 16 days of travel in Mexico for me, alone, a 45-year old woman with an embarrassingly basic knowledge of Spanish. I’m a sociologist. I really care about showing respect in another country, of their values, beliefs, traditions, and language. And I value the importance of connecting with others, seeing and acknowledging their humanity. A language barrier with a fear of looking stupid or insulting others can feel debilitating when traveling alone. But travel—exploring a new culture, cuisine, and social norms; a caffeine-inspired afternoon writing in a café on a cobblestone street; the awe of a 16th century cathedral—is nourishment to me.
But damn, that band of discomfort. I literally feel it as a tightening and prickly band across my heart and lower-rib area, spanning one side to the other. I bump into someone on the street and forget in that flustered moment how to say I’m sorry. I’m apparently doing something wrong in a restaurant and do apologize, but can’t understand what I’ve done wrong. I repeatedly try to help an Uber driver find me at the airport when they call, but the conversation quickly leads to silence on both ends. All as the unsettling band marches through my body.
A friend recently messaged me that he is proud of my “utter devotion to what it means to be a good human, and to communicate with compassion and love.” I have trouble completely owning this sentiment, but I do think it speaks to my commitment to staying open-hearted and present to raw emotions, even when it’s really hard. Facing my band of discomfort, is really f’ing hard.
What’s kind of odd is that sometimes it’s an incredibly subtle band. If I wasn’t paying attention to internal sensations, I could easily miss it, and just be caught up with my thoughts and actions. Yet somehow it is still so powerful and loud in its demands on quieting me, shutting down my voice and attempts at even basic connection with others. It took a few days of travel for me to realize that this band of discomfort is rooted in shame. Of course. Shame is debilitating when left unchecked, because the discomfort makes us want to hide and avoid. But shame can only thrive in the shadows.
So this series of articles is my uncomfortable commitment to shining a light on the details of the shadows of my travel shame. I’m lucky to be able to travel like this and also try out working and writing from a remote location. Allowing this band of discomfort to overwhelm my appreciation of travel, the exquisitely colorful buildings, and the kindness of the people seems unnecessary and ungrateful. But the reality of these sensations also can’t be ignored…
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Sociologist, Intimacy Speaker, & Sexologist